Days pass, the hours and minutes diabolically fluid, unconcerned by things like consistency. They sometimes stretch impossibly, then other times disappear without warning. I tell myself I should buy sparklers but when I look up, I’m late for jack-o-lanterns. We talked about Disney World, but they were too young, now we are in a sprint to beat the imminent disdain for princesses.

I used to chase the traditions I thought we were supposed to have, but I’ve come to understand that they aren’t for us. Our special, our “we always used to…” is in projects and road trips, not centerpieces. Driving north the girls will exclaim, “Hey, we swam there. Remember mom?” I’ll listen as they tango with the details, “I was four and you were two,” one says. “How old was I?” Finley asks. Her sisters look at her and say with pity, “You weren’t born yet.” Silence.

“Oh, ooooh, you mean I was just living in mom’s belly? Sure, right. I remember. You remember that time mom? Remember when I was just in your belly and we swimmed?” She watches me, searching my face. I look at her sisters, they smile, their eyes twinkling as I move my head softly. They nod back. I can’t do it, can’t not let her have this elasticity of memory. It’s hard to believe a time without her and so I say, “Yes, you were in my belly.” Her sisters squeeze into each other and grin at me. They are in on a secret, two really, and they love it.

The other thing they love is being in the garage while we work on signs or furniture. They scurry about helping to prepare, diligently keeping out from under foot and trying to anticipate needs. “Hey Dad, were you looking for this?” they’ll ask proffering a putty knife. Sean will turn, perplexed but immediately and outwardly grateful, “Thanks, kiddo.”

About a week ago we were mid-way through refinishing a hutch, sanding down the surface and re-staining it a navy and buttery yellow color. Sean had done the lion’s share of the sanding. The minutes of the day had passed quickly and darkness was moving in. The five of us were camped out in a zig zag of a line near the back of the garage. We sat on buckets and stools, each with our own brush. There were gasps and uh-ohs, which seemed to invite more “Oh no, oops!” I flinched, because it isn’t easy always easy to mix getting-things-done and making memories, but when we do, it endures.

I pressed my hand into Sean’s back and whispered, “Babe, remember what this is. They’ll be gone and we’ll have this memory.” I knew as I said it might seem a stretch, but I saw us poised in a moment in time. All five of us, like wild flowers, pressing the sweetness of now, of lisps and still-pudgy-knuckles, between layers of paint and projects. He cleared his throat, “Ok, girls. Look at that, you are doing such a great job.”

I slipped away, leaning against the wall to watch my world. They reached out with trembling arms, their brushes leaving swaths of shimmering wet paint, one chewed her tongue, another pursed her lips, while the oldest nudged her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I saw slips of the little girls I first knew, lassoing lumps in my throat like the stars we promised to catch.

And I knew we’d bottled the moment.