My 13-year-old returns from her travels slightly shifted, changed in a perceptible way. She’s tasted a bit of the world cracked open. The younger sister, she’s now taking steps — err, leaps — into her own life. Who am I, and what do I want to do?
These early summer mornings remind me of my own wanderlust at that age, how as a child our family was happiest on the road. A number of summers, my parents packed up the Jeep, and we drove west from New Hampshire with a vague itinerary and nothing more. Maybe Wyoming, maybe Mexico. Always Colorado.
13 — such an age, such a year. While adult years all blend together — that was my wild twenties, the childbearing thirties, the hard forties — there’s age 13, the year my daughter is a child and began stretching toward not-a-child.
Chicken tending chores, her best friend, ice cream for lunch.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Our neighbors borrow my teenager’s hair dryer to thaw their pipes. It’s 14º below zero, and they’re confident their situation is minor. Gossip winds around town of whose pipes have frozen. This morning, I woke in the dark with a cat purring beside my shoulder. My daughter, 19, gets up with me in this predawn and says she doesn’t know what she should do with her life.
Aim to do something you’ll be proud of, I suggest.
Deeper than 20º below is when the bitter cold really sets in. The lowest I’ve seen the thermometer is 40º below, in farm fields along the Lamoille River. A ghostly mist ambled around, as if we were in an otherworldly dream.
This is the season of library books, board games, knitting — one year ebbing into the next.
Although there is the road,
The child walks
In the snow.
I send an electronic request to my teenager, asking to see an Instagram account. Mom, she says. That’s all. Just: mom.
I see her Instagram of flowers, mountains, dirt roads, definitely of meals, of us. I say that’s fine, and it has to be fine, I know.
I call this college freshman at her dorm room and ask about her day and what she’s doing right that minute. While talking to me, she’s applying makeup. She says she’s headed out. Out, wherever that may be. I imagine her, bending near the mirror, painting her eyelashes.
I’m at the dining room table. A cat rubs beneath my bare foot.
As she approaches 19, I remember reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in graduate school. Everyone in my small department read it then, passing around a few copies, asking, Have you read it yet? Near the very end, a single line amazed me, a secret unfolding. You your own best thing, Sethe. Have I taught my daughters this? The feminine strengths they need to know?
I don’t ask for her secrets again – this tall, quick-witted, cleaver-tongued gorgeous young woman. But dear Lord, I’m listening.
Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.
And then suddenly it’s November, and the foliage is flattening to gray, the tamaracks beginning to burn their golden torch flames. Like a memory, the bones of trees appear again – oh, branches have been under your leaves all summer. In an odd way, it’s an incredibly graceful time of year.
Maples often shed from the top down, so the tiptoe branches are stritching against the sky, while the lower limbs are yet golden, barely rust-speckled.
I thought of these trees, half in one season, half in another, when my daughter was loonily recovering from a tooth extraction. I couldn’t resist asking, when she was cloudy and laughing, Are you grown up?
Just recently, she insisted that, since she’s no longer a minor, she’s an adult.
But yesterday, cloudy with anesthesia, she revealed that she’s not wholly, entirely, all grown up.
One foot in, with her long legs stretching, she’s far more in the adult world than the lingering tatters of her childhood, but yet….
Searching through my younger daughter’s baby pictures the other day, gathering a handful of images for her sixth-grade graduation ceremony, I sometimes wondered, is this her? Or her sister? Once upon a time, I couldn’t believe parents might confuse their children’s baby photos; now I join those ranks of beleaguered – and, admit it, lame –parents.
In her face now, I see her woman’s visage emerging: my brown eyes, her father’s thin shape. As a writer, I’m trained to note specifics, like the way she regularly trims her own bangs these days. But details are only bits of her story, keyholes for my curious eyes.
These early wet May days, wildflowers bloom profusely – trilliums, bellflowers, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches – each day seemingly a new variation, every stalk and petal one tiny voice in the overall chorus of spring. The symphony rages mightily. So, too, with my daughter, in this spring.
I find myself listening to the symphony-in-the-creation of her.
In writing, you can always change the ending or delete a chapter that isn’t working. Life is uncooperative, impartial, incontestable.