As a teacher, I often feel the central thread of my life is witnessing transformation, and as the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, that thread has never felt more apparent. But last weekend we went to a wedding that made me think about this idea even more. A young woman was marrying a guy she’d met in high school thirteen years earlier. I wasn’t part of her life then. Rather I took care of her and her brother long before that when they were three and five years old. I lived with them in a big white house across from the campus of The College of William and Mary. Their mother was recently divorced and working on a graduate degree.
I was a mess at the time, struggling with identity, illness, and my own graduate school work. But I was, as I’ve always been, good with kids, a phrase that doesn’t really begin to describe the way they gravitate towards me as if I were magnetized—through no real effort on my part. Anyway, all of this is to say that, despite my personal struggles, for the year I was with them, those two children and I grew very close. Their mother even entrusted me to drive them back from Florida to Virginia in her Chevy Suburban. This 600-mile trip with two kids and only my 25-year-old self in charge seemed like a huge undertaking at the time, but we made it back alive and mostly unscathed, although the Raffi song “Apples and Bananas” is forever lodged in some part of my brain, playing on loop, just as it did when it got stuck in the cassette player of the Suburban somewhere in north Florida.
Last weekend, when I looked at the woman in a wedding dress who had once been a three-year-old I loved, I just wanted to know—where was the little girl I took care of, who would put her chubby cherub hand in mine, laugh when I told her my car had an ejection seat, who would walk with me and her brother and my beloved Black Lab Molly to the Crim Dell on campus, stand on its red bridge, and throw tennis balls into the dark, tannic water? Was she somewhere inside that white dress? Or did she exist only in my memory, my heart? Was she only there and then, or somehow also here and now?
I wonder the same thing about my daughter. Where is the infant? The toddler who charged out of bed every day at 5am? The missing-two-front-teeth six-year-old? Where are those girls? Are they stacked like nesting dolls inside of who she is now? They are so much a part of her, yet they are also gone forever. There is loss in the joy of her becoming.
Parenting a teenager is a study in astonishment and fear, heartbreak and delight, and yes, transformation. Where are they going? As in… where have they gone, all those younger selves? But also, where will they go, all those selves yet to come?
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