By Kathleen Harris
My first-born child—my daughter, my baby, my soft, powdery, little one, whose infant body shook with love and the very electricity of life as she clutched my face, and bestowed upon me the most precious gift of open-mouthed, applesauce-ed kisses on my lips and nose and cheeks—will be twelve in the fall.
My baby girl is gone. There’s no one to call, and nothing to do. She no longer shakes with excitement at the sight of me. She shouldn’t. It would be odd if she did.
It’s abject selfishness, really, to still want to be adored in the way that small children often do. To want the chubby clap of hands to greet you, to see the glow and glint in your child’s eyes when she recognizes your face. This light—her fiery, warm, living light—must envelop and surround other people, and be directed towards other passions. And inward, to stoke the furnace of her very being.
She started middle school in September. Her father and I gave her a phone, because we don’t know what else to do, except set up rules that she hasn’t even thought of breaking yet. We are lulling ourselves with the illusion of control. It seems to be a common practice among mothers and fathers.
I want to believe that I’ve done right by her. But I already have proof of what I’ve done wrong. That’s why the number twelve hovers. The anticipation of its arrival awes and frightens me.
I had my own twelve. We all did, of course, if we found our way through the blind maze of adolescence out into the harsh light of adulthood. But I—shamefully, secretly—superimpose my twelve over hers, like fragile onion skin paper, noting the similarities, the places where our outlines run together, so alike, so close, and then spread so far apart.
My twelve took place in 1982—the summer before my parents and I moved from Queens, New York to the affluent suburbs of Connecticut.
I was a city kid, although it never occurred to me to think of myself that way. We were simply where we were, where generations had lived before us, and where we always expected to be from. We weren’t tough kids living in the south Bronx, in Washington Heights or Jamaica. But we were all harder and wiser than we knew ourselves to be. All of us were. Every single one of us who called a New York City borough their home.
At twelve, I smoked Parliaments, wore ice-blue eyeshadow and roll-on lip gloss, and started being silent. It was a time when I acted as if I liked metal bands, so I could stay at the parent-less party in another girl’s basement, and drank whatever I was offered.
That summer, I sat on a soiled, abandoned couch in a wooded area that separated my childhood playground and the Interboro Parkway. I gathered with friends around a cast-off air-conditioning unit, serving as an unsightly coffee table, with candles melded to its vents. I watched friends smoke PCP-laced pot that they’d bought from the “dusties” hanging out in the park, and I didn’t take any when it got passed around. Instead, my friend Debbie and I—the girl who sat next to me, hands folded and knees together under pleated plaid skirts in our kindergarten class photo—now held hands and pressed knees together in some sort of naive united front, and both shook our heads no while the boys laughed too loudly at our refusal.
Debbie’s long nails dug into the back of my hand as we watched Michael, another Catholic school classmate, light the joint and make the end glow. Michael had red-rimmed eyes every day that summer. I watched him adeptly twist the rolling paper, and thought of him crying at his desk in first grade because he missed his mother. He had a bowl cut as a little boy, and his hair fell in a thousand, swaying strands of yellow, brown and gold. I remembered his clip-on tie, which was always askew in class when he was little, and that at seven or eight, I had yearned to straighten it.
That was the summer my friend wanted to set me up with a boy from the neighborhood. He didn’t go to our Catholic school. I’m not sure where he was from. His name was Johnny. That’s all I remember. I didn’t want to know him at all. I didn’t understand yet what he wanted from me. I’m sure he didn’t understand, either. I only knew that I didn’t want him to be the first of anything in my little life.
We moved to Connecticut at the end of that summer. I never told my parents about the couch off the Interboro Parkway, about the beer purchased from the back window of the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, or about the Parliaments I’d purchased from the same delicatessen where I’d once bought Yoo-Hoos, gum and Funny Bones.
I don’t expect that my daughter’s life will unfold in the same way. I tell myself that the world is different now, that parents are more aware of problems, that we see the signs of worry or trauma, long before it indents forming souls.
But I think of the fact that I became silent. I never told my parents that I’d grown older, or grown up, in a matter of weeks. Children never do.
That’s why I worry about twelve.
Kathleen Harris is a fortysomething wife, mother and writer, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Her work has been featured at The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, and Rebellious! Magazine. She was named as a Glimmer Train Press short Story finalist, as well as a 2013 winner at the Woodstock Writers Festival Story Slam. You can find her regular blog postings at The Mommy Chronicles (http://mommamomma.com). Follow her on Facebook or Twitter at @tristatemomma.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.