Has It Really Been 19 Years Since I Was 13!?


As a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.

~Fran Lebowitz

If he were really old, he'd be an 8-track

 
I had planned on writing something entirely different today, but the universe always sees fit to toss me a curveball. In this case it was a double serving of nostalgia, bittersweet flavor, and Spielbergian warm fuzzies in the form of my soon-to-be teenage niece visiting for the weekend.
 
This girl (I’ll call her Emma for privacy reasons) means the world to me. Because I may never have children of my own, she’s the closest thing I’ve got. I’ve watched her grow up from a wild and hyper 2-year-old to the smart but shy preteen she is today. She’s funny, witty, talented, and pretty to boot.
 
So why the heck am I so worried about her?
 
I’m not a parent, but watching her today, I felt like one. We took an excursion to our local ice rink for a few laps. Emma and her friend had never been before and it was a novelty to them. There was ice, and laughter, and music…and boys. Yes, boys. Emma’s at that crucial age when her thoughts turn from puppies and unicorns and ice cream parlors to the opposite sex. It’s happened for thousands of years and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I watched with a curious blend of amusement and horror as she was followed around the rink by a pair of handsome, curly-haired early teen boys. I kept my distance. I know that’s what girls like Emma want at that age.
 
 
Trying to keep teenage girls away from boys is as fruitless as trying to keep the Mississippi from flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. I was the rare exception, the lanky, awkward, too-shy one who stayed in the background while my more outgoing and confident peers got boyfriends and dates. Emma doesn’t seem to have any of the problems I once had at the cusp of adolescence. She’s got all she needs to succeed…all she needs, that is, except experience and common sense. No teenager has much of either. It’s something we learn at the school of hard knocks and nowhere else.

Watching her draw the boys today the way a lantern draws moths, I felt terribly old. I’m old enough to be her mother (her actual mother is my age, and I have another 32-year-old friend with a teenage daughter.) I’ll likely be the friendly, eccentric aunt figure who always has a stash of funny stories and candy bars but who remains barren and unmarried. Everybody needs someone like that in their life. I had one in the form of my bachelor Uncle Tim. I just never in a million years thought that would be me.

Emma, like so many other teenage girls, is supposed to grow up, date, get her heart broken a few times, kiss, make up, go to a prom or two, then get married and live happily ever after. That’s the message she’s subliminally and not-so-subtly been given from birth. Because most of my expertise in that area comes from watching too many bad movies, I’m not sure how much of a mentor I can be to her. I also wonder if her mom will be able to fill that role, since she’s snakebitten when it comes to love and marriage. I see Emma on the edge of a vast canyon that can either be a place of wonders or horrors.

 

 Because I’m not her mom and don’t even see her regularly, I’m not sure how much help I can be to Emma. I can text her, send her nice cards, call her once in a while…but I can’t point her way or dictate her life. The teen years are a crucial time to learn and grow. It’s hard enough without having some adult hovering over your shoulder or pulling a set of invisible strings.

Today I was watching Emma and her friend skate by joyfully and seeing bits and pieces of myself nearly two decades ago. The uncertainty of it all. Strange foreign concepts like training bras and tampons. Learning to survive on one’s own in tiny increments. The whole setting made it more surreal, for what better visual metaphor is there for the teenage years than the wobbly, shaky surface of a sheet of ice?

I’m getting older…and so is Emma. Nothing we do slows down the march of time. As she does, I can only hope that she becomes a confident, able, and self-sufficient young woman. She’ll surely have her falls, but that’s how we learn to skate.

By the end of the day she was skating away without any need to hold onto the rails. She was smiling, too. Somewhere, from the confines of the penalty box, I think I was too. I just wish I didn’t feel so damn old.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on July 9, 2011.

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