Monday, June 13, 2016
Sunday's Column: "They Grow Up So Fast"
LETTER FROM HARRISBURG
Graduation brings mist of wistfulness
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JUNE 12, 2016
I have become that well-meaning but annoying older woman who looks wistfully at babies in church or the grocery store and comments, uninvited, “Make sure you enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”
I wasn’t ever going to say that. In the swamp of exhausted young motherhood, those intrusive words were accusing mosquitoes buzzing around my head, a dank whiff of guilt, a splash of worry that everyone else had just loved this stage and I was the only one who didn’t.
Of course I adored my children and delighted in kissing their exquisite baby cheeks and writing down the brilliant questions they asked at age 4. But the enjoyment was an intermittent thing, slotted between the realities of chiseling off the mashed potatoes super-glued to the high chair tray, 2-year-olds bent on destruction, overly verbal preschool sisters putting each other down with subtle nastiness, and, in those pre-Google days, trying to find out if the English ivy leaf the baby had just eaten was poisonous.
“Mine are all grown up now,” the older women always said, there in the McDonald’s restroom as I jostled the fussy baby and shooed the toddler into the stall, or in the foyer after a church service in which our kids wrote in the hymnals or shot a rubber band across the aisle or asked in loud voices if the lady in front of us was pregnant.
“This too shall pass,” people told me during the weeks of chicken pox, the months of morning sickness and colic, the reckless insanity of small boys pulling Crock Pots or hot coffee on their heads.
It didn’t help.
I found the chicken pox photos when I was hunting for pictures for the slide show at Jenny’s graduation. April, 1994: four miserable little children covered in pox. Amy looked like she’d been dunked in boiling water. Emily was blotched with big oozy spots. The boys were thickly polka-dotted in red. I recall blurred weeks of exhausted days and frightening fevers turning into long impossible nights, crying with weariness.
Incredibly, I found myself examining the chicken-pox photos with just a bit of nostalgia. Look at what we survived! I was so needed, so indispensable, and we were all a lot tougher than we knew.
I made sure Jenny, our youngest, got the vaccination. Jenny is 17 now, taller than me, lively, energetic, gracious, freckled, ambitious and funny.
And grown up, so suddenly it stuns me.
As I knelt in the attic and sat at the computer, sorting through hundreds of old photographs in a hunt for 50 to represent Jenny’s life, the wonder of her childhood, of all their childhoods, of any childhood, plunged me into nostalgia.
“Oh my word! Look at her. She was just so CUTE! So alert, looking right in your eyes at 3 months old! And that curly red hair. Unbelievable.”
In stacks of photos, she was watering flowers, playing with the dog, running, climbing, painting, writing, exploring, dressing up, making terrible happy messes.
Later, in digital photos, she was shooting a homemade bow and arrow, posing on the shed roof, holding a pink basketball, biking, celebrating with friends.
And always grinning.
How did it vanish so fast?
In some ways I enjoyed Jenny more than the others, not only because she was less defiant and got only a mild case of chicken pox at 10 years old, but also because by child number six a mom knows what to expect, what to freak out about (not much), and what to let go (most things.)
We know how quickly each phase will pass.
Today Jenny has a driver’s license, a high school diploma and a college student aid application. With her sights fixed on community college and Oregon State University, she wants to be a mechanical engineer like her big brothers. She likes to sing, write and skateboard with her friends.
God help me, when did this happen? I want her back, just for a little bit, that wild red-headed little girl that giggled during her bedtime prayers and studied bugs and leaped fearlessly off the porch rail onto the trampoline.
Her graduation means that all of my six are adults. I’m finished with braiding hair in the morning, replacing boys’ jeans, and conducting lizard and cat funerals. My 22 years as a church-school mom are over as well — no more signing off on homework or sewing angel costumes at Christmas or rooting for both teams at the student vs. alumni softball game.
In fact, I want all six back for a day or a month, noisy and dirty and full of questions, arguing about turns and front seats and whether a horse or a helicopter would be better for going to work at our grass-seed warehouse.
Maybe it’s the unknown that scares me, moving into this vague new phase.
“Your life is so defined,” a single and childless friend told me, enviously, when the kids ranged from 1 year old to 14. “You know your purpose. You know every day exactly what you’re supposed to do.”
If I’m like my grandma, I have 50 years ahead of me, full of possibility but forcing me to define my own roles, my own avenues of ministry, my own investments of time.
A good and exciting stage, but it lacks the crucial essence and purpose of the past.
I look at the young moms around me and see their bulging diaper bags and exhausted eyes. But more than that, I see the fleeting moment of that baby in their arms and his or her smooth plump squishable kicking legs, the endlessly curious eyes and grasping hands — and the words come out of my mouth, unstoppable. “Enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”
The intrusive grandmas were right: It’s a miraculous time of life, it all goes by in a flash, you never get it back again, and you miss it like crazy once it’s gone.