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This Is Childhood: Nine

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DENISE ULLEM
Denise Ullem

This post is the ninth in the series "This Is Childhood," which captures moments in our children's lives, from age 1 to 10.

Abby is 9.

Her experiences contain threads of both the universal as well as the unique, weaving a life that is distinctly hers. My mind traces the memories of our nine years together, bounding from her infancy to just this morning at the kitchen island.

Sometimes when I'm with her, I see traces of her as a toddler -- round and full, with mischief and joy flitting across her features like a sprightly fairy. Other times, I see mature, angular hints of the woman that she will someday become.

I think of her pending teenage years, knowing that the unbridled joy and terrible heartache which mark every life will, too, mark hers. Friends will throw sharp-edged words, mistakes will be made, love interests will choose others, sleep will be lost. Knowing that I must allow her to endure these inevitabilities is softened only by the knowledge that she will also experience piercing joys: a first kiss, a first driver's license, a bowl of cookie dough at midnight with a kindred friend, the pounding bass of a favorite song, the soft hue of a pink sunset.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, she is 9.

...

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I hear the dishwasher humming and a zipper clinking in the dryer -- the sounds of a quieting house wrap around me. I walk into Abby's room, my arms loaded with her folded laundry: favorite skinny jeans, well-loved yoga pants and super-soft henleys, still hot from the dryer. The clothes tower in my arms. Several pairs of underwear abort mission and jump to the carpet below my feet.

The warm light spills from her bedside lamp and night tries to enter through her wood blinds. Abby sits on the haphazard heap that is her unmade bed with bent knees and bent head, her forehead slightly stitched. She reads a book and turns a page. Thwap. Blonde curls, still damp from her bath, frame her face. The many angles of her body startle me, still.

She is 9.

I bend down to set the clothes on her floor. I search for a place to set them. Her floor resembles a disheveled yard sale: birthday party favors, yarn, many books, an inside-out coat, dirty socks, yesterday's clothes.

She starts to talk as I put her laundry away. I inhale the scent of freshly washed clothes, while checking the tag of one tank top to make sure that, in fact, it is Abby's and not mine. The sound of drawers opening and closing and my popping knees compliment the cadence of her voice.

Her lanky legs cross and uncross as she twirls a piece of golden hair into submission. She tells me of her day. I lift my head to say something snarky about the mess of her room and notice that the hardback book now rests beside her. The slightest quiver resonates between her words, edging up to something bigger -- something hard. I stop moving and walk over to perch on the side of her rumpled bed. I set my gaze on a broken birthday party favor rather than her face. I've learned, in my nine years with her, that a face-to-face conversation is a sure way to end a conversation.

Her words begin to tumble down the hill of her emotion, the intricacies of who said what less important than how it made her feel. I hold my breath, afraid that if I move or shift, she'll stop talking. Not unlike when she was a baby -- finally, finally sleeping, I'd hold my breath and tip-toe out of her room, fearful that one floor creak or aggressive exhale would break the sleeping spell.

She stops talking and turns into my arms. In the safety of her bedroom, she nestles into a snuggle, discarding her exterior bravado and relaxing into the ritual of my arms. In these moments, I offer thanks that my arms and my presence still provide refuge for her.

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I knew you were trouble when you walked i-in

So shame on me now

oh AH oh o-oh, Trouble Trouble TROUBLE...

Abby belts the lyrics of Taylor Swift's "Trouble." She stands in front of the computer monitor playing the video, which illuminates her from behind. She wears the tank top and shorts she wore to gymnastics; I note the nip at her waist, giving way to her newest accomplishment: fledgling hips. They thrust and shimmy, talking her long, lean legs along for the ride. Suddenly uncertain of the lyrics, Abby stops and stands still, tucking a stray piece of blond hair behind her ear. he teeters between. Between certainty and extreme self-awareness. Between childhood and adulthood. She is really neither, now.

She is 9.

...

A winter night invites us for a walk. We don down jackets and hats and enter the frigid evening. We inhale the air, laced with the scent of snug fires burning in fireplaces throughout our neighborhood. Silver stars pierce the black canvas of the sky. The swoosh-swooshing and swish-swishing of our down coats accompany us. Cloaked in the privacy of the inky night, Abby's mittened hand reaches out and takes mine. She asks if we can walk around our block again.

Yes.

Just before we begin our loop again, Abby turns to me, wraps her puffy-coated arms around me and beams her face, luminous as the stars, up at me. She says,

"Mom, when I grow up, I want to be just like you."

The tears brim, threatening to freeze on my cheeks.

She is 9.

Predictably, Abby's desire to be Just Like Me quickly dissolves at other times: when I've denied her access to something she wants -- a sleepover, an iPhone, shorts that are really underwear masquerading as shorts. She also definitely doesn't want to be Just Like Me when I'm cranky, asking her to put away her laundry, speaking firmly to her or clearly stating my displeasure in one of her choices. During these moments, I watch the smoldering distaste brewing in her eyes. I know that through our years together, these moments will repeat, and that the stakes will become larger and the emotional currency higher.

Abby's life continues to become more singularly hers, and much less mine. Her needs at 9 differ greatly from those of her younger years. She no longer needs me to cut her food or to pick out her clothes. She doesn't need me to dose her Ibuprofen, burp her or to remind her of her please-and-thank-yous. She doesn't even need to hold my hand. We've moved away from the intense physicality of her younger years to the emotional challenges of a girl walking on that swinging, teetering rope bridge to tween-dom.

Yet, she still needs. She needs an ally. She needs emotional guidance and unconditional love. She needs strong examples and honesty. She needs a mother with whom she can be herself and whom she can trust. And, thankfully, she still needs (and wants) my embrace. I am frequently humbled that this honor is mine.

A fist reaches up from somewhere deep and grabs hold of my heart, clenching it tightly. Yes, her needs have evolved. But thankfully, for my tender heart, one need still prevails: me.

She is only 9, after all.

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The day she turned 9, we vacationed at the shore. The navy blue water held us while the white sand anchored us. As the late July sun hung pink and orange streaks in the western sky, we headed back to the house. After a fast rinse-off in the outdoor shower, Abby retreated to the bathroom. When she emerged, I saw her carefully crafted outfit which included accessories. We then headed to dinner for pizza, her favorite. I sought her reflection in my rearview mirror -- her eyes shone and her brilliant smile pierced me. I noted that her lips shimmered with a swipe of lip gloss. Lip gloss!

We sat around the restaurant table celebrating Abby and her 9 years. I watched her animatedly talk to her Grandma, giggles traversing her face and belly. I sipped my cold beer and looked over at my husband.

"We're halfway through," I whispered to him. The words snagged on a lump in my throat.

"No, no no," he chided. She still has, like, eight years of school. She's just in fourth grade.

"No, babe. No. We get her in our house for 18 years. Half of 18 is... 9."

"Oh," he said. We sat in the truth of these words, sat in awe of time's ineffable passage, sat in excitement about what her life might hold. We turned and watched her, teetering on the edge of the second half of her childhood. A small smile tugged at my lips as I swiped a tear from my eye. My husband's eyes met mine again. We raised a toast to Abby, to each other and to the next Nine years.

...

More "This is Childhood" Posts

  • One

  • Two

  • Three

  • Four

  • Five

  • Six

  • Seven

  • Eight
  • This post originally appeared on Universal Grit. Stay tuned for the final "This Is Childhood" piece by Lindsey Mead.