When my daughter was small, we had a house full of special boxes. These treasure troves were all sizes, shapes and degrees of beautiful, from painted egg cup boxes to embroidered jewellery cases. They were all full to the brim of special. Anything which caught Emily’s eye, anything which meant a lot to her at that moment in time – however mundane – was lovingly squirreled away by her into the nearest special box. I found one this morning, and it made tears fall.
Inside this morning’s box – a small silvery jewellery box shaped like a treasure chest – was a clip of hair (hers? mine? I don’t know), a piece of broken Christmas bauble, a sticker, some confetti from the churchyard and a mangled mess of something or other plasticky. Moments in time that she felt she could keep safe forever. Emily doesn’t do this any more. Somewhere down the line, she grew up and realised that keeping a cat’s moulted whisker or a piece of fluff from a favourite blanket didn’t make it all right after all.
When my daughter was small, she used to take snuggly pictures – special imaginary pictures she could take by curling her fingers around one eye and clicking them as if on a camera. She would do this numerous times a day, snapping pictures of things, people and moments she loved. She used to say that the snuggly pictures all went into a favourite, mangled and loved corner of her snuggly blanket, and that they would stay there safe, forever, with infinite room for more. Emily doesn’t do this any more. Somewhere down the line she grew up and realised that wanting to keep a moment safe and remember for ever doesn’t mean that you can. Or perhaps she simply felt that there weren’t so many moments worth keeping any more.
When my daughter was small, she – and we – spent hour upon hour, day after day, month after month, year after year, immersed in pretend games. From cats who could talk to Egyptian pharaohs, via Tudor monarchs, Harry Potter (oh, my goodness, so much Harry Potter) and finally, the X Files. Everday life was a safe, exciting, magical world where reality was suspended and Emily was in control. Emily doesn’t do this any more. Somewhere down the line, she grew up and realised that real life isn’t like a pretend.
I don’t know when this growing up happened, really, only that it was some years ago now. I think it started with the death of a beloved cat, which broke Emily’s heart and must have shown her, in part at least, that neither special boxes nor snuggly pictures nor pretends can change cold, hard, brutal facts. The growing up was compounded by the influence of older – and, as it turned out much later, nasty and unkind friends. No doubt it was also speeded along, this loss of innocence, by me and Jon arguing or worrying about money and business and health – also things which special boxes, snuggly pictures and pretends cannot fix.
Of course, Emily has to grow up, like every child. We adored the little girl, we adore the preteen and we’re so excited for the teenager and woman to come. But when we watch her today, twelve and a half years old and going on thirty, I so often find myself wondering whether she’s really happy. The happy little girl whose rituals and quirks could fix anything has been replaced by a beautiful, intelligent but oh, so serious and cynical young woman. Yes, there is laughter and love on a daily basis, of course, but sometimes she seems weighted down by… by what? By everything and by nothing. By being twelve and a half. By friendship worries and self esteem issues, by concerns about the future, by normal preteen boredom, by being an only child, by hormones, and by us wondering what it is that weighs her down. By feeling much older than she is, but not necessarily wanting to. By wanting to be a kid again but wanting to grow up. By being caught in the middle, no longer a little girl, not yet a grown woman. By the bitter knowledge, underlined for us all twice last year, that people who you think are your friends are sometimes the very ones who hurt you the most.
Some days, watching Emily grapple with the stuff of being twelve, I want to call out to her. I want to say: here, let’s take a snuggly picture of this caterpillar on a leaf. Let’s pop that daisy into a special box, and let’s go and do a pretend. You be Harry and I’ll be Snape. Then it will all be alright. Won’t it? Please?