So Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. (Two is the beginning of the end.)
In the fall of my fifteenth year, a quiet novel shocked me with the subtle suggestion of the fallibility of adults. I had until I read this book viewed adults as an intimidating but necessary populace; adults represented the omnipotent and soulless authority. The concept that this vague generation had led lives of passion and grief and ecstasy and heartache seemed an anomalous impossibility.
I grew up with one sister-soul, a girl my age who was similar to me in her Aryan features and a subtle hardiness that contradicted her looks. During our childhood, Victoria Gibbs and I were neighbors and best friends—products of our mothers’ friendship. Our favorite occupation (when not laughing at daffodils or crying over a broken vase) consisted of avoiding Victoria’s younger siblings whenever we had the opportunity. I don’t suppose we disliked them for themselves. It was the principle of the matter (the power of our seniority) that required and justified our elitism. I always tensed at the cries of “But, Mom!” that inevitably followed their exclusion. I prepared myself for a lecture and quasi-punishment (“Now you two girls let Christina and Vanessa play with you!”). Instead, however, Victoria’s dignified mother told the younger girls that “Victoria and Natalie need some time to themselves. Now run along and pick some green beans for Mr. Holmes.”
And I suddenly felt terribly guilty, and as if we were quite selfish in our seclusion.
Without conflict our victory was savorless. We sat idly around the baby grand and looked daftly into a china cabinet until the little girls returned and we could enjoy ourselves again. As that careless girl, I rarely dwelt upon the fact that I would one day become an adult myself. That dreadful day seemed distant and indistinct—an unpleasant necessity in the far future when I would awaken to find myself passive and perfect—without individualism or ambition—the soulless member of an altruistic society.
As little girls, Victoria and I felt that Easter was the best day of the year. I remember tottering behind my mother when we went shopping for my Easter dress, clinging religiously to her hand. Once we had chosen a pretty dress and matching hat, I asked my mother what color dress she wanted. Mother told me she didn’t want a dress, and I very sadly decided I would always where pretty colors on Easter, and never outgrow the pleasant cartoons my grandfather had no interest in.
One day when we were seven, Victoria and I spent our afternoon waging war up and down our favorite creek. We split our time between fighting the Indians and the Pale-faces, often forgetting to announce to each other when we had switched sides. Midday I stopped, panting slightly, and asked Victoria an illusive question which had been bothering me some days:
“How old do you think Mary was when she gave birth to Jesus?”
I had announced to my mother a few days before that I had decided to have a baby, and she told my I couldn’t have one until I was an adult. I had been occupied in pondering what age would usher me into adulthood. Victoria panted less heavily than I and sat down to pick some briars off her sneakers.
“I bet she was fifty.”
“Cause Daddy said that back in Bible times, people lived to be five hundred. So if Mary lived to be five hundred, she probably had Jesus when she was fifty.”
Victoria picked up a stick and poked imploringly at a disoriented toad, but I remained sincerely disconcerted. I had hoped she’d say fifteen. Fifty seemed like a terribly long ways away.
When Victoria and I turned fifteen, shortly after I finished the philosophical novel that altered my worldview, my parents decided to go for a trip and leave me alone with our house. I was a quiet girl, mature for my age; and my parents seemed to believe I could manage two nights without throwing a wild party or setting my room on fire. Victoria was allowed to stay the night, and we were excited by our new privilege. After burning chocolate and running briefly under our stars we felt that we had rid ourselves of all wild impulses and settled quietly on my couch to watch Disney movies and eat a traditional jar of pickles. My father, who walked into our living room the next day with a trash bag, was shocked to find the house as clean as he had left it. I suppose that was the beginning of our transition—between the Disney movies and our responsibility in cleaning we wavered on the precipice of childhood and maturity. I thought of telling Victoria then of my discovery that we would someday become adults, but I chose not to. Victoria seemed so happy, and why should I bother her with the sad reality that our care-free days would come to an end, and we would eventually spend all of our time working for houses we rarely enjoyed and for cars that we used to drive to work?
As I continued to dwell upon the possibility that adults were indeed people containing entirely human emotions, I examined with interest the adults I previously ignored. All adults were subjected to this “unobtrusive” scrutiny. What secret past, what epic experiences hid behind the austere and emotionless countenances of my authorities? I ached to know.
While I discovered that few adults revealed the great tragedies of their lives, they were willing enough to elaborate upon the pasts of their contemporaries. As I listened and learned (with an innocent and unthreatening expression), I began to piece together the world around me, and to comprehend the eternal paradox. What were my closest friends and I doing but repeating the poorly lived lives of our predecessors? History repeated itself, and our sad attempts at originality had epically failed. We were unintentional and tragic imitations.
Because I monopolized an intimate perception of adults, my new insight carried over into the opinions I developed about my peers. Their preoccupation with trivialities—their narcissism and shallow ambition disappointed me. Fitzgerald once said vicariously through Amory Blaine that if you offered men a red ribbon for working six hours and a blue ribbon for working ten, nine out of ten men would work for blue ribbons. I watched my classmates in high school and college compete for popularity and boyfriends and positions and sports, and though I occasionally joined them (I was only a kid, too), I often repeated the lines Amory murmured as he reflected upon his college experiences: “What little boys they had been, working for blue ribbons.”1 And what little boys and girls we were as well. Some of us would grow out of our games, growing into mature and competent adults. Some would remain over-sized children. I wondered which category would describe me.
When Victoria and I reached the age of twenty, we again struggled together to assign ourselves our ages. She had married and moved out of state, and I spent many evenings staring listlessly at fireflies and distantly wondering what the world of adults was like and when I would follow her there. She visited home one week, and we mimicked the elusive old days, sitting and talking of our collected knowledge deep into one June night. Forbidding each other to reveal what we confessed, we spoke, and realized that our bright, happy childhood existence had been very sheltered from the dark and stealthy secrets surrounding us. I remember the moment that I covered my face with my hands as my last trace of adolescent innocence slipped away. Now I understood, completely—I had become one of them. When I again faced the world and asked Victoria if she remembered how everything was once bright and pure and pleasant and good, she smiled and told me softly (with the wisdom of a prophet),
“I know you have the perpetual need to understand why people do the things that they do, Natalie. But you can’t, because people are very complicated and they rarely know themselves. We can only evaluate our own motives and be willing to listen to others as they struggle to understand theirs.”
How adult-like, how mature and grown up her advice had sounded.
I left my adolescence on the porch that evening and joined Victoria in the confusing world of adults. As I lay in bed that evening, I realized that I had worn a simple white shirt tucked into a pencil skirt the last Easter Sunday, muttering some nonsense about the only route to individualism on Easter being corporate attire. I suppose you grow up when you don’t realize it, and as the wind or a beautiful song, you recognize your adulthood by the result, not the conversion. Victoria and I would raise our children quietly, as our mothers had done, imitating the role that they monopolised in our lives. When our children saw us sit and chat at church on Sundays mornings, they would never suspect that we had held each other and sobbed through our intense sadness and struggles and adolescent terrors and fears. Our children would squabble and bicker as we had done and we, controlling our own feelings, would act as the moderating power. Would my daughter, during the fall of her fifteenth year, pick up a quiet novel and be faced with the prospect of a passionate, untamed, deeply human mother? Because the surrounding darkness offered no answer and my room was rather chill, I made sure both doors were locked, turned off our living room lamp and closed the window. (My parents had been forgetting.) So ended the eternal paradox. As we grew older, our worlds grew smaller, and we comforted ourselves that we had made a great escape.