I remember the exact moment that I became a grownup. It was on a playground in a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I was only twenty-one years old. A six-year old, named Danny Goldstein, was to blame.
I’d spent the better part of my youth avoiding “growing up” because I knew that I didn’t want any place in that serious world of adults. In fact, at 13, when I could feel childhood slipping away, I made a tearful pact with myself to keep the magic alive.
In some ways holding onto my youth was easier for me than other teens because I came from a large family. Spending time with little ones kept me young–and busy–which shielded me from having to grow up too soon. The first time I was “asked out,” I let my youngest sister answer for me. At two-years old, her answer was always, “NO!”
Just before I entered high school, my father took me on a date to the movies where the closing song became my personal crusade: “Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth to be Young at Heart.”
The years passed though and soon enough, my interests began to change. I started dating and driving and other teenage things. My best friend and I were always on the lookout for markers of our impending adulthood: the first time we drank coffee, the first road trip, the applications to college. “Now we’re real women,” we’d say, never believing it was true.
By the time I were in college, my high school sweetheart starting talking marriage. M. was two years older than me and was more than ready to join the real world—as an accountant and husband. BUT I hadn’t even chosen a major yet and couldn’t see myself in any role that required panty hose, heels and the title, “Mrs.” The day that he took me to look at rings, my hands began to sweat and I refused to get out of the car.
My fear of growing up took on such mythological proportions that even my youngest sister captured it in song. At 3 years old, she spontaneously adapted a Peter Pan tune for me, singing, “You don’t want to grow up. You don’t want to marry M.”
As my relationship with M. deteriorated, I decided upon elementary education as a major. Now I never had to grown up!
…Enter my semester as a student teacher. As seniors, my roommates had only a handful of classes a week while I spent all day—every day– with first graders! As my friends tossed aside books and headed out to parties, I made lesson plans and called it a night.
After two weeks in the first grade, I found myself stealing naps on the milk-stained rug at recess time. With ten weeks left to go, I began to doubt that this was the career for me.
It was in my last fateful days at Penn Wynne Elementary that my own youth was abruptly stolen. I arrived early to school that morning and just as I crossed the playground and stepped onto the blacktop, little Danny Goldstein, who wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up, rushed at me with those irretrievable words:
Ms. Salasin! Thank goodness a GROWNUP is here!
My world stopped. My ears began to ring. I looked around the playground for the grownup to which Danny was referring, and found only–me. I stumbled through the school doors and down the hall, wondering how it had happened. How had I become a grown up when I tried so hard not to be?
For a couple more years, I pretended it wasn’t so. I turned my back on teaching, frolicked at the beach in the summer, back packed through Europe in the fall, spent a winter as a ski bum in Colorado, and at 22–made a pact with a lusty bartender to avoid credit, mortgages and marriages till at least the old age of 30 when we’d marry each other if we hadn’t found anyone else.
My frivolity caught up with me long before thirty however. After seven years of waiting, M. proposed to someone else! I didn’t think it would matter, but it did. I put up a good fight—humbly lost—and in the process, grew up. My life of fun suddenly became stale. Marriage and mortgages were held at bay, but I moved in with a man who swept me off my stubborn feet, and I even started substitute teaching.
The day that I was offered a full-time job, I cried as if someone had died. But to my surprise, once I began teaching, I was happier than ever. Within a few years, I wanted my own kids–and a house!
Though the realization that I was a grown up came in a single declarative sentence spoken by a six-year old on a playground, it truly didn’t happen in a one moment. The “grown-up” thing creeps up on you over time and never stops clobbering you over the head: like when you sign on the dotted line for 30 years; or when your closest friends tell you that their marriage is ending; or when your teenage son plays your old music, and you find yourself yelling, “Turn it down.”
When I take a good look back, I can see that “growing up” is something that started long before I’d even come of age. The seed of that transformation was planted and watered through a series of childhood losses:
the day my cat “Licorice” didn’t come home;
the day I realized that people die–even parents and kids– not just pet turtles;
the day my father put me in charge of making sure my mom didn’t drink anymore;
the day my Nana Lila and her three best friends were killed in a car accident;
the day my parents split up and all my sisters turned toward me;
and the list goes on…
The truth is that I held onto childhood for too long because too much of it had been ripped away from me too soon. And although I still have that 13 year old inside–promising to hold onto the magic– I have a grown up inside now too. She can’t believe she’s 45, but I wouldn’t give her up. I need them both, just as I need my three-year old and my eighty-year old, and everyone in between.
Over time, I’ve realized that the secret of staying “young at heart” isn’t about holding on to your youth, it’s about continuing to grow—up and out and all around.
Kelly keeps it “young” from the Green Mountains of Vermont. She welcomes your comments and conversation below. She also highly recommends the dvd, Young @ Heart (You’re Never Too Old to Rock) featuring Northampton’s remarkable “senior” rockers! Coldplay, The Clash & Hendrix will never sound the same!
Extra~ How Not to Act Old in 2010