Young at Heart (Never Grow Up!)

Kelly Ann Beach
The author, at the eternal age of 8!

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 Salasin, 2009

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

“That’s My Daddy” from 4 to 40

by Kelly Salasin

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”
A four-year old girl stands with a tiny suitcase in hand as a passenger ferry pulls into dock. When she spies her father on the second-story deck, she jumps up and down, shouting, “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

Surprisingly, that little girl is me (almost forty years ago). I can still remember the smell of the docks warmed by the summer sun, and the sounds of gulls flanking the ship as her stern squeezed itself into the tight embrace of the piers.

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” I hollered, tugging my Nana’s arm into the air with each leap. I had come to spend my first overnight at my Nana’s house in Rehoboth, Delaware, and we had a wonderful day. We picked berries, walked along the boardwalk, visited the beach. I plucked ripe tomatoes from her garden and met the frog who visited her there.

But when the call came late that afternoon to check in on me, it was all over. As soon as I heard my father’s voice over the phone, I fell to pieces, saying that I wanted to go home… right then.

His reply?

“Yes.”

Decades later this response seems a minor miracle–given my father’s lifetime indifference to the emotional aspects of parenting; and the increasingly challenging relationship we shared as I aged.

Even more amazing is the fact that I wasn’t down the street or across town, I was in another state–and a couple hours away–including a ferry trip across the Delaware Bay.  

The story grows even more climatic, as my penny-wise, pragmatic father, forgoes his plans to have my Nana board me (so that he doesn’t have to pay for the return trip)–and crosses the ramp himself to lift me into his arms, unable to resist my excitement.

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

This phrase has taken on mythical qualities in the legacy of family, but you’d have to hear like I do with the twang of my Nana’s Delaware accent. She retold that story on each visit we made to her beachside town so that by the time that I was in my twenties, I no longer knew if I recalled any of it from experience, or if it was simply her telling that I knew so well.

But it doesn’t matter, because it served the same purpose: it anchored the affection between my father and me–for a lifetime. Perhaps, Nana, in her grandmotherly wisdom, knew that we would need to draw upon this for many years to come.

As I grew up, it was my mother whom I found easier to love. She and I had more in common and easily became friends as I entered adulthood. With my father, things grew increasingly difficult, particularly as I began to spread my wings, and even more so after my parents divorced and my father remarried.

My dad had been the one prone to anger and erratic discipline, and increasingly absent from our lives. He had always provided for our family, and we were proud of his work as a surgeon, but what we really wanted was his time and affection–something he never seemed able or comfortable enough to give in any large doses.

And yet, strangely enough, it is his shining moments of devotion that are strung along in my mind’s history of our dance together. At eight years old, I remember the day when I discovered that my mother had disposed of my beloved “blankies,” telling me once and for all that I had grown too old for them. This triggered an episode of hysteria that typically my father would dismiss with a fury, but instead it was he who listened to my tears when he arrived home from the hospital. Like a knight in shining armor, he rescued my blankies and returned them to me– pleasantly amused at my passion–and the simplicity with which he could be my hero.

In looking back, perhaps it was my father who was the more tender-hearted one of my parents after all. He certainly was more prone to the range of emotions that accompany one who lives from the heart. Or maybe it was simply that his moments of grace were so few and far apart that they took on larger-than-life proportions. Whatever it was that possessed him to sudden strokes of fatherly greatness, the memory of his heroic acts last to this day.

My favorite story is not the “That’s my Daddy” tale that my great-grandmother loved to retell, but another precious moment that occurred just between the two of us. It is a moment that has been forever etched into my heart because of the unforgettable intimacy that it held.

It was a snowy day in downtown Philadelphia, 1969. I had just turned five and was waiting outside in the cold for my daddy to pick me up from kindergarten. He was in his third year of medical school at Jefferson. He forgot me.

Schools were different in those days. They didn’t keep track of every child and there wasn’t someone “on duty” who sent me inside to wait. In fact, when I trudged through the unexpected snow back to the school entrance, I found the janitor locking the doors, and learned that my only option was to re-enter this imposing stone building from around the back–which seemed frighteningly far away to a little girl who was certain that her father would not find her there and that she’d be left forever.

Because I was told to wait out front, I did, shivering as the snow fell upon me.

My father never did remember me until he arrived home that afternoon an hour late and my mother asked “Where’s Kelly Ann!?” By the time he sped up to the curb, my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and tears were frozen on my cheeks. My young father quickly lifted me into his arms, turned the heat all the way up in his car, took my hands in his and warmed them with his breath. Then he removed my socks and shoes and placed my frozen feet– and this is the best part–under his shirt, snug against his belly.   We rode home like that, our bodies touching, his warming mine.

To this day, that act stands out as one of the most loving moments of my life. In fact, I repeatedly challenge my husband’s devotion by insisting he warm my cold feet against his belly each winter night.

Sometimes, when I find myself filled with resentment for my father’s failure to strive for any of the “Hallmark” standards of parenting, I see that little girl with the suitcase in hand,

And I decide to give this love story another chance…

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: