On Being Nine

Last week my oldest child, my only daughter, my Doodlebug, turned nine.

The event was met by the usual sugary celebrations, giggling girls and adorable handmade cards. We pulled out the red You Are Special Today plate and reminisced about all eight birthday parties that came before. Then we stretched the bedtime rules so I could tell her the long version of where I was and how I felt the moment she came into the world and made me a mother.

And it was almost exactly how we spend every birthday around here. In the best sense of the word: routine.

Yet, there are significant changes brewing. With the dawn of this last single-digit birthday, I am seeing glimpses of a fresh, uncharted era.

My daughter, she is growing up. She is proudly developing skills and talents to call her own. She is building trusted and loving friendships. She is becoming a delightful conversationalist and confidante.

She is also mastering the eye-roll, testing boundaries, and nit-picking my every statement like an over-eager law student. There are moments when she makes it easy to believe she will become a teenager in only a matter of years.

Though she saves her most brazen attitudes for home, my daughter is learning to speak her truths outside the nest. One day she mentioned talk of Popular Girls at school—that cringe-worthy phrase that I knew would come up eventually—but she matter-of-factly explained that she had no interest in chasing that label. She was a Smart Girl, she told me, and quite happy to stay that way.

Last week, as 8 years turned to 9, she started embellishing her signature with Amazing preceding her name. So now anyone who reads her letters, nametags, notebooks or artwork will know how amazing she is. See, there it is. In writing.

And I totally get it. I have been exactly there.

When I was nine, I took to signing my name Elizabeth the Great. Just like my daughter, this signature adorned every piece of paper I touched. Apparently my teachers condoned it. My mother, she encouraged it. That year Mom pulled out her sewing machine and made me a turquoise denim jacket. Down one sleeve, in colorful iron-on letters, she put Elizabeth. Down the other: the Great.

Let me tell you, I wore that jacket with gusto.

A year after the turquoise jacket was born, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. We would soon find out that her condition fell into the worst possible category. Her disease would be steady and irreversible. There would be no remission, no turning back, no magic bullet.

By the time I was 11, my mother was confined to a wheelchair and quickly losing her sight. She retired from her roles as Book Club Leader and Girl Scout Mom. My father's job moved us 300 miles across the state.

Somewhere in those couple of dark and foggy years, I outgrew the jacket and dropped my Great alias.

And along the same time, I shed some of my boldness. My steadiness and self-confidence wavered. Who can say if this change was all circumstantial or if I just realized there was a world beyond my own ego. Perhaps maturity would have shined its light on my bravado regardless of my family life. I don’t really know.

I do know this: 30 years later, when I think about my moments of personal power, I think of being nine. I think of that jacket and my audacious nickname. I think about how I owned my story and the image of myself I wanted to create. Even amidst the rules and expectations set by loving and devoted parents, I was once a 9-year-old who felt like she could do and be anything.

I am fast approaching my 40th birthday, and even still, every time I try something new or take a leap of faith, or need a jolt of self-confidence, I call upon my 9-year-old self. I wrap myself up in the memory of a girl strutting around in a turquoise denim jacket, brandishing her nickname and all the power it promises.

So here is my hope for this year, as my daughter begins her ninth year and I leave behind my thirties…I will find a symbolic jacket to share with her. I will tell her that yes, I believe she deserves her Amazing nickname but most important, that I’m glad she believes it herself.

I will pray that she holds on to her rising confidence and learns to shape it into something creative and compassionate. I will hope that no matter how her life changes, that the jacket I give will fit her long after nine.