When I was seven, my dad gave me a cassette tape with the soundtrack to Disney’s It’s a Small World for Christmas, a memento from our trip to Disneyland the summer before. I’d been obsessed with the iconic Disney ride, mesmerized by the brightly colored animatronic dolls who whirled around on their platforms and sang the theme song in five different languages. I stood in that hour-long line again and again, never tiring of the show. I dreaded the moment when the boat emerged from the cool darkness of the Seven Seaways Waterway into the glaring California sun. I wanted to stay in It’s a Small World forever.
But just like the ride, the vacation ended. I started second grade and embarked on the big-girl work of memorizing times tables, playing four square, and earning service beads for my Blue Bird bolero. I rode my bike to school with my best friend, Julie, and dreamed of sleepaway camp. By December, the previous summer felt about as far away as preschool. So when I opened the box my dad handed me on Christmas morning, eyes shining with anticipation, I was baffled to find a red cassette tape with black lettering spelling It’s a Small World.
“It’s the soundtrack from the ride!” my dad explained, crossing the room in two giant strides. I turned the tape over in my hand silently. “Now you can be there whenever you want!” He bent down and pointed to the songs. “See?” I nodded, feeling the weight of expectation on me. My mom rushed to fill in the blanks, telling me how dad had thought of the idea himself. “Isn’t that great?” she pleaded. My dad worked long hours and didn’t have time to sit down with a stack of catalogues or browse the shops on weekends. He usually depended on my mom for that. The fact that this gift was purely from my father from inception to delivery was, I knew, something special.
My dad stood next to me waiting to receive my joy, his desire for connection and recognition palpable. I would not deprive him of this moment. I clutched the cassette to my heart and smiled wide, showing all my teeth. I jumped up and down and hugged my robe-clad dad, telling him how much I loved it. It was the best present ever.
But I didn’t play the tape that night, or the next day. It wasn’t until about a week later that I finally summoned the courage to listen to it. I took a deep breath and pressed the chunky play button on my black plastic tape recorder. Traveling through the small holes of the speaker, the music sounded garbled and shrill. It filled my room, but it did not fill me. I curled up on my yellow shag carpet and cried.
I didn’t cry because I had outgrown It’s a Small World. I cried because I had outgrown It’s a Small World and my dad didn’t know it. I wanted to be the daughter he thought I was, but even more, I wanted him to see the person I had become. It was my fault his affection hadn’t hit its mark—I had grown beyond the girl who was thrilled by spinning dolls and manufactured canals—but wasn’t it his job to keep track of me? I felt ashamed of myself for changing, and at the same time, angry at my dad for making me see my own nakedness. I wanted to cover myself up.
I tried not to think about how hurt my dad would be to know my secret. The cat-and-mouse game of blame and shame went round and round inside of me until it carved out a hole in my chest. A chasm opened up in the continuum of my youth, wide enough for me to glimpse the old me on the other side, receding into the distance.
As a parent, I haven’t always been gracious about my own kids growing up. In fact, at times, I’ve made them feel guilty for it, suggesting that what they were becoming was not-as-wonderful as what they used to be. I remember tucking my boys into bed one night when they were eight and ten, defeated after a challenging day of screen-gorging and sibling tiffs. “You used to be so creative!” I whined through tears of frustration. “Why don’t you ever want to build forts or make plays or create robots out of recyclables anymore?” At this, my younger son curled into a ball and sobbed. “Please don’t say things like that, mama!” he begged. “I hate it when you make us feel like we’re not as good as we used to be.” My heart sank, my rancor instantly transformed into remorse. I gathered my son’s big boy limbs in my arms and kissed his tears, reassuring him that I loved who he was becoming. “I just don’t want you to lose touch with your creative side, that’s all,” I told him. I hadn’t meant to make him feel bad, but the damage was done.
It pains me to remember moments like these, but the pain is a reminder to do better. As my big kids turn into teenagers and my oldest teen morphs into an adult, I want my children to know that I love watching them grow. I want to give them the best gift ever, the gift of recognition and acceptance.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy to say goodbye to beloved parts of my children’s youth: I ache with longing every time I walk past my seventeen-year-old’s drum kit forgotten in the corner of our basement, or when I glimpse my middle-schooler’s dusty pottery wheel sequestered in the storage room. And when the dappled sunlight dances across my daughter’s wooden playhouse, the one we had moved to the yard of our new house on a flatbed truck and adorned with fairy lights, I wonder, what if? What if I just brushed away the cobwebs, swept up the tiny broken bulbs? But deep down I know her disinterest has nothing to do with spiderwebs or broken glass, and everything to do with being eleven. And that’s okay. I know that the essence of my children is no more locked inside these childhood artifacts than mine was in that red cassette tape.
I know now what I didn’t know when my kids were little: I can miss my children’s childhood without missing my children. Because they are right here with me, growing and changing, and I am mesmerized by their newness. I don’t want to be blind to what is unfolding in front of me because I am too intent on looking back.
Instead of pointing out the pieces that have fallen away like shattered fairy lights, I try to praise the new growth I notice in my children: a budding interest in history, politics, in their own education. I take delight in all the fun things we can do together now, like skiing, cooking, talking about the stock market, traveling. I want them to know that having big kids is pretty awesome. Because my children need me to see them as they are now, not as they were six years ago, or six months ago—or even six weeks ago. And despite what they may say, my kids desperately want me to love what I see when I look at them.
I sometimes wonder if my children will rediscover aspects of themselves that at one time seemed integral, but now lie dormant. Will my son take up drumming again? Will pottery make a reappearance? Will my daughter repurpose her playhouse as a teenage hangout? Maybe. But maybe not. It’s not for me to say. As the mosaic of my kids’ personalities takes shape, I realize that I am no longer the artist. I am simply the keeper of my children’s many pieces. I hold them gently in the palm of my hand, in case they need to remember.