I remember growing up playing pretend. The swing-set was a castle or a pirate ship at times, and touching the ground meant perilous danger. Some days I was a princess desperate to be rescued, while other days I was traversing treacherous land to find a homestead among the great prairies of the West or an orphan seeking adventure among the wild. My dearest friends, whom I’d known since near-infancy, played along with me. Our days were full and our hearts merry. Imagination carried us to infinite worlds that we’d created to be almost real.
The land we played on was vast enough to satisfy our minds, all sections of the property having unique titles. Some places were off limits if you weren’t exclusively a part of the kids who’d taken claim to it, though that only made us want to sneak onto their personal base even more. There were open fields, clusters of trees, giant rocks, towering hills, and at any time of the day these places could be anything we wanted.
I was lucky. The older kids were kinder to me than to some of those closer to my age. To the girls I was a dress-up doll, which I entirely enjoyed, and to the boys I was merely a happy-go-lucky girl who went along with the games. Some of them I’d labeled in my mind as the ones to stay away from; I’d seen the smaller kids get picked on by them and I never wanted to experience that. Then there were the ones I clung to, the ones I’d trail behind wishing to be just like them. Those younger than me at the time were still too young to play the games we did, for I was barely considered old enough to be a part. Most of those around my age stuck together, even if we didn’t always get along, and we hadn’t a care in the world beyond another child not willing to comply. Growing up was an idea we hadn’t considered a part of the plan.
I couldn’t tell you the exact day my parents told me we were moving, but I can tell you how devastating it was to say goodbye. At almost seven years old I didn’t know what to tell my friends. Sure, I’d lived in a few different houses throughout my life, but never before had I moved to a new state. California seemed so far away from Washington.
“We could write letters,” I’d said to my best friend. “Maybe talk on the phone too.”
“When will you be back?” Her eyes filled with tears, as did mine. I hadn’t an answer.
I couldn’t tell you about the journey to California, only the arrival. We moved in with my grandparents, and that first night my little brother and I slept on an air mattress in the upstairs living room while our older brother slept on the couch across from us.
It remained like that for nearly two years.
It was easy to make new friends for me, though the games they liked to play weren’t at all like the ones back home. They played jump rope and tag in the halls and on basketball courts. There weren’t many fields for imagination, and imagination didn’t seem to be a thing. I found myself making friends with kids a few years older than me; it seemed familiar since most of my friends back home were a little older. We got along, my California friends and I, but every time I got to talk to someone from home or they wrote me a letter, I ached to return to them.
We went to Disneyland a couple times. That was an adventure I could have relived again and again. Every day felt like we did something new, all the time we tried different places, yet all the while it felt like I was just waiting to return home. It seemed to be a thought that faded to an idea in the back of my mind, however, and eventually I’d grown accustomed to my new friends. I’d even made a new best friend who I did everything with. We were in acting classes together, I’d spend the night at her house, we had our birthdays together, it was almost like being home again.
Saying goodbye to her was the most painful part when we left California. My parents had decided to move back to Washington, back to our dearest friends. At almost nine years old, I felt a terrible vise of sorrow and joy. I’d finally get to be back home with my closest friends in the world, yet I had to leave behind those I’d recently grown to care for. This time, however, I didn’t question moving.
I remember the hugs, the tears, the laughter when we arrived. Yet, my memories were jumbled. I could remember some of the days from before, but with how comfortable I’d gotten accepting California as home, I’d let go of some of the love in my heart for those we returned to. I didn’t know them as well anymore. I didn’t know if they were the same or if they’d become different. I felt the missing piece of time away from them, and gradually I knew I hadn’t been a part of some of the things they all got to share. I felt left out.
I longed for the games of before, though. When it came time to play outside together, I noticed the number of those outside was much smaller. No one really played the same games anymore and our secret hideouts had changed. Some of my older friends were even older now, and games weren’t something they enjoyed. Nevertheless, I still had a few closer to my age, and even the ones younger than me were old enough to be a part now. We made our own new games, ones that were satisfactory enough for the time.
Another year passed to my tenth birthday. I was ecstatic to be in my double-digits now like so many of my other friends. Tag and hide-and-go-seek had become our regular games, princesses and army somewhat a faded idea for the younger ones to carry on. Still, I secretly wished to play them. But we were older now, and we had to play mature games.
“Let’s play hide-and-go-seek tag!” That was one of my friends favorite games, and we played it all the time. I’d grown to love trampolines and bike rides more than anything, though at home my little brother and I still played our own games of super heroes and teacher.
One of our newer traditions was to lay in the garage with the lights out, blankets covering the floor to be comfortable, and I’d hold a flashlight out while I gave him a shadow puppet show. I’d hold my hand out high so it was distinct on the ceiling, then I’d spread my fingers out and bring them closer to the light until the shadow felt like it was encompassing us in the palm of a giant. His laughter caused joy within me, and so our adventures at home continued.
Then, one of my friends turned thirteen. He was a teenager while I was still a kid, barely in my double-digits. He’d joined the older kids now in age, and I felt left behind. Why am I so young? I started to question. He no longer wanted to play childish games, and I was embarrassed to ever consider playing them. I did the only thing I figured I could do to grow up.
I got rid of nearly all my toys.
I tried not to play games anymore, unless it was tag or capture the flag or something similar. Secretly I still wanted to, and occasionally I would indulge, but after so long of forcing myself to try and be mature I lost interest. Games only held my attention for a few minutes before they would bore me. It was a sign of growing up! Now, if I could just be thirteen, I’d fit in with the older kids.
Thirteen came fairly quickly. Skinny jeans, funky shirts, and rock music were my thing. I was finally a teenager, I’d finally grown up. Yet, suddenly I realized many of my friends were driving now and getting jobs, while I had barely joined the ranks of teen-hood. While I still got along with some of them, others had matured and moved on, and to them I was still a little girl. No matter how hard I tried to prove I wasn’t a little kid, they never seemed to get it.
I developed many of my own other insecurities, though, as all teenagers do. I never learned to express them, not while I was starting out, I only knew to bottle them up and hold everything inside. Yet, if I could just be sixteen, was my thought, They might not think of me as so young.
Sixteen was around the corner. I’d applied for my first job, a place I swore I’d never work because I thought I was above it for some reason, and a couple months later it was mine. I worked with a couple of friends, the similarity between us something I felt could finally connect me into being older. Now that I could pay for driver’s ed., it was time to begin that part of growing up. After a few months I obtained a license, and it was as if all the things I needed to be older had fallen into place.
One day, when announcing my newly awarded driver’s license, I was given a look of shock. “You have a license?” one girl said. “I still see you as a little girl in my mind!”
I’d become the master of pretentious laughter, though I’m sure my flushed cheeks gave me away. My face was hot, my eyes stung, and my heart was bitter. I wasn’t a little girl anymore, yet how could these people not see it?
I hid. I camouflaged myself behind diversion whenever anyone would ask me my age. If I didn’t tell them, usually they assumed I was older. I liked that much more than the reaction of, “you’re only sixteen? You’re still a baby! I thought you were older.” I’d never been known to be violent, but in those moments I wanted nothing more than to punch whomever had the audacity to say such a thing to me.
It was late one night, the sky at its darkest and my music at its loudest in my headphones. I cried myself to sleep more than I should have back then. While I was cursing my young age and scowling about how I should’ve been born a few years earlier so I could be eighteen, because that’s when I’d finally be seen as grown up, I made a personal vow. I swore I would never make anyone feel too young to be my friend.
We were sitting around not doing much. Conversation was light, and I was still fighting the battle in my mind. Then, it was as if effort wasn’t needed when I connected with a girl three years younger than me. After all, I had friends three or more years older than me; she deserved a chance.
“I write too!” she exclaimed to me. We found many things in common then, and in seconds I’d found a dear friend in her. Not long after that I became close with multiple people younger than me. I stuck to my vow of making sure I never made anyone feel like I did.
Suddenly, I felt I’d learned something valuable in all my pain. I’d gained friends of all ages. I’d grown in confidence being able to see beyond their ages. The pain of being younger didn’t hurt so much anymore. Still, I hid within myself and wished the impossible. Perhaps one day, when I’m finally an adult, they’ll forget how much younger I am than them and accept me.
My seventeenth birthday was nearing, something I hadn’t thought of much. It was an odd age, one I didn’t consider significant at the time. Stuck between two milestone ages. However, in the months prior to my birthday, something happened.
“I feel like we haven’t talked in a long time,” one of the girls older than me said. She’d known me since my mother’s womb, yet it felt as if we were nearly strangers.
“We really haven’t,” I stated. She hadn’t any idea the torrent within me. Still, we expressed our desire to be friends again, and it was as if our restored relationship was meant to be. Little had I known it wouldn’t be long before friendships of old grew distant, people changed, and it was in that time my restored relationship with this dear friend would matter most.
On my seventeenth birthday my parents gave me their individual cards. I slit open the envelope to my dad’s, pulled the card out, and read what he wrote within it.
“I am overwhelmed as I look at you that it won’t be much longer before you are married and starting a new life, which I won’t be a part of on a daily level…”
I’d never cried from a card like that before. It hit me. All that time I’d spent rushing to be old enough to fit in with the people I wanted to accept me, all the time I wasted not enjoying my life, not experiencing time like I should have. It was gone.
“I don’t want to leave you guys,” I sobbed. “I wish I was a little kid again. So much has changed. I wasted all that time!”
My father comforted me with a smile, and perhaps a stifled laugh. He’d known all this, of course. I’d whined and complained to my parents for years about being left out and not being a part of certain things. I always felt like the older ones got to experience all the good things.
“You need to be happy where you are or you’re never going to be satisfied,” he told me.
I nodded. I wanted that to be reality to me. Then, a revelation struck me. All that time I’d been wishing to grow older, I’d ignored the fact that everyone else was growing older around me. When I reached a certain age they all were just as much older than me as they were before. The time would never slow down, we’d never catch up until my youth had been wasted and we were elderly. Why waste what little time I had being young wishing to be older when I could enjoy it for what it was? My very own life. Only I could live it from my point of view. I was the only one who lived in my shoes, who did what I do. If I were older, perhaps some of my friendships would be vastly different, or wouldn’t exist at all. I wished so often to be old enough to fit in with specific groups that I never sought to fit in as I was.
The years to follow have been less of a hassle to grow up. As exciting as it was to see new things develop and to watch my life flourishing and the live’s of my friends, a tender place in my heart remains for the days of my childhood. Though I’d enjoyed playing and imagining new worlds, I’d also taken those things for granted. I’d taken who I was created to be for granted. Who am I to say I should have been born sometime different than I was? While my years were wasted rushing to grow, I’d missed enjoying times I could have spent. I’ll never get those days back. I can, however, be happy with the days I have now, and cherish what memories I do hold of the past. After all, the fields of imagination never die if you water them, and I plan to do just that for the rest of my life. While my body ages, my spirit will be young, and I’ll live the way I am meant to because that is who I am, and I’d never wish to be any younger or older. I only wish to keep being a better me.