ten years old

When I turned 40 years old, my dear friend entered my house with his luggage that had just been transported across the country, and as soon as he had set it upon the floor he dove into it to check into the possibility he feared most. A sigh of relief and a slight chuckle of satisfaction came out of him as he handed me the bubble-wrapped packaging. Within were revealed four bottles of fine Scotch and Irish whiskeys, each aged exactly 10 years. The card associated with the quartet explained: “Think of turning 40 as turning 10 four times.” I’m quite keen on this philosophy. It’s especially useful as my daughter is exactly as old as the contents of these bottles.

Ever since she passed into the age of double digits, I’ve been trying to compile the meaning of this and a way to summarize and synthesize this person we call Grace. When Anna turned 10, I was able to fairly quickly and concisely make sense of it. But Grace, although I have kept compiling pieces, defies my quick categorizations. Instead, like when she was five, it’s easier to assemble a list of attributes.

Right now, Grace is outside playing on the swing set, a typical behavior for a 10-year-old. Except, there’s a foot of ice-crusted snow on the ground, and as she swings she deliberately kicks her feet into the trench she’s carving out of her way.

Grace asks important questions, such as, “Who’s your favorite Jedi knight?” And she makes important revelations, like, “My favorite thing that humans have done is make music.”

Grace has decided that she’d like a horse. This isn’t the fantasy of having a sparkly pony and pink boots. Grace wants a real horse, whose stalls she can muck and trough she can fill. She knows this because, in fact, she works weekly on the farm doing just this. She’s disappointed to the core when she doesn’t get a chance to get to the farm to work. She loves to ride, but isn’t disappointed if that’s not in the day’s itinerary. She’s pleased when her boots are caked with mud.

This summer when she and I were waiting for the right time to leave to take her to a week of Girl Scout camp (featuring horse riding), I wondered out loud what we should do to pass the anxious 15 minutes of time before our carpool arrived, especially since Karyn had already left with Anna to take her to her own respective camp. I imagined that Grace would want some time with her cat or a moment at the piano, or maybe just some peace to herself in her room. She paused a moment, but then plainly resolved on another idea for her last few minutes at home: “Can we play catch?” We grabbed our baseball mitts and went to the backyard. (There’s a whole other essay to write on the love and nostalgia I have for playing catch with a ball and mitt.)

Grace was born wise. I remember looking into her eyes — or rather, I remember her looking into my eyes — lying on her side on the temporary shelf, the place where newborns get their first tests for coloration, breathing, and fingers. She stared at me and pulled me into her gaze, and she seemed to almost nod in recognition of the universe. It was clear that she’d seen it all before. She gave me the once-over, twice, not really celebrating the luck that she’d gotten me for a father, but not bemoaning the fact, either.

I suppose that the challenge with Grace is not exactly that she’s hard to know. She’ll choose a notebook or a craft project in her room over something more social. She’ll find a tree to climb or a bramble to tuck herself into. But she’s not trying to be mysterious or obscure. She’s just trying to be her, and she knows this person better than the rest of us, which simply leads to our surprise and her own lack of it. Two months ago she revealed that she had a narrative memorized to present for her school’s story telling tryouts, something we barely knew she was interested in, and something we might not have known the outcome of except for the school official who called us that afternoon to let us know that Grace would be representing her school in the district wide festival. There, she transformed from the nervous and reserved body into an animated and self-assured and real story teller — one who would be asked to go on to the university’s festival a few weeks later.

Grace loves being outside. She puts down ideas into a journal, and imagines future possibilities and synthesizes present scenarios. She loves composing music on the piano. She is her best working on a project or talking, slowly, one-on-one, especially while on a walk. That’s when it hits me. When I consider her own reserve and the contemplation and the gears turning within, I realize why Grace is hard to understand for us: she’s like her father. She doesn’t surprise us with requests for horses and revelations of story telling because they’re out of the blue, but because they’ve already been brewing within, and they’ve already been vetted and tested by the company she keeps there. I’m not sure she knew I’d tear up when she suggested we play catch, but she knew it was precisely what I needed, too.

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