When she was born, my niece, Sarah, was itty bitty. She is a twin, and they were so early that she was this teeny little pink baby who was far too little for her pink clothes. Maybe that’s why I called her Sarahberry; she was such a little bit of shocking pink that stood out from her older and twin brothers.
The only girl with three brothers, it’s no surprise that she ended up seamlessly floating between princess and tomboy. She played T-ball like her brothers but wore sparkles when she wasn’t in uniform. She discovered she liked soccer a lot more than baseball, so she eventually dropped the one for the other and she has stuck with it. Life with brothers is good training for the battle field that is soccer, and while she is still little, she is tenacious.
One summer afternoon, my younger sister, Noonie, and I took the kids to the neighborhood park. It was one of those afternoons that only happen in cereal commercials, where the weather is perfect, the kids behave, and every playful football spirals. At some point, Noonie made Sarah a clover crown. When we were in the kitchen, I took her picture with a bit of fear.
“Oh, baby girl, stay like this as long as you can. Don’t ever stop being the little girl with dirt on her knees and flowers in her hair.”
I was afraid of what would be inevitable: the heartache and struggles that we all face as we grow up. I took the picture as proof to myself, and someday to her, that life was once as simple as summer tans and clover crowns.
Sarahberry is thirteen now, in so many ways. I often find myself saying that teens are the age group I understand the least. She’s proving me wrong, and I don’t mind it at all. Of course familiarity helps, but she really isn’t all that hard to understand: she likes soccer, “old people food,” learning how to cook and do crafts, bugging her brothers, and reading. She has never met an animal she doesn’t like and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She is bright and beautiful, happy and generous. She never seems afraid to be herself.
A few weeks ago, she came to stay for a few days over spring break and we hung out. She doesn’t seem to think or care that I’m not cool, and we watched nerdy TV, went to see Cinderella, and walked around the mall where we looked at prom dresses.
She is not likely to get any taller than her present five feet, has fewer curves than I did at 13, and her bubbly self makes her seem even younger, so she has seemed like a bit of a late bloomer to me. We pointed out dresses we thought were pretty, which were garish, and which ones our fathers would hang us for wearing. To my delighted relief, she was quick to say that she had no interest in wearing “the slutty stuff.”
We talked about everything, from her teachers to boys to what kind of veterinarian she wanted to be. We walked through racks of clothing and all I could think is You’re growing up too fast! Stop it!
It’s a horrible, wretched bit of wonderful misery to both love seeing her learn and experience new things while also wanting to hit pause and just enjoy this. Someday, she won’t be thirteen and all I will have is photographs and memories of this incredible girl. There won’t be choir concerts or games, and while there will be new things to enjoy, I so love the kid she is right now.
“I get my toes stepped on a lot because I’m a defender.”
A few weeks ago, Sarahberry tore her ACL at soccer, so she had surgery last Friday. On Tuesday, I went to keep her company and give her mom a chance to get out of the house. We watched Adam Sandler and she laughed like it was the funniest thing she’s seen. Later that night, I offered to paint her nails for her, but I have to say, her toenails were a challenge: tiny, oddly shaped, and sort of deep-set into her toes, and I ended up doing a pretty sloppy job. She told me that it was OK, though, because everyone has a hard time with painting them. Because of getting stepped on all the time on the field, her toes take quite a beating.
She was being literal, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. We are called to defend those who need it, and in doing so, we get stepped on. Sarah has a defender’s heart. She can’t help but love the wounded animal, give to the friend who has less, or help the old person who needs it. Her tenacity comes in handy here, because she doesn’t back down or give up easily. She is still young enough to not have had her toes stepped on too many times in the process, and as I kept painting her nails, I wanted to beg her: Do not stop defending. No matter how many times your toes are stepped on, or how much it hurts to keep walking. Keep your heart just like it is.
In a lot of ways, my Sarahberry is still, thankfully, the girl with clover in her hair. She is still usually covered in some combination of dirt and glitter. What I think I understand better now is that my darling Sarahberry is not becoming a new person but she is continuing to become her own person. What a beautiful and appropriate word “blooming” is for her. In every stage, she has been beautiful and captivating, and she will continue to be. I get to be one of the lucky ones who gets to be a part of that. I don’t know how I won that lottery, but dang, I’m glad I did.