This is your gap year, the year between your fourteenth birthday and fifteenth, between eighth grade and high school, between girlhood and young womanhood.
Born in late November, you, like your father and me, are one to two years younger than your classmates, a gap that was barely noticeable when you were in early middle school, but that has become much more apparent as you enter your teens. This year abroad will help you bridge that gap, entering high school at the same age as your peers.
You are tall for your age, but still seem young among your classmates. At your graduation some of your peers crossed the platform to receive their diplomas in grownup dresses and suits with ties, already bearing the shape and heavy footfalls of the adults they will become. You stood with your sunflower in your age appropriate white dress, an English rose in the California sunshine; the girl next to you wore a strapless white number and heels, looking as sleek and glamorous as a 26 year old, the illusion only broken when she rushed to her friends, shrieking with giggles.
A year sounds like a long time but here we are in May and you are three quarters finished with your gap year. Madrid, London, Rome, Geneva, Oslo…your gap year has been so packed with travel and study, it seems misnamed – Crammed Full of New Experiences Year is more apt (though unpoetical).
At 14 your passport has a lot of stamps in it; at the same age, I did not even know what a passport was, doing all of my traveling in books. At 14 the farthest I’d ever been from home was the Missouri Ozarks to visit my grandparents, where nothing much ever happened unless you count my mom (also at age 14) being crowned Carnival Queen.
You spent the fall in Madrid in full immersion language study, attending a Spanish middle school. I thought of you often during those months, wondering what life was like, totally surrounded by people speaking a language you had, at the time, only a beginner’s grasp of. I was glad your host family has a daughter your age. You shared pictures of your new friends, managing to look simultaneously reassuringly girlish and alarmingly grown up.
In your blue plaid Catholic school uniform, you remind me of my own self at the same age; our uniforms were green, but otherwise, the parochial school education I received three decades ago in the Midwest was pretty much identical to the one you are getting in Madrid this fall.
“There are no group projects, ever,” you informed us. “We just sit and listen to the teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. “ This contrasted sharply with your progressive education in the San Francisco Bay Area, where student collaboration and leadership of their own curriculum are cornerstones of middle school education.
You kept your blog dutifully if desultorily. Your writing is direct, unadorned, reportorial rather than revealing. I suspect this is by design – you have always been a close one. You snapchat us funny selfies that show you looking leggy, unfamiliar and beautiful in your Spanish Catholic girl uniform; we send you pictures of Jake sleeping on your bed, videos of Jake romping in your beloved coastal headlands of California. In this way we stay in each other’s daily lives.
Jake misses you. If we say your name, his tail thumps, and he swivels his head toward the front door with hopeful expectancy. While you gallivant around the world visiting the world’s largest supercollider, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Vigeland’s Wheel of Life sculptures, Jake sleeps on your bed, sometimes with one of your stuffed animals between his paws – usually the rabbit but sometimes the owl. He never tears their eyes out. He startles me sometimes, his brown head lifting up attentively as I walk down the hall very late or very early, past the open door to your room; for a second I think it is you and then remember, you will not be home for many months yet.
You have a two week respite between studies in London and Madrid, and to no one’s surprise you chose Norway, a wild landscape that seems to have captured your heart as completely as it did mine, and fits your father like an old favorite coat. It’s a lot like Michigan, he says, and indeed, with his Nordic complexion and habit of wearing all-weather gear and mountaineering boots he is mostly indistinguishable from the natives.
We are staying in a fairy tale house made of reclaimed wood with a traditional roof that has daisies and grasses growing from it, the Norwegian woods rising up all around us. For you this is a break from being studious, for me this is a break from working nearly non-stop for too many months in a row, so we don’t mind the pouring rain and have no particular plans other than to read in the morning and build a fire in the evening and make pancakes and coffee on the beach in the afternoon, weather permitting.
You were the only one to brave the freezing Oslo Fjord – even the Norwegian among us demurred, but, hardy herself as all Norwegian women seem to be, admired how you stayed in for a good long swim. I can’t feel my arms, you call out to us, laughing but undeterred. In this you are like your father, seemingly able to withstand any amount of cold when immersed in something you love – not only not suffering but laughing with enjoyment.
Your sister flew in from Amsterdam to join us, and after dinner one evening we went for a walk. With your long hair blowing in a chill spring wind that brings fresh roses to your fair-skinned cheeks, the two of you remind me of Athena and Artemis taking a break from your goddessy duties to sample the rain-scrubbed air and giggle together.
In an age where parents commonly bemoan the sight of their children glued to their electronic devices, Snapchatting and watching You Tube videos, you can be found more often with book in hand than phone. Texts to you might go unanswered for days at a time, something both your dad and I find more reassuring than annoying. You have always been a dreamy one, enjoying your solitude. At age 11, after a class trip to Joshua Tree your conversation was not about boys or what this or that friend said, but the periods of solitude in nature that you were able to find, even amongst the mob of kids.
Three years later you are not much changed in this regard; in our time in Norway, when not running the trails or visiting museums you can most predictably be found tucked away reading in a corner window seat. You are content here, the woods looming all around, the sound of the rain and wind and locusts and conversations in distant parts of the house humming just below your consciousness. In this we are alike: I spent most of my time at your age with my nose in a book, or sitting at the edges of conversational circles observing, alone but not lonely, a distinction you seem to instinctively understand and appreciate.
I marvel constantly at your self-assurance in strange settings. You are utterly unintimidated by public transportation, and I watch with some amazement as you confidently consult the maps and route boards for train, tram, ferry, bus, subway and trolley, calmly working out the transfers and then announcing “We take the L1 on Platform 4 toward Spikkestad, or we can take the R33 toward Gullhalla then catch the Metro.”
I tell you about my own first experience with the subway, in London, with an entire crew of colleagues – some of them Ph.D. engineers – preferring to expensively taxi around rather than risk the subway, too impatient or simply unwilling to learn the unfamiliar. At my indignant insistence that we travel as locals not tourists I strode fearfully but purposefully into Picadilly Circus and figured out the Tube, a nominal feat as it turned out, with everything color-coded so simply a child could learn. I was 29, nearly twice the age you are now, with half the mastery.
You found it hard to believe that something so naturally easy for you would be challenging for grown-ups and I smile inwardly, wondering if this is your earliest encounter in the inevitable disillusionment with adulthood all children must face: that age does not always confer wisdom or guarantee greater experience. That sometimes, the young know more than the old, and must lead the way. Watching you, I have no doubt you will be ready when that time comes.
I feel a bit sorry that she is spending so much time with old fogies like us, joked one of your gap year mentors. She is an energetic woman in her sixties, a brilliant professor who is retired now but still a tireless learner and treasured family friend. Friends are so important to kids at this age, she observed. But you have always been an ‘old soul’ in that regard, as comfortable being the only child in a room of adults as you are amongst your peers.
Near the end of our time together in Norway, before your father and I return to San Francisco and you jet off to England, we find ourselves in bustling Oslo Central Station. The platform is crowded with tired workers, newly arrived travelers and local shoppers, but you thread your way effortlessly through them to the correct platform.
It has rained steady and hard on our sightseeing day, and we are drenched and tired, the type of situation that brings out anxiety and crabbiness in most adults. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this (but more likely to simply rid himself of his last Kroner) your dad makes an almost unheard of purchase from a vending machine and we share around the booty: Snickers for him, Twix for me, you sampling each.
Wow I haven’t had a candy bar since last Halloween, you remark, then correct yourself: the Halloween before last, actually. I reflect that perhaps this, as much as anything else, marks the end of your childhood – an indifference to candy and the American holiday that glorifies it.
We all perk up at the sugar, which helps us shake off the doldrums of a long day coming to an end. On the trip home you gaze out the window, lost in thought, and I surreptitiously photograph you, something you notice no more than the constant furtive little glances of young men as they pass you on the street and in the shops.
You are as yet unaware of your beauty and the effect it has, another final remnant of girlhood. As I watch you, an image of you arises in my mind’s eye, your suddenly womanly form emerging dripping from the freezing Oslo Fjord, a sight whose loveliness will take the world’s breath away someday, but for now, is still the provenance of your girlhood and those of us lucky enough to witness the last of it.