I’m sure you have some ‘coming of age memories’ – moments you look back on and think ‘I really learnt something that day.’
I found this piece of writing on an old hard drive. I wrote it back when we lived in NZ- before my children were born. I no longer have anything like the detailed recollection of the day I describe here. I wonder why. I’m glad I wrote about it, because it’s a helpful tale for my girls sometime – one day when they feel embarrassed, or just shy to try something ‘in case I fall’, ‘because I might be no good at it.’
It was the day before my tenth birthday. My parents had taken us to visit old friends of theirs, something that as a shy child I always dreaded. I knew what it would be like; we would sit around a musty living room drinking tea and eating biscuits. The adults would talk about old times while my sister and I fidgeted in our seats. She would join in the conversation now and again and I would hate her. At some point we’d be taken on a boring tour of the boring friends’ boring house to be shown boring pictures of their boring children who’d already left home or were away on some exciting adventure that their parents would no doubt bore us with tales of the next time we came. I was miserable.
We drove for hours, way out into the countryside, leaving behind the gloomy big town we lived in. I didn’t mind the drive. Going into the countryside was something I loved – there was space there, and freedom. A girl like me could climb trees, fly kites, make dens in the woods and forget all about school and the prissy girls with stupid dolls… not that they were all like that, but I didn’t find it easy to hone in on the girls that were more like me.
As we drove Mum entertained us with memories of time spent with her friend when they were young. She and Dad laughed as they remembered visiting the same couple when my sister was a fat baby and watching her roll down the sloping floors of their old farmhouse. ‘A farmhouse?’ I queried. Maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad.
We arrived shortly before lunch and were thus spared a tour of the house, at least for now! The couple’s daughter was away, but their son Nicholas was somewhere about the place and appeared between the trees, breathing heavily and covered in mud.
“Wash up and come in for lunch,” his mother instructed, “These are the Wigginses.”
Lunch was a painful affair for me, responding in short sentences to questions fired my way, often finding myself struggling to finish a mouth full of food and mumbling my replies with a pink face. I concentrated on picking the fat out of my meat – I hated meat and the feel of the fat in my mouth made me feel sick. Nicholas was equally sullen until spoken to, successfully evading his parents’ attempts to draw him into the conversation.
“What have you been up to this morning, Nicholas?” my father finally asked.
“I’ve built a raft on the duck pond,” he said, his eyes lighting up and flicking my way.
“I’ll show you after lunch if you like.”
A smiled a shy smile and nodded.
“Okay. Thanks,” I muttered. Rafts on duck ponds sounded like just my sort of thing. It looked like the day just might turn out all right.
When enough time had passed for politeness and for our food to settle, my mother indicated that I might leave the party. Together, Nicholas and I wandered through a small wood and down to a murky looking pond on which not a duck was to be seen.
“Wait here,” breathed my new friend “I’ve hidden it over there.”
He pointed to a cluster of reeds under overhanging branches. I felt nervous and excited. It was like “Swallows and Amazons” or “The Famous Five”; books that fuelled my play and my fantasies. I had a huge desire for adventure that had not even begun to be satiated. I wished I lived on a farm with a pond and a wood and other exciting places to play.
Minutes later Nichols emerged, standing on a platform of logs lashed together with string and punting himself across the pond using a long stick. Now and again he wobbled as the stick stuck and he grinned as he pulled it deftly out and regained his balance. It was good, his raft, and I was impressed. Nicholas wasn’t much older than me, if at all, I wasn’t sure I would have made such a neat job of it.
When he reached where I stood, Nicholas invited me to climb aboard.
“I’ll show you how to do it, then you can have a go on your own.”
I stepped quickly from the bank onto the raft and crouched down, not wanting to sit and get my only set of clothes wet and dirty, but fearful of standing with nothing to hold onto lest I fall full in.
“It’s not deep,” assured Nicholas “So don’t worry if you slip.”
The pond wasn’t a large one, so you couldn’t go on any real adventures, but you could pretend, and our imaginations needed no prompting. All the stories I’d been reading merged and grew until I was on a great voyage of discovery that H. Rider Haggard would have been proud to be part of.
Nicholas showed me how to push the long stick through the mud until it hit firm ground, then push to propel the raft, twisting the stick when it stuck in the thick gloop. We reached our first port of call with little trouble. Here, Nicholas was to disembark and go in search of supplies while I continued to meet him ‘further downstream’.
“Hold onto this tree,” he instructed, “I’ll jump off and pass you the stick, it’s easier.”
I did as I was told, clinging to the tree to hold the raft close to shore while Nicholas jumped off. But fate was not feeling kind. As Nicholas leapt ashore the momentum of his leap made the raft move beneath my feet, it began to creep toward the centre of the pond. I pulled with all my strength, desperately trying to reverse the craft’s direction, but to no avail. Little by little my feet were moving further away from the shore while my hands still clutched helplessly at the trunk of the tree.
Just LET GO!
Why didn’t I let go? The pond wasn’t deep. I knew that. It was a moment’s decision to step into the water and save myself or let go with my hands and drift with the raft. Instead I hung on grimly as my feet, firmly on the raft, moved ever further from the shore and my hands, round the tree, gripped ever tighter. Nicholas stared, speechless. I waited, breathless. Time halted for a moment as I was stretched, as though on a rack, with my extremities at the furthest possible point from each other. Gravity had to win the day and with a screech and a splosh I landed, full length and face down in the black slime.
It was horrible. A mixture of rotting pond-weed, tree mulch and duck poo. I was covered from head to foot and smelt awful. Moreover, I was mortified. There was no hiding my accident – everyone would know. I wished I’d just lain there and let the dark ooze take me. Reluctantly I trudged after Nicholas up the path toward the house, I was sure he was sniggering and I , not having yet learnt to laugh at myself, was desperately embarrassed and angry. I wanted to cry. Voices and running feet came towards us across the grass as we walked out of the wood – the adults and my sister had all heard my screech and were sure something terrible must have occurred.
“What happened?” came the question, a tinge of relief in the voice and amusement in everyone’s eyes.
“She fell in.” My new-found now-enemy (how embarrassment colours delicate friendship) stated the obvious.
I smiled through my awkwardness and allowed myself to be taken inside, showered and dressed in unwanted borrowed clothes.
Hindsight and humour
That was the first time I’d done anything really silly – and I survived to tell the tale. The funny thing is, with hindsight I realised it was good for me. I was among good people with good senses of humour. Their laughter, and the way they made light of the situation, taught me a lot. It taught me that it’s all right to make mistakes, that clumsiness and silly accidents add colour to life. That taking mistakes personally, and assuming everyone is judging me harshly isn’t helpful and isn’t true.
Unfortunately it took until well into my twenties with many more mistakes under my belt for that fact to really sink in. And I can’t claim that I always remember it… but I try. And now raising two girls it’s a key lesson I try very hard to teach them – no one’s judging you, no one cares if you get it wrong – and if they make a comment, so what? That’s their problem and not yours. Maybe they just aced that cartwheel and you flunked it, but there are things you can do that they would flunk too… we’re all different. With my girls I say “And can that person speak two languages like you can? How many different schools have they been to? How many countries have they lived in? You have had a different life with different experiences – remember that and be strong in who you are…”
And of course if we can, and it seems like it would be helpful, we practice whatever skill they flunked at so they feel more confident next time.
Being strong in who you are, mistakes and weaknesses and all isn’t an easy lesson and not always easy to do – but if we constantly worry about the possibility of looking silly, we’ll never do anything. We’ll never have fun. We’ll never risk achieving something we long to do.
Featured Image Image by David Mark, on Pixabay
Muddy children by Michael Coghlan on Flickr
All used under Creative Commons licenses, with thanks.
Thanks for stopping by… next up – something to do with living in France. Or perhaps trail running. I might even combine both! Do comment and tell me about your ‘coming of age’ moments. I’m 47 and I still have them not infrequently!