It’s hard to say when my drift away from childhood started. It can’t be at the point where each thought isn’t spoken and shared, for I can recall private success and shame from age three onward. We work to separate from parents from our first step. But at some point, the move isn’t just to more autonomy but away from childhood and toward all that comes next.
It might have started at twelve, in the basement of a new friend from my new junior high. Being the new kid in seventh grade may not really be any worse than being any kid in seventh grade. Almost everyone swings and sways the hormonal winds of puberty, starting each morning trying to dress a body that isn’t one’s own only to face crowds of kids in the same predicament, each deciding to flaunt or conceal nature’s most recent trick. But I weathered this storm with three girls who provided sure shelter in this period of shift, and with them, I found myself in the basement, music blaring.
Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind. oh, Mickey!
I can’t recall the dance moves paired with that unfortunate pop song of the early 1980s with lyrics I am sure I didn’t entirely understand at twelve. But the sense of experiencing and embracing what was mine — that made perfect sense. This wasn’t the music of my childhood – the classical, folk, and show tunes that had been the soundtrack of my first dozen years. This was…something else. Toni Basil’s Mickey begat Top 40 radio stations, followed mix tapes of favorites of the radio and long conversations over the phone or behind the bedroom doors of my girlfriends about school,music, books, mean girls, and cute boys. These were conversations for girlfriends only — no parents allowed.
His twelve is of course different. He parks himself in front of Minecraft videos and the game itself for hours, if left unchecked. (And sometimes, because I need the peace or I know he needs the same, I turn my head.) His siren song has riffs of zombie attacks and choruses of spawning cats and horses. Sometimes he plays with a friend beside him, their loud voices exhorting each other to gather arms or resources or just to get out of the way. It’s public and loud, their banter and games.
His friendships look the same at twelve as they did a few years back, lacking the confidences and collusion of my version twelve. Sword fights and fantasy play dominate his offline time with friends, and his play still screams little boy. His conversations with buddies revolve around video games and trading cards, with occasional plots to bother siblings. He holds all the spirit of eight with his friends, although with an ability to compromise and apologize that are just beginning to bloom.
Twelve brought me changes to my body that bewildered and irritated me more than brought me delight. There seemed more to hide and disguise during that year, and too much time was spent in front of my closet’s full-length mirror trying to determine if my bra’s straps showed under my short sleeve white uniform blouse, and, if they seemed to, deciding whether to sweat out the day with a sweater to cover said straps, in a thicker long sleeve blouse, or wearing a t-shirt under my uniform blouse. Braces. Deodorant. Glasses. Hair that suddenly needed something done to it. My twelve was a constant tug between the desire to be invisible and to be seen.
His twelve smells sweetly sweaty, lacking the pungency of adolescence. His clothing choices revolve only around what is comfortable and within reach — the mirror in his bathroom receives little attention. His voice has gradually lowered in pitch to the point where callers confuse it with mine, a curse of the preteen boy. And while he is firmly, passionately male, his golden hair, which sweeps below his shoulder blades, throws off almost all strangers, who ask about my daughter. He’s confident in his masculinity, reminding me that after puberty, no one will make the mistake again. He is still far more boy than almost teen, from the soft curves of his cheeks to the bounce in his step, but the autumn of childhood is here.
At twelve, my father read to me most nights. Sitting on the edge of my bed as he had done since as early as I can remember, he introduced me to classic and contemporary literature. Whatever growing up I did during the day, I was still glad to have my father’s voice bring me mystery, adventure, fantasy, and a bit of childhood in the hour before I went to sleep. An affectionate child raised by affectionate parents, twelve brought less exuberant demonstrations of love, but goodnight hugs and kisses persisted at a point where physical reassurances that you are real and loved and still your parents’ child despite the churning changes you can’t control.
Firmly attached to mom, at least at the end of the day, he still waits for the snuggle before bed, greeting me with purrs and meows, rubs of his head against mine, feline behavior being his only way to express his affection and love for many years. This ritual tugs some nights, and sometimes my eyes fill. At twelve, we are reaching the end of this scene of childhood, and I don’t know which purr and rub will be the last. Each “good night” leaves me wondering. In daylight hours, I’ll just sometimes find his hand in mine as we walk somewhere. I hold his back with equal strength, allowing his to slip out as quickly as it came. Grasping works no better here than when a child learns to walk. Letting go at the loosening of their hands is part of the deal.
My twelve is only available to me in snippets, like the trailer for a movie. Sleepovers with girlfriends. Gut-knotting moments on the playground with girls who met puberty with vitriol. First crushes on oblivious boys. Math tests. Books that introduced me to the adult world, tantalizing and cautioning at the same time. Time home alone, similarly exciting and frightening. Homework on weekends. The constant tug of childhood and adolescence, with the latter winning out thanks to the unrelenting forces of nature.
I cannot recover the inner narrative of being twelve anymore than I can guess that of my son’s at twelve. His twelve is knowable only by what he tells me, and that is very little. I have no doubt his interior life is rich, but temperament and gender and Asperger’s keep it within his heart and mind. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can make a guess at what is behind his increasingly irritable tone, guess at worry and anxiety at a world that just holds too much mystery. Then bits come out, but still just glimpses at what it means to be him at twelve. In all ways, his twelve seems bigger than his eleven, with more talkback, more hair, more brilliance, more negligence, more sideways humor, more misunderstandings about the world, and even more tears. How does his still small body carry all that bigness?
Perhaps its hubris to try to understand his twelve through the lens of mine, over 30 years buried in my brain, but it’s the only lens I have. We share neither gender or life experience, but our temperaments are similar, and so I try to extrapolate — to guess, really — what might be inside. And for what? A chance to understand him a bit better before the throes of adolescence consume him even more. It’s coming. My little boy is going. But for now, we have twelve.