Happy 13th birthday. This will be such an exciting year of change and growth for you that I particularly want us to keep in close touch with one another. Both of us are undergoing major transitions, so I hope we can understand and empathize with each other. I asked Grandma what she wished she had said to me on my thirteenth birthday. She didn’t have to think about her answer. “Tell me everything.
There’s nothing you could conceivably do or say that I don’t handle. You don’t have to protect me from anything you feel or do.” I liked that. I wished she had told me that when I was 13 What was left unsaid did far more lasting damage than anything that was said. So that’s part of what I want to say to you as you blossom into womanhood.
I have lived 27 and 3/4 more years in the world than you have. I will be delighted to share any of my experiences with you, well aware that you have to find your own path. Sometimes I will forget and try to turn you into a newer, better me. I want you to point out what I’m doing when I do that. As you grow older, I identify more and more with you, so I will have to struggle not to force my old aspirations on you. But I have tried very hard in the past to respect your individuality.
You were a distinct, dynamic individual from the moment you were born. I remember looking into your gorgeous, alert, intelligent eyes the day you were born and wondering if you would be too much for me. And sometimes you are. I am trying very hard to grow up enough to be a good mother to you. I have always loved your spirited determination to be your own person, what Barbara Williams, your nursery school teacher, called “your considerable sense of self.” I want you to continue to feel free to tell me when I am making an obvious mistake with you or a not so obvious one.
I am glad you are so close to your father. My own teenage years would have been far happier if I hadn’t been so intimidated by my father, so afraid of arguing with him, so afraid of getting close. You never have to choose between us; we will try to give you opportunities to be alone with each of us. You already know what very different people we are, but we are equally proud of our beautiful, brilliant, spirited daughter.
The worst thing that happened to me as a teenager is that I felt compelled to choose between my feminine and my intellectual sides. You live in a very different world, but you still will receive a lot of contradictory messages about what is really important. Don’t choose. You can be both. Look at Aunt Jackie and Aunt Lynn, for example. A boy who holds your intelligence against you isn’t capable of befriending or loving the real you. Don’t waste time on such boys or men.
At this stage of your life close female friendships are far more important than boyfriends. At no stage of your life will close women friends cease to be vitally important. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that men and women are very different. Our world desperately needs women’s unique qualities. Women need not become like men to succeed in life. Women need to support and understand one another. I would never go so far as one psychologist did when she wrote a book entitled, “Men Are Just Desserts.” But don’t ever neglect your girlfriends for some boy. I hope you continue to have friends like Michael who happen to be boys. I think that is particularly important because you don’t have brothers or male cousins you see regularly. Peer pressure still discourages men and women from being “just friends,” but I hope you can withstand that premature emphasis on pairing off. Daddy was my friend before he was my lover and my husband.
For most of this century mothers and daughters have been at odds with each other. That has been a tragic loss for women in general. Ideally your mother should be your most ardent supporter and confidant. No one, except your future husband, will probably ever love you more. In fact mothers have an even better track record than husbands. I hope we can continue to be friends. I know we will fight, but fighting doesn’t diminish our closeness. Look at me and Daddy. When you were born, Uncle Stephen said, “Good, Mary Jo has a daughter she can fight with. That should make her very happy.” He remembered my epic battles with my mother.
I hope we can continue to share books with each other. That might be one of the best ways for you to teach me lessons that you think I need to learn. Find me the right book to read. I often learn more from books than from my own mistakes. And you can always write notes to me if you find something too difficult to say. I can express myself in writing far better than I can face-to-face. I don’t know if you’re the same way, but you could try. I promise to save all your letters to hand down to your daughters. Wouldn’t you have loved to see a letter from me to my mother at age 13? I would love to see it too. Recently I have remembered more of my teenage years. I’m glad. Getting to know teenage Mary Jo again will help me to be kinder to teenage Emma.
More than anything else, I wish I had kept a journal when I was a teenager. It would have helped me so much to mother my teenagers. It would be a priceless legacy to had down from one generation to another. So much rich human experience is lost when women don’t write down the details of their lives. I’ve only recently rediscovered journal keeping, and it has helped me clarify my own life more than anything. Writing letters is equally important. I am delighted that you, Erin, and Liz are letter writers. Keep them. You’ll really enjoy them in the future. I’ve thrown out too much of my past. (She has kept all the letters, even the intricately folded notes she and her best friend used to pass each other during boring high school classes
I should have started this a month ago. I cou ld fill up the entire book with my hopes for you and my pride in you. I hope someday you have a daughter. Only then will you understand how much I love you, how proud of you I am. I have learned so much about music and makeup this year:) What remedial lessons await me next year? With five brothers I often tried to raise myself as a boy, so I am delighted to get a second chance to experience the adolescent years with you.
You seem so much older than you did a year ago. I know you will change even more this year. Being a woman is wonderful, Emma. All human experience is open to you. Men are denied many of the most wonderful experiences. I have never regretted being a woman. Don’t ever be afraid of your body. It’s God’s most glorious creation. Own it and glory in it. Don’t ever be afraid to ask me any questions . I might know all the answers, but I almost certainly will have heard of the book where answers can be found. I believe knowledge never hurt anyone. I would far rather you know too much, stuff you never need to know, then know too little. I have always tried to be open with you, so never stop bringing your questions to me. My mother and I were never comfortable talking about sex. I had to find out the most basic information on my own. That shouldn’t happen with us. Believe me, you are much better learning what you need to know from me, than from rumors and dirty jokes.
I have far less firsthand experience with drugs and alcohol, but I will help you find out anything you need to know. I’m sure you will never do anything to damage your perfect body and your perfect mind. But no matter what, I’ll always be there for you. Not telling me something I should know is the only thing you could do that I would find hard to understand and forgive.
Emma, Emma, only five years from now you will be finishing high school. The last thirteen years seem but a blink of my eyes. I have made many mistakes, expected too much, haven’t been patient enough, haven’t listened enough, haven’t spent enough time alone with you. How rarely have Daddy and I spent an evening alone with you like we are doing tonight. Too often you have gotten lost in the shuffle of our chaotic family life. As you undergo so many changes in your life, we need to find more ways to spend time together so we don’t become strangers to one another. Maybe I should write letters to you more often–not just once a year on your birthday, but whenever I have something important to share with you. Keep this book for my letters to you. Whenever I have something more to say, I will leave this book under your pillow. We can have a secret correspondence. I enjoy writing to you. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have several books filled with words of wisdom or words of frivolity from me? At the very least we could have a good laugh over them when my granddaughter is 13 years old. Wouldn’t you have loved to read letters form Grandma Nolan to Grandma Mary when she was 13? Writing is one of the greatest gifts you can give your daughter–the gift of yourself.
Daddy is dying to see what I am writing, yet part of me wants to keep it private, our special time with each other. I want to post Keep Out Signs. This Means You, Chris and Rosalind. A mother and her oldest daughter should be able to talk with each other without everyone else’s eavesdropping.
I remember 13 years ago so vividly. Someday I’ll share with you a paper I wrote about childbirth with a detailed description of your birth. I hope I can spend every birthday with you, that you won’t move so far away that I can’t make it to your birthday party every year of my life.
Emma, you have been such a joy to me–so beautiful, so brilliant, so talented, so observant, so spirited. I love to love the same books you love. I love to enjoy sharing Liz’s letters together. I am glad you are sharing school life with us. I enjoyed being made over, but you have been making me over for 13 years since that glorious moment in the middle of the night when I first held in my arms the most beautiful baby I had ever seen and she stuck her tongue out at me. I don’t have words to tell you how joyous I am to have a 13 year old daughter Emma, who will make me over all my life.
PS I wish I had some words of wisdom about sisters, but you are teaching me about sisters. If a fairy godmother suddenly offered to grant my fondest wish, I’d wish for some sisters. Don’t take your fights too seriously. When people constantly share such small quarters, they inevitably rub against each other, irritate each other, infuriate each other. I could happily endure any number of fights if you would be close friends when you are grown up. Despite all the ways they drive you crazy, I envy you your sisters.