She is almost 13 and I am only her aunt, and I watch her, clarinet in hand, school concert in front of me, she all in heels and that dress and I want to cry when her dad, my brother, tells me tomorrow night is her first dance. Dateless, he says, just with friends, he says, she's only 12, but she has friends, he says, who are already dating, and does it bother her, I ask, that no one has asked her, and no, he says, she says no, but he wonders if that is true, and I want to snatch her up and run away with her - somewhere safe, where her feelings will never be hurt, where she can just be herself and never ever change, especially not for boys, but I know she will, girls always do, even now, even now, and it is all I can do to stay and watch her, this beautiful, beautiful, smart, funny, talented girl. My heart hurts to even think about it, and I look away, seeing instead her first steps to me, and the time she smashed her finger, crying, trying to be brave, looking at me and saying please draw me a picture, something to make her happy, to distract her, how happy it made me that she understood this was the aunt who drew, and how she made me see that art could help heal even so small a thing as a hurt finger. I see us walking the streets in spring, she holding tight to my hand, flowers from the trees littering the ground under our feet; I see her skipping down the hall at my photo studio, age 4 in a new Christmas dress – I am the the beautifullest, she sang. And she was.
And now we are here, all these years later, and boys are becoming important to this girl whose doctor proclaims her “scary” smart, this girl who began to read so young, who wins spelling bees and math contests and science fairs, this wild, crazy, fearless girl-becoming-woman, curls you can't buy spilling across her face and down her back, curls she once hated but no longer; at almost 13 she has made those curls her "signature". Boys are not yet so important that she has put books aside, but there is lipstick already and suddenly shoes are important, though she once informed me she wasn’t interested in fashion, and her nails are always painted, her ears never without earrings, and the Easter basket I make for her every year suddenly seems unnecessary and silly to this aunt who has always been the Easter Bunny, spending hours removing store tags and re-wrapping candy and toys in handmade papers and tissue, removing all department store evidence, so that the magic of Easter was all her niece would know.
She is almost there – 13 is waving at her from the other side of an open door and in only a few days she will walk through. Into a room I can't enter. Don’t go, I told her a bit ago, don’t go, I laughed, don’t be 13, and she laughed back at me, too late, her eyes said, too late. So I say to her don’t change who you are. I don’t know how we get from 13 to women of a certain age, but I have been 13 and I know how much I would have preferred pretty to smart, how much more the boys liked those girls with ribbons in their hair and how, despite my efforts, I was never one of them. Stay you, I say, keep making those funny movies you make, stay up late reading those books you’re not supposed to read and ace all your tests and find the boys who will love your brains and beauty.
The fears are all mine, they are tangled with memories of my 13, with my hurts and heartbreaks, of pretending I wasn't the first in the class to finish a test, pretending I hadn't yet finished my homework or a book, never wanting to be too smart, and hating the game I felt forced to play, though not very well. She is not me, she is more self-assured, full of spit and vinegar, not a shy bone in her body. I saw her last week and she was climbing atop a brick mailbox, dancing a little dance, celebrating just being, and she laughed like a girl.
Not yet a woman.