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day 19: that little light of hers

February 20, 2011

Do you remember the 1981 Lily Tomlin movie “The Incredible Shrinking Woman?”

In it, Lily’s character Pat Kramer begins to gradually diminish after having been exposed to a deluge of household chemicals.  It was one of my favorite childhood movies because I loved to imagine myself living in a dollhouse, as Pat did, and wearing Barbie clothes (a terrifying thought now, though, given Barbie’s descent into streetwalker-wear).

I started thinking about “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” yesterday as I considered what to give my beautiful niece, T.G., who is next on my list of Nieces Who Will Be Receiving My Used Stuff.  I will explain my loose association:

T.G. is a tween, an age category that didn’t exist until marketers invented it a few years ago, but a critical turning point, nonetheless.  While I don’t see her more than once a year, every time I talk to T.G. I am impressed by her confidence.  Most kids her age don’t look adults in the eye when they speak to them.  They shuffle their feet and plug in extraneous “likes” and “ums” (I know I did — my dad threatened to fine me for every “like” I mumbled).  T.G.  always smiles at me when we talk.  She is animated about her many interests — she loves sports, she plays the harp, she earns excellent grades — and has a close relationship with her parents.

T.G. displays a self-assurance rare in a girl her age.  As I considered this quality yesterday, I had one thought:

“I just hope she doesn’t shrink.”

You have seen it happen to girls as they emerge into adulthood.  In her seminal 1995 book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher wrote, “Young girls slowly bury their childhood, put away their independent and imperious selves and submissively enter adult existence.”

Oh, the horror.

The thought of T.G., bright as a penny, withering her way into womanhood destroys me.  Pipher says adolescence is the time girls “stop being and start seeming.”  The visions are just too much — of her covering her freckles with makeup, of her lowering her hand in class even though she knows the answer, of her quitting the softball team because she doesn’t think she is good enough.  The idea of her dwindling, hiding her light…  what a loss that would be.

When I was a teenager, my sister wrote me a letter.  In me, I think, she saw that slow fade, that burying of my imperious self.  She wanted to stop it.

“I want to tell you how lucky you are to have the gifts that you do — and please don’t throw them away!”  She went on to say that she understood that being smart and being a writer weren’t “cool,” but that cool wouldn’t matter one bit in twenty years.

It has been twenty years, and she sure was right.

The truth is, that letter from my sister was a pivot for me.  After I received it, I got serious about school.  It served as a tangible reminder of my “independent and imperious self.”  Not only did she believe I was smart, but she believed I was a writer.  She was a person of influence in my teenaged life because she wasn’t my parents.  That letter made a difference.

Now, I don’t pretend to have the same influence over T.G. that my older sister had over me.  T.G. has devoted parents, grandparents, an older brother…  she is surrounded by people who know her well.  They will remind her of who she is, and they will demand she keep her light burning, as my sister demanded of me.

Can’t hurt to have one more reminder, though.

When I was about T.G.’s age, my parents gave me a ring like this:

Mine is silver, not gold, but you get the gist

It is called a Claddagh ring, and is a traditional Irish gift of love.  I’ve always adored the symbolism of the ring — the hands signify friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown stands for loyalty.  I used to wear it on my wedding ring finger, so it has waited quietly in my jewelry box for many years, unworn.

My little Irish niece will get this little Irish ring, and along with it a note encouraging her to keep shining.  I wonder where she will be in twenty years?

Here’s to a day filled with love, loyalty, and friendship.  Thanks again for showing up.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Melissa Hawley permalink
    February 20, 2011 3:09 pm

    Perfect for TG’s gift. She is one amazing girl and what a treasure she has in you to encourage her to keep her light shining bright.

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