Girls become complicated people in a hurry

Posted by GT on October 8th, 2008 — Posted in Newspaper columns, Personal favorites

Originally published in October 2005, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Last week, our older girl cried while I read to her. The bedtime book had taken a distressing turn, but she didn’t want me to stop.

The book was “Anne of Green Gables” and we’d finally reached “The Reaper Whose Name is Death.” That’s the second-to-last chapter, when the course of our energetic heroine’s life is dramatically altered by the passing of her adopted father.

Never read the book? Neither had I, and we also hadn’t seen whatever “Green Gables” movies and TV shows there may be, so the century-old story was full of surprises. It charmed us right from the beginning, when Anne Shirley is adopted by the lonely Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, aging siblings who intend to take in a boy to help with chores around the house, but end up with a freckle-faced, flame-haired girl instead.

Matthew – who feels almost immediate affection for 11-year-old Anne at the book’s start – is a quiet, amiable character and my daughter was fond of him. Marilla, on the other hand, is hesitant. She resists taking Anne into their home, then treats her more strictly and stand-offishly than her brother. Even though Marilla soon grows to love Anne every bit as much as Matthew does, my daughter remained suspicious of the character’s harder edge.

So when Matthew’s heart gave out toward the novel’s end, my daughter soaked a cloth while crying.

I was glad I’d scanned ahead and warned her about what was coming – having that chapter hit her by surprise might have kept her up all night – but I still wondered whether I’d made a mistake reading this book at all.

My girl was crying not because she’d been injured, not because she was in trouble for breaking some rule, but because she felt bad that a character in a book had died. How could this be a good thing?

Stopping would make it worse, so I slugged through the chapter and her tears had tapered off by the end. Then she went to the living room, hugged my wife, and we returned to her bedroom to read the book’s final chapter so we could finish the night on a more upbeat note. Toward the end, she was laughing in all the appropriate places.

Wow. You girls sure develop into complex beings in a hurry.

It was just five years ago – five years ago today – that I first saw my older daughter. Like every healthy newborn, she was purple and crying. She’d worked herself into the wrong position in the womb and spent the last part of her development with her legs pointing up instead of down, and for weeks after her birth they continued to point the wrong way. I’d have to hold them down to change her diaper, then they’d spring back up when I let her go and her toes would tickle her ears.

Today, she’s tall for her age and quite thin. She loves her ballet classes, princesses and friends, she’s got a head start on the three R’s and she’s almost endlessly patient with the little sister who functions as a second shadow. She navigates Mommy and Daddy’s inconsistencies with enviable adaptability.

As I recall, weekday repeats of the “Batman” TV series and G.I. Joes were my primary concerns when I was 5. I doubt I would have thought twice about the death of any character in a book; maybe not even a death in real life unless it was someone very close. My focus was squarely on whether I liked what was directly in front of me.

Somehow, despite my continuing shortcomings, I’ve got this blessing of a birthday girl in my home, whose biggest infraction is to continue defying me on one persistent demand: Stop growing up.

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