[*tm: this is from one of my favorite essays "American Girl Crazy!" which is, of course, on Salon. It's about American Girl dolls, but also about the difficult job of being a parent, of wanting to keep your child young and innocent for as long as possible. It is also published in the excellent book Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves.]
Sometimes at night I lie awake and think about how fast time goes with children. For years adults said this to you and you never knew what it meant. And then you had children and the baby time was molasses slow and then it seemed to go faster and faster, and you could imagine far too clearly all the things your children, who are so sweet and full of blooming affection now, wouldn't want to do in just a few years time -- like hug you in public. I see the ridiculousness of brooding about the inevitable and desirable -- we want our children to grow up, which means, in part, away from us -- not to mention the not-even-here-quite-yet. But there it is. Talia's mother probably feels something like the same sentiment, and Talia probably senses it.
It's odd what will draw a child into history, and into history's particular way of vouchsafing a sense that our world is not the only world. And it's odd how we can't know or always plan for the edifying moments. Not long ago, on a trip to Boston, my husband and I and our two children wandered into a very old graveyard. It was a place I'd always liked when I'd lived near it in my early twenties -- a quiet place on a hill, with a view of the Boston Harbor, gleaming like a nickel in the sun. We had planned to stop there for a few minutes on our way to get pizza. But our children loved it and wanted to linger. The seven-year-old lay on his stomach in front of a stone and read the inscriptions as though he were cracking a code, which in a way he was. His younger sister traced the words with a long stalk of grass and rubbed her fingers over the little death's heads with wings that you see in old New England graveyards -- not quite angels, something harsher. They asked a lot of questions. What did the skeletons look like? Where were their souls? Where was their skin? Why were African Americans buried in a separate part of the cemetery? Why did people die so young then? What sort of a name was Hephzibah?
Children are like us, but they are not us. That's the thing we forget sometimes: that their world is in some sense ineffable for us, as passionately as we love them. And in that sense, imagining their inner lives -- as immediate as a horse's in some ways and yet much more mystical than mine -- is like imagining history. I can no more remember what it felt like to be four years old or seven, not really, than I can know what it felt like to be a person of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. I have little pictures, just as I do of history -- magic lantern slides, backlit, endlessly fascinating, and somehow just beyond my grasp. We've all heard that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Well, childhood is too. American Girl dolls are one way to visit both those foreign countries, I suppose. But every day my children surprise me with where they want to go, and how they want to get there.