I am turning 18 in a few days and legally my childhood will be over.
As college looms, I can almost feel the shoving. The pushes to make a schooling decision. The nudges to graduate and free up some space at Shawnee Mission Wonderful. The one friendly jab I don’t appreciate is the jab to grow up.
Childhood is powerful and I’m not quite ready to give it up. Mine wasn’t cinematic; I didn’t battle the monsters from my closet or revolutionize medicine. My youth has been incredibly happy, incredibly normal and incredibly, well, uninspiring. But through the monotony observed by the outside world, I have had the thrill of a lifetime. And for that I am forever indebted to my parents.
There aren’t too many of us out there that can say we had a childhood that was truly remarkable to the outside world, and that is what makes it so surreal.
How can something so simple, so carefree, be so complex and mystifying?
The following anecdotes exemplify all that childhood has held for me.
One of my favorite parts of coming home late at night as a little kid was the magic of falling asleep in one place and waking up in another. I have always been a drifter, weaving in and out of sleep when driving, with longer distances between the awakenings each time.
I would start off in a car seat or booster chair in the backseat and end up in my bed, pajamas on, a silhouette leaving my room. On occasion, I would wake up pulling into the driveway and experience how my parents managed to get my brother and me inside without waking us. Each parent would take a kid, carry us through the house, trying to avoid the creaking wooden floorboards, whispering to each other on which drawer had pajamas, the bottom or top?
The silhouettes I became so accustomed to seeing are still there for me but in a few months, I will become accustomed to a new silhouette, my roommate.
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If you screech, the world will hear you.
The whole condo complex was my world, and they all heard my sudden outburst. My family and I had made it down the five stories of stairs of our family’s Florida condo to the gravel road, preparing to head off to the beach. My dad, mom and brother waved up happily to our neighbor on the third floor who was freeing sand on a rug by shaking out over his balcony. He temporarily rested the rug on the rail, waved and shouted to us: “See you later, suckers!”
My parents laughed, and continued walking while I stood frozen on the spot. Without hesitation, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “See you later, f-!” (Hint: it rhymed with suckers) My parents froze, dropping buckets, shovels, beach chairs and coolers. My neighbor had dropped the rug off the balcony. Other neighbors came out onto their balconies, all gaping at me with amazed looks on their faces.
“What did you say?” my dad asked. “What was that?”
As a four year old, I had no clue as to what I had said; I had never even been exposed to the word’s existence. All I knew was, it rhymed with sucker, so what could be wrong with that? From my four years experience, I knew that adults in my life rhymed things to make them funny, so why shouldn’t I be able to?
My mom took the safer approach on discovering the source of the word, “Rebecca, tell me where you learned that.” When I shrugged my shoulders, explained the rhyming method and lost interest, the scare was over. Little did my parents know that this was only one bullet they would dodge in their daughter’s language habits.
I learned that words mattered that day. What I said would be heard. It doesn’t seem remarkable now: speak and they will listen. The power of expression had come through loud and clear.
Like most people, I love family gatherings. For several years, every Brownlee family member that either lived or traveled to Kansas City for Thanksgiving would meet up the day after at a crummy Mexican restaurant.
We have quite the range of people. There are several men are over 6’7’’, a former state senator, a candy company owner, former college athletes and pretty much everything else mixed in. I have been exposed to nearly every American lifestyle in these meetings.
“There aren’t too many of us out there that can say we had a childhood that was truly remarkable to the outside world, and that is what makes it so surreal. How can something so simple, so carefree, be so complex and mystifying?”
I grew up knowing what the world held for different people. I knew about tax returns, college acceptance rates and decisions made for our state in Topeka from an early age. The Brownlee family isn’t one to hold back on the truth. All the cards are on the table and more often than not, people would clear out when they saw the pack of 40 loudly enter a normally calm establishment. (When I say they usually left, I meant they always did, in the end. If you saw a seven foot tall man enter a restaurant, swat at the ceiling fan and then demand to be seated in the section right next to you, how would you react?)
This day was always a big one, the day where I got my extra enlightenment. The knowledge of an adult would enter my naive mind, and let me tell you, I was not ready to process a lot of the information. Driving home that night, my imagination would soar.
“Second cousin Karin has to pummel her opponents to do a good job in Topeka? Bobby is secretly Willy Wonka? Does Mike have to take medicine to stay so tall?”
The little Mexican restaurant on the corner, with low ceilings and bad food will be one of those places I look back on and realize that I have learned more about life during these family created holidays than nearly any other. The exposure, the stimulation to put myself out there and accept other walks of life, those aren’t things you can teach a child without hands on experience.
With any luck, a few decades down the line I’ll be at another reunion. It won’t be for my family in the Mexican restaurant. It’ll be the East reunion. I will have white hair, wrinkles and a few more checks off the bucket list. My goal, my dream, is to maintain the attitude I have held onto for 18 years: more than anything I long to be a child at heart.