I stood at the sink holding a dead chicken. Not an actual chicken. I mean, yes, it was an actual dead chicken, but not a ‘hey mom, hold this, why do you think it died?’ type of chicken (we live in the suburbs; chickens do not die of natural causes here). It was the raw, defeathered, roasting variety of dead chicken. The oven was hot at 450 degrees and tiny potatoes, peeled carrots, and sweet onions laid waiting on the bottom of my oft-used cast iron skillet, and I was holding my dead chicken at the very moment when a thought, in the form of my 17-year-old self, sauntered past my backside.
She brushed against my shoulder and made her way, slowly, deliberately, toward the kitchen table. She turned to me abruptly, gave a side-eye to the pile of shoes by the door, and then flicked a bright red manicured pointer finger through the small bowl of almonds sitting on the table. She’s both me at 17 and the me I thought I’d be (or at least one of the many possibilities of who I’d turn into when I grew up). When she found the very nut she was looking for, pinched it between her thumb and first finger and popped it into her mouth, she said, “Can you believe you know how to cook that chicken?”
I laughed at her. Because I really do know how to cook this dead chicken.
She turned on her heels (leopard print, kitten) and swayed into the living room, presumably to read a book (in French) and re-apply her lipstick, red, and wait there until she’d greet my husband when he got home from work.
My 17-year-old self loves to show up at times like this—when I haven’t showered and I’m in the oldest pants I own, in the middle of doing the most domestic of tasks. I smiled though, because she’s a friend—even if she gets saucy sometimes.
I slathered my dead chicken with olive oil and more salt than you’d expect, because this is how we like it. I made a recipe-less rub of spices, my eye and hand the only measuring utensils necessary, and used it to coat my chicken (over and under the skin).
Seventeen-year-old me sat on my couch and filed her nails while I put the skillet in the oven. I didn’t say it out loud, but she heard me: Not only am I handling a dead chicken, I know exactly how to season and roast it so that I, my husband, and my kids will enjoy eating it and ask for seconds.
From the living room, she looked up, wiped a wisp of hair from her forehead, shook her head slightly and, with a rueful smile, said, “Who are you?”
I have a sneaking suspicion that the older we get, the more we don’t believe our age. Instead of quantum-leaping across the space/time continuum, I think part of our brains stay at a fixed point in time while the rest of ourselves, our body and soul, continue to go on living.
For me, I’m still 17.
I don’t actually believe I’m the young woman with that acne, that body, with that laugh. I don’t think my minivan is my dad’s old Camry, purchased from him, in cash, for $1,700 (or was it $1,200?) that I saved up from babysitting and a part-time job at Old Navy.
I know I have children and a lawn mower and it’s me who makes the pancakes on a Saturday morning—even though the boyfriend I had back then became my husband.
Seventeen was full of ideas and potential and energy and age-appropriate responsibilities (not too little/not too much). I was hopeful, joyful, and felt like the world held endless possibility. I wasn’t a naive 17; I knew there was suffering and heartache in the world: in the sense that it happened to other people. When I was 17 I thought about living in Africa and that someday I’d have a horse and maybe a boat. I wanted to see the world and drink in its richness. Seventeen is when I didn’t have to be practical and so many roads looked like viable options. It’s when a midnight showing and a sleepover with friends were met with an enthusiastic Yes! Seventeen was fun.
Through the years, I’ve never shied away from telling anyone my true chronological age. I’m the one who shrugs her shoulders when I think about getting older. Don’t ask my why—maybe I never once heard my mother breathe a word of concern about getting older herself, maybe it’s because my full cheeks have always made me look younger than I actually am. Maybe because it’s felt somewhat of an accomplishment to confidently say “I’m 28,” “I’m 35,” (and what I’m saying as of this month) “I’m 40” and finally feel like my age has matched up with the weight of the knowledge I learned firsthand just after I turned 18: that life can hurt deeper than your very soul.
But still, the amount of responsibility I carry these days doesn’t feel right. I just can’t be the one in charge of all this: a home, a family, dinner (that I cook!) for people I gave birth to. I feel like I should have the responsibility of … well, a 17-year-old.
My 17-year-old self started to show up when paychecks, real ones, ones with more than two numbers to the left of the decimal point, were deposited into our bank account every two weeks. And she shows up now to roll her eyes at me but still hand over a cup of tea at 8:45 p.m. on a Thursday night before I crawl into bed to read. She’s popped into the passenger seat of the van, cracking her gum, sporting a high ponytail and cute sweats, the kind that look good on pre-baby bodies, during soccer carpool. She looks at me and says, “You know this is your minivan, right? And these are your kids.” And I take a deep breath, my hands at 10 and 2, and nod in silence—silence I can’t decide is shock or acceptance.
Five years ago, I called my daughter’s school. But instead of getting transferred to the assistant principal’s voice mail (yet again), to leave a lame message where I’d say “I have a concern” and get a phone call back saying “we hear you”—I insisted on speaking to the principal. When the principal called me back, responsively and promptly, I clearly and assertively told her my concern while my younger self sat right next to me on a chair and held my hand. Toward the end of the conversation, she stood up, took a step back, and held up a poster with royal blue writing that read, “YOU ARE CALLING YOUR CHILD’S PRINCIPAL! YOU ARE OFFICIALLY THE ADULT IN CHARGE!”
She also had my back a few years ago when I was questioned about a parenting decision of ours. My heart beat so strong dialing the number, but I knew I needed to address the situation. As I started to talk, 17-year-old me jumped up and down in the corner of my room, in a blue and gold cheerleading outfit (my high school’s colors), shaking pom-poms high in the air, mouthing “You can do it! You’re the adult!” She helped me feel so calm and confident, and I spoke into the phone, “... these are my children, they are my responsibility … ” She did a backflip when I hung up.
I’m turning 40 this month and yes—yes, I know: This really is my life. I’ve really grown three children in my actual body, I signed my name 4 million times on our mortgage papers, and yes—I’ve been more excited than I thought was ever possible about a new washer and dryer.
Yes, I am the mother, the lover, the wife, the nurse, the writer, the reader, the woman with more interests than she can keep up with. I am the kisser of invisible boo-boos, the dance party emcee, and the signer of permission slips. I am the saver, the spender, the chef, and the chauffeur, and I am the one who knows it’s a privilege to be able to do all these things and more.
As I enter a new decade, I invite my 17-year-old self to come and sit beside me, to look at my (our) life, and instead of acting shocked, I hope she’ll pat me on the hand and smile, because she finally gets it:
This really is my life, and I’m grateful.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.