I cried when I watched Disney’s Toy Story 3. Andy had grown up and was leaving for college. When Andy gave Woody, Buzz, and his other treasured toys to that special little girl, I thought of my favorite childhood toys – the American Girl dolls, Cinderella Barbie, and Breyer Horses – boxed up in the basement. “I’m never giving up my toys!” I promised myself.
I soon found myself packing my belongings that I wanted to take to college with me. And, like Andy, I wasn’t taking my toys. I told myself at the time that I was only leaving for a short period of time. I’d go back home, and everything would be the same as it always was. But an aching sadness tinged with the anticipation that frequently accompanies change plagued me. The pit of my stomach told me what my head would not admit.
The night before I left for school, my belongings stood in a pile on the floor like the stone monuments the Israelites built to commemorate important events in their history. Whether I admitted it or not, I was standing on one of those life thresholds that we look back on as markers for change. On one side lay my childhood. On the other, the path to adulthood.
Growing up happens. We can’t escape it. Some people charge forward through the threshold to adulthood. Some, like myself, linger at the gate wishing with Peter Pan that we would never grow up.
But sometimes life shoves you, ready or not, through the gate.
Almost two years ago, life events started to push me through. One of my sisters got married and is now expecting her first child. My other sister has become engaged. My baby brother turned eighteen and will soon graduate from high school. My family moved from my childhood home of ten years. And I moved to college.
Sometimes it seems like I should still be playing paper dolls with sisters or pretending to be pirates with my brother, our faces painted with devious twirly mustaches.
I grew up watching Little Women and read all three of the books in Louisa May Alcott’s series. I always identified more with Jo than the other sisters. Meg was too ladylike, Beth too demure, and Amy too spoiled. Jo, like myself, had tomboy tendencies and a bad habit of speaking too frankly. And Jo also struggled with growing up.
After Jo refused Laurie’s proposal and Aunt March chose Amy to go to Europe, Jo’s struggle peaked. Exasperated, she cried to Marmee, “I love our home, but I’m just so fitful and I can’t stand being here! I’m sorry, I’m sorry Marmee. There’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I – can’t.”
Marmee gently encouraged Jo to walk through change’s threshold and embrace her adulthood. Jo left for New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But her dream didn’t become a reality until she returned home and Beth’s death forced her to reexamine childhood memories. Afterwards, she wrote her book, Little Women, based on her childhood. Jo needed her childhood to achieve her dreams.
Like Jo, we need our childhood to achieve who we are. After all, it shapes us and forms us. While playing paperdolls with my sisters or pirates with my brother may not have taught me any important skill in and of themselves, my siblings and I formed unshakeable friendships and cultivated our imaginations. We also learned the art of diplomatic negotiations and the value of out of court settlement (i.e. do anything but tell Mom and Dad).
Our childhood also shapes our dreams. I grew up playing cowboys and Indians and working on either our or my grandparents’ farm. I learned a healthy appreciation for hard work and play. And, though I hope someday to be a writer, my biggest dream has been shaped by my childhood experiences: someday I want to have a farm with as many horses as I can ride and enough land to free graze animals.
And, I think we need to keep some of our childhood to an extent. Our adult lives need a piece of childhood’s innocence and mirth. As children, we dream of becoming adults. And as adults, we look back nostalgically upon our childhood. But Peter Pan had a point. Horseplay, imagination, and wonder all have their place in adult lives as well.
I may not have packed up my childhood toys, and life might have pushed me through the change’s threshold. But I know the memories, lessons, and dreams from my childhood, more valuable than the toys or the childish games, will never leave me.