Ignore the lovely IV, my big zit, and my double chin, please. But I did have my nails did. Priorities.
We have been parents to Eleanor for nine years now. NINE YEARS. Nine years is a freakin’ long time. Nine years pre-dates the Obama years and the iPhone. Oprah was the queen and Ellen had barely gotten started, Friends and Sex and the City had only just gone off the air, and no one had even heard of the Kardashian sisters. Nine years ago, Abu Ghraib was in the news and Abu Nazir hadn’t been created. Miley Cyrus was not only not parading about half-naked, having split definitively from her Disney days, she hadn’t even begun her rise to
infamy stardom, given that Hannah Montana wouldn’t premiere until 2006. Nine years is definitely before Starbucks graced the world with the wonder of the Salted Caramel Mocha.
NINE YEARS, people. Hot damn.
Over the course of those nine (!) years, I thought I knew Ella pretty well. I mean, I’m her mom and all, and we mothers know these things. She’s also a pretty decent conversationalist, so she’s told me a lot about herself, like how she used to dig broccoli but now she really doesn’t care for it, and how she thinks it’s crap that the snow pile in our circle is spread out in a round instead of in a big tall heap, and how she can make any number of different Rainbow Loom creations, but the triple single is one of her favorites.
I also know the things she doesn’t say, like how she prefers to be the first one downstairs in the morning because she enjoys having the house to herself. Nick and I have known forever that change is very difficult for her, and whenever we have guests or go away or Daddy’s out of town, she will react poorly or even become downright mean. I know that, for as much as she yells at me to leave her alone when she’s frustrated or angry, there are times when she desperately wants me by her side, regardless of what she says.
And so it came as quite a shock this fall to see Ella develop into an entirely different person right before our eyes, to blossom so fully and completely, she was almost a new kind of flower all together. First, came the swim team. Ella has always adored swimming, being able to swim on her own when she was three (“mermaid girl,” we called her), but this swim team thing was not at all the same as frolicking about at the lake or taking lessons at the Y.
Ella’s not inactive by any means – she likes getting outside and, as Nick would put it, blowing the stink off, and she’s done dance and gymnastics in the past, but these were always once-weekly classes, not teams, and were over with in an hour and then not thought of again until the following week. With swim team, there were honest-to-goodness weeknight practices, something I didn’t experience until I joined the cross country team in high school. Let’s just say I didn’t really add too much to the team, and even then I avoided or minimized actual practicing at all costs, so wanting to attend practice as often as possible is a foreign experience for me.
It’s not just the frequency of the practices that have made a difference in Ella, though, it’s the entire atmosphere surrounding being part of the team. She is becoming herself — Eleanor 9.0 — a deeper, truer version than Eleanor 8.0 and its previous iterations. She’s gotten to know the other swimmers (the vast majority of whom do not attend her school) and has actually been initiating conversations with them. On her own! Even when her best friend isn’t there! She’s worked up her courage to ask her coaches questions, where previously, she’d just ignore what was bothering her or would beg Nick or me to step in.
We didn’t know how meets would go; would they be too much pressure? Would they make swimming about competing, rather than swimming for swimming’s sake, and take all of the fun out of it? Nope. Ella loves meets. No pressure – once she hits the water, she comes alive. (Once I hit the water, I’d drown. Sometimes the apple falls very, very far from the tree.) Working to beat her own prior times? BRING IT ON.
We’d been nervous that, if she didn’t swim as well as the other kids in her age group, she’d quit – stick-to-it-ness isn’t exactly her forte. But no, she’s not intimidated or disheartened if they swim faster than her. Sometimes, she doesn’t give one whit, caring only about how fast she, herself, swam, and whether or not she dropped her time from the previous meet. Other times, she cares a lot about what the other kids have done – and is absolutely thrilled for her teammates and their accomplishments.
She’s become so much more confident in herself and her abilities. She feels strong and capable and worthy and comfortable in her own skin. Sure, she still struts and strikes a supermodel pose in front of the mirror, checking out her earrings and throwing her hair over her shoulder, but she also now flexes her muscles and admires the lines and the newfound strength she sees before her. It’s been pretty fabulous.
Despite being underwater half the time, it’s as though, by swimming, Ella’s finally come up for air, and is taking the deepest, to-her-toes breaths imaginable, being filled to her core. About a month or so ago, I told her how much I enjoyed watching her swim, because she seems to enjoy swimming so much. Her reply? “Mommy, I just love it. I can’t quite explain it, but when I’m in the water… I’m me.”
The parenting books do not prepare you for comments like that.
Our girl has discovered what makes her feel the most like herself, and it is confounding and awe-inspiring and awesome.
The other thing that changed Ella this fall was Harry Potter. I know… I’ve written about it a lot. But, if you could see how thoroughly Harry has taken over every aspect of our lives, you’d know that I’ve only barely scratched the surface of Harry-mentions. You don’t have to thank me, but I know you’re thinking it.
Back in September, full of Mommy-knows-best-itis, I’d said I was sure that Ella was done reading the series – the ending of the first book had frightened her so much, she didn’t want to go on, and Nick and I supported her decision. Naturally, the next day she took my smugness and wiped the floor with it, as she began the second book at school. She is now about 30% of the way through the seventh – and final – book, and the ways that reading this series have affected her are nothing short of remarkable.
The most tangible effect is that Eleanor is as bitchy and moody as a sullen teenager. Fantastic, right? Harry Potter rocks! She snaps at us at only the slightest provocation, is surly at utterly inexplicable times, and has occasionally been so grumpy, so ugly, so yucky to be around, we’ve wondered if there was something seriously wrong with her. Perhaps losing Grandpa Bill made her sadder than we’d realized?
While that’s certainly possible, I am all but sure now – after months of observation, many discussions with Nick, and expressing my confusion and frustration to my therapist – that Harry and his world have seeped so deeply into Ella’s very being, she can hardly extricate herself from it. She wants nothing more than to crawl inside the books and live there, right in a four-poster outside of the Gryffindor common room. She doesn’t read about Hermione’s exploits and adventures; she is Hermione going on adventures.
This is thrilling for her (she’s told us so many, many times), but also, I imagine, must be quite unnerving. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen, beyond that either Harry or Voldemort will have to die at the hand of the other, but she does know that any of the characters she’s come to adore could be killed off at any moment, which is terribly unsettling for her… and yet, it prompts her to want to read more, to learn more, every minute of the day.
There was a time when we debated taking the books away from her. They’d become so all-consuming, we were afraid she’d get lost inside of them; and, in the meantime, we were being greeted by a snarling, grouchy, anxious girl where our formerly even-tempered, kind, sweet-hearted Ella used to be. But we eventually came to understand that she needs to finish these books; no, I mean it, actually needs to. They are fully real to her, so authentic and true that she can smell them, and as with anything in real life, unfinished business is uncomfortable indeed. She will not fully exhale until she knows what happens, for better or for worse.
And until then, we’re all holding our collective breath. (Collective breaths? The grammar fails me on this one…)
It’s not all bad, this Harry-consumption. As avid fans ourselves, Nick and I have loved taking the journey with her, loved watching our home go from impromptu dance recitals to imagined spell-casting and wizarding duels. Through reading, Ella’s learned a hell of a lot about friendships, about determination, about what people can do when they band together. She’s seeing firsthand – again, because this is so real to her – that love wins. In the end, no matter what you’ve lost, no matter how dark and bleak things have seemed… Love. wins.
She’s also seeing magic in every aspect of her life, which makes just about anything possible. There are no closed doors, nothing that can’t be done. What an amazing thing to feel, to believe, to know about the world. I’m more than a little envious.
For nine years, we’ve known our Ella. She is empathetic, almost to a fault, crying for the victims of far-away tsunamis and tornadoes and requesting that we send money to disaster relief organizations. She is smart, ahead of her grade level benchmarks in virtually every subject, but hurrying through her work, making sloppy mistakes, and giving up the moment something becomes too challenging. She is an excellent cook, having already created several of her own recipes. She still holds my hand when we’re out running errands, and asks to be checked on twice at night before she goes to sleep. A bit silly for nine? Perhaps. But I have no plans to stop.
As with Annie’s collage, I somehow skipped 2012, so there’s no “Eight years of Ella” collection… Ah, well. I am utterly stupendous in so many other ways, why be perfect at everything?
She is a darn good friend, putting the other person first, asking questions, being genuinely interested in the answers. She is neat and tidy, freaking out when things in her room are out of place, but leaves her jacket on the front hall floor every day. She still loves Disney and thinks that Maleficent is the greatest villain of all time. She adores her sister with a passion that is unrivaled, but shrieks the moment that Annie crosses into her bedroom uninvited.
She is our Ella Bella, our E-Bean, and we have known her so completely… Or so we thought. This fall, she showed us sides of her personality that even she didn’t know existed before, and now here she is, still her, but oh so much more so.
Eleanor 9.0, it’s damn fine to meet you. I’m so glad you found yourself. And I’m even gladder (yes, I said it) that you shared your discoveries with us. Happiest 9th Birthday, Eleanor Elizabeth. xo
* This was to have been published yesterday, on her birthday, but sweet girl was sent home from school sick, and although she (thankfully) felt good for the rest of the day, getting this post out on time just wasn’t happening.