On the night before my tenth birthday, my dad came to tuck me in to bed last. I got to choose to be last by virtue of being the first to pass tooth-inspection and, although as my littlest sister reminded me just recently, last was not always the most advantageous choice if “Daddy-time” was what you craved, last was super if you had a good book going.
The next day would be my birthday; fat chance I wouldn’t get plenty of talking-time with Dad that night, last was the only choice for me. I was reading Little Women again, trying to get it through my thick head that, as the oldest of three girls it was my lot, like Meg’s, to be pretty and to long to be fashionable, to marry a nice man and settle down, to learn to cook, make jellies, keep house, and be content.
Lordy, lordy I wanted to be Jo. I wanted to write stories in the attic, to keep a pet rat, direct and act the dramatic parts in plays, and have Laurie Lawrence fall in love with me because I was wildly courageous and unconventional.
I had to be honest though about the fact that I was probably much to shy and afraid of everything to give a convincing Jo.
Maybe that is what we talked about that night when Dad came to tuck me in. I don’t remember. I’m sure he gave me the Birthday Lecture. He gave us the Birthday Lecture every year, and every year I was surprised that he remembered - I didn’t. It started like this:
“Daughter dear, tomorrow you will be ten years old. This is a milestone in your life and those are always good for looking back and assessing. Was there something you always wanted to do when you were nine? If so, and you haven’t done it, you have missed your chance forever. Tonight is the last night of your ninth year, and you will never, ever be nine again.”
You may think this sounds depressing, but it wasn’t. Daddy delivered the birthday lecture with such a philosophical face that you couldn’t help but consider the actuality of it, and should there have been even a hint of regret, we would have all resolved to pay more attention and do right by our next year.
“But, eldest daughter of mine,” he would continue, “tomorrow you will be ten years old! Think of it: Double Digits! Nearly a teenager! And you will have an entire year, three hundred sixty-five days, to make your dreams come true. Everything you have dreamed — all your life — of doing when you are finally ten will be within your grasp when you wake up in the morning. Reach for your dreams.”
Is it any wonder that I was still calling him on the telephone the night before I turned thirty-eight? He did his best, but the time difference meant that he was delivering a late-night lecture before his breakfast, and if he couldn’t seem to muster the grandness and enthusiasm I remembered from those birthdays long ago, who could blame him - he had delivered the birthday lecture by then at least one hundred and one times. My dream of becoming Jo instead of Meg felt very far away when I hung up the phone.
I didn’t make it that year. Or the next year, or the next five years. Maybe, though forty-six to forty-seven is my lucky number. I’m still shy and afraid of pretty much everything - but these days I’m more afraid of being afraid and running out of time before I experience my Jo-hood.