beauty


We’re late. I clutch my daughter’s hand tightly as we hurry up the stairs to the railway platform, partly because that’s the way she likes it (‘tighter, Mummy, don’t let go!’) but mostly because I know that if I do let go she will probably start zigzagging up the stairs or hopping or…something, something that will, invariably, make us even more likely to miss our train.

But when we’re halfway up something makes me pause. My daughter, stopped mid-hop, tugs at my hand, and for a moment we teeter between steps. But my attention is caught and so we remain where we are, halfway up the stairs, and halfway to missing our train.

Two young women are moving towards us. They look about fifteen or sixteen and I watch as their hips swing, their bodies sway and their hair bounces with each step. They sashay down the stairs and I can hear their light laughter trickling out behind them as they pass. They are gorgeous creatures and I wonder that such beings exist in the same world as a harried mother and her bouncing child hurrying for the train.

My daughter tugs once more on my hand, and admonishes me for my tardiness. We’ll be late, she says, hurry up, and so we do, catching our train and continuing on with our afternoon of buying new shoes and returning library books. But my mind keeps returning to those two girls who appeared like a vision before us in what is otherwise an ordinary afternoon.

I think back to when I was that age. Did I ever sashay? I don’t believe I did, except in front of the mirror. At sixteen I was painfully shy, wrapped up in my world of music lessons, books and family. I picture a snapshot of me standing in front of our house, shoulders round and hair frizzy as I attempt to smile at the camera while at the same time practicing the art of invisibility. No, I didn’t sashay.

But what I realise now is that I was every bit as beautiful as those two girls tripping past us at the railway station. My hair might not have bounced or my hips have swayed, but I was beautiful. It was the beauty of youth, of promise, of hope. It was the beauty of an awkwardly sweet mix of certainty and uncertainty. Adult life, at this stage, was nothing more than a delicious rumour.

For an observer, it’s the light in your eyes, however much they might be lowered, that tells the world you are just about to take your first exploratory steps. This is it. This is the beginning. Like a caterpillar breaking it’s way out of a cocoon, here you are, on your way to being transformed, taking small bites out of your childhood and leaving your girlhood behind.

At fifteen or sixteen time seems to almost stand still. Caught between childhood and adulthood, neither is within reach, yet while we strive towards one the other just won’t let go, like a hook caught in the back of a shirt, leaving arms and legs pumping comically. Yet, ever so slowly, we inch forward, until adulthood seems almost within our grasp, if only we can stretch our arms out just that little bit further.

At this age there is no end point in sight. Life stretches endlessly. The concept of growing old and all the attending prejudices that come with it just don’t exist. Skin is firm, limbs strong and eyes bright. Children are what our mothers had, and we are still almost children ourselves, our favourite toys lingering in our closets, under the bed or keeping a fond and watchful eye from a shelf while we sleep.

I don’t think then that I had any idea of the power of youth, the sheer potential in every step I took, something that would never be quite as strong again. But at that age, I was also still mostly free of the weight of choice, the knowledge that every decision brings yet more decisions, that every choice has a price, that disappointment and regret will become as familiar as my own face. My mother and I waged fierce battles. How dare she interfere in my life or try to impose her own outdated values? What right did she have to choose for me? I longed for the day when my decisions would be my own to make.

And now I find myself making choices for my daughter. She’s still only small, but it’s easy to imagine her in a few years time feeling the same way about the decisions I make on her behalf. I think of her stamping her feet now because I say it’s bedtime or because I tell her there’s not enough time to play hide and seek before kindergarten, and I smile. She’s testing the waters, dipping a toe in the world of independence and already conscious that there is a whole world out there, even if, for now, it is mostly make believe.

Thinking about those two girls I also understand now that the beauty found in youth might not last forever, but that there is a greater beauty that comes with experience, with life. It’s the beauty of confidence, of inner strength, of knowing that you are who you are yet can still be loved and love despite and because of this.

As I looked back at the two girls that afternoon I clutched my daughter’s hand just that little bit more tightly. Her hand is so small, so deliciously squishy that sometimes I want to place one of her fingers between my teeth and gently bite, or kiss the palm of her hand, feeling her soft still baby-like skin on my lips. The feel of her hand in mine is something I experience daily yet I know that the day will come when she stops automatically slipping her hand in mine, no matter how often my own hand is outstretched, or doesn’t come running for a cuddle just because I open my arms. And that, of course, is how it should be.

One day, she will sashay or bounce or zigzag down some steps with a friend, the sound of their laughter trickling out behind them. And perhaps there will be someone like me to hear them and watch in wonder and think back to the days when she was fifteen or sixteen. And perhaps, when my daughter is my age and with a child of her own, she will think on beauty and wonder that it can exist in so many different ways, each as beautiful as the other.