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March 24, 2010

Scene: AJ’s bedroom, Sunday night after his family birthday party

Harriet: Goodnight, my almost-nine-year-old boy.

AJ: You can just call me nine. It’s only a couple of days.

Harriet: I’m not ready to call you nine. I want you to stay eight a little longer.

AJ: Why?

Harriet: Nine is too old. I like eight.

AJ: But what if nine is better?

Tomorrow, AJ turns nine. I am having a somewhat difficult time with this birthday. Some of it, no doubt, is due to his school’s financial quagmire and my fear that nine is not going to be a good year. But a lot of it is because nine was a pivotal year for me.

I turned nine in the summer of 1976. That summer is a bit of a blur. In my memory, it began with a bicentennial ceremony with my brownie troop in front of Connecticut’s Charter Oak. It included my first ever stint at sleep-away camp – Camp Takodah in New Hampshire, where I learned to shoot a bow and arrow, survived on bug juice and peanut butter, turned blue every morning in the ice-cold lake, made some stunningly ugly enamel jewelry, and learned all the words to “They built the ship Titanic” and “Late Last Night.” But the summer ended with the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me – my family’s moving to a whole new country. In my mind, nine was when I became a real person.

I learned we were moving when I was still eight. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. We’d moved a lot already. But moving to England was something entirely new. All of our things were packed up. We were able to choose just a few toys and books to tide us over until our furniture arrived by sea. My brother took his coonskin cap and his dog Spotty, a stuffed dalmation our great grandmother had made him. I brought Meg, a doll I’d received from the same great grandmother for my ninth birthday along with a hatbox full of clothes and jewelry she’d made to go with her. I also brought my new Kodak brownie camera. Most of the pictures I took were striped with exposure lines, because I couldn’t keep myself from opening the back to look inside.

After the long flight, we spent what seemed like hours in customs at Heathrow airport standing around. Eventually we went to a hotel where we spent our first night or two. I remember not sleeping well, too excited to start exploring. I woke when the garbage trucks rattled by the window in the predawn. I ran to the window to see if they looked different than American garbage trucks. The steering wheels were on the opposite side. The license plates were long instead of a tidy rectangle. It hadn’t occurred to me that the license plates would be different.

The next day, we were taken round to look at places to live by a tall estate agent. All five of us piled into his mini like clowns in a circus car and he drove us from place to place. I remember at one point my brother and I being left alone to play in the garden while the adults went inside to examine yet another flat. We explored the grounds and were fascinated by the pebbles, which looked nothing like pebbles we’d ever seen before. We filled our pockets with them. I still have a couple around here somewhere.

The chronology gets a little dim from there. We moved to a furnished flat without central heating for a few months while our belongings were held hostage by a dockworkers’ strike. We eventually moved into what was probably the best place I ever lived, a flat in a regency-era palace on Regent’s Park. And my world opened up. Every morning, by brother and I took a coach bus, chaperoned by a kind woman named Joan, to our school on the other side of the park. I loved that school. I made friends fast. I got to take violin lessons at school (from one of the best teachers I ever had, with whom I recently got back in touch via f@ceb00k). I was fascinated by the playground wall built like a fortress, with broken glass embedded at the top. I learned to avert my eyes on the days when beef tongue was in the lunch buffet. I aced every spelling test and made sacrifices of my spelling list each week with my friends Tre and Laura, the other top spellers in our class, tearing our lists up into miniscule pieces over the trash can before the test. I practiced recorder in music class. I spent my spare change at the sweets cart at the edge of the grounds, often buying crème eggs just to watch what they looked like when you smashed them on the sidewalk. But the thing I liked best was the freedom I had gained from leaving a Connecticut suburb, where I was limited by my parents’ schedule and how far I could ride my bike, to a city with public transportation. I quickly learned every inch of the enormous park across the street from us. I took the subway to and from my orthodontist’s and my school by myself. I took the shopping trolley to the grocers in the street behind to pick up things for my mother and watched as the grocer retrieved things from the top shelves with a clamp on a long pole. I took my brother to the playground and the movie theater that showed matinees of Disney movies on Saturdays. I reveled in my own autonomy.

AJ isn’t quite at that point yet. He wants autonomy, but he also likes it when people do things for him or at least keep him company. He hasn’t quite got the drive yet to break out on his own. And I’m not entirely sorry about that, although I sometimes wonder if I’m doing him a disservice by not encouraging it more. But he, too, is poised for action in his own way. I wish I could take him somewhere exciting so that he can try his wings.

In the mean time, AJ is counting down the minutes. This morning he informed me that “today is the last day I will ever be a single digit even number.”

Oh, dear. Do you know what horrifies me even more than nine? TEN.

In honor of AJ’s birthday, I have a request from all of you: what is your best memory of being nine? I asked this question of freshhell last week and she has already responded. Leave your memories or links to your posts in the comments.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2010 1:53 pm

    About two months after I turned nine, I went into fourth grade, and it was a horrible year. My teacher got together with my parents and the elementary school librarian and forbid me the use of the school library, in the hope that I would do something in school besides read whatever I picked up (and ignore the teacher). Didn’t work, of course. I had nothing like the kind of autonomy you describe in England, but I ferreted out reading material.

  2. freshhell permalink
    March 24, 2010 6:11 pm

    Here’s what I’ve learned about nine: modesty rears its head. Suddenly, I’m made to leave the room when Dusty changes clothes, we can’t share a stall in a public bathroom anymore (something she used to insist on), and when the new bathing suit arrived, off she ran to her room to try it on. Sigh.

  3. March 24, 2010 7:00 pm

    I don’t remember nine, except my teacher’s name, Mrs Horrine. Does that mean it was a terrible year and I’ve repressed it? I don’t actually remember much of my childhood, at least not by age. Maybe my brain has rotted.

  4. Elizabeth permalink
    March 24, 2010 7:35 pm

    I was nine the summer US astronauts walked on the moon. I remember the day especially well because I’d fallen from the top of a pretty high slide. I had the bright idea to put sand under my sneakers for friction and then skiing down the slide. I talked my eight year old brother into skiing with me and we had a blast until I didn’t put enough sand under my feet, and I caught a toe on the slide and tumbled to the ground. I scared myself silly too because I knocked the wind out of myself.

    So we limped home and laid around on the day beds in the basement while we watched the very grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong took his first steps.

  5. Ron permalink
    March 24, 2010 8:47 pm

    At nine, I got a bright green bike with a banana seat. I was kicked out of the cub scouts for being too disruptive. I snuck into the University of Kansas stadium and played football on the impossibly green field. Daily, I ran among a pack of other nine-year-olds behind Jim Ryun, who at the time was the world record holder in the mile. I almost had an irrevocable split with my best friend because he intentionally killed grasshoppers. I found out the pleasures of building model ships, learning Morse code and reading Nancy Drew. I maxed out my library checkouts every week (10 books). I saw my first steak. I ate wild apricots and wild asparagus. I saw my first two movies: The Jungle Book and The Yellow Submarine. Nine is a time of deep and continuous memory.

  6. LSM permalink
    March 24, 2010 9:10 pm

    I love this post. One of my goals is to allow my kids to experience the benefits of independence, and it’s nice to be reminded of that. You’ve inspired me to think more about my own third-grade experiences. Hopefully, I’ll come up with a post soon.

  7. March 24, 2010 10:33 pm

    Happy birthday to AJ! My memories aren’t specific enough to know which belong to nine as opposed to eight or ten. I did enjoy reading yours, though.

  8. March 25, 2010 11:14 am

    Thanks to you all. These are so wonderful. Jeanne, I’m gobsmacked by your story. Who would do such a thing? Freshhell, for us that started around 8. But maybe it’s the boy/girl thing. Jill, if I’d had a teacher like that, I would have remembered her name too. My fourth grade teacher was Mrs. Dugdale. She was tiny with brown hair and enormous glasses that made her look like a bug. Or at least, that’s how I remember her. Elizabeth, that’s an amazing story. Watching the moonwalk is one of my earliest memories. Ron, yours is downright poetic. LSM, I look forward to reading it. And Julia, I think the only reason I remember things so well is that we moved so often. I can identify years clearly because of where they took place. Don’t ask me about the last 10 years, though. I won’t be able to tell you.

  9. March 25, 2010 12:43 pm

    I turned 9 in the middle of fourth grade. I liked my fourth grade teacher, but I never ever once opened my phonics work book – it was untouched at the end of the school year. On the last day of school, we had a party and got to tear up all of the paper in the classroom. I was thrilled to destroy my untouched work book, and thereby destroy the evidence that I hadn’t done any of that work. Thrilled.

  10. LSM permalink
    March 25, 2010 6:05 pm

    Mine’s up now. Happy birthday, AJ!


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