When I was a kid, I hated being the youngest. I always had to wait another year, another grade, a little longer. Pierced ears, staying home alone, R movies, adult discussions. No phrase rubbed it in more than “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
If I had kept tabs on all the promises people were supposed to tell me when I got older, at some point in my life I was in for a windfall. The question was, when exactly was “older”? I waited and no one ever sat me down and revealed to me all the answers I had been waiting for. Why couldn’t I read Forever by Judy Blume? Her other books were OK. What did two numbers have to do with sex? Why did I have to leave the room during “Romancing the Stone”? Boy, being a kid just really stunk sometimes.
I remember my sister and her friend watching “Vacation” in another room one night. I was too young to see it. I could hear them laughing—howling. Then they kept talking about it. “Hey, remember the part about the aunt?” And they would hold their stomachs and laugh and gasp for air.
“What?! What?!” I’d say. “What about the aunt?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
It was the quickest way to shut me up and send me stomping to my room in a huff, laughter burning my ears.
And it wasn’t just my sister. Everyone did it. When you’re the baby in the family, no one sees your age. Aunts, grandparents, older cousins—no one wants you to grow up. They want you to stay young forever. Forget that you could actually know something.
I remember my dad talking to his buddies one night and he belted out a string of German from his time living there. I had never heard him speak so much German and asked what it meant.
“It means ‘none of your business,’” he said to an audience of laughter. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
But those answers never came. I had to watch “Vacation” myself one day. I had to read Forever in college one break to understand the hubbub when my mom found out my sister read it. And I could never remember the German phrase. It was all a lot of disappointment.
I did luck out once though. One time not asking anything at all helped a lot of things click into place. I fear I never would have learned the birds and the bees if I hadn’t pretended to be asleep at one of my sister’s sleepovers. When conversation got interesting, someone whispered, “What about Karen?”
“Oh, she’s asleep.”
I’ve never been so still for so long in my entire life. But I got an earful that night. I got the entire scoop via whispering tweens in our neighbor’s den.
As an adult, a parent, I think that still rings true. Sometimes the more you ask, the less you know, the more someone else holds back. Sometimes it’s best to let the answers come to you.
If I’m quiet enough, if I listen, I find that they do.
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