There is a picture on my desk that I look at every time I sit down to write.
I seem to be about four or five in the photo with amazingly terrible early '90s bangs. I am wearing a pink floral romper and holding on to a matching Easter basket. My sister is also in this picture with her arms draped around my shoulders, a matching romper, and rocking the same unfortunate bangs.
We are standing outside of the home we grew up in. The same home that my father was raised in. The home that I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to describe to my nieces and nephews and future children.
If I could only keep one photo of us, there is no question this would be the one.
Like many sisters, our mom dressed us in matching outfits for holidays. I'm not sure at what age it stopped, but I guess you can't match with your sister forever. (Although, I do still bring up the idea to my sister every year and she just laughs. She thinks I'm joking but, the truth is, I would wear matching pink rompers until we were 90 years old if she wanted to.)
The thing that stands out the most in this photograph though is our how undeniably happy we look.
My sister's smile is wide with pride and a hint of a protection—she was a mother long before she had children. Mine was widened with a bit of recklessness and lit up by an anxious kind of hope. I seem to be saying Bring on the day! While my sister's expression says Yes, but let's take our time.
Not much has changed.
As far as we were concerned, this was the best day of our lives—at least until the next holiday or special occasion rolled around.
Recently, I saw that same kind of smile on my sister's face. It was just like the one that is framed on my desk.
I was at her house for a barbecue, and we were sitting on the patio listening to music and drinking wine while the kids played. (Yes, her home is that Leave it To Beaver—it's just missing the white picket fence and we talk about real sh*t instead of the weather.) Our attention was redirected when my 4-year-old niece Lyla, put on her favorite song and announced that she was going to "dance for Jesus".
I don't care what religion you do or do not claim, if you saw this little angel dancing, you'd believe it really was for Jesus Himself.
We didn't reach for any cameras or phones. We just watched a little girl dance her heart out and right into our own.
Halfway through her little dance, I looked at my sister. She was watching her baby twirl and prance in the name of the purest kind of love and that's when I recognized that proud and protective smile on her face again.
It was one of those moments that really does slow time down, even if just for a second. Lyla ran and hugged my sister when she was done and I could've sworn I saw that same girl that had her arms draped around me in the picture.
I thought to myself: That little girl would be so proud of the woman she became.
When I sat down to write about this beautiful little moment, I picked up that picture and took a good look at myself. Would that wild and hopeful little girl be proud of who I have become? What kind of woman would she think me to be?
When we are little, adults like to ask us what we want to be when we grow up. Ballerinas, firefighters, animal doctors, superheroes—these are the usual answers. We see no limitations when we are young. We do not place barriers on the things we want. I think this is why adults ask children that question: to remind themselves of what it was like to think that way.
When we are teenagers, we are asked where we see ourselves in 10 years or what our future looks like at the age of 25. Fresh out of college with a degree, married or engaged, raising children, living in a beautiful house, traveling the world—these are the more common answers. We believe that they are going to happen because that's the way we have been taught to believe.
First high school, then college, then marriage, then babies, then travel—it's just how it goes.
So, what happens when it doesn't work out as planned? Do we torture ourselves with guilt until we are back on that track? Are we undeserving of the smiles we see in our old photographs?
I used to think so.
Let me note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with living a life that worked out in the order that you planned for it to. It takes a great amount of effort and discipline to get the things you desire early on in life. On the other hand, there is also nothing wrong with not knowing exactly what those things are. It's even more OK to change your mind on what those things are!
When I saw my sister's smile while she embraced one of her miraculous little creations, it made me wonder when I would rediscover my own.
You see, I don't have the house or the dream career or the kids or the husband or the patio or the traveling funds. Those things are not in my life even though I am at an age where they are expected to be. It makes it really easy to forget how to put on that hopeful smile when I look at it this way.
But, just when you think you have every reason to sit in your own pity, the universe has a way of reminding you otherwise.
My youngest niece, Lane, came up to me later that evening and said, "Will you dance with me, Aunt Char?" I don't know about you, but an invitation from a 3-year-old to accompany them to a concrete dance floor is just about the greatest invitation one can receive. We were going to have to dance in the puddle that used to be my heart!
So, we stood in front of the stereo and we danced.
She grabbed my hands and we began to spin so fast that her little feet went up in the air. Everything around was a blur as we spun around and around—everything except her smile. She stared straight into my eyes the entire time laughing and squealing. She focused on me. I was the source of her joy.
And that's when I saw it. There was that wildly hopeful smile. She had borrowed it, and she was wearing it well. And, at that moment, I didn't need a mirror to know that mine looked just the same.
My niece didn't care that I didn't have all the things adults are expected to have.
To her, I was a worthy dance partner—the one she preferred, nonetheless. She simply knew that her Aunt Char likes to do silly things and make funny noises and go down little slides with her that were not made for her big booty. She saw what I have been beating myself up for so long just to get a glimpse of—that wild, hopeful and happy little girl.
Now when I look at that picture, I am going to do my best not to ask if she would be proud of the person I became, but rather the person I am becoming. Because I don't think that little girl cares about all of the "stuff" life has to offer. I think she would be proud to know that I am still searching for the good stuff of which life is made—still chasing the very dreams she dreamt.
By creating my own path and in my own time, I plan on giving the little girls in my life (including that little girl in the picture) plenty to smile about.