Letter to Four Year Old Holly From Forty Year Old Holly:
You will never forget the smell of lightning bugs in Hellman’s mayonnaise jars with holes poked in the tin tops so they could breathe, a stick and a few blades of grass arranged like garnish, for their comfort. But you will stop reaching for them, making your palms a cup, pouring them gently into their new home so you could watch them blink until they surprised you by dying. Their bellies don’t stop lighting up when they die. It’s worse. The glow preservers but weakens. They stop blinking. You learn that whatever it is that keeps them alive darkens last.
You will inherit your mother’s legs. They are long, but you will be a terrible soccer player. You will also not become a ballerina. I’m sorry about that. But in the kitchen, you will use the handle of the oven to plie while inside something bakes for someone you love who will later break your heart.
The chicken pox won’t be nearly as terrifying as you thought. Just itchy. You will love gameshows for a whole week.
When you are ten you will write a love poem to Charlie Holloway and your teacher will read it to the entire class and make an announcement that you are all too young to love anyone like that. On the other hand, by ten you will have written that poem using “roses are red and violets are blue” and only you knew that you were being ironic. Only you. You will keep many secrets to yourself. You will turn them into better poems and you will hope that you have obscured yourself just enough to become widely read, but revealed something private to the only person who rhymes with blue.
On your first date, you will see a movie called Hairspray. You will forget that you have an open box of cinnamon candy in your lap, and they will spill everywhere when you stand up. This embarrassment is almost as unbearable as the fourth grade love poem. So, you will pack up all of your stuffed animals in boxes and move them out of your room. Of course, then you will move them back in, and apologize to each of them individually. You know you will have to pack them up again someday. Their soft souls have ripened to cotton stuffing. But not yet, holly. They’re still glowing.
At thirteen, you will make a big mistake that involves a hair permanent, blue eye shadow, and a naive understanding of the length of you uniform skirt. But you will roll your skirt until someone can hem it. You will take an iron to your hair and straighten yourself out. I wish I could tell you that you asserted yourself and didn’t care what everyone thought, but you did. Don’t worry. Later, this self-consciousness will evolve into compassion. You still owe an apology to at least three old friends who didn’t care about your awkward appearance for dropping them in favor of gaining popularity. At least that many people owe you apologies for bullying you in to it.
You will start drinking vodka. You will wear Doc Martens and smoke Marlboros and dye your hair black. Your English teacher will be concerned. You let him read the short stories you don’t tell anyone else you write everyday when you get home from school instead of doing homework. You will disappoint your father deeply for getting a C in history. He will learn to sigh when you start to fail math.
Everyone will think you’re a lot of fun at parties, but comment on how you don’t really inhale your cigarettes. You will inhale cigarettes furiously.
Your first love has no idea who you are. But, listen, he will eventually show up and sing Pearl Jam songs in your bedroom. The next time you see him he will walk up to you and ruffle your hair and say, “hey, kid.” One year later, he will come on stage with your high school choir as an alumni and free his hands to applaud by putting the program in his mouth and he will drop it like a leaf—your name is printed on it—to the ground. You will lift it as you walk offstage and save the paper where his teeth marks are imprinted and keep it in a box forever. When you are seventeen, he will put a gun in the same mouth that kissed yours and pull the trigger.
You will spend six years of your life with his best friend who will lie to you so many times that you think you are the lie. So you write fiction, and you win a prize. You read it at a gallery for an audience. Afterward, your friends will take you to celebrate. You will trip over the amp in front of the performing musician and fall on your face.
You will marry a musician who drinks too much and falls on his face. Then you will swear off musicians. You will move to Arizona to live with a man you’ve fallen in love with. You will begin 59 stories about him and only reach fourteen before he sends you back home. You will swear off stories.
You will unswear off musicians and spend seven years with a member of your favorite band, the one who changed your life so much your response was to decorate your walls with their posters, scribble into a journal, and consider yourself, for the first time, yourself. You will travel all over the world with him. You will love him so much you will forget who he is and who he was, taped on your walls. You will forget yourself. Your outside world will be so outrageous you will think you don’t need notebooks. You will stop scribbling.
You will have really good friends. Two of them live so close you know when they sleep because their home goes dark while you’re outside writing with a beer and a candle and an ashtray. You’re trying to quit. I wish I could tell you that you are going to get old. I wish I could have you run through the ABCs and have you stop at yoga. Skip the vodka. Cheer for the lungs who wouldn’t inhale. But, here we are. I look at you, and you couldn’t see me. It occurred to you that you would grow up, and you looked forward to it. Everything you were afraid of, you counted on me to prepare you for. No one told you or me that nothing changes. You don’t grow up. You just get taller.
You will love and need your parents as desperately at forty as you do now. Your little brother will remember you back when the television remote control was proof that you are just an asshole who loves the Smurfs. He will also remember the names of your stuffed animals, and things no one but us will ever believe happened like the time Doggie Butter turned into birds, how we tested our psychic skills by trying to guess a number between 1-1000 and only remember the times we got it right. You will look for proof of you everywhere and find it all behind you. Your mother will keep singing her mantra, “your mommy always loves you.” You will understand now when Dad said, “I will always catch you if you fall” not to test him by jumping off a wall and skinning your knees on concrete. They will prove this. They will prove this so many times you won’t begin to know how to thank them except to rearrange the ABCs in such an order that they might be proud.
You won’t be happy, and that’s the only thing I’d never tell you, because you wouldn’t understand. You will disappoint yourself with tiny choices that will have lifelong consequences. If I told you, you’d never have worn that crown or that smile, so proud to make it four whole years. You wouldn’t make it to forty and still be wild. I could never explain that you were going to fail at who you meant to be, and that this would be something magnificent. Your penmanship isn’t going to improve much, but oh, the things you will scribble.
Eighty year old Holly, if she makes it, will have some things to say to forty year old Holly. I expect her to love every wrinkle scribbled on her face. To accept death. To say with more gumption than I can muster now things about love and loss which are too late to apply, but just in time for all of us to laugh about together. I can’t imagine her anymore than you could have possibly imagined about me when you were four. But I promise you that I understand something, a little more now about what you used to know: it was wrong, what you did to those fireflies, but how else would we ever know our secrets glow long after we suffocate them. How could I tell you what time will do to you, how your whole life will be a love letter, and that it will be read in front the entire class, but only you will inhale the breaths from the poked holes in the top of a jar and that everything you add to it: the heartbreak and the mistakes and the triumphs, are just garnish. For your comfort. So that you, in between blinks, believe you’re home. And so it glows.