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If you’ve never heard Jessie Mueller sing her gut-wrenching rendition of “She Used to Be Mine” from her Tony nominated performance in the play, Waitress, the singer longs for a time when she was “reckless, just enough,” and while the play is set in more dire circumstances – like the film, upon which it is based – our own recklessness may be born more in youth, knowledge and circumstances during those years, and the natural evolution toward maturity. The same has always been true. When Andrew Cavendish, destined to become the 11th Duke of Devonshire, married his wartime sweetheart, the enchanting Deborah Mitford, of the famous Mitford Sisters, he did so at the height of the London Blitz, completely and utterly fearless in his youthfulness. While a bit of the infamous Mitford spirit might well – and understandably – have rubbed off on him, it’s doubtful. After all, when we are young and carefree, we tend to embrace a certain brand of courageousness, something that, for most of us, absentmindedly, slips away the decades of our lives. While we might argue that we live in a harsh world, I somehow doubt our children feel the same. They are intrinsically adaptable, often ignorant of the harshities around them. All they know is the world we show them.
The fearless coeur de lions of youth – even in my own family – is something that I’ve often admired, even as it dwindles further and further away for me. As it happens, even those who we say live fearlessly as adults – your Hemingways and Mountbattens and all those iconic figures that I admire for their intrepid spirits – lived that way knowing life’s consequences. That’s not the case with real youngsters, ready to grab the bull by the horns, believing wholeheartedly in their own invincibility. Like so many of us in those days, they pick up snakes and frogs and lizards and leap out of trees with no limitations or fear of danger. They run with full abandon in the days when you feel your legs could lift you off the ground.
Not too many years ago, Jenna – old enough to know better, but too young to care – picked up a small copperhead, came running toward the house with it, and with the pizzazz of Sarah Bernhardt, kissed it on its head, laughing – sisters in tow – the entire time. I nearly leapt off the upper porch and took the 20-foot plunge into the front yard. “Drop it! Drop it!” they say I was repeating. Of that, I have no idea. Adrenaline had kicked it and, I guess, unbeknownst to me, my fearless days had ended. She did drop it. It found its way to the great beyond. She was lucky, her cloak of invincibility intact.
Not too many years before the snake, as I was taking the girls – collectively referred to as “the munchkins,” during those days – to daycare, when one of them said with the fear of bejesus, “did you see that?” I, of course, did see it, but not looking through munchkin eyes, I didn’t think much of it. It was a fairly large scavenger bird swooping by, but still enough to put the fright into Teensy, who came by her nickname honestly.
“What? What was it?” another sister asked.
“It was a bat!” Teensy said.
“NUH-UH!” retorted the other. “Bat’s aren’t real in real life!”
Clearly, our invincibility is on a timeline. There’s an hour of start and finish. One minute, you’re afraid of a bat, while the next – invincibility cloak firmly in place – you’re cheering on your sister as she kisses a venomous snake.