All cultures and religions seem to have some form of coming of age ceremonies. The timing of these rituals varies but usually occurs somewhere in the mid-teenage years. Many of my Hispanic female students celebrated the transition into a new stage of life with elaborate Quinciniera ceremonies at the age of fifteen. In the Jewish faith there are Bar Mitzvahs and in the Catholic Church there is the sacrament of Confirmation. Sometimes turning sixteen means being eligible to apply for a driver’s license or having permission from parents to go out on dates. I’ve even known of young people who get their first cars at sixteen to begin driving themselves to school and helping with family errands.
I remember my sixteenth birthday, but, as was more the norm back in the sixties, there was not a great deal of fanfare attached to that day. My mother would not have been able to afford the extra cost of purchasing more insurance so that I might drive, so my days behind the wheel of a car were delayed until I was working and able to pay the associated bills on my own. What I did receive were very symbolic gifts from my mom.
She had purchased a beautiful royal blue wool pencil skirt for me that made me feel more womanly and mature than the gathered and pleated skirts that I usually wore. She included a pale blue sweater with a V neck that plunged just enough to make me look grown up, but not enough to expose much of my anatomy. The outfit complimented my thin body so well that I felt like a princess when I gazed in the mirror at how lovely it made me look and feel.
An additional present from Mama was my very first tube of lipstick. It was the palest of pinks which gave a bit of color to my face without appearing to be ridiculous. I was over the moon with happiness that my mother had so symbolically informed me that she thought I was mature enough to take a step forward into becoming an adult. That moment might have brought me perfect bliss but for the silly antics of my younger brothers who behaved like silly kids upon seeing me so transformed. Their childish reaction was to snatch the tube of lipstick from my fingers and begin a game of catch that annoyed me to the point of screaming at them. Their laughter and silliness drove me to anger, but there was no retrieving my precious cosmetic. Suddenly one of them made a wrong move and my happiness dissolved into tears as I witnessed my lipstick tube hurling to the ground, coming open, and smashing into a pool of pink goo. Somehow in that moment I felt as though I had taken two steps backward into childishness. It was my mother who calmed the situation by chiding my brothers and assuring me that she would replace the ruined lipstick.
I usually had to wear a uniform to school but to my great pleasure my sixteenth birthday coincided with a free dress day on campus. It was a cold November day just as it had always been before the earth began to warm, so I bundled off to school with a coat hiding my brand new clothes. I’ll never forget standing at my locker, slipping out of my outerwear and hearing one of the guys in my class exclaim that I looked fabulous. Nothing like that had ever before happened and I really did feel like the most beautiful girl in the school. It was as though that skirt and sweater had transformed me into a confident person instead of the scared little mouse that I had been only the day before.
Perhaps there is something quite wonderful about the symbolism of rites of passage. The formal acknowledgement of milestones, no matter how simple or inferred somehow transform us into more confident and independent versions of ourselves. It is the destiny of each of us to shed the skin of our childhoods and venture forth into the world as contributing members of the world. While we often long for that moment when we are in the process of growth, it is also somewhat frightening. When our elders let us know that they believe we are ready, it is a signal that we are on our way to becoming adult members of society. It may be a baby step, but it is forward progress one way or another.
Memories of my sixteenth birthday are firmly planted in my brain. From that day forward my mother no longer called me her “little doll.” I loved that she stopped using that juvenile description of me. Somehow she knew that it was time for me to complete the process of growing up without reminders that might make me feel that I was not quite ready.
The next few years would set me on a path of becoming. I would hold down very responsible jobs and positions of leadership both at home and at school. My mother wisely gave me my first taste of wine in our dining room. I quickly got tipsy and realized that I did not like the taste. i would not touch another drop of alcohol until I was twenty one. She also allowed me to puff on a cigarette that I found disgusting after a couple of draws. I never again had the desire to smoke. Her gentle way of introducing me to things that I might encounter out in the world made me realize that I had no need of sneaking around to see what such prohibited moments were like. I discovered in the safety of my home that I had no desire for such behaviors.
I watch the elaborate celebrations of sixteenth birthdays that occur these days and I sometimes wonder if they actually make the recipients as delightedly happy as I was with my mother’s simple but meaningful way of letting me know that I was well on my way to becoming a woman like her. It was as though she helped me break out of my cocoon and fly away with the wings of a butterfly. It was the most glorious of days and I will always be thankful for the wisdom and love that she showed me as she help to present me to the world.