Photo by Mike Souza, via Flickr

In the first years of life, babies change so fast. The milestones are so clear, so important, so closely and nervously monitored, so joyfully celebrated. What better show does nature put on than the transformation of a squirming, squalling creature in a blanket and a nursery cap into a person, an ever bigger and more definite one? (As my mother used to love to crow in all kinds of situations, quoting a Shake N Bake Chicken commercial from the 1970s—”And I helped!”)

Lately, I’ve been noticing that there’s a later stage of growing up that is quite breathtaking as well. It seems to happen in the late twenties or thirties, or even well beyond that—in any case, long after you’ve stopped watching so closely. You suddenly notice that the person has morphed into something bigger than they used to be. It’s as if they are finally filling out the full outlines of their personality, as if it were a suit of clothes they were growing into. Now you can see what all the previous changes were leading up to, because they have reached the peak of it. They have come into their power.

I started thinking about this after attending the book launch of my former student D Watkins, who has become not just a successful writer and a national celebrity, but a really great person. When I first taught D in 2011, he was 30. He had a lot of hard living behind him, a lot of loss, a lot of change. He was still a beginner as a writer and now jokes about how harsh I was with my comments and how ruthless with my red pen. Part of that was because I could see that there was something there — he had drive, serious drive, and he had stories that weren’t being told. He knew he wanted to do something important, and even if he could not imagine exactly what it would look like, he saw that working on his writing was a step in the right direction.

The other night at the historic Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue, in an audience of hundreds, I watched the show that D is putting on at dozens of places around the country, impressively listed on the home page of his website. It started with readings by other writers he has mentored, followed by a short reading, and then he was interviewed onstage about activism and social change, about our city’s politicians and police force, about the black community and its next generation. At the end, people lined up at the mic to ask him questions about their own situations as if he were some kind of East Baltimore Dear Abby — and his instant, no-bullshit answers seemed perfect.

On the way home, as I tried to express the dazzled feeling I was having to my friend Doug, I connected it to recent thoughts about my sons. One is a private equity guy and one is a musician and producer. Like D, both have edged their way into the right line of work — that might be luckier than many people are right there. Like D, they have come into the power of their minds and hearts, into an ease with themselves.

Back when these sons of mine were growing up, I used to say things like, well, they’re not rocket scientists. I cringe to think of it now. But honestly, I didn’t really care if they were rocket scientists or not. I wasn’t a parent who had visions of greatness for her kids, and ushered them towards it from an early age with lessons and training and discipline, though I’m sure all would tell you I was strict about homework and liked to see good grades. Of course, I wanted them to be the best they could be, but I wasn’t sure what that was, and it was more important to me for them to be happy and feel loved and secure. (As a child, I was the miserably unhappy rocket scientist type, if that explains anything.)

Rocket science aside, each of them has completely blown past me on their paths. They know so many things I don’t know and have been so many places I have not been, geographically and otherwise. They are so valued and relied on by others, and they are much more perceptive and insightful than I would have imagined, particularly in their understanding of their mother, which I find comforting. Both have a good grasp on current events and are able to advise me confidently on practical matters. (The redeye home from the West Coast is a bad idea, it is not the right time to buy oceanfront property, and you should listen again to Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell.)

Come to think of it, I also feel this way about my sister, who in her forties and fifties blossomed into a community leader, a successful entrepreneur, and a force for goodness and kindness. You should see all the people who think the world of my menschy little sister, who was once the pretty one, the quiet one, and not-really-sure-where-she-was-going one.

Part of what all four of these people have in common is that I used to be the big shot. I was quite settled in my role in our power relationship: teacher, mother, big sister, Mrs. Know-It-All. And they all wriggled right out from under my wing and my lack of clarity about their future and found their way. And now it’s like, whoa.

I’ll be sixty-one next week and in case you are wondering if there’s anything good about turning sixty-one, put this first on the list.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

6 replies on “The Astonishment of Watching People Grow Up”

  1. Wow!
    I have been a devoted fan since the instant I opened “First Comes Love” and your work has inspired me, brought laughter and tears and comfort but this column just blows me away! I just turned 70 and I can assure you that the impact you have on your children and your students and your friends and family will continue to bring you great joy!

  2. I love reading this. My two boys were preschoolers when I discovered “The Lunchbox Chronicles,” and then went back and read everything you ever wrote. We are just following right along in (some of) your footsteps. With my oldest getting ready to head into college, this made me feel SO much better – like, it’s not really over, but just beginning. And that there *is* good to come in the future, for all of us. That empty nest thing is killer. But I’m now looking forward to 61, which is only a handful of years away for me – and which, until I read this, I dreaded. Thanks for reminding me that we never stop growing.

  3. I may be “only” 55 but I feel just the same about my own spawn. I am the youngest of my sibling group, and I feel that everyone still thinks I am ten years old, but with my children at least I have watched with wonder as they turn into themselves, and it has been a wild ride at times. Thank you for this column — I am going to send it to my own mother with gratitude for her whole life and mine.

  4. I found you through the PBS NewsHour recently, and read the Baltimore Book of the Dead. Your talent for writing is natural and the stories touching. Yes, I have known so many people like those in your book. I’m 64, 4th oldest (of 6), 3rd tallest of my siblings. You connect to your readers in a way I haven’t seen often. What a find! I can’t wait to read your other books and check out your columns each month. Thank you!

  5. Fantastic piece, Marion. Your observations are dead on. I was speaking to a friend about D’s journey, recently. It’s truly inspiring to watch!

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