My Daughter's Secret Admirer

My daughter has a secret admirer. It all began when a mop-headed boy, a younger second-grader, worshiped her from the next classroom over. First, he picked out our car from the stream of vehicles discharging backpack-laden children to the school's front doors. On a family trip to Europe, he selected gifts for her - a tiny Eiffel Tower from France, a sugar-candy mouse from England - and doggedly carried them in a plastic bag through a series of countries.

Finally, his mother, trying to unload the gifts but having no idea of my daughter's name, marched to her classroom door, pointed, and asked her teacher: "Who is that?"

Who is that? Strangers, admirers, singling out my freckle-faced daughter from a gaggle of third-grade pretties, and asking, who is that?

I'm not ready for this. And neither is she, I think. She's as natural and unaffected as any pre-Ophelian nine-year-old: lover of all living creatures (but chiefly the nonhumans); fierce soccer player; devourer of Baby-Sitters' Club books in which the girls are always confident and in control; best friend to at least six girls, most of them tree-climbing tomboys; happy songstress with long hair and shaggy bangs the color of autumn.

But now she has become something else: a mysterious creature, the older temptress, a figure of devotion. She claims she doesn't know this boy at all.

When I presented her with his offerings, her response was: "Cool!" Then she spent a day or so on the phone with her friends, trying to determine who this secret admirer was, even though I had already told her his name. After that, the gifts went on the shelf over her desk, the incident forgotten.

WHEN my daughter and I stand in front of a full-length mirror, I can no longer easily see over her head. (I'm short, and she has her dad's long legs.) And even when I have the slight advantage of makeup and blow-dried hair, my eyes rest more easily on her fresh face. She's catching up to me.

So I cheat; I turn back the clock. In my lower desk drawer I keep an old school picture of myself. I'd guess it's from fifth grade. Next to it I put my daughter's third-grade photo, and suddenly we are sisters - the same all-out grin, the same hooded eyes, the same longish nose and freckles, the same auburn hair.

There are huge differences behind those grins, though. The long-ago girl I recall was burdened with anxieties, with tears at the silliest things, with being chosen next-to-last for kickball. Mainly I was terrified of making a mistake. And although my face looks thin in this picture, I remember feeling chubby and clumsy, uncomfortable with my body.

My daughter, for today at least, has none of that.

"Her body language is very relaxed," one teacher warned me. "Boys feel comfortable around her." And aside from some concerns about not being able to fall asleep at night in the 15 minutes she allots herself, things seem to come easily to her. She's good at sports, gets along with everyone, and can giggle tirelessly at dinner.

I guess she'll have a string of admirers through her life, starting now. Something tells me she'll handle all the attention with tact and pleasure, while her father and I stand breathlessly behind her, watching and praying.

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