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What My Daughter Doesn't Know Yet

`OH, please, not now! Just a couple more pages.'' My daughter is lying on a velvet chaise, holding a book with one white hand, while the other languidly droops to the floor. She looks like a hothouse maiden - a Victorian lily. I am standing in the doorway wheedling her to come outside. I have on my jogging shoes, shorts, and husband's T-shirt. I look like the maiden's tenant farmer.

``But you need to breathe a little outside air. You're taking in too much carbon dioxide.''

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She rolls her eyes. ``Oh, all right. Why do you consider being outside so virtuous?'' asks the lily.

I do like the outside - more and more. I also grow steadily fonder of yard work. Yard work! Another thing that I planned never to do, and now I like it. I like watching worms crawling in and out of the loam; I like the drops of moisture on the ends of leaves so tender they make my heart turn over. I like the way things grow without my having to tell them to. I like thinking about small things very intently - such as the exorbitant length of the taproot of an oak seedling, and the poignancy of finding a worn-out acorn still attached to this root, still affectionately clinging. I show one of these acorns to Kathryn. ``Hmmmm,'' she murmurs, bored but kind to the aging mother whose joys are so limited.

``You know,'' she says philosophically, as she turns a desultory spade of dirt, ``I hope you won't take offense at this, but I don't want to grow up like you: You know - live in the same old town and see all the same old people and be married with two children.''

I do not take offense. She is very comical and so young that I ache for her. Recently she told me that she wishes she were a member of an ethnic minority - black, Jewish, or Italian - anything but a blue-eyed Baptist. And she plans to live half the year in either Florence or Paris. Ah! My romantic child.

She looks at me sideways, a little guilty.

``Your life is fine for you,'' she says reassuringly, ``because that is the way you wanted it.''

But that is not true. Once I felt exactly as she does now. I remember crouching sullenly in my mother's strawberry patch, the hot sun blazing down (making me sweat), and hearing my mother exclaim in an embarrassingly loud and enthusiastic voice over the smell of the earth. ``It is wonderful!''

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``Hmmmm,'' I said then. Poor mother! Clinging to such simple, mystifying pleasures. I was going to live in England where my servants would pick strawberries for me, while remarking on the perfume of dirt all day long if they wanted. I would be inside the manor house reading by the fire.

Sometimes I still feel that way. Sometimes I would like to rise in the middle of the night, drive to the airport, and fly to Paris all alone. But that fantasy comes to me less frequently.

What I want my daughter to know, and what my mother wanted me to know, and what we can never tell is that staying earthbound is not dull. It is a lovely thing to grow older and learn the mysteries of ordinary life - the perfection of a sleeping cat, the exquisiteness of children's skin and hair, the smell of a spadeful of dirt.

Now I have the blessing of hindsight, of recalling exactly how I felt at 15, bone-lazy and restless - and to know at the same time what a 40-year-old knows: Life is so fragile and transcendently beautiful that we come to love it with romantic passion. Just as it is.

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