99 Problems

Published on June 17th, 2024 | by Jennifer Alessi


Old Enough

I must have been ten the first time I defied my mother. For weeks I’d plotted, gathering implements: her blunt-nosed tweezers, my father’s candy-striped Barbisol can, his steel razor. I hoisted myself onto the vanity, angled a leg under the spout. Shakily I sprayed the thick foam from knee to shin. The hairs—so long, so black—sprang through, a torment. I was terrified of razors, so I started with the tweezers: pluck, pain, pluck. Hot with fear (it was taking too long, I’d never be done), I grabbed the razor.

When I was outside one day in summer shorts, my mother’s sidelong glance lingered. She crooked an index finger. Come here. She rubbed a palm down my leg, the stubble and scabs. Fury took form, a clenched-jaw hiss. Don’t you dare defy me again.

I did. Prudence is no match for self-hatred. Hiding my legs in her view until I was “old enough,” I wasn’t caught again. But the deception wormed into my psyche and frayed our relationship.

So when my daughter, Kiera, chirps, “Smell my armpit!”, when she laments, “I stink!”, I sympathize. I buy her the rose-pink deodorant Madison wears (because everything is Madison). My mother, with whom I live after decades out of state, thinks I’m nuts.

“She’s eight!” she exclaims as if eight were four. But sometimes I fear I treat eight like twelve.

Ears pierced at six? Okay. Add a third hole in third grade? Not okay.

“Why?” she sasses. “It’s my body.”

I don’t know how to retort. Yes, it’s hers. It’s not the state’s. But it’s mine too, to nurture and protect.

Perfume? Makeup? Bras? The push seems endless, the rush to advance to some imagined self and concurrent freedom. Is she old enough to______? I Google, read articles and posts. I survey friends and seek advice from experts and my mother. Often there is little consensus. The input swirls in my gut. Each “yes,” I know, builds her social clout. The cool girls watch Mean Girls and M3GAN. “No” can elicit a panic too primal to dismiss. An only child, she’s afraid of being left out, ostracized, alone. But it’s my job to keep her safe. And a “mature” girl is a child in lipstick: vulnerable, hollow and lost.

Though she’s only eight, promiscuity concerns me. Early sexual bravado chipped at my self-esteem. When I was twelve, at a family pub—dark wood, cigarette haze—I played Space Invaders on the machine by the door. Two guys, about seventeen, hovered over my shoulder. I’d noticed them as I slid in the coin: scruffy, angular, handsome. The warmth and buzz of the machine, the spinning in my stomach, led me to give them my number. They were locals so we shared the exchange 339. All they needed were the last four digits, 5232, flashed on one hand.

On the drive home on rural 106, half-turned in the back seat, I could see them through their windshield, grinning. Their fingers kept forming 5232. I don’t remember if they called, only the sudden, cornered dread. In their headlights’ soupy glow, I felt impossibly overwhelmed and young. That cheek-searing remorse; wherever possible, I need to spare my daughter that.


At eight she thinks there’s no truth she can’t handle.

“No, really,” she insists. “Mom, tell me.”

But when it comes to her father (“Why did we leave?” “Why did you divorce?”), I can’t. How could a child understand alcoholism as anything other than a choice, an either-or decision where the bottle matters more than you?

To protect her heart, I evade. “Daddy had some sadness.”

“What kind of sadness?”

“When you’re older, sweetheart, you can ask him yourself.”

Waiting to her is intolerable. Knowledge squats behind a half-closed door, her battering questions, a shoulder rammed against it. It is preferable, this bruise?

Other mistakes are mine alone. Too readily I let her download Spotify onto her tablet. She’s already heard bad words in lyrics, I reason, and knows not to repeat them—at least at school. A self-taught pianist with a soaring soprano, she delights in rhythm and beats. Why deny her streaming Bieber and Drake?

“What’s {the ‘n’ word}?” she asks.

Outside of music, it’s a shock to actually hear it.

“Kiera! Don’t ever say that.”

“Why not?” she asks, more challenge than innocence.

“Just don’t,” I sputter. “It’s awful, painful.”

Defiance settles into her shoulders. “If you don’t tell me, I might.”

I hate her insouciance but respect her drive. I attempt to condense hundreds of years of torment and valor into elementary sentences, satisfied I’ve gotten through.

The space between her eyes creases—my smart girl doing her best thinking. “So,” she concludes, “I can just tell Jayla.”

Jayla, her closest friend, is Black.

I delete Spotify. I threaten to take away her tablet. But how can I be angry when I was the idiot for thinking she was old enough?


Her first loss when she might be old enough to attend the service is Derick, a quadriplegic family friend we’d visit with my mother. “He’s in heaven,” I tell Kiera. “He can run again.” Eyelids squashing tears, she nods. She wants to accompany us—to see the body (because she’s curious), to say goodbye (because she adored him). But it’s a funeral mass with an open casket.

“Too much,” my mother counsels, and I agree. Kiera changed her mind and doesn’t object to staying at summer camp for the day instead. 

The second is someone she’s never met: a distant cousin’s mother. It’s a long round trip on a Saturday, so we bring her to the wake. If needed, my mom and I can take turns waiting with Kiera in the car. In case she’s ready she dresses appropriately—her black dress with the pink tulips, her leather ankle boots. Quietly she clings to me inside the funeral parlor. She smiles and responds politely to the receiving line of adults.

Chandeliers cast milky light. Kleenex boxes adorn side tables. To the right, an altar topped with a bronze urn. Beside it, a gold-framed closeup of Alison circa 1970: red jersey, red lips, ash blonde bob, eyes wide as if in surprise or wonder. What tugs is the white heart-shaped funeral bouquet, a pale ribbon across it inscribed Mom

My daughter’s hand finds mine, clasps it.

“I’m going to kneel,” I whisper.

“Can I come?” Her voice is small.

“Just be respectful.”

We kneel together. She watches me fold my hands in prayer, then does the same. I close my eyes and wish I could offer more than a generic blessing, but I only met Alison once. I feel Kiera, intent and still beside me. I squeeze her hand to say “ready,” and we stand.

We pass through the receiving line again, shaking hands and hugging. “She’s only eight?” they gush. “She’s so mature.”

My heart lifts.

As we’re leaving, Kiera asks, “Mom, can I go back?” She motions to the bench.

I’m surprised, but she’s done so well. “Okay.” She rushes back and kneels, hands clasped, eyes closed. I don’t know the content of her prayer, but I trust that it’s wise and good.

Cover photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

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About the Author

Jennifer Alessi holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska. An affiliate editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, she has published essays in Critical ReadHippocampusMotherwell, River Teeth, and elsewhere. After decades of city living, she recently returned to Cape Cod, where she enjoys exploring nature with her daughter.

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