One Day When We Were Young
As every adult knows there comes a time when one must leave childhood behind and grow up.
Some might embrace this development and others might hate it but that doesn’t change the fact that it will happen. However, the transition itself might happen at different ages for different people. For Mikey, the main character in the short story “One Day When We Were Young” it happens when he is 13 years old.
The whole story is built around Mikey’s psychological rite of passage, complete with separation, liminality and re-incorporation. In the beginning Mikey and his friends are still children, “unwilling to let go of their youthful games completely” (“One Day When We Were Young”, p. 2, ll. 13-14) but aware that they can’t keep their childhood much longer. This is the year when Mikey discovers that girls aren’t just “a fact of life, like rainy days and school” (p. 2, l. 4) but something more interesting. Their childishness is seen in not only Cecil’s speculations – the reason they are spying is because he thinks “they’re up to something” (p. 2, l. 26) because they don’t follow the boys around anymore – but also Mikey’s remark. Although he seems to have some insight when stating that the girls are “probably talking about girl things” (p. 2, l. 32) it is made obvious that he is still very innocent when he thinks the subject is probably dolls.
Not only is Mikey innocent but he is also downright nervous about the topic of babies – and thereby the implication of subjects like sex – and quickly dismisses it. However, when they go to spy on the girls who are lying on the ground in just their underwear his attention is on the mysterious Protestant Clara Jowett who wears “bright red panties” (p. 3, l. 57). This is also what really puts Mikey’s development from childhood to adulthood in motion, waking “a feeling, half apprehension, half delight, in his imagination” (p. 4, ll. 84-85). The girls symbolize a forbidden fruit because the boys know that they should not have looked and like the forbidden fruit Clara awakens the beginnings of Mikey’s sexuality.
The very themes of not only sexuality but also innocence are seen clearly in the text through both the words used but also in the different symbols and colours mentioned. Sexuality is seen in e.g. the words “it [the daisy chain] snaked out in front of her” (p. 3, l. 58) where the verb “snaked” gives an allusion to the noun “snake” which is also connected to forbidden fruit and symbol for female sexuality. Another passage is when Mikey is going to Lady Dane’s and the word “penetrating” (p. 5, l. 122) is used and a few lines further down where he again thinks of Clara, “she of the red panties and softly rounded limbs” (p. 5, ll. 124-125). However, some of the symbols for sexuality are ambiguous as they are also symbols of innocence such as the daisy chains as the daisy is an old symbol of innocence and likewise Clara and the other girls’ limbs in the meadow where they “gleamed stark and white” (p. 3, ll. 53-54). Although these girls might have gained some insight into the more adult world of sexuality they are still innocent. It is also this transition that Mikey must go through now.
Being haunted by his thoughts about Clara Jowett Mikey is urged to begin his rite of passage by doing “something new, something that hedged about it a certain danger” (p. 4, ll. 92-93) and therefore decides to go to Lady Dane’s by himself – the first step in the rite of passage, separation, has thereby been completed and he can begin the second, liminality. Throughout his trip in the house the thoughts of Clara Jowett keep spurring Mikey on to exceed his own limits and get to the top of the house even with the danger he faces in the ramshackle house.
The change Mikey has gone through becomes evident when he looks down upon two lovers on the grass and feeling “a strange bond with the pair” (p. 6, l. 165) whereas he used to make fun of them earlier. Again he thinks of Clara Jowett and he feels that this is “like a beginning and an end all rolled into one” (p. 6, ll. 170-171). This image of the two lovers is also reminiscent of the picture
“The Proposal” where a boy and a girl are sitting together in a field. The two are placed closely together with the boy’s gaze fixed upon the girl indicating a close relationship between the two which is also indicated in the title. The girl’s shy evasiveness is very different from Clara Jowett’s behaviour in the last few lines of the text but the boy in the picture could very well have been Mikey with all his attention focused on Clara.
Another text that might be seen in perspective with “One Day When We Were Young” is the lyrics for the song “Only Sixteen” by Sam Cooke. This might be interpreted in two ways; the first way is that the girl in the song is like Mikey was before his rite of passage; “she was too young to fall in love” (“Only Sixteen”, ll. 3, 7 and 15) being too young for love and the adult, sexual feelings it entails – only after the transition is Mikey emotionally and mentally ready to handle these things. Another way this might be read is that Clara Jowett is actually the girl in which case the lyrics are seen in relation with the time after Mikey’s transition. Whereas Mikey seems to have gained courage and acceptance of himself and his new feelings from his trip to Lady Dane’s, Clara Jowett still seems pretty childish when he meets her on his way home as she “put out her tongue and called him a vulgar name” (“One Say When We Were Young”, p. 6, ll. 176-177). Although she may have started growing up before Mikey did, he seems to have grown up faster than her whereas she still retains most of her innocence.
So although the time it takes to grow up is varying from person to person it is something we all must go through. It’s a necessary process that leads to the possibility of wonderful feelings like being in love but at the same time one must also make sacrifices for this to happen which is also experienced by Mikey in the story where “he felt part of himself fall away with a whisper of regret that had in it the implication that it was saying goodbye forever” (p. 6, ll. 171-173). The innocence that everyone has as a child must be forfeited never to be regained.