I have watched these girls grow from tiny baby scraps in to little people and they continue to surprise me every year for entirely different reasons.
The youngest girl, K, turned seven in August. From the moment she could talk, K has had the ability to completely disarm me. I have never known a child with such intuition - when she looks me in the eye she can see straight through me and that scares me ever so slightly. Okay, it scares me a lot. She totally has my number. On Boxing Day she wanted me to sing with her on the Wii. I turned her down, giving the excuse that I didn't really know the song. She gave me that piercing look. "You're scared." she said. And when I denied it she knew that I was lying "I can see on your face that you're scared. I can see you smirking". Thankfully I was rescued by lunch being ready. But truthfully, I didn't really know the song. And I didn't want to break her ears.
This minor confrontation was nothing, however, compared to Christmas Eve, when she discovered through her sister that I was smoking. Now, I'm not proud of smoking. I can give you all of the excuses in the world as to why I smoke, but at the end of the day I know that they are just this: excuses. I know that the habit has to stop, but with everything else going on in my life at the moment, now is just not the right time. Try explaining that to a seven year old.
She confronted me when I was trying to dry my hair.
"Why do you smoke? I am very unhappy that you smoke. You will die if you smoke."
I told her that I was going to stop, but not just yet.
"You must stop today" she said "Why don't you just throw the packet away and then you won't have to smoke. You must stop for Christmas. You must stop now. Stop now."
I had to restrain myself from reacting and somehow turned in to a version of my mother, with short, defensive phrases such as "when you are older, you will understand" and "I'm not going to argue with you, K, so drop the subject"
The more she kept on, the more I wanted to run outside and light up - my own childish reaction. I wasn't going to be told what to do by a child. What does she know about my situation?
But the discussion didn't end there. Later in the day we went out for a walk and stopped to buy some pastries. I snuck outside and had my third cigarette of the day (pleased with myself that I was only on number 3 at 3pm). Despite hiding round the corner, K spotted me.
When we got back to the house, I was prompted to try a bit of Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. My friend walked in to the living room.
"Oh dear" she said "K's writing you a letter about your smoking" Oh not this again. Give me a break, K, I've got enough problems as it is.
K stomped in to the living room 5 minutes later, whilst I was midway through discovering that I had the brain of a limpit, and dropped the following piece of paper in to my lap.
Everyone sat and watched my reaction as I glanced angrily at the piece of paper in my lap. I wanted to be defensive, but I restrained myself and finished my game, effectively ignoring what she had written but feeling my cheeks flush with shame. How can I dismiss her childish accusations when everything she said was perfectly true? After 5 minutes she reappeared and delivered another little note containing a Ferrero Rocher chocolate that she wanted me to eat. It said "This is mine but I want you to have this" and was accompanied by a love heart.
I remembered back to how grown up I felt when I was seven, and how sensitive, and decided to pick the right opportunity to talk with her openly. That opportunity came later on in the evening, when she decided that she wanted me to be her sister, and to come and play in her room. She handed me a notepad and told me to write something. I wrote something along the lines of "KR loves K and would very much like to be her sister". K read the note, wrote a reply and handed it back to me "K loves KR as a sister because she is funny and has a good personalty even though she smokes" Bingo. Opportunity on a plate.
"You do know that I am sad that I smoke too, don't you?" I said.
"But why do you? Why do you smoke when you know that you are going to die?"
I explained as best I could and promised that I would be giving up very soon. And I meant it.
"If you die my Mummy will be really sad, and I don't like it when my Mummy is sad, even though I don't really understand it, I don't like it".
Somewhere deep inside, my heart broke just a little bit more than it had before. My friend's Mum died very suddenly of cancer at too young an age and smoked voraciously all of her life. If I can't give up for myself, I need to give up for the people around me.
That was the last conversation on smoking although I continued to get sidelong glances when I grabbed my coat and sneaked outside.
The older daughter, L, affected me on a different level. She is 11 years old - such a tender age: just on the fringes of puberty. She still retains a childish innocence and is excruciating embarrassed over the way her body is starting to change. When the school recently gave the girls "The Talk", the teacher commented that she had never seen a girl turn so white so quickly when a tampon was passed around the class. I feel for her and remembering my own fears I wanted to talk to her and tell her that everything would be okay, but the bridge wasn't there to cross.
Her moods are verging on teenager, playful one minute, affronted the next, but her body is still that of a child - tiny, straight up and down, no hips. Just like I was. Just like I was the year that my Stepfather started to visit my bedroom with the offer of rubbing my back. Only whenever I have remembered this abuse, I have pictured myself as I am now, with a woman's body and a mature mind - someone who had the capability to say no. I have felt so much guilt over the years for not being able to control the situation - none of the efforts I made to deflect his attentions worked. And I have blamed myself for years imagining that somehow, with all of my teenage hormones and curiosity, I encouraged him - as though the thoughts in my head that I had about boys were enough to turn me in to such a temptress that he - as a 42 year old man - couldn't possibly resist.
But now I am hit with the sudden realisation that I didn't stand a chance. And that although the abuse went on for long after my body had developed (although, to be honest, I am still waiting patiently for my boobs to grow), when the abuse started I was just a girl. A girl whose only worries in the world should have been about growing up and keeping up with the latest craze - not desperately trying to engineer every waking moment to prevent 'consequences' that could never have been avoided.
If I think of any 42 year old man approaching L in the same way, I can feel my fists clenching, ready to fight. I feel so angry at the mere thought. I can see how easily she would be manipulated, how quickly she would shut down if she did not have the support of her parents, how swiftly she would blame herself. How remarkably easy it would be to take a beautiful, caring, open child and crush her spirit out of all recognition. And I've never given myself the same consideration - there is still a part of me thinking "But maybe if I'd done this, or not done that, or told somebody". Maybe I am just too proud to admit that I was outwitted at every turn. I thought I was clever, but just not clever enough.
It's New Year's Eve, and 2010 lies ahead, waiting for my next move. It is time to move on, to finally forgive myself for being out of my depth, for learning that the control I could not possibly have had then, I can have now. The possibilities are endless.