I was eight or nine years old and we had recently moved from the suburbs of a large city to a small Illinois town. My mother had decided to take my younger sister and me to the county fair, a big to-do in a small town. It was crowded, trucks and cars parked in the grass in row after row, and we had to walk through the rutted mud to get past them.
The smells were new to me - farm animals and diesel and funnel cakes - and I held her hand in the crowd. We saw a pony ride and begged her to buy us a ticket. The ponies were harnessed to a poles attached to a single center, and children rode them as they walked around in a circle, like a carousel with live animals. My mom may have been reluctant to pay for such a thing, but horses were rare and exciting to my sister and me, so she relented.
The owner took her dollars and helped us mount the ponies. I sat there for a moment, feeling like a storybook character on a noble steed. The ponies walked around in their circle and I swayed, enjoying the unfamiliarity of it. And then I saw the owner's son. He was my age, and he was assisting his dad with the ride. He harnessed and unharnessed the ponies. He led the the ponies to get them moving. He had the practised hands of someone who has done this dozens of times.
I was a midwestern girl from the suburbs; suburban enough see horses as a kind of exotic pet, but midwestern enough to see work as morally superior to play. The boy was working. He had responsibility and skill. I was playing. We were the same age.
And suddenly I was ashamed. I felt the blood rush to my face. I tried to brazen it out, leaning forward and patting my pony the way I had seen grateful cowboys do in movies. My mother snapped a picture at that moment, and it is around here somewhere, pasted into a baby book. I still don't like to look at it. It was the first time I felt ashamed of acting like a child. It was the first time I realized I was too old for something.
There would be other times - the last time I went trick-or-treating, for example. Moments when I suddenly felt large and ungainly, or embarrassed by the sudden insight that only children do this. Once it was watching a teenaged friend pick on his sister, the moment I realized that unkindness to younger siblings was something only adolescents tolerated.
Now I am old enough to do any child-like thing I want. If I think of myself as "too old" for something, it's probably only fashion trends. I rarely feel that sense of shame about anything. I do not measure myself against other people as much as children do. But sometimes when my girls play with other kids, I will find myself watching them all to see if there is some skill I should have taught them already by this age. I wonder if I have let them have enough responsibility or independence. I wonder if they will have their own pony moment.
But I suppose everyone gets one some day.