The Power of Five

© 2010 Ginger Manley


On the morning of her fifth birthday, Theresa, my youngest grandchild and only granddaughter, flew from Columbus, Ohio to Nashville on Southwest Airlines. She was exactly 7 hours and 45 minutes old enough to fly unaccompanied when Flight 1616 departed. She arrived in Nashville one hour and fifteen minutes later. She had not been on an airplane since she was an infant, but she stepped off the plane wearing her Southwest co-pilot wings in the company of a friendly flight attendant with all the confidence of someone who flies every day.

Theresa is the youngest of three siblings, with two older brothers. Her dad, a major in the US Air Force, had left Ohio the week before for a one-year assignment without the family in Korea. Mom had the fulltime duty on the home front now, managing all the various summer venues for three busy children. Theresa’s tee-ball season had ended the previous week and she had played in the all-star game. Oldest brother, Alexander, and next oldest brother, Brendan, were still involved in their baseball games, with both of their teams contending for championships, which is why Mom could not come to Tennessee earlier in the week as originally scheduled. When Theresa realized she would be attending even more baseball games on her birthday instead of experiencing the princess routine with her grandparents, she almost had a 4-year old meltdown, so Mom and I began to strategize about getting her to Tennessee alone. Southwest held firm to their policy that no child could fly with them unattended before age five, but if Mom could provide them the necessary credentials on the morning of June 29, they would then board Theresa on the flight.

“Aren’t you worried about her being so young and flying alone?” a colleague, the dad of an almost-five-year-old daughter, asked me when he heard Theresa was to have this adventure.

“The only thing I am afraid of is that she will tell the pilot she knows better than him how to fly the plane or she will try to take over the flight attendant’s job,” I answered.


“The pilot told everyone on the plane that it was my birthday and the whole plane sang the birthday song,” Theresa told me matter-of-factly as we sat in a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant eating pancakes after her arrival. Following the pilot’s lead, she announced to everyone eating nearby that it was her birthday and she was now five. Her head of curly blond hair and her extroverted personality make her a contender for a Shirley Temple look-alike contest, and several admirers congratulated her on her big day.

I had placed a small tiara on her curls at the airport, proclaiming her “princess for a day.” Before the pancakes arrived, she asked if she could remove the crown because it was bothering her. “Sure,” I said, knowing she would retain the princess persona with or without a crown. During breakfast she told me about the many ways being five is better than being four. Among other things that were different at five, she had decided that she was no longer going to have tantrums or meltdowns, nor did she plan to pick her nose anymore.

“Boogers belong in my nose,” she said.

I was glad to hear that. As a registered nurse, I am in favor of good hygiene.

Our plan after breakfast was to go birthday shopping and she was ready for the task. “I want to buy something that says it is for 5 year-olds,” she asserted. We combed every aisle of the upscale toy store that was our first stop but she could only locate toys that said they were for “3+” or “4 and over,” so she parked her mini-shopping cart at the front door and said we would have to go to Target or ToysRUs.

As we drove towards Target, she changed her mind. “We need to go to ToysRUS,” she said so I found a safe place to make a u-turn and started towards that destination. Just barely inside the chosen store, she spotted a display of doll cribs and nursery accessories with a pink carry bag and after duly inspecting them and finding no age limit, she decided these would be her birthday present. “I can use the bed for my doctor’s office,” she said, “and the nursery set will be my doctor’s bag. Pink is my favorite color.”

On the way home, she told me about her career plan to be a doctor and to take care of sick babies because she thought one of her dolls might have the flu and it needed a checkup. As a backup, she said she thought she would also like to be the head of a girl rock band. The way medicine is going these days, I secretly thought she ought to go for the latter.

After setting up the crib in our living room, she decided that the entrance into the room would be the opening to her doctor’s office. She put all the various nursery items in her pink doctor bag and got ready to see her first patient.

It was a busy first day. I was the designated mother bringing a variety of babies and stuffed animals to her office for care. The Beanie Baby walrus had a headache; the baby seal had a cut on its back needing a big band aid; the twin bears had stomach aches, relieved by patting their tummies and applying a hot water bottle; the cowboy bear had fallen off his horse and might have a broken leg. He had to go to the hospital for x-rays.  I felt very relieved to have such competent care available, especially since her charges for the service were so reasonable. She did not accept insurance but for a penny, she would give any care needed. If I did not have a penny, she would still see the patient.

Over the course of the next several days, I began to see more about Theresa’s interest in becoming a doctor, or maybe it is just that she is at the age where she is curious about bodies, but she engaged me in multiple discussions about babies and body parts. “Do fireflies get born from eggs or from their mommies? I was in my mom’s tummy for one day before I was born. I have a vagina. Do you have a vagina? All girls have vaginas. Boys don’t have vaginas.”


Years ago when I taught nursing courses at the university, a student returned one day from a home health visit with this story. She had gone to a home where there were three generations of females. When the student nurse entered the home, the grandmother was seated at a table in the kitchen. The mother took the young nurse aside and whispered, “There’s something wrong with my daughter’s cat and I need you to take a look at it.”

Seeing no tabby and looking puzzled, she waited for the mom to continue. Glancing furtively at the matriarch in the kitchen, the mom whispered, “Mama don’t allow us to say pussy so we call it cat. My little un’s cat’s itching so I need you to look at it.”


I was thankful that Theresa’s mom was carefully teaching her the correct words for all her body parts. Each vagina dialogue gave me more opportunity to discuss with her who should and who should not see or touch her vagina and how to keep it clean, among other public health lessons. I hope that when she starts kindergarten in the fall she will not be the only child who uses the correct terminology.

In addition to her interest in medical topics, Theresa showed a natural gift for gardening. When she saw me carrying watering cans to the thirsty plants on our deck, she asked me if I always pat the plants and tell them how pretty they are, which had not been a part of my routine up til then.

“They grow so much bigger when you pat them,” she said. She helped me pat every one of my tomato plants in the garden that evening and for sure, when I checked them the next morning they looked like they had been watered with steroids. Sometimes she patted the daisies and then cut a bouquet of them and made daisy chains. Her various bear-children were the recipients of several such daisy chain crowns.

In between managing her busy medical practice, Theresa took breaks to hone her right brain creativity. Using a small can from her doll’s kitchen and two pencils she had found near my telephone, she rapped out songs of her own composition, accompanying herself as she sang lyrics unknown to anyone but her. In addition, she did portraits of herself and of Grandpa as well as landscapes on plain white paper and taped these to the walls of our home. Another of the changes she had decided to make now that she was five, she told me, was to stop doing artwork directly on the walls, as had been her bent for the past couple of years. I was beginning to be pretty impressed by the power of five.

Brendan, Alexander, and Mom arrived in Nashville on Friday, three days after the birthday. Showing Brendan her new medical office, Theresa took offense at his comment that it was really just a doll bed and nursery set and not a doctor’s office so she hit him over the head with her pink doctor’s bag, eliciting a wail from Brendan and a run to his mom. While not exactly condoning her behavior, I had to admire her for guarding the reputation of her turf.

Theresa’s version of life as Brendan’s sister is that he hates her and mercilessly torments her, but it did not take long to see the conflict definitely has two sides, with Theresa a champion at baiting her brother, something he has been getting coaching from Mom to ignore. For most of the next day, he did manage to ignore her, and as far as we could tell, made no more disparaging comments about her doctor’s office. Toward the end of the last day of the family visit, as the adults sat outside around the table where we had just finished supper and the kids were inside playing, we heard a wail. Brendan shot out the door and ran to his mother in tears.

“What happened?” Mom asked.

Brendan leaned towards Mom’s ear and whispered something.

“Just ignore her,” Mom told him.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Mom told us what had happened—Theresa had told him he had a vagina.

I do not know whether Theresa was rendering a professional opinion to her brother or just trying to insult him but I was relieved she did not tell him he has a cat and that she did not use the “p” word. Maybe she has already learned everything she needs to know and should just skip kindergarten and start medical school this fall. Or maybe she should get the rock band going. Or maybe just be content with patting the flowers and making daisy chains.