The land of giants

Standard

_DSC2538

When I was small I lived in the land of giants. People and building loomed large, towering over me in a world that pulsed with power and strength. In my first eight years when the year changed, I sat on my grandparents’ porch, coated and mittened, to watch the New Year’s parade march down the broad street. The porch stretched half a block in length surrounded by concrete walls I first had to tiptoe over to see the marchers.

 

When my years grew large, my grandparents’ home grew small, their porch unable to hold more than a few chairs, a table, a bench, and two or three small children.

_DSC2537

I knew a man once who slept in my mother’s bed, a man not my father but who owned her when he changed her name. He walked in fierceness, his words the mace he swung to shame and mock and ridicule. He slew me more than once. Though I had more than a decade to stand on, he towered over me, an insurmountable wall that kept me in a place of fear. I hated him.

 

A full generation passed before I saw him again. This past week we met. The years have left him frail, thin, and sick. His legs hesitate when he tries to walk, and his ears fail to listen to the soft voices around him. Old angers still smolder in his words, but the flame no longer leaps out to scorch and singe.

 

All of us come to rubble eventually. The mortar weakens and our walls collapse. We lay down our weapons and surrender to the years.

_DSC2533

We talked, the two of us, and told our stories. I searched for my old hatred and found it gone, lost on some path I took decades and decades ago.

 

I left that man, surprised at my great peace and my great guilt. I am not innocent. I have wrecked havoc, too, shook the ground with anger, pierced hearts with sharp-edged words, and held others hostage behind walls I built myself.

 

I have grown small again and hope to stay that way until I leave. I have had my share of hurts, but I have also hurt others and must make amends, for none of us escape this world unscathed or guiltless.

A shared childhood

Standard

A shared childhood is a hidden language made up of gestures, glances, raised eyebrows, isolated words and uncalled-for laughter and tears; spoken only by those initiated into the years when memory draws every event in primary colors outlined with thick, black lines. It is a language that can never be translated into another tongue or life; it is time enfleshed in the child.

 

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” may seem like an easy question to most people, but for me it is complicated and difficult. Mother had eight living children over a span of 25 years. I grew up knowing the oldest; she was 15 years older than me. I lived for a while with the youngest, my brother who is 10 years younger than me. And I shared my childhood with my sister, K, who is 18 months older.

 

 

 

She was the golden child, tall, pretty, and smart, who charmed the aunts and uncles. I was not.

 

We played together, sometimes peaceably. She carries small scars from times I scratched her; I suffer with writer’s limp because she broke my arm. She’ll deny it and say the earth broke my arm; she merely sent me aloft in a childish game of push-up. She has always had a problem with reasonableness.

 

When our father died, K was ten and I was eight. She left childhood then, although I didn’t know it at the time. K took responsibility for me while mother dealt with her grief. And once the grief passed, mother began barhopping in search of another man. All those years, I thought my sister was just being bossy, still pushing me, not up, but around.

 

We spent our growing years together parsing the world, trying to understand its meaning. And because our mother played the central role, our childhood is our mother tongue.

 

Just as we inflect words, or modify them, to express a change in tense or number, the stories we now tell are inflected with memories that signal to the hearer a change in mood or meaning, but only to those who learned the language with us.

 

The story of my broken arm is one I love to tell, but only if my sister is there to hear it or read it. In some other language of childhood, it could be parsed as blame, but in my own mother tongue, it is part of the grammar of love.

 

Happy Birthday, sister.

 

 

Keeping memories

Standard

When I was five years old, we lived on Edith Street in El Paso, Texas. Most of the time when I walked out the door, I turned right. My best friend, Terry, lived in that direction and the road around that corner led to the convenience store where we bought candy bars, comic books, and the occasional cigarette. If I went bike riding or roller skating, I might turn left. Down the street in that direction, I would pass by two white ceramic ducks sitting in a neighbor’s yard.

 

The ducks sat there day after day watching me roll by until one day they got up and walked around. I remember it clear as day. It’s one of my special childhood memories that never happened. Yet the impossibility of it doesn’t stop me from remembering it.

 

Duck! Here comes the little dreamer.
Photo from http://www.poultryclubsa.co.za/wp-content/uploads/Duck-High-Flyer.jpg

 

I spent most of childhood outside; we all did back then. But on Saturday morning, we stayed inside to watch cartoons. I spent hours watching that naughty putty tat Sylvester stalk Tweety Bird, Betty Boop sing and dance, Woody Woodpecker stir up trouble, and the Road Runner escape from Wile E. Coyote. For years afterward, I had fond but vague memories of a character called Daffy Fuddlebug. Only when I dragged it into the daylight and showed it to my sister did I realize I had conflated three characters (Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny) into one.

 

 

Memories are the artifacts of the lives I have lived: the small child, the lost teenager, the young woman, the wife, the mother, the teacher, the dreamer. Like one civilization built atop another, each life was built upon the one before; and hidden in each layer, the memories, quite a few still intact, their dates carefully stamped on the bottom; others of uncertain date but recognizable; and many, many broken shards, some still sharp and dangerous, others soft-edged from being buried so long. I have built a museum of words and images where I keep these memories.

 

Sometimes I go there and wander through the quiet rooms, trying to understand the history of my life, believing it will help me live a better life today and in my future. I see that I have mistaken dreams for memories; those early ones often look alike to me. And I have mislabeled a few; the details and faces obscured by time. I leave them as they are; my misremembering is as much a part of me as my remembering. Memories are not facts; they are part of the story we tell ourselves. They may not be real in the way we define facts; but like all good stories, they are true. So I do my best to remember them; and try as I might, I cannot let go of my fond but vague memory of Daffy Fuddlebug.

 

The memory collector

Standard

My small self

When I was small, I collected things I found: shiny objects, buttons, leaves, and feathers, especially feathers. I often dreamt I could fly and feathers seemed like a promise of that dream. Finding something of beauty felt like an accomplishment. My reward for paying attention. Somewhere on the road to adolescence, I lost every one of those treasures.

 

In my teens, I kept a drawer filled with notes, jewelry, stray buttons, foreign coins passed on from relatives, ticket stubs, a lock with a forgotten combination, and pictures of my friends and the boy I loved my freshman and sophomore year. One scrap of paper I saved until I was in my mid-twenties. The library in my high school sent out notes to students who had delinquent books. The notes were short and to the point; they had the student’s name on one line and the name of the book on another line, nothing else. I don’t remember if I was assigned to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or if I chose it on my own, but I loved it and wanted to read more of his work. I kept that second book too long because one day in class the teacher handed me a note from the library. All that was written on it was my name and below that, The Idiot. I kept the note for years, my private joke with the universe.

 

 

I think objects might want to be found. Maybe a button works for months to untie the strings that bind it to a shirt, and when it leaps out into the unknown, it is looking for adventure. I want to see more of the world, it says; I’ve been manhandled enough, put in my place for too long. Imagine the pleasure it feels when a child or an adult picks it up, admires it, and carries it home as a treasure. At least, that’s how I would feel if I were a button.

 

My crown

I still have a box of small findings and remembrances, including a gold crown that was fitted for one of my molars but never put on. I could tell a great story about that, but unfortunately, I don’t remember much about it. My mother wore it on her charm bracelet for years and it has come back to me. Last summer I bought a wooden art box for my grandchild and filled it with some of the things I cannot throw away.

 

Over the years I have tried collecting things of value, but I can’t sustain my interest. In Japan, I started a collection of the holders used to rest chopsticks on, called “hashioki,” but I grew tired trying to find a place to display them and gave most of them away. I use two of them for brush rests when I do Japanese calligraphy.

 

For a long time, I collected dreams, and for safekeeping, I put them in my heart. When I was alone, I would take them out, whisper promises I thought I could keep, believing that some day every one of them would grow wings and fly. I never thought I could lose them, but I did. And now I know why: my heart is a pocket full of holes.

 

When mother knew love

 

 

Memories are the only thing I am interested in collecting now. These stories, like the flightless feathers I loved as child, or like the fallen petals that when crushed still give off the faint aroma of the rose, or like the empty shell left by a cicada who grew away from her old self but left a part behind for me to hold and remember, these stories are the only treasures I have.

Crossing the frontier of childhood

Standard

Our nearest neighbor, The Golden Gate Bridge

The party started at Shakey’s. All of the other girls had already passed over the border from twelve to thirteen; we were celebrating my crossing. The twelfth year had been all uphill; my childhood treasures abandoned one by one as I slogged upward. The changes in my body made the climb harder, but I believed that if I reached the marker “Thirteen,” I would arrive in a place closer to freedom, a place closer to where dreams lived.

 

After the birthday pizza party, the girls came to my house for a slumber party. We lived in military housing on Fort Baker, a small Army base sitting across from San Francisco in Marin County. Our nearest neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge, bore the scrawl of our names on its pillars. My stepfather, an Army Captain, defended us from the communists by working in the Nike missile program. We lived in one of the large duplexes up on the hill above the parade grounds.

 

Mother met Ralph within months of my daddy’s death. My father may have been the love of her life, but he was gone, and she needed a man. Her need, so much more than a want, compelled her to go in search of someone to marry her and take care of her. She searched in all the wrong places, but she found her man.

Our house on Fort Baker (photo taken over 20 years later)

Mother met Ralph at a bar; he was seven years younger and a first lieutenant in the Army. She was out dancing and drinking, doing her best to stop being a widow. She succeeded; less than six months after they met, they married. At that time we lived in El Paso, and Ralph was stationed at Fort Bliss.

 

After they got married, the dancing stopped, but not the drinking. Mother had married an alcoholic before, so you would think that she could recognize the signs. She didn’t, or maybe she didn’t care. She had someone to share her bed and her expenses; she wasn’t alone anymore.

 

The night of my thirteenth birthday party, Ralph went to Happy Hour. He always stayed longer than an hour, and it never made him happy. He came home late, while my friends and I were in my bedroom, laughing, whispering about boys, and eating snacks.

 

Ralph never liked my sister and me, and the older we got, the less he liked us. Particularly me. He talked ugly when he was drunk, so I was used to being called a bitch and a little whore, but I never thought he’d call my friends that. He did. Then he told them to get out of his house. Now.

 

I can’t remember much of the chaos that followed. I think my mom took the girls home. One or two lived in Sausalito; two of them lived in Marin City. I do remember that Ralph passed out in the bedroom he shared with my mother.

 

Sometime after midnight, my mom packed suitcases for all of us. Then we got in the car to drive to Texas to my oldest sister’s home. Mother took all the cash in the house, including a piggy bank made from an empty soap container that belonged to my three-year-old brother. Afraid that Ralph might hear the car engine, she put it in gear and let it roll down the driveway before starting it.

 

My sister welcomed the four of us into her small three-bedroom house, already full with the five of them.  Ralph sobered up and pled with mother over the phone until she agreed to go back. It will never happen again, he promised. Whatever he felt for mother or for us never looked like love to me, but maybe it was. Or maybe he needed a wife and a family to get promoted. He had his reasons, and she believed him or pretended to. I told her I wouldn’t go. My oldest sister invited me to stay; she understood why I couldn’t go back. She had lived the same story; in fact, all of mother’s children did or would. My daddy had been her stepfather, and he had never liked her; so she ran away at 17, got married, and had her first baby when I was two years old.

 

I spent a year away from home and loved living with my sister, her husband, and three children. I never noticed the cracks in the foundation of her home, but that year the walls still stood and they sheltered me. Within a couple of years, the walls crumbled; my sister fled, abandoning her children.

 

During that year, I had time to heal some of the wounds and forget some of the ugliness. In the middle of my freshman year at Irvin High School in El Paso, Ralph got orders for Alaska. My mom wanted me to come with them, and I agreed.

 

They came from California to Texas to get me, and in January of 1965, we drove up the ALCAN Highway to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. It looked like a new beginning, a new chapter in our lives, but it wasn’t. That first chapter wasn’t over yet.

 

It’s a simple story, with more pain than some, but less than others. Standing on the peak of thirteen, my childhood looked to be a million miles away, the pathway back, long forgotten. On that first summit of my teenaged years, I thought I would be able to see the world, or least find a clearly marked path that would lead me to my dreams. I didn’t know what they were yet, but was sure I would recognize them once I saw them. No one told me it would be so hard. I had two choices: keep climbing or go through the dark valley. I chose the dark valley.

 

What are you looking for?

Standard

Imagine even shorter bangs!

I have gotten up early my whole life, except for my teenaged years when I ran marathons in my sleep and didn’t wake up until I finished. As an early morning child, after finishing my sugar-laden cereal, I could explore drawers and closets without anyone asking, “What are you looking for?” This is the kind of unanswerable question that grownups ask curious children. Imagine walking through the woods admiring the trees, and as you bend down to look at a mushroom, someone asks you, “What are looking for?” The answer is nothing, everything, I’ll know when I find it, or maybe, you are asking the wrong question.

 

Most of life is hidden, and just as the birdwatcher needs time and patience to see the birds beneath the canopy of trees, so the child needs space to explore her world, including drawers and closets, the repositories of grownups’ secrets.

 

Looking through places in the house became a habit. In the mornings, I could go through most of the house, but not the bedrooms, at least not the only bedroom of real interest: my parents’ room. Entrance into that room required an invitation, and if occupied, a knock.

 

But parents are not always at home and big sisters have better things to do than follow little sister around. I must have been in second grade when I sneaked into my parents’ bedroom. In the small drawer next to where Mother kept her underwear, I found a picture of a tiger I had colored in school. I had pressed down on the crayons, so the vivid yellowish-brown eyes glowed from the orange and black-striped creature that stood among the green, yellow-green, light green, and turquoise leaves. Seeing it there secreted in her drawer was like coming face to face with a real tiger, one of my own creation, which now lived in this unexplored place.  I felt happy that she would keep the colors that flowed out of me.

 

In that same drawer, I found a small envelope with her name written on it in textbook-perfect cursive letters.  Inside were short, brown hair clippings, not more than a tablespoon worth. They were mine.

 

One day during craft time in first grade, my best friend, Donna, leaned over and said, “I can see your bangs growing.” Her words both thrilled me and alarmed me. Donna could see the tiny hairs, still alive at the roots, pushing into the world, threatening my eyes.

 

Cutting your own hair was forbidden in our house, but nothing had ever been said about having friends cut your hair.

 

Our teacher was busy helping L.D. wash his hands, which he had painstakingly covered with the paste he had developed a craving for. Donna held the blunt-nosed scissors and clipped quickly.  In those days, teachers had eyes in the back of their head; at the second clip, she turned around and looked directly at Donna and me. Just like a game of Swing the Statue, we froze, Donna keeping the scissor hand suspended in the air, waiting for the teacher to come over and touch us to unfreeze us.

 

Instead, she said, “Come here girls.”

 

A moment earlier I had been enthralled at Donna’s powers of observation and her willingness to help me.  The look on our teacher’s face and her tone of voice shook my confidence in my friend.

 

“Scissors are for cutting paper, Donna,” she said.

 

Donna started crying.  Everyone in the room quieted down and looked at us. We were facing Mrs. Severe, so they could see only the teacher’s solemn face and the shaking shoulders of Donna as she cried.  Mrs. Severe reached into her desk and pulled out a small envelope. She walked over to the small tables where we sat, gathered up my hair clippings, and put them inside the envelope.

 

“I’m going to call your mother tonight to make sure she gets these.”  Then she went to the shelf where we kept our lunch boxes, opened the metal clasp, and put the envelope inside.

 

And she did call. Mother got out her haircutting scissors and evened out Donna’s work, leaving me only about an inch of bangs. Above my freckled nose loomed a white forehead, best hidden. The short hairs looked like the edge of a failed crew cut.

 

Mother had kept that envelope and the picture of my tiger. She was not very affectionate toward me, but here in this hidden, intimate place she kept parts of me. I opened her perfume jar and inhaled her sweet smell and loved her, secretly, like she loved me.

 

Double exposure

Standard

Double exposure: two lives in one world

Mother loved to read historical romances. She would find them at the Goodwill for ten cents apiece and bring home a stack. On almost every cover, a handsome, rugged-looking man held a beautiful woman in his arms. Sometimes the man wore a Civil War uniform and held a woman in a billowing dress. Other times he wore a royal crown and cape while he embraced his queen. Ripped bodices were optional.The historcial context varied, but the story never did: the search for love ended in someone’s arms.

 

She often sat on the gray couch in the living room to read. One summer day, I sat on the arm of the couch by her while she drank her can of beer and read. It must have been a day like the one in this photo. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse. I could see the blue spider veins in her thighs as she stretched her legs out on the coffee table.

 

I started reading the last words of each sentence to amuse myself and wanted to say something to her about it, but I didn’t want to disturb her. So I would read some of the words, then wait and listen for the soft slur of her finger on the paper as she turned the pages. I looked at her profile, her beautiful nose, straight and softly rounded at the tip; her lashes thick with mascara; and her lips, parted as if ready to sip from either her beer or her book; and I wondered if she even knew I was there.

 

Immersed in her book, she had no idea that I was  reading the words with her. Her books, I thought,  must hold some secret, one that she needed to be reminded of over and over, one embrace after another.

 

For the first time that I remember, I understood that we were completely separate beings, sharing the same space, our thoughts known only to ourselves. She knew nothing about the things my sister and I whispered while we were in bed at night, the forbidden sugar that I put on my cereal before anyone else awoke, and my fear of losing people. These and thousands of other thoughts belonged only to me. As I leaned on her arm and felt her warm skin next to mine, I realized that she, too, must have whispered things in the night to my father and done things in secret that no one else knew of besides her. Inside her head another world existed, one that I knew nothing about, that I would probably never know anything about.

 

I felt like I had just awoken from a deep sleep in a strange room, not knowing exactly where I was. Everyone lived a hidden life, unknown to anyone else, and words were all that we had to find one another. We stumbled in the dark, calling out, searching for the other, reaching out, always reaching out. And sometimes, if only in books, we found solace in someone’s embrace.

 

My head felt light and I wondered if I would fall off the couch. I leaned over, kissed mother on her forehead, and went outside into the sunshine looking for an adventure before the end of my childhood summer.