A shared childhood

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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.

 

 

At the end

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In the last hours of the last days of the last week, a lone teacher wanders across the ruins of the semester seeking a place of rest. Papers flutter in the wind, obscuring the sun. Students run after the papers looking for the ones marked “A.” These papers are light and float upward on the breeze, so they are difficult to catch. It takes a great deal of skill. The ones marked “B” or “C” are easier to find but still require effort to capture. The heavier papers, “D” and “F,” litter the ground; the crowd tramples them underfoot. A few students grab them from the ground and hurry off. Many of the students ignore the teacher; one or two bump into her and move on.

 

 

She remembers silence and wonders where it has gone. A thousand voices merge into a cacophony of sound; life is a roar of demands.

 

 

She grows numb. The noise blinds her, and she struggles to remember how she got to this place and why she is here.

 

 

Three young men approach her. They smile shyly and hand her a gift: three small pyramids and a sphinx, carved out of wood. “Thank you,” they say. The words help her focus. Her eyes adjust and she remembers their faces. Two are Egyptians on their way back home; they have spent the last year studying English. Both took part in the Egyptian Revolution. They carry dreams of democracy and a better life. The third man will return to Ghana to continue his studies in agricultural engineering. He tells me he will use his skills to help his country.

 

 

The teacher’s eyes brighten. She notices a small crowd of students standing before her, some with small gifts, but all with words of thanks. The young woman from Pakistan will start a foundation to help women in her country; the Korean woman needs to finish her degree in mechanical engineering; and the young man from Belgium will pursue a career in politics once he finishes his education.

 

 

One by one the students seek her out. They shake her hand or give her hugs. The quiet woman from Jordan kisses her on each cheek. They each speak the language of joy, and the teacher’s heart grows strong with gratitude. She thanks them in return.

 

 

Looking at all their faces, she sees the world and remembers why she is here.

 

NASA Blue Marble (Flickr Creative Commons/NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

 

 

 

 

Missing Mother Days

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I left Mother twice.

 

 

First, I left her cloistered womb. I didn’t want to go, but it was my birthday; and she insisted. I never would have left if she hadn’t pushed me out the door. It ended in tears for both of us.

 

 

Mother took me to a house with empty spaces. We lived alone and together. One by one the years came, filling all the rooms, crowding me until I had to leave. I opened the door by myself and left without a tear.

 

 

I kissed Mother once, the day she left her house. She locked the door and left without her gloves, though her hands were cold. I cried that day; she didn’t say a word.

 

 

I wore Mother’s gloves to fill the empty spaces. They helped me face the cold, and finally grasp what she did.

 

 

I missed Mother the day I lost her glove on my way home. The right one disappeared; I only have the left.

 

 

I missed Mother more that day than all the days before.

 

 

 

Night and day

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I remember stars.

 

The sun blazed in my childhood sky, began its work at dawn and moved through the field of blue, scattering its seed. In the deep black soil of night, those seeds burst forth with light.

 

I ran through summer nights, shoes forgotten, countless blades of grass beneath my feet, countless blooms of light above my head, believing they would always be there.

 

Like the sun, I moved away from my own dawn and lullabies, but on summer nights, lying in the cool grass, I wondered at the stars, up above the world, so bright.

 

 

Now I wonder if the stars are birds that fly across the sky, following the behemoth sun, who lurches through the day, clothed in blinding brass, pushing aside the hours in search of something long forgotten.

 

My night sky is almost empty now, the birds captured, caged in jars that line the roads I travel, hung on poles to light my way. Once they soared across the arch of night; I marked the seasons of their flight.

 

My old eyes, even in the dark of night, see what’s right before me, plain as day. I wonder if the sun is lonely, looking for the lights on the other side of the world, wondering where they have gone.

 

The grass still grows beneath my feet, conquering fields and planting green flags to mark its territory, but night is a barren field.

 

Day and night, I see what’s right before me, but I can no longer see what lies beyond.

 

I remember stars.

 


 Photos are courtesy of NASA, Hubblesite, and Wildfeuer.

Just 97 miles away

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The magnetic pole drew Shackleton, called Ernest by friends and family. He had a vision of standing in the frozen south, looking north toward England. He faced the cold and vowed that he would reach “the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.”

 

 

 

 

On the first day of the year 1908, mid-summer in his upside world, Shackleton and the crew of the Nimrod sailed toward the bottom of the world. After 29 days, they could sail no more. The ice embraced the ship, and the cold plotted through the fall and winter to kill them, but they survived, waiting in the long darkness for the sun to rise again. When October turned spring, Shackleton and three others set out for zero longitude.

 

 

 

 

Like most of us, he almost reached his dream, just 97 miles short. That’s 156 kilometers for those who dream in other places.

 

 

 

Our dreams draw us, and in spite of hunger, frost-bitten feet, and the blinding white of despair, we slog on, so often turned back just miles from the place where we had hoped to plant our flags.

 

 

 

Yard bunny

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I’m partial to polka dots, so I leave the dandelions alone. My next-door bunnies are partial to dandelion leaves, so I often see their polka-dot tails in my yard.

 

 

When I sit in my favorite chair, I can see the backyard through the large picture window. A chain-link fence encircles the yard, dividing it from the empty fields to the east and south. The uneven ground beneath the fence provides a portal for the bunnies to squeeze through and enjoy the green buffet that we provide.

 

An open door for bunnies.

 

Earlier this month, the weather warmed and my husband cut the grass: the first of the season. Mixed in with the cut grass were handfuls of rabbit fur that once lined a shallow depression in the ground: a former birthing center for rabbits. Now they live in the further field, near the neighbor’s lilac bush.

 

 

In the soft light of late afternoon, one or more bunnies slide under the fence to eat. Last week I spent thirty minutes in my chair with my binoculars watching a lone bunny in the yard.

 

The yard bunny as seen through my window.

 

He tiptoed near the fence looking for something good to eat, wearing earth’s own colors – raincloud gray, sandy brown, and sandpiper buff, all detailed in either onyx or snow. Seen through the binoculars, his fur bore a pattern like feathers, and when he raised his head, ears erect, turning this way and that, I half expected him to fly away.

 

 

He nibbled on some dandelion leaves and chewed so rapidly, it seemed a kind of mincing. Often he lifted his head and scanned the skies and yard. He read the trees and clouds with his large brown eyes and studied all its smells with his ever twitching nose. I have seen a hawk or two fly overhead on other days, and I suppose he has as well.

 

 

Satisfied that he was safe, he settled into himself, sinking into a mound of fur, his ears like tiny horns, and rested in his stillness. Sitting sphinxlike in the yard, I thought he looked magisterial, small in size but great in wisdom.

 

 

Then he flared his nose and let loose ripples of twitches that rolled over his body, as if he had held his giggles long enough and now must return to his bunny ways and leave wisdom for the owls.

 

 

After grazing a bit more, he sat up, fluttered his two front paws and licked them. He groomed himself as carefully as a young man on a first date, then froze, suddenly remembering that the world must be watched.

 

More of the bunny through the window.

 

I could have watched much longer, but he had other places to go.  Turning back toward the fence, he showed me his improbable tail: a cotton ball glued on by a child’s hand. I waved goodbye and turned back toward my book.

 

 

Every evening I look for the rabbits, delighted that we share the world together. I know that dandelions and rabbits are often called pests, and perhaps they are, but they fill my heart with wonder. In my own way, I think the world bears watching.