I don’t have a lot of money, so I’m very choosy where I spend (and give) it. MY charity of choice is the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, where Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s efforts to help young women devastated by “too early” pregnancies has inspired me beyond measure. To learn more, please watch “A Walk to Beautiful” at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/a-walk-to-beautiful.html. I would be shocked if you weren’t as moved as I was. I have only been able to afford $10/month, but for the last three years they have gotten that $10 without fail. Anyone fortunate enough to have a job can surely do without a couple of fast food meals to help someone, somewhere who needs a helping hand. If this isn’t the cause you care about, please give to the one you DO!
The sun came out today and the sky is that perfect blinding blue, the one that everyone wants to be the backdrop to their photos and memories. As I was driving, listening to the radio and woolgathering, my mind went back to a long past yesterday where I was little and guarded, and sick on Halloween with the chicken pox.
I remember my mother, harried with four youngsters, three on the cusp of teendom, looking at me with squinted eyes. She spied some suspicious dots of red on my face and quickly had me shedding my skivvies to make a diagnosis. Chicken pox, oh joy.
I was five years old and looking forward with enthusiasm to the next night, roaming the dark with my brother and sisters, a ghoul with the gift of gab. “Trick or Treat!” I had practiced night and day, even in my sleep, and was so ready for that free candy. Now, dreams dashed, I was sent to bed without the prize. Little did I know what was in store.
I watched with disappointment as my siblings left. They laughed at each others costumes, rushing out the front door in anticipation of the night’s haul. I cried because I couldn’t join them. I drifted through the door of my room like a ghost, haunted by dreams of lollipops and gumdrops and the anguish of a sugar rush denied. A few hours later, I heard the front door open, but I didn’t stir. Fresh water rose up under my eyes, a flood of ennui running a gusher. I heard the merry voices of the returning journeymen, fresh from their candy haul, and then my mother called to me.
Slowly I rolled off the blanket, left the damp divot in my pillow and headed toward the living room where I was certain to view the others rolling in candied contentment, counting tootsie rolls and comparing chocolates. Reluctant but resigned, I walked in.
There before me stood my sisters and my brother, beaming with pride. They held out a sack, a pillow case, full to the brim and spilling over with every sort of confection, but most of all affection, for their sick little sister. They scoured the neighborhood, telling a tale between “Tricks” and “Treats” of their sister, unable to come our because of the pox, andthe neighbors had been generous. Eagerly, they presented their booty to me, all for me, their love evident in each and every unwrapped goody.
This was love. This was family. This was every good memory I will ever have. Three teenagers who gave up their night and their avarice for sweets for the sister who couldn’t go with them on the best night of a child’s year. They gave it all to me, every ounce- pounds probably- of candy and chocolate and goodness. In a few days, I was sated and sharing it all. The day as bright as this one, the Puerto Rican sky as blue as the sea and my love for them as just as wide. I will never forget it.
You know, Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Is there any wonder why?
I didn’t think mom and dad were fair! They had taken me to the theater plenty of times before and I had no concept of ratings, so all I could think of was their meanness. I loved the movie theater, the movies and all that came with them, even though by today’s standards the Naval Base Movie House would have rated $1 Theater at best. It was damp, had sticky floors and a tinny sound system, and bats – live bats – at the ceiling that would sweep down after mosquitoes in the butter flavored air. But ratings didn’t matter to me and now I was mad and wanted to get even, so I called my friend Tina a few doors down.
Before I dialed, I ran into the room I shared with my big brother and threw some things in a battered blue overnight case, a cast off from my sisters. I threw in some underwear and socks, a few t-shirts, and jeans. I was already wearing my favorite red boots and I could carry the bear. I gingerly carried the case with me down the hall, treading lightly on the linoleum lest my siblings overhear, and set it with care next to the telephone table that I always felt too much like a school desk for my comfort.
I sat down gently and dialed the phone.
I craned to see who was around.
I could feel a hot redness creeping up my neck.
I wasn’t sure that I could do this.
I clutched the bear.
Thank God Tina answered.
I cupped my hand around the receiver and whispered my plan into the phone. I was going to live at her house. I was running away.
I told her it was Okay because my parents were only a few doors down and I could go to school with her. Nobody would miss me, I could help cook or clean to earn my keep, and I would even share the bear. Surely this sacrifice would seal the deal. My plea was well thought out and earnest.
Tina, who normally jumped at the chance for a sleepover, suddenly sounded hesitant. She needed to ask her parents. She let go of the phone.
The few moments of confidence I felt as I wooed my “would be” roommate dissipated as quickly as steam. I knew Tina’s father. I was a little afraid of Tina’s father. He had a bald head, a mustache and was, to me at least, a tall and imposing figure. I could hear him talking faintly through the phone line and it didn’t sound friendly. I held the bear a little tighter as I scanned the parts of the house I could see to make sure that I was still clandestine. By the time Tina came back on the line, I had become aware of my breathing, amplified by the mouthpiece and damp around my nose. The hair on my neck where my braids met was becoming ringlets as my nerves outran the air conditioner. She took so long! Then she broke the news.
Apologetically she explained that I couldn’t come over. Her parents would tell and she would get in trouble. She was really sorry, but I had to stay home. I felt the last of my foolish hot air expire like last week’s helium. Her father said no and I deflated. I hadn’t even had a chance. I told Tina goodbye and hung up, dejected and defeated, awash in humiliation and shame.
What was I to do? I was beaten. The power I once had to get what I wanted had disappeared with my diapers, even though the desire for it had not, and six-year-old tantrums aren’t tolerated. I was the overthrown despot, done in by age. I realized that being six years old wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and I was going to miss a lot of movies. No longer concerned with staying undercover, I tucked the bear under one arm, dragged the case back to the bedroom and shut the door. One by one I put the clothes back in my dresser and then put the case in the closet on top of the toy box. The bear, he stayed with me. He stayed with me as I cried and dried my childish tears.
Sometimes it takes a revelation, no, a revolution, to learn who we are. I never, ever tried to run away again. The next week, my mom and dad took me to the movies.
Manipulated with Photoshop. Distributed under license here
The first real memory I can recall was of walking into our house on the navy base in Puerto Rico. I was four years old. It was as if there was nothing before and my life began in that instant, the instant that I walked through the door into the living room and saw the white walls bathed in striped sunlight and the exotic, temporary wicker furniture that filled it. You would think that I would remember the plane ride to the island, but I don’t. However, I certainly was awestruck by that house. It was like a sort of dream or fairy tale, real but unreal. I remember it seemed strange, exotic and oh, so exciting! For a first memory that’s not too bad, but a door opened in my mind as well as that house that day. I lived there for about four years. For a little girl, there couldn’t have been a more magical place to be.
From front to back, our yard was a jungle and a playground. On the concrete half wall that separated the porch from the yard, it was common to see iguanas sunning themselves among the rhododendron. You might have also seen me, a little girl with cats eye glasses and dark pigtails, a striped t-shirt and red cowboy boots jumping off the wall, pretending to be a superhero, gifted with the capability of flight. Or maybe I was learning to skate on Christmas day holding onto that wall, my security blanket against skinned knees, stoically scuffling under the winter sun.
In the backyard was an almond tree with the unfortunate addition of a swing hanging from it. Nobody thought to warn me that lawn mowers can pick up and throw almonds. They can throw them very, very hard. I’m sure I blamed my brother at the time, but I hope he realizes that is a grudge I’ve outgrown. It was also the backyard where I left my favorite bear, BooBoo, out in the rain and jumped the reedy ditch at the border. Just beyond the yard was the base’s Family Pool where I learned to swim. Doing torpedoes underwater was my favorite and I was proud of my ability to open my eyes underwater. I still kind of am.
Under the carport, where more rhododendrons closed in like a fragrant fortress, my daddy stored the rocking horse I rode for hours on end, and when it rained, the gap between the gutter and the roof would create a horizontal curtain of water like a waterfall. In the little river that gathered and ran under the curtain I played with my little animals until my knobby knees were stiff and my hands, raisins. That tiny stream was an ocean of ideas to fill my animals’ imaginary lives, but my mother saw it as a possible source of Schistosomiasis. I still see it as a rain forest oasis filled with mist, rain and the sweetness of honeysuckle.
To venture out of the carport and onto the grass was to risk sands spurs and ant bites, but the reward could be a coconut to take inside. I knew very well the taste of fresh milk and the sweetness of fresh coconut on one of my mother’s cakes. There were coconut palms everywhere on Cowpens Drive.
Our house was at the bottom of a hill that rose steeply enough to cause inexperienced bike riders to end up with serious road rash at the end, and at the top w as the way to “The Rocks”, an area of cliffs and rocky coast on which my friends and I would risk our necks regularly. If you turned right from the driveway instead of left, it wasn’t a long walk to a white sand beach complete with shelters, grills and playground equipment, the perfect place to make frog houses and catch hermit crabs. It was also where, when drifting lazily in shallow water on a driftwood log, thinking of lunch, that I saw a barracuda swim by my leg. I got out of that water so fast I must’ve looked like I have suddenly been gifted with the ability to walk on water. It occurred to me, I guess, that the barracuda might have also been thinking about lunch.
But the real story of my childhood is inside the house, where I sprawled on the living room floor watching Bugs Bunny in Spanish and developed my first crush on Captain Kirk. In that house a little girl shared a room with big brother, had a dog named Bo, and celebrated the day she was able to reach the Popsicles in the freezer. This same little girl galloped on all fours around the dining room table until mom got a migraine. She sat sullenly in the hall to protest unwanted bed times. She tried to hatch lizard eggs in dresser drawers and listened to Lambchop on her sisters’ record player, refused to wear dresses, and tortured naked Barbie dolls with homemade haircuts.
We moved away when I was 9, when my father retired from the Navy. That plane ride I do remember. It took me from something that can never be replaced. Everything has changed, years have passed and even if I decided to visit, the house is no longer there. But something tells me, after a few more years have gone by and the grass has grown over and the buildings crumbled and the land is taken over once again by palms and sand spurs, you will be to glimpse the ghost of a little girl in red boots and braids galloping among the iguanas.
Manipulated in Photoshop. Distributed under license here.