Friday, February 8, 2008
Behind the Shadow
Some of my favorite memories of my childhood are not my memories at all, they are my mother’s.
The stories she tells are of a toddler who is strong willed and determined. A child who knows her mind and is not going to let anyone make her change it.
A two year old who loathed being called a baby and bristled, “I’m not a baby, I’m a bear!”
A three year old who ate her dinner of shrimp cocktail and onion soup under the table at a New York restaurant because it was better that way.
A four year old who stopped an entire neighborhood carpool from going home after school by hiding underneath the car because she was afraid to get in that car with a father whom she had never met.
I love that girl.
I’ve missed her.
She was beaten out of me.
The last time I remember seeing her was when she was four and a half.
She was playing at a friend’s house and wanted desperately to go home, but she was afraid to ask. The mother had a strange southern accent. To a child who was barely three and a half feet tall, the woman seemed large and loud, scary and foreign. And so, rather than ask, the child set out on her own, determined to get back home.
Home was four miles away, through windy neighborhood streets and down a four-lane highway. But this little girl’s heart knew the way, knew that this little girl needed to be there.
So she set off on her own, brown braids wagging back and forth, bangs ruffled by the breeze. Her round tanned cheeks jiggled as she marched resolutely toward home. She slowed a few times to admire the flowers, stopping once to climb up a small plumeria tree for a particularly alluring and delicate blossom.
Walking through the neighborhood was peaceful. As she neared the highway, the whoosh of busy cars alerted her to the fact that she was more than half way home.
Rounding the corner, the sidewalk ended abruptly and the smell of exhaust fumes filled her nose. The girl walked as far off the highway as she could, through the dust and gravel along the side of the road. The bottoms of her sandals were smooth and slick and they refused to bend to accommodate the sharp edges of the gravel. Her beautiful, baby blue, crisp cotton dress with the appliquéd sailboat began to wilt as it collected dust that was kicked up by the cars flying by at 45 miles per hour.
And the girl soldiered on. No one noticed her. No one stopped. No one slowed. And that was fine with the girl. She wouldn’t have talked to anyone anyway. She knew better. Besides, she really didn’t notice them either. Home was calling. That was all that mattered.
Half a mile later, she turned off the highway into her own neighborhood. She passed by the low grey ranch where her friend Debbie lived. Around the next corner was the tall brown fence behind which hid Kelly’s house. Down the street, was the white ranch with the brown-shingled roof belonging to Pam’s family.
And finally, there was the familiar tan house with the peaked roof and the lauhala tree in the front yard. She banged the gate loudly as she ran through it and straight into her grandmother’s room where she was greeted with the smell of violet candy and a surprised smile, “You’re home. I didn’t hear the car door.”
“I walked,” the girl replied quietly, but her fiercely beating heart and up thrust chin betrayed her deep sense of pride.
“I see,” her grandmother nodded.
The girl peeked through her long brown lashes, searching to see if her grandmother’s face matched her words. She was relieved to see that her grandmother’s eyes were soft and wise with understanding. Their eyes bowed respectfully to each other and, just over her grandmother’s shoulder, the girl saw her mother enter the room.
Her mother’s eyes carried no respect, only anger. She grabbed the girl by the wrist and dragged from the room.
“Do you know how frightened Susie’s mother was?” she spewed, spitting anger at the girl. “She had the whole neighborhood out looking for you!”
“I wanted to come home,” the girl explained, hoping that her need would make a difference.
“You could have asked,” her mother replied through clenched teeth, as she yanked open the broom closet door and reached for the yardstick.
“I was afraid,” the girl pleaded, but she already knew that her feelings wouldn’t matter.
“I’ll give you something to be afraid of,” hissed her mother. She pushed the girl down on the hikie’e (hawaiian daybed). The girl’s nose was buried in the cotton cover, which smelled of starched humidity. She felt her mother lift the yardstick high over her head and heard it’s whistling descent. The air stung the girl’s legs and then she felt the crack of the yardstick against the back of her thighs. Once. Twice. Three times. Until, finally, it splintered in two.
The girl knew she deserved it. She realized, too late, that her brave and daring trek home had been neither brave nor daring to her mother; rather, it had been a source of humiliation.
The girl knew that her crime was unforgivable. She was expected to be perfect, and, on this day, she had fallen miserably short of the mark.
She vowed that she would never let it happen again.
On that day, she understood that she was not enough. And so she left.
She was replaced by a shadow who knew how to remain soft and malleable, who allowed herself to be shaped into her mother’s idea of perfection. Even the shadow couldn’t get it right all of the time, but her mistakes were as timid and wispy as she was and were easily squashed.
Occasionally, the girl would peek out from behind her shadow to see if it was safe to come out. Someone was usually there to chase her back into the dark.
Sometimes, the girl could come out and play with her grandmother, but she always made sure to hide before anyone else caught her.
It took me forty years to be brave enough to ask her to stay.
We’ve been getting to know each other again.
I keep telling her that I love her and that she really has always been enough, that, in fact, she has always been perfect.
It has taken a while, but she is finally beginning to trust me.
I think, this time, it is finally safe enough for her to stay,