I remember when Kevin was born. I was a proud big sister. It looks like my dad’s handwriting on the left.
Back when I was visiting England a lot, I got to know Ian and Denise. Ian was in a band called Magpie, they had a yellow Citroen Deux Chevaux they called Big Bird, I think. They had a leather couch and once, after an argument in which a tea/coffee mug was broken one of them created art with the broken pieces. I think I liked them because they seemed like the perfect couple.
The first time I saw her she was 5-and-a-bit, exactly the same age as I was. We’d just moved out of the apartment on Mountain Street and into our new home on Heine Avenue. I didn’t pay much attention to her at first. She was just there. It wasn’t until the trouble years started that I began to take more notice of her.
The trouble years started when I was about thirteen. I was always a volatile child, at least as far as I remember or what I was told. But once I turned thirteen it got much worse. My parents laughed about it in later years, although the laughter always seemed to be tinged with caution. They never knew when I would fly into a rage, or what would set me off.
I don’t remember what made me go to her that first time, but I remember standing in front of her, talking to her about whatever (seemed) injustice I’d just been dealt. She had stories too. Her mother was demanding (so was mine!), she had few friends (me too), her father didn’t understand why she loved to read so much (same with me).
I’d look past her, though her doorway, into her house and think how much more calm and quiet it seemed. She said the same about mine.
Maybe her mother was not as demanding as mine was. Maybe we could change places, just for a while, just to get away from the anger (our own and the anger that was directed at us). Would anyone know? Would anyone care?
The first time we exchanged places it was like stepping into another world, at least for me. I don’t know what it was like for her. I saw her mother, who looked like my mother, in a different way than I’d ever seen my mother. Maybe it was because her mother was a stranger to me and strangers don’t yell at other people’s daughters.
The house felt brighter, more dimensional, happy, carefree, loving, kind.
That first time, we didn’t stay long in each other’s houses. We looked around, we talked to each other’s mother and young brother then returned to our own homes, refreshed, calmer than before the exchange.
Through the following years we did the exchange/switch scores of times, each time staying longer and longer in each other’s world even if we hadn’t just had a fight with our mothers.
Eventually, gradually, we no longer needed to switch. The fights with our mothers slowed down, our brothers quit annoying us so much. We got jobs, went to college, moved out of the house on Heine Avenue, and moved away from our hometown.
We forgot about each other. We forgot about our trips into each other’s lives. We became adults, married and had children.
One day, maybe 30 years after that first exchange, I was back visiting my childhood home. Something made me remember her (perhaps my own teenage daughter’s presence) and I started thinking about the switches.
Then I told my daughter about my time as a teenager, growing up in the house on Heine Avenue. I told her of the fierce arguments I had with my mother. I told her about the girl in the mirror. I explained how we switched places: the girl and I placing our foreheads together, then our fingertips, then pushing through to the other side.
Had we ever switched back that last time, whenever that last time was? Was I living the wrong life? Was she living the life I should have lived?
I decided to visit her again, to see if she could remember if we ever switched back that last time, if she remembered that last time. I walked to where I always met her…
She was not where I last saw her. I asked my mother where she went. What had she done with her? My mother heard me say, “Mom, what happened to the big mirror in your room? Did it break? Did you get rid of it?”
My mom replied that she’d only moved the mirror to the back of her bedroom door. She seemed to sense panic in my voice, but didn’t ask why.
“Thank God,” I thought, as I went to the bedroom, “she is still safe. I can still see her.”
We still looked alike and her house still looked more real than my own childhood home. She didn’t remember if we’d changed back, and asked if it really mattered. Weren’t we both happy right now?
She was right, I was happy. I had a husband and two children I loved very much. My daughter and I were much closer than my mom and I had been, and while my son had inherited my volatility, he was growing out of that (very long) stage.
Despite being a grown woman, each visit to my mother’s house after that trip included a visit to her bedroom mirror to remember the child, the teenager, the adult who looked just like me but was somehow a better version of me, who lived in a better place than I did.
We never considered changing places again, but I always still wondered what life in that other world would have been like and if it was really my life in there.
After my mother died, I assumed her mother died too; but did she die like my mother did, slowly forgetting words, places, people, how to walk, how to swallow? I hoped for both their sakes they were spared that nightmare.
Six months after my mother’s death I visited the mirror again while gathering memorabilia from my childhood home, but could not look directly at it, could not say goodbye to my friend from fifty-something years ago. I noticed she was absent too.
On the way back to Bethesda, hauling a U-Haul loaded with furniture, boxes of photos and childhood memories, I felt a pang of regret in my gut that I’d not taken the mirror with me. We surely could have found room for it in our house and it would have been safe. It would have been comforting to have her with me all the time. (You might be thinking that she’s in every mirror, but there you would be wrong. She is only in that one mirror. I have never seen her in any other.)
More recently I visited my childhood home for the last time. It was empty, the estate sale agents had done their job well. It was void of everything I knew from my childhood and teen years, from my visits as an adult. It was missing the people I loved, the furniture I sat in, the art on the walls. I walked around, taking pictures for a possible blog post. I went into every room, opened each closet, and peeked into drawers and cabinets. I expected to feel sadness, but instead just felt emptiness.
On the way home, this time on an airplane, I realized that when I was in that empty house, in my mother’s empty bedroom, I forgot to see if the mirror was still there on the back of the door or if the estate sale agents had sold it to someone wanting a sturdy mirror. Either way, someday someone else will look in that mirror. Will they see the shadow of a lonely teenage girl, angry at her mother about this or that injustice? She’s still there, I know it. I just wonder if it is me or her.
Teachers get a lot of interesting gifts from their students. I think the most interesting, and inappropriate gift I received was a long, pink nightgown from the child of a Filipino mother. She also gave me one of my best gifts — dinner out (with her) at a fancy restaurant in Arlington. I got a lot of mugs, most of which are broken or given away these 20 years since I last stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher. I already wrote about one of my favorite gifts, my cheeseburger pencil holder. A couple parents gave me things they made themselves and I have one or two of those left, including this needlepoint sampler.
The mother of one of the sweetest children I ever met made this and gave it to me in 1988. Her son, Michael, was probably in first grade at the time. He and his family moved from St. Angelo, Texas at the beginning of the school year because his father got a job at the Pentagon. He was a Marine, and scary as hell, but his wife and son were so sweet and kind.
Michael was in my class because he had a brain tumor when he was very young that caused him to have seizures, so many a day that he had to wear a helmet most of the time to protect his head for when he fell. The seizures mostly stopped when the tumor was removed, but he was still slightly delayed because of the brain trauma. He also had a brain stent to reduce fluids from building up around his brain.
A few years after the family moved to the DC area, the father developed a seizure disorder. I remember talking to Michael’s mom about how unfair it was that both her son and now her husband had seizure disorders and asked her how she stayed so positive and she told me that it is not that God gives you only what you can handle in life, but you learn to handle what God gives you .
I last talked to Michael’s mom (and Michael) after I gave birth to my daughter. It was a brief conversation, but it was memorable in that both she and Michael were still very positive people. Michael will be in his thirties now. I hope he is still as cheerful as he was as a child.
- this was a Catholic school, hence the God stuff [↩]
As mentioned in the previous post, I partially learned about the birds and the bees from a set of books my mother gave me after being unwilling (embarrassed?) to answer a legitimate question about sperm and eggs.
The Life Cycle Library for Young People is a set of four books whose “Note to Readers” includes:
The story told on the following pages is one of the most fascinating and important ones in the life of every human being. Doctors … are still trying to discover the details of the process by which a tiny cell no larger than a speck of dust grows to be a growing, eating, crying, laughing, loving baby.
It was published in 1969 by The Parent and Child Institute of Chicago.
As I mentioned in that other post, I was not ready to read a set of books about sex. I didn’t open them until one afternoon when my friend, Cindy, was over. I doubt we read the glossary that talked about such topics as “going steady” or “sophistication.”
We probably didn’t think the drawings were dated, since they were what we saw in newspapers and magazines every day.
No, I remember we skipped to Book 3, page 133 and read the section on “Sexual Intercourse” which begins:
The most intimate way for a husband and wife to express their love is through sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse is the act which enables the male sperm and female egg to unite to begin the life of a new human being. The primary purpose of sexual intercourse for all other living things is reproduction of the species. For a husband and wife it is also an emotional and physical expression of love.
It goes on to discuss foreplay, erogenous zones, arousal and orgasm , then discusses conception.
I’m pretty sure I only ever read that section of the books and maybe the parts about childbirth.
Really, it is not surprising I equated sex with conception after all, is it?
- even the woman’s! [↩]
‘Round about the time I was in 7th grade, I must have had some questions about sex. We had been exposed to “sex education” in grade school. The girls went into one room and the boys in another. In the girls’ session a teacher stood in front of the class and talked about having a period and then showed a film about having a period and about how an egg is fertilized. I am not sure what they talked about in the boys’ session.
I remember my mom asking me if I had any questions about what I’d learned. I did. I wanted to know exactly how a man got his sperm got into a woman’s vagina so it could fertilize the egg. I imagined a doctor and a large syringe type instrument might be involved. My mom’s response was that she didn’t want to talk about it .
She gave me a set of books instead. I was too shy to read them, especially when I saw that there were drawings of naked people in them, so they sat on my shelf for a few months.
In 7th grade science our science teachers were expected to teach life-science. This time boys and girls stayed in the same room. My teacher was Mr. Ludwig, who was young and quite dashing. He explained how a man got his sperm in a woman’s vagina to fertilize the egg. (The man and woman lie naked together and the man put his penis in her vagina and the sperm came out). My thought? No way. No way did that happen. No way did my parents do that. No way was I ever going to do anything like that. Several of my female classmates agreed with me.
My friend, Cindy was less disgusted with the idea and when she was over one afternoon we looked at the books my mom had given me.
When I started 8th grade, not long after school began in the late summer, the teachers went on strike. Kids were still expected to go to school so we were all gathered in the auditorium and were shown movies. One of the movies contained some adult themes, including discussion of sex. Someone in the film mentioned having sex more than once.
I was shocked. I assumed that you only had to do it once, ever. Like on your wedding night. The sperm that the man put in the woman would wander around her body and whenever she wanted a child, a sperm would fertilize an egg.
My friends laughed at my ignorance and said that you had to do it whenever you wanted to have a baby.
Yeah, I was not so pleased to hear that.Notes:
- although she denied that in later years [↩]
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a very long time — I even searched my archives because I was sure I’d written about my Little Bible before. It is so tiny, it should have been lost years ago, but I have always known pretty much where it is.
When I was young, not long after I learned to read, I think, I was given a tiny book that contained excerpts from the Bible. In fact, the cover page makes the claim that “The Little Bible Contains Selections from Every Book in the Bible as found in the King James Version.”
We were not a regular church-going family, but I definitely had questions about God and religion and I must have felt the need to learn “The Lord’s Prayer” for some reason. So, I turned to page 75 in my Little Bible and memorized “Mathew 6:9-13.”
I don’t know how long it took me to memorize it, but I do remember going into the living room and reciting it for my father who, if I remember correctly, was surprised enough to ask where I learned it. When I showed him the Little Bible he didn’t believe me at first.
I was very proud of myself for learning “The Lord’s Prayer” by myself and, for years, proudly recited it whenever we happened to go to church.
I wonder if I’d not memorized it then, would I ever have memorized it? I don’t know any of the other passages that are routinely recited at most churches, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed — I don’t know that by heart and I think it is shorter than the Lord’s Prayer.
I once owned a charm bracelet. I think my Aunt Ginny gave it to me. It was silver and had a few charms. The only charm I remember is a Christmas tree, but I probably had 4 or 5 charms on it. It was lost when my jewelry box was stolen when we lived in Pittsburgh.
I must have worn it in front of Jeremy, because he sent me a charm from Germany. I still have it — mostly because of the note on the back.
This has been sitting around for years, waiting to be blogged about. Well, here you go…
I don’t speak or read German but Professor Google tells me that Echt Email can mean either “Authentic e-mail” or “Authentic enamel.” Since I got this in the 1970s, I will assume it means the latter.
I spent much of the summer before I turned 16 with Grandpa and Grandma Green in their lake house in Chetek, Wisconsin just as I had done previous years. I spent my days reading and writing letters to my friends.
Sometimes I helped Grandma with things around the house and sometimes I spent time with Grandpa.
Grandpa Green had a few hobbies — reading, playing solitaire, drinking beer in bars and golf. One day he asked me if I would like to learn to play golf. I don’t remember if I was actually interested in playing golf, but I was interested in spending time with him, so I said I would like to learn. He took me to Chetek’s golf course and I acted as his caddie while he played golf with his buddies. I remember mostly being bored and hot and the golf bag was heavy.
When I told my mom about it, she said that the reason I was in Chetek in the first place was to spend time with Grandma when Grandpa was golfing. While that was news to me, I had no problem telling Grandpa that I didn’t want to go golfing with him when next he asked. I could tell he was disappointed, but I didn’t want to tell him that my mom said I should spend time with Grandma instead. I told him I did want to learn, but just not that day.
Before I left for home that summer, he gave me three golf balls and some golf tees. Maybe he thought I might try to golf in Elgin? I am not sure, but I thanked him and put them in a bag and took them home.
That November Grandpa developed a blood clot in his right leg and had to have it amputated. Besides being afraid for my Grandpa — someone I loved as much as I loved my own parents — I felt guilty because I’d declined to go golfing with him after the one time. I knew he would never set foot on a golf course again despite people telling me that when he got his prosthetic leg he’d golf again if he wanted to.
The next summer he developed another blood clot and had more of his leg amputated, but he suffered a heart attack during the amputation and died a few days later, on July 9, 1973. He was 63.
When my mom, who was at the Mayo Clinic with my grandparents, called to tell my dad about his death, I listened to Dad’s end of the call through the door to my attic bedroom. I sat on the steps, sobbing while holding the bag of golf balls and golf tees that Grandpa had given me. I cried out of grief, but also guilt because I told him I didn’t want to go golfing with him the previous summer.
I still have the golf balls and golf tees. I keep thinking I should just get rid of them, but I cannot do that.