Yesterday’s mail arrived in a stream of sunshine. I sat outside reading all morning and well into the early afternoon; the weather was just too nice to spend the day indoors. I took the opportunity to also research how the light hits the back of the house, and how this would affect J’s sitting out there in summer. As a result of my research, I moved the patio table and its umbrella to a spot where it can easily provide some respite from the sun for J. I also decided that the corn is going in a corner of the deck, and that the strawberries can be planted near the step.
With that order of business completed, I sat on J’s rocking chair (part of the research) and tested the cushion and the view. He will be VERY happy with the spot he has chosen.
Yesterday would have been my great-aunt’s 104th birthday, and this is usually an emotionally-testy date for me. She loved birthdays, and always referred to herself as “the girl who was born ten days before Halley’s Comet streamed across the sky in 1910.” When the comet came around again in 1986, she awaited the event as one who is about to see a long-lost friend. My aunt was the most pragmatic and yet deeply romantic person…she didn’t have birthdays, she had “Aprils!” I think of her and I think of exuberant flowers, perfumed talc, bijouterie, pretty dresses, jet black hair in a chignon. I also think of her rosary, her love of ankle socks and sneakers, her baby blue ’55 Cadillac, the apron she wore to drive, and her love of coconut candy. I can hear her, and I can feel her rocking me back and forth as I sat on her lap.
In yesterday’s mail, which arrived in a flood of sunshine and warm air like we haven’t seen in months, there was a pouch with a CD my cousin mailed a few days ago. Last week I got a surprise phone call from him. We hardly ever speak; our family (our extended family) is spread far and wide, and -as close as we seemed to be when the older generation was still around- we are not very close these days.
Correction: other people communicate amongst themselves, and I -antisocial and cantankerous being that I am- stay in my corner and let everyone else mill about as they choose. It’s quite possible that I have become the eccentric cousin who acts like one of those hermits that noblemen and landowners used to let hang around their properties.
My cousin was like a brother to me. I was fonder of, and closer to, him than I was my own siblings, and this is possibly because he seemed to be around more, and he seemed to pay me more attention. His mother was my grandmother’s sister, and one of the holy trinity of aunts who raised me. While my siblings seemed distant, and irritated with their much-younger baby sister, my cousin always had a moment for me, and was always kind and sweet.
I haven’t seen him in ages. When we talk, now that we are adults with spouses and children, it is stilted, awkward, uncomfortable. I don’t expect it to be otherwise, of course, because when you grow up the dynamics of everything change. I am no less fond of him now, but I base my fondness on memory rather than recent experience. And maybe that’s why people interact with each other, and I’m the hermit in some lord’s property…
I was reluctant to watch this disc. I knew that it covered the early years of my life. I remember those years. I remember them distinctly enough that the clothes, smells, voices, events, toys, earrings, hair, birthday cakes are in 3D in my mind while they’re only 2D, and soundless, on the screen. The first thing that greeted was my three year-old face, and that was when I realized that *that* is pretty much what I see when I think of myself.
Pretty much. I say that because in about a year I had an accident that changed my life forever. I wasn’t disfigured so much as marred; I wasn’t destroyed so much as altered. While I see “pretty much” the girl that is celebrating her third birthday with a cake that has ballerinas on it, I also see the girl who then had a neat scar on her lower lip, and her teeth growing in a jumble. I see the girl who didn’t smile because her teeth were bigger than her face (and this would have been true even if I hadn’t fallen,) and who learned to be ashamed of a birthmark on her temple.
The strange thing is that I remember all that affection that seems to be centered on me in those home movies. I remember the voices telling me to dance, to smile, to blow the candles on the cake, to blow kisses. I remember the feel of the hugs, the warmth of the bodies. When I saw my aunt, I felt a stab of pain that I had not felt in a long time; it wasn’t the same stab of pain I feel when one of my children is suffering, but rather the stab of pain a child feels when she is suffering. I didn’t mourn her loss (all over again, nearly 21 years later) as a 49 year-old woman, but rather as a small child.
I always say that people don’t change, they just age, but I am starting to believe that I am mistaken. After we watched this surreal traipse down the path of my early years, I came to the living room and looked at my passport picture. I was six when it was taken, and in it is visible the scar from the plastic surgery that followed my fall. My birthmark is slightly camouflaged by the stamp from the passport office, but it’s there. The worst part is that the smile is gone; the little girl I saw in that home movie, smiling, blinking, being cute and sociable had turned -three years later- into a serious-looking, stormy-faced person.
As a mother, I’ve learned that when something happens to our children, we change along with them. When I realized that J is autistic, I became a different person; I tackled the world, and all that came attached to this unexpected development in my child’s life, in a different way. Instead of turning away from him, instead of trying to change him, I tried to change myself…I redefined my concept of what was expected of me as a parent.
Watching that home movie yesterday, I get the strong sense that -maybe- something changed when I fell and was no longer the cute little kid with the smiling eyes, the pearly whites that peeked when someone said “smile at the camera!” I don’t know if I suddenly became “work” as opposed to “adorable.” I don’t know if my parents and siblings were traumatized by my trauma. I can’t presume to know what happened to them when something happened to me, but I do know that the dynamic I saw in that home movie was absent from the rest of my family life.
Maybe it was me. Maybe I turned into a sullen, difficult child; maybe I was the one who shunned everyone. This wouldn’t surprise me; after all, look at me, I live in this self-contained world we have nurtured and occupy comfortably. My aunt used to remind me that family comes first; she liked to tell me that my children would be the center of the world, that it would all be about how committed we were, as a family, to each other. I don’t know if she was trying to remind me that this was possible, but yesterday I saw that my aunts, my three lovely aunts, did -in fact- exist and breathe, and they did love me. And I know, because it is engraved in my bones, that they continued to love me years later when the gloss of cuteness wore off.
I grew up in a world where things were ‘repaired,’ not replaced. I grew up with damage that was masked, and happily declared “good enough to use again.” I believe, I suppose, in repurposing, refurbishing, recycling, reusing, and maybe it’s because that young child realized that it was those three old ladies who believed not all was lost when the cuteness left me.
Why else would I, blindly and enthusiastically, march on with the now-under-260-pound, five-foot-nine-and-a-half-inch, facial-haired, sometimes-surly, sometimes-happy, SIB-prone J? Because I was loved before I was damaged, and I was loved after…