CHEATER, CHEATER, PUMPKIN EATER

The other day I watched the movie Wonder, with Julia Roberts. In one scene the main character, based on August Pullman, decided during a math test in fifth grade to show his answers to a classmate to help him out. And what struck me was the movie’s indulgent attitude about this cheating—it made me feel good that they didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Because one morning when I was in fifth grade—while a couple of my classmates in front of me were furtively trading answers on a standardized reading test—I did something that would be life-changing: Worried that they were going to score much higher on the test than I was, I tried to peek over at a classmate’s answers.

Before fifth grade I’d always felt happy and confident in school. I’d had teachers I liked and who’d liked me—and maybe that was a mitigating influence that allowed me to feel smart and successful despite my father’s daunting expectations. But in fifth grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Koehler, who didn’t like me, though I never knew why. Soon I began noticing differences in my classmates’ abilities—Ronny and Carol were best at math and Margie was best at spelling. Up until then I’d been able to keep up with all the kids in the gifted group in my class, but now, for the first time, I began to worry about measuring up.

This was also the year that I started becoming obsessive and began to painstakingly write my homework in an elaborate cursive with fancy “descenders”—and if I made more than one mistake that I had to cross out, I would crumple up the page and start over.

It was the year I developed “eveningmares” and had to have a nightlight to sleep. I’d seen a movie called The Revenge of Frankenstein, and every evening after dark I became terrified of seeing the monster in a window, coming for me.

When I remember these details now, it almost seems to me that I was sensing an impending doom, and that this was a child’s way of externalizing her fear—for death was impending, though it was a psychic rather than a physical one. Because what was happening behind the scenes in my parents’ lives would, over the course of the next three years, spell emotional disaster for all of us. And, as Maurice Sendak said in one of his lectures, “Children know everything.”

When my teacher’s voice rang out, “Cathy, why do you feel the need to cheat?” I felt abjectly humiliated. What I couldn’t have known was how fateful this transgression of mine would prove to be.

CHIEF WANT

I love this picture of Arielle at two, heading out all by herself across a snowy field to a distant playground—a photo that, to me, embodies better than words can express her adventurous spirit. From A Patchwork Memoir:

Arielle was away in Illinois for a month; then, as soon as the family got back, everybody came down with the flu in succession—and just about the time the last one recovered, Arielle got head lice. I did manage to see her once during this time, when we went to the Little Farm in Tilden Park, her very favorite thing to do. On the drive up Marin, I asked if she’d gotten to make a snowman in Illinois. “Her cousins made one for her,” said Leia. “It melt!” cried Arielle from her car seat in the back, still apparently wonder-struck by the fact. (She hasn’t mastered the past tense yet, but it occurs to me that at her age you wouldn’t need it much.) She went on jabbering happily in accents of her own, as incomprehensible to me as most of those in British movies. I realized I’d been foolishly hoping, considering how fast toddlers learn, that she’d come back from the Midwest with an accent like mine (Ella says I still don’t sound like a Californian), and at long last I’d be able to understand her completely.

As we always do, we brought a box of tattered lettuce leaves, discarded from the Berkeley Bowl, to feed Jenny and Tillie, the two donkeys, as well as an assortment of sheep and goats. There are chickens too, geese, two pigs, a cow, and the newest arrival—a calf that we’re not supposed to feed because it’s still nursing. Arielle has no trepidation about being bitten; she’s as liable to hand the donkeys a broken bit of stalk that puts her fingers at no distance from their teeth as a large frilly leaf which does. They take the greenery delicately with their lips—and all you feel is whiskers.

After we made the rounds of pens, she started off on her own up the muddy path along the upper field and into the eucalyptus woods, like Little Red Riding Hood. There aren’t any wolves, only coyotes, I’ve heard, but I hurried after her anyway, worried about her straying into poison oak.

On our previous visit to Tilden Park, she went on the pony ride, swaying in the saddle she was so tired—she hadn’t had her nap but was determined to ride, anyway. I walked alongside, in case she nodded off on the pony’s back. When the man in charge suddenly stopped us all for no apparent reason, I looked around bewildered. “Step back!” he shouted. I didn’t know what he was talking about until I felt pony pee splattering all over my white canvas sandals.

Now Leia is telling me over the telephone that she just shampooed Arielle’s hair with Rid to kill the lice, but she still has to comb her hair to get out the eggs. At the moment Arielle is in the living room, she adds, twirling to the tune of “Skid-a-ma-rink-a-dink, Skid-a-ma-rink-a-doo” on the tape of silly songs I bought her.

When Leia had told me they were going to visit relatives in Illinois for Christmas, I ran directly out to Mr. Mopps’ and spent the hour before closing time looking over every toy in the place; hard-pressed to top playdough, I hadn’t bought Arielle a Christmas present yet. I considered number and letter games and puppets and tea sets and doctor kits and Legos and musical instruments of all kinds… But once I saw a little “kid-tough” tape recorder with bright buttons and a microphone, it was no contest—the only question was whether she already had one or not.

The next morning I was at Toys ‘R Us (well, it’s cheaper than Mr. Mopps’) when the doors opened at 8:00 a.m., I was so eager to give Arielle her present. It occurred to me that since Manny is Peruvian and Leia Dutch, they wouldn’t know the songs American kids learn growing up, so I also bought a tape that had everything from “Old MacDonald” and “Michael Finnegan” to “Mares Eat Oats” and “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”

At home I picked up my guitar for the first time in years and made up a little song for her to play on her tape recorder. “If your smile feel saggy, and your feet feel draggy, and you don’t know what to do…”

“Our chief want in life,” said Emerson, “is someone who will make us do what we can.”

 

YOU CAN SING A SONG

When your heart feels happy and your fingers feel snappy

And you don’t know what to do,

You can sing a song or hum along,

Beat a drum or strum a strum,

Or play a buzzy kazoo.

 

Chorus

You can buzz and jingle and clap

Or tap on a tambourine.

You can sing a song or hum along,

beat a drum or strum a strum,

And have a jolly jamboree.

 

You can find the sheet music and second verse if you click on my Home Page, then choose the last the selection, “LISTEN to funny kids’ songs.”

CONTEMPT

 

EARLY BIRD

(some ear words – er sound)

 

Have you heard of the snirl who yearned to learn

At a time when there wasn’t a college?

It set out in earnest to search the earth

For a book that contained all knowledge.

It ate every book it came across,

But none answered all of its questions,

Not even the question that bothered it most—

How do you treat indigestion?

I wrote this rhyme for my The Adventure’s of Jix story collection—and it only occurs to me now that perhaps I chose to treat the pursuit of knowledge with such levity because, in my own life, it was fraught with anxiety. From A Patchwork Memoir :

There was a moment, sometime in my elementary school years, when I realized that my father wasn’t a nice man. We were in a restaurant; I no longer remember where or what was said—just that my father treated the inexperienced waitress with scorn. I saw, in their interaction, a man who looked down on the rest of the world with disdain. And it wasn’t only other people’s ignorance he was contemptuous of, I began to see, but he was critical of what he deemed their weaknesses and failings, having no sense whatever of his own faults and limitations. He didn’t seem to suffer from the insecurities that bedevil many of the rest of us, as I’ve said, and was completely indifferent to what other people thought of him.

What I learned from my father from infancy on was that intellect and knowledge were the measure of a man—or woman. Period. Other qualities didn’t seem to factor into his assessment of people at all. He was also impressed by the trappings of intellect, like degrees, awards, prizes, and relevant numbers such as I.Q.

It wasn’t until I was thirty and living with two graphic artists that it became real to me for the first time that there were other criteria I might measure myself by. They were so creative—such stimulating company—that I finally understood that my creativity had value too. But that was many years in the future, and, growing up, I used the criteria I was handed. Of course, I knew it was important to be a good person as well, but that didn’t make me interesting or my opinions worthy of respect. Consequently, through all my years of schooling, even after the move to California, I would channel all my energies into achieving academically—in order never to sink beneath my father’s contempt.

VIGILANCE

For the first three years we lived on Raymond, Doug and I shared a small bedroom. Before bed, my mom would set my hair in pin curls with bobby pins; then my dad would tell us a bedtime story about the hair-raising adventures of two kids. And though neither of my parents was particularly demonstrative, we always got a goodnight kiss. Unfortunately, my dad’s tall tales often involved giants, which gave Doug nightmares—and sometimes a bobby pin would get clipped to my ear when I rolled over in my sleep, so my ear would be painfully sore the next morning.

I have one curious memory I associate with this yellow-flowered bedroom. One evening at bedtime it occurred to me to wonder why I always slept on my back. Then I remembered: in my preschool years, when I’d sleep on my stomach, I had a recurring nightmare about a boogeyman who would creep up on me in my bed at night and seize me from behind—and tickle me, which was frightening both because it was so sudden and unexpected and because I sensed his malevolence. I’d started sleeping on my back in an attitude of vigilance—and the nightmares had stopped. But I wasn’t afraid anymore, I told myself, and from then on I slept any which way.

Eventually my parents decided it was time for Doug and me to have our own rooms. He was consigned to the narrow back porch, which had a bank of windows on three sides and no radiator. It was freezing cold in winter—a situation that always troubled me. Then my parents stripped off the old wallpaper in what was to be my room, and Mom set about turning it into the dream bedroom she’d never had as a child. She bought a polished-cotton bedspread with pink and purple pansies and a vanity with a skirt that matched the bedspread—with arms that opened out so you could reach the drawers underneath. It had a mirror top, as well as a triptycal standing mirror that you could adjust to see yourself from various angles. On the one window she hung gauzy pink ruffled curtains, and she bought a light gray rug to go with the newly painted cool gray walls.

I’ve never liked pink and purple together, however, and I’ve always remembered this room as depressingly cold in aspect, now that it was no longer warmed by yellow roses. I was too young to wear make-up, so instead I used the tryptical mirror to draw self-portraits when I was sick. I also recall how cold the mirror top felt when I rested my arms or elbows on it. But maybe some of this sense of chill had to do with being alone in the room now—or even with guilt about my brother’s frigid bedroom.

In any case, this was the beginning of my drawing portraits, first of myself, then of friends and family too. The self-portrait above I sketched when I was ten.

HAPPY SPRING!

The irises are in bloom! I’ve always loved them because they remind me of spring in Minnesota. When the city decreed that my little deck had to come down-—and, necessarily, my potted garden—I started taking pictures of my neighbors flowers, so I would always have their colors brightening my life.

BUB

In my Bluebird autograph book I also came across the entry above.

Kathy was my bosom buddy throughout elementary school. Her last name was Hartwick, but she was dubbed Kathy Heart-pickle-bottom by the neighborhood kids. She was pretty, with brown hair and dainty, even teeth.   She was the middle child of five and lived a block away from our Raymond Avenue apartment in a white colonial-style house with green shutters. Her father was a dentist, her mother a handsome, capable woman who wore no make-up and kept a spotless house. On the few occasions I had dinner with them, I quaked, worrying I might be asked to say grace, when I didn’t know how.

I kept a diary in grade school in which, despite my resolution, I only managed to write about once a year.

At eight I chronicled a day I spent with Kathy:

“In the morning we made little books with faces in them. There was a slit along the middle of the pages. You could leave the bottom part from the middle on down on the first face and the top part from the middle on up on the last face. So the faces got all mixed up. After we had done that, she asked me if I could go to her house to eat. I asked Mommy and she said yes. So we got on our overclothes.

“Off we went. When we got to her house, lunch was not quite ready. When it was, we ate and ate. Boy, that food was good. After lunch, I asked Kathy if she could come to the Farm Campus movie. Her mother said yes, but Kathy had to help wash the dishes first. The movie didn’t start for a half an hour so I walked back to my house. A little while later, I heard a knock on the door. I ran to open it–it was Kathy.   Then I looked at the clock. It was time to go. The movie was very good. Then Kathy went home. What a happy day that was!”

(I’m not sure how my teacher, Miss Brown, ever imagined I was going to become a writer.)

I also remember the day we both learned to play chopsticks on the piano in her basement and the time Kathy took me up to her attic to see a bird nest on the window ledge with four baby birds in it, their yellow mouths agape.

Though we weren’t in the same class in school until sixth grade, Kathy and I took modern dance together and were Bluebirds, then Campfire Girls, in the same troupe, as I mentioned in my blog “Schism.” Saturdays we went to the movies at the auditorium on the Farm Campus—the audience was all kids…no adult could have stood the uproar—where we saw Bambi and Old Yeller and Annie, Get Your Gun. Kathy had a Ginny doll and I had a Muffy, whose clothes were interchangeable. I didn’t like playing with dolls particularly, but I loved their organdy ballet outfits, white fur coats and hats, and lacy bridal gowns.

From time to time Kathy broke dates with me, which invariably hurt my feelings, but I adored her anyway. She was everything I wanted to be and thought I wasn’t—graceful, pretty, sweet-natured. I’m sure I was also drawn to what I saw as her family’s “normalcy.” They were Republicans, church-going, her mother a stay-at-home mom, while my parents were Democrats, my father an outspoken atheist, and my mother a career woman at a time when most women were homemakers. I worried about what I regarded as my faults—like bossiness—but I thought if I did my best to model myself after Kathy, maybe, just maybe, I would turn out all right.

IN CLOVER

This was the back yard before Ava moved into apartment 1. Because of her allergies, we no longer have greenery underfoot.

ILLUSTRATING

Here I am, drawing on my light table, wearing three pairs of glasses that I used to piggyback depending on the magnification I wanted. Originally, I transformed my sewing table into a light table with a rectangle of translucent plexiglass for a drawing surface and a flat florescent light from Ace Hardware underneath it.

With my back problems, however, I eventually decided it was more comfortable to work on the sofa. And when I discovered Readers in San Rafael, a shop that has beautiful reading glasses for $6 a pair, I started a collection in a variety of magnifications.

A BOOK FOR A FAIRY SCHOOL

Last night, by the light of the moon, I went into the woods to look for a book I’d left there in the afternoon. I followed a brook until I came to a pool. When I kicked off my loose sandals and dipped one foot in the water, it felt cool. Just then I heard the hoot of an owl, which frightened me a little, it sounded so spooky. The next moment I spotted my book, lying open and face-down near the root of a tree. I was about to pick it up when I saw what it was on top of…a tiny cottage! My book, I realized, was now its roof, though it was on a little crooked.

FAIRY GARDEN

Every spring my goddaughter Arielle and I created a fairy garden in a large terra cotta basin with mini-flowers, driftwood, polished stones, and a pool in a small glass bowl of water.