SINGER

My dream, from the age of twelve on, was to become a singer.

Unlike my parents, I was musical, and when, in fifth grade, my friend Margie started taking violin lessons at school from visiting music teacher Miss Perchett, I took up the viola. I’d wanted, a couple of years earlier, to start piano lessons when Kathy did, but we didn’t have the money or space for a piano in the Raymond apartment. I also had a pleasing voice, good pitch, and loved to sing in harmony. (Whenever I sang around the house, however, my mother would effuse about her sister Dory’s beautiful voice—as though mine didn’t compare.)

Nevertheless, in sixth grade I was chosen for a role in the school musical but then came down with tonsillitis and missed rehearsals—so I wound up in the chorus. Actually, I was relieved by this outcome because that spring, for the first time, I’d become paralyzed with performance fright at my dance recital and, onstage, forgot the choreography of the piece a classmate and I had created together. I’d had to bumble my way through it to the end.

That was the year, as I’ve said, that my parents divorced, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was humiliated by my sixth-grade teacher, and my best friend Kathy dumped me. In a tailspin, I began to drop out of one thing after another. Though Miss Perchett had told me she would “boil me in oil” if I ever quit the viola, I did. I dropped out of Camp Fire Girls too, partly because I didn’t feel confident about being able to earn enough beads to decorate my felt bolero. And when our dance class ended after sixth grade, I didn’t go on to study dance elsewhere, like my friends Mary and Margie, because of my pigeon toes. I also stopped playing sports. I’d been the most daring and competitive of all the girls when we played dodgeball, our major athletic recreation at school during the winter months. I would run right up to the line across the middle of the auditorium that divided our two teams—and catch the fly ball, no matter how hard it was thrown at me, then lob it right back. But in high school, when we started playing softball, I would hide at the end of the line of batters, hoping to avoid ever having to come up to bat at all.

Still, there was one ray of hope at the beginning of seventh grade at Murray High, which was a combination junior high and high school. I have a vivid memory of standing on the riser in the music room in the midst of a large group of kids auditioning for the chorus. When my turn came, the choir director exclaimed, “Listen to that voice! It’s like a bell!”

When I found out that my friend Mary’s older sister was taking voice lessons, I knew that’s what I wanted to do too. It would be another decade before I would be able to, however, and when I was forced to quit after ten months of intensive study—because my father rescinded the small allowance he’d promised me for college—my voice teacher warned me, “If you quit now, you’ll never sing.” I begged my mother for the money to continue—it was my last semester at Cal, and I was already working part-time at the language lab. But she refused, screaming at me, “You want everything—and you want it now!”

Just as her father had refused to help her achieve her dream, my mother refused to help me realize mine. And so history repeats itself. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

DAREDEVIL

Don’t think because my pediatrician said I wouldn’t have survived infancy without antibiotics that I was a sickly child. Throughout my elementary school years I was physically active, robust enough to chase lizards and butterflies with my father and brother and play all the sports and games the neighborhood kids did. In a modern dance recital one spring, I was chosen, despite my pigeon toes, to be the queen in our class’s performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes, while my friend Mary, the tallest of all of us, played the emperor and Margie, the shortest, played the little girl who broadcast to the world that the emperor was naked. I was even a bit of a daredevil.

But I was subject to bouts of tonsillitis and strep throat, when my temperature would soar to 104 degrees and I would become delirious. One of the sensations I experienced when I was running a high fever was of some nameless force at a remove from me building relentlessly, gathering heft, until it exploded suddenly, streaming thin and sharp, piercing me like spear, only to recede and begin gathering force again. The antidote was an injection of penicillin in my bottom.

Even the summer after sixth grade I was still chasing reptiles—in the heat of Death Valley—and swimming—in the ocean in San Diego. When I found out that my three closest friends were going to Camp Fire Girls camp together, as I’ve said, I agreed to go with Doug and my dad on a cross-country trip to La Jolla in California. He’d been invited to teach that summer at U. C. San Diego, swapping places with a professor there and residences as well. But if I thought a change of scene would ease my unhappiness, I was wrong.

I’d always been sensitive about killing other creatures and had only gone along with “stunning” the butterflies we caught—by pinching their thorax—because my dad expected it of me. Even when we were surrounded by huge yellow and gold sulphurs after crossing the border into Mexico, beautiful butterflies we’d never seen before, I silently rebelled against catching them, though I was too intimidated by my father to admit how I was feeling. As for chasing reptiles in the desert, I remember being so hellishly hot—despite the jug of sour limeade my dad always kept in the car—that I wished I was anywhere else. Years later my father would tell me that this summer with Doug and me provided closure for him after the divorce. As for me, I only remember being depressed the whole time. I didn’t make any friends in La Jolla until my last few days there, and found nothing better to do during those ten tedious weeks than read all the movie magazines I came across in a drawer in my teenage counterpart’s bedroom.

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

Since I wasn’t going to camp the summer after sixth grade, I went with my dad and Doug on a cross-country car trip instead. Somewhere in the southwest on a searingly hot day, while my dad and brother stayed indoors in the air-conditioned motel room, I tied a bandana around my feet and jumped into the motel pool to see if I could swim without using my legs. Immediately I started to panic–and to drown. Luckily the thrashing around I did loosened the knot in the bandana, which freed my legs as I went under a second time.

When I look back on this crazy stunt, I’m reminded of my cousin Michael—and it occurs to me that children in emotional straits are liable to engage in risky behavior, courting disaster, as though (in my case, paradoxically) they had an unconscious death wish. Michael was often beaten by my uncle, and he’d climbed back into the sewer trench even though the workmen had warned him it was dangerous and to stay away.

SPRING IS SPRUNG

Spring is sprung.

The grass is riz.

I wonder where

The flowers is.

 

OK, it’s not officially spring, but spring enough for me—because I saw my first irises today. I’ve always loved them especially, because they remind me of Minnesota. In “Seasons,” my first college English essay, I wrote: 

When I was young, spring was brought by robins. Brisk and billowy clouds were reflected everywhere in a world of sidewalk puddles. In knee-high boots, we scampered from one to the next, and, gazing down, each splashing leap seemed to shatter the sky. We sought out the last muddy patches of snow that shrank against the shadowed corners of the houses, and, letting our mittens dangle from clips at our cuffs, we crunched the snow into hard little balls that dripped water when you squeezed them tightly. We crumbled them down each other’s necks or filled our pockets with them and forgot. And when the glacier melted off the back alley, we went out in corduroy pants that got soaked at the knees to comb the alley for the agates that sprang up each year with the first aggressive weeds. Sometimes, just as miraculously, there were marbles, coins, or a gumball machine toy. There was suppressed joy in all the twittering and sprouting—joy in the trickling of a melted winter, along the gutters of the city.

My entire essay was posted on November 15, 2019. The rhyme above I heard as a child.

DESPAIR

                                     Zazzy from The Adventures of Jix

While my father had no fear of death, I did—though I’ve come to realize that it could be more accurately described as a death “despair.” And I know the exact day in my life that it began—Valentine’s Day of my fateful sixth-grade year.

By then I knew two children who’d died, Peter Wright, my crush in first grade, who’d drowned in a lake, and my cousin Michael in California, who’d been buried alive. He’d been playing in a trench where new sewer pipes had been laid down when a dump truck came and dropped a load of dirt on him.

Though Mom had been diagnosed with cancer, she allowed me to have a slumber party in the old rambling house on Doswell. Unlike our Raymond apartment, it had enough room, and, I think, she understood my need to draw my friends around me.

For the occasion, I’d decorated the dining room, where we would sleep. I’d strung red crepe paper streamers from an old light fixture in the middle of the room—like spokes—taping them to the walls, then I’d hung large red paper hearts from them with thread. Sometime in the night, under this festive canopy, I woke up and looked around at my sleeping friends and thought, “One day we’ll all be buried and decaying in coffins in the ground.” Immediately I was overwhelmed by a feeling terrible beyond words to describe it—an agony so deep that my mind immediately closed over it like water over a dropped stone, and I was left with my heart pounding wildly in my chest. (This was only a few months before Mr. Main would call me “an arrogant little snot.”)

Since then I’ve experienced other feelings painful beyond words to describe them—anger and grief so intense, it has felt as though my mind must crack irrevocably. This emotional trove of pain was the legacy of my childhood, I understood at the time, which didn’t come unlocked until I was betrayed by a boyfriend who impregnated a younger woman—I was in my forties at the time and too old to have children. I remember a night when I woke up repeatedly, feeling such anguish that I scrawled messages on sheets of paper and hung them from drawers so that I would see them the next time I woke up: messages like “They are only feelings, they can’t destroy you”—because it felt as if they could—and “They are only feelings, they will pass.”

My death despair was in the same category of seemingly unendurable emotions and was to revisit me often throughout my adolescence. In the moments it did—usually at night—I was liable to throw myself against a wall before my mind could close over it again and blot it out.

When my brother, as a child, asked my father what happened to you when you died, he said, “They put you in the ground and you rot.” I don’t remember the moment I asked my father the same question, but, of course, that’s the answer he would have given me too.

MAGNOLIA TREE

I’d never taken pictures of magnolia trees before, though there are a number of them with low-hanging branches on my route to the pool. I bought my little Sony camera partly because I wanted one that could handle low-light situations. Even so, I was chagrinned that in the late afternoon yesterday, when I was finally able to set out, all the lower blossoms I could see up close were in shade. When I looked at my photographs later, I was especially fascinated by the tortuous tangle of branches in the backgrounds.

SNOT

Above is another of Kathy’s entries in my Bluebird autograph book after we’d learned cursive. It’s written so lightly on a blue page that I had to use Photoshop to make it legible.

As I wrote in “Cheater, Cheater…” in the fifth grade I had a teacher who didn’t like me. And in the spring, while we were taking a standardized reading test, she admonished me, “Cathy, why do you feel the need to cheat?” But Mrs. Koehler didn’t stop there. She also, apparently, convinced the principal to remove me from the class I’d gone all through elementary school with and place me in the “other” class for my sixth-grade year, taught by the only male teacher in the school, Mr. Main. At the time I believed this was because I wasn’t smart enough to remain in the gifted group with my friends Wolfy, Margie, Mary and several others. Actually, there was a range of abilities among the kids in my class—but, to me, they were all my school family.

My sixth-grade year I would work so hard not to fall into further disgrace that I soon became visible as the best student in Mr. Main’s class. The second semester I was even elected class president…and wound up teacher’s pet— something I never wanted and that made me uncomfortable; all I wanted was not to fail. And, anyway, none of this was enough to make me feel smart again or restore my confidence—I simply believed that I worked harder than all the other kids. Though I had one friend in the class—my best friend Kathy—I still felt like an outcast, a feeling that has never entirely left me.

Nevertheless, I gave a little lesson on drawing cartoons in class one day and held a cartoon contest. I had learned to hide my feelings, intuiting—correctly, as it happened—that my parents’ “love” was conditional and depended upon me being a model, trouble-free child: mature, independent, and well-adjusted. In my mother’s case, I had to be her proof that she was an exemplary mother. In my father’s case, he was so judgmental about “weakness” that I strove to avoid any behavior that would invite his scorn and derision. That spring Mr. Main also allowed me to head up a team to draw, in pastels, the sorcerer’s house—scenery for the school musical. And for the space of a few days, I felt like I was in my element.

All the while, my parents were going through an acrimonious divorce. Because my dad considered himself the primary parent, he bitterly resented the fact that mothers were generally awarded custody of their kids at the time. Actually, he only agreed to the divorce on the condition that my mother would never take Doug and me out of state. For her part, Mom resented all the money he started spending on himself, including buying a new car while she was left to drive our old one, which was freezing in winter because the floor had rusted through. And then Mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had to have a partial hysterectomy. The aftermath of the surgery was so painful, she told me, she’d wanted to die.

A couple of months later we were assigned to do a comprehensive report in school on a country of our choosing. I chose Australia, and I still remember poring over books in the library and drawing meticulous maps for hours—another exercise in obsessiveness.

In addition to the written report, we had to give an oral report. On the day I was supposed to give my presentation, I was beside myself because I hadn’t managed to memorize it all yet. I asked Mr. Main if I could do it the following day, but he said no—whereupon I went and hid in the girls’ bathroom. So he sent Kathy to bring me back. But I was so afraid of humiliating myself that, not knowing what else to do, I walked out of the school and home. The next day I delivered my report without a hitch.

But Mr. Main wasn’t about to forgive me for defying him. A week or two later he used an inadvertent mistake I made to reassert his authority. He called me an “arrogant little snot” and told the class he was keeping them inside for recess that day because of me.

Then two things happened: The first—Kathy dumped me. As I said in “Bub,” we’d gone to camp together every summer, to Lake Cheewin as Bluebirds, then Lake Ojekita as Camp Fire Girls. We’d planned to do the same thing that summer after sixth grade, but when we filled out the registration forms at a meeting, I found out that she’d signed up to be cabin mates with my friends Margie and Mary instead of me. I was necessarily excluded because you could only choose two cabin mates. I was so hurt, my mom called Kathy’s mother—to no avail. Kathy and I were never friends again.

Also, shortly before the move from the Raymond apartment, WoIfy and I had gone down to Margie’s house to play one day, and for the first time in all our outings, I’d had to walk home alone. Wolfy had a crush on Margie and wanted to stay behind. What’s more, because my family had been evicted by Davona and Lou, Wolfy and I no longer walked to school together, nor were we in the same class, now that I’d been transferred. I lost my two best friends that year and wouldn’t have another best friend until I was an adult.

The second thing that happened was that I would go into hiding in seventh grade and beyond—at school, at least. Never again would I seek recognition in the classroom, sit near the front of the room, raise my hand when I knew the answers, demonstrate my knowledge. Instead I would hunker down at the back, trying to be as invisible as possible. (I proved so adept at this it took my French teacher in California two years to realize I was the best student in her class.)

In the end, I didn’t manage to finish the written part of my report on Australia by the deadline—and forever after that I was haunted by doubt that I could complete any kind of ambitious project.

As for cheating, if Mrs. Koehler had hoped to cure me of it, she didn’t succeed. I have a vivid memory of sneaking back into my English classroom after school in seventh grade—to change the “can nots” I’d written in the Gettysburg Address to “cannots.” That I would take such a big risk to correct such a small mistake speaks volumes, I think, about my precarious emotional state. I was well on my way to developing the anxiety disorder that I still grapple with today.

DAFFODILS

It occurred to me the other day, when I saw the first daffodils of the new year in a neighbor’s yard, that I could post my Neighborhood Gardens photos on my blog in the order they bloom throughout the spring and summer. So here is a photo I took years ago of a garden across from the Albany Pool, where I used to swim.

DIVORCE

In the spring after I turned ten, Bev and Gus sold the duplex on Raymond to Davona and Lou, a young couple with a baby named Thayer. I wanted to post a sketch I did of Thayer above—the last portrait I would draw for a number of years—but I couldn’t find it it anywhere. I do remember seeing it only months ago, so maybe I threw it away. In any case, Davona and Lou evicted us in short order, and we had to move across the Park. They claimed they were planning to renovate, but I seem to remember some altercation that my dad had with Lou.

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

 My mom hated the rambling Doswell house, with its big, drafty rooms and old-fashioned kitchen and bathrooms. She’d wanted something cozy and modern. The previous tenant, a batty old lady named Mrs. Zon, had upped and disappeared several years before, leaving all her worldly possessions behind.   She hadn’t met with foul play, our new neighbors, the Balcomes, reassured us; she’d called them more than once to ask after her adult daughter, but she wouldn’t tell them where she was.

When we went to look at the house, it was crammed with dark, stodgy furniture and dusty draperies. My dad promised my mom to have the house painted, and Mrs. Zon’s belongings were carted up to the attic (where I went poking around, my imagination getting the better of me when I discovered knives among the linens). In the small room at the front of the attic, I also found a huge pile of books that had been dumped there. Sifting through them, I came across one on animal intelligence, a subject I’m still interested in, as well as a book with illustrations called Jungle Babies. I was thrilled to read the chapter on okapis, because they’d only been recently “discovered” in the African rain forest, though, of course, the native people had always known of their existence.

Besides the attic and basement, the house had five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a separate breakfast nook in the kitchen, which my father didn’t let Doug and me leave each night until we’d eaten our vegetables. I’d distract my brother, then dump my peas on his plate and excuse myself. One night my father came home and roared, “What stinks in here?” He followed his nose to the stove, behind which he found a mess of rotten vegetables. What a dope! I thought uncharitably about my brother. He could have flushed them down the toilet (a bathroom was just off the breakfast nook), and no one would have ever known.

The dirty, cobwebby basement had two large rooms and three small ones, so I was nonplussed when one day my dad ordered Doug and me to go down and clean it all up. As I went down the stairs I thought to myself, “Grownups are always telling you how great you have it as a kid, but the truth is it isn’t easy at all.” And I charged myself to remember that moment when I was an adult so I would never say the same thing to my own children.

To me the old house had a spooky kind of romance. That summer before sixth grade, I started a club with my girlfriends, meeting in the dark little room under the staircase. We hauled a tiny table down from the attic and lighted the place with a small lamp and an extension cord. I think we had, at most, three meetings.

Then late one afternoon I came home and heard my mother in the kitchen telling my father she wanted a divorce—this at a time and place that divorce was almost unheard of. My parents had never fought in front of Doug and me, so her announcement came as a complete shock. She followed me upstairs to my bedroom, where I lay on my bed, sobbing—and promised me that despite the divorce “nothing would change.”