Stairs are meant to lead
somewhere, but I’m already
~ ~ ~
Other Wednesday Musers:
Today I’m posting an essay written this summer by my daughter, who was not yet two years old on September 11, 2001. She wrote here about things she had never spoken aloud to me–about both personal and communal memory, how impossible they are, and yet how they are in some ways all we can ever own.
I’ll let her speak for herself…
The End of Summer
(by my daughter)
There were two summers before it happened, and I was an oblivious infant.
That first summer my family “went abroad,” like they say in the picturesque period pieces that I now watch with my mom – dramas with corsets and extravagant hats trimmed with lace. I spent the summer in a place where they serve hundreds of different varieties of teas, and offer egg as a topping on pizza. Cambridge, England, to be exact. I don’t remember it. Any of it. Just five months old, I nursed, sucking on my mother’s enlarged breasts as she sat cramped, uncomfortable on a nappy beige airplane seat.
Seven hours. Her arm pressed up against the window of the plane, awkward. Me more like a very hungry and slightly irritable carry-on than a real passenger. A puffy, pink, little purse, round and new. Or maybe even more than that, like an itty-bitty parasite. Bald, bloated worm, all mouth. Sucking as I drowsed.
These are not my memories. I’m just spitting back the stories I’ve been told.
I was on the plane, headed “abroad.” Off to the kind of place people always say that they would like to go. The kind of place I want to go. Except, I went.
I didn’t even notice. Didn’t notice the beauty of the landscapes, the curves of the green hills. The buildings of monumental significance. The gigantic clock’s rectangular prism, jutting up, pointed at the top–spaceship just waiting for a countdown. The museums. The castles. The churches. The accents so very different from my own. I’m not even sure I noticed the woman who brazenly approached my parents as they meandered down the street, pushing me along in that green and yellow stroller with the handles extra long so my tall parents didn’t have to hunch. She scolded them boldly for letting me travel without a hat. Bald baby. Shiny and round. Smooth, reflecting light. I suppose she was afraid I’d catch cold. Somewhat glad I don’t remember that. And besides, as long as I was fed I didn’t care.
I was there that summer, but I wasn’t. Does a journey like that count if you’re young enough to think that eating the grass in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum is a good idea?
It was summer when I went to the beach for the first time, too. That was the next summer, when I was just over one year old. The summer of 2001. I don’t remember it either. So much of my life I was too small to remember anything. Too small to even realize what was going on. It’s lost to me now–the first time I breathed that thick and dry, salty air; or saw the tiny shards of beige sand speckled with microscopic black flecks; or heard the crash and murmur of water lapping the earth.
I wonder, what did it feel like to put my feet in the sand for the first time? To have those millions of little particles sprinkled over my wriggling toes?
Gritty, I imagine.
Sometimes when the sun hits the glass on the window pane just right, and my clear portal to everything that I am not a part of glistens in the most magical way, I wish that my first trip to the seaside could have been impossible for me to forget. A story gushing with romanticism enough to satisfy the requirements of a Victorian novel. I’d even settle for a charming tale of mundane tranquility to be posted with masking tape on a fourth grade teacher’s wall.
I somehow doubt my first encounter with the surf was masking-tape-worthy, anyway.
I probably cried. I probably whined. I probably threw a fit.
I know me. Know who I was. The little girl in the dainty checkered sun dress, her bald head topped with little straw hat that featured the image of a teddy bear fringed with pink. She didn’t like to touch anything dirty, sticky, or grimy. No glue-sticks for her. No crumbly earth. She would have cringed when her feet grazed the hot sand, or the humid wind blew in her face, or the mischievous waves splashed her legs. I don’t have to remember. I know. Know because I was.
I was there, whether I remember it or not my first two summers. Real summers. Happy summers.
But what happened after? How did that second summer end? The way they describe it, how could it be summer? How could the universe put that moment in summer’s warm embrace? Summer is rope swings and water-balloons and fireworks that effervescently shimmer with a resounding pop.
That summer, though, there were fireworks in daylight.
Ones that should have never been.
A few weeks after we’d returned from the beach, I’d been carted off on another plane to see my grandfather, my mother’s dad, who lived in New York. We left during the first few days of September. On the way home, my dad leaned back and looked out the plane’s window, and saw the way they glistened in the sun. Those two towers. He didn’t think they’d be so beautiful. My dad hadn’t thought about them at all, really. If anything, he’d thought they’d just be two more buildings blocking the sky. Ugly, like all the rest.
But that moment flying over, it struck him, they were magnificent. Two sisters guardians. Tall, with the sun reflecting back to all. The city. The country. The world.
And everything was placid. My father looking out over the city. My mother to his left. Closer to the aisle. Me in her arms. Asleep.
Then we went home again. Safe at home. Home where the buildings are never over three stories tall, and pavement is sparse. Home where the mountains, peaked with mist, serve as a perpetual shield. Home where if you go out into an open field at night, you can see every single star, glistening billions of years away. So close you think that you could just reach up and grab one. But all that comes back in your hand is intangible air.
And then. Then the planes came. And everybody forgot that it was still summer. It would be for another week or two, technically. Nobody noticed. Their summer ended that morning. The blink of an eye. It was gone.
Sorrow, the cruel master. Whipping tears out of eyes already red with despair. Leaving the type of scars that can’t ever fade because whenever you close your eyes they’re right there.
Two little flying black ants against a blue morning sky. From far away, so small, so insignificant that in the seconds before it would have been hard to fathom that they were anything more. Tiny ants zooming towards two steel giants. Anyone could have told you the outcome, simple physics could have. Anyone could have been wrong.
And I don’t even know if I noticed. Too small? I don’t remember. No matter how I try. I don’t remember.
I try to see other people’s memories in my mind. When they share, eyes welling-up, cheeks glistening, drenched with remembrance, recalling one of the worst days of their lives, I can almost see what they tell me. They describe where they were standing, how they heard, what they thought. Almost. Part of a dream.
I try to latch on, again like some miserable parasite. Trying to understand. To be a part of it all. Trying to feel what they felt. Needing to comprehend.
But I can’t. I can’t understand. No matter how I try to shove myself into other people’s memories, I don’t fit. Like my baby brother trying to shove the hexagon into the circular hole. I can get so close, but no matter how hard I press, I am the hexagon. And my sides aren’t curved.
It’s the shock, mostly, that I can’t get to. Of course, I understand why there would be shock. But I can’t feel it. I can’t know what it was like to quake with something unlike anything that you’d ever felt before. What it was like to not know that something like that could even happen and then all of the sudden it arrives with a bang and it won’t ever go away.
And when they talk and cry, I join in. I try to feel their pain. I want to. But I know it’s not the same. Because I can’t remember. I don’t know what I did, where I was when it happened. If I heard at all, I was too little to understand. Probably just confused. And now when I exercise my sympathy, it’s not the same.
To them it was real and to me it’s history. It’s what we learned about in class. Like any other war.
Like they say, “you have to see to believe it.” But I’ve watched the videos. I’ve seen the planes. The crash. The fireball erupting like explosions do in the movies. The plumes of dense grey smoke and debris billowing out and up, staining the perfect morning sky. The two immovable mountains shatter into billions of pieces, as if they were made out of plaster. On the ground, people ran in every direction, chased by tsunami-sized waves of smog and rubble and detritus. I’ve seen the tears. The memorials. The flags.
And seeing isn’t enough? But that’s a rhetorical question. I already know it isn’t enough. My link between seeing and understanding has a substantial crack running right through the center. Seeing makes everything seem like scenes from an action movie. The explosions. The screams. It horrifies me. Makes my eyes water. Makes me retch inside when I think of what it must have been like for the people who were there, for the family members that weren’t.
But somehow seeing isn’t enough and there’ll always be a part of me that can’t know how I’d react. Deep down, in a place I don’t want to admit is there, I’m afraid I wouldn’t cry when I heard.
When I imagine what it was like, it always runs like a realistic current events drama on TV. Just TV. Just a video. Never something real.
In one scenario, I hear the news on the radio, the voices frenzied, disturbed. I’m driving to work in my own car. Soft blue on the outside, dark seats within. Maybe my heart sinks or my arms go weak as I grasp the steering wheel. The little rubber frog on my dashboard, green and speckled, smiles. The morning sun hits his back as I turn the corner. Bobbling back and forth. He seems so distant now, far away. Blurry. Left behind. Somewhere else. I’m barely able to drive.
In another scene, the words drips out of my co-worker’s mouth–her make-up, smeared. Mascara drips down her cheeks, little streaks of pain. I fall apart in the arms of someone I don’t even particularly know. It’s the sort of embrace that would normally be awkward and make my insides writhe. But this time. It doesn’t even matter.
The next time, I’m alone, at home. I drop my cup of coffee. The thick liquid, piping hot, crashes to the floor, splattering the linoleum. The baby blue mug with the butterfly painted on it shatters into hundreds of little dagger-like pieces. In the background, the footage. The news. The tumult. The screams. The collapse. On TV. Seared into my mind. No way to hide, no where to hide, not now.
The next, I’m crying with family. Hugging. Our arms wrapped around each other in strange positions, uncomfortable. Tears and sweat pooling together. An experience that no one could ever forget.
I don’t know. I don’t remember. And I will always feel guilty. And I will always be afraid. Afraid like when I was young. When grandma first got sick. When I first thought. Thought maybe she wouldn’t be there forever. When I was afraid then that when she was gone I wouldn’t cry. I loved her. Loved her. She would always have tea and hugs. And old black and white TCM movies DVR’d on the 62 inch flat screen TV that my uncle bought for her. Shirley Temple and Carry Grant. Waiting to watch them with me. She always had interesting, funny stories of long ago, bursting with personality. Growing-up, her childhood during the Great Depression. A young, single working woman in the 40’s and 50’s. She always had love. But that wasn’t the question.
Now I have her wedding ring. Golden. Wear it on a chain around my neck, hanging close to my heart. Swaying. Sometimes, when I want it close I wear it inside my shirt, hanging in my bra, cold, like a wet hand, on my bosom. When it’s there no one else can see. Don’t know it’s there, have no idea. Other times I wear it outside my shirt, perfect and round, it is exhibited to all the world and somehow I like that better. Somehow it’s easier to forget the cold when I can’t feel it. People don’t know what it is. Think I’m a Lord of the Rings fanatic, like them. The only explanation. In their mind. But I know. Know whose it was. I remember. And I cry.
She is what I remember. She is something that I will always have in my heart, even if I can’t watch old movies with her any more. I get her because I was old enough. Twelve when she died.
But he was only one. My little brother. He was only one. And by the time he’s twelve she’ll be gone. And all those times she scooped him up, like a little rag doll, onto her lap and held him there for hours, talking to him, singing to him, loving him, will be unreachable, like digging through a muddled bag in the dark. Because he was too young for memory. And now he’ll always be too young to understand. Too young to really cry.
The answers were as varied at the faces looking back at me–Because of Winn Dixie, There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, Junie B. Jones, The Boxcar Children, Walk Two Moons, Goodnight Moon, Captain Underpants, The Jumblies, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course Harry Potter.
(One young woman even showed me her Potterhead tattoo–three stars in the shape of a triangle on her ankle, same as the illustration at the top of each page in the American edition. Talk about being imprinted by a book!)
It was the first day of our special topics course on contemporary kid lit at small liberal arts college in Virginia, and after the endless (but necessary) syllabus review, we had only a few minutes to talk about what really matters–the difference books make in the lives of children, the difference books have made in our own lives.
I grew up in a house packed with books, shelves lined with Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sean O’Casey, and a complete set of the 1898 Nations of the World.
But there were only a half dozen picture books in the house (if that).
I remember Small Rain, a 1943 book of verses by Jessie Orton Jones, being the sort of book an adult might think a child should like, but I never particularly did. It was full of words like “knoweth” and “thou,” and I distinctly recall feeling that I was neither as good-hearted nor as gentle-natured as the be-freckled kids in the illustrations.
Who were these kids? I thought. I’ve never joined a spontaneous, ragtag community band! I’ve never held hands with five of my closest friends and danced around an apple tree!
Then there was Space Witch by Don Freeman, which was half awesome, half terrifying, and a third half uncomfortably weird.
My favorite was probably It Looked Like Spilt Milk, I think because my mom always got excited when we read it together. If she liked it so much, I figured I should, too.
But for many years of my childhood, there was never THAT book — the one I wanted to read forever, the one I couldn’t put down.
And then this happened:
Just imagine! My previous exposure to children’s books had consisted of prayers and pointing at clouds. Ann Bishop, you and Ella Fannie saved my soul!
Here was a book full of goofy elephant pictures, absurd humor, and even a tiny flip-book on the lower corner of each page! I checked it out from the school library EVERY WEEK of my 3rd grade year. Seriously. EVERY WEEK. We were allowed one book, and it was the only one I needed.
Q: Why do baby elephants need stilts?
A: To kiss giraffes.
Q: Why did Ella Fannie sit on a blueberry pie?
A: She couldn’t find a chair.
Q: Why did Ella Fannie say “Baaa, Baaaa”?
A: She was learning a foreign language.
I sometimes think that if someone wants to get to know me, I should just hand them a copy of that book. I’m not saying anything as poetic or profound as “we are the books we love.” But there’s a good chance that if you aren’t willing to laugh at nonsense and you don’t get a tad bit excited by the prospect of a sub-plot (even one carried forth by a flip-book), I’ll likely annoy you in some unspeakable way within the first ten minutes of our association.
Books stay with us, whether we remember them or not. I wrote some poem in college (maybe after?) which included the image of breaking off fingers and eating them as peppermint sticks. I had, as I wrote those lines, the halo-y sense that some repressed memory was emerging–which, in that the memory involved edible fingers, was impossible. Even so, I knew the line was connected somehow to my childhood fears. Perhaps my original fear.
What a strange imagination I have! I thought as I read those lines back. And so I thought for a dozen years.
But it turns out it wasn’t my imagination at all. It was P.L. Travers’!
After my daughter turned six or so, I picked up Mary Poppins–a book I was certain I had never even held in my hands–and began reading it aloud to her. There I found, as you who have read Mary Poppins already know–Mrs. Corry, the scary old candy shop owner who breaks off her fingers and offers them as peppermint treats for children.
Since it seems all but impossible that two people would independently think such an odd thing, I’m relatively certain that someone, somewhere in my toddling stumble toward consciousness, read me Mary Poppins. Or at the very least, a chapter.
I would have sworn to the moon and back that I’d never heard a single word of the book. And yet, there she was within me all those years–Mrs. Corry and her ghastly fingers. Just waiting for her moment to step into the light.