I imagine that when I looked around my nursery at night, I must have cried, like all toddlers, thinking my mother had evaporated the second she closed the door. My elfin hands clutched the fluffy cushion whose plastic eyes glowed and loved me even at dusk when the bright forms that smiled in the daylight faded into dark shadows. I wrapped one spongy ear around my finger and ruminated on the other. It must have been the left ear, because, as I look at it today, it is bald and threadbare. This is FeFe, a stuffed poodle and my companion in infancy. I see that I must have jiggled his head wildly and pinched the back of his neck often, making him bounce, bark, and smell the ground like real dogs, because the stitching behind the neck is gone, and a thin metal backbone buried in yellowed stuffing is beginning to show. He is old and dingy now, practically ancient, but I intend to take him to the grave.
We become by our senses. Before we can talk, or even think, our fingers spread like vines to find their way. Life comes to us first as an object of security and desire, but then our eyes slowly widen to a dim awareness of something out there, of something that is only color, texture, tone and movement, all of which can be blended together or exchanged for something else. Objects with obscure molds and cryptic meanings blend strangely together. When you are new to the world, colors have smell, and pudding is for painting the body; ketchup and Vaseline can be mixed, and flowers are for tasting. The eye of a guinea pig is a mysterious, inky pool you discover with a poke of the finger. My father would say, “Don’t touch the eye.” I heard only, “duntuchadeI.”
I can’t help thinking that my enduring love for winter is tied to my very first memory, to my first recognition that I was alive. The cold air stung my exposed cheeks and delicate flakes melted into the weave of my hat; winter had nipped me in the bud, bitten me, not lightly, but sharply enough to crack my frothy chrysalis. Until then I had been little more than larval. I took two steps, lost my balance, and the world opened up to me in a strange new expanse. I just sat there, my fat cheeks puffed around the soft corners of my tender mouth, my coat a little red marshmallow folded in a sudsy white bath. Then this vast silence began to mingle with my fears and the world struck me suddenly as something horrible. My mother left me for only a minute, but I assumed that I had slipped her mind many hours before, after the applesauce. She was back, of course, before long. She lifted me and broke off one of the icicles pointing from the gutter. They were only frozen water, but were to me lemon drops that twinkled happily in the sunlight.
How do these memories come back to us? What associations make us recall these brief historic seconds? Memory lives in places other than the mind, in the senses and in familiar objects, in my love for the absurd, in my care for animals and in the sweet melancholy when I hear the mellow timber of a well-played cello. Before I awakened to the snow, had I lived another life? It doesn’t matter, for it gave birth to other awakenings, and to these I must pay homage. . . . End of Preview
Fearing and Loving the Unknown
Like all children, I evolved quickly into a confused and inventive child. I thought that little beetles made excellent friends and that some inanimate objects had as much sense as I did, that the boundaries separating us were purely incidental. All they needed was a certain form and a face, and they were either good or bad agents that courted your friendship or intended you harm. My father’s music room contained three busts, one of Shakespeare, one of Mozart, and one of Richard Wagner, the equally revered and hated nineteenth-century German composer. Wagner was the smallest, stark white, and evidently mounted while in an impotent rage, as if he resented his lot as a shrunken, disembodied head, whose size apparently deemed him a much smaller genius than the other two. I refused to enter the music room in the dark where he might glower at me. If I entered the music room in the daytime, I made sure to leave a wide berth between us. He sat close to a hoary, carnivalesque marionette puppet that my bellicose great aunt stitched together sometime between the two world wars. They behaved during the day when my father played his music. But at night, the two together usurped control of the room and authored a bizarre and demonic funhouse. Something in me just knew this puppet was scuttling about the house, enacting malicious deeds with menacing, wandering limbs. One night, it crawled through my bedroom window and fought me for hours before I was able to stave it off. To this day, I have never taken to Wagner, though my father always said I should, and I can’t help wondering whether my preference for Mozart isn’t a rejection of these two marauders.
It’s not that I didn’t like to be thrilled or frightened. In fact, I courted the macabre whenever I could. Around Halloween, I peered from the car window on many nights to ferret out a hidden skeleton grinning from behind a tree, and leaped to join my mother at Kmart where I could gape at rows and rows of them. Just who were these skeletons? Were they a strange species that lived along side us, but pushed underground? Did they live beneath the soil in gardens, lifting themselves only in darkening silence to dance, clickety-click, under the moonlight, or glide like water striders across the dewy grass to grin through little girls’ bedrooms? It took me a few trips to the museum and several coincidental encounters to believe that I, myself, was a walking skeleton. That was a hard pill to swallow, to realize first that one of these ghastly creatures was buried inside me. But the clincher was my recognition that a skeleton was only a hard frame subtly alive and meant to shore up my flesh. Perhaps this and other objects were not as enchanted as I had hoped, because there seemed to be a natural explanation for everything. I was a skeleton, after all, and I was not that scary. . . . End of Preview
Church is a Winding Road
Sometime during my early years an event occurred that I would never forget, though my parents said it never happened. Either they don’t remember it because they used church for free babysitting on this particular evening or they repressed it for good reasons. But I proudly claim it as one of the most original things I’ve ever done. One moment, church had been to me nothing but a smelly urine soaked nursery, and the next it became something else. Before I knew it, I had graduated to the older set, which took control of its field of action. This was even more so when we combined forces. During an evening church service, my mother dropped the neighbor boy and me at the nursery door. At some point and for some reason we must have been left unattended. The boy had never been to church before and thought that what he did in his driveway on a summer afternoon could be done anywhere.
Two orange Big Wheels were parked along a quiet hallway. Without the least unease he embarked and I, afraid of losing him, followed. Within seconds, the sound of plastic rolling over concrete reverberated against the barren corridor, as if a rumble of thunder had circumvented its path to the Great Plains. We were helpless to stop ourselves and intoxicated by the increase of speed and sound, cranking our wheels and flying around the corners like two launching Lamborghinis on the autobahn. One thought focused our bodies, as if some invisible law far more powerful had set our paths. We had no notion of where we were headed until we both blasted, one and then the other, through the double doors leading into the sanctuary. The pastor stopped mid-verse as we roared up the center isle with a hundred gaping eyes pursuing us, and blasted out the front door just as rudely as we had blasted through the back. Once outside, we tunneled back through the winding hallways, back through the abandoned Sunday school rooms, without a single body gleaming before us.
The sensation intensified as we headed, once more, into the sanctuary, this time rolling up the side aisle, back down the center, and up through the sides again. This time, the pastor reproached us from the pulpit. He shot, “You kids can’t ride through here during a church service. Now don’t come back in here again.” Not a very memorable retort, though his voice echoed sternly from the microphone as the humming masses gasped. That was all. But it confirmed my suspicion that worship and Big Wheels don’t mix, and I never entered the sanctuary the same way again. . . . End of Preview
My expanding universe told me that not all things corresponded to my interpretations. Time and experience continued to navigate my relationship to the world. I loved each of my gerbils into their early deaths, thinking they were little children needing lessons in morality and spankings when they wiggled from my hands that petted them too hard. “You must obey. Now stay!” One morning, I ran into my parents’ bedroom to inform them that one of the gerbil’s kidneys had fallen out. I was relieved and delighted to discover that Abigail had only given birth. But they warned me that if I touched her suckling babies, she would eat them. I couldn’t believe this. I tried hard for hours not to touch those crepey nuggets, but finally just barely grazed the one that seemed the most vibrant and promising.
The next day, its little torn limbs were scattered about the cage. I thought this was a monstrous thing. Was this really God’s plan? What must it have been like for this blind infant explorer to find itself terrorized in the grip of his own mother’s murderous fangs, shocked that its source of comfort and nurture would suddenly turn violent against her own? This disturbance was wrapped in a secret too cryptic for my age. For years this one incident caused me unbearable guilt and remorse. Finally I was struck by something alarming. I knew then that it was the tragedy inherent in a being, fragile and finite, cut off gratuitously in its potential, when its capacities were not yet fully realized; it was a recognition of the terrible features common to animals, or nature, that did not seem possible (at the time) in the human world. Most importantly, I was growing a sympathetic imagination. These helpless creatures were, in fact, moral agents, for their lessons stuck. . . . . End of Preview
Toward Other Worlds
It took one family vacation to respond to the world beyond home and church. This was a world already vitalized before I understood the meaning of “I”. This was a world with a longish history, a place completely indifferent to my own existence. It did not bother me, this indifference. Rather, it saved me for better things to come. One summer, my family and I spent a few days at a place much bigger and greater than my own preoccupations. At the time, it held for me the sort of grandeur one might associate with the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. It was a large, historic hotel in Upstate New York named for an Iroquoian word signifying, “a place of meetings.” I know that now, but I felt it then. At the Otesaga, I met my first veranda, a crystal chandelier that shimmered and winked at me as I was coming up the staircase, and several opulent dining halls full of sophisticated ladies who gave me flirtatious smiles. The vaulted ceilings and antique fixtures gave me the acute sensation of a time gone by. I wondered who used to sleep in the very same corner of the guest room where I now laid my own head. Were they dead now? What did they look like back then? Better, what did they look like now? Were mushrooms growing out of their eye sockets? If I concentrated intensely enough, could I see them floating across the room? Could I stand the look of them and keep my heart beating? Would I turn to jelly right there in my bed? Could an elegant lady from 1910 be standing right in front of me? If I extended my arm, would I stick it right through her liver?
The old hotel rose like a castle above a quaint village named for its founders. The celebrated novelist, James Fennimore Cooper, and his father, Judge William Cooper, had plowed the sandy earth around Lake Otsego and erected a modest Anglo-American settlement, now a small town with a lazy main street and a good old-fashioned five and dime. In modern days, Cooperstown tourists hover mostly around the Baseball Hall of Fame and say it is the town’s real claim to fame. Take your pick; it made little difference to me. I was enamored with its strange soil, charged, at once, with horrors and delights. According to legend, a great rock concealed the bones of an old missionary who challenged an elderly Mohawk on matters of faith that his own god would not, or could not, confirm. At the mouth of the Susquehanna, there was an old burial ground. A lady who lived on this same spot had sealed them in an earthen mound and planted a tree in their honor.
A century later and further down the shoreline, I fingered through the gritty soil for old arrowheads and cleansed them in the purling waves. I thought about the Indian who must have run his fingers against those same slippery sides and porous edges three centuries ago. I pressed the cool sliver hard and rubbed it dry, hoping that his imprint would morph magically into mine. I would then have eyes to see his shadowy figure gliding across the lake, his glad and graceful movements propelling along the water’s edge.
The Otesaga at that time had a shimmering pool where I first learned to swim. The lifeguard showed me how to stay afloat and then to point my arms, curl my head under, and then to drop. I was able only to dive once, and then never again. All other times I landed with a light thwack on my stomach. But gliding through the cool, clear water in that humid climate was enough for me. It was the only time I would ever levitate with the light work of my own body, to move in osmosis through that tiny ocean, propelling like a current with my pulsing medusoid hair. Indeed, my life was a newly tapped spring.
Some might say it would have been better to take a six-year-old child to Disney World, rather than an old fancy hotel. After all, what came of the experience was purely accidental. And yet it caught root for me, and grew into a fascination for the human story and its relationship to the natural world. I suppose some may also say my leanings were already present before I first uttered the sounds, o-te-sa-ga. All it would take was the right situation to charm it out of me. If my parents had rather fled to Disney that year, it might have been some other encounter.
I imagine that many parents show their children these places partly because they want to see the world again with all that wonderful enchantment, to see the invisible materialize immaculate, freed from cramped places with walls of bare matter. Yes. It takes effort now to mold the shape of the clouds, to see substance in the wind, to find hidden meanings in everyday things. As adults, we no longer live as a rabbit undisturbed by the knowledge of time passage, abandoned completely to this bite of grass and now this waft of air. The young Annie Dillard once wrote, “Only children can hear the song of the male house mouse. Only children keep their eyes open.” I don’t know if I fully believe it, though. For the adults I know, this fervor still exists, but with the calm clarity that comes with experience, longing and mature reflection. . . . End of Preview
It must have seemed a miracle how it happened. She agreed to try my grandmother’s church, the Church of the Christ Scientist. On our way out to the parking lot one Sunday, an old lady backed forcefully into our car, turned her head momentarily to eye the damage, and sped off frenetically without apology. Despite Matthew’s warning not to “lay up for yourselves treasures on earth”, my father’s love of things had endured, his cars among them, and so his own obsession with storing up precious, worldly goods—some infused with familial value, others not—in a word, his materialism, had saved his soul. He was livid. The price? Damn all things Christian Science. My mother smiled within; the Lord had allowed this event, had moved the old lady in her selfish flight. Next Sunday, it would be my mother’s own church of old, where people walked, talked, and lived the scriptures in daily life and would never hit and run in the church parking lot. There is a bit more to my father’s salvation than this and, as usual, it had something to do with music, but that Sunday was the turning point. After his rebirth, he stopped smoking in a twinkling of an eye, I’m told, and had the keys to the kingdom. It was then that my education took a decided turn; as long as I lived with these two who had accidentally found each other in a flat on a slippery slope, I was forever and more gone to church.
It began innocently, as all things do. I listened to Bible stories and memorized long passages for recitation at Christmas. I won prizes for these feats of memory, but I believed it all and wanted to please. Then, at six, I saw a girl baptized. She had a certain untouchable beauty, like a planetary unmoved mover. I wanted to be just like her and assumed that baptism by dunking would do the trick. My question wasn’t, “How do I enter the kingdom of Heaven?” It was “How do I get baptized?” My mother answered without really probing the reasons too deeply. If she had dug, she would have heard, “because I want to be like Janet.” I suppose either way I wanted to be born again. My second reason was that there had not been a swimming pool known to me that I had not tried, and the pretty blue church dunking pool had, until now, been off limits. She led me through the steps of salvation and I took my obligatory, solitary walk up the isle to make my decision public. A month later I was baptized in front of the church. The pastor looked me straight in the eye and asked a series of questions; in my terror I heard nothing and shook my head one way or the other, responding only to the social cues on his face. It worked until he asked me something about Satan; I shook my head in the affirmative and then as quickly as I could read the shock on his face and note a collective gasp from the audience, my head changed direction. He chalked it up to nervousness and dunked me. Applause! A cherub was born. . . . End of Preview
These are just a few stories from my memoir. I am still working to complete them all.