It’s me again. This is hard to write after my last letter, since I am now almost convinced you do not care about me. I wonder why things happen the way they do. Why certain people are “tested” more than others.
When I was about 7 years old, it was my turn to sleep with mom. Sliding into those cool sheets, on daddy’s side of the bed, is one of my favorite memories, one I try to capture in my own bed now, searching endlessly for that exact texture of sheet and weight of quilt.
Daddy traveled during the week, selling glass to people all over the south. When he was gone, my sisters and I would take turns sleeping with our mom. I was always so happy to get my turn because mom would scratch my back for a few minutes before I fell asleep. That was the best. Sometimes I would even read in bed like a grown up, propped up on a pillow with a reading lamp on beside me. This made me feel very important.
The night the phone rang changed everything. I remember it well: Mom sitting up in bed saying a very hushed hello to the person on the other end of the line. I pretended I was asleep so I wouldn’t get in trouble. I just listened as my mom stood up and pulled the phone from its spot next to the bed into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. All I could see was the yellow cord stretched across the room, like a tightrope at the circus, right above our heads at the top of the tent. I imagined myself able to walk right across it, no problem at all, with the audience cheering below and everyone wanting my autograph. I would just say no, no, it was nothing. Then I heard my mom, crying in the bathroom. Deep, guttural sobs that scared me to death and told me that something bad had happened.
She finally came out of the bathroom, holding the phone on its base and placing it back on the nightstand next to the bed. She was quiet, but was sniffling a little. I didn’t move, still playing asleep as she got back in bed, her back to me.
I guess I eventually fell asleep that night, and the next morning was typical of all our mornings. We all got up to get ready for school. This day was especially exciting because I had a field trip to the zoo. The happiness I had about this consumed all my thoughts so I did not think about my mom crying in the bathroom, and seemed to be okay, so all was good.
The trip was over, and as the school bus pulled up to the school, my eyes searched for our baby blue VW bus, the only car that could carry five daughters around town. I loved this bus. The door that slid open on the side, the tall stick gear shift that my mom and dad maneuvered like race car drivers, and the way back—the best place to sit if you were a little kid, like me. My youngest sisters and I would end up here a lot if there were extra kids in the car, which there seemed to be often. Although the black felt under our knees and bottoms was slightly scratchy and itchy, we loved feeling all the bumps and dips in the road. It was like a ride at an amusement park. Seat belts were unheard of, so we were bopping all over the place in that way back.
As I stepped off the school bus, I saw our neighbor waiting on me. She was standing there, next to her car, waving and calling my name. Slightly confused and afraid, I slowly walked over to her as she quickly directed me into the back seat and closed the heavy door behind me. The only thing she told me was that my mom needed her to pick me up today. As usual, I was too shy and embarrassed to ask questions or get more information. I just sat in the big backseat, staring out the window, as we drove home.
My shyness was my undoing many times in my life, as you have probably seen. Besides the whole molestation thing and the phone call with my mom, there are many more examples of the painful anxiety and shyness I had as a child. There was one time, in elementary school, when my teacher sent me to the office to hang pictures on the bulletin board. I was sent because she knew I would be well behaved and get the job done perfectly, the pictures hanging evenly on the board. While I was stapling the pictures up, I accidentally stapled my index finger. I did not make a sound. The ladies working in the office continued to type, answer ringing telephones and chat with each other as I sat there, looking down at the silver staple planted right into the flesh of my finger, just like it looked on the corners of the papers I’d been hanging. Fighting back tears and pain, I decided this would call way too much attention to me, so I finished the job I had been sent to do, and then I went back to class. The day continued, the staple still sitting there, but my finger slowly turning to a shade of purple with hints of red and blue mixed in.
When I finally got home that afternoon, I burst into the house in tears, screaming and crying my mother’s name, telling her the terrible story while she pulled the staple out of my finger. Why didn’t you tell anyone? What were you thinking? You have to stand up for yourself! A mother’s mantra when her child does a stupid thing. I have heard this many, many times in my life, and not just from my mom. Friends, teachers, sisters, and virtual strangers have said the same thing to me on occasion. My shyness is my undoing.
I remember getting into the backseat of a friend’s car on a hot, sweaty day. I was probably seven or eight years old. We tried to get in without our bare legs touching the vinyl seat that had been cooking in the sun for hours. All was good. My somewhat chubby thighs were held high as I slid in. Looking down, I could see the sweat and dirt streaked like rivers around all the freckles that dotted the flesh. What had I been doing to be that filthy? Not like me at all. I reached over to close the big, heavy door, slamming it shut. I rolled down the window under the demands of my best friends, twins who lived next door. As their mom began the drive home, warm wind came rushing into the car, thankfully, to give us some relief. Beginning to relax, I sat back on the mammoth seat, resting my arms at my sides, not realizing that a wasp had landed there. The sting was horrific, sending sharp pain mixed with panic all over my body. I frantically swatted the wasp off of arm, killing it in the process, and then peeked over at my friends to make sure they had not seen this or the tears puddled in my eyes.
So here I was again, letting my shyness take over as I sat quietly in the backseat of the car being driven home from school. I was so afraid to ask why my mom was not there but deep down I knew why: something terrible had happened. Something that made my mom cry in the bathroom with the telephone in the middle of the night. I finally gathered up enough nerve and volume to ask where she was, my mom. In a kind, southern way I was told that my mother was at home. Oh, great. Now I was really scared. Why on earth would my mom be at home? If she were home, she could have come to get me! Someone please help.
When I walked into our house, there were people sitting ahead in the den, ladies from church who were always working on things with my mom—flowers for the alter, Sunday school class, vacation bible school, coffee hour. Basically, all the things a good episcopal church does. It was easy to walk through them, their cigarette smoke filling the air, and going straight to the kitchen where I knew my mother would be. But she wasn’t. I ran to her bedroom. Her bathroom. My sisters’ rooms. Nothing. And then my oldest sister found me in the hallway crying and told me, like it was a fact of life, that our mom had to drive to be with our daddy, who had a major heart attack in the middle of the night and was having triple bypass surgery. A what? That’s all I could think or say, for that matter. By then, several ladies were trying to explain this in a way I might understand, but none of that mattered to me. All I knew was my mom was gone and my dad was sick and I was here with people I didn’t really care for.
As I look back on this time, God, I like to think you were around since my dad survived this major, relatively new for the time, surgery on his heart, although you tested this theory many times over the years. More on that later. This has been exhausting, so I will end here.