I know it’s not Sunday, but I posted non-fiction yesterday, so I’m plunging into the deep end with some fiction today.
The two posts struck chords: Lena’s stirring memories of my early schooling through graduate school, and ADM’s describing both graduate school and work life. ADM posits that Professional Good Girls had a common trait of not finding love and acceptance at home, but rather at school. I certainly fit that model.
I was the youngest child in my family, the “oops” child. Although only recently diagnosed, my mother has suffered from depression since before I was born. My earliest memories are of her sleeping on the couch all day while my father was at work and my siblings at school. My father had a very difficult childhood and did not know how to react to children, so although he was there in the evenings, he was distant and withdrawn. I spent most of my time alone, as my siblings were several years older. My sister who is nearest in age has described me as a faery child, who lived in her own imagined world.
I found the yearned-for approbation and love at school among my teachers, although my creative efforts got me in trouble throughout school. I made up fantastic stories in first grade; my teacher called my parents to tell them I needed a psychiatrist. I wrote a story for a creative writing course in sophomore year of high school; my English teacher called me parents to tell them that I needed a psychiatrist. My parents didn’t believe in psychiatry; I have often wondered if I would have been better off if they had.
As long as I followed the rules, my teachers liked me, so I learned quickly to conform, to be a Good Girl. I was not so lucky with my fellow students. I was a very small, sickly child, so I could not run, skip rope, or play the games that were popular in the early grades. n fourth grade, I had a strep infection that attacked my kidneys, so I was out of school for the entire spring, which made me more of a cypher to my classmates. Although my teachers liked me, their attention made me more a target at times. My first-grade teacher found I could already read, so she had me read to the class while she went to the teachers’ lounge. Her actions led to my being threatened with beatings on the playground. My sixth-grade teacher announced my IQ to the class, making me more unwelcome among my peers than I had already managed to make myself. After that time, I took a blanket and a book to school, reading on the grass alone in a far corner of the playground during lunchtime.
High school, with all its concomitant social machinations, was sheer hell. Although I was an attractive girl, no one dated the brain. At best, the boys saw me as someone to help with homework, or worse, to offer advice on how to get the girls they liked to go out with them. I was beneath the notice of the popular girls; my one friend and I spent all our time together, in the unbreakable bubble that surrounded us. When my friend found a boyfriend t the end of sophomore year and abandoned me for him, as often happened in those situations, I was bereft. I did continue to receive love and approbation from most of my teachers, and put my lonely nights and weekends to learning even more. Actually, my loneliness helped me to leave high school early, as I took enough courses to have all my requirements for college by the end of my junior year.
I went to a very small college, where I really bloomed as a scholar. My personal life was not going as well. After my sophomore year, I had dated perhaps 6 or 7 young men; only one had ever asked me out more than once. Feeling that no one else would ever be interested in me, I married him. My marriage worked on exactly the same lines as being a Professional Good Girl: do whatever I was told, never question authority, never rock the boat, never stand out in anyway. My ex-husband was also very young; he did not know any better, so he constructed and maintained the box in which my soul and personality was locked away. I became a chameleon, without opinions of my own. I mastered quickly the ability to find out others’ thoughts and reflected them.
When we divorced four years later, I realized that I did not know what music I liked, what books I enjoyed reading, or what foods I liked to eat. I knew how to be a scholar, but I had to learn how to be a person.
All of this training made me the perfect candidate to became a Professional Good Girl; I will give you my thoughts on graduate school and my work life in another post.
One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone. She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her. She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish). The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.
I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh? If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it? Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress? And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?
According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life. How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?
Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived. I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person. My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.
Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?
I cannot do any better than this post on Blogenspiel, and so I urge you to go read the full poem by John McCrae. I will quote one stanza from it here:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
I am writing this at 11:11 EST, in the two minutes of silence for all those fallen in the service of their countries, as part of my remembrance. I thank you: Uncle Eddie, Daddy, Allan, Chris, Tom, Jim, and Theresa for your service.