All of us endure change throughout our lives, our personal Möbius strip nicked and buckled but not torn apart. At least not yet, if we’re still alive. Here are more of the extraordinary changes through which I’ve lived and born witness.
The day my sister nearly drowned. It was not done with malice or forethought, but I’d nearly killed my baby sister. The day was melted-cheese hot and sticky in New Jersey, and we three kids splashed in our tiny in-ground pool. My little brother and I roughhoused so hard the resultant waves smashed our toddler sister’s head against the edge of the pool. She passed out. Unaware of her injury, my brother and I continued to play. Mom finally saw that she wasn’t floating but drowning and pulled her limp, blue-gray body from the water. Thank God dad was home and not at the hospital or on a house call. It was years before the development of CPR and all he had to rely upon to save his youngest daughter’s life was the often ineffective artificial resuscitation technique and determination not to lose his baby girl. He revived her, and he and mom rushed off to the hospital to make sure she was all right. I never learned to swim well but both my siblings glide like dolphins. I weep for those who have lost children to accidents or illnesses.
Driving with my mom through the poorest part of Trenton, New Jersey to pay wages to our black maid. We rode through neighborhoods increasingly more rundown until we came upon a group of sooty red brick, three-story apartments built around a circular park the size of a large home garden. Women yakked and gestured as they perched on stone stoops, their dark legs projected from dresses of fuchsia, navy, burnt orange, and golden hued cotton. Men smoked cigars, sauntering on the sidewalks in shined brown wingtips, their thumbs gripping suspenders stretched over their tee shirts. Kids in rolled-up dungarees ran across the park, kicking balls and wiggling hula hoops, yelping, chortling, dodging each other. Laughter and shouts filled the space, waves of noisy friendships. Mom searched for the right house number. We got out of the car as a hundred pair of eyes watched us. Our young maid answered our knock and held out her hand for her pay, her neighbors eyeing us from under tense brows, but silent. Were the buildings privately owned tenements or government housing? I didn’t know but I witnessed a lifestyle impoverished of material comforts but wealthy with community, and saw that I was the stranger.
Visiting the arts and crafts show the retarded kids produced. In the basement of our school a classroom hidden from the rest of the student population housed a group of retarded children. Once a year, we “normal” kids from all grades walked through their classroom, looking at the arts and crafts projects the kids had made – looped pot holders, Popsicle stick bird houses, watercolor paintings of the seashore, small stuffed pillows with button decorations, animal collages, punched tin trays, drawings of trees and circuses, lanyards of red, purple, and black vinyl. I don’t know how many kids were in the class. They were never in attendance when we marched through their class; we never saw the kids themselves. We heard the word retarded. I wanted to be in the retarded class with the kids who got to make all the art projects. How lucky could they be?
The day I won my first art award at six. I’d drawn a playground safety poster, and after sobbing my eyes out over a glaring mistake in the drawing, turned it into a different image. That cobbled artwork caught the attention of the judges who decided I’d expressed precocious insight. The day I won a writing award based on a university exam, although I was still in grade school. It was supposed to have guaranteed me a place at Rutgers University but we moved to California before I could claim my prize. The day I won a middle school writing competition for a story about freedom. The Daughters of the American Revolution had read more patriotism into my words than I’d intended. The story, Fire High for Life, was loaded with purple prose and unlikely heroic deeds, an utterly forgettable melodrama. The worst part of the event is that I’ve long lost the bronze award pin. The best is that I’ve also lost the story. I discovered I am a writer and an artist, maybe still too garish and amateur, but sincere.
Watching Nikita Khrushchev bang his shoe at the United Nations. The TV evening newscast and the front page of the newspaper showed the Soviet premier at the noble curved desk of the international congregation of world peace, his shoe gripped above his head, his mouth open in one of his tirades. Even today people disagree about the incident, about whether it was a shoe he raised or just his fist, about whether or not the Russian tyrant had so besmirched the United Nations or only expressed his valid opinion. All over the United States people built bomb shelter, and children practiced covering and ducking in their classrooms in anticipation of atom bombs being launched into our country. The Red Menace lurked everywhere, or so some insisted. I believed all wars were over, and I did not cower at Red threats. I thought the world was “too old to behave that way.” Ten-year-olds knew better. Could I have been more wrong about anything?