(I was inspired by Nothing But Bonfires for this idea. I adore this blogger and her idea for this kind of writing project.)
I was born on time. The doctor told my mother “April 22nd” and that’s when it was. I’m told that during labor, my heart rate scared the doctors—either it was too fast or too slow—and my mother’s body wasn’t ready yet to let me go. There was an emergency C-section and while my father was out getting McDonald’s I entered the world. I could have the details wrong, but I know McDonald’s was in there somewhere. So was a football game that my birth was interrupting, but that could just be hearsay. My mother brought me home on her birthday, exactly seven days after I was born.
She tells me I slept with books in my crib, that she would come in to wake me up in the morning and find me happily turning the pages of those hard-covered, cardboard-paged children’s books, reading to myself. She tells me I was very well behaved and responded instantly and appropriately to the word “No.” She tells me I played quietly and well by myself. I had no choice with this last point, considering it wasn’t up to me whether or not my parents chose to create another child for me to play with. They did not, and therefore I developed advanced Playing By Myself skills at an early age.
I could balance sitting on my father’s hand as he held me high above his head. I could help him cook and he would sit me on the kitchen counter and I would stir pancake batter, one hand gripped around a stirring spoon, the other clenched with excitement. This hand-clenching would become a trademark and my mother would remark when she saw my high school senior pictures, that the one in which I am smiling and clenching my hand was the one that seemed most realistic.
I called cobwebs “cowboys” and soup “puh.” It seems I had early dyslexia that I reversed over time. Grand Union, the name of the grocery store ten minutes from our rural Vermont home, I called “Nu-nu-nu-nu,” a fact of which my mother still delights in reminding me. “Gina,” she’ll call to me—-her now almost 29 year-old daughter—-“I’m off to Nu-nu-nu-nu now! Do you want anything?” It seems I had a proclivity for naming things in this fashion because besides the grocery store, I named my grandmother “Ma-ma-ma.” I later reasoned to my friends, when they heard me call her “Mamama” out loud accidentally, that her name was thus because it was my “Mama’s ma.” Quick thinking on my part, but a lie nonetheless. And in any case, the name I chose for my grandmother stuck because the entire family began calling her that and still, fifteen years after her death, refer to her with those syllables from my toddler mouth.
My first friend who ever existed in my life and in my memory was Sara. Sara with no “h” at the end of her name and that was something I would remember forever. Her father ate large bars of Shredded Wheat cereal and I remember sitting at their counter early in the morning after my parents dropped me off at their house every weekday morning and watching the milk soak into those bars. He would break up the Shredded Wheat with his spoon, the metal clinking against the porcelain with each break. Sara and I went to the same kindergarten, a hippie childhood fantasy world called Poker Hill School far away from my house on winding, hilly dirt roads that became rutted and muddy during the spring. On one spring drive to Poker Hill, the car got caught in one of those ruts and slid off the road into a ditch. Sara started crying and I, not being entirely moved by the experience, cried just to fit in. It seemed appropriate to shed tears at a time like that, but I had the distinct feeling that I was faking.
Poker Hill gave me my first friends and one would become my best friend: Drew. Drew tells the story of the spring day the school had a running race on the dirt road and he was announced the winner. For a prize, he got to choose whatever song he wanted and the school would sing it with him. He chose “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and when he had made his selection and told the other kids, he heard a guffaw come from the crowd. It was me. While I have no recollection of this memory, I suppose I laughed because I felt it was silly to sing a Christmas song in the spring. And whenever Drew tells me of this memory, I laugh but only half-heartedly. I don’t want to know I was a mean little girl.
Mamama had given me a dress with boats sewed on it upside-down so that when I wore the dress I could see them right-side up. I called it my Cambodia dress. That was in the early 80s when the word “Cambodia” was all over the news. Not knowing what Cambodia was or what it meant to refer to Cambodia at the time, I lovingly named my bright blue spring dress with the pristine white upside-down sails after the country whose leadership executed people by the thousands, burying them in mass graves, and standing by the motto: “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.”
My swingset creaked. A brown and yellow metal contraption with a slide attached. It was set up on the uneven ground of our backyard, in the shade, and upon swinging forward, I could feel the whole set wobble. The chains holding the swing seat were rusted and because I had no siblings the whole set often went unused. But on summer days in the afternoons, I sat out there singing to myself and looking at my little house, running in once in a while for glasses of milk and peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches on brown bread, only to go back out and swing and sing some more. The creaking became rhythm for my songs, a squeaky lullaby to whichever parent sat on the back deck watching me keep myself busy. When the swingset came down, years later, the missing I felt in my chest would be palpable.