Yesterday I took my daughter in for her yearly check-up. As she had her vision tested I remembered when I had mine at her age, but not because it was mandatory, but because I was a naughty little girl. Two of my closest friends in my first grade class were wearing glasses. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted glasses too. My friends said that they had headaches from all the squinting they had done. They said their eyes hurt. They said their eyes turned red.
I went home and cried to my dad that my head was killing me, and that my eyes hurt so terribly, I was afraid they’d fall out of the eye sockets. I rubbed and rubbed at them, and my eyes became red and inflamed from all the rubbing I did. I walked around the house squinting and rubbing at my eyes. My parents were worried. Bad eyesight was a common occurrence in my dad’s family. Three of the seven siblings were wearing bifocals.
So my dad took me to see the eye doctor.
The doctor’s sitting room was filled with kids who, no doubt, had the same idea I did. There they all were in their blue and white school uniforms rubbing at their eyes and squinting. And there were the parents slapping the kids hands away from their eyes, looking worried.
I was sure I would come home with a pair of glasses. I was sure I could fool the doctor just as I had fooled my parents. I was sure that all I had to do was just squint and rub at my eyes. No one told me I had to make mistakes reading the eye chart. I was a first grader and proud to be reading already. I wanted the doctor to see how smart I was, and what a good reader I was, and that I was sure to receive a certificate from my teacher claiming that I was the smartest little girl in all of the first grade.
The doctor was impressed. Not with my reading as much as with my vision. My vision was perfect, he said. And (almost) perfect it remains to this day.
My daughter is happy she doesn’t need glasses. They’d only get in the way of soccer and ballet, she says. Sunglasses, on the other hand, she can’t have enough.
Sundays. I tend to feel sad on Sunday nights. I blame my parents, of course. Since I can remember, Sundays were church days. Waking up early, getting dressed in uncomfortable dresses, itchy hose, and tight shoes was only made better by the fact that we were going to see friends and perhaps go over to their house until the evening service.
I used to get lectured quite a bit on Sundays. How to sit, how to stand, how to talk, how to laugh. Who to look at, who not to. How to wear my hair, even. My mother would have me practice my posture with the handle of a broom behind my back, held secure in the crook of my elbows, and two, three books stacked atop my head every day after school. It was common for girls in the church to be married by seventeen. It was not common for them to go to college.
Sometimes I think about all the things I missed out on while in church, or getting ready for it. Maybe I would have learned to roller skate or swim. Maybe I would have become more courageous, more adventurous, more articulate. Maybe I would have openly read books that were censored by the church, and not hid them from my parents. Maybe I would have learned to express my opinion, stand behind it.
I wonder about the me I could have been. The one not so obsessed with pleasing. The one that is hiding in there somewhere, looking at the world, anticipating the moment the cloak would come off.
This is a Magpie Tale.
One Saturday morning when I was 12, my father woke up and decided that that was the day his daughters would learn the feminine art of keeping house. “Marioara,” he said to my mom, “these girls are getting as tall as poplars and all they do is play.” Now I may have been 12, and already taller than my mom, but my sisters were 10 and 7, and petite. However, that’s how things were done in our family. The entire group was involved. Example: if one of us broke a rule, we all paid for it. The reasoning? So we’d learn the consequence and not attempt to break a rule, ever again. Sometimes it worked, most often it didn’t. It created an accomplice sort of bond between the five of us kids, though, and we saw to it that we weren’t found out.
My mom, being the wise woman she is, set about finding age appropriate tasks for us three. The youngest was shown how to fold clothes and organize the closets. The second was soon scrubbing the toilets, polishing the furniture and vacuuming, and I got sent to the kitchen to start on the soup, and peel the potatoes. I was 12, old enough to know better than burn down the house.
All the while cleaning the chicken, I was remembering the ones at my Tanti Marie’s country house, running around the yard without their heads, blood splattering everywhere. Not a pretty sight, nor memory. But I persevered and soon enough I added it to the cold water-filled pot waiting for it. To that I added salt, carrots, onion, celery, and parsley, placed the lid on top and moved on to the potatoes.
I will admit that to this day, I do not enjoy peeling potatoes. There is something about their cold and slimy texture (to me, at least) that raises the hair on my arms. I cut them, cubed them, filled another pot with cold, fresh water, added salt and the potatoes, and set them to boil. After the potatoes were fully cooked, I drained them, added the softened butter that had been sitting on the counter for so long it had practically melted, and then the milk, and stirred like crazy. They turned out delicious.
When the soup was ready, my mom strained it, disposing of the celery, parsley, and onion, saved the meat and carrots on the side for frying them later, and explained the importance of simmering the homemade noodles in the soup broth. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make the noodles. Those remained my mother’s and grandmother’s responsibility.
Over the years I experimented with the addition of herbs, garlic, roasted shallots, heavy cream, sour crème, crème fraiche, and a few other condiments in my mashed potatoes. The soups became more complicated as well. Yet, regardless of the outcome, my most proud moment is when we sat down for lunch on that Saturday, and I served everyone the chicken noodle soup and mashed potatoes I had made.
Isn’t it funny how as kids we believed everything our parents told us? Whether it was true or not, we swallowed it without much consideration. I know I asked a lot of questions just for the sake of asking as I liked hearing myself talk. And I also know my parents answered because it was easier to do that than to ignore me. Some of the replies I remember to this day, only because I find myself repeating the same absurdities to my own children.
My son, possibly the smartest person in our house, isn’t buying it anymore. “Do you really believe that mom?” He often asks. Long time ago, before I was even married, I made a promise that I will not deceive my children. So I admit that no, I don’t, and ask him to repeat the question so I could give an authentic answer.
And so he does, but I truly hope he isn’t exasperated with me, because even knowing this I sometimes catch myself parroting my answer, and see his eyes roll.
Just the other day while visiting with friends, I asked a child my son’s age what Santa had brought. My son rolled his eyes, “Santa isn’t real mom. C does not believe in him anymore.”
“Why not?” I replied. “I still do!”
“Do you really, mom?”
“Well yes. Everybody’s got a Santa.” I said.
“Kids don’t like to be made fools of, you know?”
Yes, of course. How could I forget? Here he is, almost 10, so eager for truth. So ready to dispose of the magic of childhood and demand to know the harsh realities of life. And he deserves to know. I just wish the truth wouldn’t disillusion him.
While I still may, I will hug him and kiss him and fill his head with enchanted stories. Gotta pass those absurdities on. Somehow.
The moon was full last night, iced and frosted, the wind so strong it broke the clouds apart and scattered them across the sky. Husband was gone to one of his soccer matches, and I was alone with my little darlings who were running crazily upstairs and downstairs playing hide-and-seek, by the light of amber colored lamps.
Hide-and-seek was a favorite childhood game for us as children. As I gathered my darlings around the Advent wreath and switched from lamps to candles, I told them the story of how I had gotten lost during a game of hide-and-seek I had been playing with my cousins one summer at my Tanti Marie’s place in the village.
Tanti Marie had been gone to tend to her large vegetable and flower garden across the dirt road from her house that morning, leaving all the cousins in the charge of the oldest, who couldn’t possibly have been more than fourteen. This cousin was in love with Luca, the neighbor boy (we called him Luca Buca), and she had no interest in minding half a dozen kids. And so we made our way across the road, through the narrow alley between the gardens and down to the river.
Now we were not allowed at the river by ourselves. Although shallow and narrow, the waters were fast moving and the man made bridge, usually a thick tree trunk the village men had placed there, could roll and trap someone underneath. But we didn’t understand these warnings because we were children and words such as these meant nothing to us. So Tanti Marie scared us with the threat of being kidnapped by the band of Gypsies who camped down the river, where the village ended and the wild forests took over.
We had seen the gypsy women before with their colorful kerchiefs and embroidered aprons dangling gold coins. How fascinating they were! Some had mouths filled with gold teeth! They came through the village, knocking at the courtyard gates, asking if there was some work that needed to be done. We wanted to stare at them just as openly as they were staring at us. Yet Tanti Marie would have none of that. They were after fair-skinned children, they would put us in their sacks, carry us to their camp and make us their slaves. We didn’t know what slaves were exactly, but we didn’t want to find out.
As we started playing, I forgot about the warning, and ventured far off along the banks, in search of the perfect sized cluster of bushes where I could hide. I hid and waited. And waited. And waited. But no one came to look for me. And other than the chirping of the birds, the air was silent. Suddenly I became fearful. I had no idea where I was or how to get back. There were no houses or gardens around. Only trees, some so low their branches almost touching the water.
I got myself into such a state of panic, that I just sat and cried. Suppose the Gypsies came. Or suppose the wild bears came out of the woods in search for fish. And what if it got dark, and no one would come looking for me? What would I eat and where would I sleep? I don’t know how much later it was that a Gypsy woman came into the clearing with her metal tub filled with wash. She saw me crying and stopped, setting her wash down and slowly coming to me.
She knew who I was, and where my Tanti Marie lived, and took me there promptly. And Tanti Marie, despite her love and her tenderness, felt she had to teach the other kids a lesson about obedience. She asked that my cousin and I go and pick out a switch from one of the trees in the courtyard. With tears streaming down her face, she asked that we hold our palms out, lashing across each ten times.
As I tucked my son in, he asked if I had learned to be obedient that day. He knows just as I did and still do, how difficult obedience is. And I admitted to him that the experience taught me to equate obedience with fear. It wasn’t until years later that I learned to equate it with responsibility.
“Mom, I’ve been thinking.” My nine-year old son starts the moment he gets in the car. I wait for him to settle in before backing down the driveway. He doesn’t like me to drive an inch if he doesn’t have the seatbelt on. ”Yes?” I prompt.
“Well you know how you and daddy want to be great parents to me and Isabelle? I wonder if that’s such a good idea…”
It is our weekly date night. For the next three hours it is just the two of us. We’ll watch a movie, treat ourselves to a book, have a leisurely dinner. It is the one evening of the week where all my hard work of teaching him grace, wit, and impeccable manners are put to the test. And my mother heart swells proudly in my chest when beautifully dressed and well groomed older patrons of restaurants stop by our table to commend my son on his elegance of deportment for one so young. But back to our conversation.
“Why not?” I ask wondering what he could possibly mean.
“Well, I’m just afraid that you aren’t true to your real selves, if you constantly worry about doing the right thing for us.”
I reach across and ruffle his hair. ”Being a mother to you two is the most important thing in my life right now.” Did I have such well formed thoughts at his age? I think not.
“I know mommy, and you’re the best at it. I just want you to be happy too. It’s okay to be selfish, once in a while.” He picks up my hand and kisses the back of my palm. For a moment I feel a sharp stab of guilt. Am I expecting too much from him? Is that what he is saying?
“You know what would be real cool,” he goes on peering out the window into the gathering darkness.
“To see a real live bat. Jackson says that these woods are filled with them.”
Across the street from us, in a lime plastered, ivy-covered house, lived the shoemaker and his wife. As children, we loved to play in their rose filled garden, or sit with him at his workbench, eating bowls of stew with homemade crusty bread, and watching him cut the myriad colored leather for the shoes ordered. His wife always had gold foil wrapped chocolates for us, in the many pockets of her apron.
They were old and stooped. The only child they had ever had, long dead of some childhood ailment. Children had a tendency to die back then, the old shoemaker used to say, his eyes filling with tears. And because I cried easily as a child, I would tear up alongside him. His wife would hear me crying and come rushing out of the kitchen, scolding the old shoemaker for saddening children with his stories. She would take me in the cool, dark kitchen with her, where she was always pickling or making jams, and give me a blue velvet covered box out of an old walnut armoire, to look through.
It was a treasure box of sorts, with mementos of their child and the trips they had taken while newlyweds. Amidst the smiling photos, train ticket stubs, and christening gown and bonnet, there was also a teddy bear. A small, skinny one with a chewed paw. It bore the importance of having belonged to their baby. Out of respect for the old shoemaker’s tears (or most likely, because I was afraid to touch the plaything of a dead child), I didn’t touch it, although my young fingers craved to.
The ivy-covered house with its fragrant rose garden is no longer there. In its place is an ugly concrete building with shuttered windows. The people within are silent and secretive, and the only time one sees them is when they back their car out of their gated yard.
Yet, the bittersweet memories of childhood remain deeply rooted in my mind. A treasure box of them, that I’m determined to document before old age sets in, and I forget. Colors and textures, and sounds, and sensations. Life lessons learned at a young age.