siblings

TOUCHED

I walked into my brother’s shop after class.  I was an adult “non-traditional” student in my early 30s at the local university.  I remember riding in the back seat of our family car as a young girl, and while the campus was a fixture in our small town, it seemed a world away.  I wondered what it would be like, to be one of the young women there and yet miraculously for me,  I   became one of them.

My brother asked “how was class,’ and we exchanged small talk when he began discussing the difficulties his son was having in school:

“You know, Dad and I were talking the other day, and we agreed you and Daniel have a touch of the same thing…”

I was shocked. I didn’t respond verbally.  Silence is my usual response.

Now I can see that even then, I had a lot to prove, though education was for my own sake, for my own desire for learning.  But simultaneously there was a tab to pay, a peg to move one step ahead in effort find myself on home base. Obviously, I am not even in the game, or at least, that is how I felt in that moment.  His words hit a nerve- for all my learning, for all I have overcome, his view of me was incredulous.  Not only that, he and my dad seemed to agree on the fact.

I’ve always admired my brother.  If he had self-doubt, he didn’t show it.  He was always of good humor, level-headed, an intelligent, straight A student and when we were kids, engrossed in sports.  I thought he had the better of things  being a boy, and for a short time, I dressed like him, wanted to play on his ball teams- even one summer I practiced catching ball thinking I would join his all-boys team.   I wanted the acceptance, admiration and success he had. I tried to model myself after him, and he never knew.  We had many fun times together.

(Did he really say that?)

“You know, Dad and I were talking the other day, and we agreed you and Daniel have a touch of the same thing…”

A touch.

A little thing resulting in a great divide.

I am sure he was referring not only to our similar learning difficulties, but also our personalities and behaviors to some degree.  When I was around my nephew’s age, I experienced what the family jokingly refers now as “the dark years.”

I can laugh at that most of the time, but they truly were dark, and back then it wasn’t very funny.  I think his ability to classify it in such creative, dramatic terms is the kicker.  Most of the time I laughed, but one time I responded, saying they actually were very dark and I wasn’t in the mood to laugh about it.

In the back of my mind

As a young girl, shame seemed to overshadow everything: Spilt Drinks, Wallpaper slit in corners, because they weren’t lying perfectly flat; scribbles and smiley faces on bricks and painted walls, piles of papers, coffee-stains missed on washed dishes, the inability to remember…my brother received a stretch Armstrong for Christmas, and after the doll’s newness wore off and it sat dormant, I couldn’t wait to slice it open to see what made him so pliable. I loved deconstructing almost anything to see what it was all about, how it worked, but soon my mind was taking me off to something else, and said items usually sat piled up for another day. I can’t explain it, but there was an overwhelming compulsion to do exasperating, senseless things. On top of that, I rocked most of the time, I couldn’t talk on the phone without pacing and I picked my cuticles incessantly until they bled.

My brother, sister and I enjoyed games together, but the matching game was dreadful. I could not remember where two cards alike were hiding. Meanwhile, my siblings racked up, blasé as they tossed their married cards into piles. I was determined to remember on my next turn- I carefully watched each one turned face-up and quickly flipped, but their memory faded before I had time to store them. For a while I had difficulty telling time, so my father took a flat cardboard box, and on it painted the face of a clock. He made two wooden hands, and secured them with a screw, nut and washer for realistic movement. After supper, he would get the clock out of the utility room, sit in his chair and quiz me each evening. Eventually it became comfortable.

Generally, Numbers have always been a foreign language to me: I would try to absorb them like the match game cards, but I couldn’t grasp them. My dad and I had many showdowns during his attempts to help me with homework. I’m sure many Parents get frustrated when they can’t find the exact words to use when trying to teach something, and after many attempts of explaining the same thing, over and over, exasperation took over. He would end up yelling, I would end up crying. So besides associating numbers with a mysterious dark void, they also seemed to be another means of separation.

My favorite pastime in class was reading the SRAs. They were cards with stories which you later tested yourself on key points. The spoken word was wooden for me, but the written word, was my first love. I relied on the page- while I could not find words to explain things, I found if I could write them down as I spoke, they came alive. The visual was my tool to connect with others, to share common knowledge.

As I ran toward puberty, the learning and social difficulties began to increase.  One day my mom told me my desk would be placed in front of the class, side by side with my teacher’s. “It will help you pay attention,” she said.  This took place casually and nothing was announced or said about it in class.

I never was a girl’s friend, those who immediately connect, share gossip, brush each other’s hair or whatnot.

I had friends, and many laughs, but they weren’t steady. I remember once scanning female classmates, and thinking of them as “otherworldly…” separate. I sensed their experience to be very different from my own. It wasn’t just my weight struggle or my bowl hair cuts, or even my difficulties in school, though I admired their femininity, their long straight hair and their propensity for good grades. It was the right to simply be that I admired, no questions asked.  My proudest moment was winning the class spelling B.

By grace I was passed to the 7th grade,  and my first year at junior high was one of my most difficult of all my school years, just it time for boys, a menstrual cycle, and a changing body.  It probably would have been better had I been held back a year.

I prepared all summer for my upcoming move to a new school. I had blossomed and became more delicate looking in my opinion. I was turning into a young lady as seen in my mom’s old joe weider exercise booklets from the 50s. My brother, sister and I always went for the introductory first volume for a laugh, which featured black and white photographs of the three breast types: Small, large and saggy. The last photograph created laughter like an unexpected punch line, and each time was like the first time. I spent that summer taking Joe’s advice. I practiced walking with a book on my head, doing scissor exercises and used the ornate, powder blue dumbbells included in the exercise kit for my budding breasts. I had learned the popular jingle sang by girls in small groups- with the pumping of elbows it was chanted-

“I must… I must… I must increase my bust-
the bigger the better the tighter the sweater
I must increase my bust!”

I was hopeful about having a social life, making girl friends and doing girl things- meeting boys, and was crazy about clothes. My mom took me clothes shopping on Friday nights, where I bought trendy blouses, slacks, and accessories. She and dad were always generous in buying for us. She took me into her room once to show me all the jewelry she had, including her first pair of gold earrings she bought when she was 17- tiny acorns to wear in her tiny earlobes. I enjoyed the passage into my teen years with enthusiasm, and appreciated all its beauty ritual and accoutrements.