Creative writing class in college was mostly concerned with fiction and non-fiction. (No poetry to my disappointment.) Non fiction could be about anything but it had to be true. (Hence the name.) Most of us wrote about ourselves, someone we knew, or an experience we thought would be interesting. One woman wrote about being diagnosed with breast cancer and shaving off all her hair. Another one wrote about her first foreign travel experience.
I had a childhood that a lot of people find troubling. Since it was my childhood I really didn't see anything wrong with it at the time. The dysfunctional family was not something discussed in Catholic school. It was only when I grew older, gained a sense of perspective and heard about the way other people had grown up that I realized my childhood had prepared me for somethings very well and very poorly for others. But hey, its what I live with just like everyone else lives with their past. I don't like to moan about it because as childhoods go mine wasn't the worst. It wasn't perfect but who's life is?
My non-fiction story was about how different the world can seem with just one small change.
From The Corner of My Eye
I can see wonder out of the corner of my eye. For the first time in my memory I could see perfectly. The room around me was, quite suddenly, different from the day before.
Our kitchen was small by today’s standards but in my childhood it was considered large, with a battered, round wooden table at which we sat for breakfast, me and my siblings. My brother Bill, who was only a year younger than me, my sister Meg and my younger brother Joe, he was only a baby then, all sat at the table to eat cereal, milk, and orange or apple juice. Sometimes there was oatmeal, but usually cereal was what we ate for breakfast if it was a school day. Peter, my youngest brother by eleven years, was not yet born.
I am the oldest of five children, four still living, and so I can remember more clearly than my siblings the day the kitchen was wall-papered in its current colors of white, gold and brown. We were not to go into the kitchen under any circumstances barring loss of life or limb, but to stay in either our rooms or the basement recreation room, or ‘wreck room’ as I interpreted it. I’m certain now that my mother meant ‘rec room’ for recreation, but as Mom was always saying the place was a wreck; I naturally assumed ‘wreck’ was its actual name. This interpretation was something I told my mother years later, both of us finding amusement in the workings of my young mind.
My father had not done the papering. I learned later on that he had no interest (and little skill) in redecorating the house. My mother and her father had spent a day with the smelly paste and long sheets of damp paper draped over the table and counters until the ugly green pattern with pineapples and other fruit was covered completely with the latticework of white and brown and golden yellow.
To me the wallpaper was a lovely blend of these three colors, only when I was a foot or less away from the wall could I see the details of the gold and brown woven pattern against a white background. The dominant shape of white octagons from a distance tended to overpower the more delicate tracings of color so to my perspective, my mother and grandfather might as well have painted the entire kitchen a dusty goldenrod.
Later Mom would carefully remove the doors from the kitchen cabinets, line the shelves with paper, and paint all the wood a deep mustard color, echoing the walls. Antiquing was all the rage in the seventies; we had several pieces of furniture my mother had ‘antiqued’ with a strange streaky brown paint. She did the same with the kitchen cabinets until her entire kitchen was a bright cheerful space of white and brown and gold.
Above the white sink and Formica counter tops a wide window was framed by yellow curtains and spider plants hanging from macramé plant holders. My grandmother had a green thumb and continually brought living plants into her youngest daughter’s house, until they both discovered a plant my mother had difficulty killing. Spider plants proved to be the best at surviving my mother's good-intentioned over watering.
The macramé holders were intricate and sturdy, but to my view they were simply lumpy looking ropes of brown around white plastic blobs with a profusion of green and white strings springing out from the top with smaller green and white blobs hanging down. There was a great deal in the kitchen that remained a mystery to me. The numbered dials on the gas stove, the buttons on the telephone and the details of the sparkling glass cinnamon-sugar shaker for buttered toast (a kitchen essential unique to our household so far as we knew) were all vague and blurred to my sight.
I don’t remember when I could see clearly, or the point that my eyes began to deteriorate. Vision tests were required at alternate school grades, so certainly my eyes were fine when I entered the first grade. Second grade may have been perfectly normal, but in third grade, nothing in the class could hold my attention but books. The teacher may as well have been speaking and writing Swahili for all I understood of what was happening at the front of the classroom.
I don’t remember how it was determined that it must be my eyes that were the problem, not my lack of interest in history or math, though as those subjects were taught lack of interest might have been a contributing factor if not the dominant one. I have a vague recollection of a parent teacher conference somewhere in the school year and afterwards one of the ‘discussions’ with my parents that I always found completely terrifying.
I am determined that I will not be misunderstood. I was not beaten more than normal spankings or slaps on the hand or occasionally if my smart mouth and tone warranted, a slap on the face. I was not hit without provocation, certainly when I was punished I admit that I did more than enough to earn the punishment. And punishments were not always a spanking. I could be deprived of my allowance and still be told to do chores or confined to my room. My mother was brilliant at devising punishments her children would least like and so do almost anything to avoid. I became fairly skilled at lying, not that it did me much good with my mother; she could sniff out a lie like our Collie could find bacon. I attribute my father’s lack of awareness to lack of interest not lack of perception.
But I found discussions with both of my parents utterly paralyzing with fear. There was always something that I should have done, or not done. Worst were the times it was a thing I had thought of myself and discarded, afraid to take a chance and be wrong. I was always confronted with whatever it was that had offended and the conversation always ended miserably, at least on my part. I remember hearing once maybe on some TV show that childhood ends when we begin to worry. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t worry. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I was not afraid.
The conversation about my eyes was as terrifying as any other, worse because I had no idea there was anything wrong. That particular feeling was to be the theme of my entire life during my parent’s marriage. Situations I considered totally normal or at least normal for me, when described to others were greeted with stunned silence. I learned eventually that there were other families like mine, if not in every detail at least in general, but that none of them were considered normal, not at that time.
Somehow during the course of the conversation it was decided that I would be taken to the optometrist and my eyes examined. Perhaps this decision was reached due to the teacher’s input during the conference, or perhaps simply out of recognition of heredity, as both my parents were near sighted. I can recall a simultaneous feeling of relief and guilt, relief due to the notion that perhaps I wasn’t entirely at fault, but guilty because surely there was something I might have done or said which would have called this issue to attention before my grades began to slide.
Grades were a subject I avoided at all costs. Somehow my grades were never quite good enough. A failing grade was the subject of ‘discussion’ with my parents and an average grade warranted at least a ‘talk’ with whatever child earned it. My parents, my father especially, had standards for their children. I think heard my father tell my mother once that he was smart and she was smart so their children ought to be smart as well. Expectations of a certain amount of intelligence did not have a galvanizing effect upon me. I was immediately certain that I was stupid, particularly at certain subjects (math), and that I would never be able to live up to my parent’s standards. In a way I welcomed the thought that I wasn’t responsible for my poor grades due to my lack of intelligence, or lack of eyesight. At the same time though, I was convinced that such excuses would merit no exceptions from my parents in regards to my grades. I was to get good grades, it was expected. To get good grades I would need to see the material at the front of the room.
The optometrist visit was a blur, but the result was quite clear. I was to be fitted for glasses. There would be a two week waiting period for the lenses to be ground but the frames could be chosen immediately. Actually ‘should’ as opposed to ‘could’ would be more accurate, as the lenses must be fitted to the frames. The frames were large and round, as was the fashion, and an interesting pink beige in tone that complimented own coloring.
My glasses frames were the first thing I would wear everyday that I had chosen myself. Purses weren’t allowed in third grade, and my mother had firmly but gently guided my choice on shoes for the year. Everything else I wore to school was part of the uniform. A dark green and navy plaid skirt, shot with narrow lines of red and yellow with a short sleeved white blouse with Peter Pan collar. Navy blue knee socks and a crew neck blazing red sweater completed the ensemble.
everyone dress alike and the uniform strictly enforced that code. Often my uniform wasn’t new, but handed down
from my older cousins who attended a sister school near their town. I wasn’t precisely thrilled about wearing
glasses but at least they were something I’d picked out myself. My mother had helped but for once I had
gotten exactly what I’d wanted. Sacred Heart
The day the lenses were ready my mother somehow contrived to take me back to the store without anyone else along for the ride. At least this is how I remember it. My brother and sister may have waited in the car, but somehow I doubt it. I can remember standing at the glass counter, warmed by the lights inside the case, and being fitted with the frames and lenses. The world suddenly snapped into focus. Amazing.
Leaving the store was dizzying. As I habitually looked at the floor it was disconcerting to see the carpet pattern seemingly rising up to meet my steps. My mother held my hand firmly and told me not to look down. I couldn’t help it. Disorienting as it was, the sensation was also fascinating. The drive home was equally amazing. There were so many details in the car that I hadn’t noticed before. I could have looked around the car for hours.
In the winter and autumn months up north, darkness comes earlier than it does south of the Mason Dixon line. By five and six o’clock the sun is nearly down and long shadows cloak every building or tree beyond the reach of street lights. I could not see much beyond those shadows but the sharp lines of the reflective paint defining the lanes of the road caught my eye for several long amazing minutes.
The return to the house was an abrupt return to reality. My excitement was immediately quelled as we pulled in the gravel driveway. The rest of the evening was spent as it always had been, mostly in silence broken only by the sound of my parents talking and the clink of flatware forks against stoneware plates. I might marvel at the definition of the graduated lines of color on the wheat toned plates but I did so in silence. Dinner was the time for my parents to talk, and for children to listen and attempt to perfect our table manners.
Etiquette was a subject of high priority in my father’s house. There were a number of rules that I follow to this day. My husband marvels that even when I feel near starved, I do not saw at my steak, arms akimbo, ruthlessly elbowing my neighbors as I cut a bite of meat. The napkin must always be spread elegantly across my lap. Butter is not to be spread directly upon the bread but a portion taken, placed on the bread plate and applied to each bite before is to be consumed.
As a child these table manners were more difficult to follow. My brothers had allergies, which necessitated tiny bites so that they could chew and swallow in time to breathe through their mouths. Opening one’s mouth with food inside it, even for oxygen, was apt to earn at least a glare, and at worst, a heavy reprimand from my father. Slumping at the table was not encouraged, though perfect posture was something that was not demanded completely. Talking with a mouth full of food would result in some stinging language guaranteed to result in complete lack of further appetite. Elbows on the table would get you jabbed with a fork until my mother put a stop to that. Then there were the rules peculiar to our household, as opposed to well mannered homes across the town.
The rule I can remember most vividly had to do with talking at the table. Talking by children was never encouraged, but as my next youngest brother and I grew older occasionally we had news to share regarding school or my brother’s friends. When it seemed as if our conversation might become of more interest to our mother than his own, my father instituted a new rule. When someone wanted to speak, they were to finish whatever food was in their mouth, without tucking it into the cheek like a cow’s cud, take a breath and then speech was allowed. We became faster at masticating and an addendum to the rule was made. We were to take a breath and count to a silent five, and then if no adults were speaking, we might speak. Of course the practical application of this rule was that rarely did we ever speak at the table.
My mother had her own version of the rules, mostly to do with the food. We were to take a helping of everything passed to us, regardless of whether or not it was a dish we enjoyed. In the case of my brothers, they were required to take at least a few pieces of lettuce from the salad bowl. Drowning the aforementioned lettuce in dressing was not encouraged but Mom didn’t say anything against it either so my brothers managed to choke down a few bites of lettuce drenched in French dressing. Another rule of my mothers was that if she inquired if we wanted more of something, if we did not, we were to simply say, ‘no thank you’. Commentary on the dish was not necessary. If we did say we did not like something, my mother combated that rudeness with the utmost simplicity. If we did not like something, she served us more of whatever it was. This was not a serving we were allowed to portion ourselves. Butternut squash, for instance, was a particular enemy of mine and I was given a ladle size serving of it when I innocently (or not) commented that I didn’t care for how it felt in my mouth. I hadn’t said anything about the taste but apparently that was simply a matter of semantics to my parent. I had to choke down every last bite.
Of course, the result of these stringent rules of behavior wasn’t all bad. When spending the night at a friend’s house I was amazed to see all four of the other girls simply get up and leave the table while my friend’s mother simply sat finishing her meal. When the other girls asked me if I was coming I inquired if I might be excused from the table. This brought jeers of laughter from my friends and surprise from the woman, but I heard from my mother later that I was very well behaved. That pleased my mother a great deal.
I learned later that manners and appearance were of concern to my mother because she had five children. She told me she never wanted anyone to point at us and say that ‘that family should never have had so many children; they can’t even take care of them’ or 'look how badly behaved they are'. It was a point of pride with Mom that we should always appear well groomed and well mannered as if we were all only children and had plenty of money.
I never knew money was a source of concern until after my father left. My mother had a huge vegetable garden every spring through fall, and it was the source of many of our vegetables. As a gift she’d received a sealer and a quantity of plastic bags. She was able to freeze a great deal of the garden’s harvest for winter. Many of our clothes were hand me downs, from older cousins, and my mother also sewed, so she was able to take up or let down the hems in whatever was needed. I learned to sew at an early age and, with the scraps Mom and her mother gave me, had the best dressed Barbie doll in the neighborhood. I suppose to hear that a child needed glasses was not the most welcome news for a couple with so many children. But it was unacceptable that I go without them.
So during dinner that evening I could simply look around the kitchen and marvel at all the details I’d missed. The pattern of the wall paper was like straw woven into a basket, laid flat over a creamy white background. The cabinets were streaked in gold and brown and the spider plant’s had green leaves with white stripes down the center. I could even see all the artwork on the fridge. Not that it was all that impressive of an effort for any of us, but I could still see red and blue finger-paint delineated in careful swirls rather than the normal vaguely purple blur.
The next morning was the true revelation, though I must admit I recall a fascination with the evening ritual of brushing my teeth. For the first time I could see everything in the mirror. My looks were of no interest to me, I did not consider myself pretty and dwelling on my reflection merely emphasized that, but I could see the block letters on the toothbrush and the precise shape of my teeth.
The next morning my usual routine of dressing and making my bed before leaving the room was nothing out of the ordinary. I was excited at breakfast to realize I could read the cereal boxes in the cabinet from several feet away, though the selection of Cheerios, Lucky Charms or Golden Grahams remained exactly the same. Everything seemed new and amazing that morning. The light outside the windows was clear though the day was overcast and the yellow curtains near the table were open.
I sat in the corner between the two windows due to the fact that I was the oldest and capable of getting myself prepared and to breakfast, whereas my siblings required my mother’s occasional help. Now and then I had to be prodded into movement but usually concern for my father’s reaction should I be late was sufficient to speed me through the daily routine.
Eating my cereal and drinking the despised orange juice was always a chore as I did not care for milk either. I had been forced, by the nuns in first or second grade, to drink my left over milk warm, and I had hated it ever since. Orange juice wasn’t a matter of taste, the taste was actually good, but I could not stand the feeling of the pulp as it touched my lips or slid down my throat. I won’t drink orange juice to this day. That morning though, I somehow managed to eat and drink without spilling either the cereal or the juice, which could be considered a minor miracle given my distraction.
I could see wonder everywhere. Outside the kitchen window was a view most would consider dull. It featured the garage, the back fence, the neighbor’s house on the other side of the gravel drive, and the neighbor’s backyard just past the corner of our garage with a bird feeder hung from the eaves. But all of this was new to me, at least as seen from the distance of the kitchen window.
I could see the peeling paint on our garage doors and individual gravel of our driveway. Prior to my glasses the drive had been a solid mass of grey white and the doors to the garage blurred green squares. I was absolutely amazed to see that the red brick of our neighbor’s house was not a solid color after all, but stripes and blocks of red with pale grey mortar in between the bricks. Even the bricks were interesting because they weren’t all the same color, but several different shades of burgundy and red. The iron work holding up the small roof over the front stoop had elaborate curlicues and I could see spots of rust staining through the white paint concealing the metal. The roof was no longer a solid dark mass but row upon row of orderly shingles in varying shades of grey.
I could see through our chain link fence squirrels chasing each other or busily locating and gobbling down maple seeds, or ‘helicopters’ as we children called them then. My dog Liz, the Collie that was so sweet around kids, barked and chased the squirrels to my never-ending amusement. I was ordered to turn around and eat my cereal and though I grudgingly obeyed I still kept an eye out for anything else interesting.
The bird feeder caught my eye as a squirrel teetered over the eaves of the garage to steal seeds. A few birds not yet gone south lingered on the ground and the lower rungs of the feeder, daintily nibbling their share. I could not name all of them, but I knew wrens and robins, and I eagerly identified these to my mother.
I could hear the smile in her voice as she replied and told me the darker birds were starlings. Breakfast was usually a safe time for children to talk if we were close to finishing our cereal. Our father was usually getting ready while we ate, and he never shared breakfast with us the way he did dinner. Our mother still kept an eye out for etiquette infractions but the atmosphere was more relaxed at the breakfast table. Excitedly I told her about the bricks and the squirrels and Liz. I didn’t understand the expression on her face as Mom listened. I heard later that she was amazed to hear that I couldn’t see any of those things prior to receiving my glasses and a little sad that she hadn’t noticed. But then, my brother hadn’t commented on bricks or the roof of the neighbor’s house, simply because he could see them, their existence was taken for granted.
Breakfast was concluded as my father came into the living room and everyone began to bolt their food or gulp down their juice. Teeth were brushed with a great deal of running up and down the stairs to the basement bathroom and coats were hurriedly donned. Every morning Dad gave us a ride to school. Mom would pick us up in the afternoon until we were old enough to walk home ourselves, which would be the next year, though my memory is admittedly fuzzy regarding the timing.
The ride to school was even more fascinating than the view outside the kitchen window. I could read the street signs and did so out loud, but quietly so I didn’t irritate my father. The detail in the houses we passed was extraordinary; I could see the difference in the color of the trim against the siding or brick. The trees were also vivid and amazing. No longer were they dark sticks topped by blobs of green. I could see individual branches, the shape of leaves, and the way the leaves were slowly turning colors in the cool weather.
Our arrival at school was decidedly unwelcome to me. I was not well liked by my classmates, too different, too quiet, and too afraid of doing something wrong. But at least now I could see, perhaps answering questions from the blackboard would not be as difficult. Maybe now, I would have a better chance of being like everyone else.
It would take until lunchtime before someone called me four-eyes. It would be six months before a large maroon ball hit my face and bent the frames of my glasses, rendering me half blind for nearly a day until my mother could fix them. It would be another five years before my father would leave our house. It would take me another eight years and a stronger pair of glasses every year, before I would learn to stop looking at the floor and lift my gaze to the world around me. It would be at least ten years before I had enough sense of my own worth to stand up to my father and tell him that I had no intention of fulfilling his expectations before my own.
That day I had no idea of what was coming. I knew only that I could finally see. The world around me might not live up to the world I found in my books but for the first time there was a chance that it could. And I might not yet be able to meet my father’s eyes, but from the corner of my eye, I could see wonder.