When you are the eldest of ten, and a bit of a misfit, you spend an inappropriate amount of time searching for your very own all-alone space.
Ten year old me would study the silver strands that were woven into my bedspread for hours. Lying on my side, if the sun was shining and I squinted just a little, small round sparkles would seem to hover over the strands. If I held my hand over my right eye, the sparkles would appear lower, and if I held my hand over my left eye, they would appear higher. I would wonder where these sparkles actually existed if I could change their position just by looking with one eye or the other. I would wonder if maybe I wasn’t actually where I thought I was, if someone could look at me from someplace else and see me in a different position.
You can’t have these profound thoughts when you have little brothers and sisters running in and out of the room and a mother who was absolutely convinced you were the laziest person on earth for lying on your bed in the middle of the day. I had learned early on, that if you were around when my mother noticed something that had to be done, you would be the person asked to do it. So I needed someplace less visible to do my deep thinking. Since my siblings feared the spiders and dank of our basement, when I was about eleven, this became my favorite place to hide out.
Behind the laundry room, with its piles of white sheets, boys’ underwear and socks in every size, waiting to be washed, dried and folded, and a countertop mounded with rolled-up white cotton shirts and blouses that had been dampened in prep for ironing, there was a little room where no one ever went. In it was the industrial sewing machine that had sewn right through my thumbnail the day my sister was graduating grammar school. Mommy had told me not to make a fuss about it because it would ruin my sister’s day, and I obeyed. But I made a martyr out of myself about it for years afterward.
There was an old refrigerator by the doorway, the kind that had a metal box in the top corner that was always encrusted in ice, to store waxed boxes of frozen blocks of spinach and peas. The heavy, rounded door had been painted goldenrod at some point when that was the most popular decorating color, to match the giant orange poppies on garish vinyl wallcovering in our kitchen. That refrigerator, having outlived its fashion heyday and size-wise suitability for a jumbo-sized family, was tucked away in that room that I had claimed as mine. The refrigerator had a horizontal pull-out handle that latched the door shut if you weren’t propping it open with your body. We had heard tragic tales of little children getting caught inside these refrigerators and suffocating, so Daddy had devised a lock on the door. But being a child with an inquisitive imagination, I suspected there had to be something incredibly delectable and forbidden hidden inside.
One day I found a key in the sewing machine drawer and it turned out to open the refrigerator lock. Pulling the latch open, I peered inside, to discover just three bottles of quinine water. Having never heard of quinine water, I had to I pry open the cap on one to sniff and then cautiously taste it. Although my first impression was that this was unquestionably the nastiest thing ever to cross my tastebuds, suspecting that someone had forgotten to add the sugar, I still returned to sample a little bit more every day until three empty bottle were left standing there. I seemed to have become addicted to quinine water. Drinking it made me feel adult and disobedient, and that was a sensation I enjoyed immensely and spent most of my teenage years trying to recreate.
A door beside the refrigerator led to the furnace room where a fire-breathing monster loomed coated in a thick white substance that I would later learn was asbestos. I remember watching my father pulling open the small door to add coal, revealing the roaring fire within, and thinking in my little-girl-brain that it was the scariest thing in the universe. But that didn’t prevent me from picking at that strange white coating while watching Daddy cutting wood on the table saw. I wonder how I am still alive! The sound the saw made was as horrible as the fire hiding in the furnace. I would hold my hands over my ears and wait for it to stop before scurrying to scoop up sawdust in my hands. To this day, the smell of sawdust makes me relive those precious times I would “hang out” with my father.
On the wall opposite the refrigerator was a closet that was stuffed with old clothes and boxes. Sometimes I would dig through their dark contents, hoping to find something more delightful than quinine water. One day I pulled out a box with books that, from the smell of them and the brittleness of the pages, seemed to be ancient. I imagined that they were even as old as my grandfather, whom I’d never met.
The fact that no one would explain why we never visited our grandfather, even though he lived nearby, made him loom in my imagination as a great mystery that I was compelled to solve. I assumed there was a connection between those books, hidden away, just as all discussion of my grandfather was. They must have been his books. A few years later, I would take the public bus to Paterson as the first half of my daily trek to high school, and looking out the scratchy windows I noticed a sign for Joe Pip’s Bar on one of the storefronts. I figured out that was my grandfather’s bar, because I’d heard, not from my parents, but from the grandfather of my friend who said that he knew my grandfather, that everyone called him Joe Pip
Sometimes, when the bus hissed and groaned past that bar, I would imagine that on my twenty-first birthday, I would pull the cord to stop the bus just before Joe Pip’s. I’d go inside and order a rum and coke since that was the only drink name I knew. And when the old man behind the bar asked to see proof of my age, he would see on my license that I was his granddaughter! But of course, by the time I turned 21, I was no longer taking the bus to school. I learned that my grandfather died before New Jersey lowered the drinking age to 18, and that was long after the day I found those books in the basement that I thought could have been his.
A small book on the top of the pile had a forest green leatherette binding. The words Euclid’s Elements of Geometry were stamped in gold on the front cover and spine. One never forgets their first love, and while other girls were falling in love with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I fell in love with geometry, and logic and mathematics. It began the moment I read that first postulate and realized that, unlike the silver sparkles on my bedspread, there is something in this world that is always true, and that you could build on to that truth to make other facts that were equally true. It wasn’t just the logic, it was the absolute veracity of the axioms. I had become obsessed with honesty. I couldn’t understand deceit. In my high school yearbook, under my photo were the words, “Speaking Frankly”. That was who I was. I was geometry!
But it made my life miserable and I can blame that book for it.
When I was a sophomore, we had a geometry teacher who wasn’t so great at teaching geometry, or so it seemed, but I didn’t realize it because I’d already learned geometry from that little book in the basement. But everyone else said she was a terrible teacher and that was the reason they had all flunked the mid-term geometry exam. And their parents made such a fuss that the teacher agreed to grade the exam on the curve. But there was only one problem — there was one person who had scored 100% on the test! – me.
The fallout was quietly cruel and that was how I learned that it was easier to hide being smart, even if that wasn’t honest. By then, my hormones had finally started to kick in. The incongruency of pretending I wasn’t who I was grew in proportion to my growing interest in boys.
The second book I pulled from the box in the basement was the novel, Drums Along the Mohawk. Like the geometry book, I devoured it. I thought it was the most extraordinary book I’d ever read. I imagined my mythical grandfather reading that book, and created a story in my mind that he had kept the book there in that box all those years because it was his favorite. We had this in common, I imagined, this man whom my friend’s grandfather told me once tried to hatch chicken eggs in bed. We both loved that book.
It’s more likely that those books belonged to my father, but, while Daddy was always kind and reasonable, he always had both feet firmly planted in reality. And the reality of the time didn’t have a place for girls to be adventurous and brilliant. I would later learn that the reason my grandfather was persona non grata, was because he was abusive and a womanizer. What a blow to someone who demanded honesty from everyone.
The descriptions of the characters in Drums Along the Mohawk were so vivid and poetic that I saw them in my mind just as clearly as the lines and angles described in the geometry book. I was compelled to draw illustrations of each character, exactly the way the author described them. I remember slipping the pencil sketches that I’d rendered on tissue paper, into the pages of the book, making it a graphic novel before that was even a thing.
It was a revelation to me that I had artistic talent. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. How could I be so adept at both math and logic AND be artistic? I’d always been told that people were one thing or the other. Later I would read about Leonardo da Vinci being both an artist and an inventor and I read everything I could about him to understand how he was able to straddle both worlds. I decided I would emulate Leonardo and started out by teaching myself to write backward the way he did. This didn’t turn out to be such a good idea because one of my classmates asked to borrow my notes, and I had to explain to them that they had to hold them up to a mirror to read them… well, you can just imagine where that put me on the popularity scale.
And so my life became increasingly more miserable and I blamed it on that book.
Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, when I told my parents that I had been accepted into Pratt Institute of Art, they explained that a degree in fine arts wasn’t practical and since I only had to find a way to support myself until I found a husband who would take care of me, there wasn’t much point in paying for Pratt. So I found another way to combine my right brain/left brain enigma by getting a full scholarship for drafting school, even though there was no such thing as a draftswoman at the time. When I told people that I was a draftsman, they thought I severed draft beer in a bar.
The third book I plucked from that box was Beginner’s French. I soon figured out that it is impossible to teach yourself French from a book, especially if you have profound high-frequency hearing loss. So that French book never had a chance to ruin my life. I just remember it because I tried it, and realized there was something else, besides fitting into the world, that I couldn’t do. I don’t recall if I ever looked at the rest of the books in that box. If I did, they didn’t ruin my life as far as I can recall.
Growing up in a world that puts labels on people who are different is hard. I especially hated being called “square,” which turned out to be an accurate description because I felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. A school system that never diagnosed my hearing impairment certainly wasn’t equipped to diagnose or help people who process life differently. But it is what it was.
There were books I read later in life that helped me to better understand that I shouldn’t be ashamed of being different and along the way, I learned to hide my oddities. I am so fortunate to have a husband who understands that I hate loud noise and chaos, even music playing in the background is stressful for me. And because I see that he thinks I’m worth the effort to turn off the radio when I’m in the car, I am learning from him to not expect him to do things in a way that seems perfectly logical and orderly to me.
It turned out to be okay to process life on my own terms, but it was a squirley road getting there. Teachers would penalize me because the margins of my test papers were covered with doodles, but now I understand that, just like my sketches of the characters in Drums Along the Mohawk, I need to draw pictures to collect my thoughts. It works for me. I do it even now.
And it’s okay that I must make certain there are no dirty dishes in the sink before I can sit down to write; that I put labels with the Latin names on every plant in my garden, and each plant species has it’s own space – all of the Kalanchoe have to be planted together. And it’s okay if I count the spoons I’m putting away in the drawer; and the seeds I plant in a row, and the spilled paper clips as I pick them up off the floor.
I’ve told that memory of my mother telling me that I’m lazy when I daydream, to just SFU! But the hardest lesson has been for me to let go of my obsession with honesty. People lie. It is what it is. And sometimes, maybe I shouldn’t be so painfully honest.
I’m finally coming to understand that it’s not a disorder to approach life differently. Life is a lot like looking at those reflections on the silver threads in my bedspread from one eye or the other. We are all seeing it from our own unique perspective. Normal? Turns out that being a misfit is perfectly normal. It’s also a gift.