We always have our most potent conversations in the fuzzy indigo.
Mama, she began, why am I different from everyone in the world?
In that moment I knew which conversation we were beginning but I acted as if I didn't, and so I asked her to begin. "Well, everyone is different from everyone, love – what do you mean?"
And then, if I only I wasn't so sure that she doesn't know how to read yet, I would have accused her of scraping my last post: Why can't I walk away from my mommy like all the other kids can walk away from their mommies? Why am I so scared?
I said I didn't know. I asked her if she knew. She said no and burrowed deep into my side. So I told her what I wrote about Monday night: how I noticed that one girl who didn't know how to count to ten, and that one other girl who couldn't catch and throw a ball. I told her we all have things that come easy to us and things that come hard to us. That girl's hard thing is counting, and her hard thing is walking away from mommy.
I listen, and I rub her back, and I know how she feels.
Do you remember the day of your kindergarten school picture? I was within a month or two of E's age now because I started kindergarten at age four, because that's how it was, there and then. So whenever school pictures happened I was more or less just-five-ish. And I cried. I didn't entirely cry until it was over. But oh, I cried.
The lights were bright and hot and made me feel squinty. There was a stranger there, a man, and he was giving directions and I didn't know him. And he was looking at me. And, apparently, expecting a response. It's hard to give a response when you're squinty-paralyzed, and being non-responsive is further paralyzing to a people-pleaser who didn't want attention, and the lights were getting hotter. My mom had put a barrette in my hair and I didn't want a barrette in my hair and it was too tight on three hairs coming from the very center of my hairline, so my forehead felt itchy. It's hard to ignore itchy when you're supposed to keep your hair nice for pictures, but squinty makes itchy worse. And then the man told me to smile.
Smile? Can't you see what I've been doing? I'm smiling as if my life depends on it, only I'm sure you can't tell because it's hard for all that smile to poke through the squinty sweaty itchy don't scratch desperation of wanting to be done here. Why do you think I've already been smiling? I've been plastered in my best attempt at my best smile for five minutes, to be ready, to be prepared, to be what you expect even though I hate this right now and I'm crumpling inside, I'm smiling I think with an urgency that can't be relayed, because I'm too paralyzed to speak. And anyway I'd never correct a stranger. He has hot lights and is staring at me. There's no way I can talk.
So the only explanation for why he told me to smile even though that's exactly what I've been doing all along is that my smile isn't good enough. I've been doing my best and trying my hardest and acting my bravest and not scratching my itchiest and it wasn't good enough. I'm a failure, and the strange man with the scrutinizing hot lights knows it.
That's how my mind operated when I was five-ish. Is it any wonder the picture came out like this?
Twenty-nine years later, when I rub her back in the indigo, I do so with heartbreaking heaps of understanding.
This is the kind of story that makes me feel tender-hearted for social media, because your support has been immeasurable. Thank you. Thank you for your stories of your own childhood fears; of your late-stage thumb-sucking or bed-wetting; of your school bus memories and kindergarten traumas (real and perceived) endured. Thank you for explaining to me the mighty grip of a child's magical thinking and researching belly-button drawing. Thank you for being a larger, more diverse and more generous pool of support and reassurance than one would ever have time to beg for in face-to-face reiterations of my nerves and worries. You lovely voices in my computer: what would I do without you? Thank you for reminding me that this too shall pass, and that many of the things that bother my sensitive girl so much probably don't even register with anyone else.
You know what I didn't tell you about Monday? I watched one of the teachers observing E, and looking at me. I knew I didn't belong there. I knew I was the only parent to have been dragged across the secret screening divide. I felt somewhere between apologetic and defensive. I gave the teacher a cringed look and a shoulder shrug and I whispered: "she's so shy." The teacher looked squarely at me and answered clearly: "she's doing great."
You know what I didn't tell you about today? I emailed my dad at my parents' house and asked him to find my kindergarten school picture and scan it and send it to me. That picture-taking day in kindergarten is still a clear, awful memory, roughly 29 years later. That picture, for roughly 29 years, has symbolized to me everything that's awkward and unbeautiful and unpolished and ungraceful about me. My dad wasn't sure which photograph exactly to look for or where even to look; their house is not the type where our faces grew progressively in neatly-ordered photo albums. He expressed his doubt at the task but just a little while later sent me this photo, which was exactly what I sought. He included this note:
"Is this what you're looking for? I carry it in my wallet."