First thought this morning as I was feeding that cat: I have officially lived a greater number of days than my sister. My days have not been necessarily better that hers, or fuller. Nor have they contained more love and grace — I am simply noting that I have now lived more of them. She was the only daughter in a houseful of brothers for several years; she was favored in my parents’ behavior because of a chronic illness; and as is the wont in most family hierarchies, since she was an older sister, it fell to her to be second-in-command after my mother. Her shadow cast itself over my entire childhood and I admit that all this past year she has been in the back of my mind. She died when she was 58. Today I turn 59.
During the early 1990s, I worked as an employee liaison at a family owned manufacturing business outside of Detroit. One year the company decided to hold a coloring contest for employee’s children. The categories were divisions were age-related, so that 3 years old would be as competitive as 10 or 12 year olds, ensuring that all of the children would have an equal chance. The owner of the company…father to all the executive and founder of the business…was the judge. My role was to pulicize the event and announce the winners.
We taped the cute pictures to a wall along the main corridor of the large shop area without names being visible. After the display was up for a couple days, the owner and I went out one mid-afternoon and he reviewed the artwork. Three of them were far, far better with extras added such as glitter, feathers and the like. The contest judge picked the first two of these for the oldest and next oldest age groups and when I check my records for the children’s name, we learned that they were siblings. In light of that information, when it came to the youngest age group, he turned to me and said, “This is the best one here, but I’m not going to pick it because all the prizes would go to the same family.”
It didn’t matter that this picture was the best.
It didn’t matter than this child was, in fact, more talented than her siblings were because she was equally skilled at a younger age.
It didn’t matter that someone would have to explain to this young girl why her older siblings won and she didn’t even though her art was just as deserving.
What did matter was completely outside the rules of the contest and something that the contest participants could not control or influence.
My boss would not be dissuaded from putting politics first, and in addition as his employee, I was ordered to not discuss his decision making process with other employees.
The wall’s impact transformed her resolve.
Long ago, during the time when mothers were held as vessels containing all essential knowledge of the universe and youngest daughters expected to grasp more than had ever been said to them, it was determined that I would not be a writer. All notebooks and loose-leaf paper disappeared from the house and I ordered to play outside like an appropriate child: learn to catch softballs, experience climbing trees, and do all-around normal things, the way ten-year-olds do, as my older brothers did. I pled. I begged. I found myself shut out of the house more than once. It was a long summer. Poetry realized on brown paper grocery sacks. New fiction crept around the margins of stories already created. With Labor Day came school and the win: students require paper. The scars from those three months, however, visibly endure. Half a century later, visitors to my home remark on the excess reams of paper and legal pads and pens and pencils and creative tools I keep never farther than arm’s reach away.
Okay, here goes.
This is a story that I have not told to any living soul. My mother and I spoke of it when it happened. My Aunt Vera spent countless hours discussing the event and the situations surrounding it as a means of helping me cope and put my life back together afterwards. Both of them are now gone and I have not thought about this in over forty years.
It comes to mind now because, as some of you may have guessed based on some of the things I have been writing or posting, I have been doing a lot of thinking about celebrities and how instantly, anonymously and ubiquitously the internet allows objectification to supersede human dignity and encourages the reduction of people into commodities. Once a collection of, say butt gifs, goes out into the ether it bounces around the cloud forever, reaching potentially 3 billion users. What happens is what always happens with false statements and unkind words: you can never take them back.
This story, then, is about a lie, said about me, said in a small town that encompassed my entire universe at the time.
When I reached high school more people knew me then whom I knew in return. I had always been creative, always writing, always putting together with some new thing or another — a play (about cross-dressing, put into production during 7th or 8th grade but cancelled when the principal realized the content); a multitude of short stories; a walk-out on Earth Day (10th grade, sanctioned, everyone got an A); an assembly about avoiding the draft (junior year, high school, Vietnam); and on and on. I had won an international award and been interviewed for the local papers several times. When I walked down the hallway at school, people knew who I was. On the few occasions when I walked down the sidewalk in town, people I had never met, people I had never seen before in my life, would recognize me and stop me to talk.
My parents were not well educated. My mother in particular carried a lifelong disdain for formal education and she repeatedly tried to stop me from writing. Mentors for me came in the form of teachers, and then only sparingly: one in fourth grade, another in high school.
The high school mentor was a young man whom I first met when he was a student teacher. He was successful enough that the school hired him to be on staff the following year. (As far as I know, this gentleman is still out there in the world, so no, I will not tell you his name.) He quickly garnered a small entourage of students who liked his modern, freethinking methods. He took an interest in my writing and often provided advice and encouragement.
That small entourage of students, however, proved to be his undoing as an educator. The school asked him to leave mid-year. That fact that he had mentored me brought additional suspicion on him — but while the principal questioned whether he and I were having an affair, the accusations went no farther than that interrogation.
The inexplicable rise to fame on the foundation of a lifetime of criticism and belittling, the sudden loss of my mentor, combined with the natural angst and anxiety associated with being a teen-ager, plunged me into a depression. I became suicidal. Desperately needing a way to hold on, I decided to leave school — no argument from my parents on that because they didn’t care much for schools anyway.
Therefore, as I junior, only a year from graduation, I walked out the door of my high school, never to go back. That action almost completely severed my contact with friends, classmates and the only life with which I was familiar. I did not live in town, but rather quite far out in the country. I did not own a car. It was not close enough to walk anywhere. Only one friend even bothered to phone me after I left.
That’s how I found out. That friend called to let me know that people were saying that the teacher who mentored me had gotten me pregnant. The rumor was that I had quit school to have his child.
He and I had never been alone together, or seen each other outside of the school except for a farewell dinner where we were in the presence of several students and my grandparents. I was a virgin, and in fact, I remained so for a number of years afterwards.
It was totally not true.
Moreover, it was indefensible. I was no longer in school. There was no way for me to combat the rumors, outlive the lie, or do anything else to clear my name or his.
At this point, my Aunt Vera convinced her employer to give me a job as a receptionist. She would pick me up and we would drive together to and from work. It was on those rides that she eventually got me to start talking about things. Slowly, bit by bit, I started to put the lie, the rumors, the distress, even the thoughts of suicide behind me. I took up photography. I started buying cool clothes. I even started going to the club on weekends (it was legal drink at 18.) Eventually I received my high school diploma and then an associate’s degree.
Fifteen or so years later while I visiting my parents, I walked into a restaurant in that same little town. Someone called my name and I turned to see Fran sitting at one of the tables. Fran was in the same circle of friends I was; we attended the same sleepovers; she was there when a mutual friend, Karen, pushed me off a dock and I nearly drowned; Fran knew me. I walked over, happy to see her. She smiled her best smile and asked, “How are you, Vera? How’s your daughter? She must be in high school. How many children do you have now?”
“But I thought . . .”
That lie lived all those years. That lie is probably still alive in that little town. I can imagine the old farts nodding with certainty as they caution their granddaughters: be careful now, that happened to a girl I knew when I was your age.
Except that it didn’t.
Today, what is particularly troubling to me is that technology has raised the bar on rumors. The internet would not only increase the quantity of people hearing the story well beyond the original few thousand; it would increase the quality of it also: someone would take the time to create photos of the daughter I do not actually have, there eventually would also be photos of that daughter’s children, and 3 billion users would keep forwarding the lie.
Like most children, I reached an age when I both no longer believed in Santa Claus and simultaneously became brave enough to try to discover a head of time what I was getting for Christmas. Unable to find gifts hidden in the house in the weeks approaching the holiday, I resigned myself to sneaking into the living room the night before to see what packages under the tree had my name on them.
The room I shared with my sister was closest to the living room so I reasoned I would be able to get in and out before anyone noticed.
I waited until everyone was asleep, and then slipped out from under the covers. I tiptoed past my sleeping sister, into the hall and turned left toward the living room.
It was dark. We lived in the country, so no street lamps slipped light through the big picture window. My mother had turned off the tree lights for the night.
It took time for my eyes to focus, but when they had, I froze in terror. There in the living room, stood a gigantic black bear! In the living room! In front of the Christmas tree.
After long seconds, I ran. Back down the hall. Back past my sister. Dived under the covers and pulled them tightly up over my head. I shivered the rest of the night, afraid that the bear would find us defenseless in our bedrooms.
The rule Christmas morning was that no one could go into the living room until everyone was awake and could go into the living room together. My siblings grew increasingly restless, and angry with me, because I would not budge. I steadfastly shook my head and refused to get out of bed. When my mom came in, I wisely pretended to be still asleep. No go. She shook me and declared enough is enough – everyone else is waiting for you – get out of bed.
My fear of my mother being greater than my fear of grizzly bears, I slowly stuck my feet out from under the covers, lowered them to the floor, and crept to the hall where my sister and brothers were already in line. Mom gave the signal and all of them raced to their certain death. I knew it. Moreover, I had no way to warn them without admitting that I had snuck into the living room on Christmas Eve. Reluctantly, resigned to my fate, I followed.
The living room echoed with the mayhem of laughter and tearing paper and squealing children and I saw — where the night before there had stood a huge, ferocious bear, was my father’s old army coat; tossed over a child’s set of chairs and table, ideal for teddy bears and tea, ideal for….me.