The First Place
The house came on a flatbed truck. She was too small to remember the actual event, but she saw the photos in the family album. There it was, perched on a perimeter of blocks and Mother and Father were digging holes for the azalea and cotoneaster.
The back yard was a fenced part of a field that her father mowed with a push mower on Saturdays. She and her sister wore long braids, plaited each morning by her doting mother. The sister's braids were longer and shiny yellow. Their dog Heidi grew excited one day while they played on the grass and dragged her sister across the yard by her braids, upsetting the children to tears. The next day while the girls were in school the dog got 'lost'. This was the first of several mysterious childhood dog disappearances.
She wore a navy wool uniform with a knife pleated skirt and fabric suspenders. Every day she rode the bus to school in her navy cardigan and her French braids. She knew how to be a good little girl. The nuns made sure that they lined up by height on the play yard and then they marched into the classroom in a wobbly line. There she was at the end, already sprouting her long limbs.
Even then, she chafed, she wiggled, she fantasized. One morning the nun raised her shrill voice at the room full of chattering girls and demanded complete silence. The girl felt her rebellion rise and her imagination shifted into high gear. She sat in the last row, and she was sure that the nun wouldn't notice her slipping from her seat. Once on the floor she turned to the girl in the next row and, in a quiet whisper, asked if she had a certain imaginary crayon: one bluish, reddish, greenish crayon. The small classmate's red face betrayed her horror as she responded in a loudly whispered admonishment.
The jig was up.
A beating was what I would call it. A wooden ruler beating in the girls' bathroom, the nun's shrieking voice, and the girl's screams clamoring off the walls of the tiled room and echoing down the long corridor and into each classroom that happened to have its door open.
Those waxy sticks of paper covered color, warm in a small hand, with beautiful puzzling names. She was six years old. This was her first venture into high-risk behavior.
The Japanese Dolls
The father was gone again. This time it was Japan. When Christmas time grew near the children began to realize that he wasn't going to make it home in time. It was the large shipping box that arrived at the front door. Of course, the children, excited with curiosity, wanted to open it. The mother peaked into the bruised corner of the carton where the cardboard was crushed and torn from the long journey. It seemed that it was a box of smaller boxes and so she agreed to open it and put all the little boxes under the Christmas tree.
The small boxes were made of a soft crumbly cardboard. The girl considered this to herself and while the others were sleeping or playing outside, she opened each of them and discovered the contents. She then carefully repacked them and slid them back under the tree. Even at a young age her motor skills were advanced.
The girl learned to read music and sing in harmony by the age of eight. She was the one face in the choir that expressed the lyrics by emotive gestures and raised brows. She felt the music. She felt her love of God and remorse for her many small sins.
One year when they were very young, her sister was chosen to be the Blessed Mother for the Christmas pageant. It was a High Mass at midnight on christmas eve and the children had been to bed for a nap before they drove to the church. She was to be an angel in a white choir robe, carrying a candle and wearing a wire halo wrapped in sparkly foil that itched her brow. Her sister carried the baby Jesus, a plaster of paris infant with a blanket around his cold hard body.
The girl's heart was moved by the sounds of the choir, the organ in the loft above, the smell of myrrh that fogged from the swinging gold burner that the priest carried ahead of the procession, slowly walking towards the altar, her with her candle and her expressive voice. Everything went perfectly. The baby was placed gently into its bed in the manger and her sister, in a long blue robe and yellow hair, knelt beside it, flanked by a boy Joseph. The priest uttered mysterious incantations in Latin to the crowded pews of sleepy people.
By the next Christmas they had moved across country and were settling into a new parish and school. The sisters had grown tall and were relegated to the choir.
She heard her mother talking to the divorced woman from the townhouse across the courtyard. They were having a beer and laughing about their ex-husbands. It didn't seem funny to her. She was in her teens by then. The children played in and out of the kitchen, running through the back door and into the yard, wild with the evening air and their mothers' inattention.
She had lost her braids years before to cropped hair and a Tonette perm. Now there was a fifth child and her mother had no time for braiding hair.
Her teeth grew in protruding, like her grandfather's and so they were wrapped and wired and gradually forced into a pleasant smile. It took years.
She told me once that men came to her because she put them at ease.
She was 5'11" by the age of seventeen and hung out with surfers on the weekends when she wasn't alone in her room doing art projects or sewing a wardrobe for her perfectly shaped Barbie.
Her high school art teacher who was also a football coach, seemed to unlock her creative imaginings in ways that were unexpected.
"Try using a bit of alizarin crimson along the horizon" was what she needed to hear.
She majored in Art in college and took drawing classes repeatedly for the next twenty five years.
In her thirties she worked in the rag trade and traveled all over the world for clients, doing their bidding. The nights in hotels were filled with drawing and journaling about being able to travel to the countries where her art was showing in galleries.
She finally married at forty-one and set her sexual fantasies loose in married love.
At fifty she went back to Art School where she had free reign to fit her dreams onto canvas after canvas.
In 2001 the twin towers fell and melted the country into its current pyramidic form. Her heart melted, her marriage melted, and she gathered her wounded world into a moving van and brought it to New Mexico.
I found her there using her well-honed motor skills in a large studio she had created. There was artwork on every wall and in every closet.
Much as I tried to distract her with kisses and longing, she looked past me with her gaze and fidgeted with her paintbrushes.