It wasn’t about grapefruit seeds tucked into the wet folds of sour pink flesh or a black cat with white paws and a white ascot tiptoeing along a picket fence. It wasn’t about winter trees dipped in spun sugar and shimmering in white afternoon light. It wasn’t about sucking on an orange popsicle stick until the wood softens and splinters or chewing the pleated wrapper that once held a chocolate cupcake into a mealy pulp.
It wasn’t about marrying a man who beat the hell out of her children while she laid her cheek in a pile of cooling vomit on the dining room carpet. Or signing papers that released her oldest daughter to foster care. As a small girl, she could not have pictured the resignation that she would come to wear like a turtleneck printed with green turtles wearing brown shells. The turtles carried fishing line and crawled in circles around her waist and over her shoulders and down her back until they pulled the strings too tight for her to breathe. She got used to not breathing, and she just stopped one morning. She tied her breath in a double knot at the base of her throat. It’s a funny thing when someone stops breathing. Everything changes. A family changes when one person doesn’t breathe. It changes everything. And everyone. Even very small children worry when they see a person without breath, and the children begin to carefully tuck away their own breath. Perhaps there is not enough air available, and no one wants to be the one to hog it all and deprive the others.
If I could write a memory for her, I would choose something predictable and trite. She is about four years old. Her skin is pale. Pink freckles splash across a nose that wrinkles into a tight knot when she smiles. A bob of thick black hair flips around her round face. She has that sweet, particular look of a little girl who carries on her small head a crown of thick, grown up hair. A thirty pound Jackie O. She didn’t bake as a child for long enough, and she walked into adulthood with a cracked top and a gooey center. She should have been left in the oven longer. In my memory of her memory, though, she is still pale in the face and pink on the mouth. An eyelet nightgown falls to her wrists and ankles, and she drags a baby doll by a plastic foot and then tucks the baby into a rickety stroller. It is Christmas morning in a tall row house with piles of children somersaulting around the Christmas tree. Silver tinsel and shiny cranberries hang on low tree branches. The sisters have tight headaches from sleeping on pink sponge curlers. Her parents sit on the sofa with cups of coffee and hangovers. The living room is happy.
We are, all of us, always sucking on something or chewing on another thing. I don’t know what her first memory is, but I am sure of what it isn’t. All of us start so clean. We are each of us born like a halved grapefruit. Pink, wet, shining, and fragrant. And things go so wrong and we end up in places we never meant to be. We can’t change this. No matter how hard we try, we all end up signing the wrong papers or curled on the floor crying, chewing the flesh of our cheeks until blood runs. We are all pulling doll babies behind us, waking up with headaches, our tongues hot and swollen with splinters. Perhaps what we can do and what we can change is to forgive those who wrong us and abandon us and forget us. Even when they do it terribly. Horribly. We can let them love us even after they have destroyed us. We can walk softly instead of stomping our foot and insisting that all the hurt precludes any love. We can cancel the debt and forgive them, knowing that we are going to need the forgiveness ourselves one day. We will be begging for it. All of us will.