several years ago, i took a nonfiction creative writing course at the university of texas at san antonio. for our final project, we had to write a memoir. not knowing what to write about myself, i invited two dozen people — friends and family — to each pose a question to me. something that didn’t require a yes or no answer. something they didn’t already know about me.
we will begin with my mama’s question and my reply. kind of fitting since it’s the last day of may, don’t you think? and if you’ve got a question for me to which you’d like to know the answer (that doesn’t require a yes or no), email it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. i’ll be happy to include it in a future post.
for the sake of time, and for your viewing pleasure, you get caps again. yay, right?
If you could change one thing about your childhood, what would it be and how would that change impact your life today?
I would have loved myself.
I would have been able to look in the mirror and smile at my reflection. Not to test out how the smile looked on my face, when inside it felt empty, false, even somewhat hideous. But to smile as if I thought of myself as being beautiful.
You have always thought of me as such.
For a brief time, I thought of myself this way. When I was a toddler, still innocent, still in awe of nature and the size of my world and everything in it, I smiled and it was genuine.
I know this, because I’ve seen pictures of it.
There’s one of me, as a toddler, sitting on the dining room table next to the daisy-shaped cake you had made for me.
You can tell me of how you slaved over it, about how difficult it had been to make it, what day it had been that was so special that I’d asked for it, how old I was at the time, where we lived.
I can tell you that every time I look at it, I am amazed by the beautiful child I was, by the brightness of my smile.
The picture is luminous, really. At least, to me.
On my ugliest days, those when I’ve forgotten how to smile, or have seen no purpose for doing so, days when my world has been gray, my thoughts black, and I’ve felt as though I am nothing but boiling, bubbling liquid inside, I stare in awe at this picture. This memory of happiness held up on my refrigerator by one of those plastic magnetized frames. Sometimes, this immense longing to feel as I had done that day, just that happy, just that beautiful, just that perfect….Sometimes the longing, the regret that I can’t overwhelm so much that trickles of tears etch canyons into my cheeks and rivers of them form lakes on the neck and shoulders of my tee-shirts. On days like this, I can do no more than take the picture, still kept safely in its plastic frame and grasp it in my hand and hold it to my breast and cry.
On my prettiest days, those when I feel some semblance of that happiness, that beauty, that perfection, I run my finger along a child-sized cheek and think, I know you.
Those days are so much more preferable.
For awhile, I was innocent, carefree, happy, beautiful. Then, I became aware that I was not beautiful, because my peers were kind enough to point out my many physical short-comings. I became aware that I was fragile, clumsy, easily scarred, both mentally and physically. That my body was not made like everyone else’s and being different, however unintentional, was wrong.
My belly button stuck out.
You would take my brothers and I swimming at the community pool in the warmer months, so long as it wasn’t raining. So long as we’d behaved ourselves and tried to take our naps earlier in the day.
Back then, I had a bikini, a red one with buttons printed on it in varying colors and sizes. I loved my bikini. It was cute and fun, like me. Bright, colorful.
As I got older and more observant, I noticed the things that made the other girls at the pool different, like the color of their hair and eyes and skin. Mostly, I noticed that most of the girls’ belly buttons didn’t stick out like mine did. So I poked at the buttons on my bikini that were flat like theirs were, then poked hard at my belly button so that it would go in and be flat, too. But it never stayed. I would look up at you in wonder at first, and then in consternation later, and ask, Mommy, why does my belly button stick out? I did this often. Mostly because I knew it was wrong. It wasn’t supposed to do that.
But you would always give the same answer: There is nothing wrong with you. That that’s just the way you’re made.
I stopped wearing bikinis. Haven’t worn one since.
I noticed, too, that my knees were crooked. At least, that’s how I’d thought of them as a child. Others’ were straight. But when I would sit down on the ground with my legs straight out in front of me and my feet pointing straight up at the sky, my knees practically faced each other. Most children sat on their feet, their legs drawn up underneath them; I sat on my butt, with my legs bent so that the heels of my feet pressed against my hips. The only way I can say it so that it makes sense is to compare the position of my legs to the letter w. My friends always asked if it hurt to sit like that.
No, I’d say. It’s comfy. But I thought of the crookedness of my knees. I’d ask and get the same reply.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
Oh, but there was.
Eyes are not supposed to be crossed, Mother. Hips are not supposed to be so malformed that the ball of the leg bone slips out of the socket of the hip joint with every movement. Skin isn’t supposed to be yellow. Knees shouldn’t be out of alignment with the hips and ankles. Bones shouldn’t have holes in them that are filled with tissue. Ligaments aren’t supposed to be too tight or too lose. The muscles of one’s eyelids shouldn’t be so weak that they droop, making it difficult to see things.
Thirty-one year old women haven’t usually had six surgeries in their lifetimes — four by the age of thirteen. They don’t usually bear twenty some odd scars from those surgeries.
We’ve never seen eye to eye on this one, Mom. Perhaps we never will. But I understand what you’ve been trying to tell me, I know what you’ll say every time we have this debate. I know, like I could pinpoint and trace every one of those scars with clothes on and my eyes closed. I know.
Be thankful. There are people who cannot walk. There are people who cannot see. You can do so many things. Why are you never grateful for this?
Because I see these things as marks of failure, Mother. Not because I was built wrong, though that is part of it, I suppose. I’ve never understood why I couldn’t have been built right. But I do know that I’m not supposed to understand this. Only that I should accept it. I’m trying. But it’s difficult to do when I’ve become so certain that something else is going to break. Something that’s already been mended will have to be mended again. I hate that. Why couldn’t it have been fixed for good the first time? I can’t understand it, and because it’s important to me that I be able to understand in order to accept…
I just got it.
I couldn’t understand myself, couldn’t accept myself, and so the world I knew outside of my family couldn’t understand or accept me.
Thirty-one years of this, and I just got it. God, I feel stupid.
It’s so cliché, really. So right-there-in-front-of-my-face. If you can’t love you, nobody else can. How many times have I heard that one?
But, Mama, I’ve hated these scars for decades. It’s really hard to stop hating something when I’ve gotten to be so good at it, when I’ve no idea how to do anything else but that.
And it’s not just the scars. It’s the shyness, the fear, the sense of inadequacy. So many people have thought, have told me I’m never going to amount to anything. I’ve heard it so much I can’t not believe it. How do I start believing otherwise when I’ve convinced myself that this worthlessness is truth?
I was so angry that my peers never gave me a chance. Cast out before I’d even really had a chance to say, Hello. They gave up on me.
I gave up on myself.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster —Nietzsche.
And in trying to live through all that hell that is loneliness and rejection and one medical dilemma after another, after spending so much time fighting them, I’ve become them.
I should’ve been more careful. If I’d loved myself, loved those things that made me different instead of wondering about them, then hating them, I think my life would be drastically different.
You wouldn’t have had to lecture me so much about having pride in my appearance when I was younger. Or harassed me about doing better in school. I would’ve been okay being solitary. There is a difference between solitary and alone, you know. I would’ve learned to find beauty in everything, not just some things. Wouldn’t be so angry, so scared, so ashamed and alone. I imagine I’d be feeling beautifully happy right about now, instead of trying to figure out how to deal with all these ugly thoughts in my head. I’d be more selfless, more thoughtful, more compassionate. I’d be good, Mother. If I’d learned to love myself in my childhood, I’d be good, now, even with those flaws.