Sometimes when I write this blog, other images and memories come to mind. There are other triggers as well – a certain food, a pungent smell, or the position of the sun in the sky with the perfect temperature. A few nights ago, I walked outside just at dusk, and the air was warm. I was taken back to the time when I was about 4 years old, on a warm summer evening, and my mom offered to take me for a ride around the block on my dad’s motorcycle. She said as soon as I was ready for bed, we would go. I eagerly put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and ran outside, feeling the pavement of the driveway on my bare feet. It was a rare treat to even be outside in my pajamas, much less get a ride on the motorcycle. My mom sat down on it first, and tilted the bike toward me so I could reach. I cautiously climbed up onto the seat in front of her, careful not to touch the hot exhaust pipe. Once I got up and she straightened the bike, I felt safe tucked in against her. She drove slowly around the block, and the warm breeze caressed my skin and made me feel alive. Ever since then, a motorcycle ride has always brought me comfort and delight.
When I was older my mom told me that Dad had won that motorcycle in a bowling competition. (My parents were big bowlers. My mom is still bowling at the age of 87.) I was really impressed! Then she said, he entered so many times that the money he spent, he could have bought the motorcycle. I think she was a little irked by the whole thing, but glad she made the best of it and gave me a few rides on it.
It was in that neighborhood that my parents would host parties in our basement. There was a bar, and plenty of room to have people come over and hang out. My brother and some neighbor kids put a band together and sometimes they would play a few songs at the party. My sister, our neighbor, Georgia, and I would put on dance skits for entertainment. These were some of my favorite moments in my childhood. We put on old dance costumes from my sister’s past recitals and she would choreograph them. I can still see some of the costumes – a light blue leotard with a big scratchy skirt around it, a silky, bright reddish-orange leotard with polka dots. When the music began, I came from behind a curtain that separated the laundry room from the main room, and started the routine. Even though I usually had a small part, I had as much fun practicing for it as I did performing it. I always felt like she could have given me a bigger part – but she thought I was too young to be able to do it. She was shocked when she was older and I recounted some of those days. She had no idea that I remembered all of that.
The parties would go on, and I would have to go to bed. Sometimes my dad would bring out his trumpet and play. If I was in bed and heard that trumpet, I would sneak down the stairs so I could watch him. I loved hearing him play. There was something magical about it for me. Usually it was one of the guests who would find me hiding on the stairs, and they would tell my parents I was there. Then it was back to bed, feeling left out. Being the youngest, the rule was that I always had to go to bed first. I always hated that rule and thought it was totally unfair. Sometimes I think they put me to bed early so they wouldn’t have to keep an eye on me.
I have another memory of a party in a basement – it was my 4th birthday.
First you have to know that my birthdays really stood out for me. My mom loved hosting parties and her creativity would shine when it came to our birthdays. She would make handmade invitations, games for all of the kids to play with prizes, and her very special cake. She would make the cake the night before, after we went to bed, so when we woke up in the morning, it was the first thing we saw. We always anticipated her cakes. Not only were they delicious, they always had clever decorations that pertained to something we enjoyed. One year, it had kids ice skating on the river (I loved ice skating), another year she had a snowman. For my high school graduation, she actually made a grand piano with a Barbie doll wearing the same color graduation gown and cap. It was a work of art. My birthday was the one day a year I knew I would get attention. I always looked forward to it. Even though my birthday was one week before Christmas, my mom always took the time to make sure it was separated from Christmas. The tree and decorations didn’t go up until after my birthday, and my presents were always wrapped in birthday paper.
But some of the birthdays, although highly anticipated, still had some dark moments. Usually, these moments came about because of my older brother, Ken. He was such a dark force in our family. I remember him wearing black a lot. He begged to have his room painted black, although I don’t remember if my mom ever allowed it. He had a mean look in his eye, but when he wanted to manipulate, he could fake a kindness that was easy to fall for. He was angry, manipulative, self-centered and abusive.
There’s a picture of me on my 4th birthday. (It’s on the main blog page.) I’m standing on a chair, making my wish, about to blow out the candles on my cake. (The cake has ballerinas holding candles.) Ken is standing next to me, 11 years old, eyeing the big knife that will cut the cake. My whole being is tense. I felt his intention even before I could make my wish. He picked up the knife and was acting like he was going to stab the cake violently. I wanted to scream, “STOP IT!” “NO!” But I didn’t, because in the past when I had done that, he would see that he was affecting me and things would get worse. I also remember thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone stop him?!” This is my birthday. Why don’t they care what he does to my cake?” I was so upset – and kept it all inside. Whoever was taking the pictures, got a picture of me blowing out the candles, with his eyes and hand on the knife. They also got the picture of him holding the knife above the cake with both hands, ready to destroy it. They took the picture, but didn’t stop him. They were all afraid that if they said anything, he would actually do it. Even my grandparents pretended like nothing was happening.
I wasn’t just sad. I was scared. There was no one to protect me from this person called my brother. It’s easy to look back and see some of the reasons he was unruly, sad, and angry. His dad was an alcoholic and abusive and his mom couldn’t discipline him or give him loving boundaries. It has to be hard when you’re the oldest and feel like no one is in charge. He may also have had some actual chemical imbalances. He wrote poems of suicide when he was young. There’s no telling what went on in his mind and heart. But my perception of him as a child is important for me to tell. He was one of the biggest teachers I had that provided me with a training ground for becoming silent, observant and invisible. I’ll do my best to recount his effect on my life in the next blog.