Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Sometimes I think of the portable record player sitting open on top of the tall wooden radiator cover in the far corner of the large hall, 5 or 6 or 7 girls in school uniforms dancing beside it. It was the first place I danced to rock & roll.

When I first came to that hall I was 9 years old and I played Addams Family there, continuing a game that had been going on the year before in 3rd grade, at a different school in a different country. Now we had moved to England, but it was just another new school.

I knew the feeling of new school, knew the feeling of not knowing anyone yet, of having to pretend I knew more than I did, the feeling of keeping my shyness and uncertainty tucked away where it couldn’t be seen and instead doing my best to appear part of the same fabric as the others though I knew I stood out as new and different. Still, I knew no other way to be new than to resist and insist until I wasn’t new anymore, until the place felt like my place.

The hall was where the nuns let us loose after dinner and homework and before bed. There weren’t many rules in the hall. You could run. You could yell.

Sister Felicity sat in the semi-circle of window seat, plying her black rosary beads, watching over us, shaking the wooden-handled bell when playtime was over. Sometimes other girls sat beside her, the ones who weren’t running around.

In the evening hall crowd I didn’t notice the other girls much though I knew each one by sight and name. I played with complete focus with my small gang – Lucy Ann, Ann, Nicola and Madeleine. Very rarely did we let anyone else in.

After Addams Family we moved on to Jacks. From there to Stones, which was harder. Playing horses moved in and out of all of it – being the horses sometimes because Nicola was so good at being a horse that we all had to try. She made it look so much fun. Not on all fours, but bending over, knees bent, palms on the floor, skimming across the floor on hands and crepe-soled, buckled brown leather sandals – snorting, neighing, tossing our heads – and sometimes playing the rider, the owner of three horses – girls in the books we read often had three horses, and then you could name them, my favorite part. In one book I’d read the horses were called Symphony, Sonata and Serenade and I liked the prettiness and symmetry of those names and often named my make-believe horses with those three beautiful names.

Play horses were much more fun than real ones. It was my dirty secret I dared not share that I often dreaded our Friday afternoon riding sessions with Colonel Plowman who came to pick us up in a small square green car with wood strips cross-hatching the green and took us to his rough and ragged, windswept little farm where the ponies were strong and rugged and usually knew exactly what they wanted – they wanted the wide open spaces and as soon as they stepped into them – into the cold windy fields, away from the stable yard or the hedge-lined lanes, they ran and nothing could hold them back. I knew it was coming and the fear would be like a rock inside of me. And the anger of Colonel Plowman when you couldn’t control your horse and the scariness of being on the back of a creature who might do anything at any moment – and to be surrounded by girls who said horses were wonderful and wasn’t riding wonderful and why couldn’t we do it every day.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


My sister is the first one to come to mind. Her unsmiling face looking at me, her long hair falling down either side of her face. Pale brown hair. I had the dark hair. She was the blondie when we were two little girls.

Once, I threw her brand new toy out of the attic window – a brightly painted wooden house my father had just brought for her from one of his exciting trips abroad – I was that furious. The house smashed to pieces on the ground and I got in trouble. She could make me speechless with rage – reduced to slamming doors -- back then.

I didn’t like her much much of the time, but she was usually the only person around. When I decided to make a store that sold rocks – each with a price tag – that my parents were invited to shop at – I let Chris play. I let her in on my games when there was no one else.

She often teased me in later years, saying that I would get so excited about a game, and we’d play it for one afternoon – and I’d promise that we’d play it again, and then I’d never feel like it. Like the time we took our bicycles and found a place amongst bushes by a stream that I declared would be our secret place, that we’d return – and for that one afternoon I’d been caught up enough to believe it, but when my little sister came around the next day, suggesting we go do it again, I didn’t want to. I’d lost interest. I wanted to stay on my bed reading Gone with the Wind.

I am in England when I tell these stories. We all are. I am lying in the small narrow room that was mine, a red room because the long red drapes dominated the small space. I have a horse stable on a table and two or three rubberized horses – a prized Christmas toy that I was surprised to get, I had wanted it so much.

There are board games to play with my sister, and card games. And in the afternoons we walk home from school together, she with her leather satchel that has straps so she can carry it on her back, both of us in the blue convent uniform. I am now a fellow student at her school, a comedown – she plays alone too – she plays cowboys by herself, pulling the gun, shooting, then falling to the ground – the shooter and the shot.

She tells me there were times when she thought about jumping out of her bedroom window and killing herself on the cement path below. I was sympathetic when she told me that though I never felt my sympathy was enough. I came up short. I did not have enough.

In the small English house where we lived our drama so close together – the four separate bedrooms on the second floor – each a different color depending on the drapes, each just a few steps from the other, my father’s next door to mine, a door leading from his room to mine, but a door that was always kept shut, never used. If I wanted to get to his room, I walked around the landing and went in through the other door, which made his room the farthest away. But he was not usually home. Only there on weekends. A gentleman with a country home. That’s how he liked to think of it. Returning from a sophisticated week in the city to his weekend retreat, or going away on trips.

His trips were a shower of glitter in the beginning. Trips of excitement – his and mine – the airport, the suitcases, the beautiful white shiny halls of the airport where you could run to meet him down wide empty spaces, your footsteps slapping the marble with sound, knowing his suitcase had present inside – toys, he always brought wonderful presents.

Now, in England, it is not exciting like then. He brings back ugly things that he likes from Ethiopia, Morocco – the black-and-white pen sketches done by a business associate in a bar, a heavy piece of blackened bronze once used to make coins.

And this time he asked me to help him pack so I had to be with him in his room as he lined everything up so orderly it was deadly dull – his shoes wrapped in newspaper. My father does everything so slowly and carefully it makes me restless, but I must stay there and be acquiescent, as if I am a pony like the ones he rides on Saturdays, and my restlessness is merely quaint, something that he must tame, and I must let him tame it. My unruliness must be ground down, polished like a stone.