A true story that brought back many memories, conquered some ghosts and began my journey toward accepting my lineage. Perhaps those who read this story will find their own truths within lies.
I remember it well, the lie, the horrible lie, that lay hidden in dark cranial crevices, eventually coming to light with the dawning of truth and the progression of age.
It was by accident that I discovered this truth within the lie - a truth that could not be acknowledged, at least not in the 1950's when life was good and oh so mellow. I'm reminded of a passage in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, "All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." My family definitely had its own way.
The truth that became a lie, or least contrived into a lie, affected the whole neighborhood in this small prospering middle class town of Long Island, New York. I should rephrase that; it affected the whole neighborhood in my child's mind. In my adult mind, I realize no one took notice, let alone cared. Lies become convoluted in one's thoughts, leading us to believe we have the most despicable unknown atrocity compared to those around us. Little did I know then that we all have lies and truths to live through, shattered dreams to contend with, odd family members who make life both unique and miserable. It is part and parcel of being human.
At the age of seven, I was walking home from Abby Lane School - the grammar school that taught me well. The Levittown school district excelled in teaching the basics and was a far cry from the "cool far-out" education that slapped me between the eyes when I hit the sand, surf and in-crowd of the California coast a couple of years later.
I was alone on this day with the sun shining and the school year drawing to a close. A crisp gray jacket hung on my small, scrawny frame, cropped mouse-brown hair darted in every direction and I remember on this day of discovery vowing to grow my hair long and full when I came of age.
My grandparents lived in the same town a few miles away. We saw them frequently yet I rarely recall their involvement in my life. Aunt Aletta was a troublesome sot and their attention remained on her and her children whom they lived with. On this particular day, my grandparents drove up beside me in their shiny 1955 Chevy. It was a jewel and a treat for any kid to be riding in! Our family existed on the fringes of middle class, so a car such as this was something to be admired. The car screeched to a halt and Grandma opened her door.
"Get in, Millie," she commanded. Being her namesake, Grandma relished in announcing my first name as if she were speaking into a loudspeaker. She was a big woman, weighing over two hundred pounds with a tongue as sharp as aged cheddar cheese. No words dripped with honey from Grandma's lips being of the generation where children had no voice. I shrunk back inside myself, to that place where children go when odd occurrences happen and you feel trapped. And feeling trapped tends to make one do the unusual. This disruption on a warm spring afternoon, the viscous snap of an undesirable name, prompted me, for the first time ever, to tell my Grandmother "No."
"What?" she said.
We both looked at each other in shock.
"No, I wanna walk home." I lied. I kicked at the sidewalk skimming my saddle shoes over the budding grass that poked through the cracks.
"This is ridiculous," she said, "get in the car right now!" Her mouth was set in a determined line; finger pointed angrily at the back seat
"I want to walk home!" I lied again and set my mouth in the same determined way.
"Well I never! Roy, did you hear that?" she called over her shoulder to Grandpa. Grandpa shook his head.
"Your mother will hear about this!" Her silver hair, fashioned with pin curls that framed her forehead, shone in the afternoon sun. Black shoes swung back into the car and she smoothed the flowered dress covering her large frame before slamming the door. They drove off as intrusively as they arrived.
When I reached home, Mom issued a solid tongue-lashing but nothing more. With the passage of time, I realize she had her own fears - and lies - to deal with, her own demons in hot pursuit, her own parents to please. I understand now why I inherited Grandma's name - Mom really had no choice in the matter.
The lie did not rock the world, or shake the pillars to the ground - at least not in the universal sense. It did, however, disturb the small domain of a child's world when I admitted to myself my inborn fear of my grandparents. I lied to them that day telling them I wanted to walk home - the truth was, I feared them and spending time with them was as foreign as the vast world I had yet to encounter. Children are resilient creatures, however, equipped with a phenomenal filing system. This incident was filed away with numerous others and I moved on with childhood endeavors of barefoot summers and tree climbing expeditions. Years later, when memories haunt, one takes into perspective their toll.
My family built distant and insurmountable walls with precision. We were not of the June Cleaver and Donna Reed scenario - but rather a parallelism of countless families in America who struggled with differences, came to terms with our genetics and found the path to set our foot in the direction we were to follow. Fine families who projected the essence of familial harmony, also dealt with weighty skeletons in bolted closets - their own hells to decipher - just like us.
These truths, hidden beneath lies, left indelible marks. Some were painful slashes that dug deep into the soul but most taught me well and for the better. I learned to observe cultures from all angles, embrace diversity and the role it plays in the universe. I have a deep appreciation of the animal kingdom. The endless name teasing taught me empathy toward others who suffer from the swift, sharp blows of fools. I discovered these lessons not only through the lies and truths of my childhood, but also because I knew that in their own strange dysfunctional way, my family cared. Whether life's journey was rough or smooth, they were there - the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly - with their odd little whispers of encouragement, unusual examples of how and how not to behave, a wild sense of humor and quirkiness that can only be found, and understood, within families.
The lie uttered so many years before became one of many truths that I faced head on into the biting wind with back straight and shoulders squared. I accepted my family, as they accepted me and together we discovered the freedom that lay within our grasp. You cannot change from whence you came, you can, however, accept, learn . . . and move on.
And perhaps that's the best truth of all.
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Sandra's Story List and Biography