Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Story: Six and Seven

The spring before I start kindergarten, my mother and I move in with another separated mother. She has three children: two boys and a younger girl. With me inserted in there, there is exactly three years in age difference between all of us. She is getting divorced from a wealthy, extremely successful child psychologist, and she has an enormous house with a pool and a huge backyard. My mother and I have two enormous bedrooms in the basement, where there is also a rec room with a wet bar and an air hockey table, a ballet studio, and a well-appointed changing room for the pool. We have our own bathroom with a shower and a tub.

It is somewhere around this time that I remember beginning to narrate things happening around me in the third person in my head, as though I'm a character in a book. Also right around this time, I learn to open my bedroom window next to my bed and crawl out of it, in case there's a fire. I don't tell anyone that I know how to do this, and my room is on the ground floor, which seems serendipitous to me for some reason. To me, some sort of an emergency in which a hasty retreat is essential seems almost inevitable.

I remember it being a wonderful year. My father had two older sons from a previous marriage who are occasionally around, but this is the first time that it ever really felt like I had siblings. Our mothers share childcare and other household duties.

I go to Indian Prairie Elementary School for morning kindergarten. In the afternoon, I go to a home daycare a couple of blocks behind the Westwood Volunteer Fire Station. The daycare provider is experienced and capable and typically has a house full of other kids to play with. For the first time, it occurs to me that I have never really had friends before. Those five years growing up in the resort town on Lake Michigan has meant that the same kids are rarely around for more than a few days at a time, if that, and I have had to entertain myself mostly.

The daycare provider's husband typically works during the day, but he occasionally comes home for lunch. When he does, he and the babysitter argue the whole time. The stomachaches that were beginning to improve after my parents split up come back, and I dread seeing his car in the driveway when I get there in the afternoon.

My mother goes to work every day before I get up in the morning. She comes in to kiss me before she leaves in the morning while I am still awake. One morning, she claims to have accidentally hit me in the head with her purse when she leans down to kiss me, but it doesn't wake me up.

My mother puts me in ballet and tap classes at the Weaver School of Dance on Lovell Street in Kalamazoo. I am the tallest person in the class beside the teacher, and I am awkward and not very coordinated. Nevertheless, I love it. I love the records and the barre exercises and forming a line at one end of the studio to do chassez and jetes across the wood floor. There are long windows that look over the driveway and I love to hear the sound of cars crunching into the parking lot behind the building.

My mother has a boyfriend. He is the head of the political science department at Western Michigan University. He does not seem thrilled that my mother is a package deal.

Sally, the other mother, has many boyfriends. One of them reads to Sally's daughter Genevieve and I every night--usually from Winnie the Pooh. He has a different voice for each character, including a very convincing British accent for Christopher Robin. Genevieve refers to him as Ga-Ga, and eventually, we all do--including Sally. Eventually, she unceremoniously dumps Ga-Ga in the front driveway of the house while her new boyfriend is out by the pool in the backyard, a scene which my mother still recalls with peals of wild laughter to this day.

Several weeks later, our bathroom in the basement is mysteriously locked from the inside and we can't get it unlocked. One night over dinner, there is much conversation regarding the locked door, how it came to be locked, and what might be trapped inside the bathroom. "Maybe Ga-Ga's in there," said my mother. I couldn't fathom what Ga-Ga would be doing in our bathroom, and why he didn't come out. It was the first time I can remember finding sarcasm funny.

One Friday night, my mother says that we're going to see The Great Muppet Caper with my Uncle Lonnie (he loves movies.) I asked her, "Is it a movie?" She said, "No, it's a caper." We went, and I was confused. It looks exactly like a movie to me. For years I am quite sure that there is something called a caper that is in every way similar to a movie, but in some indiscernable way different, and I am still just not in on the joke. I remain not entirely convinced that this is not the case. My mother regrets messing with a six-year-old's head.

My mother buys a house. It's in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood of Kalamazoo, a big four-bedroom clapboard house a couple of blocks from the school where I will begin first grade shortly. She has recently turned 40, and I think that she is feeling the pressures of being 40, single, and having a young child to raise. It's a wonderful house, in a neighborhood with lots of kids, with a big shady yard and a garage.

First grade starts. On the first day of school, I carry a bookbag with a picture of Big Bird on it, and every ten minutes or so, I open my desk to see the bookbag still in there. I have never had a desk that did anything as exciting as open and close before.

My best friend lives across the street. Her name is Kristen, and she is a middle child, and she has a record player in her room. Her parents swear in front of her and her siblings, but they don't fight. I love it at her house.

Kristen and I start gymnastics classes at the YMCA together. I love the uneven bars, but I am uncoordinated and inflexible when it comes to the balance beam and tumbling. At 6 1/2 years old, I am clearly already too tall and nowhere near graceful enough to excel either at dance or gymnastics. My mother signs me up for soccer instead, where I am the only girl on the soccer team. It does not do wonders for my fear of boys.

First grade is not going that well. It's a split class, first and second grade, and the teacher is completely overwhelmed with the discipline problems in an overcrowded classroom. I read at a level significantly above that of my peers, but she has no time to address it. I am also having trouble seeing the chalkboard. Glasses! All of a sudden, I'm not bumping into things anymore.

Over Spring Break, my mother and I share a condo on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with her best friend and her two children. It's a wonderful vacation, except for the part where her best friend's son holds my doll off the edge of the deck and tries to get the seagulls to take it. I am not amused. Also on vacation, I lose a tooth, and put it under my pillow. I awake the next morning to find a $20 bill under my pillow. When I excitedly tell my mother, she looks horrified and tells me that the tooth fairy made a mistake, takes the $20, and gives me a dollar instead. I begin to suspect that my mother may not always be sufficiently upright and forthcoming with me.

During the summer, I spend part of my time with my Grandma and Grandpa Wade. They live up North in Michigan. They do not mention my father, and neither do I. Nevertheless, I enjoy the time I spend with them a lot. Grandma is a naturalist. She knows what all of the flowers and plants are, and what you can do with them, which ones can be made into tea, which ones can be eaten, which are poisonous even to touch. Grandpa is retired from the railroads. He hunts. They both paint. They live on the White River, and the people who live in the house next door have kids my age. One day, their father drives us several miles up the river to a public boat landing and we tube back down the river. It is pretty much the most fun I have ever had in my life.

To Be Continued...

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