Standing On Both Sides

“Get in the car!” she hissed as she pushed me into the passenger side of our blue Ford Escort.

It was dawn – supposedly the most beautiful part of the day – and the sky was a vivid expression of color gradients starting at the horizon line which was a subtle shade of pale blue and arcing into blackness directly above us.  We were parked haphazardly in the middle of a field outside of the small building that sat adjacent to the Mother House.  It was Quiet Hours, that sacred time between waking and 8am when silence was mandatory. No talking, no giggling, no whispering.  The nuns floated between buildings in an ethereal way and even the sound of their swishing robes as they passed by felt like an infraction.

We had just attended Morning Prayers in the small building, standing in a tight cluster behind the nuns, in community and yet, isolated and serving as a visual demonstration of the hierarchy we lived in.  As a child it was strange to be surrounded by our family, our friends – our people – and yet not be allowed to make eye contact or acknowledge each other.  Putting aside all others but God we were to shed our humanity and somehow in the process, become invisible to each other.  It was an exercise in piety and for a child, torture.

The field outside of the small building was covered with short, tough grasses that held burrs. “Stickers,” we called them.  The earth here was perpetually dry, not good for grazing or growing but ever since people had arrived in that Panhandle they had tried to change the soil’s destiny by tilling and by breeding heartier cattle.  The burrs had become a sort of defense mechanism for the land and would cling to shoelaces and pant legs and skirt hemlines.  The people were hearty but the earth heartier and though it was usually hot, we never went shoeless.

Leaving Morning Prayers with my mother, I resisted the urge to burst out of the building and dart for the car.  Leaving was such a relief and I felt I could breath again.  As I rushed for the car, I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath behind me and though I couldn’t see her, I could feel her jaw become set and her eyes bore into my back.  Not yet understanding how to be neither seen or heard, my quick movement was disruptive.  I slowed down  for a brief moment but as I got closer to the Escort, I picked up my step for the final sprint to the car.  Somehow in those steps, I stumbled, lost my sandal and planted my foot directly into a thicket of burrs.  In that shocking jolt of pain and forgetting Quiet Hours and God and Morning Prayers, I let out a scream.

Unbeknownst to me my scream was a special scream.  In an instant, it had the power to electrify the air and stop the birds from flapping their wings.  It pierced the atmosphere and fell flat all at once.  It is almost impossible now to separate my childhood memory from my current state of adulthood.  My memory is the pain of the moment and of my mother with the sudden superhero power of teleportation, appearing beside me – on top of me almost – literally attempting to fold me into the car, breaking the rule of silence with her shrill whispers.  My memory is of being shoved onto the floor of the Escort, almost having my hand shut in the door as I reached to grab my fallen shoe from the ground, feeling full of shame and fear for the lecture to come.

But my memory is blurred by who I am now and presenting it with the self-righteousness of a child is only one dimension.  As an adult, I relive the moment and I am my mother.  I hear the scream and feel my cheeks flush as the swish of the nuns’ robes freeze in mid-motion, their heads turning to gaze upon the source of the Quiet Hours infraction.  Though others are a distance away, I feel hot breath on my neck and judgment falling on my shoulders.  I am reduced to a person with a distinct goal: to make the source of the noise go away; to make the judgment stop; to demonstrate my control and therefore reinstate my holiness.  The pressure is incredible and each whisper and sound made tears at the fabric of this holiness which in turn, slashes at my very worth.

***

It is not all so simple – this reliving of the moments.  Each memory is a snapshot, loaded with emotion and tension waiting to be unpacked.  But the lines are blurred between actuality and recollection.  I struggle to figure out what is “right” and how to be fair with my perspective.  I do some research and consult the background of photographs.  Were we in the first trailer at that point or in the second one?  Did we buy that couch before or after grandma died?  Were the flowers even in bloom during that time of the year?

And I worry that I don’t do others justice.  I am diplomatic by nature; I see all sides and want to bring them into balance.  I am an adult now and know a parent’s perspective well.  This perspective shadows my childhood memories because I know, as parents, we do the best we can with what we have.  As a parent I am guilty of underestimating my children.  I forget how multi-dimensional they are; that they too are creating snapshots filled with emotion.  This worries me.

But still I write.  Ultimately I am not a journalist or a historian – I cannot be responsible for fact-checking throughout this writing exercise.  If I were concerned with accuracy in details, I’d be forever bogged down with questions.  It’s time to put self-judgment aside.  It’s time to honor myself and my lineage by letting the stories out, questions be damned.

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2 thoughts on “Standing On Both Sides

  1. I think about what my students remember about their days. I always hope its the good things–the hugs, my glasses, the yoga, and the excitement. Instead I worry they will remember the boring lesson or the occasional sternness and impatience. Sigh…

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