Kneeling on my bedroom floor, surrounded by a sprawling disarray of packing boxes, I reach for the heavy, oversized, and very dusty books on the bottom shelf of my bookcase and begin pulling them out to organize them into boxes.
I hum as I pack, then start ad-libbing a little song to amuse myself: “Yearbooks go in this box…Picasso over there…travel books way over there...” I stand up to perform a little twirl followed by a leap to the box I’d already started filling with travel books in order to drop in Spain and Italy.
I hop back over several boxes and perform a graceful pirouette to turn back toward the bookcase, but then immediately freeze in my tracks. I catch my breath, gazing at the remaining handful of books – the remnants of my photo albums – those that had managed to endure the many moves of my adult life without getting lost by careless movers or thrown away by me in a fit of rage while angry-packing at the termination of an unfortunate chapter of my life.
With an audible sigh, I pull the first album off the shelf and slowly open the cover of the one and only album that holds the secrets of my life from birth through high school.
At the top of the first page is my mother in a hospital bed cradling her two newborn infants – me in one arm and my twin brother in the other – with a wan smile on her face as if to say, “Look what I did.” My eyes scan down the page to more of the same – fierce pride over her accomplishment.
This was how it all began. But as I know now, nothing like it would end.
I turn the page. There’s me and my twin, sitting side-by-side in our highchairs. Below that, there’s me, my twin, and our older sister sitting together on the couch before leaving for Sunday School, wearing perfectly adorable little outfits and with our hair done just so. Below that is the three of us seated on the floor by the Christmas tree, in our matching pajamas, with Christmas stockings that had our names hand-sewn on them hanging behind us on the mantel. The perfect little family.
I don’t remember much about my childhood. These photos comprise what I think of as my memories. The one clear emotion I can muster from those years is fear. My sister getting sassy with my mother would never end well. And my brother accidentally knocking over his tiny cup of milk at dinner for the third time that week, bringing out the rage in my father of everything that hadn’t gone well for him that day, that week, or over the course of his entire life, would become an ugly and frightening scene.
I continue turning the pages of my toddler years, which would lead you to conclude that I spent every waking moment of my early years on the precipice of bursting into tears. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
My demeanor didn’t shift until I was six years old, when I was finally able to escape my home life for six hours a day every Monday through Friday by simply walking to school. I hadn’t expected people to be nice to me. It came as a complete surprise. No one was thoroughly exasperated with me, or deeply resentful of my existence when I was at school.
By the time I was in third grade, I was finally able to actually muster up smiles for my school photos. That was easily attributable to my new best friend Jane, who liked me unconditionally. I found every opportunity I could to spend time with her and her family. They were my refuge, and Jane and I did everything together. There we are holding our favorite matching teddy bears. There we are sitting on the floor playing a game. There we are building a fort in the woods at her family’s cabin.
But after a few years, Jane’s father got a new job and they had to relocate hundreds of miles away. My only friend and her family were gone and I entered a years-long phase of deep melancholy. Throughout the rest of elementary school and all through my middle school years, the handful of photos that were taken of me reveal my deep sadness as I constantly sought a semblance of kindness and compassion somewhere, anywhere in my life. But that’s not easily found in the raucous hallways of middle school, and I certainly wasn’t going to find it at home.
I didn’t fully recover from the loss of my friend until I started high school and decided I would join every club possible and participate in every sport I could convince a coach to let me play, year round, to affect my being away from home for at least ten hours a day on weekdays, and most Saturdays for track meets or games. As if that weren’t enough, I later joined a traveling cross-country team that often meant entire weekends away from home.
When I was 16, my mother interrogated me as to why I thought it would be appropriate for me to travel with the cross-country team for the entire Thanksgiving weekend when I should be home with my family like a proper and respectful daughter. I knew better than to respond with what I was really thinking and replied simply, “Coach already paid my entry fees.” Knowing how my parents were about money, and parting with it on my behalf, I knew that would abruptly end the conversation. Never could a single penny be wasted…on me.
As I turn the page, there I am, smiling with my real family on Thanksgiving day, enjoying burgers and fries at a diner after the cross-country meet hundreds of miles from home. All six of us girls on the team, who had shared a single hotel room, stayed up late into the night before the race, busily plotting, then implementing pranks on our coach. These were my people. It’s written all over my face in the photographic evidence.
The next page holds the single photo I was able to cajole my indifferent mother into taking of me on prom night, using my camera of course. The occasion wasn’t worthy of my Dad’s expensive camera coming out. There I was, looking equally shy yet hopeful, in a sweet little light-blue gingham-checked dress with white embroidered trim and tiny white buttons. My mother had been entirely disinterested in prom dress shopping, and unequivocally saw no need for her to pay for one. As I had heard so many times before, securing a prom dress would be my ‘problem’ to figure out. So I used money from my part-time job to purchase a pattern and fabric, then night-after-night I hunched over my sewing machine – which I had also purchased with my own money – to sew myself that dress worthy of prom night and a prom night photo.
The next page holds a single photo from my high school graduation. My three best friends and I are standing on the front lawn in our white graduation caps and gowns. It just serves to remind me that my parents didn’t plan anything to commemorate the occasion. With an aching sadness, I walked to the car after the ceremony, hearing the other new grads talking about the car their parents just bought them, the parties their families were throwing for them, or the nice restaurants they were being taken to for dinner, knowing that, in my family, my milestones and achievements simply weren’t considered deserving of any sort of celebration. The only thing awaiting me for the rest of my day was a soon-to-be-picked-up Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and biscuits.
What reverberated loudly in my head that day was, “Just two more months and I’ll be off to college, hundreds of miles away from this life, and I’m never coming back.”
To that end, I married the first man I met in college who asked me to, with the primary objective of escaping my family for good.
Chronologically, the next album that should have been on my shelf would have revealed the rollercoaster ride of the next 12 years of my life. But that was an album that didn’t survive, because it was an era of my life that I’m not really sure how I managed to survive.
I slap the cover of the album shut and bury it at the bottom of a box, where it will stay for many years to come, not really sure why I’m keeping it, other than in case I ever again need a reminder of just how far I’ve come.