It reached around our house like a protective parent. Our white picket fence. Our white house, our sanctuary within it. It gleamed and shone with the confidence of belonging. It existed because everyone had a white picket fence outside their white wooden houses, and when I was born, we were everyone.
I sometimes imagine that we stayed in that house with that white picket fence until I was old enough to move out on my own. Like everyone else.
Me as everyone, riding the yellow bus on my first day of kindergarten with the other little white kids on my block, barbie lunch box packed and new pink clothes on show (always pink, maybe MyLittlePony? What a treat). Me, making friends and having sleeping-bag sleep overs and doing my homework with my fancy pens and joining clubs and being mini-bused around from balooned-birthday-party-to-activity-to-childhood-innocence alongside everyone else. Me, smiling perfectly in my first grade school picture. I could have been everyone!
Yes, I dreamt of boring. If there’s ever a missionary kid truth, it's that we dream of the boring with true yearning in our hearts. I used to dream of McDonald’s happy meals. And driving on paved roads where cars obey road signs and don’t have to dodge donkeys and horned cattle.
One spring morning in 1985 in Colorado, I woke to see the sun streaming into my little bedroom. Scooting out of bed, I imagine that I toddled out the room, opened our screen door and skip-ran into the back yard to my new swing. Its pink seat beckoned to my little bum-bum—I imagine it was pink anyway—and I pulled myself up best I could, pushing off with my feet. Back and forth, cool air and sun in my face, breeze pushing me gently; I felt three-year-old-free-and-easy-and-sun-fun-fairy-land. I remember that. I picture my chubby cheeks cheerily stretched upward in abandon. I picture the white fence watching, shielding, my life planned like the forward momentum of my movement. Picture perfect.
Whaaaaammm! I definitely remember that.
With a sudden jolt that rattled my ribcage, I fell backwards and hit the ground with a sickening thud.
A tiny tidbit of Time stopped for thirty-seven years. Until now, when I’m resuscitating because something has told me I can’t rest until I do.
I don't know how it happened, but somehow, I'd been flying so high I forgot to keep holding the swing. But isn't that always the way? You think you're going somewhere so you let go of the ropes and hit the ground hard. Heavy. The air sucked out of your lungs like the life you thought you'd have but never did.
Inhaaaaal—-nothing. Nada. No air. Like the other day when I thought For sure I’d won the lottery, but when I logged in I hadn’t even got one number right. Big ole let down. Empty breathe out. Nothing coming in.
What does one feel when you can't breath? How does one describe it so a reader knows the agony of total breathlessness? You must know. It's the first quintessentially human experience that makes us feel small—besides getting squeezed out at birth or getting the poop wiped off our bums, but I don’t remember those things. We are easily squished, like the termites I used to chase with tennis rackets. The fragility. Your lungs squeezed in a vicelike grip of a God who wants to remind us who's in charge. The sun's rays turned to glares. The ground turned to a rocky pointed punisher. Colours merged to a thick, harsh, palpable goo. Panic turned my vision black and crawled over me like New Mexican lizards.
Little legs splayed, I imagine I lay on the ground, staring at the sky, trying to pull air into my little lungs. Gasping when I couldn't. I felt that fence look at me as I opened my mouth, drowning in airless gulps. I was imprisoned in my own body, watched by a protective fence I’m sure was smirking at my misery. Serves her right, its straight lines said. It just sat there whilst my head hurt, my back hurt, time stood still long enough for me to remember this thirty-five years later. The moment I almost died under my swing. The first moment my world turned on its head hard enough to help me remember it.
The only other aspect of this memory I still have is that my father scooped me up, hugged me tight and said something into my ear. Oddly, two conflicting comments hover over me here: he either comforted me, or reprimanded me for letting go.
In the end, my breath came back and my life slowly returned to normal. I'm guessing I probably even got right back on the swing, because that’s what I always do, especially when I know my dad doesn’t think I should, but I don't remember any of that for sure. I also don't remember the for-sale-sign or the packing or even moving day. I don't remember the first day we moved to Georgia and into the single-wide trailer with holes in the roof. I wasn't there when my parents made those decisions, as I've only ever been along for the ride, the oldest of four in a world that seemingly shifted every time the wind changed. Mary Poppins family of five-turned-six-turned-risky-behaviour-white-savour. But without the fence to protect us. Is it criminal to admit I liked a lot of it? Or just politically out of vogue?
What is it like to be a missionary kid? Let's put it this way: whenever anyone asks me 'where are you from, originally?' I choose the answer that best fits my mood that day. 'Oh, I'm from Colorado,' when I feel like portraying a glam outdoorsy type who skis (I don’t ski), or when I feel like being a chameleon. Oh, I'm from New Mexico,' when I feel like seeing a raised eyebrow and an exclamation that they didn't know it was part of the US. Or, when I'm feeling more dramatic or ironic, I put on a southern accent and talk about Georgia, or pretentious? Connecticut, or Pennsylvania if I want to be East Coast or Polish Catholic like my grandma, or Kansas, or Michigan if I want to talk about race wars. Only when I want the look of shock and the quick change of subject do I say: "Well, I grew up in Africa." I used to say "Ethiopia," or "Kenya" or "East Africa." But too many people have no idea where those are on a map. Not even the continent or hemisphere. Is it criminal that the older I get, the more freedom I feel to make up what I wish, depending on my fancy?
And what’s truth anyway? I remember a white picket fence outside the only suburban house my family ever lived in, somewhere in Denver by where I was born. A picture of me in a blue dress I’m pulling up similarly shows a White House behind me. My legs are chubby in that picture, my cheeks chubby, my grin cheeky. But white fence? Might be my mind making meaning, connecting dots and painting pretty pictures of my imagined stereotypes. Fences keep people in and they keep people out, but I think of fences as the first ‘No.’ it’s only the beginning of the conversation.
Sometimes I imagine my life as normal. As un-missionaried and middle-class American cool kid on the block. But then I can't breath. I suck in--all panic--and pull up memories of speaking Amharic and eating-with-my-right-hand-only to make me feel better. Maybe I like feeling lost. Maybe I need the attention to feel found. Or maybe I just can’t live without a little risk.
My white picket fence: a product of my past that may or may not actually exist. Memory’s a bitch, so She makes a fascinating friend.