Laying in the very back seat of the minivan, my head squished into a feather pillow and the ‘bear blanket’ cross stitched by mamaw wrapped around my shoulders (before my shoulders knew knots.) I rested in that heavenly cocoon of childhood, blissfully untouched by the claws of anxiety. You must remember, when naivety sheltered you from the weighted bags life eventually lends you, like hand me down sweaters.
I was a shameless little piggy, eager for the adoration of my elders, parents, any grown up with a real opinion. Those my own age often seemed crass and self-centered. It was torture at times to be forced to join in playground games, that roughness I could not fake. Anyone younger became practice for the five children I’d someday have, vulnerable ones to protect and defend. And lugging around babies almost a big as me, my tiny frame would bend, like a reed in a thunderstorm.
But piggies and know it alls and mother hens may also hide a vivid imagination. If we really go back, the key to our souls could lay in childhood, where our identities have already made their imprints into the clay, never really changing shape as we age, but rather expanding, allowing more and more notches to be carved into its base, more space to hold water.
It was these moments that are most memorable to me, and I see them again now, on the same drive we made then. The memories that no one could see. In the farthest back seat, pressing play on my Walkman, five hours through Alabama, Mississippi, and onto Nana’s house. No one asking questions, nothing to do, or say, no games to play or babies to coddle. Free to sit tucked away in my cocoon, to listen to a tune, and dream time away.
Every hill we passed, I rolled down, the grass raising welps into my sensitive allergy ridden skin. The miniature Statue of Liberty in Birmingham was a goddess, beckoning us forward to say, ‘Don’t give up! You’re almost there….’ Each blanket of kudzu covering the trees, I would climb, allowing it to catch me like a net once I finally decided let go and fall, my stomach doing somersaults. And I did. Staring into the other cars on the highway, the red ones were my favorite, so novel, nothing like the bulky mini van that carried us inside her. I’d stare at those other people, smelling the scent of their necks, my favorite scent (besides ta-ta), and pretending they were my other parents, my other sisters, wondering what they ate for dinner and if they preferred toilet paper or baby wipes, as I did. I sucked my thumb with abandon because back there, no one could see, what a baby I was. The same thumb I hid at school, tucked into my palm so others wouldn’t catch sight of the callous, swollen, damp and ugly.
In my imagination I was everything all at the same time, and everywhere I could see, interwoven with each stimulus to my senses. Some moments the music would pull me back into the car and guide my meditations. I would enter the songs the way I entered the trees, and the fifties were my favorite. I was the Shangri-las crying over ‘the leader of the pack’. And I did, sadness surging through me as I too watched the love of my life being smashed off his motorcycle. I was seven. I understood. I was ‘the great pretender,’ wearing my smile like a second coat of deodorant. And I would, masquerading, just to see how it felt. (Kind of like dodgeball did.)
Sometimes I would fall so deeply into these musings that hours would pass without breaking my concentration. Unless of course I needed a pee break, which I had been trained to do in cups, in the back, so we wouldn’t need to stop eighteen times in one journey. (I still practice this method.) And even then I could be back in my cocoon within minutes, back to my free space, where all the dots seemed to connect and disperse simultaneously, and following one thought led to another and another until where I started had long been forgotten.
Then I wouldn’t even notice Mallorie hanging over the edge of the seat in front of me, blonde corkscrews popping out of head, her lips and chin bloody with kool-aid. Not until she reached over with her stubby tanned fingers and grasped at my feet, lifting them up so the bottoms became frames for her round face, squishing her cheeks. I could see her lips moving and her mouth gaping with laughter to show her baby teeth, as she’d throw her head back, still holding tight to my ankles, her chewed fingernails scratching the skin. I didn’t need to take out my head phones to be able to hear her voice as it lisped, ‘I loooove your theeet!’ The joke that never got old, and was never that funny. But always brought me back. And I love her for that.