Lessons in Accessorizing: A Childhood Traumedy

Milford Creek Lane was a straight, flat stretch of middle-class Georgian suburbia. The blue ranch house I called home sat about a quarter mile from the stop sign at the end of the street. During the school year, I walked that route twice a day to catch the bus in the morning and return home in the afternoon.

One morning in early winter, my breath clung to the frigid air in front of me as I walked—the grass still turgid and shimmering with overnight frost. I wore a navy wool coat and scratchy black gloves. On top of the gloves, I wore my newest prized position: a real, grown-up ring.

I had told my mother I wanted a real ring, and for reasons I’ll never understand, she allowed me this indulgence. She took me to Uptons department store where I peered in to the jewelry case on my tip toes. I picked out a small gold ring with a marquise amethyst and the tiniest of diamonds lacing over it.

The next day, I was so eager to show off my new ring, I couldn’t bear to cover it with a glove. So my eight-year-old genius decided to wear the ring on top.

When I arrived at the stop sign that morning, my fellow bus riders gathered in a loose mosh pit on the sidewalk. Older children and troubled children and stranger children all intimidated me, so I kept to myself.

I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and felt a wad of cloth. Pulling it out, I recognized my other pair of gloves. Not only did this set better match my coat, it also had sparkles woven in the fabric, giving it all the softness of a Brillo Pad.

Without a moment of hesitation, I peeled off my black gloves and put on the newfound haute couture pair instead.

I sat in my fourth-grade desk at school for no more than 10 minutes that day before the revelation occurred: my fingers were bare. The ring was gone.

Dread rose in my chest as my child-brain backtracked through the morning and realized the ring had popped off at the bus stop when I switched the gloves.

It could be anywhere now. It could have rolled into the sewer. It could be caught up in the blades of a lawnmower—yes, even in the winter! It could have been carried off in the talons of an eagle, swallowed by a jewelry-eating dog, found and kept by a vicious neighbor with excellent taste in rings.

My mother would never buy me another ring again. She might never buy me anything at all! I’d probably never have another valuable possession for the rest of my life. I hadn’t deserved the ring, and now I’d lost it in my first 24 hours of ownership. The thought of having to tell my mom what I’d done twisted my stomach in knots. Laying my head on the cool faux-wood of my desk, I tried not to cry or panic or simply bust through the school exit and sprint all the way home to look for it.

My nerves turned to nausea as the day ached on. Every bump and turn and squealing first-grader on the excruciating bus ride home forced my stomach farther up into my throat. As the yellow behemoth rounded the last turn to get to our stop, my entire body tensed.

By requirement only, I waited until the screeching brakes came to a complete halt before bolting to the front. I arrived at the door as it opened casually via accordion fold with its customary whoosh of air.

Darting out, I launched for the spot where I was standing when I switched gloves. I flung myself on the ground—aware of how strange I might look yet not caring in the least—and smooshed my hands frantically into the grass hoping to feel the hard metal against my soft palms.

Nothing. Nothing but cold dirt.

And then, amid my panic and dismay and guilt and terror and disappointment, I saw a glint of gold hope among the sullen green. I crawled over on my hands and knees.

There it was. Unscathed. Unaware of the anguish I’d endured over the past six hours. Bathing in the sunshine, just waiting for me to come home.

Even though I haven’t worn rings over my gloves since, I still don’t trust myself with valuable jewelry.

File Aug 06, 9 37 23 AM

Diamond Wedding Ring for Sale: $700

ring

Back in the beginning—before forever, before goodbye, before everything—we sparkled. Our mouths ached from our gaping smiles. Our palms were damp from hours spent with fingers interlocked. Our bellies were tight from endless laughter.

We were bright. Shiny. New. We were diamonds glittering across the sea.

Back in the beginning, you strung up paper hearts for Valentine’s Day. Hand-cut from newspaper, looped together in twine. A clumsy garland of headlines and obituaries and classified ads selling away the things that were once thought valuable.

I saw those black and white hearts hanging lopsided around the living room, and I laughed.

And that’s when you dug it out from your pocket.

Such a simple question: will you be with me always?

Such an easy answer: I will. I am. I do.

But like buying a diamond ring on credit, I should have known then that nothing is ever that easy.

You picked it out from the jewelry department at Kohl’s. It was sized too big for my knobby finger, but that didn’t stop me from gawking at it, left arm outstretched, fingers arched proudly to the sky.

I wore that precious five-stone set for six years, never understanding why it felt so heavy. Never figuring out how something so small carried so much weight. Or why my palms—no longer found snuggled next to yours—sweated at the thought of just one more year with this ring, this gift, this promise chaining me to you.

In the end—after stillness, after apathy, after everything—that diamond was the last of our sparkle. Our lips formed only straight lines. Our laughter choked by so much left unsaid.

In the end, I found the clarity that solitaire had all along—when I realized there’s more to happiness than carats and cuts.

And I listed the ring in a classified ad of its own.

MUCH MORE BEAUTIFUL IN PERSON. PICTURES DON’T DO IT JUSTICE.

Now I wait for some new young lover to buy it and surprise his girlfriend with the proposition of a lifetime. And I’ll whisper “I’m sorry” as I pass it off, tucked securely in the same grey suede box you hid in the pocket of your jeans so many years ago.

I’m sorry I didn’t know me better.

I’m sorry I didn’t know me sooner.

But I’m not sorry for following my heart.

This piece was written as part of a creative fiction challenge in which I found a classified ad and developed the story behind the ad. 

roots and wings

Trees Uprooted as Hot Air Balloons Print

My childhood was rooted in the metro-suburbiapocalypse of Marietta, Georgia. I grew up next to the roots of the live Christmas trees we planted each year. (And I proudly named each one: Candy Cane, Cup Cake, Ginger Bread.) My roots stretched out beneath the small patch of strawberries that grew on the sunny side of the house…beside the earthworms I saved from drying out on the driveway after every heavy rain. My roots are in the grassy slope in the front yard where we put the Slip ‘N Slide each summer. And running under the single tree in the front yard where Dad insisted we put every last strand of 300-count ultra-bright Christmas lights one embarrassing holiday season.

I was planted there. It’s where I bloomed shyly, blossomed hesitantly. And before I knew how to stay put, I was carried away. Like pollen stolen by the honey bees.

My adolescent roots are just down the road from that little blue ranch house. In a bigger brick home with a smaller yard. Dad and I dug up all the seedling trees we’d planted at Milford Creek Lane and transplanted them to new house on Breconridge Drive. They were Fraser firs. Only a handful survived the move. But the few that did grow tall and proud there still today.

My roots are in the soft grass I ran over in the yard as I learned how to back the Mustang out of our crooked driveway for the first, second, and fifteenth times. And beneath the daylilies surrounding the front porch, which served as a backdrop for prom photos and high school graduation portraits. My roots are anchored to the honeysuckles that bloomed along our rustic fence in the springtime. And the jonquils planted around our sweet dog Sunny’s otherwise-unmarked grave in the backyard.

Some days, those roots still feel like home.

Then there was college, the place where you barely stand still long enough to let roots grow. From dorm to apartment to college house, my roots kept me coming back to family and familiarity on holiday weekends and breaks between semesters. To make sure life still existed the way I remembered, even as I was beginning to change.

After college, I left for Charleston. It was a temporary move at the time, but now I’ve been here six and a half years. My roots started tugging me into place in this coastal town—beneath the coarse sand, beneath the pluff mud, beneath the marsh grass—as soon as I arrived. Urging me to stay. Telling me this is the place. This is the place where I can flourish.

Now, having closed on my first home, I’m ready to buy my own Christmas trees for the yard…and give them good Christmas names, of course. I’m ready to dig into the Carolina earth and see what the dark soil below has to offer my Georgia-clay bones. I’m ready to be grateful for old, stubborn roots that kept me from running too far away from the people I love. And for roots strong enough to let me drift off to this place. The place where I’m finally ready to fly.

Image source: DIYdelicacy via Etsy

this is the story of how we begin to remember

You probably didn’t know, when you forced me out of you, when you squeezed and contracted and pushed…You probably didn’t know that screaming ball of hot pink flesh, who grew in your womb for nine months and two insufferable weeks…You probably didn’t know that little hungry, demanding child would grow into a woman who wanted to be nothing more than a reflection of your energy, who longed to sway beneath the shadows of you and breathe you in.

You probably didn’t know, when I was two and hooked up to tubes and monitors in a hospital emergency room…When one of my organs wasn’t formed quite perfectly and the surgeons offered no promises what the next moment would bring…And you held my tiny, soft hands and stood by my bed and whispered gentle lullabies in my ear…You probably didn’t know that I would return the favor 25 and a half years later…And stand guard alongside your hospital bed…And sing you songs and tell you jokes and pray, and pray that you would stay a little while longer.

You probably didn’t know, when you brushed my hair and pulled it into a taught, perfectly smooth ponytail, when you pinned a giant bow to the very top – one with glitter or buttons or polka dots…When you tied my shoelaces and smoothed my ruffled skirt hems and wiped the dirt off my elbows and told me I was brilliant and beautiful and could be whatever I wanted to be…You probably didn’t know that I believed every single word…And never let doubt or fear settle anywhere near my dreams.

You probably didn’t know, when you tucked me in at night, and we read A Wrinkle in Time or Mr. Popper’s Penguins…When we said prayers out loud in that intimate space, when you kissed my forehead and pushed play on the cassette tape so I could fall asleep…You probably didn’t know how hard it was not to follow at your heels when you turned to go. How I longed for you to come back to me before you even left the room.

You probably didn’t know, when you planned my elaborate birthday parties – with goodie bags and piñatas and birthday cakes thick with sweet cream frosting…When I inhaled until my lungs felt as light as the balloons tied to the back of my chair and blew forcefully at the candles, trying to extinguish those melting time bombs before the wax collided with the cake below…You probably didn’t know every wish I made was for us to be healthy and happy and together forever…Every flame held the promise of a long life…Or so I believed as watched their reflection flicker in your endless brown eyes.

And I guess I didn’t know, when I talked to you 10 days before Christmas, and heard your hoarse voice on the other end of the phone telling me it sounded worse than it really was…And I told you to rest and carried on buying coffee mugs and goat’s milk soap and chocolate covered cashews for your stocking…I guess I didn’t know that would be my last, “I love you.” And there was so much more to say.

And I guess I didn’t know, when we sang the hymns and hugged and wept, when we called it a celebration even though we all knew it was a funeral…When we sat on the rows marked “reserved,” the rows that no one ever wants to be waiting for them…I guess I didn’t know how broken my heart would be.

And how much we all need our mothers. And how I would still need you.

angel painting
One of my mom’s angel paintings.

eleven years too late

If I could, I would go back in time. I would go back and seek out the 16-year-old version of me. The one who didn’t quite know herself. Didn’t quite believe in herself. Didn’t quite love herself, but did manage to fall helplessly in love with you.

If I could, I would find her and tell her about you. Warn her about you. Let her know that she can love you with all her heart, but you’re going to break it just the same.

But she would go on and love you anyway. Because some things she’ll just have to learn on her own.

If I could, I’d go back in time and talk to my 18-year-old self. The one who gave you everything she had. Every ounce of intimacy. Then watched as you flirted with other girls at your high school. And felt her heart break for the first, but not the last, time.

If I could, I’d tell her it’s okay to feel broken. And it’s okay to ache. I’d tell her that time does heal, but she’ll never be the same. I’d tell her being lost for a while is the only chance she ever has of being found.

But she’d ignore me anyway. And she’d cling to you. Because some mistakes are worth making.

If I could, I would go back in time and seek out my 20-year-old self. The one who looked in the mirror and decided to see beauty. The one who discovered being herself filled her up with infinitely more joy than living up to everyone else’s expectations.

If I could, I’d tell her that you cheating on her had nothing to do with her weight. Or the size of her bra. I’d tell her that the details are even worse than what she’s imagining in her head. I’d tell her that turning her back on you would be the hardest thing she’d ever do, but her future self would be forever grateful.

But she’d stay by your adulterous side. Sweeping up the pieces shattered around her feet. Hoping for the best. Because that sweet little girl’s tragic flaw was always relentlessly following her heart.

If I could, I would go back in time in search of my 22-year-old self. The one who finally saw all she was worth. And all she deserved. The brave girl who stood her ground and said, no more. No more.

If I could, I would wrap my arms around her so tightly. And I’d tell her it’s okay to be sad. And I’d tell her it’s okay to miss you. I’d tell her to let her heart weep. I’d tell her to long and mourn. I’d tell her to dwell on the loss of her first love for as long as she needed.

But she’d shut that out too. And she’d choose to never acknowledge the sadness, to never talk about the fear that maybe she was wrong. And she’d choose to let anger be the only emotion associated with you. Then she’d move on with the heavy burden of a bitter heart. Because there are some things that are worse than saying goodbye.

But this 27-year-old can’t go back. And she got here with only foolish emotions guiding her way. And all those bad decisions took their toll. And you still haunt her dreams. And that time never did come by and heal. Because she never let herself break down. And grieve the loss of a truly great love.

So to her I say, it’s not too late. And it’s still okay to think of you. It’s still okay to be sad. And it’s still okay to wonder. It’s even okay to remember. It doesn’t make her weak or pathetic. It makes her human. It makes her the woman she is. Built on the bones of her reckless 16-year-old, broken 18-year-old, devoted 20-year-old, and valiant 22-year-old selves.

She’s the glorious compilation of all the mistakes she’s ever made.

And if she’s lucky, there’ll be many more to come.