The Lonely Kid

When I was a little kid I was shy and deeply miserable. At home there was one girl who would only play with me outside, no matter how cold the wind blew or how deep the snow. I never understood why I never entered her house until I was much older and able to reflect on possible reasons. To put it mildly, I was weird.

My clothes were faded hand-me-downs from older aunts. The styles were old-fashioned and inappropriate for a kid. My shoes weren’t name brands, clearly from thrift stores and cheap five and dimes. Even my hair made me stand out, for my mom curled it into tight ringlets every night, that when combed out sprang from my head much like Little Orphan Annie’s.

Even my school uniform marked me as unlikable. It was of the old style, with a rounded collar and a droopy A-frame skirt that fell well below my knees. At one time it was blue, but mine were gray. Everyone else wore square-necked pleated jumpers that hit mid-knee. I was the only one in faded uniforms.

Even at home I was alone. I was the middle child, wedged between an older brother who my mother worshipped and a younger sister who could do no wrong. Even though I never articulated my desires, what I wanted more than anything was to be held, caressed, and even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term, to be held in the same regard as my siblings.

At school and at home I played alone, preferring my own company to the maneuverings at school and the tension-filled interactions with family. Even though I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling, I didn’t understand what I had done to trigger the lectures and revilement.

Several yeas ago I saw home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.

It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.

When I was sent to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me daily of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the private Kindergarten. I was, in fact, the dumbest kid in the class. I had no knowledge of letters or sounds, number values, shapes, and most of the colors. I couldn’t cut paper or tie my shoes or hold a pencil correctly.

I worked hard to learn, to blend in, but even so I often felt my teachers’ frustration with my lack of knowledge and skills.

In elementary school it didn’t take me long to figure out my place in the hierarchy. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on her. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.

Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. My brother loved cartoons and I read whatever he was given. One time, buried in the back, was a magazine ad about how to create tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.

There was one girl who befriended me in fifth grade. She had recently enrolled so didn’t know my status. Imagine my surprise when she invited me to spend a weekend. I had never slept away from home before except when visiting relatives, so I had no idea what to expect. I figure life would be the same: with yelling, accusations, physical torment. But it wasn’t.

During dinner her parents conversed quietly. They asked questions of me and included me in discussions. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

I fell in love with that family and wanted to live with them. I prayed for them to adopt me. I didn’t want to go home and cried when my mother took me home.

In eighth grade an odd-looking quiet boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. I could skate as long as it required going around the oval. I knew how to stop and start and to keep a steady speed. That was it, but it turned out, as we skated side-by-side, I knew more than Geoffrey. Modern tunes were played, which pleased me tremendously as I knew all the words, but poor Geoff was lost. After a few laps, his hand brushed mine and then morphed into hand-holding. It was my first time being with a boy, so I was nervous. He must have been as well because his was damp. I didn’t care.

In ninth grade Geoffrey invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder A-line blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage which he couldn’t pin on me because neither of us were comfortable with the idea. My mom did the job, but only after stabbing me with the pin.

Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent most of the time standing on the outskirts leaning against walls or, if available, sitting on folding metal chairs. I didn’t have a great time, but a pleasant one because he was kind.

My family moved to California that summer. I was excited to go, for a new place brought hope for new adventures. No one would know me there; no one would remember my faded uniforms and weird ways. No one would have known the stupid me, for now I was one of the best students in my grade.

My mom insisted that I bring addresses of neighbors that she thought were friends. They weren’t, but I carried the information on our cross-country drive. Once we had a place to stay, I sent them letters and postcards every week. Even though none of them wrote back, I cried.

I was still shy so I made no friends my first year in my new high school. I drifted around campus as I had done in Ohio, constantly moving so that kids would think I had a purpose and a destination.

My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers. A PE teacher also befriended me when I tried out for the softball team. She drove me to her house one day after school and gave me one of her mitts, then took me home. My mom threw a fit. I had no comprehension as to why my mom was upset. Now, as an adult, I do.

Across the street from the first house that we rented in South San Francisco lived a young man several years older than me. My dad liked him and spent hours standing in the street swapping stories with him. When Dennis asked permission to date me, my dad approved. I was only sixteen at the time, while Dennis was in his early twenties.

He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. He treated me respectfully and spent money taking me on dates. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex, where he lived alone, listening to music. He wanted more than a casual relationship, however.

Sometimes after dark he’d park in an isolated spot behind a closed store and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was never comfortable with these arrangements as I feared being robbed or killed. I was also terrified that the police would find us and arrest us for being someplace where we didn’t belong. If that happened then my parents would know about these trysts and I’d be in trouble; with both my parents and the law.

The closest call came after the bowling league ended. It was a chilly night. Dennis started his car, a blue VW Beetle, then while the engine warmed, pulled me close and kissed me. It went on and on. Bowlers walked past. Some pounded on the door or window, saying “Get a room.” Eventually we left, only to end up at his place.

At first we listened to music. We shared an interest in the Beach Boys, Beatles and other groups of the times. We’d sit side-by-side on his couch while the music played. After finishing a soda, Dennis pulled me to his side and resumed the passionate kissing. He told me how much he loved me and I believed him. I allowed him to push me down onto the pillows of the couch and didn’t protest when his hands went under my bra.

I was uncomfortable. I felt that a line was being crossed, but I didn’t know which line. I knew nothing about sexual relationships or what steps led to situations that could never be reversed. Fortunately Dennis never pushed me beyond what I did allow, even though he did ask for more.

He repeatedly said he loved me, but I never said the same to him. Because we dated for several years, my parents were thrilled. The daughter that they had felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.

When I transferred to USC after graduation I lived on campus and ate in the dining hall. At first I ate alone, but one time when searching for a spot, a girl invited me to her table, a table at which sat lonely looking people like me. We were all odd-balls, and that was the bond that drew us together meal after meal.

One thing we had in common was that we are all quite intelligent and quite knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. Some of us were world-travelers, some were from overseas, some, like me, were poor. For the first time I felt an equal. I don’t know how they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. Over time I dated two of the guys. They were really nice. In fact, one of them wrote me a three-page letter explaining how great of a husband he would be, and that back in his country I would be treated like royalty. As intriguing offer until he explained that I could never go anywhere alone and would have to cover my face.

All was going well until one weekend Dennis drove down to see me. He took me to Disneyland where we had a good time, but all the while I was there, I knew that I was going to break up with him. He still loved me, but during our separation I grew to understand that I liked him, but didn’t love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.

It was after Dennis left and I returned to campus that I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.

We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy Tommy’s famous chili burgers. We went to the beach when it was raining and ran through the damp sand, our wind-swept hair flying behind us. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall, reinforcing each other’s strengths and helping overcome our weaknesses. We were inseparable.

After college I returned home to find that nothing had changed. I was still the middle child, not a woman. I was still unloved and disrespected. I was still considered a bumbling fool. When I got a job and saved enough money I moved out. My mom was despondent, I think, because she no longer controlled everything I did.

As an older adult I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who enjoys being with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.

Being lonely as a kid was a terrible thing. I saw kids running around in groups that were ever changing, but never with me a part of the fun. There was no one to help me navigate the social circles, to teach me how to fit in.

Along the way there were glimmer of hope: the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.

For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.

   A Mother’s Duties

What does a mother do when she realizes

that her child will never witness a golden sunset

or the glory of the sun peaking over mountains

to greet the new day, nor will he stand,

slack-jawed, as a jet leaves a smoke

trail across a deep blue sky, or point,

mesmerized as a yellow-stripped bumble bee

frolics from flower to flower?

 

She hugs her son close to her breast and tells

him how intensely he is loved as she opens

his senses to the world.

 

What can a mother do when she knows that

her son can barely pick out her smiling face

from the fuzzy world that fills his view,

or the brightly colored toys dangling seductively

overhead, nor the radiant smiles of his brother

and sisters as they greet him in the morning?

 

She uses words to describe the world, guides

his tiny fingers as he explores through touch,

those things that others experience with eyes,

and she tells him how intensely he is loved.

 

What should a mother do when her son is ready

to crawl, knowing that he will never see the

obstacles in his way until it is too late, or when

he takes that first tentative step and crashes right

into the pointed edge of the piano bench, or when

he wants to go outside and play like his siblings,

but the world is too dangerous?

 

She allows him to fall, just as she did the sighted

ones, for by stumbling he learns to conquer whatever

obstacles jump up to block his progress.

 

More than anything, a mother offers unbridled love.

That’s what a mother does.

My Namesake

From the time I was old enough to process and understand names, I have hated mine. There was something ominous is the way my parents used it to call me to attention. When I heard Teresa, I understood that I had committed some grievous wrong. When they tacked on my middle name, Louise, then severe physical punishment was coming.

There were other issues that I encountered once I entered school. First of all, no one knew how to spell it. In Ohio, Teresa was always spelled with an h. My mother’s limited education must have negatively impacted her academic skills as it wasn’t just my name she had difficulty with.  She struggled with grammar, sentence construction and subject-verb agreement as well. But Teresa instead of Theresa affected my perception of how others saw me.

Because my brother’s nickname was Billy, my parents called me Terry whenever I wasn’t in trouble. Which, by the way, I frequently found myself embroiled in one controversy after another. Terry is a boys’ name. Girls whose names are shortened spell it Teri. Because mine was the male version, I was ridiculed mercilessly.

In the Catholic Church at that time, when a child was confirmed a new middle name was added. My brother took on my father’s first name. When it was my turn the next year, I chose Marie, my beloved grandmother’s middle name. Forever on I would be Teresa Louise Marie.

I never knew that names could be legally changed. It never came up in a class and I never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation. If I had known such a thing was possible, today I would go by Marie, a beautiful name in honor of our Virgin Mary.

Another error my mother made was theoretically naming after St. Therese the Little Flower. She told me repeatedly that’s who she chose as my saint-name. Obviously it wasn’t, I discovered when as an elementary-school student I was assigned to research and write about my patron saint. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out the error!

All my little life I’d been the Little Flower. Now I was not.

So who am I really named after? St. Teresa of Avila. Last year when we traveled through Spain, one of our rest stops was at an overlook of Avila. Off in the distance was the city where she lived. Along the path leading to the city were a series of signs that spoke of the history of the city as well as that of St. Teresa. In fact, she was such a huge factor in the beliefs of the time that her burial spot and the church at which she worshipped are now part of a pilgrimage tour.

It’s ironic that my mother got things wrong. The Little Flower lived a cloistered life and died at the age of 24. Unlike many saints, she never left the cloister to go on a mission, she never founded a religious order but chose to live within hers, and she is not credited with performing any great works. There is a collection of prayers attributed to her, the only book that she was known to write. She grew up in a family of nine. Most of her sisters entered religious orders.

When Therese fell seriously ill, she prayed to Mary, not aloud, but in her mind. After that her goal was to be a saint and the way to accomplish that was to live in a cloister. While she was not a vocal participant, her quiet way of praying impressed those who knew her.

Those of you who know me, understand that I am, in no way, the Little Flower. I will admit that at the age of 13 I wanted to join a convent. Not due to religious fervor, but as an escape out of what I felt was a miserable life, one in which I was treated as inferior to my older brother and my younger sister. That was the only reason. I did not fully understand the dedication to prayer that life would entail, not did I care. I was only searching for a way out.

In actuality I am more like St. Teresa of Avila, who was a mystic, a writer who published several books, and extremely well-educated. She had earned a Doctorate in Theology and was a reformer who challenged her religious order who was incensed at religious laxity. Her books contribute an important understanding to mysticism and meditation. Her beliefs have inspired a variety of researchers, namely philosophers, theologians, historians, neurologists, fiction writers and artists.

When she was young, during a bout of severe illness, she came to believe in the power or prayer to overcome sin. This led her to split off from her cloister and to establish a new one with stricter rules. She then received dispensation from the church to travel about instituting new cloisters.

While I am not a leader in the church, I do pray daily, and have from childhood. I enjoyed attending Mass, and when we didn’t go due to inclement weather, I was despondent. To this day I am active in my church, choosing to sing in the choir and to be a lector, one who reads sections of the bible from the ambo at the front of the church.

Like my namesake, I love to write. Many of her works were published after death. I hope I don’t have to wait that long! She persevered in her writings, as so do I. She was the inspiration for changes within her order. I tried to inspire changes within how special education students were perceived and taught. Teresa was a leader in her time. In many ways, when I was still teaching, I was also seen to be a leader.

When I look at this image of her, I see myself in the shape of her chin, the wrinkles about her eyes, and the way she holds her pen.

Although my mother made a mistake in spelling, her choice more closely matches who I have become.

I still don’t like my name, but it has grown on me. If someone called me Marie now, I wouldn’t know who they wanted to speak with. I will always be Terry, the Little Flower.

 

Faith

How do I write about my faith?  What words can I put down that express what it means to me?  A difficult challenge, to be sure.

I am not a born-again Christian, but I do believe that through God, I can accomplish almost anything.  Within limits.  I’ll never be a Steinbeck or a Kingsolver, but I can, and do, write.  I’ll never climb Mount Everest or jump from a plane intentionally, but I can scale personal mountains and leap over obstacles blocking my path.  I can’t build a house, but I can mold minds and hearts through teaching.

My faith gives me balance and perspective and keeps me grounded in reality.  Because I believe in a higher authority, I accept that there is a method to all that lives and breathes and grows on our planet.  I am sad to see global warming destroying the habitats of animals, yet I have to believe that there is a reason for us to witness this.

Faith supports me when I am ill.  I had two chronic asthma attacks, that because of medical interventions and many, many prayers, I overcame.  God held my hand during those long days and nights when every breath was a struggle.  He told me that my time had not yet come, and gave me the strength to fight.

On 9/11 when the towers fell my faith kept me grounded.  I was far from New York, but that did not spare us from possible threats.  I live in the San Francisco area, and so we were on the “watch” list.  Because I believe in God, I knew that if our beautiful city should be attacked and I should die, I had nothing to fear.

I believe in my husband and his love for me.  He has stood by me when I had no job, when I had doubts about my intelligence, when I loathed my overweight body.  His faith in my abilities has given me the strength to accomplish much.  Without my husband standing by my side, I would still be awash in doubts.  He is my rock, my foundation.  He sits with the Lord on his shoulders.

I have felt the hand of God intervening when my kids were ill.  It was like a light breeze brushing my cheeks, calming my soul.  He spoke to me, not in words, but in actions.  He brought down the fevers, healed the kidneys, stood over the surgeons, and held the hands of my children as He whispered in their ears.

Faith is difficult to define, as it means so many different things, to many different people.  For me, however, the essence of faith is God.  Because of Him, I believe in myself.  Because of Him, my husband is my best supporter.  Because of Him, my children are alive and well.  Faith stands at the center of my universe.  It is my propulsion, my driving force.

Holy Time

there is only here and now

and the once was and the soon to be

the should be, the could be, the might be

joined together, past, present, and future

blending into seamless time

beginning at the beginning

stretching off into the eternity

marching in a straight line

from time before all records were kept

pointing to time unknown

 

dropped in, snuggled in, squeezed in

human beings alter the universe

irrevocably

jumping barriers

leaping across boundaries

in pursuit of dreams

quests for an unholy grail

chasing illusive butterflies of chance

that change predetermined destinies

altering time forevermore

 

some keeping meticulous track

of minutes

days

months

years

 

while others intentionally forget the done

glossing over the finished

as if brushing off flies

for by shedding the past

the future lies

untarnished

unblemished

 

shining bright as the star that led

the Magi to Bethlehem

in search of

the One who would be

the only here and now

Misconceptions

I believed in Santa Claus. I loved Santa so much that every time I saw one, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wrote him letters as soon as I was capable. I dreamt of him, constructed rituals around his visit and was mesmerized by anything related to him.

I maintained my belief into fourth grade when my brother told me that Santa did not exist. I fought him, argued with him, cried tears in frustration over him. I did not suspend my belief in Santa immediately. However, that was my last Christmas filled with wonder.

Misconception destroyed.

From the time I was a little girl my mother told stories about being Native American. She claimed that her high cheekbones, hair that did not gray and her skin that tanned so easily were all because of being “Indian”. So was her love of bread, gravy and corn.

I fell in love with her story and wanted to learn more about my heritage so I began reading every book in the library that had anything to do with Native Americans, both fiction and nonfiction.

I drew maps. I recorded characteristics and beliefs. I drew pictures of their artifacts. I immersed myself so completely into this study that I truly believed I was Shawnee.

When a powwow was being held near my home, I went. The pounding of the drums resonated in me. I wanted to join in the dance even though I didn’t know the steps. I bought fry bread and loved every bite. I also bought a CD of chanting which I played over and over.

I went to two more powwows, loving the romance of the regalia, the procession, the community. I felt one with the people. I belonged. I had history.

And then my daughter had me take one of those DNA tests as she had been unable to unearth any Native Americans in our history. Guess what? I have zero percent Native American blood.

Misconception.

From the time I understood physical beauty and attractiveness I was told that I was unlovable. I was told repeatedly that I was so fat that no one would ever love me. That I was plain. Ugly. Undesirable. I believed it. When one hears such things for all of their life it becomes part of your identity. Your belief system.

When I went away to college I was asked out by numerous young men. I couldn’t understand why they wanted to date me, for I was a nobody. Worthless. I thought maybe they had spurious interests, that there was only one thing they wanted and I wasn’t about to give them that. But I dated. Quite a bit.

Misconception? At that point I still believed all that my family had told me about myself, so I wasn’t ready to let go yet.

In fact, truth be told, I have never fully dispersed with that belief even though I have a husband who loves me dearly and thinks I am beautiful as I am.

Where I grew up in Ohio there were few people of color. When I was about eight my mom took me to a nearby park that had a shallow pool. I was happily playing in it, enjoying the cool water in the hot sun, when other kids arrived. They were beautiful Dark skin, dark eyes, but their palms and the soles of their feet were much lighter. I was intrigued. The little girls had tons of braids and clips. I wanted my hair done like that.

My mother pulled me out of the pool, saying something like those people had ruined out day. I had no idea what she was talking about, but as I grew older, more and more such incidents occurred.

I finally figured out that my parents were prejudiced against anyone that didn’t look like them. It made no sense to me. I didn’t look at the color of a person’s skin but the color of their heart. If they were warm inside, then I loved them back. If they were cold, then I stayed away.

It wasn’t until my teen years that I learned the meaning of prejudice and how it “colored” a person’s view of others. I understood as I was living with people who personified the definition. For this first time I faltered in my belief in who I was.

Misconception.

I could chronicle more incidents in which my belief systems were challenged, but it isn’t necessary. What is important is that throughout life our perceptions are challenged, over and over, forcing us to rethink who we are and what we believe.

Misconceptions are meant to falter, to disappear, to be clarified. It is part of being human. We can take our beliefs, be exposed to new ways of thinking, and reformulate our identity. This is how we grow. Our experiences allow us to alter established patterns, creating new. It is an important process.

That is not a misconception.