by Heather Browne
I was eight before I knew she was crazy. Until then, I thought maybe it was me. Maybe I was confused or maybe not all that bright, not brilliant like her. I was eight before I understood that talking to trees, dogs, the coat hanging in her closet, dancing with imaginary fairies that only she could see, was something other than spectacularly magical. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between creativity, genius, and mere insanity, especially when you are too young to even know how to slant your pen.
I was only good at things up and down, standing straight, upright. I was tall for my age, able to reach things in cupboards much too high. Taller than my second-grade teacher, when all we did was write in big block letters or count. I was often told that this uniqueness, this oddness, was a good thing, making me stand up, stand out, that it made me appear older, wiser than my eight years. I had scoliosis and was forced to work on my posture, told it wasn’t safe to slump. My back was already trying to curve in on itself. My body was trying to hide. I needed to stand tall, erect like some architectural skeleton or structure, a solid stone sculpture perhaps.
But third grade brought multiplication tables and cursive writing. There are several ways to come up with a dozen, twos, threes, even fours and a pair of sixes. I tried to understand these tables, tried to make my letters drift to one side, but I got stuck on things not staying the same, not remaining constant, or life coming together differently. Things seemed to disappear when not expected. There were too many variables, no longer the precision in the letter I. Things weren’t always what they once had been, and my head rose above, much too close to the sky. I didn’t like standing out and I wished that I myself could slant, slump, or somehow be divisible.
She played a disappearing game that made me uncomfortable. She would tire of being Mom. I wore her out was my guess, too loud, too needy for her love, and much too tall, taking up too much of her room and the private space that she desperately needed, so she would hide. She wrote, got lost in the wonder of her words with her perfectly tiny cursive writing, slanted just so, as my thoughts toppled over, my laugh too loud and boisterous. I was continuously outgrowing my shoes, my socks, needing more and more. And she would disappear and say, “Mommy has left for a little while, I am Judy, the babysitter.”
I didn’t like this game, not that I didn’t like Judy—she was fine—but I didn’t get how changing her name changed much of anything, and I protested and cried loudly, pleading for Mommy to come back, which she eventually always did, until one fateful day. She never hid in front of others, not the neighbors or my Dad, just a game for my sister and me. But on this particular day, when I was eight, I guess my needs, my talk, my laugh were all too much, and at the laundromat, where we always went to do our wash on Wednesdays, she stayed Judy for the first time. And when sweet Mr. Chen, the owner, said, “Hello Virginia,” as he always did, she responded, “I am not Ginny, I am Judy the babysitter.” I saw his eyes cloud, I saw him searching, trying to understand this game. But it didn’t make sense to him either. He nodded and walked away. He didn’t want to talk to Judy. He was also uncomfortable and, like me, remained silent. And when we were finally leaving, he pulled me aside and asked if we were all okay. I did what any eight-year-old who was forced to appear older or wiser would do. I said, “I really don’t know,” and smiled.
We walked away, our arms full of clothing washed and warm, which I hugged close to my spine that curved into itself. I walked away with Judy, whose handwriting, face, voice were all parts of my mother, but just like a dozen, could be broken down, without you knowing how or why.
Heather M. Browne is a faith-based psychotherapist and a Pushcart Prize nominee, published in The Orange Room Review, Boston Literary Review, Page & Spine, Eunoia Review, Poetry Quarterly, Red Fez, Electric Windmill, Apeiron Review, The Lake, Knot Magazine, and Mad Swirl. She has published two collections of poetry with Red Dashboard: Directions of Folding and Altar Call of Trumpets. You can find her at www.thehealedheart.net.