Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Hearts Desire

I don’t remember any birthday’s before the age of four. I remember being deathly ill and hospitalized. I remember magical moments where I played in the cool German evenings as the sun set and the air cooled and mothers called out to their children to come in one by one, their voices mingling together and rising and falling with the sound of an ice cream vendor's bells to create the music of summer. I remember interminable flights which everyone complained through but I was wedged into the embrace of my mother and thought them heaven on earth. These are the things that make a mark on a toddler; abject terror, perfect joy and absolute love are forever imprinted, birthdays….not so much.

When I turned four I had my first moment of absolute, inescapable, life-or-death scenario desire. I wanted a horse. Nope, I NEEDED a horse. I would never be happy again in my whole entire life (at that point my 14 year old sister was, in my mind, ancient and my brother, soon heading off to college, dead and gone already) if I did not have a horse of my very own.

I knew there was work involved, brushing and feeding and cleaning their hooves. I knew they were expensive, they had to be or everyone in their right mind would have a whole herd of the animals, I knew they were big and bulky and smelly and pooped A LOT. I wanted one anyway. Without one I would die. I decided on a wear-your-parents-down strategy. I pined, heaving huge long dramatic sighs as I threw myself at their feet. The first few times they reacted just as I had hoped, with concern and pats and sweet explanations about why I wasn’t going to get a horse. By the third day they were stepping over me, sliding their feet up under my back and sliding me out of the way, picking me up by the back of my overalls and depositing me like a bag into a corner or nook. So they wanted to play it that way, huh? I ramped up the attack.

At the end of the first week I started crying, huge gulping sobs with one or two alligator tears accompanied the falling to the floor. I would get totally into it, the tears would flow more and more freely, my chest heaved, snot bubbled, and it was AWESOME! I could make myself gag if I kept it up long enough. It was truly Oscar worthy and I knew, just KNEW that horse would be mine. Just about the time I realized it just didn’t get any better and I had a good shot at a guest spot on As The World Turns I was yanked up off the floor and tossed onto my bed. The door slammed and I was alone. What? What? Not likely mom! I stomped back downstairs to air my humiliation and hurt and was summarily picked up and dumped on my bed again. And again. And again. I felt the first terrible frisson of fear run down my spine-- Maybe my mom was going to wear me down first. I retreated and licked my wounds for a bit while I developed a new strategy. Kill them with kindness!! Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

The next morning I came down fairly clean, teeth brushed, smiled at my mom in my prettiest Shirley Temple imitation, head tilted, dimples exposed (I had none, but it was a good attempt) batted my eyelashes and said “Good Morning Mother, How are we today?” My mom, looked at me over her coffee, shook her head and said ”What is wrong with your neck? Did you sleep crooked? Stop doing that thing with your eyes! Is something in them? Why did you call me ‘Mother’? What did you do now?” I tried for a few more minutes but it just wasn’t happening. She was convinced I had a crick in my neck, soap in my eyes and was only being polite because I did some as yet undiscovered bad thing I was trying to get out of trouble for. I stomped off with the grand indignation only little children can get away with. I thought I heard her laughing quietly to herself, but when I raced back down to catch her in the act she was looking calmly out the window, sipping her coffee.

I had underestimated her. My mother was a much more worthy opponent than I had initially thought. I decided a head on assault was what was needed and that, indeed, I had wasted valuable time with my guerilla maneuvers.  Over the next two weeks I went through sheet after sheet of drawing paper and an entire 8 pack of crayons. Pictures of horses littered every surface in every room. Being four they were not the best, I realized looking at them that they didn’t even come close to portraying the magnificent steed we would soon have ensconced on our screened in porch, but they were noble attempts, full of passion and heated desire. I begged for stories about horses, for jodhpurs, for western boots or clean black riding boots, I was pretty easy. ANY of it would be PERFECT. I let our dog walk me and spent what seemed like hours pulling burrs out of his coat after he drug me through the hedge just to demonstrate my ability to care for an animal. I swept (as well as a toddler could) the screened in porch and looked in the newspaper for ads with pictures of bales of hay or pitchforks or tack in them and crookedly cut them out and left them in impossible to miss places (i.e. the toilet seat. I was a very, very smart kid).

My mom took this attack with much grace and aplomb. Over and over she repeated, firmly, DEFINITLY that I was not now nor would I ever get a horse unless I bought one myself when I grew up. Every attempt I made was given the same gentle rebuff. The night before my birthday I cried myself to sleep. These were real tears, so hot they felt like they scarred my cheeks as they ran down into my ears and hair... She patted me, she kissed my cheek, she shushed me quietly. “Have you ever had a bad birthday?” I tried to remember but didn’t even think I had HAD a birthday before so I said no, grudgingly. She left me with a kiss and a reassurance of a wonderful tomorrow, a celebration of me.

I woke up the next morning feeling groggy, my head pounding, my eyes hot and dry and my hair still damp from the tears. My face was stiff from the snot that my heartbreak had released, smeared across my face and dried into a mask of childhood agony. I could not help it. I knew I was being foolish. I knew I was acting like a little baby. I knew if I told ANYONE what I was going to do and why they would think me a true idjit. I inched my way out of the bed I shared with my sister trying desperately to not wake her. I eased the door open and slid out, working my way down the hallway and the stairwell on my tippy- toes, close to the wall where the stairs did not squeak. I pulled open the door, and tried to push the screen door out fast, so it wouldn’t creak and moan but not so fast that it slapped the side of the house when I flung it. I stepped out in to the morning sun with my eyes closed tight as I turned to face the screened in porch.  I prayed to God and my imaginary friends that my parents were just really, really, REALLY good at keeping a secret and opened my eyes slowly—

No horse. I was stunned. I was shocked. I felt smote by the hand of God.

As I stood in mute and trembling shock my mother came out behind me carrying a cup of coffee and a glass of milk. She nudged me toward the screened in porch with her knee and somehow managed to open that door with one elbow while balancing both drinks, steering me and talking about what a lovely day it was. She pulled me on her knee, wiping my shiny face with spit on the edge of her apron.  She combed through my damp hair with her fingers and smoothed my nightgown and pulled me into her and rocked and rocked in the straight backed chair until I slowly began to relax, to relent, to accept the fact that we don’t always get our hearts desire. I dozed off for a bit, waking up as she tried to lay me down on the sofa inside.  She smiled at me and I smiled back at her.