In my nonfiction book, The Hinge of Your History: The Phases of Faith, I wrote about the fact that our lives have hinge points at which everything changes. For Sarah in the Old Testament, living a life where everyone saw her as a childless old maid, the hinge was the miraculous birth of Isaac.
For me, one of those significant changes occurred at the point of this photograph. Take a tour of this photo with me.
The setting is Northeast Elementary School in Farmington, New Mexico, at the height of the natural gas boom in the early 1960’s. My parents moved there and bought a peach orchard, clearing enough trees to form “Rose’s Trailer Spaces” on Schofield Lane to accommodate the floods of people who moved there from “back east” in trailers (most of them eight feet wide, thirty or forty feet long) with their many children. We children played “gas station” and “fort” in the abandoned chicken farm coops next door. To this day, chicken manure has a good, “right” smell to me.
In the background of the picture is a little person who is not impressed with what is happening with me. What would I have noticed about that girl? See how cute, how little-girl, her shoes are? See what I’m wearing—brown oxfords, because I had weak ankles and couldn’t wear regular shoes until I was a teenager.
The woman in the picture is Marie McCarty. She was my second-grade teacher who announced that someone was having a city-wide contest for students to write about fire prevention. I took the announcement home, and in a very uncharacteristic spasm of interest, my father helped me walk through the house and write about an escape plan, should our second-hand salmon-and-silver-colored trailer catch on fire in the peach orchard.
The essay won second prize, not first. The second-grader who won first prize for our age group wrote a poem. I immediately concluded that poetry was better than prose. I confess, I still think so.
My hair is blonde and curled. I really, really, really wanted straight black hair like an Indian maiden. (I also begged my parents to drop me off at the Navajo Reservation and let me live in a hogan.) To get those curls, I had slept all night in tiny pink curlers that looked like perforated baby fingers split down the middle, with straps that kept them in place. (Before we got the creepy fancy curlers, my mom used rags.)
I’m wearing what was at that time called a squaw dress. It was pale pink with copper and black braid on it. My mother made one for herself and this one for me. I remember her muttering curses at the sewing machine as she sewed, one eye shut because she had eye problems, wearing a gigantic unyielding brown back brace the size and shape of a washerwoman’s basket.
Mrs. McCarty is giving me a certificate and a five-dollar bill for winning second prize. I am very proud. One of my classmates called me “moneybags.” You could get money for writing? Who knew?
But none of these details are as formative of me as a writer, as another detail you can’t see. Notice how my skirt poofs out? In those days, all little girls wore these stiff, tiered, scratchy net slips. They printed tiny hexagon shapes into your thighs if you sat very long. You endured them, but they could never be allowed to peek from your hem or one of your friends would come up to you, wide-eyed and alarmed and tell you in a harsh whisper, “It’s snowing down south!”
I had several slips. When I wasn’t wearing them, they hung on the back of the door of my bedroom, where I slept on the bottom bunk and my brother on the top.
I was not yet aware that I was extremely nearsighted. When we had the stand-in-line-read-the-charts vision tests at school, I always got in the back of the line and memorized what the other kids said, because I knew not being able to see was a moral failure of some sort, because my dad got mad the first time I brought home a note saying I needed glasses.
So at night, I would lie in bed and try not to look at those fluffy slips which took shapes and menaced me. I was convinced sometimes that George Washington was looking at me with disapproval. Other times the pastel layers would blow in a breeze and make changing, reaching landscapes where I couldn’t hope to get a foothold and might slip into its depths and never be found again.
I was ashamed because I couldn’t see, and ashamed that I could.
Every night I slept at the far edge of the bed, my back against the trailer wall, with all my dolls at my feet and a space in the bed for Jesus who I’d heard never had a place to lay His head.
Every night, I fought a battle with the terrors and the unknowns of my own imagination.
The battle never stopped. Every day, fifty years later as I write, I do the same.