My parents had wonderful timing. Just as my toes inched their way to the precipice of puberty, the ground began to crack beneath me, causing me to lose my footing before I had even begun. Just as my insides began to go haywire, my outsides began to tremor, blurring my point of reference. As I pushed open the door to adolescence, I quickly began to learn that I had an uncanny knack for stressing myself out in the most benign of situations. Or maybe I was already stressed and just trying to find ways to calm myself down.
I first noticed this seemingly useless and senseless behavior while watching Little House on the Prairie after school. Well, first, I had to sit through Guiding Light because it was either that, or The People’s Court with Judge Wapner who always seemed so grumpy and was always yelling at people. Both were painful to have to sit through, but in the end, I always chose to sit and watch Bud and Reva Shayne fight. They were always kissing and then arguing and then kissing and then arguing, week after week. I guess that’s why they called them daytime dramas. I suppose a show certainly wouldn’t get good ratings if their two main characters merely snapped at each other, rolled their eyes at each other, or questioned why the other had used that tone of voice and then didn’t speak to each other for two days. That would be boring for anyone to watch, even though in real life it still somehow left you on pins and needles.
After the last dramatic bombshell was dropped, however, and the screen froze on the face of the shocked and betrayed (yet again) Bud, Little House would come on and all was right with the world again. As opposed to Reva and Bud, Ma and Pa were always laughing and kissing, and laughing and kissing. Even when Ma got annoyed because Pa traipsed through the house with his muddy boots on, they were always able to laugh it off and kiss and be happy and grateful as they ate their bread and butter. Laura and Mary always responded with “Yes Pa,” or, “Yes Ma,” and Pa always came home in such a wonderful mood, despite having worked at the Mill from dawn ‘til dusk.
I wondered which one was closer to the truth: The incessant cycle of fighting and making-up between Reva and Bud, or the perpetually happy and pious Ingalls family. And where did a family like mine fit in.
After the scene of Laura and Mary sitting on a tree stump and laughing faded, a commercial would start, thus catapulting me into my habitual race against time. I would jump up and sprint into the kitchen to make my staple peanut-butter-toast-with-chocolate-milk snack. Knowing I had only two to three minutes before Little House would be back on, I would already have gotten out and prepped the peanut butter, the plate, and the chocolate syrup so as to cut back on time. I would stand in front of the toaster, knife poised, ready and waiting. As soon as the toast would pop up, I would frantically start spreading peanut butter and listen to the TV to make sure commercials were still on. Quickly pouring the milk and stirring up a chocolate frenzy, I would hear a commercial starting to wind down, and would grab my stuff. Barreling out of the kitchen like a bull out of its chute, through the dining room and back into the living room, I would often spill a bit of milk on the way, just to make sure I was physically back in front of the TV when Little House resumed.
The perplexing thing was, it wasn’t about not wanting to miss any part of the show as much as it was that I just felt as though something bad would happen if I didn’t get back in before the commercial ended. I had no idea what, but I didn’t want to find out. Once I was in the room I would settle back down into the couch, set my chocolate milk on the stack of VHS drawers and savor my warm and melted peanut butter on toast.
My sister, sitting in my father’s arm chair, had on his pair of gigantic headphones. They were his big grey clunky ones, with the heavily padded ear pieces, and were far too big for her tiny, almost-six-year-old freckled face. Her rat’s nest was poking out in the back and her freckled cheeks squished from the tight padding. She was listening to her all-time favorite song by Bobby McFarrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and looked up at me smiling, singing off-key far more loudly than she needed to, so that she could hear her own voice. She swayed her head back and forth, her feet bouncing to the rhythm while I diligently nibbled the perimeter of my toast like a chipmunk.
I also had a proclivity for stressing myself out while simply lying in bed. For instance, I’d have a song stuck in my head, like “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, and I’d be singing it or humming it over and over, moving my toes back and forth to the rhythm. But then, I’d start to feel like I had moved my left toes back and forth a lot more than my right toes and my feet would start to feel unbalanced and weird, at which point, I would do a succession of quick back and forth toe-moving with my right toes just to even things out a bit, until I had reached a state of equilibrium. This would happen numerous times as I lay there trying to fall asleep. Once I recalibrated my toes to a nice state of symmetry, I’d start moving them back and forth again, maybe this time to “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan, when I’d inadvertently move my left toes back and forth more than my right. And round and round I’d go. If I didn’t even things out, my foot would start to feel funny and then it would start to radiate through my whole body. I’d feel kind of “off-balance” because of it, so I did the only thing I knew how to do. I would lay there in the dark of my room, my toes moving back and forth like little pistons just beneath the covers until everything was balanced again. Then I’d sleep like a baby.
My quirky idiosyncrasies weren’t solely relegated to the confines of my living room or bedroom however. Sometimes they made themselves known while out at the supermarket with my parents. Grocery shopping was “fun” for me, mainly because of the endless opportunities for me to indulge in my guilty pleasure of imposing order on my surroundings. In the canned fruits and vegetables aisle, my mother would stop and flip through her coupon book looking for the three-for-one on canned peas (my favorite). She’d lick her fingers and thumb through them, her delicate hands deft and quick. My father and sister would be fooling around with the cart half-way down the aisle, my sister on the end while my dad did pop-a-wheelies to make her squeal. Then there was me—the life of the party. I was lagging behind them all, straightening all of the awry cans of sliced peaches and French cut green beans that other slovenly patrons so carelessly shoved aside or knocked over and which the stock boys were clearly missing. Sometimes, my mom would dawdle, and I would tackle one entire section of canned corn, stacking the front row all by twos and turning the cans so that the Green Giant was in the exact spot on each and every one. I wasn’t always able to get to all of the cans in the aisle as my parents would move on, but I would do what I could in what little time I had. The soup aisle was my favorite what with the endless rows of cans lying on their sides pleading for me to right them again. When I was done, I would stand back and revel in the beautiful and breath-taking order of the Campbell’s tomato soup section. An Andy Warhol painting in the flesh that made me giddy and gave me goosebumps. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see my family disappear around the corner and have to eventually tear myself away from my masterpiece.
One of the perks of having such a strong desire for order and punctuality was the fact that my Caboodle was immaculate. For all intents and purposes, Caboodles could be described as brightly colored, plastic toolboxes. Mine was aqua-blue with a pink trim. You undid the latch at the front of the caboodle and inside there were compartments and sections with a moveable upper shelf and cache of room in the bottom. Whenever stress seeped into my body, I would simply open up my Caboodle, put on some Martika and organize the shit out of it. My white Timex watch went right in front (it wasn’t a Swatch watch like the one Tiffany had, but it was close enough). My hair ties were in a neat stack on the left end of the moveable shelf, organized by size, or color, depending on the day. The right side of the shelf housed my barrettes. The bottom held any headbands I had, nail polishes, and fuchsia colored lip-sticks that my mother never actually let me wear beyond the borders of our front lawn. Each group of items was neatly placed in rows on each shelf, and at the very bottom was my hairbrush and hairspray. I loved to empty out my entire Caboodle, lay everything out before me, maybe add a few new items I had gotten here and there, and then meticulously rearrange everything again, sometimes in different places, just to shake things up a bit.
Clearly, I was learning how to manage myself like we humans all do. My father turned his love of movies into a cinematic library, had a life-time supply of White-Out on hand at all times and used and re-used the same envelope for his grocery list for years. I organized grocery store shelves, my closet, my bookshelf and my Caboodle during the day and spent way too much time focusing on my fingers and toes at night. It was simply hard-wired in me to head in that direction. I guess when things started to feel like they were getting messy or falling apart, I was trying to figure out ways to make some kind, any kind of order in my life. Then, there was my sister.
One year—my third year of taking dance lessons—we had our annual dance recital. After months of being dropped off at dance lessons in the basement of our local Methodist church at six, it was finally time to perform in front of real people instead of pictures of Jesus and Mary. My costume for this year consisted of a flapper-like skirt that was made of elastic at the waist and was covered in shiny beads. From there, the rest of the skirt was just hundreds of strings that dangled down to my knees—red string that swayed back and forth with every move. I would often put my hands in front of my knees and crisscross them just like they danced in the 20s. Unlike my other outfits that were worn once and then discarded shortly thereafter, this skirt would get use for months to come.
After my recital, my sister decided to start wearing it on her head. She would wear the elastic waist part around her head, like a hat, because then she could pretend she had long hair. She was another victim of mom’s insatiable need to never, ever let our hair grow below our chin. Erin found a way around that by wearing my old skirt on a daily basis, and for months upon months we simply came to regard it as “Erin’s long hair.”
She wore it around the house constantly, shaking her head so it would sway, and flipping the strings over her shoulder as if it was in her way and annoying her. She wore it outside to play, she wore it to bed, and she wore it to dinner. Sometimes you’d spy her sitting on my dad’s ottoman, running her fingers through her long hair and zoning out. At the end of the day, as my mom picked up the trails of mess we had left throughout, she would always bend over and pick up “Erin’s long hair” and hang it on a hook in the doorway of our basement. The next morning, Erin would open the door and stand there, “Mom! Mom! Can you get my hair down please?” My mom would come from wherever she was and take Erin’s long hair down from the hook, yet again. If Erin couldn’t find her long hair, she would freak out, crying and tearing her room apart, only to remember that she had slept with it and it had fallen behind her bed. Then, she’d find it and put it on, and all was right with the world again.
My mother was surrounded by VHS tapes. She watched her older daughter organize the entire grocery store, and made sure to always, always keep track of her younger daughter’s fake, long hair, God forbid. What else could she do except try her hardest to keep us all happy? We each had our ways of coping with the hard, cold fact that we were all comically messed up humans and all had to co-exist.
One day in July, for my sister’s sixth birthday, she got a Pogo Ball as a present. A Pogo Ball was the same concept as a pogo stick, but instead of a long pole with two places to put your feet, it was a ball with a ring around it. The ball itself was a fluorescent orange color and the ring around it, a bright yellow. It looked like Saturn. The object of playing with the Pogo Ball was to stand and balance on the ring, while simultaneously squeezing the ball with your feet and bouncing around. It looked so much easier to do than it was. Outside in the oppressive July heat, shortly after my sister opened the box, she and I tried to figure it out. My mom and dad, who were most likely just milling around the house doing chores, saw Erin and I playing with it and decided to give it a shot themselves.
My father, ever the diligent rule-follower, immediately retrieved the directions from the box. In the driveway, my mother hopped onto the ring part of the ball, giggling and unsure, as my dad read the directions:
“Step 1: Wearing sneakers, place one foot on the disc, pressing your instep against the ball.”
My mother followed accordingly. “Okay.” She smiled.
“Step 2: Bring your other foot up, pressing your instep against the other side of the ball. Grip the ball tightly between your insteps. Step 3: Push down with both feet to begin bouncing.”
Having followed all of the directions to a T, my mother held on to the trunk of our new blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. We’d finally ditched the old, rusty truck and bought a shiny, new car just a couple months prior. Getting her bearings, my mom giggled as my dad folded up the directions and put them in his back pocket, a smirk on his face. Getting her bearings, she let go of the car and attempted to bounce around on the ball, only able to get out two or three jumps and a few squeals before falling. My sister and I laughed hysterically. Not only because our mother just took a digger on the asphalt in her pretty, matching skort outfit, but because she was laughing so hard too. Mom was always so busy doing laundry and cutting coupons and making doctor appointments, she didn’t really have time to laugh a whole lot.
Then, my dad wanted to try. He too, balanced himself on the back of the Oldsmobile, but was more serious about the ordeal, and kind of stared down at the Pogo Ball, trying to remember the directions before finally letting go and attempting to hop his way toward the end of the driveway. It hurt to look at the Pogo Ball. Clearly, my father had surpassed the maximum capacity of weight allowed on the poor toy, and with every bounce, it looked like the plastic bubble just might explode. If the Pogo Ball had been alive, it would have definitely been screaming for mercy. Luckily, he only got to hop three times before he also wiped out on the asphalt. My mother, laughing loudly at him threw her head back and put her hand to chest, yelling, “It’s so hard to squeeze your feet and jump at the same time, isn’t it?” But, my dad was too out of breath from jumping and laughing at himself to really answer. He took out his handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped his eyes from laughing so hard and blew his nose. My mother would hop on again and give it another go. All of us did. Each time, we were more and more determined to make it to the end of our drive.
My sister Erin, who weighed all of 45 pounds, easily hopped onto the ball and bounced around. My parents looked on, smiling and catching their breath.
“Wow! You’ve got it Erin!” my mom exclaimed.
“Stop showing off!” my dad teased her, as she bounced around proudly and effortlessly.
I tried for a minute, but didn’t really care about how far I could get. I think I wanted to watch them do it. We all stood in a circle as each one of us tried it out over and over. For just a few minutes, things felt so different and so nice. It’s almost as if my mom and dad forgot they were mad at each other, or stressed out about things. No one was rushing to work, or swearing at the broken garden hose nozzle, or organizing anything. We all just laughed at each other and ourselves, even if only for a short time.
Who would’ve thought that a cheap little pogo ball would have been such a gift?