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Daddy’s Shirts

February 19, 2009

Early memories are funny things. When they’re happy, they’re cast with a pale wash of light and a distant trail of giggles. When they’re not, they’re rimmed with shadows and the echo of weeping.


My earliest memory, I’ll give you fair warning, is an unhappy one. It’s one that, by merit of how strong a memory it is, cancels out everything that came before…I am a blank before I was six.


I look at Lawson sometimes and wonder what memories he’ll retain of his sixth year—kindergarten. He seems like such a happy-go-lucky little guy, concerned mainly with whether or not we can make a Mentos geyser and where he left his stinking shoes this time. My own kindergarten memories are vague, and overshadowed by the earliest thing that I can remember: my daddy’s shirts. The shirts came first; everything after that—falling off of the indoor jungle gym, getting concussed and wetting my pants, watching the Electric Co., singing “Over the River and Through the Woods”…those things are secondary and ephemeral. I knew, even at the time, that they were without significance.


So, anyway: my daddy’s shirts.


I have a Polaroid snapshot memory of how I looked at this age, how I behaved. I was freckled, so much so you couldn’t really tell where one freckle ended and the next began. My hair was a sleek, thick strawberry blonde with a lovely set of cowlicks, one in the front and one in the back. Mama used to cut the bangs on a slant, right beneath my eyebrows. Mama tried, Mama tried. I had (and probably still have) what I would classify as a shy smile, and a reserved demeanor. I was introverted, and only became more so as I grew older. Books were a refuge.


I remember getting off of the schoolbus that day and racing to the door of the townhouse where we lived. As I came up on it, it opened, and there were my mother and my father.


“Heeey, Mama, heeey, Daddy!” I greeted them, not noticing for a minute the grimness of their expressions or the lack of their own greeting.  I was a Daddy’s girl, so naturally I launched myself at the man for a hug. I didn’t stop to wonder what he was doing home in the afternoon when he was supposed to be working. Then I looked behind him and noticed his shirts—all of his nice golf shirts—hanging on the banister of the stairs.


“What are your shirts doing there, Daddy?” I asked, leaning back so I could see his face. It was at that point that I noticed the intensity of his expression, and the signs of tears in Mama’s. “Are you going somewhere?”


“Daddy’s going to be going away for a little while,” he responded, “but you’ll see me every other weekend.” He tried to set me down. I clung.


“What do you mean? Why are you leaving? Take me with you!”


If you’ve ever seen the Lifetime movie where you have the pathetically screaming child with snot and tears streaming down a red, puffy face, fighting tooth and nail to hold on to something that just won’t be held…you’ve seen me at age six. Mom let him break me for a while, believing, no doubt, that it was only fair for my hero to topple thusly. From an adult perspective, she was right. Somehow, though, he had managed to climb back onto his pedestal within the next two weeks, tarnished only slightly in the resilient and forgiving eyes of a six-year old. This was a pattern that would be repeated countless times throughout my childhood and well-into my adulthood, until I finally put an end to it.


Traumatic? Uh, yeah. Debilitating? Not in the least. I consider myself freed by the scars of my childhood, and wiser for them. It is a reassurance to me to be able to look at my own six-year old and know that the most traumatic thing he will ever remember, if I have anything to say about it, is the loss of a Croc.   

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