I spend my childhood in a suburb of Milwaukee. We live one block away from the elementary school, two blocks away from the high school, and eight blocks away from the middle school. The public library, swimming pool, ice cream shop, and a vast tree-dense parkway with a series of hiking trails, baseball diamonds, and picnic tables, are all within walking distance. Our house is a red brick colonial, with a huge, dying pine tree in the front. My little sister Katharine and I crawl through a small opening in the tent of its branches, and place several rusting lawn chairs next to the trunk. We spend hours enclosed in this hideaway, pretending to be destitute orphan children who must seek whatever shelter they can.
Dad plants apple and pear trees on the sloping front lawn beneath the dying pine, snapdragons and geraniums and lily of the valley along the walkway up to the front door. The apple trees yield mealy fruit that I am reluctant to admit tastes terrible, charmed as I am by the thought of fruit coming directly from our yard. The snapdragons smell like lemonade when cut. Sometimes I come home to find a tiny water-filled vase with a single, brightly blossoming flower, sitting on the desk in my room.
Some weekends I hole up in my room and don’t feel like leaving. I listen to music on my tape deck and re-read the same books—Ramona and Beatrice, The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew—over and over again. I stop every couple chapters and curl up to fall asleep. When I wake up an hour later, I restart the tape, pick up the book and keep reading. I know my favorite parts, strings of words that seem especially interesting to me, or plot points I love. It feels safe to experience the emotions of characters in this known way, so unlike what I encounter outside of the sanctuary of my room and the pages of these tattered and loved books. My energy leaks out of me as these days pass, seeping into the bedspread that claims my body for too much sleep, into the books that no longer challenge me. I know I should get up and do something, but the longer I lay there, the heavier the feeling—what it is exactly I can’t say—that prevents me from taking interest in anything outside my room.
At the end of one summer (I’m eight or nine), my parents take me to Toys R’ Us. I’ve completed my summer challenge of learning how to touch type, and I get to pick out a small toy as a reward. I choose a baby doll, with wispy blond hair, huge blue eyes that blink, and a soft, chubby body. When we get home, I dress the baby and undress it, make it walk around my room, hold it and talk to it and cuddle it. After several hours, I stop what I’m doing and stare at the doll, take in its plastic head and unchanging features. I think about how someday I won’t want this doll anymore, how someday it won’t be important to me anymore. I look around the room and see other toys, books, my bed with the fraying comforter. It all seems very…temporary. Meaningless. Empty.
“Mom?” I say, walking into her room. She’s reading under the covers.
“Mmm?” she says. Her eyes are still on the page.
“I like the doll you got me…but did you ever think about how things are just…things?”
Mom turns to look at me. “What do you mean?”
“A doll is just a doll…” I frown. Search my mind for the right words, for something that will make sense to her, to me even. “This is just a thing…and it’s just a toy. It’s not forever…like if I died, I couldn’t take it with me.” It’s not exactly what’s bothering me, but it’s sort of close.
“You’re right. You can’t take things with you when you die. But you’re not going to die for a very, very, very long time. And in the meantime, why don’t you enjoy your doll?” Mom rubs my arm. She looks at me closely, that way she does when I know she’s thinking about something besides what she’s saying. “You earned it.”
I take the doll back to my room and put it on a shelf, where it stays for a long time.
My mother leaves planting and dirt and insects to my sister, father, and me. Her purview is the queen-sized bed she shares with my father, where she stretches out her long legs under a fuzzy blue electric blanket nine months out of the year reading books or watching Murphy Brown. Sometimes Katharine and I join her, grabbing a pile of bobby pins and hair clips to style Mom’s hair. Our favorite is the whale, so-named because her brown, medium-length hair, divided into many tiny ponytails that stand straight up all over her head, ends up looking like the spouts of water from the blowhole of a whale. We tell her she can’t look in the mirror until we’re done. No matter how many times we coax her hair into ridiculous styles, she bursts into giggles at seeing the end result.
“Hmmm…this is kind of strange, girlies,” she says, laughing again.
Many evenings my mother sits on the nubby, dull-brown couch in the living room with a glass of white wine. My father brings in a cup of decaf in his favorite black mug and selects a book from the white built-in shelves. I fill a small plastic cup with orange juice and attach a sippy lid, even though I’m far too old (at seven, eight, nine) for it. We settle ourselves—Dad, Katharine and Mom on the couches, me on the floor—and Dad reads to the whole family, a chapter or two at a time: the entire Little House on the Prairie series; all of the Oz books. I imagine pouring maple syrup on snow, instead of having ice cream on my birthday. I picture the princess who had a collection of heads, each with a different personality, and every morning she decided which head to be, and then affixed it to her body. Mom sips her wine and Katharine curls up on the couch and Dad does all the voices of the characters and I lay on the fading carpet, its fibers forever mussed by the dog’s dusty paws and the cats’ fine hair and Katharine’s soccer cleats and dinner party guests who forgot to wipe their feet and the dingy bottoms of suitcases laid out after vacations. By water that dripped from Katharine and my heads when we warmed ourselves by the fireplace in the winter after an evening bath, our mother combing back the wet strands. By green plastic grass from hidden Easter baskets and bare feet damp from dew and bug spray. I let the juice drain in a slow, steady drip down my throat, and know I am safe, right here, right in this moment.
There are a million reasons, maybe more, for me to have turned out differently. For me to have bypassed the depression that would take off in middle school, the anxiety that I seem to have been born with, and the OCD that would knock me off my feet in my twenties. For me to have viewed the world as a place full of possibilities, a place to be explored and coveted and loved, instead of a place to be feared. What the X factor was, I’ll never know, but I believe I could have been different.
My father once said to me “You know, I’ve always thought people who were depressed didn’t have more problems than other people.”
“Yes, Dad, I know,” I said. It is this precise point. There is nothing to be sad about, anxious about, afraid of. No cause for crazy. Crazy still happens.