At a recent get-together with my now twenty-something nephews, I saw their once little boy smiles and tender eyes in each of their now matured-men faces. I couldn’t help but to remember them from years ago, their arched necks looking up when walking narrow city streets in Chicago, fearless busy bodies scaling jungle gyms at the playground, mesmerized focus while playing with their new kitten. I thought of how snippets of memories—looks of trepidation with unbridled curiosity, hearing blasts of horns honking, smelling the sweet fragrance of apple slices and earthy aroma of peanut butter at the playground, feeling small hands nestled in mine—were made up of connections.
One sliver of memory, a bead of either a taste or a feel or a sight, perhaps a sound, made me think of yet another detail, another memory. I string the images, connecting them like beads on a necklace.
I think of memoir as beads of memory connected along on cotton twine, a timeline of our lives, sidling up like a piece to a puzzle, to the next bead of smooth, rounded memory until a circle is complete. There is neither a beginning nor an end but a continuous larger picture to be understood.
Opened glass portals did not allow for movement of heavy air inside the kindergarten classroom that afternoon in 1967 or for relief of my warm skin that broke out in sweat from a nervous student self. My cheeks flushed in flamingo pink, like the color of my mother’s rouge, paired with the sets of fidgety limbs signaling like a cautionary yellow as I moved from a go state of contentment sitting among jiggly little bodies to a stopped one of standing alone. The room grew hotter with anxiety and so did I.
“Everyone . . . to inside the green,” Miss Wilmert clapped to seize our attention then pointed to the round island of loops of cotton where some kneeled on red blocks, others stood on black and yellow numbers, and just a few contained themselves in squats within the green border of the carpet where we were to corral. We gathered in a group of snuggled belonging where it was story time or nap time on our own rugs. I had a looped purple one of cotton, too.
I sat cross-legged and gave Miss Wilmert my attention, noting her words spoken simply and pitched higher to be heard above the droning flat tone of buzzing overhead fluorescent lights.
“Time for activities,” she concluded and then softly brought her hands together over her heart, her slender long fingers lying side by side as if in prayer. The last syllable of “activities” was interrupted by the uprising of fifteen little people jumping in anticipation to be the first to scatter to a corner where pockets of independent busy time awaited them.
I, too, stood, but immobile, to watch the chaos of my friends competing for space. They jetted from one friend to another, one desk to the other, one easel to the next, making their way around the room. Falling wood puzzle pieces, spilled paint bottles, rolling crayons occasionally interrupted the noisy chatter.
I stood unbelonging, directionless, not inside the green carpet border looking out, but on the outside looking in at a panoramic view of four corners.
I thought how I was different, polite, composed, quiet, waiting for direction from Miss Wilmert to the place she would choose for me, unlike the ill-mannered others who took it upon themselves in frivolous merriment, scattering to find their places to be.
Miss Wilmert’s tall body, fit in a tawny pencil skirt below the knee and evergreen cardigan, overshadowed me. She smelled like Mom did, like Mom’s roses growing in the backyard and the lilacs of spring, only without the pungent odor of hair spray looming around her head like a halo as it does circling Mom’s head.
“What would you like to do? Paint? Do puzzles? Draw pictures?” she said to me, placing my hand in the envelope of her larger, smooth palm as she pointed with the other. I followed her finger with my eyes and inspected each corner, noting what was being done and who was there. I concluded there was no room for me. Partners had already been made and so had pictures in puzzle pieces, paints, wooden blocks and crayons. There was no room for me to play, to join, to belong.
Miss Wilmert shook my hand as if to clear an indecisiveness she thought I had. Maybe she was just impatient with me. “C’mon now, there’s a place for you, anywhere you’d like to be, to paint any picture you’d like to.”
I was afraid to join a place of unfamiliarity and unease where I would have to be accepted by others in order for me to join them.
I feared not belonging.
If only Miss Wilmert would take my hand and walk with me to the easel clipped with a large tablet of paper. Her guiding ways would ease my discomfort and offer an introduction to a new place for me to be. I wouldn’t have to be fearful as I would not be alone when walking into a new place where there were others.
“Then let’s just sit here,” she said, pulling a chair out beside her from under a larger desk made up of four smaller ones pulled together. “And start our own place to be.” She grabbed a shoebox of mixed-colored crayons and a couple of new coloring books. Soon, others were by my side where together we spread out our crayons and books and tablets. I belonged to a new group. I belonged.
The details of memory of that afternoon were my beads on a string, in motion, in a circle. Each bead was a memory, a nugget of the past, strung along until a picture of understanding became clear.
I soon forgot about my fear of not belonging because I learned to be content in finding my own happy place with a helping hand from Miss Wilmert.