My childhood daydream was to be an orphan. Not a full time orphan, complete
with dead parents or anything that traumatic, more of a part time orphan,
sort of like summer camp for stray children. We could be sad and waiflike for three months starting each June, and still be home in time for the first day of school.
You see, I liked school.
Ok, honestly, I just liked the uniforms, plaid skirts, white button downs with peter pan style collars, navy pullover sweaters and knee socks, and those hideous black and white saddle shoes. It seemed so industrial in my mind, so devoid of extravagance. As if, we deserved nothing cheerful, and had accepted it, stoically.
I longed to toil.
When I was ten, I became obsessed with the children’s home, nestled
behind some trees, just beyond the supermarket where my mother
did her weekly shopping, each Friday, after picking me up from school.
I would stand in the parking lot, clad in my little uniform, and stare longingly across the expansive lawn that led to a big stone building. I checked Jane Eyre out of the library so often, that the librarian gave me an old copy when they replaced it with a new one. I began referring to all orphanages as orphan asylums, just as Jane did.
I liked the way the word asylum felt on my tongue.
A-sy-lum. It had a nice cadence, with a smooth transition into closed lips on the final syllable, that I found particularly satisfying.
At orphan camp, I imagined that we would forgo canoeing and badminton,
winning ribbons in woe and hardship, instead. During craft time, we would construct family trees, lacking siblings or cousins, aunts or uncles,
feeble and barren, without branches, more sticks than trees, I suppose.
But, we would persevere.
Treating our collective strife as nothing more than a bump in the road.
I began wearing my school uniform on weekends, so delightfully industrial and slightly uncomfortable. I worried my mother. She bought me dolls, to develop
my maternal instinct. I made them my fellow orphans and kept a log book
of our shared suffering. She sent me to my grandmother, only to have me
returned home in a week’s time. It seemed my refusal to call my grandmother anything but Ma’am, the pure joy I derived from sadly eating plain, creamed wheat for every meal, and my insistence that I be allowed to spend my days scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush, instead of going swimming, gave my poor grandmother the creeps.
I begged my mother to understand. I wanted to be a writer, and a writer has to suffer.
To endure. To languish.
I gave her the creeps, as well.
But, I was bred to be happy. Not a creep with a Jane Eyre fixation.
We changed supermarkets. The Bronte sisters disappeared from my bookshelf. My mother bought me a pink dress and made me wear it whenever I wasn’t in school. God, did I hate that dress. It took me years to outgrow it. It began to deteriorate, after the first year, yet I wore it still, I had little else. I wore it everywhere. It’s soft,
silky fabric, almost like a second skin.
And thus, I learned to toil.
But first, I re-named my hamster, Oliver.
My mother hadn’t read Dickens.