Gung-ho, a curly-headed, freckle-sprinkled second grade spitfire, I was the queen bee of our little suburban block. Up ’til the boys’ legs grew longer than mine, I ran the fastest, always had the best ideas, and continually gave orders on what my friends should say and do when we played SuperHero! I was the Boss Lady, the Head Honcho, the Smartest Kid in the Class, the President of the Club!
As long as the wind didn’t blow. That sent me diving under the bed.
Or as long as it wasn’t dark. My heart thumped clean out of my chest like on Saturday morning cartoons till I found light.
And don’t even talk to me about being by myself. I was dead sure on a regular basis the Good Lord had redeemed the faithful and I’d been found wanting.
Now, I don’t want to appear superior, but I was first-born and I was smart as a whip. And knowing what I knew gave me a disproportionate awareness of danger. Everywhere. All the time. My imagination was the biggest part of me. Hazards abounded.
All the time.
I could see them in living color in my mind’s fraidy cat eye. Crossing the street, I looked both ways. And then I looked both ways. And then, yes, I looked both ways. Took me forever and a day to get anywhere! Never once did I go down a different aisle from my parents at the store. They might forget and leave me to live out my days amongst the DingDongs and the Tab. (Unlikely I’d be found in the produce aisle….)
Times and creeps are different now, and staying within arm’s distance of a loved one is simply a matter of fact. I am not being cavalier. Today’s cautions are, sadly, far more likely than the ones I was inventing….like being trapped under the pyramid of sixteen ounce cans of peas, being locked in the milk locker, or sliding into oblivion on the grocery conveyor belt at the checkout whilst Mama was unloading the cart.
It could be, I’ll admit, I might have been looking at things a little cockeyed.
Oh, I don’t think I much LOOKED like the scaredy cat, Cowardly Lion, lily-livered youngster I was. I was, after all, the “Leader of the Pack” at school, at home, at family dinners with all the cousins. Early on, I’d learned to saunter, casual and smooth, just a safe enough distance away to look independent. My peripheral vision was acute, however, lots of practice. My parents twitched or my pals ran off on a tear, I was attached to their hips.
Mostly it was interpreted as being eager to please.
Until it wasn’t. When it was just annoying.
I just needed someone to make me feel safe.
Things loomed. I cowered.
No one reason, even now, I can’t think of one thing causing my constant distress.
Could have come from my Uncle Franklin tellin’ me fresh from my babyhood that the Ol’ Devil himself would reach up through the ground and grab me if I sinned. (This was a reprimand for lying…for which I was also incredibly adept and did often.)
It’s a wonder I wasn’t afraid of the whole big outside world at all, stepping gingerly, ever watchful for a gnarled hand, blackened and burned, exploding up through the red clay, clawing and grasping my ankles, readying to drag me to everlasting fire. Why it did not occur to me to add that to my ever lengthening list of panics, I do not know. For now, I’ll simply count my blessings I was not afraid of the dirt on which I trod.
Could have come from my previously noted imagination opened up full throttle. I could spin a tale, that’s for sure. It was when they turned from pretend to real I found myself taking really deep breaths, tamping down the burgeoning hysteria.
Could have just been the wind whispering.
Or the dark blocking the way.
It’s a heavy load, living in fear. Doesn’t much matter what the birth of the fear is, the flailing feeling, the inability to understand when sensible folk try to explain it away, it’s just as seizing and paralyzing as the moment before the car coming over the line hits yours head on.
I’ve felt both.
Felt eerily similar.
I do not come from abuse, nor neglect, nor pain nor bad will. My wholesome suburban childhood, surrounded by kinfolk up and down the family tree, school friends and church friends and neighborhood friends, elderly neighbors who doted on me, teachers who saw potential in me, why, even my crotchety piano teacher, they saw me as worthwhile.
What was it in my insides making me want to curl up tight in a ball? What strangled me, making me forget to breath? What seeped through my veins and up through my skin and made me cloud up in a panic of tears?
Even so young, heading into third grade next year, I watched as other kids, my very own friends, pranced happy and free, danced in circles in the park, spun round and round on the merry-go-round, never once glancing about for an anchor, a safe harbor. Heads thrown back in glee, they spun and danced and soared and swung with abandon.
They didn’t know what could happen to them.
They didn’t much care.
And I couldn’t pretend I didn’t want to dance and spin, too.
And oddly, it gives me pause even now, that 7-year-old me knew the only one able to tamp down that breeding infection of fear of life and living and trying and winning and losing, the only one to toss it all completely and eternally away, that would be that 7-year-old me.