In the glow of the first morning light, I was born, given the name Sasha. By sunset, Rosalie, my mother, was dead. From what I pieced together over the years, Rosalie was the kind of woman who would wear a nicotine patch to conceal a tattoo at family events, but did not care if she swore in church. My father, Seth, never knew what to make of my mother, equally had no idea what to do with me. My brother, Ben, held most of his attention; I was the reminder of most things awful. I received what was needed to survive, but little of what was needed to thrive. My father and Ben were most joyful when I was old enough to take over all the work that a mother and wife would normally attend to, but my mother never did.
From the outside looking in, all the boxes were checked, life looked normal. Our family, although marred by a tragedy never discussed in our presence, appeared to be normal. My father took great pride in presenting a family that was proper, clean, conservative and quiet. All the men in town wanted to be like my father and all the women wanted to be with him. He was a mystery, stoic, handsome, successful and alone.
Early on I learned it was easier to blend into the shadows than live in the light of my father. Ben, he thrived in the glow of my father’s love and adoration. Ben was always in the right place at the right time. It was no secret that my father loved him best. He put him at ease. He had a calming effect on our father and our life in general. He accepted our father, no matter what, and that is what they both needed to survive in a world of fake appearances.
I was most alone when surrounded by my family. They might as well been a single mosquito buzzing in my ear on a hot sleepless night, annoying and elusive. It was like being trapped in a hot room, the air stagnant, a small death with every breath exhaled. There had to be more in life than their reality. Their lack of anything original in either emotion or experience was crushing. Occasionally I would catch a glance of empathy from my reflection in the mirror, like a distant twin raising an eyebrow in commiseration. I was waiting for Rosalie, the silent echo in my soul, to somehow guide me away from this misery.
There is freedom in being invisible. Often being left alone with my own thoughts was a relief. I enjoyed the rhythm of daily chores. Some would say that I was lost in my thoughts, but it is where I found solace. I chose what I let in, I chose where my mind traveled, I chose the sounds that I wanted to hear and tuned out the rest as background noise, I read what I wanted, I ate when I was hungry, I lived in the moment. I could not imagine a future and as my life unfolded it dragged me deeper into the past. I was always searching for the truth and honesty in life, but they were hard to find.
I was the kind of girl who hid my pain under a smile. I was the good girl who could make you feel at ease in your skin although I was crawling out of mine. I was gifted, or at least that’s what the school testing indicated. I was in a very dark place with no lighthouse on the horizon, only deep, dark waters. I was afraid, but not of my own truths, but the truths of others. The unknown mayhem the secrets would cause if exposed. The consequences for others actions were so immense on my small shoulders, but I was strong enough to carry the load. I had witnessed the worst in others but still let them live in the fantasy world of success. I chose responsibility instead of truth. I chose the illusion of perfection.
“The corn is ready.” Always dreaded words from my fathers’ mouth to my ears. I didn’t have to pick it or even husk it, but I did have to haul it from our farm to the local summer resort two miles away. My brother, Ben, and I would start out at the same time with trapping baskets strapped to our backs with as much corn as our father thought we could carry. Ben would lead the way and I would intentionally fall behind. Hauling corn was the thing I equally hated and loved about my day. There was nothing better than being outside in the summer air, the grass tall, birds rushing past, and the smell of sweet harvested hay. But the load, it was heavy, the heat of the day seared my hair to my neck. We would traverse the old dirt road to the forest trail through my Grandfather’s stand of ancient oaks and where the trail opened back to the lakeshore path that is where I would start looking for her.
She would be near her house, tending her garden, maybe reading a book or hanging out the wash, her long silver hair trailing behind her a shadow of her youth never far behind. Her house was different from most I had ever seen in that it had charm. Her white house glowed in every season. The porch complete with a hand braided rug, a napping yellow cat and as it wrapped around to the west, an herb garden greeted back door visitors. Glorious morning glories crept up the east side trellis to welcome each new day.
Mostly I was intrigued by her vegetable garden. The garden was split into four distinct areas. The first section was planted with traditional garden items including: tomatoes, beans, squash, onions, and carrots. The second was designated to edible flowers, melons and berries. The third had two bee hives, an apple tree and a pear tree. But the fourth section of the garden was planted with gourds. Gourds like I have never seen. Large bulbous gourds that she carefully tended as if they were living, breathing creatures. After analyzing her garden, I found it most curious that there was no corn.
She would always greet me with a smile and a wave and assure me my brother wasn’t that far ahead. I knew her but I didn’t know how I knew her or how I so easily understood her. As time went on, she said to call her Grace. Often she would just wave, but I could feel her kind eyes following me down the path. One day she smiled and with no explanation handed me a leather pouch with ten marbles inside. Once, on my return trip she led me beyond her house to a cool stream where we waded into the water, refreshing our souls in the fading afternoon sun. I was a motherless daughter of 12 and she was a daughter-less mother of 75.
“Sasha, one day I am going to tell him about her and you,” Ben threatened. “How the hell you think he is going to like it that you are hanging out with that old woman instead of doing what you are supposed to be doing?”
“Shut the fuck up Ben.” I had recently decided that there was a certain power in vulgarity. “Who the hell do you think you are to think you can scare me, you know I have just as much shit to tell him about you.” I talked a good game, hopefully this new tactic would work and he would leave me alone.
As invisible as I was, I still had to find creative ways to spend time with Grace. Now that summer was done, Father had other creative ways for Ben and me to spend our time. Father felt that no matter what our resources were, physical labor was the best way for kids to keep busy. With autumn came chores that consisted of gathering rocks out of a field that were forced to the surface from the ground freezing, raking leaves, cleaning gutters, butchering chickens. I would wait for the rare times when Father was off with Ben to sneak off to see Grace.
Ben’s favorite new hobby was making my life a living hell. Most boys found it amusing how he would taunt me in front of them. And as time went on, they would join in. Walking down the hall at school, trying my hardest to be invisible, “they don’t see me, be the wall, keep walking, they don’t see me, turn left, out of sight,” was how I spent time between classes. It was modern warfare in our rural middle school. There were the simple things, like throwing food at me during lunch, chanting stupid insults in unison, spreading rumors about how I killed our mother. As time went on it got worse, breaking into my locker, his friends trying to corner and grope me, failed efforts trying to break my spirit
Autumn at Grace’s house was a feast of sights, smells and sounds. The garden had been harvested, but the remains of the summer vines were turning different shades of yellow and gold. Gourds were drying on the porch, pumpkins lined her steps, bird feeders were filled, frost wilted summer blooms. Then there were the smells coming from her house, roasted squash, apple crisp, smoky fire in the fireplace. There she was, greeting me on the porch, smile wide open, wearing a cozy sweater. Before I could climb the stairs, I knew she would want to go for a walk because the days were getting shorter, darker and colder. Soon enough any time spent together would be inside.
“Road or Trail,” Grace asked.
“Trail” I replied. Road was the easiest route, but trail was much more scenic this time of year and I wouldn’t have to make excuses if anyone were to see me and then tell my Father later.
Trail was also Grace’s first choice. Of the 400 acres she owned, Grace had miles and miles of trails. She enjoyed sharing her love of nature with me. She was attached to the land as if it spoke to her through a special vibration. She could read the subtle notes of the changing season. She was never surprised to find blue birds nesting in the houses she had built for them near the grass covered fields, or when the wildflowers bloomed one morning when none were to be seen the day before. She knew where to find the wild berries, where fawns would be resting in tall grass and how many weeks until the first frost.
She walked in silence, listening to the daily chatter of nature. “Hear that?” she questioned.
It was a loaded question. There were so many sounds to choose from. “I can’t hear anything except for one angry squirrel,” I replied.
Grace laughed. “Everyone’s got an opinion about something, even that pissed off squirrel.”
“What would that squirrel be pitching a fit about?” I asked.
“Who knows, maybe someone stole his nuts, moved into his tree and ran off with his wife.” Grace smiled. “How’s school?”
“I’d rather be stuck in a tree with that pissed off squirrel.”
Grace could read between the lines. She knew what was going on and I didn’t have to explain a word of it to her. In her quiet way, she continued to lead the way. Grace stopped. She had led me into the thickest part of the woods. I had no idea how we had gotten there and had no idea how to get out. Among the tall trees, scattered limbs, large rocks last time moved by glaciers, there was a small pond. I could feel Grace staring at me as I stared at the pond. Waiting, she was waiting. She was waiting for the distant memory of whispered things to return to my mind. I forgot to breathe and didn’t realize it until I could do nothing but gasp, I was drowning in thin air. As I stared into Grace’s ever knowing eyes, she began to speak.
“What do you know?”
“Why now?” I asked.
Grace shivered, “Because it is time and no one else seems to care enough to tell you the truth. Let’s walk.”
As Grace led me closer to the pond the canopy of trees thinned enough to let the sun shine through to the moist land. As we reached the edge of the pond, the silence was deafening. I felt outside of myself and the only thing anchoring me to the moment was Grace’s hand intertwined in mine. I knew what Grace had to tell me would be the most important conversation of my short life. What I did know was very little. I was born, my Mother died. I had heard talk of a pond, but never from my family. It was whispered enough times just out of earshot. I could never have imagined what Grace was about to share with me.
Her voice sure and strong, Grace began, “I found you first.”
It was like being a bullet shot out of a gun. I was spinning, I was moving through time and space. What did she mean she found me first? As she continued, all I could think about was how cold I had suddenly become.
“It was a day much like today. Early Fall when the days are still slightly summer kissed but a noticeable change in the air. But there was something else in the air that day. I don’t know how or why, but it is no different than how I know it is the right time to plant my garden. Late in the afternoon, I was drawn out off of my porch and down the path. No idea where or why I was going, but curious to see where I would end up. I took the same way as you and I did today. As I approached this very pond, my heart quickened. I could hear something in the distance and as I got closer I realized it was the wailing of a baby.”