She made her presence felt well before daybreak. Strong labor pains reduced her mom to groans and quick gasps for breath. Mere hours later, a healthy baby girl announced her triumphant entry into a noisy, laughing, celebrative environment made up of those closest to her. Throughout the coming weeks she was handed from Mom to Dad, from Pop-Pop to Noni, and to many aunties, uncles and cousins of all ages. She weathered the early confusion between days and nights, a bout of colic and her mom’s sudden return to work when she was only six weeks old.
That’s when everything changed. Strong, firm hands that had held her against a warm chest after each feeding at Mom’s breast suddenly stopped holding her. At the same time, voices around her became more frenzied, she was passed from one set of arms to another abruptly, those who held her quickly became impatient at her incessant cries.
Where was he? Everyone around her said she was so tiny that she would never remember. Her mind did not remember, but her body and her soul did. Every fiber of her heart remembered, though she spoke no word. And so she learned that not every source of love will be around forever.
She was a curious, high-spirited toddler, prone to discover dead cockroaches in crevices at the floorboards, and mesmerized by stacks of books on living room coffee tables. She did not gravitate toward the books to open them, but to create the biggest crash possible when she pushed them off the table. Her household was never quiet; voices and laughter filled daytime and nighttime hours. They were pleasant, vibrant voices so that she could settle down for a nap in spite of them. However, suddenly a nighttime voice became frightening and she cowered, whimpering in the corner of her bed.
When this voice had first frightened her, she had screamed in panic, angering her mom. The little girl had no idea why. Her mom was always kind, except when this threatening voice pierced the dark hours between dusk and dawn. When this happened, harsh words demanded silence, and a quick swat landed on her diapered bottom. The swat didn’t hurt her body, but it bruised her soul. She could not understand why her mother refused to calm her when she was afraid. And so she learned that the one person she had trusted most could suddenly become a different person–though she was neither able to know nor express this consciously.
Then came the biggest day of her life–or so she thought. The beginning of Kindergarten. Nothing else mattered. She and Mom went to pick out a lunch box, backpack, shoes, shorts, tops, pants, skirts and dresses. They also chose sweaters, jackets, caps, mittens and boots. It was as if Christmas had arrived while it was still warm outside. Her sensitive heart was about to burst from the magic that surrounded her. As she and Mom stood outside waiting for the rumbling yellow school bus, her heart fluttered with excitement, but also with anxiety. She had never been on a big school bus before and when the giant door opened, she wondered if she could climb those tall steps leading into the bus.
She was used to noise from her home, but bus noise was different. Children shrieked, talked at once and didn’t mind the bus driver, who tried to settle them down. She was bewildered by the time she arrived in her classroom, filled with twenty-eight other children her size. She knew one of the girls, but she already had many friends. And so she learned the rules, and experienced the joys, fears and frustrations of life in a classroom. She adapted and moved quite smoothly into first grade, then second.
When she was ten years old she threw her lunch box down on the kitchen table like every other day after school. She expected Noni or Pop-Pop to greet her as they had nearly every day for the past five years. Really, it had been longer, because she had been to pre-school before beginning Kindergarten. But this time was different. The house was quiet and she couldn’t imagine why. Before her sweater was off, her mom appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Sweetheart,” she said. “Someone is here to see you.”
“Come and see.”
With that her mom took her hand and led her into the living room doorway. A strange man was sitting on the couch, and when he saw her, his face lit up with a smile that crinkled his eyes.
“My sweet girl,” he said.
She pulled back, looking up at her mom.
“I don’t know him, Mom!”
“Sweetheart, this is your father,” her mom said stiffly.
Her heart raced. Her father? Where had he come from? She had so often been taunted by other kids for not knowing her father. And now this? Her face held uncertainty.
“I know you don’t know me, but I hope we can get to know each other,” he offered from a distance.
“Go on, sweetheart, say hello,” her mom urged.
She stretched out her right hand as Pop-Pop had taught her to do when meeting strangers. “Never give a hug to someone you have not met before,” he’d said many times.
Her father’s hand extended to hers, meeting in a clasp that united two people who share the same blood.
“Pleased to meet you,” she offered bravely, without emotion.
His eyes glistened. They were kind. She could tell.
“I’m very pleased to meet such a fine young girl, myself,” he said, his voice thick and raspy.
In the coming weeks she saw him again, then yet again. He always came when either Mom or Pop-Pop or Noni were there. It took some time before she would show him her science project or allow him to see her report card.
And so she learned it was he she had always loved.
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015