From a prompt by Mary Sojourner at a writing workshop. The prompt involved writing from a perspective other than self. As the youngest of nine, I chose to write from the perspective of an only child.
I am Colleen. I am an only child.
My mother chose the name Colleen to go with the Irishness of our last name. It means “girl,” an Irish lass, and she envisioned me racing across the Irish landscape, my long red hair dancing in the wind behind me. The hair never quite achieved the red she might have hoped for, but when the sun shone on it, the red highlights glowed and made her proud.
As an only child, I often wondered what it would be like to have a house full of noisy brothers and sisters. What would be different in our lives? Would my parents love each other better than they did with only one child? Would a house full of active youngsters distract them from their obsession with winning every argument, with battling each other bloody and then retreating into silence and disdain? Maybe, but maybe not—more children might have made it worse. An abbreviated Walton’s Mountain good night would still not echo through our house.
What if they had loved each other? What if we had peaceful meals and quiet evenings? What if we actually said “goodnight” and “I love you” at bedtime? I can’t imagine that it could have been that way. One or nine, they simply couldn’t—wouldn’t—peacefully co-exist.
In spite of that, I don’t think I’d be any different today. I am who I am; one of nine or one of one, it would not make a difference.
I never sat still unless I had a book in my hands. There were two things that defined me: reading and climbing. Reading books took me to places I could only dream about seeing; I met people who would never cross my path in real life, and I think I learned how the world operated and how I might eventually fit in. It is strange but I still remember so many of the books I read in those early years: Seek the Fair Land, a story of Ireland, by Walter Macken, which led me to my passion for historical novels, the Nancy Drew mysteries, and the Candy Kane stories, written by Janet Lambert. (It’s a shame her name sounds slightly pornographic, otherwise her stories might still speak to young girls.) These books provided a sanity I could not imagine in real life. I couldn’t believe that they were just fantasy. Nancy Drew’s father loved her and wanted to protect her. Candy Kane’s parents offered her a stability I could not imagine. I wanted to believe these stories more than I wanted to believe my own life.
Besides reading, climbing offered other avenues. And climbing with a book in my hands (or tucked into the waist of my shorts) was what I did. The big boxelder tree in the side yard was my shelter. I could sit in the fork of it’s two broad trunks and read for hours. I could climb higher and hide from the rest of the world. That tree was my strength, my sanctuary.
The maple tree on the other side of the kitchen yard was something else altogether. It was tall and straight. I climbed it regularly, each time trying to go higher and higher, pulling myself up on increasingly thin branches not strong enough to hold my weight, but hanging on by hands full of thin twigs, trying to achieve an impossible goal: to go high enough to look out over the top. I wanted to be able to look out from above the canopy of branches to see the world as it might really be. Somehow, I believed it would look different from there. I never did succeed, but I never quit trying.
Now that I think about it, each of these trees provided something important for me. The boxelder was a refuge; the maple was my resolve to go beyond where I was. I needed them, and they gave me what I needed. I suspect these trees defined who I became more than my family or my life at home.
(In reviewing this, I wonder. . . )