When I was very little, I thought I was a cat. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I thought cats were people like me. I wasn’t a hundred percent clear on whether the cats would grow up to be me, or I’d grow up to be a cat.
You see, I was the much younger (my brother is almost ten years older than I and my (female) cousin raised with us like a sister is fourteen years older than I, and our other cousin raised nearby/in interaction with us was yet older than her, though I confess I don’t precisely know by how much. You see, to me he was always a grown man. Because even fourteen year olds seem that way when you’re a toddler.
Normally, I suppose, this wouldn’t be a big deal, except for where I lived. In retrospect mom’s expressed instructions that I choose my friends from the “cleaner” children in the village wasn’t bigotry but exasperation after the third or forth time she had to rid my waist-long hair of lice. (I didn’t get my hair cut till my teenage years.)
The formative sense of my childhood, given where I lived, was loneliness. Not so much after I entered elementary at six, and made friends with my desk mate, a friendship that continued, despite distance and differences (she married a Frenchman) until a few years ago, when I got so busy I lost track of her or she of me (if you read this, Isa, I miss you.)
This is part of the reason that by the time I entered elementary, I was reading. And even after I had friend(s) loneliness remained, because you see, I was very sickly. And though this was the sixties, habits of the times without antibiotics prevailed in Portugal. I don’t think I attended even 3/4 of a school year until 6th grade. (For some reason puberty fixed a lot of my immune issues. No, I don’t know why.) And when I was sick, I might spend one or two solid weeks in bed, not allowed to go out or have visits (other than my brother who read to me, and did voices and who was probably responsible for my learning to read by memorizing what words went with which square in the comic book.)
Before I could read (and even after) I spent an enormous amount of my time building entire cities out of legos and imagining the lives of people in them.
I remember vividly the last phase of that, when I must have been twelve or fourteen, and used to go to my grandmother’s in the afternoons, and build those cities out of scraps of wood from grandad’s workshop, and bits of leaves, and stuff, and then populate them with tiny plastic dogs.
Okay: the plastic dogs were free giveaways with detergent. In an attempt to get people to stop making their own wash soap, the detergent companies deployed the most powerful leverage they could. Yep, that’s right. They bribed kids. It took me a while after being in the US to get used to the idea that it was CEREAL boxes that offered toys, not detergent.
Most of the time the prizes were, even by cereal box standards, totally lame. (Though I DID get a decoder ring.) It was stuff like little plastic horses, or dogs, or figurines of “professions of the world.”
But it was a lame world, back when pictures were in black and white, and honestly, most of my toys (and we weren’t that poor) were found objects, including the boxes things came in.
So kids would beg and really want these lame toys.
And when I was fourteen, I think, I took the entire batch grandma had been collecting for me (put it this way, it was after I read City, which had been given to me by the father of a high school friend) and played a Simak-like dog-populated world. For hours.
Mind you by that time I was already writing, though I can’t remember if I wrote science fiction. I did write endless, very bad, YA mysteries.
So, what is this in the name of?
Well, if I’m not thinking, if I let myself just be, in many ways I’m still that lonely little girl making up stories and imaginary friends. Even though I have friends, and a family and am rarely lonely. (If nothing else I have cats, who never grow to be humans, but are good company anyway.)
As a mother I look back and see all sorts of things that went wrong with raising my kids. Things I did wrong. I shouldn’t have put the younger one in school so early. Or perhaps I shouldn’t have put them in school at all. And I shouldn’t have been so demanding. And I shouldn’t have…
But I wonder if given a choice, and the ability to do it over, my parents wouldn’t have chosen to raise us elsewhere, or at least raised me with more kids my age I could play with. I seem to remember mom making some comments along those lines as to why I was insufficiently attached to Portugal, unlike my brother who would never leave the country because of his friends.
Oh, sure, it’s entirely possible if they’d done that, I’d have been a happier person. Maybe. I mean, the thing in Pratchett’s book (Lords and Ladies) about “what about when the house burned down and all our children died” if things had gone differently is a profound observation. When we play “what if we’d done this instead” we tend to only see the rosier shades of that path. It could have gone disastrously, despite being the better path.
But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s imagine my parents realized antibiotics made it unnecessary to keep me away from every living thing every time I was sick (Alvarim, if you’re reading this, you were clearly NOT a living thing.) Let’s say they actively went out of their way to get me little friends. Let’s say the defining characteristic of my early childhood was instead “exciting games with kids my age.”
Would I be the same person? Was who I am an inevitable result of my birth? Or was it a result of where I was born and how it was then. Or all of the above.
And I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to be … easier in the world. More sociable. Not overthink things so much.
BUT… would I still be me?
It’s hard not to believe that the stories come from that great, silent fund of loneliness at the bottom of who I am.
So — who are you? There behind the eyes. Who are you and why? For good or ill, I’m a little girl building imaginary cities (and worlds.)
Who are you?