I must have been four. It is one of my earliest recollections.
We were very poor. My parents never had the money or the time to take my brother and I on a trip or vacation. They didn’t really have time to spend with us, and so I think this one trip somewhere on Long Island was special.
It was a summer day; one of those summer days you live for as a kid. It was hot and dry, surrounded by wildflowers, bees and dusty shoes. We were sitting at a wooden picnic table. I kept getting my bare legs scratched by the dry, splintered wood as I jumped on and off of the wooden bench. I couldn’t contain my excitement.
We were somewhere else and it was magical. There were other families and the smell of charcoal, the taste of the hot dog, and the sound of other children screaming and laughing. I do remember being so thrilled to be around so many other children. I never had been surrounded by so many other little people. I was not alone. I felt empowered.
The day turned to that time of the evening that is magical The sun had gone down but it was still light out. You can start to see lightening bugs make their way out and the mosquitoes dart toward you for a tasty bite of children’s blood. The forest around in its low light beckons to a child to come and explore. You may find a fairy sitting on a rock somewhere. I can still taste the burnt sugar of the marshmallows on my lips , and feel my mother tugging at my hair to fish out some marshmallow stuck there.
Why do the mothers care if we have dirty faces and mustard on our tank top? We don’t.
We couldn’t care less. The children were giddy as if from wine. We were high on being sugar loaded. The sound of another child’s shrieking attracted us the way the sound of coins spilling metallically out of a slot machine entices a gambler. We didn’t care if we ever slept again.
A little boy came up to me. He was roughly my age and height, and together, not a word spoken, we ran down a pebbled path together. I felt like I could fly.
We came upon a small cabin. I don’t remember if we were sleeping in these cabins as families. I don’t know whose cabin it was. It was open save a big wooden screen door. We went inside. The sound of the wooden screen door slamming shut stays with me. Clap Clap.
I don’t know how long we stood there. I don’t know and I have tried to remember if we were playing doctor the way young children naturally do. I don’t think so.
We couldn’t have been standing there too long when I heard my father’s voice calling me.
I didn’t move or answer. This was the first time I can remember not running to my dad if he called.
He stopped and stared at us when he saw us standing on the other side of the screen.
He just stood there. I stared back at him, defiant. He never said another word. He didn’t say angrily like my mother would have, “Donna get over here now. ”
He just stood there looking at me. That was the worst of it. I couldn’t read his emotion.
As I stood there my resolve washed away. I suddenly had this wash of shame start at my head and pour down. I did not know what I was feeling at the time. Now I know it was shame. I had no idea why. I hadn’t broken something. I wasn’t bad in all of the ways I had come to know what bad was.
I just know this was the first time I felt the emotion shame. I felt it so powerfully I could have fallen over. I didn’t know why. Did it have something to do with the little boy? Was it because I felt my first rise of independence? Once you feel that, you are reluctant to give it up.
I don’t know how long my dad and I stared at each other.
The feeling of shame broke my spirit finally. I opened the screen door, Clap! Clap! and moved slowly to my father who put out his hand. I felt so sad taking his hand, but I did and we walked back down the pebbled path. I looked back once to see the boy still standing inside the screen door.
I loved my father through the years so much. I am now sixty three and he is long gone.
I just wish he hadn’t introduced me to the feeling of shame. I would have liked to live my life without it.