Strata

In your earliest years, your father sketches your family’s demise into a thick notebook. You’ve never seen the pages but imagine his entries as layers of thin rock, fossil pollens, tree rings: a dendrochronology guide to childhood. The spring the blossoms froze. The winter of heavy pruning. The year of ash-ridden skies.

At three and four, you spend mornings at a parent-cooperative nursery school. You meet in a green-shuttered house between the village bakery and the Catholic church, just before Main Street grinds to dirt. You hesitate each day beside the snack table as red- or blue-striped paper cups are pulled in turn from a sleeve and placed in front of each chair. If you sit next to Liza, you won’t have the same color cup. A buzz loops between your brain and fingertips. Do you choose the matching cup a seat away or the pleasure of sitting next to your friend? It should be straightforward: you are three; they are paper cups. You don’t know what to do.

While you are at nursery school, your mother sits with her papers and writes grant proposals to bring artists into rural schools. Or she works for the rights of children with disabilities to attend public school. Or gets high. Or has sex with the man staying in the basement apartment of your house. You recently learned all this. But you knew it all along.

At the end of the school morning, you lay your coat zipper-up on the floor, poke your hands through the armholes, and flip the coat over your head—sleeves and hood and back all line up perfectly with your body. Your sisters call it “the trick.” You walk with your teacher to her house across the village, where you eat lunch, and your mother arrives to pick you up, and you lay your coat out on the floor and do the trick again.

Your family has a number of small hardcover books from England, Ladybird Readers. Domestic adventures of Peter and Jane, or the gingerbread boy, or The Ladybird Book of London. The plain black letters slide into words without effort. The words flow down the page. Their meanings are certain and true; the words can be spelled and connected one by one in a stream of clarity that both thrills and calms you. You sit beneath an upstairs window one spring afternoon and read a Richard Scarry mystery. Two paragraphs in, there is a solid clink of understanding in your mind, a turnstile opens.

On the first day of kindergarten, your teacher meets you in the schoolyard and bends down to pin a teddy bear–shaped name tag on your dress. You try to feel excited about kindergarten, peel the stickered A from the sheet, then the B, and place the letter next to the rhyme about the apple or the ball. You don’t know how long it will take before the teacher realizes the library books you carry home from school by the armful are not your sisters’ but yours. You become the class scribe, penciling out thank-you notes to the dairy farmer or postmaster hosts of your field trips. You wonder how it would feel not to be able to read. You try to imagine letters as mere marks on a page, but always they gather into words. Always they make sense.

After another winter of coughs and colds, the pediatrician recommends your mother take away your stuffed animals and dust frequently with a damp cloth. He gives her a stiff white card with preventive housekeeping information in line drawings and text. She displays the card on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, not as a reminder but as a joke. She is not a duster. You hate to think you need some level of special treatment, some kind of care.

“Dust!” you say with a smirk in imitation of your mother and pile stuffed bears along your covers like stones in a wall.

With a closet full of your three sisters’ outgrown dresses, blouses, stretchy ’60s-era pants, you beg as a young girl for jeans, overalls, flannel shirts. Your mother insists you wear a dress to first grade once a week, “because it’s important to be able to feel comfortable in a dress.” This requirement soon falls away, along with the television limits and the sandwiches cut on the diagonal, twice, that you had liked to arrange in a butterfly shape on your plate. For the next several years you are repeatedly mistaken for a boy by teachers new to the school, or when you are away from your hometown.

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