Becoming Californians

My father loved California and the
Heat.
He’d do cannonballs
Into the neighbors swimming pool
And float with only his nose,
His belly, and his toes
Above the water.

My mother sat in the shade.
With the other wives.
They drank martinis,
Painted their toenails,
And talked about womanly things.

My brother was as pale and thin
As a wisp of smoke
But he could run like the wind.
He found three boys his age
In our new neighborhood
And played basketball and baseball,
Or just ran, fast as he could,
Animated by youth and happiness
And friends.

I was the oldest girl
By far
In the neighborhood,
A block full of babies and
Boys.

I’d swim 100 laps because I could
And because it pleased my father
And then escape inside,
Put lotion on my sunburned nose,
And read.

I was more lonely than I knew.
The loneliness came in flashes
And I swallowed it inside.
I was out of place, not good enough,
Strange and foreign,
Marked like the laundry my Irish mother
Didn’t get clean enough,
Like I, too, should be hanging on the attic,
God’s attic. 

My uncle Stooge’s pigeons could go far away
and still find their way home
But not me.

So I read.
And I wrote.
I wondered and remembered,
Told myself stories I needed to hear,
Stories where I was the hero, the star,
The popular girl, the tap dancer
Or the opera singer.
Stories where I wore tight skirts and black flats
Like the other girls
Instead of brown oxfords and
Puffed sleeves.  

I learned the joy of making things up. 

I wrote about outsiders,
Like Santa Claus going down the wrong chimney
On Christmas Eve
And finding himself in a Jewish home.
I wrote about the handsomest boy in school
Falling in love with the shy, bookish girl. 
And I wrote about masks,
And painted faces,
And swallowing feelings.

Writing was a place to put my sadness
And my joys,
My fears
And tenuous hopes.

Writing saved my life and
Made me who I am.

Karen Cushman typewriter gift