I laughed at the misspellings created by my fourth grade self, smiled at simple drawings made with crayons and tempera paint, and held the edges of newspaper clippings of science fairs and school accomplishments carefully, as they had become almost brittle with age.
My kindergarten year will always be incredibly special to me, as my teacher Mrs. Starr took a special interest in me. Well, I actually think she took a special interest in all her students, but she made each of us feel that we were extraordinary in her eyes. I remember my year with her as warm, secure and loving in a colorful classroom filled with support and encouragement. Outside the classroom things were turbulent and confusing, so school was a haven for me, a trend that continued throughout my life.
Holding drawings in my hand made during that year was like opening a time capsule. Looking at each brushstroke, the signing of my name, my first real written words standing shakily between three colored lines on paper almost forty years old, I felt mystified. I stared hard at these pages, wishing I could remember what I felt in the moment I created the colored lines on it.
One picture in particular stopped me for a moment. It is me, alone, a simple stick figure representation, my hair yellow, a small red smile on my face. In the background, much smaller, a house. My house-the green colored house that we lived in at the time. The lines of the house are bright crayola green, with crooked windows, drawn by my five-year-old hand. I always associate that house with bad things. But there is no indication in the drawing that I was suffering, nothing that would make anyone stop to wonder.
I know also that I had been taught to hide things and keep secrets. And I am sure that was part of it. But as I flipped through worksheets with Mrs. Starr’s notes and smiley faces in red pen, as I looked through more pages of bumble bees and holiday turkeys made of construction paper, I knew that in the moment I drew those in her classroom, I felt safe and happy, and depicted my world under her watchful, caring eye.
It made me think about all the standard drawings we create as children, in and out of the classroom. No matter what the year or time in history, five year olds ultimately pick up a paintbrush or a crayon and draw a square with a triangle on top, then several stick figures standing nearby representing their home and family, prompted or not. Add a lemon yellow sun in the sky above, and you have a grade school rite of passage. I wondered if I sat down now to draw that scene, what it would look like today.
The lines would be straighter, the artwork a little better, but the scene would be nothing like I dreamed it would be back at five years old, nor would it look like any of my friend’s drawings were they to join in the exercise. I have heard (and said) many times that dear friends can become your family. And even though I have said it often before, until I looked at this artwork from my past, I don’t think I realized that I had that extended family long before I acknowledged it. All through the years, I did concentrate on the pain of my existing family, comparing what I didn’t have to what everyone else did, or seemed to. Part of that was some natural realization over time, and honestly, the grieving process for what wouldn’t be. It all took some time. But as I look back, I realize that people drifted in to my life over the years-- amazing souls that filled empty parts of my life just as I needed them. Over the years, slowly, as I began to be honest with myself about the loss of the foundation of family, my “new” family was growing, member by member.
Debby, my second mom, who has loved me unconditionally and completely, has pulled me into her family as if I was one of her own. Her house is home to me and walking through her door is love. I tear up as I even write that sentence, tears of gratitude. She came along when I was six years old, right after we had moved to North Carolina. She has taught me to love, to laugh, to understand, to believe in true love and family.
Kim, my dearest and oldest friend, is my sister and confidante, my partner in crime, and the person who makes me laugh the most, hands down and without even trying. She knows every flaw, every rip and tear in the fabric of my life. She has been there when I have won awards, lost my footing, celebrated, hit rock bottom, and stood near the edge ready to jump. No one else can pull me out of trouble or torment the way she can. I am lucky beyond measure to have someone I trust and love so much in my life. Kim is that person that I know- without hesitation- that I could call from anywhere, having done anything, in any kind of trouble and she would come get me, and this is the best part, without any judgment.
Judith, whose heart knows no boundaries, is my biggest cheerleader, knows of nothing I can’t do or be, and never fails to remind me of that when I need it the most. I could be in prison, convicted of same heinous crime, and I have no doubt Judith would come to visit excited for what I will accomplish behind bars and remark how lucky the establishment is to have me as a resident. She is the queen of sending me a lemonade recipe when my house and heart are full of lemons. And I know she knows me and sees me. Big things. She has made me brave in moments when I was scared witless. She has made me see myself through her eyes when I was blind with grief. Her words are the life preserver I have used so many times to survive a storm.
Patrick, my friend that I made at my first real job out in the big world, helped me believe in myself in the world of work. At first a great mentor for navigating the politics and insanity of the workplace, that friendship grew into being part of his family, his wife and children so dear to me I almost can’t stand it. Over the years, holidays alone seemed daunting until he and his wife opened their doors to me in such a natural way, I didn’t dare hesitate to step through. I count birthday parties for their daughters in their back yard as sunny, treasured memories in my life. His voice on the phone over the years has been my touchstone, knowing he was as crazy I was, and that he could sense when I was about to slip out of control. I didn’t always listen to his advice about men, work, love or life, but I knew I could tell him my failings and he would chuckle, be breathtakingly honest, but still see me as the same person the next day.
Add to that list several of my guy friends who over the years have served as big brothers, taunting me, toughening me up for the real world, and making me laugh until I couldn’t breathe. Also on that list are a small group of women I proudly call my circle of friends who share my snarky, sarcastic take on life and never fail to help me sharpen the focus of my lens on the world around me, and my own choices.
The picture I would draw today would include all those faces, large red hearts outside of the stick figure lines of their bodies, smiles for days. My simple duplex apartment with me in the middle of all that love, acceptance and family, my furry children—my dog and three cats—huddled nearby. Oh, and a big yellow sun, with rays that extend from the sky to the ground. More than I could have imagined, my family grew over the years into something I know I can count on, learn from, be myself with, lean on, and love unconditionally with the same return.
And if that isn’t family, I don’t know what is.