I believe to remember means “to member again,” as in to make us whole when we have been dismembered; separated from our original beauty. Before my father lost a leg to diabetes I was paying my little brother 50 cents an hour to let me teach him things, things that brought me joy. But in order to teach beauty, I must re member my own. This is a gift my father has given me.
Last Christmas I was visiting the folks. Bored with all the television specials, my father was in the living room manning the flipper. All the Von Trapps were in line; the Boston Pops were straining to tune; Charlie Brown’s brave little tree was leaning precariously; where is the Bonanza Christmas Reunion when a man needs it? One might well ask.
Suddenly my father began frantically calling my name; he has fallen, I feared, as I rushed into the living room to assist him. I found him serenely sitting in front of the television, which he sees with only tunnel vision in his good eye. “What is it?” I asked respectfully. “I found this on TV,” and he gestured toward the blurred images of Klara and the sugar plum fairies. “Yes,” I answered; “would you like to watch The Nutcracker?” “No,” he responded with some irritation, “but I thought you might.”
Of course, I had seen it before. And I thought I remembered it well. As I began to explain to him that I had seen it, both live and on television, he interrupted me with, “but weren’t you in it?” Our conversation continued, but my mind was elsewhere. I am hardly a ballerina, but I was not concerned that my dad’s lucidity was failing. I had realized that when my father hears beautiful music, he thinks of me. When he hears the beauty of the familiar, he does not think, “Tchaikovsky” or “Handel” or “Mozart”; he thinks to himself, “Belinda.” I have taught him this beauty because I embody beauty. I embody the beauty of music and literature because I do not easily forget it; it is membered in me, and can’t be detached like my father’s leg.
The pull of gravity allows us to member and member, and member again until we are whole and beyond whole; we are capable of making others whole. The more vulnerable we are, the more beautiful we become. Do more than simply remember lovely times and cherished moments. Embody them, and know you are beautiful. This way, you will survive earthly loss. You will thrive, and so will the people who see you as membered and whole, those who come to you for sustenance. Offer yourself freely.
The people for whom your life has been a ballet deserve nothing less.
Gerda emerged from the trees near Stuttgart because she heard a woman singing a song she recognized. The woman was one of several nuns gathering vegetables, and these nuns held Gerda at arm's length, noted her light skin, and took her in. Gerda's mother had been raped by a Dane who had escaped the occupation. Like most war babies, Gerda was not acknowledged by her peasant mother's family, but could often rely on the benevolence of the nearest church because of her fair coloring.
This is all Gerda knows about ending up in an orphanage. She is not even certain she had a name before the nuns began calling her Gerda, protector of gardens. It was a loving and caring place but there was a lot of physical labor to be done. The children all earned their keep. When Gerda was five years old she was switched from folding laundry to working in the kitchen peeling potatoes and cracking eggs. The nuns taught her to use her finger to wipe the inside of each egg shell. If one cracks a dozen eggs into an institutional-sized bowl one will have a dozen eggs ready to be scrambled, cooked, and served to twelve children. But if one wipes the slimy insides of each egg into the bowl with one's finger then the cook receives the equivalent of thirteen eggs. The 13th egg means one more child will be fed. The 13th egg must be chosen deliberately, like a lucky orphan. It takes care and attention to choose thirteen eggs. One must be patient and reach just a little farther.
Gerda was taught to choose the 13th egg. She leaned over the big bowl every day, choosing the 13th egg again and again. She went through ten dozen eggs every day. Every child would receive precisely one egg per day. Because of Gerda, a simple orphan, more than 120 children were fed breakfast. It was, in fact, 130 children. Children who otherwise might have no breakfast at all.
One day as Gerda was cracking and wiping the eggs, a woman came in to adopt a child. “In those days,” my mother says with a sanctimonious air, “women who longed for a child but were single did not go to a sperm bank or a man. They went to an orphanage.” The woman looking for a child saw many clean, hard-working children but her gaze fastened on a child who obediently wiped every egg shell in the preparation of thirteen eggs. The woman chose Gerda. In the twinkle of an eye, the life of this WWII orphan was changed forever.
I could tell you she grew up with a loving mother and no father, that she survived WWII in Germany, that she married an American serviceman with whom she had three children, that he became a businessman in Oklahoma and arranged for the indomitable oma to join their household in Oklahoma City, so that when he worked in the Murrah building and survived the Oklahoma City bombing only to be killed by a heart attack a year later, the woman who chose her in Stuttgart was by her side. But what I really want to tell you is that Gerda chose. She chose to look at a dozen eggs and see thirteen, and because of this choice she was chosen many times in return.
I am not writing Gerda's story; only she can do that. I am writing in obedience to my calling and teaching. I am choosing the wonder that is thirteen eggs. I am grateful that sometimes stories take twists which make them stranger than, well, fiction. I am grateful that sometimes children are obedient and good. I am especially grateful to know that sometimes good things happen to good people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that we can all choose to see thirteen eggs in a one-dozen carton. Choosing to see thirteen eggs is sometimes hard, but by doing so we draw people into our lives.
Choice is a duty. And it is lovely to be chosen. Maybe your grandmother chose you to pick out the first quilt. Maybe your lover chose you for the first wild dance. Maybe your parents chose you as their last child. Have you chosen a teacher who will show you thirteen eggs in place of a dozen? There is a person right now who is waiting to be chosen in order to teach you something you need to know.
When I was 6 years old, boys often followed me home from school. I think I fascinated them because, while I was not a tomboy, I did things that they never saw girls of the 60s do. Or maybe it was because the beer was always on me.
My dad introduced me at a young age. I played in the mud; danced in the rain; squatted down in my dress to play marbles. I filtered pond scum through my hands to catch tadpoles. I tied bacon to a string and let it down crawdad holes; could pull up an ole crawdaddy almost every time. I knotted thread around the body of a Junebug and let the insect fly high into the air. I took these Junebugs for walks. I would walk along holding the spool of thread, giving the Junebug slack enough to fly about 20 feet above my head; then I could reel him back in if he misbehaved. I never owned a pair of overalls; I did all of these things in cotton summer dresses.
I walked home from school in 1st grade. One day I was late coming home so my mom loaded Clayton into the stroller and went to look for me. We spotted each other when we were about a block apart. I yelled, “mama, mama” and began running toward her with what she thought was a can of soda. Seven or eight boys began running after me. I wasn’t holding a can of soda. It was a beer can.
I’m sure it must have looked to my mom as though I were on the road to a life of crime. Wet and muddy as Caddy Compson, barefoot because I had taken off my shoes to avoid getting in trouble for dirtying them, I was headed straight for hell with a beer can in my hand and with boys in hot pursuit. My side of the story?
On my way home from school I bragged to the boys that I knew how to catch tadpoles and turn them into frogs (as good as kissing a frog and turning it into a prince, to my mind). They didn’t believe me, so when I saw a cul de sac full of thick, stagnant water I stopped there. After taking off my shoes and socks, I entered, letting the cold mud ooze between my toes. The boys stood back and watched. The plump black dots wiggled around my toes—eureka! “Get me something to put them in,” I shouted; the boys found an empty beer can and I began scooping until the can I did not recognize as an intoxicating beverage container was full to the brim. Triumphantly, I continued home to show the boys how to nurture the ebony wigglers into full-fledged frogs that would eventually jump out of a pickle jar of water and hide under our family washing machine where it was likely a little moist.
I often wonder what became of the boys.