Survival's Shadow

The Glove

A black leather glove in my peripheral vision triggered terror in me. A panic rose in my body as the ominous, sinister gloved hand moved towards me. These descriptive words came much later. At that moment, it was only a scream and a sob, followed by another scream, another sob. Within seconds, my mother’s voice floated in the air above and behind me. “What is it, puppchen? Why are you crying?” And I, more terrified than ever, by the disembodied glove, the hovering voice, could not respond, merely cry out.

Then, my mother appeared before me. She was kneeling down, so her eyes were level with mine in my stroller. She reached out to comfort me and it was not her familiar hand that I saw, but a black gloved one, and I started a new fit of coughing sobs. My sisters finally figured it out, “Mommy, mommy, it’s your gloves, she scared of your gloves!” My mother laughed, and asked me gently, “Is that it, sweetheart? Here, watch this,” she said, and proceeded to take them off, then on again, off again, on again.

Safety returned. Love and warmth surrounded me. Gratitude towards my siblings enveloped me. No words, only pure emotion. My blanket was adjusted, my cheek was kissed, tears wiped away, and I rocked back to sleep in my little stroller as we made our way through the Berkeley streets.

I suppose many people’s earliest memories stem from fearful moments. They are so primal, it is not surprising they stay with us forever. But I continue to ask myself, how is it possible that those gloves created such a reaction in me? Had I never seen them before? Was she not wearing them when we left the house? How could I associate black gloves with something frightening? Isn’t that a learned association with detective novels or thriller movies – or Nazis? I suppose it is possible to read too much into such a small event of a 2-year old mind, but it lingers nonetheless. It lingers along with the memories of nightmares that held skeletons upon skeletons. I was almost too scared to make it to my mother’s room, but the comfort of her smell compelled me to find my courage. She let me remain until I was no longer afraid then sent me back to my room.

Perhaps I always sensed a darkness in my mother. It was not a darkness of her personality. Rather, it was as though her shadow was denser than others that I knew. It was in her quietness, in a quick glance of her eyes, in the subtle downturn of her mouth. She was a beautiful woman, and this mysterious gravity added a depth and inaccessibility to her that was probably tantalizing and eventually maddening to men, but it produced an inordinate sense of attachment and guilt in me. I cannot speak for my three older siblings; they responded in their own individual ways to our mother’s emotional world. Thankfully, her love for us held us in good stead and we remain close and trusting.

My birth in July 1965 coincided with the final unravelling of my parents’ 14-year marriage. I suppose my father was still there when I came home from the hospital; he must have taken the photos of me with my enormously curly head of dark hair. I feel like I remember the turtle toy that is next to me in the photo, but it is only because I have seen that picture so many times. Many years later, my first daughter was born and she too had a turtle toy, with a string that when pulled played a little song. I took a picture of her with that next to her as well.

I have not seen any photos of Dad holding me when I was a baby, although I am sure he did. But when I was only three months old, he and Mom separated. The well of emotion in my mother from that break found an easy receptacle in my tender and sweet-smelling infant self.
I sometimes imagine my 38- year old mother holding me and saying, “How could he leave you, just an infant? How could he walk out?” But I know that she is the one who asked him to leave. Maybe she didn’t think he really would; maybe she was challenging him – “Go ahead, see if you can leave a newborn infant, two toddlers, and a new teenager? Go ahead and show me what kind of man you are.”

I believe it was at that moment that I became both a weapon and a comfort.

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