THE WATSON AND CRICK MODEL of DNA structure was a revolution. I still remember learning about it as a graduate student. In my imagination, the model looked as if musicians had figured out how to spin narrow staves into two spiral strands and play a tune in duplicate. The twisted ladder of our genetic material seemed simple enough. It was beautiful. With such elegance, it was astonishing to contemplate that an error could ruin everything. A tiny missing piece or unfortunate mutation doomed us to a different kind of life. No judgment. Just a fickle act of nature. Deoxyribonucleic acid. In the beginning.
IT STARTS WITH GOODBYE
My teacher’s name was Mrs. Johnson. She was an older woman who wore sturdy shoes every day and most days a dark grey skirt. That is how I remember her these many decades later. It was the end of summer and she welcomed us to first grade. To me, she seemed stern and scary. I was nervous, although a six-year old doesn’t really understand what that means. As I boarded the school bus that morning, my mother cautioned me to be on my best behavior. I think that was her way of warning me. Hidden in her rule intended to instill politeness was her own silent fear as she handed her child over to a stranger. I thought I was saying goodbye forever. I waved to my mother and the white house and the big front yard. I waved and waved and waved. Saying good-bye is a fragile rite. It can take a very long time.
THE NAMING CEREMONY
Mrs. Johnson opened a notebook and read names from her roster. It didn’t take long; there were only fifteen in the class. When she finished, she asked the girls named “Katherine” to come to the front of the room. There were three of us. I remember we each wore white socks with lace on the cuffs and had plastic barrettes in our hair. We looked very small, like identical triplets. I’m sure that is what she saw. We were not really the same, of course, but soon new names would artificially demarcate the real differences among us. Mrs. Johnson told one girl she was to be called “Katherine.” The girl standing next to me she named “Katie.” I resented this, even though I don’t imagine Mrs. Johnson could have known that “Katie” was my nickname. Resentment can be shallow but powerful when you are only six. Finally, she turned to me, the last in the trio, and pronounced me “Kitty.” Renaming is a transcendent act, like a symbolic mutation. My name was a strand of letters wound in complex forms, but there was no genetic pair to Kitty in my helix. I knew in a primitive way she was only trying to make me unique so she could recognize me. “I am already unique,” I wanted to say, but sobs silenced me. My teacher had tried to control who I was. I never liked her again. My identity unraveled right in front of my new classmates in a strange room far from home.
When I entered junior high school, we moved into the city. Country life hadn’t been that great. There, my father had become a monster and my mother a mouse. Perhaps because my brothers and I had listened to Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales read to us so often as young children, these characters made sense to us. There was no happy ending. Wasn’t that the message? The city was a new book.
THE HEDGE OF TRANSFERENCE
I got my name back when I entered seventh grade. After class, I stayed in my bedroom, usually hiding in my closet where I concentrated on homework. I liked the straightforwardness of equations and conjugation of Latin verbs. I was an excellent student. I had tacked a world map to the inside of my closet door. There were lots of places to go, and I studied them like a palmist. These were far more interesting and safer things to do than being caught in the roiling horror outside my door. Sometimes when things got too violent, my mother took us outside. We hid from my father in the backyard behind a tall hedge that separated our house from the neighbor’s. No one could see us crouching there, sometimes for hours. When I think of it now, I can still feel my heart beating. Recollections of fear never go away, like a song you can’t get out of your head. One time we had to ask the neighbor to let us in. She was an interesting woman—single, wore nail polish and very high heels. Women in the neighborhood called her a “hussy” because she had a boyfriend and career. I figured their condemnation covered up their envy. The “hussy” was an engineer. I wanted to be just like her. Transference occurs easily when the savior lives on the other side of the hedge.
GOD AND COMMUNISM
A few years later, I read the writings of British socialists, Albert Schweitzer, and articles in the Friends Journal. Math was my favorite subject and Bertrand Russell my hero. On school days, I got up early to study Russian. The local TV station broadcast the lessons. The Soviets had won the space race. Unthinkable. That projection of the world tacked on my closet door no longer made sense. The boundaries of everything were changing. Paranoia and patriotism became confused. The world, not just my home, was becoming an ugly place. It wasn’t enough to hate a monster in your own family; I learned there were many monsters. The communists became the enemy du jour. Yet, all in all during those years, I was a nice girl, an American unblemished by the politics of the Cold War that enveloped us, disliked by no one except, perhaps, my older brother. We had been in the same class ever since I skipped second grade. He didn’t like that. Sibling rivalry leaves deep scars. We parted after graduation and did not see one another again for many years. I finished high school at the top of my class, was queen of the senior prom, and declared I was a pacifist. I believed in One World. It had to be better than the world in which I lived.
Time is direction, the measure of one’s goals and purpose. I got my first wristwatch when I was a senior in high school. The dial glowed in the dark, so it was easy to read the time especially when I had a curfew to keep. As powerful as time can be, in the back seat of a car on a hot summer night, the heat of two young people can erase the face of the clock and suspend responsibility. You begin to think magically as if you are in love, or something like love. Two years later, I married. In the millions of moments that followed that ceremony, I marched for peace, monitored my ovulation clock, got a Ph.D., a teaching appointment, and kept trying to get pregnant. Somewhere along the way I got a new watch and my marriage ended. Perhaps the moment of finality had occurred at the altar, or in any of the hundreds of nights when I discovered that keeping my eyes closed shut out more than the light, or my partner on top of me, or the fatigue from working two or three jobs so he could “find himself.” My husband had his map. It was I who was lost. I needed to stop and get directions. Time took on the ominous burden of eternity.
LOVE AND A GLASS OF CHEAP WINE
I loved my mother-in-law. She was the only one who understood my disappointment. Ten years passed, 120 ovulation disappointments. We took solace in drinking cheap red wine and watching afternoon soap operas together when I visited. Our favorite was “Days of Our Lives.” She never said she knew she was not to become a grandmother that month. We felt wicked, vindicated, and sad. Our conversations were minimalist exchanges, seldom more than sighs — deep and meaningful sighs. Mournful sounds between two women disappointed by life. Then magic came. Magic, we named him after a hero from Greek mythology. By then the marriage was over even though it took another difficult five years to face. I wasn’t good at facing things. I thought if you kissed your baby enough and asked your husband to get a steady job everything would be all right. A grown man would behave. I don’t know where I got such a notion. Why should he work? I lost twenty pounds, worked three jobs. I was too worn out to recognize that Mr. Grimm was back.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE MONSTER
On a rainy afternoon, a counselor asked me what I thought would make me happy. By now, I was single, my Greek hero grown and mother-in-law gone. I never watched soap operas or drank cheap red wine again. I felt helpless, worthless, and angry. “What would make me happy?” the counselor asked me. “My father,” I said. I could have said love, a good husband, or my son. My father? I hadn’t thought of him in years. Now it was raining hard as tears filled my eyes. Baptism. A week later I drove for three hours to meet the monster. I could have accused him of horrendous things; the strands of my helix vibrated with fear as I enumerated painful memories on the drive to his house. He opened the door, almost it seemed, as if he had been expecting me. I stepped across the threshold, and all I could say was that I forgave him. And then added, against my muse’s whisper, that I knew I was not the daughter he must have wanted. I got real. We sat down and made small talk for hours. Accusations would have gotten in the way of discovery. At least I was smart enough to know that. For years after that encounter, we never ended a conversation without him saying, “I know I was not a good father.” Not, “I’m sorry,” but something more. Self-recognition. It’s amazing how deep forgiveness goes.
Reinventing yourself is a funny thing. If you do it often enough, it becomes very easy. It’s like repainting a room and kidding yourself into thinking you have really changed it. Inside you know the makeover is make believe. Or like giving up playing the guitar because you were never that good at it. You can even hear an echo of loneliness in your failure. Nothingness has a sound. Did you know that? I have heard it too often. My next relationship ended after a church mission trip. There he met an eighteen-year-old. She said she wanted to come to the United States. He thought she said, “Te amo.” “I love you.” Then a third relationship ended after two years when he declared he wasn’t ready for marriage. I had been on the cross too long, I thought. I can’t face another resurrection. Reinvention isn’t possible any more. I’m just the criminal on the other side of the good guy. I want to be taken down. I was ready to move on.
A JAGGED KNIFE
Then I met my match. We were two people, smart, toughened by a lifetime of disappointments, and extremely self-reliant. The walls were high and thick. We married. It was a partnership of hardened steel, even though we both tried to be loving. We found affection around the edges. I don’t blame him. He had his own kind of darkness. Even so, the jagged knife edged with self-doubt that he kept up his sleeve was too easy for him to reach. It wasn’t long before his words were as wounding as the knife. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” swirled in my head as I listened to his comments. Time passed. I came to understand that I didn’t want scar tissue to thicken my wall. Artifice and superficiality made our relationship a weary one most days. I sought a way out. There is no happy ending, Mr. Grimm, but there is something else.
SAGE – A PLANT AND STATE OF MIND
We moved again. And again. Each move could have been another reinvention, but none were. Some might have said I had grown up, or grown into myself, or grown tired of living, or grown interested in things that really matter. Did any of it really matter? The nicest trip my husband and I took was close to the Mexican border. The drive was hot and long. Sage was in bloom – fields of silver leaves and purple flowers. It looked as if a sunset were draped atop a desert like a handsome soft quilt. It was a captivating sensation. We spoke very little that day. This was a good thing. I needed it to be quiet. The peace enabled me to reflect on the subtle difference between environment and heredity, between happiness and wisdom. One is made up and the other is not. This doesn’t mean I have lost faith or am grounded in doubt and disappointment or have found a God of substance in a field of sage. Truth –if there is such a thing—is that uncertainty has more substance than conviction. The only thing larger than us is – something – no special name, just something. Transcendent. We cannot name a mystery.
I have stopped thinking that monsters are powerful or that I could “rise above it all,” or that we even have power over one another. The echo of loneliness has vanished and with it the internal hollowness. The watch doesn’t tick. The man at the breakfast table, now in decline, continues to try to recreate me by defining me in his image. He is driven by his own unspoken neediness. Human wounds are hard to heal. I know he is not God. Conversation can no longer be used to requite harm. Is there some subtext to “I love you” or “good morning” that makes it more or less meaningful? Once having my identity reworked by others robbed me of my uniqueness, as if I were in a lineup of fellow innocents waiting for the criminal to identify the perpetrator of love. No more. Kitty in first grade would have understood the pathos in this. Today, the slender spiral ribbons of my helix are fixed and God plays a tune on them with delight. This has to be wisdom.
Kate Roos is a social activist, anthropologist, retired mediator, grandmother, and in love with life. She lives in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.