Which by the Way My Mother Categorically Denied Ever Happened, Right Up Until the Day She Died...


I am young, very. I start school early, at three-and-a-half, so this must happen when I am two, or a young three. My mother has a friend, Mrs. Duffy, who lives down the block, perhaps eight or ten houses away from ours. She has hair that unkind people might call "bottle blond", and deep wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, connecting nose to chin. She has sweet, warm breath that 15 years later I will realize is vodka-tainted. Mrs. Duffy has a raft of children, seven, eight — a great Irish Catholic gaggle, the youngest of whom, Martha, is a toddler. Baby Duffy, I call her scornfully, to demonstrate that I am so much older — autonomous, self-toileting for God's sake, big. I am a big girl. But whenever my mom is invited for coffee she drags me along — unlike my brother, I am unjustly deprived of school — to "play with Martha."

But wait, that's all background. I was going to tell the scene. Get to the scene. So okay, here is the memory. It fills me with such shame that I am doing this compulsive throat-clearing instead of telling it, but here it is.

I stand in Martha's yard, facing her, scowling. There is a raised flowerbed with yellow tulips and white mums to the left of her, edged with a low stone wall. The lawn is slightly muddy and the toes of my blue Keds are darkened with damp half moons. (Baby Duffy gets to go barefoot, but not me. "It's their house," my mother had whispered to me when I protested, as if this was an explanation.)

The rusting chains of a green metal swingset creak behind me. The swingset sucks. The seats are slats of yellow plastic that have been shoddily fitted, either by the manufacturer or by whichever teen-aged Duffy that had been dragooned assembling it. When I swing the slats shift, grind together, pinch dime-thin slices of the backs of my thighs. I might pretend that this is why I'm so angry — but of course, I'm simply mad to be condemned to the company of Baby Duffy.

Baby Duffy is fat — so fat she waddles. Or rather, her pants, ruffled white panties with a pattern of pink flowers, they are fat, stretched tight over a bulging wad of diapers. I am playing with an infant in diapers. Diapers, and a wide triangle of pink sunsuit, with a duck appliquéd on her belly, and bare feet, and a dorky yellow Gilligan's Island style hat.

I ball up a fist, feel the nails bite my palm, feel the tension from wrist to shoulder as I cock my arm back. Baby Duffy is smiling, a big, trusting, brain-damaged-looking grin. I haul off and sock her, impossibly hard, right in her spongy, pudding gut. She sits down, oomph, her legs shooting out straight in front of her, a countenance of abject astonishment for one...two...three...and then the shriek like all the tortured souls of purgatory. I scramble into the side yard and plunge into thorny bushes, the kind we used to call "squishberry" bushes — scratchy wood branches with evergreen needles and red gelatinous berries that we were repeatedly cautioned were poisonous, don't touch, don't eat that. Bushes that I've never seen anywhere since, but that seemed to litter every yard of my memory of that Rochester neighborhood.

The memory ends there. I don't know how long Baby Duffy wailed, nor how long I crouched in those bushes, huddled against the foundation's rough concrete, squatting with palms pressed to muddy ground for balance. Her screams must surely have summoned the adults. Did my mother find me? Did she scold me, make me apologize? Did I cower there for two minutes, two hours? Or forty-one years?

I recognize that this is not the most horrible thing I have ever done. Adolescent memories are tattooed with pilfered lip gloss, malicious gossip, drunken indiscretions. Adult life is equally venal. Envy, sloth, lust, what have you — the deadly sins and I remain on a first name basis. That one boyfriend, what was his name, he had a wife, didn't he? Oh, and there was the time I threw my son's ice cream cone out the car window .... Well, you get the idea.

So why do I torture myself with this particular memory? And why, for that matter, can't I bring myself to cash the cosmic "Get Out of Jail Free" card my mother tenders when she insists this whole scene is neurotic confabulation?

Because this memory is the first. And it is violent.

I loathe violence. I am myself a victim (or wait, survivor, that's right, we say survivor) of violence. And violence terrifies me. Purple faces, loud voices, slammed doors turn my stomach to acid and ice.

So I reject violence. I am a pacifist, a hippie, a tree-hugger. I protest wars, practice yoga, sing "If I Had a Hammer" and "Give Peace A Chance" with embarrassing ardor. I spent twenty years counseling tormented, rageful adolescents to "use their words" in order to control, to transform their violent and terrifying lives. Hey, every time I see that bumper sticker, I really do make a sincere and conscious effort to visualize world peace.

But this memory, the first memory, undoes it all and lays me bare. To see my skin-kneed self in this memory — to feel the rage and the power and goddamn it the thrill of knocking someone even smaller, even younger, even more vulnerable on her ass — is like the finger of some bad-ass biker version of God pointing straight at my heart: So much for your ideals, you vicious little shit, take a look at who you are....

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