Sunday, April 11, 2010

Leaving St James

I have had so much fun with Facebook. Just last week I connected with a friend from grade school that I hadn’t spoken to since…oh, dear this is entirely too revealing! Well, I hadn’t spoken to her since my family left Florida when I was in the 6th grade. I always thought Patty was one of the prettiest girls in class. She had soft curly light brown hair and lovely freckles and a smile that made you trust that the entire world was going to be all right in spite of everything.

Our most memorable time together was actually my second television appearance. Now that I count it up, I think I’ve probably had my 15 minutes of fame already. As I said before, I think that’s just fine really. They caught me during my finest hours back then already, things happening for the best and all. Patty and I were selected to be among the angels kneeling by the manger in the Christmas choir concert televised locally in Orlando. We were selected, for reasons I cannot quite pinpoint, to kneel silently and still, in adoration, wearing pastel angel robes, wings and halos. We were in truth seldom silent, seldom deserving of halos and seldom in need of wings to fly about. My mother, however, was bursting with pride.

My first television appearance had a strangely spiritual context also. It seemed unlikely at the time. I had just that week turned 6 years old. My neighborhood playmate Roxanne and I were treated to an appearance on the Popeye Show with Captain Bob. When Captain Bob dutifully interviewed me in front of the entire broadcasting audience in central Florida and asked how old I was, it being my birthday and all, I panicked and said, “Five.” After all, I had been five a lot longer than I had been six.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect on the Popeye Show but being quizzed about my age wasn’t it. I really wasn’t prepared for the reaction I got from pal Roxanne’s mother who picked us up from the show. She told me I was going to hell for “lying on television.” She was serious. Apparently lying on television is much worse than lying to your mom at home, at least according to Roxanne’s mom. I wasn’t sure about that. What I was sure about was that Roxanne’s mom was a nut and that God wasn’t going to send me, whether I was 5 or 6, to hell for making a mistake, fer goodness’ sake. I was also sure that, having regained my composure from being momentarily star-struck, I was not going to give Roxanne’s mom the benefit of my opinion as freely as she had given hers to me. I waited to share my experience with my mom, who agreed with me on both counts. Moms can be really good that way. We concluded that some people’s interpretation of God was just too limiting to be realistic and thus began my first small taste of fear and loathing in the name of religion. I concluded not to belong to Roxanne’s family’s denomination, which shall be nameless here in the spirit of good will and open-mindedness. It wasn’t that I would not have them, per se, but the certain knowledge that they would not have me. Best not to go where you’re not welcome.

Flash forward a couple of years and there Patty and I were kneeling in poker-faced adoration, pretending to be angels, while Sister Maryanna waved her black and white flowing habited arms rhythmically about in front of the choir leading Handel’s Messiah. One thing they don’t tell fluffy-haired children pretending to be angels is that the Messiah is a fairly long concert. Patty and I really had had no idea what we were in for. Robes, wings and halos were the trappings of show biz for us, the perks. The harsh truth soon made itself known. The hard surface of the floor and our knees, however padded by baby fat and pastel robes, begin their slow conjunction. Without warning, Patty fainted dead away, falling out of camera range. She made a crash loud enough to be heard above the choir, I was told. The drama!

Having panicked once in front of the camera, and been damned for it to boot, I was bound and determined not to let that happen again. With steely resolve, I continued my angelic vigil while the choir sang, Sister Maryanna flailed, Patty was dragged off set and the cameras kept rolling. My natural instinct to rescue my friend was overridden completely by my need to prove, once and for all, especially in front of the plaster likeness of the Baby Jesus, I was worthy of televised steadfastness and honesty of performance. Take that, Roxanne’s mom!

Of course, my first words to Patty now nearly half a century later were, “Patty! Fellow television angel!” To which she replied, FB style, “Marcia!!! were you kneeling there with me when I fainted on tv???? is this really you??” I was gratified to know that that day had been as remarkable for her as it had been for me.

My family left Florida and all its wonders when I was in 6th grade. It was a difficult journey for all of us. It threw our whole family into a years-long depression, lamenting the loss of childhood, lush wildlife, the ocean beaches and my beloved school. We had moved to New Mexico, not the romantic spa-towns of Taos or Santa Fe or even the cultural mixing bowl of Albuquerque, but to the windy, gritty eastern side called the staked plains, to a spring that had dried up some 70 years earlier, to a place where the nearest park was a set of sand dunes resting over caliche limestone also known as "hardpan." In a postcard back to one of my grade school friends in Florida, like a castaway's message in a bottle, I wrote, “Great beach. No ocean.”

That great uprooting did much to shape my character. Like many character-building opportunities, it was in many ways joyless to say the least. My new schools in New Mexico, touted to be excellent, were approximately two years behind academically from my school in Florida. Only sickly elm trees grew in my new town, hated for their oozing Dutch elm disease. The only wildlife of any interest was the “horned toad” or horned lizard, and it was endangered. My new classmates, in their “West of Texas” south midlands dialect, made fun of my “British” accent. My family struggled to maintain any cohesiveness and often failed.

Taking me out of my warm nest in Florida, however, was ever so essential to my path. Like the 8 of Cups, sometimes your path leads you away from the things you love to a lesson you would never learn had you stayed in your comfort zone. I have never felt truly at home anywhere since leaving central Florida. My first visit back, however, was some 30 years later.

I drove to my former home near Lake Conway, its outer walls still sparkly blue, its grass still wide-bladed and cool in the summer’s heat. I drove to my old school, abandoned for summer. I got out of my rental car, hugged a tree near where I used to play and cried. I stood on the steps, stared at the coquina rock walls and knew I was now forever on the outside looking in. Clearly, it is no longer my home now, either.  I am on my path. 

At least one of the lessons I learned is that you never truly lose what you love and home is a place you carry in your heart. It is easily lost if you define it so narrowly as by geography. It is easily found in the joy of reuniting with a fellow friend-at-halos who knelt with you wing-to-wing on the hard floor while all your little world watched you pray.

Best wishes.


  1. Marcia,

    This is a beautiful post. You've really captured the essence of that wistfulness many of us carry with us. Thanks for providing this unexpected dose of spirit.

    P.S. Can you believe someone telling a young child that they were going to hell? Even if they believe it...amazing.

  2. Thanks, Alec! At least I had the presence of mind at barely 6 to reject what I had been told. People think the things they say to children don't matter. They do.