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Hold My Hand
by Frances Garrett

I’m three, hold my hand! Walk with me, give me your lap. Brush my hair, make me cookies. Dry my face, wash my hands. I need a Band-Aid. Watch me! Go away! Come back. Tell me a story.

   “Once upon time there were four bears: Mama Bear, Papa Bear,    Brother Bear, and Sister Bear,” Mama began. “Sister is just like you.”

I’m four. Stop the car! Sneezy kitties, scratchy sweater, staticy hair, braids too tight. Go faster! Powdered milk, cinnamon toast, blackberries, tomato soup. Stay at the table, be quiet. Look out the window, read your book, lie down now.

   “Sister stayed at home with Mama until one day the bus came and    she had to go to school. She wouldn’t get on, so Mama took her back    home.”

I’m six. We drive on the highway with all the kitties for seven days until we reach Seattle. My grandma walks me to school down a flight of stairs in the forest. After school we dig potatoes out of the ground and pick beans. I hide in the couch-swing with a pile of National Geographics. The Gilbert Islands, the Ivory Coast. Acid rain, Ethiopia, Jane Goodall. Gypsy moths. Lake Baikal, bearded seals, black-bellied hamsters.

I’m seven. We move to Portland and live in a big white house with a basement room painted all black. I collect old cans and cereal boxes and open a store. On my bed is a quilt made from patches of our old clothes. Before the first day of school I pull the covers to my chin and cry. Hold my hand, dry my face.

   “In the middle of the year they moved again, a nice house on a tree-    lined street near a school and a piano teacher. Sister skipped a grade    so never learned cursive.”

I’m eight. They tell me to use another girl’s workbook, and they say she was black. I play tetherball with Charmaine. We hear that Jenny’s father stays at home and smokes marijuana, but we play with her anyway, sometimes. In the winter there is a big storm. Ice everywhere, trees blocking the street, no school. Be with me!

   “Each night Papa made a fire and Mama lit candles. The house was    very cold but their quilts were heavy and warm.”

When I turn ten, for the first time my age is not a number but a line and a circle. Perfectly straight, perfectly round. Again: top to bottom, all around, sharpened pencil, line them up straight across. After school I can walk home, up the hill, through the trees, open the door, use my own key. Run in the grass, slide down the mud, collect stream water in jam jars.

   “The morning after Mt St Helens erupted the streets were filled with    ash, the cars gray and the air heavy. Sister lined her windowsill with    canning jars filled with steely dust. She cut pictures out of the    newspaper and wrote a school report on volcanoes.”

I’m eleven. Don’t brush my hair, don’t wash my sweatshirt, give me more pie, leave me alone, be with me. Tanja and I sneak into the backyards of unkempt houses and peer into their windows. We are caught by ghostly old ladies and run away laughing.

At fifteen I ride my bike several miles to school, come home early and watch soap operas before boarding a bus to Beaverton for dance class. Dancing every day except Sunday, when I stay in bed and cry. Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte keep me company. I am forced to become a governess. I am isolated in a chilled stone manor house. Seaside winds toss my coattails as I tear across the moors. I follow a strong mustached man who turns violent; I languish in bed, tubercular. Hold my hand, be with me.

I’m seventeen. We visit colleges on the East Coast: Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Brown, Columbia, Vassar. In the attic bathroom of my uncle’s cold New Jersey house I get my period for the first time but don’t tell anyone. Dry my face. I don’t want to go to college, I just want to dance, and I apply to three schools in New York City, along with all the rest.

At eighteen I dislocate my kneecap in a ballet class weeks before school starts and board the plane to New York City with a full leg cast. My roommate’s parents pick me up and bring me to the dormitory. She is Jewish. Next door to us there are two boys, Ben and Dave. I wait in registration lines for days and select my courses. A contact lens falls out in a dirty hallway and I call home, crying. I take the subway downtown for classes alongside professional dancers, and I rehearse for a performance in a Barnard studio without sprung floors; my shins feel like splintering and I fracture my metatarsal. I languish in bed, tubercular. Don’t leave, Ben. Be with me.

He held my hand until he died. Walk with me, give me your lap. Tell me a story.

PHOTOGRAPH: The author at age seven on the beach in the Pacific Northwest.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frances Garrett, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto, is the author of articles and books on Tibetan religious and medical history. She grew up in Oregon and moved to Canada in 2003.