The WORLD in Me

“Should you not listen well to the questions you ask out of nowhere?  Only in looking back do you find those crumbs you dropped that marked your way forward.”

-from A Year in the World, by Frances Mayes

It was 1976, the 200th anniversary of our Nation, when my Gram whisked me away from the mighty banks of the Hudson at West Point to venture toward another mighty icon of American values–Walt Disney World.

The trip from New York to Florida stole three days of my young life.  At night, we pulled off to the side of the road and slept in Gram’s car–4 of us–including my aunts Col and Trish, who were just teenagers themselves.

On our way down the coast, we stopped for smoked fish purchased from a shack at the end of a long pier in the middle of nowhere, and ate it out of paper bags.

Once inside the great length of Florida, we pulled over at a farm stand for a sack of juicy oranges and sucked them down in the car too, leaving me with sticky hands that were left sticky for entirely too long for a first born child of two first born parents, one of whom was a surgeon.

I sang to pass the hours of the journey–hot hits from the seventies–lyrical icons of more American values– “I want to do something freaky to you…”  and “I believe in miracles, since you came along, you sexy thing…”  and, “That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it, uh huh, un huh…”

I was 12.

I also practiced saying that it was Disney “World” to which we were heading, NOT Disney “Land.” Disney WORLD was in Florida.  Disney LAND was in California.  This distinction was of utmost importance among children and took me years of practice and correction to get straight.

Epcot Center, Walt Disney World

My other grandmother (and great-grandmother), on my father’s side, Nana Lila, and her mother, my Great Nana Burrows, steeped me in awareness of the WORLD–not Disney, but the world abroad–the one from my Nana B’s atlas in which she circled all the places that my great-grandfather Amos visited as a Merchant Marine–from South America to Asia–and also those places to which she accompanied him–just as many, just as far away.

Each Christmas, my Nana Lila gave me a small doll, dressed in costume from a foreign nation–in greens or reds or golds.  Over the years, I treasured this collection with dreams of visiting each homeland.

In the meantime, Nana helped me with my French which was her major at Douglass where she had plans of being an interpreter at the UN. Instead she settled into a life as a young mother and wife, and later enjoyed trips abroad.  When I came of age, she promised a cruise to the Top of the World.

It’s no surprise then that my favorite place inside Disney was the 15-minute cruise around the Seven Seaways Canal surrounded by singing dolls dressed in traditional costumes–my childhood dolls come to life!

The installation of “it’s a small world” was personally supervised by Walt himself, originally created for the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964-65  in honor of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

My Gram attempted to bully me into braving the roller coaster inside Space Mountain, but I just kept taking the cruise of the seven seas and its neighboring attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean.  I returned home with my name engraved on an ancient coin and dreamed of my own adventures.

Though my Nana died before she could fulfill her promise to travel with me,  I set out on my own, a handful of years later, with a semester in London and return trips backpacking around the continent–including a visit to Paris in each season.

That wanderlust was left behind when I got a job, married, and became a mother.  Each of these were beautiful realizations themselves, but they quickly crowded out my place in the bigger world.

Certainly there were possibilities of travel in the twenty years that I remained stateside–from the teachers’ exchange program in the USSR to the International Schools around the world and many other small ignitions in between–but theses fires fizzled out shortly after they were fanned; and mostly I tried not to think about what I was missing.

Finally, I discovered Canada, and three family trips tickled my thirst for all things foreign, allowing me to pretend that I was back in Paris, delighting in French food and culture.

I explored the world on the Web too and made acquaintances across the great oceans. I entertained careers with international flair–teaching English to foreign students, working at the School for International Training, supporting others who traveled the globe–but nothing quite fit until I was so desperate that I forced myself out of the container that I had created to protect myself (and my family) from my love of the world…

On the day upon which I was to accept a public health position at a nearby hospital, I posted this plea to Facebook friends~

Just before I have to say Yeah or Nay,
I find & flirt with another job.
Insanity or cold feet?

Two days later, I sat in an interview chair under a banner listing 20 nations around the globe.  The mission was world peace–established through the experiment of living among others in foreign countries. Was it possible that I found work in my hometown which would connect me meaningfully to the world abroad?

When the director told me that the responsibilities included attending and facilitating the annual conference–which took place the preceding year in Paris–I almost fell out of my chair.

Following the interview, my husband mistook my delirious gaze for anxiety or fear.  It took me hours before I had the courage to reveal that this was bliss; and although it would be another two weeks before they would select their candidate, my certainty had bubbled up–inside.

The miracle was—that there was plenty of room–in my life–to remain rooted to my family and home–while celebrating my place in the world outside.

The question was–did I have the courage to claim it?


Kelly Salasin, November 16, 2010

It took ten posts to get to this one. Here’s where I started: The Mask;

and here’s the post that follows The World in Me: The Alchemy of Alignment.

The Healing Eggs

I always thought I disliked eggs, that they weren’t my thing, until I made the connection between them and 1975. (My clenching stomach served as the time machine.)

It was the summer of my twelfth year, when we drove from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson River Valley. While I lay on the floor of our curtain van, I listened as my mother and sisters wept their way out of Colorado, and 2000 miles of clouds passed by.

A year earlier, during the final stretch of my father’s medical residency, their voices grew loud enough to wake me in my basement bedroom. Later I watched as he emptied bottles down the drain, demanding to know her hiding places.

“Watch your mother,” he said. “She’s sick. Don’t let her get more.”

My stomach clenched.

The warnings continued after we arrived at West Point, and soon after, my mother left, taking the youngest two with her. I entered Junior High, the 5th school of my elementary career, the following week. One of our first assignments was to go to the fabric store “with your mother” to buy a yard of material.

My stomach clenched.

I flushed with embarrassment and relief  when my new friend, Trudy Conti, asked her mother if I could go along with them. I watched as Mrs. Conti hesitated. Later she laughed as she wrapped the tape measure around my undeveloped breasts.

I missed my mother.

Mrs. Conti was German. She made a delicious noodle called Spaetzle, and Trudy shared chewy fruit candies sent by her grandparents. Trudy was born in Germany, but she hadn’t been there since she was five. That’s when her mother met and married her stepfather. Captain Conti was now an esteemed West Point TAC (a professor at the military school) who in his spare time molested his stepdaughter.

“Tell your mother,” I urged Trudy, from the floor of her television room, inside our sleeping bags.

When she finally did, Mrs. Conti slapped her: “Do you want to go back to Germany with nothing!”

We were too afraid of Captain Conti to tell anyone else. I once watched him swipe the back of his hand across Trudy’s cheek right in front of Eisenhower Hall. He spied her talking to boys after the movie.

Trudy spent a lot of time with boys. She developed early. In the hallways of schools and theaters and football stadiums, boys would grab her breasts and buttocks, and Trudy would laugh. But I saw the sadness beneath her dismissal.

When Mrs. Conti wasn’t home, Captain Conti took Trudy into the bathroom and locked the door. He showed her how it changed and grew hard. Other times, he lay behind her on the couch while they watched television, and then turned her toward him to put his tongue in her mouth.

Mrs. Conti taught us about our periods when they came. She showed us how to use a calendar. How to count the days. When to expect our next bleed.

I don’t remember much else about the months without my mother. My father was the one to care for us in her absence and that was…  strange. He’d been away most of my life–first at college, then medical school, then his internship and residency. But now he had a day job at the base hospital.

On the evening of the neighborhood block party, he seemed embarrassed without a wife, but he rose to the occasion, preparing a “Caesar Salad” in his mother’s large wooden bowl in which my mother served popcorn. I didn’t even know he could cook.

“It’s my specialty,” he pronounced.

We stayed at the party until after dark, and even though it was a school night, our father was magically warm and cheery, and didn’t send us right to bed when we got home. My sister and I watched him from the couch with cautious delight, sensing he had slipped into that soft place so familiar and unsettling in our mother.

During the bulk of her absence, her laissez-faire parenting was replaced with his operating-room autocracy. Breakfast was served at 8. His favorite. Just the way he liked them. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t hungry and didn’t like them runny. “Eat them,” he said of the over-easy eggs before me.

My stomach clenched.

More than thirty years later, I find myself living next door to a friend with chickens. “Jodi’s eggs are the best,” my son proclaims again and again, encouraging me to give them a try. And so I do–even the green ones–and to my surprise I find that I almost enjoy them every once and awhile.

Recently, however, I’ve done something alarming. I’ve taken an an egg for breakfast four days in a row. My stomach clenches–and I don’t know why. Until I track it back thirty years.

I’ve made this trip at least once before–with my father. I was in my twenties, teaching middle-school at the time. A speaker came to talk to the kids about sexual abuse, encouraging them to “Tell someone,” and I realized that I was among those who “never told.” And so I did, a decade too late.

My father listened and assured me that he could have handled Captain Conti. He would have taken him aside and threatened him with exposure and insisted on weekly reports from a psychiatrist. (My father outranked him.)

Although it didn’t change a thing about what happened to Trudy, I felt better.

After my freshman year in high school, my father retired from the Army, and I never saw my friend again. Trudy moved with her family to Texas. She wrote me about her boyfriend “Brownie” and sent a long of photo of her, older, but with the same smile–sad and hopeful.

I think of Trudy whenever my dad comes to visit. I rework that time over and over again in my mind to see if I can’t find some way for my twelve-year old self to tell; but my friend’s confidence is too precious, and Captain Conti’s threat too looming; and even as an adult, I’m not sure that it would have turned out any better for Trudy if I had.

My father is older now, still a physician, but no longer practicing surgery. He finally sits still long enough for me to make him breakfast. I fry him up some of my neighbor’s eggs–just the way he likes them–and we eat them together.

(privacy note: the name of my childhood friend has been changed)