I finally learned how old I was.
I was seven.
I was in the second grade.
It was the fall before I made my first Holy Communion. I like to say that all together. First and Holy and Communion. It was a big deal. I remember the date I made that first and holy communion, May 15, 1971. I remember it so vividly. My communion has nothing to do with being molested, except that I was seven when these two polarizing events occurred. Being violated and being sanctified. I can recall so much about the one event but I couldn’t recall my age or the date or the man that came and left carrying away 42 years of me.
Some of the details that I can recall are sketchy and vague, like a dream just out of reach, with faded edges just out of view. Vapor. Some details are vivid and clear. I remember being asked if I wanted a dollar. I remember being asked to take my shirt off. I really wanted that dollar. I have felt the shame of that wanting for so long after. I was one of four children living in a railroad flat in Queens. My mother did not work, as most did not, could not, with four children between the ages of five and nine. Most would not, it was not what mothers did. They remained home to care for their children. My father’s salary just barely paid for necessities. Oh, yes, I wanted that dollar. No one was offering dollars in my day to day experience. Take my shirt off for a dollar? It seemed strange, I can remember hesitating. No one asked me to take my shirt off in my day to day living either. It was inconvenient more than it was bad, in my seven year old mind. I was wearing culottes. I remember thinking this was making the request difficult and I can even recall feeling I was not able to comply quickly, correctly. That I was not being "good". We all needed to listen to adults.
He was an adult and I remember he looked like a Dad. Although, I don’t know exactly what he looked like, or if I haven’t been trying faces on him most of my life to force this memory clear, to put it too rest. He wore a hat and an overcoat, as most men still did in 1971. I thought for the longest time that he might have been someone that was an acquaintance of my father. I might have thought this because I would not have otherwise seen men that I didn’t know. He seemed safe and he spoke gently the way my father’s friends, and acquaintances spoke with me, when and if they did. I don't know who he was.
I was seven. A tomboyish waif of a thing. I played with the boys and the girls equally. I might have even had my shirt off at times when it was really hot in our third floor apartment, when I was four, and five, and maybe even six, and I got to sit out on the fire escape because the heat was stifling. It was strange to be asked to take off my shirt but it didn’t register as wrong or bad or dirty or shameful. Not until much later.
I know more than the event itself, and not understanding the nature of it, the years of not having it validated or acknowledged have been much more damaging. I know that there would not have been a “good” time to validate or acknowledge it, I know I have stoically carried on and stifled and buried and contained this occurrence with an iron-clad lock-box around a soft and wanting heart. I know I waited until this very week to clearly and quietly articulate, validate and acknowledge my own shame and fear that have been tightly wrapped around me for more than four decades. And now, because I was finally ready to speak of it with clarity and not with blame, I learned I was seven.
I know the reality that it could have ended much worse, had the building super not come in from work shortly after I was followed into my apartment building. Unfortunately, the building super also plays a role larger than life in my memories. He saved me, but he also reacted in a way that was misunderstood by my seven year old self. He appeared angry and perhaps disgusted, and these expressions were related to me. I took them on. Anger and disgust and me. Shame and self-blame and me. The seven year old mind is incapable of teasing out the expressions of adults when they are dramatic and intense and unpleasant. As a 29 year old mother, and a 34 year old mother, and a 49 year old woman and every stage between, I am not sure that his disgust and his anger was solely directed at the predator in the hallway, as I stood cornered against the stairway. I was seven years old. I was alone and unsupervised. It was dusk. I was seven years old and I was unprotected and alone and vulnerable.
I also know I would have begged and bothered and persistently asked to be able to go to the corner store all by my big girl self. I know it would have meant so much to me to prove my independence and my ability to be responsible. I know I was one of four young children. I was spirited and tenacious and eager and excited when I wasn’t quietly adrift or distracted or solemn. I imagine I went to that store alone with great pride, skinny legged and full of life. I can recall returning towards the apartment slower than when I set off. Ambling and maybe contented in being big enough to travel alone on a task reserved for my older brother or sister, all of eight and nine.
I remember how he crossed the street, jay-walking. I remember seeing the blue door across the street. I remember the blue of the door because it stood out. I don’t remember what he said, or how he engaged me into conversation and was able to follow me into the entry-way, that I would have needed to be buzzed beyond into the hallway and the stairs, leading up. Or did I get to have the key? Would I have been given the key? I don’t need to know. I know now, finally, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was not wrong or bad or somehow deserving of wrong and bad.
I have been churning and processing and studying and reviewing the data of my being to the point of derision. Meanwhile the Universe has been shifting and adjusting and allowing the light to shine just-so for me lately. I was gifted with a safe and thrilling opportunity to try out some much needed trust building and it was a very good start, although bumpy and discordant. It gave me the chance to decipher what needs maybe a tad more tweaking and what might work out just fine. It allowed me to, ahem, perhaps, metaphorically speaking, take off my shirt with freedom and abandon and no more shame. It taught me to trust myself and open up to what may lie ahead and be glad in the offering.
My trusting of myself and another, has a look and feel that may not be easily recognized, even slightly as trust, or calm, or comfort. Part of this process of trusting for me, is similar to the way I approach the lake near my cottage in the northern Adirondacks. I walk carefully along the dock to the end, calmly poised. I stare off into the blackness of the lake, the water deep at this edge, sizing it up but ready for the risk. It will be cold and arousing. I dive, smoothly with grace. I am confident in my diving. (My swimming leaves a bit to be desired.) When I make contact, I breathe in loudly, stunned, although I knew in advance it would be alarming, still I gasp audibly. I go under, emerge jerkily, releasing the panic and then re-emerging slowly balanced and glad in the experience. I know as I have attempted to let go and trust, it may have initially appeared dispiriting and easily misunderstood as not being trusting. I am uncertain. I may have seemed defensive or combative. I can’t change that just yet, and maybe not ever. But for those close enough to see, I am smiling and pleased with my graceful dive, or angst ridden leaps and bounds. There is gladness in the experience of being able to release the panic of risk-taking and fully enjoy the result and effect of the taking.
As I move forward and reclaim my seven year old self, I want to speak with clarity and be heard with calm. I want to trust fully and live with joy and expectation. I want my worst self to still be cared for and protected. My worst self has grown from this place of fear and anger and disgust and shame. I know now, these are not fertile grounds to grow in. Shame and disgust have bred fear and anger and my 49 year old self is finally able to tease out the reality that these feelings expressed in my direction, no longer need to claim me or name and identify me. Graceful diver, spirited, tenacious, eager, excited, occasionally quietly adrift, easily distracted, or solemn and clear. Ready.