Have you started reading our September book club pick yet? I’m only a tenth of the way in, but I am bowled over by Fatima Mirza’s evocative, truthful portraitures of childhood and specifically childhood relationships with siblings and parents. I sat and stared off into space after reading the following passage, which takes places just after one of the characters, Hadia, is called down to the nurse’s office to check on her little brother, Amar:
“It is likely that nothing is wrong. She takes her time walking down the empty corridor, annoyed at Amar for embarrassing her again, for pulling her from her lesson. Her footsteps echo and she tries to quiet them by walking on tiptoe. Sentences from classrooms drift from open doors. Grades older than fifth grade, where they are talking about spelling, math, stars, and stories. She pauses at every open door just to see what those lessons are like. But what if, this time, it is not nothing? She thinks of grazed knees and broken bones. […] She quickens her pace. By the time she reaches the corner she is running, and the reflection of the lightbulbs on the floor blur beneath her. The school nurse looks up from her paperwork at Hadia, who arrives breathless, and she welcomes her in with a wave that tells her all is well. Bad news is always delivered in a hurry.”
My Lord — I so deeply relate to every nuance of this passage that I wondered if I’d nodded off and tumbled into my own memories. I had heard from SJP (in her Goop podcast) that Mirza in part wrote this book to demonstrate that American families, regardless of racial, cultural, and religious distinctions, are more the same than different: the same clashes, the same anxieties, the same issues of togetherness and exclusion and identity and independence. Reading this passage, I see that ethos clearly, as I look at Hadia and see only myself.
More specifically, I see myself in first grade, with bangs trimmed tidily across my forehead and a gray plaid uniform jumper itching my legs. I had a kidney condition at the time and, before I’d had corrective surgery, my parents had asked my teacher, a petite, white-haired sparkplug named Sister Teresa, to permit me to use the restroom whenever I needed to out of medical necessity. Sister Teresa had nodded gravely, knelt beside me, and told me that I didn’t even need to raise my hand; I could just get up and leave the classroom at will. I gulped.
For the entire school year, I struggled to work up the courage to quietly rise from my seat and use the restroom mid-class. I didn’t want the attention of my classmates, and, despite being granted explicit permission, the maneuver felt stealthy, illicit. (Rule follower much?) I would feel my cheeks burn, the eyes of my classmates boring into my head, and the momentary confusion and then nodding acceptance of Sister Teresa as she watched me wordlessly rise and exit the room. If memory serves, I made a grand total of three such pilgrimages and then resigned myself to using the facilities before or after class.
But from those handful of solo voyages, I can so clearly recall the sensation of simultaneous trespass and freedom that, even now, I can feel it in my chest. Mirza’s passage returned this to me: “Her footsteps echo and she tries to quiet them by walking on tiptoe.” I can feel the stunning, resounding silence of the hallway, devoid of its usual swarms of children, its unexpected enormity. The milk fridge at the far end of the hall suddenly looked miles away; the ceilings must have been forty feet high. Then, this: “Sentences from classrooms drift from open doors.” Yes! The occasional crescendo of voices interrupting my journey, the words of teachers passing briskly down the hall lingering like thought bubbles in a cartoon. Then, this: the persistent presence of my siblings in everything I did. Hadia’s idle sojourn down the hallway is interrupted by sudden, mounting concern over the well-being of her brother. Me, too: I’d catch myself thinking about my kidney condition and then, following the same thought orbit I always did, stumble into thinking about my brother, who shared the same condition, but had undergone surgery before me. My mother had given him gifts every day he was in the hospital; would the same be true for me? When I saw him after the operation, he had looked the same — but with more Legos, and sleepier, and maybe a little smaller. Then, as now, my siblings were a means for me to understand the world around me. In some ways, they were stand-ins for bigger things — I thought, for example, that all boys played baseball as a sort of mandatory practice, like attending school, just because my brother did — and in other ways, they were lessons and learnings in and of themselves, and I understood, even then, that elements of them were idiosyncratic.
There was a wonderful bit of critical work I read years ago on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which the scholar explains that Joyce is wildly allusive in the early portions of that book (the opening lines consist of snippets of nursery rhymes strung together) because children understand the world around them through reference, the attachment of this physical thing to that nonphysical thing. A sound to a person, a place to a smell, a word to a picture of an animal. “A moo-cow” in a nursery rhyme means nothing until attached to the image of a cow, and so our interpretations of the world as children are a pastiche of images, clippings from books, songs on the radio, the rise and fall of The Our Father in Sunday Mass, and the hum of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” under my father’s breath in the front seat of his burgundy Cadillac while I gazed at the shiny black patent leather party shoes sticking straight out before me.
My endpoint is this: as a child, I filtered my life experience through the prism of not only cultural references but the study of my siblings. They were present in everything I did, threaded through my every waking thought, shaping me at every turn. The color blue was mine, but green was Elizabeth’s. My brother had told Christina she couldn’t eat any of the Ruffles potato chips because they were actually made up of tiny animal bones — so delicate, so thin — just like the mouse bones he and I had picked out of pellets (did anyone else have this assignment?) in science class. I would never have thought of Ruffles in that way, but my brother had, and now I did, too. (And also, more Ruffles for us.) Eleanor had misspelled FLUKE as “flook” — a customary kind of spelling error for a small child, but not for her: she was brilliant, and she never made those mistakes. The fact that she was trying to use the word “fluke” at the age of five or six should prove my point. But, it was endearing, and we laughed about it. A few months later, though I was far too old for such childishness, I purposefully misspelled magical on the front of a playbill I put together for a performance of Cats my siblings and I were putting on for my visiting uncle. I watched his face, waiting for an acknowledgment of my darling Eleanor-like juniority, but none came. I knew better, and I flushed. The same year, I lost the last round of a school-wide spelling bee because of the word refrigerator. (I’d added a “d,” thinking of the abbreviation, “fridge.”) I knew it was comeuppance for the cute routine I’d tried to pull on that damn playbill. Eleanor and fluke came tumbling through my mind, too.
The Mirza book is a dense network of such associations, memories, references and as such feels deeply true in form to the experience of childhood as a sibling. When I think now about my kidney surgery, the memories are not of the medical or physical sort; rather, I jump to the web of sibling interactions that surrounded it. I think first of waking up to the smell of Eggo toaster waffles the morning I went to the hospital. I wasn’t allowed to eat because I had to fast until my procedure later that day, and I remember thinking how cruel it was that my siblings would be eating waffles without me. I was shocked, come to think of it, that they were going through their normal daily routines, that my impending hospitalization wouldn’t preclude them from doing such things. It was a reminder that I was one of five and not the center of that universe, let alone broader ones. Siblinghood does that to you.
When I came home from the hospital, it was the fourth of July. My father carried a kitchen chair out onto the asphalt cul de sac of our driveway and helped me, tenderly, walk over to it. Once I was seated, he brought out a box of sparklers and I watched as my siblings flitted around like fireflies, dotting the purple-black air with evanescent circles and fading-to-black outlines of their names.
“Jennie, Jennie –” my brother called, spelling my name for me with his sparkler because I could not, his gesture an extension of me, my heart outside my body.
Siblinghood does that to you, too.
I love — LOVE! — this cropped leopard coat. Kate Moss vibes.
With the return of fall, I’m going from white or pastel pink nails to glossy red. I love OPI’s Big Apple Red this time of year.
These satin jammies are my cup of tea.
I am HEAD OVER HEELS for my new Ole Henriksen moisturizer. It’s just as good as the serum I’m constantly raving about. It glides on like a dream and instantly brightens my skin. I also find my makeup goes on much more smoothly with it. I’m in love with this brand!
This is such a fun statement for $24.
I own this exact Patagonia fleece in the raw linen color and it is my favorite thing ever for cool mornings walking the dog — so snuggly, so throwback. I can’t wait to pull it out!
I wrote about all of my secrets to a perfect at-home blowout here, but I have a new entrant: DryBar’s Prep Rally. I love this stuff. It leaves my hair soft and pliable and surprisingly unwavy even when I just spritz it on and let it air-dry with no hot tools.
I’ve been on the hunt for new jammies for mini. Any recs for toddlers?! I usually splurge on one or two higher end styles from Roberta Roller Rabbit, Petidoux (SO SOFT), or TBBC, but I always mix in some less expensive styles, too. I snagged these but otherwise am underwhelmed by the options at Gap/Old Navy/Burts Bees right now, and those tend be my go-to spots for affordable but well-made jammies. (I love Hanna Andersson but have something bordering on an allergic reaction when it comes to paying their shipping fees. How come I need to pay $12.95 for them to ship me a few ounces of clothing when Prime will ship me a fridge for free? Harrrrrrumph. They really need to reconsider!)