When I was a little girl, I took grownups at their word. Eventually, experience and disappointment taught me not to trust them.
Uncle Eddie was my mother’s sister’s husband’s brother. I guess he wasn’t really my uncle, but I called him Uncle Eddie, and his wife was Aunt Jo to me.
Aunt Jo was glamourous. She wore makeup and sparkly jewelry and even a mink stole over her shoulders in cool weather. She smelled like perfume and laughed melodiously. She made a big fuss over me, and made me feel special.
My parents in contrast were very plain and ordinary, and their affection for me depended on my excellence. (For example, if I had straight A’s on my report card, I had their approval. But one B proved I wasn’t trying hard enough.)
One night when Aunt Jo and Uncle Eddie were over, I managed to captivate Aunt Jo. “I’m gonna take you home with me,” she said. And I thought she meant it.
I had a doll suitcase, which I emptied and packed with a nightgown and a change of clothes. When Aunt Jo and Uncle Eddie got up to leave, I grabbed my suitcase and joined them.
When my parents asked me where I thought I was going, I reminded them that Aunt Jo said she was taking me home with her, and then I found out that was a joke. It wasn’t funny to me; it was heartbreaking, a betrayal.
Another day, when I was roaming the neighborhood with my friend Rose, we heard music and singing and laughing from her neighbor’s house. “Let’s see what’s going on,” she said, and we rang the doorbell.
The lady of the house let us in. Some sort of celebration was going full swing. The lady made a big fuss over Rose (kind of like the fuss Aunt Jo would make over me). She let Rose sit on the piano bench with her as she played piano and sang a song. Then she passed a candy bowl to Rose and me and we helped ourselves to sweet treats. Rose said, “We have to go now,” and the lady said, “Come back soon.” Then she turned to me and said, “You too.”
The next day, as I passed the house, I remembered the lady’s words. I also remembered the candy bowl. So I rang the doorbell.
When the lady came to the door, she was wearing a robe and seemed very tired, not nearly as vivacious as the day before. “Yes?”
She didn’t seem to recognize me. “I’m Andrea. I was here yesterday with Rose.”
“And. . . ?”
“You said I should come back soon.”
“What do you want?”
I thought about the candy bowl, but it would be rude to ask for candy. Why did she not remember me? I thought she wanted me to visit. “Never mind,” I finally said, and went on my way.
Many years later, I realized that both Aunt Jo and Rose’s neighbor were likely tipsy when they said those words to me that were so full of promise.
But little kids don’t understand the implications of alcohol. They don’t understand why grownups would say something and then not follow through, as if they didn’t even remember.
My way of coping with the capriciousness of adults’ words was not to believe them when they promised something fun. That way, if the fun thing actually happened, I was pleasantly surprised; and if it didn’t, I wasn’t all that disappointed because my cynicism didn’t allow me to hope for it. Maybe that was a good lesson to learn in a less-than-perfect world.