We moved from Atlanta to Greenville, South Carolina over Christmas break when I was six and in the middle of first grade. A few weeks later, one of the few snowstorms that reached our new hometown every year fell on a day when my sister Anne stayed home sick. Remarkably, my father drove me to school. He roared away from the school’s drop-off island in his tiny red sports car, not noticing, I suppose, that no one else was arriving.
Usually there were sixth graders, wearing intimidating white canvas sashes with badges, stationed along the long sets of concrete stairs to make sure no one skipped a step or ran or got out of single file. But the stairs were unguarded, and there were no footprints in the snow. Panic rushed through me as I climbed the stairs; I must be late and would be in shocking trouble.
The late 1950s one-story building had no interior hallways, and each room of Sirrine Elementary School was exposed to the world through a wall of windows. When I got to the first classroom, Mrs. Abercrombie’s third- grade class, a new terror wrung my heart: the room was dark. I pressed against the window to prove in the dim light of that overcast day that there was no one inside. Too afraid to touch the door, I rushed to the next room. Dark. Empty. The next one too.
I turned and raced down the stairs we weren’t allowed to run on and ran the six long blocks home, crying my heart out, too scared to go the long way to avoid that hated lunging dog who always barked furiously at anyone who passed his yard at our corner. My mother, with her amazing videographic memory, loves to tell the story from this point – the part that she observed – because she relishes recalling the image of my bright red coat hurtling towards her against the new white snow. “You look so cute! Red is your color!” she declared when I burst into the house, crying and gasping for air. She repeats that line indulgently every time she replays this memory, which is one of her favorite stories about me as a child.
Thanks to Anne noticing the neighborhood kids playing in the snow, Mother was already aware that school had been cancelled and that I would be coming back home. She placidly waited at the window for me to return, oblivious then and now, even as she savors the story of how cute that approaching coat looked, to how her sobbing child felt that day and how much a reassuring hug would have meant.
My mother lacks the protective impulses most parents are born with. It took decades for her children to understand that she doesn’t have a comforting gene because her brain is not wired for empathy. Though we tried to deny it to ourselves, we learned early that we were on our own. We just didn’t know why.
Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.