Words have as many different definitions as there are people.
Several things have brought this truth home to me, over the past week, as I’ve been silently mulling over whether or not to attempt this particular entry (case in point: most would call this a blog; I like to use the word “journal” instead). First, while playing and talking with my six-year-old daughter today, I used the word “history.” She innocently said, “What’s history?” and only about half a dozen half-formed responses flitted through my brain before I finally settled upon, ‘it means it’s already happened. Like, we went horseback riding last week: that’s history now, because it’s already happened.”
She then spent the next minute or so rattling off her own examples of “history,” something she does whenever she asks me what a word or phrase means. Me? Me, I was still stuck on her question, “what is history?” How many different ways could that question have been answered. Undoubtedly, to some, it means something that happened five years ago, while, to others, if it happened five minutes ago, it’s history.
The conversation with Breathe brought forth the ideas I felt compelled to write about (but wasn’t particularly sure I wanted to). So did the trip to Gatlinburg. For the last ten years or so, we’ve tried to make it to Gatlinburg every year or so. It hasn’t always worked out that way, but it’s still a fairly regular vacation. And, when we go, we always rent a cabin. It is a lovely thing. But, when we arrived at the sprawling, three-story log cabin, complete with a 52 step walkway to the front door, I was almost instantly reminded of my neighborhood’s sub-division, where the girls and I went caroling this past Christmas. They all look the same: two story, two car garage homes with shutters, perfect paint and siding jobs, little flower beds out front and cute mailboxes: about as removed from the cabin I was staring at as I am from Barack Obama (a perfectly rhetorical allegory: no political commentary necessary, please). Though both are, in their own ways, asthetically pleasing, one promotes visions of relaxation and time and space while the other produces thoughts of Desperate Housewives and work and city life. As if a button were pushed, my memory was zapped to North Carolina, the place where Ameria’s Largest Home, the Biltmore Estaste, reisdes, producing visions of grandeur, wealth and awe. The next thought that came to my mind wasn’t of a house, it was of a word:
Within the space of a heartbeat, I remembered that families lived, played, cried, fought, teased, loved and probably died in all of the mentioned residencies. I thought again of the conversation my daughter and I had on the word “history” and I wondered how many other words had different meanings. I started coming up with a list of random words, and the different definitions that could be assigned to them. I offer as example:
Food: 1. Hamburgers, french fries, chicken, chocolate 2. Pig’s feet.
Any word I could come up with, there was alternate definitions. My mind zipped zapped back to visually comparing the house, then visions of family members, from both sides, and their respective homes. And my mind just shut down, stopped working, while in the darkness this entry evolved.
I experienced both ends of the money equation as a child. For one side of my family, money was not an issue. For the other side of my family, money was THE issue. One side of my family lived in large homes with multiple vehicles and swimming pools while the other lived in mobile homes on a piece of land that is unequivocally cursed. As for us, more often than not, our home was our car, or whatever hotel we had currently invaded. We lived in beautiful, ridiculously large homes and we once lived in an actual tent for over a month. I spent my childhood believing that the former, the sub-division set, was better. I thought they were calmer, safer, nicer and more civilized than the alternative. Bad things were removed from them, or so I thought. It was only as an adult that I realized that the exact same bad things that seemed to plague the poorer side of my family haunted the rich side as well. The only difference was in the way the trauma was dealt with.
I thought of my great-grandmother, Mama O, whom I only knew for six small years and of whom I only have a handful of memories. I used to sleep with her picture beneath my pillow and, when I was fourteen, I began to panic because I thought I was forgetting her face. Up til college, I wrote Mama O a letter, even though she had been dead since 1986, every year on her birthday. I have taught one of her favorite songs to my daughters, and they have heard her name and know who she was to me. Yet, Mama O did not have an indoor bathroom; her house had gray shingles, an ancient wash-board on the rickety front porch and a tree with golden leaves that played a song. It smelled of a scent that I have never smelt since: a bitter, yet strangely sweet, smell, of wood, dust and poverty. She wore the same dress for practically six years.
She also wrote me letters. She waved at me as I rode up to the front of her house. She let me help her in her backyard garden. She let me play with her cane, even let me use it to swat at the string that hung from the lonely lightbulb that dimly illuminated her tiny living room. I believed she loved me. When my brother died, I was comforted because I pictured her caring for him.
Yet, my pastor often speaks of how wealthy individuals have blessed him, and his family. He’s been given lavish gifts, even housing, at the hands of caring and Godly people. I’ve read books of wealthy people who used their money to benefit those in poverty. And I’ve experienced the generosity of wealth, too.
Today, when my daughters and I went to play at the playground of the library, I stopped and bought two new balls for them. Once at the library, an entourage of children gushed forward at the sight of the brightly colored balls and Breathe and Alight had instant friends. One little boy, though, hung back. He was about four years old. He kept staring at the ball that had (miraculously) been left alone, at my feet. I smiled at him and then returned my attention to the girls. I sort of expected him to come grab the lonely ball. But he didn’t. He remained in my perpiheral vision for the next few minutes, until the girls and their newfound friends raced off, leaving me to sit for a moment. The boy was sliding, but his eyes were still trained on the ball.
“You want this?” I asked, holding it up toward him. He nodded, saying nothing. I smiled and held it out further. “Come on, you can play with it.” After more coaxing, he came forward and retrieved the wanted ball. My attention was pulled away, and I went to join the girls, leaving him to play with the ball. When I glanced back, to catch up with the ball, I saw him and his mom playing with it. I returned to the bench, nearby, and the mom instructed the boy to return me the ball. I shook my head and shrugged. “Oh, he’s fine, he can play with it,” I assured her. The boy took the ball and ran, confidence abundant now.
Feeling particularly brave, I risked a conversation with the mom. “Balls are the greatest toys ever invented.”
“Oh. Yeah. He don’t have one.”
She looked financially secure: nothing about her suggested she didn’t have the three dollars it would take to buy her son the ball he was holding from Wal-Greens. She wasn’t American, either, and I genuinely thought I’d misunderstood her; her accent was heavy and her English not so good. I just gave an “aww” kind of response and went back to checking on my girls, who have more balls than Barney. I spotted her son, though, and couldn’t get the comment I thought I heard out of my head. No balls? A boy with no balls to play with of his own?
I was unable to leave it, and returned to the conversation. “What kind of ball does he like?” I asked. She shrugged. “Any. Kicking. He’s good at catching, too.”
“Does he play with them a lot?”
“At school, they have balls.”
The reminder I have tattooed into my brain returned: someone, somewhere is watching you. The girls were having such fun that I had decided we could stay until their newfound friends left. The boy and his mom packed up sooner than we did. She instructed the boy to return to me the ball. He gripped it and instantly protested, just as any child might when ordered to part with a new toy.
I had had enough. I still found it hard to believe he didn’t have a single ball of his own at home, with a mother who loved him enough to bring him to the library playground. But then, what did I know? We all play charades. My conscience wouldn’t let me take the risk.
“You know what, we have lots of balls at home. We really need to get rid of some of them. Why don’t you take that one?” I asked the little boy. His tears halted, and he looked confused. The mother did too. I smiled. “Really, he can have it.”
She seemed almost as nervous of the interaction as I felt. She quickly thanked me, and ushered her son, and his new ball, away. I had to explain to the girls that they were short one new ball (we had to stop and get another, since I didn’t technically ask for permission to give away one of their new balls) but the incident reminded me that, behind whatever mask we wear when confronted by a stranger, behind whatever sort of door marks the entrance to our home, behind the wheel of the Lexus and the pea-green, broken down, partially working 1930 Ford some drive, we are all human. As such, our lives are all subject to a certain degree of mystery, to pain and sorrow, and small moments of victory.
I don’t know whether the boy had a ball of his own or not. That wasn’t the point. I saw a child alone, when the others were playing; I saw a mother who cared enough to play ball with her child at the library, and I was reminded that even if I never knew what obstacles the two of them currently face, I knew they are like me: they are surviving.
The real question isn’t about money. The real question is about the lives led behind closed doors, behind the pretty shutters or the mobile home’s screened entrance. As I remembered that, I realized that the truth is evil exists behind both. So does goodness and love. Sometimes it’s easy to see something that represents positive things to us: my dream home would represent security, but of the emotional kind as well as the financial. The truth, however, is that I would be guaranteed no more emotional security by living in the Biltmore than I would by living in the tent on a campground.
We all play a game of Charades to some extent. A psychology teacher once pointed out that we are different people when we are around certain individuals. For instance, I am not the same Tiffini when around the girls as I am when around a friend I’ve just met. I am not the same at home as I am anywhere else. We all pretend sometimes. Sometimes we even play the game Charades without being consciously aware that we’re playing it.
I have a phrase that I often replay in my mind periodically from the moment I leave the anonymity of my house to the moment I step back into its security: “someone, somewhere, is watching.” Obviously, my girls are attempting to memorize my every move. But so is a perfect stranger.
Sometimes I’m quick to look for the poor, assuming that their lives are full of cracked grass that must be making them bleed. It does me well to remember that the windows of the largest mansion are still made of glass, and break, too.