It had been an extremely hot summer day. Because the windows were open, I could hear the noisy sounds of taxis and cars racing by. I was with my family in my grandmother’s apartment on 54th street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Although her name was Dorothy, we called my dad’s mother “little grandma.” After all, on a good day, she barely cleared 5 feet. My dad turned to us. “Meg, Peter, Ted, we’re leaving soon.” We were headed to Bloomingdales. My brothers and I had been sitting on my grandmother’s fancy gold-colored sofa. As usual, the plastic that encased the couch remained attached to my legs. As I attempted to stand up, a peeling sensation gripped me as I slowly separated my now marked and sweaty legs from the sofa. Cursing myself for not wearing pants despite the heat, I hoisted myself fully up. While I knew the plastic was put there to protect the couch from dust and spills, I didn’t understand why the little grandma believed that the protective casing was worth it—how could anyone’s fear of a little stain possibly result in their guests having to sit this uncomfortably on their furniture? Although I was now across the room, the imprint of the plastic on the back of my thighs still lingered. Before leaving the apartment, my little grandma grabbed me by my one finger and led me to her room. “Meg, I want to give you money for some underwear.” To her, there was no better expenditure. Forever worried about my being robbed during the five-block excursion to Bloomies, she proceeded to roll a ten-dollar bill into her handkerchief, fastening the cloth with a safety pin. “Here, now put this inside your bra so if you are mugged, no one can steal this money.”
Fear. It rears its ugly head in so many ways. Some fears are harmless yet neurotic, like my little grandma’s. Some fears are innocuous, but personal like constantly looking in a mirror to confirm nothing yellow is hanging out of your nose. Some fears are more substantive but self-contained, like when I am at a beach and I fear people’s reactions when showing my oddly-shaped feet. But then there is the ugliest version of fear: when your anxiety is transferred to another. I find it intriguing that as a mother, my biggest accomplishment will be not helping my children overcome any visible difference or physical challenge. Rather, it will be resisting the temptation to transfer my fears to my offspring.
Although growing up I never fully appreciated it, when it came to raising me, my parents were in a word, fearless. Let’s face it, having the unexpected surprise of having a daughter with only one finger on each hand and one toe on each foot, must have been alarming. Once my mom and dad got past the shock of having me, in raising me they had a choice. Overprotect me or let go and let live.
For example, when she was growing up, my mother was a graceful and talented ballerina. Knowing that dance had given her confidence, she strongly desired that I similarly experience this form of art and expression. But it is easy to imagine any natural reluctance on her part. I didn’t have a chance of fitting into a pair of ballet slippers, and the thought of deliberately putting me on stage meant drawing public attention to my condition.
However, rather than holding me back, my mom not only included me in her 2nd grade dance class, but she also found a way to have a local Pakistani shoe peddler make me special slippers. I loved the class so much that she found small dance bells to wrap around my ankles, and then encouraged me to try bell dancing lessons. By her acts she and my father were setting the tone for my life: Assume you can do anything, despite your fears or anxieties.
And so, I continue to apply these lessons while parenting my own children. Last year, Ethan came home informing me that all the third graders could sign up to play a musical instrument. “Mom, I get to tell the school my top three instrument choices, and then the music teacher will help me choose the best for me.” I like to say that the reason I played trombone was family tradition: my grandfather (“Pappy”) and older brother played it. The reality is that it was the only instrument suited for a one-fingered kid. I began to open my mouth to express my doubts about what Ethan could play other than trombone, but then refrained. Instead, I asked him his choices and he said, “I have already figured it out: Violin, trumpet, and of course trombone, since you, Uncle Peter and Pappy used to play that too!” “Perfect,” I responded. It suddenly occurred to me that it was important I let him explore what might be possible, without my interference.
The following week, Ethan came home practically jumping with excitement. “Mom, guess what? I chose the trombone! Although it was fun trying out the other two instruments, I liked playing the trombone the best, and the music teacher agreed it seemed best suited for me!” There was no discussion between us of any finger-related challenges. “Congratulations honey! If Pappy was still alive, he would be so proud!” We embraced.
Before heading to Bloomies, I snuck into my little grandma’s bathroom, removed the wad of money, and shoved the bills into my pocket. After all, the thought of reaching inside my shirt and bra to pay for my new underwear in public outweighed my little grandma’s fear of my getting robbed. Nevertheless, I looked forward to growing up and hoped to not carry my grandmother’s fears with me.