“Can I speak to her?” We were back living in Urbana, Illinois and my Dad had just told me he was going to speak LONG DISTANCE to Mike, the father of my best friend Kirsten from our days living in Islamabad. Although it had been more than three years since we left Pakistan, I never had forgotten my closest friend who now lived with her family in Tucson, Arizona. Although we were only seven when we met, we were instant friends. In hindsight, how could we not have been? We had had cockroaches unexpectedly climb up our legs while sitting on the school bus, stepped repeatedly in Kirsten’s two-year-old sister’s pee on the hard stone floor at her house together, and even had our first “boy crush” on the same cute kid in our second-grade class at the International School. At the time, long distance calling was expensive (at least for my family), and the only time we ever did it was to speak to my relatives back in New York City. The thought that I could actually speak to my dear old pal was an absolute thrill. As I waited patiently for my father to hand over the phone, I saw my dad’s face fall slightly, and then he hung up the phone. “Daddy! What’s wrong? Why didn’t you let me speak to Kirsten?” I began to fear the worst. Something must have happened to her, something awful. As my mind began to wander into a dark place, my dad quickly interjected. “Sorry, Meg. Kirsten doesn’t seem to remember you.”
“Dad! Dad!!” That’s him!” My father was confused. “That’s who?” It had been eight years since we had lived in the suburbs of Jerusalem. My brothers and I were now in school in Egypt, but it was winter break so my parents took us back to Israel to visit our old landlady, Regina, in Bet Ha’Kerem, where we used to live. Regina had been quite a character in her own right. Born an American but living in Israel for many years she happened to be best friends with another mid-Western American immigrant to Israel, Golda Meir. Golda just happened to be Israel’s first female Prime Minister.
“That’s Enun! Enun was my best friend and neighbor from my days living in Bet Ha’Kerem. I was anxiously pointing at a boy about my age standing in the aisle in the grocery store. “Meg, that’s practically impossible. I know you both went to the same gan (preschool), but how could you really remember him? Even if you did, it’s been so many years, Enun probably has changed a lot. I really doubt that’s him.” But I was convinced.
We left the store and walked down the long, tree-lined road toward our former residence. The same boy was a few feet ahead of us. With each step toward the old neighborhood I grew increasingly optimistic this was my old, dear friend. At one point, he turned around and looked at us. I offered a quick wave with my one fingered hand. He stared briefly, then turned around again and headed for what I presumed to be his home. As we approached our old building, I noted the boy took a quick turn to the left, and walked directly into the house I had known to be Enun’s, right next to mine. “Dad! Mom! Did you see that? It’s him….I just knew it!” I blurted out boastfully. “Let’s say hello! Please can we?” Before either parent could offer a rebuttal, I zoomed past them and rushed to ring Enun’s door. Slowly, the door opened and it was him. “Enun! Enun!” I longed to hug my friend, but he looked at me without recognition. “Ani, yakhol laazo lekha?” (Translation: Can I help you?) “Don’t you remember me, Enun? It’s me, Meg!” I stretched out my arms, hoping that a long look at my differently shaped arms and hands would instantly resolve any question regarding who I was. But to my great disappointment, not only did Enun not remember me, two fingers and all, it became readily apparent he did not speak a word of English. He just seemed confused that I knew his name somehow. As I walked away with my family, I looked down, drenched in sorrow. “How could he no longer speak to me?” I didn’t get it. My mom rested her hand on my shoulder. “Meg, when we lived here you spoke Hebrew fluently. Over the years you’ve lost so much of it.” “But how can Enun not remember me? It’s not like you meet someone that looks like me every day!”
Recently, John, the kids and I were at our town’s Lego-building event. It was such an awesome afternoon, where two dozen families each recreate a landmark building from our town. When all the structures are completed, we all move them to a giant map laid on the gymnasium floor so we can admire our collective, finished products. Our son Charlie is the avid Lego builder in our family, with my husband a close second. Our building was a cosmetically pleasing and historical hotel. “We need more red!” Charlie blurted out. And so I found myself sifting through hundreds of pieces in a large plastic bin. Similar bins were placed around the room and all the families were digging into them at once in a communal grab. Cursing to myself that I should have worn my other jacket—the one with pockets, I discovered that I could barely hold more than four red plastic pieces in my small hands.
On my way back to our table, I bumped into our friend and her adorable three-year old daughter. The daughter was noticing my trouble holding the bunch of pieces. “Here it comes,” I thought. Although she had noticed my difference before, I have often observed how very young children who come into contact with me will forget what they saw and need to re-classify the unexpected. She opened her mouth, but her words surprised me. “I love your jacket!” I laughed, relaxed, and responded. “Thank you Cutie-pie. As soon as you are big enough, it’s yours!” We parted and I moved back to our table with my meager haul of red Lego pieces. Overall, the event was fun, but I found it a bit depressing that after all of our effort and a great photo-op of our assembled town, we were all supposed to dismantle our achievements. Those bins would be refilled and taken to the next community event. “Charlie—isn’t it a bummer we have to tear our hotel down?” His response surprised me. “No. That one has been done. I can’t wait to design something new.”
That night I realized that, as strange as it sounds, I am utterly shocked when someone does not find me or my difference memorable. Often times, friends and family will say things to me like, “Fingers, schmingers Meg!” Of course they are right, and I love that my physical difference is a non-issue not only for me, but also for those who are close to me. But the egotist in me often wonders how is it that I, or my fingers, could EVER be forgettable? Just the other day I even posted on the Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook page that this lack of attention sort of stinks, in truth!
I just assume that when people meet me, and invariably encode the fact that my hands, forearms (and feet) look incredibly different than the norm, then store that information, I would think that upon seeing or even hearing about me again (the “cue”), the instant response would be, “Oh my gosh, that is the girl/woman/mom that only has one finger on each hand.” But I have to conclude that for the unexpected fascination I encounter, people only store a finite amount of that kind of encoded information.
I guess it’s true that if it’s hard for people to commit a 10-digit phone number to short-term memory, no wonder it might also be tough to remember a two-digit person! I am left with the colorful life of people either staring at me (or my children who share my condition) so intensely you would think they would never forget such a sight, to people who barely notice or quickly move on to more important things. I imagine it’s like the Lego experience. We might be able to create or perhaps encounter something entirely different, interesting, unexpected, even beautiful. But once we have accomplished that or have been exposed to it, it soon becomes something we have seen before. Been there done that, so we tear it down or forget about it. We move on.
As much as I may encourage myself to “flaunt,” the fact is that with time, experience and new distractions, people will forget continually about my physical difference, just like I always do, too.