When We Belong

I wrote the below post last week just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.  Posting a day early while I have some juice left in my laptop (no power since Monday).  I hope all are faring well to the extent impacted by the storm.

Preface

November 1987

We were all in our freshman year and dressed in white, anxiously waiting the unexpected.  There were about 20 of us in my pledge class.   After several months of the initiation process, we were finally going to be activated as full-fledge members of Kappa Kappa Gamma.  At the University of Wisconsin-Madison there were many thousands of undergrads.   When I first came to the house during “Rush” the prior August, the girl who came to be my “pledge mom” encouraged me to consider their house.  After all, she told me, “Joining a sorority represented a place where, in a gigantic school, you have a place you just know you belong!”  Her name was Marta and like many of the Kappa girls, she was a stunning beauty, with blond hair and sparkly almost crystal-looking blue eyes.  I was intrigued.  Growing up looking so blatantly different from the rest, even though I had several special friends I cared for greatly, I never actually felt like I fully belonged anywhere.  In those days, I tried so hard to assimilate so that no one (including me) ever would focus on my physical difference.  Fitting in meant ignoring my difference, hoping others would take notice of anything else, but that.   I longed for the experience where I could really fit in. 

That evening, my pledge sisters and I were told by our pledge master to follow one another downstairs in a single row, one by one holding hands, to the basement of the Kappa House.  There, also dressed in white, were all the other sisters, smiling at us.  “This is it!”  I beamed with pride at the thought of being selected by what appeared to be an elite group of women.  No matter most of them were blonde.  Already my favorite two girls in my pledge class, Lia and Jessica, were of Italian descent, and dark haired like me.   I finally felt like I fit in.  “Quiet everyone!” The Kappa President raised her voice.  “Before you can be activated, we need you to all learn the secret Kappa handshake!”  Both my face and stomach dropped at once. 

 Jan 2003

I stood gazing at our 7 month old son, Ethan, in our kitchen in Westchester Country, New York.  The kitchen was so tiny that the seating  option was for Ethan’s high chair.  The phone rang.  “Hi Meg!”  It was my friend Diane.  “I was thinking about you today,” she remarked warmly.   “I just heard about this organization called, “Helping Hands,” in Boston.”  She continued.  “It is a group of people that get together and as far as I can tell, many of them have the same condition as you and Ethan have.”  “Oh, thanks,” I responded, trying not to reveal my agitation.  I quickly made up an excuse to get off the phone.  In that moment, my husband John walked in.  “Who was that?”  “Johnny, can you believe Diane?  Why would I ever want to be surrounded like people born like me?  It’s not like I need any comfort.   Ethan doesn’t need that either.  He can always look at me and feels like he belongs!”  John looked at me with understanding….sort of.

 A few months ago I posted about a 4th of July evening in the 1970’s when I was a small child and searched the crowd looking for someone else born like me.  I never found one.  For many years afterward, I stopped looking and tried my best to  shift attention away from my hands and feet.   I didn’t succeed much at that either.  Still, my friends took my cue and pretty much never discussed my condition unless I brought it up.  Not that it was taboo, but as far as I was concerned, the more time off the subject the better.  Furthermore, the thought of spending any time with anyone that looked like me made me uneasy.  I suppose it was because if I were grouped as “one of them,” then I couldn’t belong into the category of “one of us.”

Years have passed, and clearly I have matured from my prior outlook.  In fact, I agreed to speak in Boston this coming January at a conference organized by Helping Hands, the same group  my friend, Diane, had tried to tell me about years earlier.  To make the experience even sweeter, Tony Memmel and I have worked out that he will join me for the occasion and play live!

But just the other day, as I was presenting to the kids at Ethan and Charlie’s school at their Assembly, it occurred to me not only how far I have grown, but also the positive downstream affect it seems to be having on our boys.  During my presentation, we began speaking about what type of things each child had in common with one another, perhaps something difference  that was not necessarily obvious at first glance.  At my prompting, the kids did a “talk and turn,” where they discussed the topic with interest and, to my relief, even enthusiasm.  When it was time for the children to quiet down, the Principal raised the two fingers of her right hand together, like a peace sign.  This was the symbol she obviously used to grab everyone’s attention and command silence.    I didn’t even have to guess how Ethan and Charlie must have felt every time this symbol was used at school.   In that moment the girl in me felt like an outsider.  Once again I was down in the Kappa House pretending I didn’t care that I could never learn how to do the secret handshake.  However, I had left that same girl behind.  I didn’t have to be like everyone to feel like I belonged, and I hoped our sons could learn this lesson much earlier in life than their mom did.

As we came close to the end of my presentation, it was time for me to play Tony Memmel’s new music video, and I needed the room to pay close attention.  The Principal began to make her move, but I walked over to her and said, “I’ve got this.”  “Hey everyone,” I said aloud.  The kids’ eyes were all on me.   “I have no idea what to do with that two-fingered peace symbol thing!”  They all grew silent, and some laughed.  “And so, for at least my presentation, when it’s time to get quiet, like now, can you all do me a favor and simply stick out one finger rather than two?  Believe me, one is good enough!”  I was thoroughly elated at the site of hundreds of children facing me, holding up one finger in unison.   It reminded me yet again that I no longer needed to try and be like others.  The only way to be “one of us” was actually to be true to myself.

Later that day when I picked Ethan and Charlie up from school, I wondered what their reaction would be to my presentation.  Ethan ran up to me.  “Mom, you were really great!  All my friends thought so too!”  He was clearly proud and my heart almost burst.  Charlie said nothing.  For the moment, I let it be…… until it was time for bed. I waited for him to mention my talk to the kids, but not a peep, so I couldn’t help myself.  “Char—what did you think of my presentation today to the kids in your school?”  I waited for what felt like awhile.  He was clearly deep in thought.  Rather than answering my question, he gave me a better reply.  “Mom, when do we get to go to Boston?  I can’t wait to see the other kids that are born like us!”  I melted.

Postscript

Of course for those of you that follow me on Facebook, I just had to end this piece with the following exchange: 

Savanna: “Mommy, you, Ethan and Charlie are so lucky.”

Me: “Why?”

Savanna: “Because if you want to start a club together, you don’t even need to come up with a secret handshake. All you have to do is stick out your fingers and know you belong!”

 

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