Far-reaching consequences for a four-year-old
Bear with me. What I thought was a chance encounter with a fellow toddler turned out to be more important than I ever thought at the time, and even for the first sixteen-plus years of my life, didn't fully figure out. I'll tell it to you as I remember it now, not as my tiny brain recorded it then.
Few people have memories from before the age of five. I have a double handful - the neighbor lady, Lizzie, bent over my cradle and smiling at me. Bright shiny white hair, and cooing, and always smiling. Of the train coming into town for the last time, when they discontinued the line. My parents insist this never happened, but if it didn't, then I remember a vivid dream to this day that I had before the age of five. Of a disastrous Easter egg hunt, when my tiny toddler legs couldn't move fast enough, and of much older kids stealing the eggs right out from under my hand, and sitting on the grass and crying my eyes out with an empty basket.
This one, though, had far-reaching repercussions that I didn't catch for a long, long time.
My grandparents, and their farm, were my daycare and playground. Mom had to work, teaching elementary school, and Dad was busy in the shipping department of one of the local manufacturers. With grandparents so close, and a whole farm and its critters and gardens and fields to explore, what could go wrong?
I was a tomboy. I played in the dirt, and I loved it. I stomped thistles and peered at hissing kitten litters and got chased by angry geese mothers. I wrassled cousins and got zapped by the electrified fence. I got stung by wasps and found a black widow colony.
Grenny would send me home in my dirtied outfits, and Mom would clean me up that night for another day's hard play.
So imagine my surprise when Grenny led me to the bathroom - to give me a bath. In the middle of the afternoon. Prime outdoor playing time.
I wiggled, I squirmed, I whined. Grenny usually let me get away with stuff, especially stuff I didn't understand. But this time there was nothing that would sway her - I was getting a bath, will you nil you. Well, playing in sudsy water can be fun, I guess...
But when I was dry and went to put on my playtime clothing again, Grenny stopped me. And put me in a dress. One I'd never seen before.
Fine. Whatever. I was still going to play, right?
Nope. I couldn't play, I had to sit in a chair on the porch. And wait.
I was not liking this. And I was bored.
I couldn't even play with the cats on the porch! I was told I might get cat hair all over my good clothes. Um, these weren't MY clothes! I don't know where they came from, but they weren't mine!
Finally, a car pulled in. I duly informed Grenny, and she and Pop came out - and they had smartened themselves up as well.
I was chivvied out to the car. The doors opened, and out popped some "old people" (probably my grandparents' age), and a boy my age in a sailor suit.
Sailor suits were de rigueur in the seventies for play dates. It was a Rule.
My grandparents got in tight behind me so I couldn't run, with Grenny's hands on my shoulders. The other couple did the same to their kiddo, and we were shuffled forward to about a toddler's arms-width away.
This made no sense to me at all.
Grenny started pushing on my shoulders. The other couple was doing the same with the boy. What in the world? "Go on!" urged Grenny, while still pushing.
Fine, I guess I'm supposed to... what, play? In a dress?
So, not knowing what I was supposed to do, I stuck out my hand, and said, "Hi, my name's Meredith, wanna play?" We were so close with the chivvying, I had to put my hand out wide towards his shoulder instead of near his hands. Which were behind his back.
And then the other couple said, "Go on, kiss her!"
Now, for anyone who knows me, even back then, I was not a random kisser. My other grandmother made me kiss her on the lips, and when I protested and profferred my cheek instead, she grabbed my jaw, pinched hard, and turned my head hard to force me into a kiss. I didn't speak to her for a month, and my parents had to have some Sharp Words with her over body autonomy. So this was more than the outside of enough for me.
When the kid who wouldn't give me a hand to shake actually leaned in to obey, and my arm was out of the way and of no use and hands on my shoulders weren't allowing me to move, I did the only thing I could think of.
I bit him.
I don't remember what I bit. Ear? Nose? Cheek? All I know is he sat down hard in the dust and started bawling. All four adult type people swooped in to comfort him, and I was squeezed backwards between legs and out of the tight circle.
So I ran.
I had a few bolt holes on the farm. I didn't use them much, because who wants their favorite hidey holes discovered by overuse? One was in a direct line from the action, and with their attention on a crying child, I took the advantage.
Once the kid wasn't crying, then they thought to look for me. Calling usually brought me running, since I tried to obey my elders and minders. But this time? When I felt they set me up? Not a freaking chance. I stayed good and hidden, and even though the calls got more and more frantic, then more and more angry, I stayed put. Kid was put back in car, and they drove off. Then I really hid in the dark, because my grandparents scoured the farm looking for me.
Finally Mom came to get me after work. I figured I was in for a hiding, so I stayed small and quiet. I saw Mom get out of the car, and Grenny met her, wringing her hands and sobbing. Mom looked confused, then annoyed, but when she called, I came - marched myself into the car, silently, and slammed the door. Folded my arms, looking as angry as I could. Baffled, Mom got in and started driving, and got the story out of me.
It's only a half-mile from their house to ours. The more I talked, the more angry Mom got, and she sped up. But the time we were screeching into our driveway, she told me to get out and tell Dad the story - all but pushed me out of the car. Then she zoomed out of the driveway again, and I was a confused little kid. I knew I wasn't in trouble, but that my grandparents were. Why? Dad looked as confused as I did when I started talking, but he was angry as well but the time I was done. Honestly, it was probably the dust-streaked strange dress that started his confusion.
Mom got back late for supper, still looking like a thundercloud looking to zap someone with lightning. All she told me - and all I got for years - was "Meredith, you can marry whoever you want."
By now you've probably figured it out. It took me a heckuva long time.
Other hints were dropped over the years. For instance, when I was so worried that I'd have to marry one of Don Meredith's sons, and be known as Meredith Meredith. Horror! Again, Mom just said, "Meredith, you can marry whoever you want to, and you don't even have to take their name if you don't want to." Or the time when I idly wondered in front of Pop if we had Native American blood in the family, and responded, "NO! NO! WE DO NOT! NEVER! WE ARE ONE HUNDRED PERCENT PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH RIGHT UP THE LINE!" Which, already having read chunks of the ancestral genealogy book and knowing we had scatterings of English, Swiss, and even Jewish direct line ancestors, mildy responded, "You could have just said yes and be done with it," and I wandered outside to play and left him slack-jawed. (I was right, by the way.)
But I was still almost ludicrously naive, because Pop got two promises out of me: not to date any member of certain families that lived nearby; and if I did start dating, to give him the guy's last name. If it took him longer than five minutes to tell me how we're related, I could still date him. At least the first rule made sense to me: those particular families had some incredibly misogynistic spawn about my age, and there was no way in heck I'd be a dutiful wife to any of those cretins.
All of this finally crystallized for me in college, when I met my first serious boyfriend. It took that long for me to drop my stubborn naivete.
Mom was going to make certain-sure I was going to college. She was the first one in the family to make it. And being Penna Dutch, she got no money at all from her parents for it. Pop made that clear (though somehow there was money to help the only boy-child, hmph.) But Mom had to get a job, get registered, do all the paperwork, study while she worked slinging ice cream, and get really good grades all on her own. All while having to live at home, still do farm chores, and pay her parents a tithe of her earnings for the privilege. No pressure.
For me, the insistence to drop it all and return home "where you belong" didn't hit till the second year, when various family members realized that I was actually going to do it. Pressure was put on me, and especially my parents. They tried to shield me, but some still leaked through, like when suddenly all the cousins were trying to distract me from the reports I had to finish while on "vacation." Or all the work I suddenly had to do on the farm, helping Grenny, because "well it's not like you're available the rest of the year like everyone else."
That's when all the hints, implications, and outright distractions became clear.
Pop was always overly-concerned about bloodlines, whether it was his cattle, his chickens, or his children.
(Seriously, what the heck is it with people who come from the Black Forest area of Germany?!?)
Pop decided that a "normal" Penna Dutch boy wouldn't do for me, so he decided to find me a "playmate" that would work out. That he was trying to set me up as a child bride didn't click for me, till I was really dating, and the pressure to come home and forget all this learning nonsense was turned up more notches than necessary.
Mom must have reamed them a new one, that afternoon, when I was out of earshot. She never talked about it ever again, and denies it happened to this day.
But I remember. I remember what that chubby boy looked like, in a dark navy suit with starch white stripes, and dirty blonde hair combed wet with a middle part straight as a knife. I remember being uncomfortable and itchy in a Sunday best white dress with pink ribbons and frills, and I loathe pink. I remember Dad turning away from the stove and dinner to stare at me, spatula in hand, as I stomped in the door with a dirty dress that wasn't mine. I remember how uncomfortable I was to have Grenny bathe me, like I couldn't do it myself, and hold still while she did my hair. And I remember Pop guarding the door, not looking in at the womenfolk, but trying to prevent anyone from interfering with his grand plan. And handing Grenny the dress on a hangar through the cracked door whole I was being dried off in a large towel.
I'm a bit sorry to say that I'm not sorry I bit him. What kid refuses to shake hands, but is perfectly okay to kiss on orders instead? Now that I'm typing this all out, I wonder if he remembers too, if it changed him.
I never saw that child again, or his minders. Which in and of itself is suspicious, since we're a small town with few people, and everyone knows or is related to everyone in the eastern half of the county. And I didn't really trust Pop's choices, either - I saw what runty mutt dogs he brought home, always freebies that were about to be "gotten rid of" by their owners till Pop said he'd take it off their hands. For guard farm dogs, he said. Yeah, sure. Blackie was her given name, but she was literally scared of her own shadow, would scream like she was being stabbed when she saw it. And wouldn't bark when you went into the house, but would bark her head off when you left. Buster was somewhat decent, till there was a roadkill, then he'd roll in it till he stank as bad as his prize. And literally run for the hills when they attempted to give him a bath. Lady was anything but. You get the idea.
(How far did Pop have to search to find someone he decided was my perfect match, to present as a fait accompli to my parents in the form of "but they've been playmates for so long," before I even entered kindergarten? Did he really think that was going to fly? Did he do this to the rest of my cousins? What does that imply about his thoughts on his own daughters, and their choices for mates? What did he think of my dad, if that was his attitude?)
And when Mom ripped the dress off me and handed it back to Grenny, freshly cleaned, the next day, with a decided glint in her eye, I never saw that dress ever again. And that afternoon was never mentioned, and never repeated.
I found my own mate, of course. He's sitting three feet away from me as I type this. He's ethnically mostly British Isles, but he tans if you look at him funny. Even in the dead of winter, when we hold hands, he still makes my arm look like an anemic ghost's. I made sure to introduce him to my grandparents after a summer spent in the sun, when he looks like his origins are from a completely different continent or two. And I was staring straight at my grandfather in direct defiance, daring him with looks alone to say something racist. He wisely stayed silent. This was MY choice, and I didn't need to be pushed into it with no say in the matter.
I had known by that point in time that I wouldn't have children anyway, though I never told the fam. Why bother? So they could put more pressure on me for something that was none of their bidness? I make a better auntie than mom any day, and I always play to my strengths.
I never knew that chance encounter with a kid I never saw again would shape my life in such a profound way. Something that, in retrospect, I was supposed to forget ever happened.
When I look and my husband and my life, I can't help but remember.
About the Creator
Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Great one , i liked it so much
So beautifully told! A bittersweet and complex relationship which deserves to be celebrated, and a very well-deserved win for this challenge ❣️
Well written and disturbingly, eye opening.
This was so well written, but a difficult read. I was upset on your behalf that this happened. Thank goodness your parents stood up for you.
Yeah! I wish you'd bit the adults too. I thought at first this was going to be about trying to make sure that you got the chickenpox as a young kid (been there!)....but it was so much deeper!
How clearly told and of course it happened! This detail isn't something you created out of nowhere. I'm so glad you made your own choice.
Remember that old song, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"? I say, "Thank heaven for little girls who bite!" I loved this story! Early memories are something we have in common. I remember my first Christmas, just one day shy of three months old. I remember my older brother teaching me how to walk that spring. And I remember that summer being set in the playpen in our front yard to play with the boy next door (one month younger than me), while our mom's sat on the front steps drinking coffee & visiting. No one tried to marry me off as a toddler, but I do remember a cousin one generation removed telling me she was getting married after she'd scooped me up in her arms & me leaning back with shock on my face telling her, "You're supposed to wait for me!" Anyway, that's more than you probably wanted to know. Great story!