Stella Ridley Five


Do You Think Your Parents

Molly and Wolf were my dearest companions for all of my childhood.  Even now when I think of them, I feel not only the love in my heart for them but the love that still comes to me from them in that distant time and gives me the only place in the world that I care about, a place in the hearts of those I love.  Molly and I were so close in age and looked so much alike, that people who did not know the family often assumed that we were twins, an assumption that always puzzled us and confirmed our belief that many people—many, many people, an astonishing number of people, too many people to count–were stupid.

Of course, we knew each other so well that we could not see ourselves as others saw us, and we knew our differences so well that going out of our way to distinguish ourselves from each other was never a compelling necessity for us as it often is for siblings close in age.  Moreover, despite how close we were in many, many ways, there was for each of us something about the other that was closed, not something secret exactly, not something deliberately kept from others, but something by its very nature inaccessible to others, that place where one is alone with oneself and keeps one’s own counsel.

Perhaps we learned early on to honor and respect that place because we were so close to Wolf, who, in fact, communicated with us in many ways and was as readable as weather, but was, after all, a dog, although I don’t think that he knew he was.  We also may have learned this from the fact that we shared a room and thus passed, in our “twin” beds, those hours of sleep when one is most other from another and most unguarded in each other’s presence, alone together, as it were, although, of course, we did have Wolf as sentinel.  Night after night, after Matu tucked us in and turned the light out and closed the door, Wolf would jump into bed with me, and in those moments before we went our separate ways in sleep, Molly and I talked, our words shaping thoughts between us as we wondered together about the world we lived in and other worlds that we would never know.

At some point in our childhood not noticed by us but apparently deemed remarkable by Matu, Matu, without consulting us, made plans to decorate our room in a ballerina theme—all pinks and whites, white ceramic lamps in the shapes of swans with frilly tutu shades, and so on.  Matu had put a lot of thought into this, and unveiled her plan to us with photographs and swatches of fabric and samples of paint.  However, it never occurred to us to try to spare Matu’s feelings because it struck us as a bizarre assault.  We would rather have lived in a snake-infested stinky cave with oozing walls than in the room that she excitedly proposed.  When she showed us a black and white photograph of Pavlova in Swan Lake, Molly blurted out, “She looks like an old deformed person!”

But Matu was undeterred and started going through her presentation again as if we perhaps had not understood it the first time.  Words came slowly to me, but Molly was never impeded by problems with articulating what was on her mind.  “Mommy,” she said with unmistakable alarm and dismay in her voice: “It’s all pink!”  “It’s not all pink, darling,” Matu said.  “Look, here’s white, or this lovely cream if you girls prefer.  Tella, what do you think?”  “Ballerinas?” I said.  Matu must have had something of herself invested in this plan, for it took her longer than usual to compose herself, but then she pulled us close and hugged us and nuzzled our heads and said, “You two are a mystery to me sometimes.  Why don’t you think about it and we’ll talk about it again later?”

Well, we thought about Matu’s proposal for about half a second, and then set about coming up with some alternative plan that would be so compelling she would forget about the ballerina thing.  We approached Matu in her study one afternoon and Molly presented the beginning of an elaborate plan for an atomic bomb theme for our bedroom.  However, Matu became so visibly alarmed when Molly started to argue for a mushroom cloud motif that we switched, rather facilely, I must say, to a backup plan.

“We want to be cowpokes,” I said.

Molly rolled her eyes toward me and then looked at Matu, said, “Cowgirls.”

“Cowgirls,” Matu said.

“In the desert,” we said.

“With camels,” I said.

“Tella,” Molly said, “we want to be cowgirls, not camelgirls.  You’re in the wrong desert.”

“OK,” I said, “but with cactuses and special weird wildlife.”

“Lizards,” Molly said.

“Yes,” I said.

Matu bunked us in Adela’s room for two weeks while she redecorated our room, wherein she forbid us to set foot until she said we could.  When she did, Molly and I both were speechless with wonder and pleasure.  There were matching bedside lamps with bases shaped like saguaro cactuses and with crisp little shades that appeared to be distant relatives of moccasins.  Matu had been unable to bring herself to comply with many parts of the plan we had proposed.  Instead of the wagon wheel headboards we had requested (Molly wanted hers mounted by a real saddle), Matu had gotten rustic-looking pale wood headboards that were stenciled across the tops and sides with stylized, very well-behaved lizards.  But the walls were the chief object of our admiration.  We had requested walls painted sky high with every known and some unknown-except-to-us species of cactus with some snakes and spurs thrown in here and there to give the flavor of the place.  But Matu had painted a turquoise sky above a vast expanse of sand.  Distant dusky rock formations erupted at lonesome intervals on the horizon (one of these formations, much to our delight, resembled the photograph of Ship’s Rock on a postcard Aunt Deena had sent us). A lone tumbleweed appeared to be scooting along in the middle distance, and an occasional cactus cropped up here and there in the foreground.  There was no sign of a human being anywhere in that place, and, on the whole, the effect was one of gorgeous desolation.  Matu knew that our imaginations needed open space in which to roam.  She had painted the ceiling as a darkening evening sky punctuated with two tiny pale planets and a star.

At night, Molly and I talked quietly in the dark before we fell asleep, as we always had, but now that we lay beneath frontier-looking quilts and rustic (Molly said “rusty”) blankets, whole new worlds of wonder and speculation seemed to open up before us in the dark, and we would try together to imagine what it would be like to be a lizard or a horse or we would discuss whether cowgirls had indoor bathrooms or outhouses or whether people absolutely had to live in a house with someone after marriage or whether the universe had an edge.  And one night when my body was almost saturated with sleep and Molly’s voice was like the sound of a distant sea, she said, “Do you think your parents meant to take you with them?”

. . .

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