by Teresa Kron
October 1, 2004
I was five years old, only three months shy of my sixth birthday. It was another relentlessly hot August day in the summer of 1968. My older sister Cheryll and I had been shipped off to our Aunt Sue and Uncle Dale’s house in the San Gabriel Valley while our mother was in the hospital giving birth to our baby brother.
It was just weeks away from when I would begin the first grade at Clinton Elementary School, where I would be joining the ranks of the older kids. Just a few days before, Grandma had taken me shopping and bought me an Alvin and the Chipmunks lunchbox with a matching thermos and a pair of red tennis shoes with white shoelaces that, with a lot of practice, I could tie myself. No longer would I be a little kindergartner who had snack time before naptime and then ate lunch at home. I was on my way to the big kids’ playground.
My Aunt Sue was upstairs in my sixteen-year-old cousin Kathy’s bedroom, busily helping her to get ready for an afternoon date. I watched from the doorway as Aunt Sue teased Kathy’s strawberry blonde hair and piled curls atop her head. Looking around, I marveled at the things in Kathy’s bedroom: the posters of rock ‘n’ roll bands and movie stars, the various bottles of perfumes and trinkets on her dressing table, the mound of outfits on her bed that she had been trying on all morning until finally deciding on the one she was wearing.
Turning my attention back to my cousin, I watched as she put on white lipstick–all the rage in 1968, and much to Aunt Sue’s consternation. She then slowly and carefully applied liquid black eyeliner to her blue-shadowed eyelids. I envied her. Wished I could be her. She was a goddess, as far as I was concerned.
I watched from the doorway as the two of them bargained over what time Kathy would have to be home that evening. I thought about Gavin, our neighbor’s seventeen-year-old son, who had wildly golden, shoulder-length hair and eyes the color of the sky right before dusk. I thought about how all the neighborhood high school girls giggled when he walked by and how mesmerized they were when he played his guitar and sang “Light My Fire,” like José Feliciano, not like Jim Morrison (even though The Doors had recorded it first). I wondered if he knew that I loved him and that I wanted to marry him. I wondered if he could see beyond my pixie haircut; beyond the two missing front teeth that I was expecting to come in any day now. Even though the only words he had ever spoken to me were, “You’re a cute kid,” as he patted me on the head and walked on past with his groupies, I wondered if he could see beyond the insignificant difference in our ages.
Roused from my thoughts, I could hear Cheryll and my cousins Kenny and Guy splashing and shouting out in the swimming pool in my aunt’s backyard. I ran down the stairs and out the back door, and then carefully walked to the edge of the pool, keeping a safe distance from the water since I still did not know how to swim. Cheryll was almost nine years old and a really good swimmer, as were both my cousins. They were all swimming in the midsection of the pool, occasionally getting out and making their way down the slide that dumped them into the deep end. I couldn’t wait for the day I’d be courageous enough to go down that slide! But for now, I was resigned to spending my time kicking around on the steps in the shallow end or venturing out with my swim ring… Where was my swim ring? Looking around, I saw it near the midsection of the pool, aimlessly floating near where my sister and cousins were playing.
I tried to get their attention, tried to get them to hand me my swim ring. But they ignored me, busy with their big-kid fun. Finally, I caught the attention of my cousin Kenny. He made fun of my pleas and laughed with the other kids before swimming over to the swim ring and pushing it towards the edge of the pool where I was kneeling. I slowly reached out to grab it, getting a hold of its rubbery edge when suddenly Kenny yanked on it, and losing my footing, I tumbled into the pool.
At first I couldn’t believe what was happening, that my head had gone completely under and I was gulping chlorinated water that was flooding my nostrils and burning my throat. I coughed and gasped. Thrashing about in a frenzy of fear, my eyes were wide open under the water and I could see the other kids were touching me, grabbing me, pushing me. I was unknowingly sabotaging their efforts to help me back up to the surface, fighting their assistance in the throes of my panic. Helplessly, I sank towards the bottom of the pool.
In a flash, I saw my whole life play out before my eyes – past and future! I remember thinking, “My mom is going to be so mad!” I thought of how just the week before, my sister and I had snuggled with her on the sofa as we all watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds on television. My mother’s belly had been ripe with the impending birth of my brother and he was kicking mercilessly. Maybe he, too, had been terrified by the horrors on the television screen. Maybe my brother was trying to warn me of what was going to happen. Having talked her into letting us watch the scary film, my mom did her best to soothe me by saying, “It’s only a movie. It’s not real.”
Finding myself at the bottom of the pool was real. Images of never being able to play on the monkey bars or watch cartoons on Saturday mornings ever again flooded my mind and were making me incredibly sad. And those dresses hanging in my closet at home that had been my sister’s! I had complained about getting her hand-me-downs. I liked those dresses! Wanted to wear them to school! I would never know what the first grade was really like! Was my sister going to get to use my new lunchbox?
I then saw my future fade away like the bubbles popping at the edge of the water. Would Gavin miss me? Would he sing his forlorn and broken-hearted love songs? Or would he betray me and walk down the aisle with some other girl?
As my life’s visions were quickly becoming more detailed, a sudden whirlwind swept me up. A colorful blur with strong arms and kicking legs maneuvered me to the edge of the pool where my head broke through the surface of the water and I gasped for air. I was pushed up by arms and pulled out of the pool by my Aunt Sue, who was now slapping me on the back, “helping” me to catch my breath. As my breath returned, Kathy climbed out of the pool and stood there, dripping, her dress and shoes soaked, her curls soggy and lifelessly hanging down her back, her face streaked with eyeliner. She had saved my life!
Later that afternoon, when my Uncle Dale had gotten home from work and my ordeal was the talk of the dinner table, the phone rang. A few minutes later, Aunt Sue announced to my sister and me that our mom and our new baby brother had been discharged from the hospital and that they were on their way to pick us up.
I don’t remember if my aunt and uncle told my mother what had happened to me that afternoon. All I know is that I couldn’t wait until we got home with our new baby brother. We piled out of the car. As we walked toward our front door, Gavin was walking by with a blonde, mini-skirted girl on his arm. He walked up to my mother and motioned toward the blanketed bundle in her arms. When my mother pulled back the edge of the blanket so that Gavin could see my little brother’s face, he smiled and said, “Cute kid,” and then turned and walked away. For some reason, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I think I smiled.
After we had all settled in, I sat down on the sofa and my mother carefully placed my brand new baby brother in my arms for the first time. Looking into my brother’s eyes as he stared back at me, I whispered to him in a tone that only he and I could hear: “Don’t worry, baby. Your big sister won’t let anything bad happen to you. As long as I’m around, you’ll be okay.” In the flash of a moment, I was older and wiser than I had ever been before, yet I was in no hurry to start the first grade or get my front teeth or even think about marrying anyone. I was happy to be right there, right then. I was perfectly happy to be five years old, not quite six.