How elusive the mysteries of childhood. Sarah Baldwin reflects on fragments of memory and from them, pieces together an important realization. Our lives take us down all sorts of unanticipated paths, but don’t we find what we most need when we look within? -MK Arnold
Two related but different fears surface, fraternal twins of terror: the fear of being seen, and the fear of not being seen.
In the spring of 1970, when my brother was 7 and I was 5 and a half, my parents took us to Puerto Rico for a vacation. We stayed at the Cerramar Beach Hotel. I know this for a fact because my mother still has a little dish from there with the logo on the inside and the name of the resort on the back. Forty years later, she still serves lightly salted Planters peanuts in it at cocktail hour. I also have a large folder from that trip. It too bears the logo and hotel name, and contains an 8×10 black-and-white photograph. The photo shows a dozen or so young girls, baskets in their hands, standing in a sort of Easter egg hunt tableau – fake grass, pots of tulips, ostrich-size eggs at their feet. They are wearing dresses and hats. Everyone looks happy, but the smile on one girl is tentative, almost apologetic. “I’m trying,” it says. “How am I doing?” That girl is me.
In thinking about that trip, I remember a few more things quite clearly. The sweeping circular drive to the hotel entrance. The cool and vast lobby of polished white stone. The carpeted corridor with a hair salon and a gift shop. The crumbling blue of the fort in Old San Juan. And everywhere, skittering lizards. I don’t recall much about the beach, except that the waves were bigger and the turquoise water warmer than in Penobscot Bay or Gloucester or even Narragansett. But when I look at the photograph, I don’t so much remember as re-experience the inner dread of a shy girl facing a group of strangers. Two related but different fears surface, fraternal twins of terror: the fear of being seen, and the fear of not being seen. Which is worse? To be forced to talk, or to be left alone? Hard to say. I remember a few such egg hunts in my childhood of the late ’60s and early ’70s, often in the warm places my parents took us for what was then called Easter break, others in the sprawling gardens of our neighbor, a pious widow who rode to the hounds and had eggs hidden on her property for the children to find on Easter Sunday. But the one at the Cerramar Beach Hotel was particularly hard.
That dual dread has not left me, even as I approach 50. I have felt it when starting a new job, standing in line to check in at a conference, walking into a party. I felt it just last summer when I attended a writer’s retreat; being in workshop was fine, but every day when lunchtime rolled around I did the familiar drill: furtively scan buffet line, fiddle with books and text messages long enough to arrive last, locate a spot to eat alone. It’s not debilitating enough to be called social anxiety, but just enough to make social interaction hard. It’s a syndrome from which a certain kind of person – brave, outgoing, unselfconscious, a people-person, in other words – doesn’t suffer.
What am I afraid of, exactly? Standing at the edge of a group and seeing the circle close before me? Or, admitted to a circle, not knowing what to say? Being sized up and found wanting? Being found boring? Being found not right? Yes, all of this. And all of this in full view of everyone. Of anyone.
What am I afraid of, exactly? Standing at the edge of a group and seeing the circle close before me? Or, admitted to a circle, not knowing what to say?
When I think of this now I understand that for one fleeting moment, I connected with something brave and sure inside me.
But now, thinking about that trip I remember something else: the piñata. It must have been a different day than the Easter egg hunt — I believe there were organized activities for children every morning — because we children were outside, gathered around a sort of hotel camp counselor. I don’t remember much about him, but I do remember the huge piñata suspended in front of us. It was covered in yellow crepe paper and had big blue cartoon eyes rimmed in black. Its body was in the shape of an 8 and was recognizable as a rabbit by its ears. One by one the children let themselves be blindfolded. Then, taking a stick that the counselor put in their hand, they would flail about, trying in vain to break open the piñata and release the candy we’d been told was inside. Shyly standing back as usual, I nevertheless felt myself growing more and more impatient at their clumsy, futile thrashing. Somehow I knew I could take the piñata down with a single swing. After the next child’s unsuccessful turn I stepped forward – the terror of it! – and let myself be blindfolded. I remember feeling exactly two things: absolute certainty that I would smash the piñata, and relief that this would soon be over. I raised the stick like a bat, visualized the rabbit, and gave a clean strong swing. I felt the piñata explode, heard the children cheer and the hard candy clatter to the ground. I took that empty rabbit home on the airplane and kept it for a long time.
When I think of this now I understand that for one fleeting moment, I connected with something brave and sure inside me. Four decades later, exhausted by the constant effort of not rocking the boat, I hold onto this sudden memory of smashing the piñata like a gift. It was one moment when a wholly different part of me carried the day: calm, focused, sure, strong. If it was inside me at 5, I think, it must still be inside me now.