I was never much of a child.
I wasn’t a bad kid; quite the contrary. Adults always seemed to love me. They thought me well-mannered, soft-spoken, articulate, intelligent. You see, I was one of them. It was the other kids who did not like me. My mother always used to joke that I was born 40 years old. I suppose that is true, in a way. I have been stuck at 40 my entire life.
Now, at 54, that is a good thing. Finally.
Not so much as a kid. My earliest memories are from living in northwest Washington, D.C., at three years old. I know the timing, as I remember being in a walk-up apartment with my parents, my sister, and at least one cat. My parents broke up not long after the death of my second sister (she died of SIDS) and by age four, the sperm donor was effectively gone from my life. But here, at three, he was still around. I remember distinctly the kid-sized table and two firm chairs that just fit my sister and me. My father took one of the rare photographs of me as a kid, sitting with my one-year-older sister, in our chairs. I remember the photo distinctly, and his taking it, although I cannot remember him. He was like our cat – he came, and went, didn’t poop on the carpet, but I can’t picture his face.
I remember a conversation my mother had with her friends when I was three. She was teasing me about the birthmark on my left leg. It is near my knee now, but in those days, it hovered high on my thigh. She asked me, to her friends’ delight, how I got the mark. I told her it was because a truck ran over me.
Unsurprisingly, her friends all laughed, led by Mama. I was annoyed, and a tad embarrassed. I knew there was no maliciousness; Mama adored me. Teasing was simply part of her humor. My annoyance was caused because I felt deceived. At age almost four, I remembered it was my mother who told me how I got the birthmark when I asked at age two. She told me my toy truck ran over my leg, causing the “injury.” I had taken her word as bond. Though I no longer remember the two-year-old’s conversation, I certainly remember being pissed that she and her friends were laughing at me for believing some stupid tale she had rigged. Mama clearly did not remember it was she who told me the story.
Even worse, they all thought I really believed a truck ran me over. How stupid did they think I was? I had never been one for fanciful tales. Grounded, I was. Despite my protestations, I was abandoned to the “isn’t that cute” ranks of childishness. I stood, gathered what was left of my three-year-old dignity, took my Tonka truck and went to play somewhere else.
By four we were living with my great-grandmother, whom we called Nanny, and her second husband, whom I remember as Mr. Cheek. As a kid, I had a profound habit of never calling people by their names. So, I don’t remember what I called him. I have no memories of ever uttering the word “daddy” for instance. I do remember, verbatim, the conversation when he announced he was leaving my mom, and her imploring me to beg him to stay. I did, but my heart wasn’t in it. I only did so as I was very protective of my mother at the age of four. She had lost a baby, and I was the only one who seemed to notice how decimated it left her.
My sister and I ceased being close at this point. People would come and go, see the two little kids, and of course, invite us to go wherever they were going. My sister, ever the extrovert, always said yes. I, on the other hand, decided to be an introvert. Decided, yes. I would answer, often dressed in my little suit, “No. I want to stay with Mama.”
The people would shrug and leave, deciding I was a shy mama’s boy. I was neither. I was her shepherd, and shepherds don’t leave. They don’t. fucking. leave.
So, around the house I would stay, with mama, and Nanny, and Mr. Cheek. In the mornings, Nanny would walk us downstairs, in her sideways, I’m-really-too-fat-to-go-down-the-stairs way, and make breakfast. We were the light of their lives, especially Mr. Cheek. He would sneak us sips of coffee, which I found delightful, because, as you know, I was grown. After breakfast, Mama would command us to get dressed. (She is a former Army brat, and knows how to command quite well, thank you very much.)
I would immediately put on my suit.
Mama would try not to laugh, and she understood that I was 40 (not 4) so she would gently implore me not to wear my good clothes to sit on the front stoop on 5th Street, NW, Washington, D.C., as it might get dirty. I would be disappointed, but I would change. I was a good boy. Invariably, changing meant putting on my cowboy outfit, complete with hat. That, Mama was fine with.
I suppose this story came to mind as I’ve been thinking today about my tendency to shepherd, wondering whence it came. Then, this bit of history came after reading a story about a little girl, her grandfather, a gun, and rabbits. The two, together, have given me my answer. I learned to be a shepherd, by shepherding my caretaker. See, of my mother’s three remaining children, I was by far the favorite. She and my sister were estranged for a long time, caused by Mama’s memory of always being left by my sister, and my always there by her side, as she sat in the corner, looking despondent. She was only 23 at the time and had lost her third child – the smart one. No, the smart one was not me.
After Lynn Marie’s passing, we both changed, Mama and me. I did not learn to talk until I was two, and then it was in complete (grammatically correct) sentences from the start. After my sister’s death, I only talked to Mama. Shepherds don’t talk, lest they lose sight of their flock. I learn to lead from the rear. I learned that caretaking and control are not at all the same thing; in fact, they aren’t really closely related. I learned that I loved the flock enough to keep them safe, but I had no desire to manage what each was doing.
I was learning, at age four, to be the man I would one day become.
They say you grow up to be the man your father is. Children marry spouses like their parents. My mother remarried when I was 10. She married another shepherd, just like I had been at age 4. So I suppose the old adage works in reverse too. Life, and an unhappy childhood killed the caretaker in me for a long time. However as soon as I reached adulthood, the same 40-year-old man I had been returned. I have been him ever since.
I wonder, if like me, most people are born to be who we are meant to be. Perhaps we are taught to be something else, and spend the entirety of our lives fighting to get back to being the person we were at birth. Maybe the quiet observer, the chronicler of histories, the gatherer of truths – that small shepherd in a brown suit, is who I have always been.
I am him again, finally, just without the suit. I do sometimes dress like a cowboy.