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My grandpa Colty died on the same day I was born. Some people believe that when you die, your soul rises out of your body like a mist and goes looking for a new person to live in. If that's true, I like to think that when Grandpa Colty died, he told his soul to come looking for me.
I was born December 21, 1989, at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. It says so on my birth certificate, which hangs in a fancy gold frame on the wall of my bedroom. It also says that my full name is Verbena Ellen Colter, that my parents' names are Tom and Ellen Colter, and that I weighed four pounds seven ounces when I was born, which is pretty small for a baby in case you didn't know.
It was my mother's idea to name me Verbena. Her maiden name was Wojcik. Her father, a baker, and her
mother, a schoolteacher, were both of Polish descent and my mother grew up listening to Polish folk music at home. I was named after one of her favorite songs, a polka called “Verbena, Be Mine.”
Our house stands high on the top of a hill, and out in the middle of the yard is a large speckled rock. You can stand on that rock and see all the way down into town. Not that there's much to see. Downtown Clydesdale is made up of four things: the post office, the church, the firehouse, and the bandstand, where rain or shine the Clydesdale Band shows up to play polkas and waltzes on Wednesday nights during July and August when the summer people are around.
When I was old enough to wonder why I had been born in New York City, instead of at Townsend, the big grubby municipal hospital off Route 17 where everybody else I knew had come into the world, I asked my mother about it.
“Sometimes babies get their own ideas about when and where they want to be born,” she told me.
For a while I was satisfied with that answer, but eventually I felt a need to ask more questions, and that's how I found out that the reason my mother was in New York City when I was born was because she and my father had gone there to look for my uncle Mike.
Uncle Mike grew up in Clydesdale, but unlike my father he was not a very popular guy. As a kid he bullied his classmates and teased small animals, and when he got older, rumor has it, he did things that were far worse. Nobody much liked him and apparently the feeling was mutual, because the day he turned eighteen, he took off in the middle of the night and never came back. Even though that was years ago, people in Clydesdale still talk about him sometimes.
“Mike Colter was bad news.”
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“Trouble from the get-go.”
“Warped.” That's what Francine the postmistress called him once, and she said it right in front of my father too. And even though it was his own brother she was talking about, he didn't disagree with her.
My grandpa's name was Kurt Colter but he went by the nickname Colty. Everybody loved him, and I heard plenty of people say that my father was a chip off the old block. Uncle Mike was a different story.
“Why did you and Daddy go to New York looking for him anyway?” I remember asking my mother.
“Your grandpa was dying, and he wanted to see his youngest son one last time before he passed.”
“Did you find him?”
“No,” she said. “We didn't. But at least we didn't
come home empty-handed. You arrived a little earlier than expected, but we couldn't have been happier to see you.”
Looking back on it now, I guess there were some things I should have noticed. Like the way my parents always looked at each other whenever Uncle Mike's name came up.
Clydesdale doesn't have a grocery store or a gas station or a school of its own. For those things we have to go to Washerville, a slightly larger town, the next one over from ours. On the day of my fifth-grade graduation, I remember standing in the Washerville Elementary School auditorium in a pair of black patent leather shoes a size too small waiting for my name to be called. I was in a terrible mood, but that was nothing newâI'd been in a bad mood since December, when I'd accidentally uncovered a secret my parents had been keeping from me. That secret caused my whole world to shift, like a sheet of tracing paper that no longer matched up with the drawing underneath it.
The graduation ceremony wasn't nearly as big a deal as the ones they had each year for the seniors when they finished high school, but because we would be moving out of the elementary school into the building that
housed the upper grades, it was a big enough deal that we got diplomas with our names written on them. Afterward there would be free pizza and Coke at Magaly's, the only restaurant in town.
It was a big day. But it had not started off well.
“I thought you got rid of that,” I said, cringing at the sight of my mother in the outfit she'd chosen to wear to the ceremony.
“I love this dress,” she said, laying a plump hand over her heart. “It brings back such happy memories. Do you remember that rhyme we made up together when you were a little girl?”
I love you, you love me, Mama and her Sugarpea
. She'd ordered the white dress with peapods printed all over it from a catalog years ago along with a miniature version for me. Matching mother/daughter dresses. At the time I'd been thrilled, but things were different now.
“Can you please wear something else?” I begged.
I had outgrown my peapod dress years earlier, tossing it into a pile of castoffs for the thrift shop. My mother had outgrown her dress as well, but she'd solved the problem by opening the side seams and adding two large triangular panels of white fabric.
“Do you mean it?” she asked, looking hurt. “Do
you really want me to change?”
“I suppose I could wear my blue floral print instead,” she said, smoothing the front of the peapod dress with an open palm.
But my father appeared on the stairs behind us, jingling his car keys.
“All set, ladies?” he asked cheerfully. “We'd better get a move on if we want to get good seats.”
My dad was fifty-nine years old when I was born, which meant he was seventy the day I graduated from the fifth gradeâtwenty years older than my mother, and much older than the fathers of the other kids in my class. It was not uncommon for people who didn't know our family to assume when they saw us together that I was his granddaughter. The Colters came from German stock. My father, square jawed and lanky, was the spitting image of Grandpa Colty, and although I bore no resemblance to either one of them, Dad and I both had double-jointed thumbs, which I was told had been a Colter family trait for generations.
My father owned a business called Colter Trim and Mow and oversaw a crew of men who worked for him
mowing lawns in the summer and plowing driveways in the winter. He wasn't around much during the day, and by the time he came home at night, he was usually so tired that he would just eat dinner and then turn on the evening news and fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV. My mother did volunteer work, but mostly she stayed at home and doted on me. I was her pride and joy, her Sugarpea, the most perfect little girl in the whole world, according to her. But when I started school and had difficulty learning to read, I began to suspect that my mother's definition of “perfect” was different from the rest of the world's.
It seemed almost magical to me, the way other kids could look at a book and make sense of all those letters. Words were a jumble of meaningless shapes to me. In fact, the only way I could tell if I was holding a book right side up or not was to look at the pictures. I told my mother that I thought there must be something wrong with my brain, and she said nonsense, I probably just needed glasses. As it turned out she was rightâI did need glassesâbut after I got them I still couldn't read.
Some kids in my class went to the resource room for extra help, but I got my help at home. My mother bought all kinds of games with letter cubes and flash cards, and
she worked with me every day after school for months until finally one day it clicked in and I could read.
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“I told you there was nothing wrong with your brain,” she said. “It's perfect, just like the rest of you, Sugarpea.”
Although I learned to read, I never became what you could call a strong reader. At best I was adequate, and in the years to come I struggled with most of my other subjects in school too, including gym because of my small size and lack of coordination. It was obvious I was far from perfect, but because my mother was able to overlook my shortcomings, for the most part I did too, until I hit fifth grade.
That year, things began to change. I had never been particularly moody before, but all of a sudden I was the biggest grouch in the world. I lost my temper at the drop of a hat, especially with my mother, and sometimes I would just start crying, for no good reason at all. I felt mixed up and mean. Nothing about me was normal. I had the heaviest mother and the oldest father of anyone I knew. I'd always been small for my age, but unlike the other girls in my class who had shot up and filled out, I stayed just as scrawny as ever. My glasses magnified my eyes and made me look like a bug, and my pale skin and white-blond hair made it appear as if
I didn't have any eyebrows or eyelashes. And then there was my name.
“Verbena Ellen Colter,” announced Principal Bartlett from the podium on graduation day.
As I started across the auditorium stage in my miserable little black shoes, my father clapped while my mother leaned heavily on his shoulder in order to climb up onto her chair to take a flash photograph over the heads of the other parents in the audience. I took my diploma, shook the principal's hand, then walked gingerly to the other side of the stage to stand in my designated spot beside Chris Cartwright, who came right before me on the class list. On Chris's other side stood his good buddy, Kevin Brennan.
“Check out Jumbo McDumbo,” I heard Kevin whisper to Chris. “I feel sorry for that chair, don't you?”
As the two of them snickered, I turned to see who they were talking about, but of course I already knew. There was my mother climbing down from the chair in her giant peapod dress. Her round face was flushed, and her arms jiggled like pale Jell-O, the elbows hidden in doughy folds of pink flesh. When she caught sight of me looking in her direction, she waved and lost her balance, toppling into the lap of the man sitting next to her. Kevin and Chris fought hard to control their
laughter while I stood mortified.
I could have told those boys to knock it off, or at least given them a dirty lookâespecially Chris, whose guts I already hated for another reason.
But instead of defending my mother, I closed my eyes and wished with all my might that I could be somebody elseâanybody besides me.
It was not the first time I had made that wish. Life had seemed so simple the year before. I'd liked school, I was happy at home, and I'd had a best friend named Annie Bingham. It hadn't occurred to me to wonder if I was living a lie or if there was a ticking time bomb hidden inside me getting ready to explode. But by the time fifth-grade graduation rolled around, I had learned that things are not always as simple as they seem.