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Raspberry Stains and Teardrops

Isn’t it funny how some memories remain in your mind, how you play them over and over again, how the older you get, the more those particular memories form a meaning. Now, fifty plus years later, I see why the image sticks in my mind. It was the end of innocence, the first time I tasted fear.

My tiny, sun-browned toes wiggled deeper into the warm, loamy soil of the raspberry field beside our modest wood-frame house—my playground of choice. Hiding among the magical rows of foliage provided a perfect backdrop for my imagination to run wild.  I was only four years old, flaxen-haired, skin kissed by the sun—a veritable pixie.

Today, the description fits exactly, you see, for I imagined myself Tinker Bell or Cinderella deep within the orchard.  I played among the jeweled berries flitting about, skipping and darting in and out. The fenced orchard allowed me free rein to frolic without supervision, alone.

I ate the berries, of course. To this day, the succulent, sweet juice remains a fresh memory, a small joy to cling to, something to remember.  I buy fresh raspberries whenever I can to remind me of the first, and possibly the last, untarnished memory of childhood.

Usually, my sister would come to find me and bring me back to the house through the back door. Sometimes Mother called for me from the porch. They always knew where to find me. Barefoot, disheveled, and smeared with dirt, but happy and carefree. After a bath and supper, I’d beg my sister to read the story of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell or Cinderella, all the while planning my next day’s adventure in the raspberry fields. She’d read to me most of the time, but tired of the same old stories, so I would tell them to myself almost word for word, from memory.

This day, my sister never came, and Mother never called.  I refreshed myself with berries and let the juice run down my chin, where it continued to drip on my pink ruffled sundress. Somewhere in my child’s mind I knew this would turn out badly, but watching the stains spread into lovely patterns kept me spellbound, like a painting, a beautiful work of art, and I was the artist. The bodice of the dress, now adorned with bright red ‘flowers’, complimented the sparkling red ‘rivers’ flowing down the skirt. Fascinated, I’d bite into another berry and move my head to let the ‘paint’ find an empty canvas. The stains crept slowly across the fabric, inching along, the circles growing ever wider. I imagined myself a princess in a beautiful gown, ready for the ball. I even snapped a few vines to fashion a ‘tiara’, and placed it on my head. Oh, look! There are glass slippers on my feet. I walked down the rows, regal in my finery, a princess indeed.

No memory of my father comes to mind before that day, too young to retain those earlier years, but from this day forward the naiveté of childhood ebbed away.

The late afternoon sun warmed my skin, the earth held me in her bosom, and the feel of the warm soil between my toes anchored me somehow. I’m not sure how long I remained in the fantasy, but I remember when the world I’d created went suddenly dark.

Shouting, angry words and loud crashes pierced the air. The crown tumbled from my head, and I scurried under the protection of the sweet raspberry tendrils. Tearful eyes squeezed shut, hands clapped over my ears, even so, the fighting continued.  I sat alone among the vines reluctant to give up the fantasy world I created there until the fighting, eventually, stopped.

I never thought to ask my sister where she hid during those tirades. Three years older, she was always annoyed by my presence. There was a new baby, a boy, but still in the crib.  Even at four, I knew life is best served if you learn to survive on your own.

The sun dipped lower in the bright blue sky—a warning I should return to the house, but unable to make the transition from fantasy to harsh reality. And so, I huddled there, waiting, trying to resurrect the dream of a princess on her way to the ball…but it was gone. I looked down on my dress. It no longer resembled a royal gown, and I began to tremble. The little dress was a hand-me-down from my sister. I always wore her clothes remade to fit me. It wasn’t a new dress, by any means, and this was the first time I’d worn it. Now, the magic vanished and reality set in.

Without a sound, the sun disappeared, blocked by a large object. My eyes couldn’t adjust fast enough and when they did it was too late. Father stood at the end of the row, hands on his hips, glaring.

Rivulets of tears ran down my dirty cheeks, creating clean pathways on my baby face. He didn’t see the fear, the terror. He only saw my ruined dress, my dirty bare feet, my mouth stained red.

I don’t remember the punishment…only the sun disappearing behind the blockade that was Father, arms akimbo—eyes red with anger.

A piece of Tinker Bell vanished that day, never to return . . . until now, late in my life, a product of the courage to look back and remember.

The fantasy shaped me. The fear toughened me. One moment in time transformed a tiny girl into a woman resolved, a woman who accepts a challenge and conquers.

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