My mom would quietly come into my room every morning before school. She would sit beside me on my bed, whispering my name. Michelle, she would say over and over while she gently rubbed my head until I woke up. I’d complain that I was tired and she’d kiss my forehead. I would whine that I hated school and she would just smile and use her fingertips to brush the hair from my face. I remember her singing a song sometimes, “Wake up, you sleepyhead. Get up, get out of bed. See that the sun is shining.”
She was up early every morning wearing her velvet floor length robe that zipped from bottom to top. She would make me breakfast and then while I ate, she would curl up in the orange rocker recliner and watch Good Morning America while she drank her coffee. When I was cold, she would go grab a blanket for me. “Cuddle up”, she’d say and I’d wrap my little body around a heat vent in the floor while my mom draped the blanket over me to hold all the heat in. “Come out when you’re ready”, she’d tell me.
When my belly was full and my body was warm, I would climb in her lap so she could brush my hair. My sister and I always wore long hair when we were little. Long and straight with bangs cut across our foreheads. Sometimes the bangs were straight too, but most of the time not, since mom cut our hair herself. I don’t remember ever caring that it was crooked, I thought it was beautiful because my mom told me it was, every single day. She would brush it for what seemed like forever and then most days she’d carefully use the tail of the comb to get a perfectly straight part down the center of my head so she could give me two french braids. She loved to do my hair, and I mostly loved to have her do it. Every once in awhile though she would pull too hard, or pull one strand just wrong and I would cry out. She would rub my head gently, apologize way too much and kiss my head until it was all better.
I grew up in Denver and we lived just across the street from Fort Logan Elementary school, but my mom would walk me across every morning. On the sidewalk, she would check me over, making sure that my knee socks were pulled up, my dress was pulled down and my hair was nice and pretty. She’d kiss me on the forehead and I’d head off to see all of my friends – and Mrs. Phillips – who was the nicest teacher a kid could ever have. After school, my mom would be waiting for me and we’d head back across the street hand in hand.
My favorite afternoons were the ones when my grandma would call us from Michigan. I had figured out at a young age that anything I mentioned wanting on the phone, would magically show up in a package from grandma within a couple of weeks. I would spend the rest of my afternoons playing outside with friends or helping my mom cook dinner and waiting for my dad. Evenings were spent watching the Dukes of Hazard and MASH while I was snuggled on my dad’s lap. My mom would sit beside us on the couch brushing her hair and mine every night. 100 strokes a day – that’s how much it took to keep your hair pretty, she said. She would always do this weird thing with her hair where she picked her split ends apart, and I would mimic her with my own until she’d catch me and tell me not to do it because my hair was too pretty to ruin.
I had so many nightgowns that I would have a tough time deciding which one to wear and my mom would end up helping me pick. “Wear this silky one with the castle on it since you’re our little princess.” And then she and my dad would tuck me in together. She would lay with me and read a book and then my dad would make up some ridiculous story that I would believe until my mom would scold him saying “Ken, stop that, you’re going to make her think that’s true.”
My childhood was peaceful and calm and consistent. Everyday the same – ending just like they had started, with kisses and hugs and my mom gently rubbing my head.
Every night before school, my grandma and I would prepare my things for the next morning. I’d watch her as she would tie my tennis shoes loose enough so I could slip them on my feet. She would set my double tied shoes next to my backpack and coat on the chair by the front door. She’d ask me which cereal I preferred, Lucky Charms or Rice Crispies, of course I chose Lucky Charms every single time. She’d pour my bowl of cereal and set it down on the kitchen table where I always sat. Then she’d grab my little purple cup, that nobody could use but me, and she’d fill it half way up with milk before she’d place it in the fridge next to the gallon, ready to be poured into my bowl the next morning. I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to pour milk from the gallon myself, but my little cup did the trick just as well. We’d head upstairs and she’d pick out my clothes and lay them out for the next morning. I always wondered why she even bothered since I never actually wore the outfits she would pick for me. Instead, I would throw on my favorite pink and black striped, sparkly dress. It was rarely warm enough for the weather, but it was my favorite so the cold never stopped me.
We’d jump into bed together and she’d tell me the same story she told me every night – about a little girl that got lost in the woods while picking berries. I always knew the story would end the same way, she’d find her way home to grandma by following the glow of the porch light. Her Grandma would be so happy she found her way home that she’d make the little girl her favorite homemade pie with all the berries she had picked. They’d eat pie together before they snuggled up in bed and went off to sleep. After my story, I’d have her scratch my back until I’d start to drift off. But as soon as I could feel myself getting tired, before I would fall asleep, I would tie my nighty to hers in hopes that when she got up for work in the wee morning hours, around 4 a.m, the knot would pull on my nightgown hard enough to wake me, so I could beg her not to go. The knot was never tight enough though and my little trick never seemed to work.
Morning would arrive and the alarm we set the night before would sound, I’d sit up in bed and rub the sleep from my eyes. Every single morning I’d yell “Grandma!” hoping that she had stayed home and was maybe just using the bathroom, but the house was always silent, nobody was home but me. I’d drag myself out of bed, and as I would walk out of our bedroom I’d grab her soft pink robe that was always in the same spot, hanging on our bedroom door. I’d wrap myself in it and I’d head down stairs to grab my bowl of cereal and my little purple cup, that nobody could use but me, and I’d pour the milk in my bowl. I’d plop down with my breakfast in front of the TV, snuggled up in her robe on the heat vent, as I would eat my lucky charms and watch cartoons. After the first cartoon was over I knew it was time to get ready for school. I was too little to tell time but I had my morning cartoons, and so the TV was my reminder. After the first cartoon was over I’d throw my bowl in the sink and run upstairs, I’d put on my pink and black dress and head back downstairs to finish getting ready for school. I’d run to the bathroom and climb up on the toilet so I could get onto the counter and I would begin to fix my hair.
My hair was long and I always had bangs that were way too short and as crooked as can be because not too many grandmas have a steady hand. I’d slick my hair into a ponytail and try my hardest to make sure there weren’t any bumps. There was always at least one that was stubborn and it would drive me crazy until I got it just right. I figured out a way to hide that bump by wetting the comb and brushing my hair to the rubber-band. Then I’d hide the crazy looking ponytail holder with a scrunchie. I’d be so proud of my hair because that scrunchie always hid my mistakes, and my ponytail looked perfect to me. After my hair was done, I’d slip on my already tied tennis shoes, put on my coat and scarf, throw my back pack over my shoulders and sit on the couch until the Smurfs were over and it was time to head to the bus. I’d run as fast as I could so I could be the first in line. I was always being so proud of the fact that I never missed my bus. It made me feel like a big girl, like I was responsible, because no matter what I made it to school every day, all on my own. Except for one day, the day I almost missed my bus. And this is how that day went…
My dad was released from prison and him and my mom had no place to live. They had made an arrangement to stay with us in my grandmas basement until they could get on their feet. This seemed like a great idea to my grandma and she figured that while her and my dad were at work, my mom would be home with me in the morning and she could help get me off to school. My grandma always felt awful that she had nobody to care for me while she worked, but she had no choice if she wanted to keep a roof over our heads and provide for me, so she did the best she could. I remember feeling anxious about this and it made me really uncomfortable, it felt like two complete strangers were gonna be living in our home, because in a sense that’s what they were. So the first night wasn’t too bad, at least not that I can remember anyways. But then morning came. My alarm went off and I sat up in bed and started my morning routine. I ran downstairs in my grandmas robe, grabbed my cereal, and turned on the tv. When the first show was over I got dressed and climbed up on the bathroom sink, time to fix my perfect ponytail. I began to start smoothing out the bumps as I did so many times before. That’s when my mom must have woke up, because I heard her coming up the stairs. Instead of a “good morning, can I help you with anything?”, she began to rush me and started to yell. I kept saying “But I have time, the smurfs isn’t over yet” and she probably had no clue what I meant by that, but I knew, I knew it meant I still had time.
Suddenly, after a bunch of screaming and yelling, she grabbed me by the ponytail that I had so carefully fixed, and she pulled me off the sink. She pulled so hard that I fell to the floor. I was scared and I had no idea why she had done that to me, or why she was being so mean. I began to roll across the floor and into the living room. I made it to the couch and was trying to fit under it, trying to get away from her. She was screaming at me to hurry and get up or I’d miss the bus. But I couldn’t get up, because she was kicking me. I had gotten my leg stuck from trying to wedge myself under the couch. I had bent it at the knee under there and I was too shaken up to realize that if I had just relaxed my leg I could easily slip it out. She continued yelling at me, pulling at me, and kicking me over and over. I was terrified and remember thinking that if she pulled any harder she might break my leg. I kept telling her I couldn’t get up because I was stuck, but she didn’t believe me, and she just kept yelling, pulling and kicking. She finally calmed down and I rushed to the door, I slipped on my shoes, threw on my coat and backpack and ran to the bus as fast as I could.
I wasn’t first in line that day and I knew that my ponytail wasn’t perfect, but I still didn’t miss the bus. Because after all, I was a big girl and I was responsible, and no matter what I made it to school every day. All on my own.