When I entered the first grade at a private school for girls in Montreal, my long hair pulled smoothly back, green wool tunic perfectly pressed, I was the only little girl who couldn’t yet read or write. They had taken a chance on admitting me anyway, hoping I would catch up to the others, and eventually, I did.
This is not a story about myself that I actually remember. I do have vivid memories of kindergarten–hatching baby chicks, growing grass in styrofoam cups full of dirt, painting, and singing songs. I also remember thinking that the simple math and coloring instructions on my entrance test to the private school were easy. The rest is a story I had to be told, but I absorbed it into my own memory the way we do the photographs we see of ourselves as infants–peering into our lives as if through a window, instead of through our own eyes.
I’m thinking about this now because that first grade year was also the first time I ever wrote a story. I wrote in on my own steam. It wasn’t assigned to us, but it was prompted by a list of suggested story titles that my teacher, Mrs. Cude, had hung on our classroom wall. It was a simple story called “The Magic Mittens.” It may have spanned an entire two pages of wide-ruled first grader paper in my new, perfect, round, six-year-old printing. (My mother could still have it, stashed away in a box of childhood mementos somewhere in the storage area of her condo that she refers to as the swamp.) Nonetheless, I was asked to read my story aloud in front of our junior school weekly assembly. My story made me feel famous in that world. There may even have been an “author of the month” button–fashioned from colored construction paper–pinned to the wool plaid chest of my tunic.
Maybe this was how it began. Writing has always been with me, and I remember wanting to be a writer for many years when I was a child. But I also wanted to be an actor, a singer, an artist. I never really studied writing. Instead, I earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, followed by a master’s in art history–this was my way of being practical. With an MA I could teach, operate an art gallery, go on to a PhD and become a professor. Still, I wrote. Obsessed with Michelangelo, I wrote a chapbook of poems about a woman whose home is invaded by a strange incarnation or dream of him. He breaks through the ceiling in her bedroom to make a studio skylight. All through the day and night, he hammers at his marble, floating white dust everywhere, haunting her. I still treated writing like a hobby, something I did on my lunch hour while I ate a sandwich in the cold cafeteria next to the gallery where I was working. Yet it stayed with me through everything else I did, close to my heels like a faithful dog.
Sometimes, I think that the Michelangelo woman is really me.
Eventually, I moved with my husband to a small city in Michigan where there very few art galleries. I published the poetry book, called Michelangelo and Me, with a small press. I had two babies and raised them. Then the writing desire came back, like that long-dead artist, to crack its own skylight in the ceiling of my life. Illuminating everything, like a flash to take a new picture.
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