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Angela Ball


I remember my absolute conviction, as a child, that the world had been invented by adults, that they were completely at home there, and that their at-homeness would someday automatically belong to me.

The world of the grade-school reader, with its people named for colors--Mr. White, Mrs. Green, Miss Gray--and identified by occupation: Milkman, Teacher, Farmer--was stunningly coherent, irresistible. Because all the grandparents in the readers had farms, I had to be persuaded, at the age of six, that mine didn't. One of the jump-rope rhymes my friends and I skipped to was a litany of jobs: butcher, baker, beggar-man, thief. Our assumption was that one day we'd find we had become one of these things--whatever it was we were meant to be.

One school day I was up very early, doing math homework I'd been unable to bring myself to start the night before. I worked in secret, in my father's office off the hall leading to the basement door where each morning the milkman clinked down our jugs of milk. Suddenly that door opened, and the milkman walked in. When he saw me he jumped, gave me a look of terror, and went immediately back out without saying anything. I was much more shocked by his fear than by his coming into the house. Why should an adult be afraid of me, a girl doing homework? Impossible.

It was then I began to doubt the perfection of the set-up. Doubt--like the sensation of falling down stairs: that absolute lostness yanking you into nowhere, with pain sure to follow, and nothing to explain it, a feeling that the grade-school readers were helpless to include, I think, because chaos can't be taught; because learning depends on predictability, on pattern: the loom and abacus of repetition, the hypnotism of return, the gleam that fades and reappears.

After grade school, the pattern surrounding me was horses. Winters, they lived in the barn. Got water twice a day, hay twice a day, oats once, in the evening. Often I'd lift the lid of the bin to find a mouse, who would react by running itself into a blur around and around the edge until I clanged the lid back. Carrying oats into each stall, I had to shoulder through before the horse could muscle her nose into the bucket and send the grain flying out in snorts.

Twice a day I climbed to the hay loft. With my fingers I broke the twine that wrapped the bales, which meant tugging it until it ravelled and gave up, and the hay fell open like a book being released from its binding. Then I crashed it down from the mow to the mangers, an armload for each, releasing puffs of pale yellow.

The top halves of the stall doors were kept open, so the horses could stand with their heads and necks poking out like jack-in-the-boxes--wearing their stalls the way in old movies naked people wear barrels.

In the barn when it was raining, the roof my father had tapped and pounded together from sheet metal registered the drops delicately or intensely, in patterns that varied and repeated, like roars at a baseball game or the short-long blasts of a train's whistle.

I took just one train ride as a child, when my entire eighth-grade art class travelled 150 miles to Cincinnati for an art show. On the way back, ten of us wandered to the dining car, which resembled my grandmother's parlor--you sat on red velvet that was somehow both plush and scratchy and rested your arms on lily pads of lace. There was a menu, handwritten in gold ink, which we read over and over. The one thing we could afford was something called Camembert and Crackers, $1.00. Finally a waiter appeared, old, unenthusiastic and (an exotic thing for us) black. He wore a dark red three-piece suit, very new. His face was old. His hands seemed to have held thousands of pads and pencils, and were thoroughly tired of doing it. When we said "Camembert and Crackers," he said "No." This seemed impossible. There it was in front of us, in gold letters. Why didn't it exist? Not reassuring.

Sameness--pleasant samenesses, and perhaps even unpleasant ones--reassures because it leaves its image, like the footholds worn into stone steps, the handholds worn into bannisters. For me trains--despite the occasional absence of camembert and crackers--still have a magical appeal, which comes from the absolute fixity of their journey, a journey that parallels (literally) the rest of the world, that seems in but not of it. In childhood, I saw mostly trains after dark (we said, "after night"), our car idling at a crossing, the calm faces of passengers sliding past, cameoed by light. It's the repetition that's sacred, not the destination.

A few months ago my sister Mary died, of breast cancer. There are guesses at the cause--maybe a gene, maybe diet, maybe lack of pregnancy or childbirth. Maybe all of these, or none. Now, in my kitchen the radio plays Yul Brynner, singing "Shall We Dance," and I realize that this song, and all the songs from all the musicals my sister loved, exist bereft.

That death: if someone had told me ten years ago it would happen, I never would have believed. What would it be like to know what to expect? What if lids never opened to reveal something terrifying? If home were unarguably home, and people were always themselves and nothing else?

Adulthood's not clear. I'm surrounded by things I don't understand, more and more things, and it's sad being always at a loss. But all that's lost exists for as long as anyone remembers it, and this magic makes the pain and fear, though not coherent, possible to forgive.


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