I am eleven, perhaps twelve years old but I look younger. On the back porch of the house on 1st Street, balancing precariously on the edge of the railing above the 20 foot drop to the backyard of our 100 year-old brownstone, I hold a Siamese kitten in one hand, and the wand from a bottle of bubbles in the other. Slightly out of focus, the photo looks older than it actually is. It is the early 80’s, but my friend Shelley tells me it looks “quintessentially 70’s” due to the frizz in my hair and the earth tones in my clothing. Straight hair had come back into style full force by then, and I’d given up battling my mane. My mother and sister both had tame hair, and as an even younger child, I’d tried to brush my hair straight, which only exacerbated the problem. I am so focused on the task at hand that I do not acknowledge the camera, no doubt being held by my mother. I’m wearing pink plastic eyeglasses, they are the second pair I owned – I was first fitted for glasses at age 10.
The overalls were a staple of my wardrobe; I owned two pairs – one blue and one rusty orange, and wore them constantly. Newly transplanted to Brooklyn from an unincorporated town outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where our closest neighbors were dairy farmers, I was inexperienced with city life, or the idea that clothes might be an important indicator of personality. Tracy McTeague nicknamed me “Fannie Farmer” because of those overalls, and the name stuck. My mother took me clothes shopping every fall before the school year began, and it would be several months before she bought me anything new to wear.
Everything about Brooklyn was foreign: the noise, the dirt, even the climate -- that first summer I developed heat rash on my neck and under my arms from the humidity, and when I started fourth grade that fall, was ostracized by my more culturally adept peers. I had never gone to public school, and was overwhelmed by the mad crush of unruly kids, the endless lines that had to be stood in – to go to recess, to return from recess, to go to music class; the assigned tables in the lunchroom; and the perpetual wrath of the overworked, underpaid teachers who didn’t have the time or energy to take note of any new students.
I hadn’t grown up watching American television, or any television for that matter, and didn’t understand the cultural references that my peers took for granted. I was fascinated by cartoons and watched programs considered too young for me: Scooby Doo; Batman & Robin; Woody Woodpecker. The teacher led a discussion of the made-for-TV movie The Day After in class the day after it aired, and I was the only student who hadn’t watched it. When the teacher asked why, I replied “I didn’t know it was on,” prompting riotous laughter. “How could you have not known it was on?” My classmates asked.
My sister, six years my senior, went to a private high school and took the B67 bus to Pearl Street every day. I went to P.S. 321 because it was across the street from our house, on the corner of 1st Street and 7th Avenue. My mother worked full time, and stayed at work late into the night on a regular basis; my father stayed behind in Switzerland, and our contact dropped to the occasional letters he typed on crinkly, light weight airmail stationary, and two visits per year.
I became responsible for myself; I cooked Stouffer’s frozen and Bird’s Eye boil-in-bag meals, and became more connected to the cats in our house than to any human. We bred our female Siamese cat with a male who belonged to one of my mother’s coworkers, and within weeks there was a litter of four tiny, blind, pink kittens – two males and two females. They were my constant companions, following me up and down the three floors of our house, playing with my shoelaces, bits of string, and each other. We found homes for three of them, and kept one.
This photo used to make me sad because it symbolizes everything that was lost when we moved back to Brooklyn: family life as it had once existed; the pastoral landscape of rural Switzerland and the sense of safety that it afforded; the easygoing attitudes of my teachers and classmates at the International School where my quirkiness was noted, but accepted. Looking at it now I can appreciate it for the strengths it symbolizes: my self-reliance; my unruly, tomboyish ways; my lifelong bond with cats; and the inward-focused intensity that grew with being transplanted to a foreign place. I can’t say that I would do it all the same way if some magical being offered me the chance to do it over, but it made me who I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my dark sense of humor, my lifelong attachment to cats, my traveler’s spirit, and my constant inner dialogue. It taught me to never feel alone, even when I am the sole human in the frame.