When you were five or six years old, did you have a dream for your life? A ready answer to the question, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I didn’t. I find that kind of sad, like I missed out on something really important.
This memory is fuzzy: When I was five, I was in the audience for a local Cincinnati television show called Skipper Ryle. Skipper Ryle was pretty low-key. He told excitings stories and had a studio full of friendly, walk-on shipmates. (And maybe a fake parrot?) The Skipper was big on safety. I remember a fake traffic signal that stood on the set, blinking red, yellow, green. Of course, at home we had to imagine the colors because our television was black and white.
Each day, the Skipper would single out a boy and girl from the audience. Somehow (it may have had something to do with my father’s cousin, who worked at the station), I ended up being the Nurse of the Day when I was there. I don’t remember what the boy was supposed to be. The Skipper’s assistants helped me don a little nurse’s cape and white folded hat, then gave me a small medical bag to hold in front of me. I’m sure I was supposed to be delighted, but mostly I remember being terrified, not knowing what was going to happen to me. Then they hurried me up onto a scuffed block of wood, where I was supposed to stand, looking at the camera. Skipper Ryle asked me some questions–my name, etc–and I suppose I muttered some appropriate response that my mother was no doubt telegraphing into the inside of my head.
What did it all mean, Nurse of the Day? I remember thinking it should have been significant, this nurse thing. I’d never before wanted to be a nurse. I didn’t know any nurses, except the ones who greeted me when I had to go to the doctor’s office for shots or an earache. Had I made some kind of commitment to be a nurse? It bothered me for a long, long time. In fact, I think it pretty much quashed any thoughts I might have had about becoming a nurse because the whole thing was so stressful. Then again, I was kind of a stressed-out kid.
No. The blood-and-guts world of nurses, doctors, trapeze artists, car mechanics, teachers, grocery clerks, mayors or presidents, actresses or singers, wasn’t for me. Later–much later– I toyed with the idea of being an archeologist or an architect, but I wasn’t brave enough. I thought of becoming a librarian. The librarian idea stuck with me for a long, long time because it involved books.
To bastardize a perfectly good Tennessee Williams line: I have always depended on the kindness of books.
In books, I could be anything, anytime, anywhere. I could be the sad “crippled” girl (a very old book) who watched, jealously, out the window as her friends played and danced. I could be that same girl, a few pages later, whose handsome doctor cured her so that she could attend her first ballet class (the drawing was of toe shoes? must’ve been a quick study!). I could be the girl detective with the handsome boyfriend and the top-down car. I could be the pirate, the cabin-boy, the serving wench, the goddess who wrecked the ships against the rocks. I could be the girl who wins the Grand National on the best horse in the world.
I think I was stressed by the Nurse of the Day thing because I couldn’t bear to limit myself. The possibilities are, indeed, endless. Aren’t all avid readers a little bit like this? I think that maybe writers–many of whom can be a tad shy–simply take the idea one step further.
So maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be anything. It was that I wanted to be everything, all at once.