Seldom have I given much thought to the fact that I was raised an only child. If you were to ask me, say, one year ago, how this one piece of information has influenced my life, all I would have told you is this: from the moment I knew I wanted children, I also knew I wanted them to have siblings.
I spent a good portion of my childhood alone, mostly waiting for someone to appear or something to happen. I waited on a metal picnic bench to be picked up from school, its cool ridges impressing themselves onto the back of my legs, the sky revealing two or three early stars. I waited curled up in an armchair, staring out at the thick, velvety darkness, searching across the canyon for the headlights of my father’s car driving home from work. I waited with a fly on the veiny part of my forearm determining how far I could tilt my arm before it flew off and, when it eventually did fly off, whether I could entice it to land on me again, while my parents spoke with a relator about buying a house. I waited, I waited, I waited.
I also spent a good portion of my childhood with adults, and because fitting in with children my own age was for me a frequently excruciating and unsuccessful endeavor, I preferred it this way. I accompanied my parents to crowded parties where people sipped champagne from plastic cocktail cups and often there was nowhere to sit. Portions of these memories still remain quite vivid. I see most clearly the three of us—my father, my step-mother, and myself—arriving at a party. We have moments before parked our car along a curb of a Santa Monica side street, and are now walking up a driveway toward the house, a one-level stucco. I am trailing behind them. I become aware of a vast energy, a movement—the movement of people from behind windows, the movement of the city, the movement of salt air from the ocean that is several blocks away—and the way all these different forms of movement have come together at this one point in time and are now brushing against my cheek.
Would it have been different if I’d had a sibling or two to share this moment with? Would I have paid as close of attention? Would I have felt this movement? Would I have attended these parties at all?
Being an only child also made me by default the center of attention. Not that I was showered with attention. To the contrary, I was actually given a good deal of independence for someone my age. But when attention was given, I was the only one there to receive it—usually.
There was a girl, the daughter of a family friend, who was close in age to me, both of us around ten. She was a child actress, this girl, which is not entirely uncommon where I am from, with an impressive singing voice for a girl of ten. She and I got along fairly well, and for a few years, she and her mother would come to parties that my parents gave, where, encouraged by her mother, she would stand by our piano and sing.
When she sang, people drifted in from other parts of the house and fixed themselves on her, this ten-year-old girl, who had the voice and poise of a full-grown woman. I remember standing among these people, unable to see over their heads, feeling suddenly very self-conscious, and also feeling something else, something new. Her voice, though undeniably beautiful, had the slightest shrillness to it, a forced effect that I clung to, and with repeated exposure, came to dislike immensely. As I stood there listening, listening to her voice rising up and out, forcing its way through walls, ceilings, even through skin, I felt, for perhaps the first time in my young life, the disorientation of envy.
That experience being what it was I can also tell you that I was never entirely comfortable being the center of attention. Occasionally I reveled in it, though usually when swimming in those waters the pleasure was partial, as if one or more of my limbs remained unsubmerged. There was a time, though, when I truly believed that nothing would make me happier than being the girl at the piano who could sing unabashedly with a crowd gathered around her. I am speaking here in metaphor, as this wish had nothing to do with singing and everything to do with having won the approval and earned the applause of a room full of people.
As it turns out I am not, nor have I ever been, that girl at the piano, and those circumstances would have never led to the happiness I imagined. I am fairly certain that had I decided to go down that path I would have been left feeling vacant and dissatisfied, and perhaps even landed in one or another Southern California rehab.
As a child I frequently fantasized of a life with brothers and sisters, a life within a large bustling family, similar to, not so coincidentally, the one I have today. Although sitting here now, with a clear understanding of what such a family life looks like—which, not surprisingly, is a far different picture from the romanticized version of my youth where the “bustle” aspect was dramatically downplayed, if not overlooked altogether—I’m not sure how well I would have fared in that environment, being the sensitive and rather inward person I am. I would have, of course, fared, but perhaps I would have turned out differently, perhaps less sensitive, less inward, though who can actually say? And this, right here, is of growing curiosity for me.
How do the various pieces we are handed—here you go, this is your life—influence who we ultimately become? These pieces, which may or may not exist in union with the essence of who we are, and yet, undoubtedly, create who we are. We may yield to them or we may battle them or often we will do both, but either way we can’t deny their influence over us. And if we stripped away these pieces, these roles we are given to play, like they are layers of paint that have been brushed over wood, how would the grain underneath appear? Would there be a visible grain at all?