Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Four

This is Part Four of Face, A Memoir. In Parts One, Two and Three, we find out I have been hit by a car at the age of five and have lost my left cheek and eyelid. After five weeks in the hospital, I come home, and my mom and dad prepare my sister and brother for a Marcia whose face was ravaged.

Part Four

“Marcia is coming home this afternoon, and she looks different than she did,” my mom explained. “You shouldn’t be afraid when you see her. She’s still your sister. She’s still the same Marcia.”

But I wasn’t.

I looked grotesque. A thick fleshy string connected my upper and lower eyelids. There was a gaping hole underneath my left eye where the skin had been torn away. A red ridge of scar tissue ran the length of my left cheek, with thinner spines spreading out like a spider web toward my nose and ear. A jagged pink scar jutted down from my lower lip toward my chin.

How did they respond to my face? Chuckie was so little, only three. But Cherie was ten, and had seen me on the street, my face torn away. She remembers that Mom told her she would have to help a lot, because I would need a lot of care. But she doesn’t recall being surprised or shocked at how I looked.

“I think I was sad,” Cherie said, “and I was prepared to help with whatever Mom needed.”

 

A few weeks after I came home, we went shopping downtown.

Mom didn’t often take us downtown. It meant putting Molly into a stroller and tethering Chuck to it with a harness. I was allowed to walk freely, but liked to go off exploring when mom wasn’t looking. That often led to frantic searches and stern scoldings once she found me. But off we went.

We were in Hardy-Herpelsheimers, then the nicest department store in Muskegon. Mom was looking at some dresses and I was uncharacteristically clinging to her. A woman came around one of the displays with her two children and stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” I heard her say. She turned and pulled her children away. “Kids, don’t look at that little girl.”

My mom didn’t say anything, just pulled my head in close to her and held me there, in the middle of the store. We left then, without buying anything, and walked home.

 

Now that I am a mother, I wonder at her ability to withstand it all. I look at photographs of myself after the accident, and I think, could I have done this? How did she feel, knowing her daughter would be disfigured probably for her entire life? Did she hope I might die and escape the cruelty, the stares, the laughter, the pointing? I can’t imagine. She had pushed the grief from the two lost babies deep within. When she was alone with her thoughts, when she kneeled beside her bed to pray every night, what did she pray for?

 

I walk on the beaches in Santa Barbara almost every day, watching the tides come in and go out, changing the landscape from one day to the next. Some days the beach is thick with sand stretching from the shoreline to the cliffs. Others the sand is washed away, exposing barnacle-encrusted rocks, sea anemones and an occasional starfish. My Australian shepherd frolics in the waves and plays with the other dogs on the beach. And I think, How is the self built? Like the changing beachscape, we are shaped and formed by forces outside of us. Surely the self is altered by experiences, by perceptions created out of circumstance. What happens to the self if face and body are transfigured by happenstance? If that self is in early formation, a young child of five, the self may be more radically affected. After the accident, my identity evolved into that of a scarred child, a child whose face repulsed people. It wasn’t long before I knew that I was someone to be avoided, that my face was a frightening visage, even for adults. And while I knew my family knew and loved me, I also was certain no one else could possibly see and appreciate the self I was within.

(Part Four)

An Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part One

“I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.” ~ Michel de Montaigne

As some of you know, I was severely injured as a young child and ended up having to endure twenty surgeries from the time I was five until I went off to college. I wrote a memoir about that experience—Face—and finished it three years ago while doing my MFA at Antioch University LA. I am in the process of revising it, but want to share it with you as I do. So, today’s post is the first part of Chapter One. I will be posting pieces from the book in serial fashion throughout the next few months. I welcome your feedback and thoughts.

Face, A Memoir

CHAPTER ONE

June 17, 1961

I had a brand-new bike, cherry red with chrome fenders: my first two-wheeler. Did my dad teach me to ride it? Did he run along beside me as I pedaled, holding the back of the seat until I found my balance, tipping from one side to the other, then finally discovering that middle place where you know you’ll never fear tipping again? I don’t remember. But I know it was a Saturday, the first day of summer vacation, because after breakfast my older sister went around the corner to her friend’s house instead of to school.

The heat and humidity of a Michigan summer already gripped the day. As I went out to the garage to get my bike, I could feel my blue t-shirt grow damp and cling to my back and stomach. When summer takes hold in Michigan, moisture settles near the ground, sucking everything down with it. By late afternoon, people would be sitting immobile behind screened porches, praying for the whisper of a breeze.

Mom had shooed my brother and older sister and me out after breakfast. We lived in downtown Muskegon, where neighborhoods were arranged in blocks of small clapboard or brick-faced houses, with alleys that bisected each block. The narrow streets were lined with tall maples and oaks, which scattered acorns and, when the temperatures dipped, dropped leaves like graceful magenta and citrine flags signaling the coming winter.

Our neighborhood was filled with kids, and it was never long before a dozen or more would gather. Soon there’d be a game – Hide and Seek, Hop Scotch, Tag – it didn’t matter. We’d play for hours, coming home only for meals. Adults didn’t worry.   

My new bike had a white basket on the front handlebars and red streamers that fell from the hand grips. I had finally mastered riding on my own and was anxious to show off for my friend, Annie, who lived across the street. But on the way, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Medema, who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the apartment building next door.

“What a beautiful bike, Marcia,” she said. “And a two-wheeler! Wow. I noticed your dad was helping you balance on it. When did you take off the training wheels?”

“Yesterday!” I said, and smiled proudly. “I can ride all by myself now.”

“Well, that calls for a celebration. Want to come up for some cookies and tea?”

I liked Mrs. Medema. A widow, she lived next door and often babysat for us. She always wore a dress under an apron, stockings and thick black shoes. Her gray hair was cut short and curled. Three other widows lived in the brick building, but only Mrs. Medema paid any mind to us kids. She lived on the second floor, and her apartment was cozy and bright with sunshine. I parked my bike on the sidewalk in front of her steps and carefully set the kickstand. Then I walked up the narrow stairs with her, holding her hand.

The smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies filled the apartment. My mouth watered as she took a blue-and-white ceramic plate from the cupboard and put four warm cookies on it – two for me and two for her. She reached for her blue bone china teapot above the stove, poured hot water from the kettle into it and filled a silver tea cylinder with loose Earl Grey leaves. “We’ll let it steep for just a minute,” she said. “Let’s go sit at the table.”

She carried the teapot and the plate of cookies over to a small table near the window, then turned back to get two tea cups and saucers that matched the cookie plate. She placed one cloth napkin beside each cup, and poured the tea.

“Is your mom busy this morning?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said, lisping. I had lost my two front teeth just a few weeks earlier. “Molly is crawling all over the place. And Chuckie keeps trying to break my toys.”

She laughed.

“Your dad at work?”

I nodded and bit into one of the cookies. My dad, my grandfather and two of my uncles owned Meier Cleaners. Dad worked every day but Sunday, when we walked four blocks to St. Joseph’s for Mass and saw my grandparents and most of my aunts and uncles and cousins. After Mass the families would linger in front of the stone-faced church, catching up on the week and exchanging the latest gossip. The monsignor, Father Stratz, would wander through the crowd in his colorful vestments, nodding and smiling at the adults. I didn’t like Father Stratz. Short and squat, he had a full head of gray hair, a thick German accent, and he scowled at the kids who ran between the adults.

A slight breeze came through Mrs. Medema’s screen as I bit into a cookie. I could see my friend’s house across the street, and then I saw her in the front yard.

I took a sip of the tea and ate the second cookie quickly.

“Thanks, Mrs. Medema,” I said through the gap in my teeth. “I have to go now.”

I ran down the stairs, grabbed the handlebars of my bike and pushed up the kickstand with my toe.

At the corner, I carefully looked for cars before crossing. I started into the intersection, where there was a four-way stop. A man and woman in a tan sedan had stopped at the corner. I was halfway across the street when he began to drive forward. I was so startled I stopped and watched. I didn’t understand why he didn’t stop. I shrugged up my shoulders and turned my body as if to fend off the blow.

 

Roscoe and Muriel Benn were driving home from the market. I imagine they were in a rush: Their children and grandchildren were coming that evening to celebrate their grandson’s fourth birthday, and Muriel was anxious to get home to clean and prepare.

They drove down Fourth Street to the stop sign at the corner of Fourth and Mason. As they approached the stop sign, Muriel was fussing.

“Can you go a little faster, Roscoe? I still have to make the cake and get the roast ready to go into the oven. You’ll have to help with the potatoes. This darn arthritis. I can’t work the peeler anymore.”

Roscoe pulled to a halt at the stop sign, paused, then drove forward through the intersection. Muriel heard a strange scraping sound. Then she noticed people on the sidewalk yelling at them. What were they saying? She rolled down the window. “Stop,” they were screaming. “Stop!”

Roscoe braked and the car came to a halt about halfway down the block. People were running toward them, surrounding the car. Muriel didn’t understand what had happened. 

“You’ve hit a child!” they yelled.

Muriel looked at her husband of forty years. His face was the color of fresh Michigan snow.

(Part Two)