For a moment I’m five again. Strolling through an outdated theme park, taking in the toothless vendors and their unique but not at all unique wares. I grab a hold of the nearest bag before glancing up to realize that it doesn’t belong to any of my family. My heart skips a beat as I jerk my hand away and run ahead.
Luckily my family was there, though still unaware that I had fallen behind.
We’re in the Ozarks, a spread of vast mountains and hidden streams. My grandfather gifts me a baby doll because it’s almost my birthday. She’s perfect and clothed in a small white dress with blue flowers.
I drag her to the river with me where I insist on bathing her. My grandfather laughs and helps me dip her into the water.
My father stands behind, steam practically billowing from his ears.
“This is stupid. Don’t let her put the doll in the water.” He rambles on about how clumsy five year old me is and guarantees that I’ll drop the doll and she’ll float away.
It grates my young nerves. I’ve already spent five years being indirectly reminded that my father never wanted children. Despite that fact he already has two with a third on the way.
For a moment I lose my balance and let go of the baby doll to steady myself.
“See?!” My father snatches my new toy from the water and refuses to return her. “You’ll just lose it anyway.”
Now I’m ten, again in the Ozarks with my grandfather. It’s the first time I’ve seen him or his wife since I almost lost the doll years earlier.
My grandfather’s wife, much younger than he, feeds me all of the cookie crisp I could want. I lament about never having it at home. She takes my chin in her hand and leans in close, “I’ll buy you a couple boxes to take.”
She insists on buying me an ice cream cake and letting me watch Heidi on the Disney channel. Luxuries we can’t afford at home.
My father claims I need neither and sends me outside with my sisters while they discuss.
After dinner and cake she pulls me into their darkened den alone. “Your dad doesn’t want me to give you this, but here.” She pushes a cassette player and a Nat King Cole cassette into my hands. “Hide it.”
But it’s too late as my father wanders into the den to find out what we’re doing.
I smuggle the cassette player home but the Nat King Cole cassette is deemed “too grown up” and I’m forced to leave it behind. I hide myself in the corner of the dark den at midnight to listen to it before I have to leave.
The next time I see my grandfather I’m seventeen. It’s a Saturday and I’ve been at work all day. I don’t know if my father didn’t know my grandfather was in town or if he purposely didn’t tell me. I come home from my shift and find him leaving. He nods, hugs me, then is gone before I can even say anything.
I ask my dad about the visit. He cringes, shrugs and walks away. Years later, after my grandfather’s death I would find pictures from a full family get together that morning. Pictures that include my aunt, my sisters and my great aunt but not me.
And for a moment, I’m five again. Lost in an outdated theme park, upset that my family hasn’t realized that they’ve left me behind.