Alone in My Room
When I was born, my Great Aunt Lora (whose name I thought until about six years ago was spelled “Laura”), my mom’s mother’s older sister, made me a quilt. It had red and white squares in a pattern not quite checkerboard, but like that, over-embroidered with swirls of red thread, white thread quilting it together. It was measured for my twin bed, and included a pillow sham and a sham to roll an extra blanket into. I wore out the entire right side of the coverlet by sitting on it to stare into my mirror, the frame of which was painted red to match; and the mirror sat atop a quilted dresser scarf with a ruffle outlined in red, resting on a dresser that was also painted red. My walls, which began life in mint green and then robin’s egg blue, a color scheme from the 1950s, were finally painted white at some point. The room, about 7’ (maybe less) by 8’ (probably a little less), would be unsuitable for even an HGTV master closet today, but it created a nest for my dreaming ways. Though mostly red and white, including a clown lamp with white shade covered in red polka dots, and a red smiley-face rug, I remember my room in Technicolor.
I was the only sibling of my parents’ four kids (my older half sister and brother, from my dad Bernie’s first marriage, lived in North Carolina with their mom) to have her own room. My three younger brothers shared the third bedroom, one that included bunk bed plus trundle bed, three dressers, and shelves, in a red and blue color scheme. We thought nothing of this crowding (until it came time to wash sheets, and then dear GOD, the gymnastics), seeing as my dad slept in an attic with his brother (two of eight) back in Iowa in the 1930s, so shut up already.
My room in our small house was a sanctuary from television noise and Lego fights, and I was put in mind of that cozy feeling again today, as I always am, when watching a TCM black and white classic movie from the 1940s—when a middle class (and inevitably white) character goes upstairs and retreats to her small but very pleasant bedroom to grieve, or dream, or scheme. Everyone was so clean in those films, and the rooms were so tidy. I still find it comforting to watch—they are so safe there, so loved. I’m not a nostalgic person, but I take my comforts where I find them.
I guess it’s not surprising that I had a reputation, if brothers are to be believed, as a hermit. My strongest memories from childhood are not really in my room, though, but outside playing, and yet when I reflect, I know I spent nearly all my time in my room reading Humpty Dumpty magazine for children, and, later, Scholastic books and Nancy Drew mysteries; listening to The Partridge Family, rearranging my little objects—a music box, a few dolls, a little ceramic bust of Mary in prayer (what else?), and my makeup tray-turned-bar (a decanter of my mom’s, filled with water and red food coloring flavored with cinnamon, and a glass for “sherry”)—drawing pictures (mostly copies of the cartoons my friends drew), and writing little poems. I loved getting a little desk with a blotter when I was in 4th grade. I still don’t know how all of it fit in the room, but it did.
Meet the Welcome Wagon
In my neighborhood in the 1960s and early ’70s, with our town situated between two major military bases outside of D.C., and this being the Vietnam War, we saw a lot of military families coming and going on two-year stints. Other neighbors, mostly young families, stayed only a short time and moved away to larger homes when they began to do better financially, or to trailers when the opposite happened. I remember my neighborhood, as a young child, seeming very empty of activity, and then wild with it, trucks to work on, cars and their radios, teenagers–all those potential babysitters.
Whenever a family with young children moved in—and this habit of mine began when I was in 2nd grade or so—I took it upon myself to be the Welcome Wagon I heard about on TV but never actually saw. Naturally watchful and shy, I simply SHONE when in the company of NEW PEOPLE. “Hello, new people,” I would say, “I am Lisa O’Hara.” I befriended the kids (teachers sensed this knack, and always put me in charge of the new kids in class), introduced them around (as best I could, given that I wasn’t “cool”), and played with them even though most were much younger. I liked looking at all their stuff. Then they’d move away: Michelle (who had a collection of dolls from Korea), Sandra (who had a lot of board games I’d never heard of), Teresa (who stole my allowance from my bunny bank), Dawn (who invited me for a sleepover and whose parents kept us up watching the creepy Charlton Heston movie Omega Man on ABC’s Friday Night at the Movies), Jimmy (who taught me the expression, “Finder’s keepers, losers weepers,” which I thought was hateful), Tommy (an early crush, and his parents were real-and-for-true hippies with a “Never trust anyone over 30” poster and a “Save water, shower with a friend” poster hanging in their basement). A lot of other kids stayed around for years, though, and we’d see each other in all the schools from first grade to graduation, on college breaks, in the store, but I remained close with only one or two people I grew up with in the neighborhood. I was always more comfortable helping all the new kids—a lifelong habit—than I was in maintaining friendships in situ, as they say.
How many friends was I close to for merely a few weeks or months of a school year? Surely I wasn’t the only one. Were other people like this? When I was in high school, my mom, Lynne, gave me a copy of Truman Capote’s memoir, bound in a lovely case, called “A Christmas Memory.” It’s the brief story of his childhood with his cousin, Sook Faulk (not named in the telling), and their Christmases together, including the baking of fruitcakes. They mail the cakes to friends: “Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.”
This sentiment hit my heart just right, and so did this: “Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.”
I am, by nature, an itinerant friend, but through great good luck and the energies of others, I have a wealth of friends kept over the long haul, people who don’t seem to tire of me after a month or two once I’ve helped them into the world, showed them the ropes of the work ring, or they’ve shown me; or simply moved to a new place. It’s a little miracle. I say this because one big down side of me, Lisa, is that I tend to put the feelings of complete strangers ahead of people I am close to. Once, a new boyfriend dumped me when, because our meal came late and the boyfriend was vocally critical of the service, I made a comforting joke to the waiter. Things like that. All the time. Somehow I feel it’s my job to take care of the feelings of strangers I will never see again in all my life. I have no idea why I do this.
I think it’s this habit of being—of being itinerant in my acquaintances and at ease in fast friendships—that made teaching a natural fit. I like meeting new people, working with them, and letting them go at end of term. I like moving on to the next people. Or rather, I did. At 52, much as I really love chatting up strangers here and there, making new deep friendships isn’t something I look for. I am so grateful for the ones I have. So lucky.
I must also note that I tend to inadvertently hurt new acquaintances because I create the feeling of ease and intimacy so quickly: They assume, these New People, that they have this new best friend, after the simplest of compliments or a casual funny remark, and sometimes there’s really no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. “Hi,” I want to say to them, “I am Lisa Oakland.” And I feel bad about it, but not bad enough to protect feelings that might turn into “glomming,” as in “glomming onto me” for some kind of therapeutic reason or something. “No, really, I am Lisa Oakland.”
Oh, the sweet silence of my room. The pleasant feeling of walking into my very own room. It never gets old. In the silence of my room…I used to talk out loud, acting out scenes as if writing them, except out loud—and little, if anything, made it on to paper. After performing many of these scenes in the 3′ x 2′ of open floor space, I might, perhaps, dress up in one of my mom’s glamorous dresses from her swinging years as a naval officer in San Juan, and humbly, graciously accept my Academy Award. I would also accept offers to dance, or accept a date from Errol Flynn or David Cassidy. Games of my imagination felt very natural in the safety of my room, but outside playing with the kids from my street, any game other than kick ball or tag or racing on bikes would have made me feel foolish.
Above all, I remember that I spent hours staring into the mirror. Who am I? What will I become? What’s in a face? Why can’t I see my own eyes without a mirror?
Somehow, I turned inward into outward, walked through or past the looking glass, and tried out for plays. I wrote parodies of books, or musical versions of our dramatic efforts, such as Dracula set to the music of The Wizard of Oz.
Weeeeeeeee’re OFF to see Count Dracula,
The count is a really bad guy!
If we don’t stab him in his coffin,
Then we all will die…”
Followed by: “Crosses and garlic and sun, oh my!”
I dreamed of being fabulous, glamorous, witty, and cool. An actor, a writer, a dancer, a dazzling interview guest on Dinah!. I also dreamed of being a school teacher. No one knew this. No one could have imagined how my imagination lit up while crooning along to Sinatra or Nat King Cole on my record player, performing Peggy Lee-style to the face of my clown lamp. I may have been a hermit; maybe I missed out on a lot of action out in the world. Who knows? And how to explain that being up on a stage, or in front of a classroom, feels just as safe as being alone in my old room? It’s the oddest thing.
I still live alone. A few roommates aside, I mostly always have. Was I right to play like this, live like this? Play at being a teacher to my dolls, being a performer for my stuffed animals—giving my all, all of me, once more with feeling, all for strangers I’d never meet, and later to perfect strangers? As Truman Capote might say, I think yes.