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Growing Grace by Theresa O’Neil Knight

September 1998

When I was 8 years old my parents bought a home in Orange County, Virginia. It was a nondescript tribute to synthetic building materials and uninspired ’70s architecture. Because my father worked for the State Department, I had been hauled from country to country every two years since my birth. The pattern had been broken because my mother’s father, a heavy smoker, was dying of cancer and she felt duty-bound to be devastated at close range. It took several gruesome years for my grandfather to fade away to a whisper. Then he was gone.

I was a painfully shy child who longed for nothing more than adulthood which I perceived as my ticket to freedom from my family. I did not have a close relationship with my mother, an intensely critical, emotionally unpredictable woman who wore the cast-iron pants in the family. My older brother Michael was a violence-prone tyrant of whom I was deathly afraid, especially when teamed with a malevolent teenage neighbor who lived a mile down the road, Jeff Shifflett. My brother and I formed a wary alliance, however, when Jeff was not available to play. We joined forces for the sole purpose of tormenting my prissy sister Belinda who was a compulsive tattletale and therefore our mother’s favorite. My father was the family wallpaper. He was on shift work and all I remember about him at that time was being told by my mother to be quiet so he could sleep. Dad slipped in and out of the home largely unseen and unheard as he made his way to the satellite fields of Brandy Station. My sister Erin was an infant and blissfully unaware of the suburban angst swirling around her.

Public education provided no respite from my home life. We were the only white children on our school bus during racially turbulent times. On weekday mornings we walked to the end of our driveway with stomachs churning, dreading the gauntlet to come. I had played happily with black and Asian children in the Catholic school I attended in Singapore. But in Virginia desegregation was still new and the denizens of our bus seemed to hold the O’Neil children personally responsible for 200 years of slavery and oppression. It didn’t matter that we were descendants of destitute Irish potato farmers and other poor European immigrants fresh off the boat two generations back in any direction. It never occurred to us to share this fact, but if we had it probably would not have sheltered us from being slapped, pinched and kicked by every child within reaching distance as we made our way down the isle. Our skin was definitely white and payback was going to be hell. The experience did, however, provide us with a chance to expand our vocabulary. “What does ‘fuck’ mean?” I asked my mother upon returning home from my first day of school. She was absolutely shocked to hear that word slip from my hitherto sheltered 8-year-old lips. “I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again,” she snapped and I felt like I had done something wrong. From then on I found out what words meant from someone other than Mom.

Life looked pretty bleak to me back then. To escape I began to take long walks with my collie Babes. I had not lived in the country before and was afraid of what might be lurking in the woods around me. At first I was driven back by forest sounds; snapping branches, the wind in the treetops, leaves crackling under the tiny feet of unseen critters. But as time went on I grew bolder and traveled farther. I discovered an old house that had burnt to the ground many years before. Any road or pathway that may have once led to the home was covered by a tangle of underbrush, scrub grass, and saplings. I combed through piles of debris around the blackened ruins and found fat bubbles of melted glass that looked like misshapen gold and green marbles. I discovered a wide stone well covered by half-rotten wood boards which I pulled away. When I dropped stones into the deep black hole it took a long time for a clacking echo to reach my ears. I could see mysterious shadows that looked liked caves in the sides of the well. Was it a long-forgotten outpost in the underground railroad, I wondered. I made up stories about who had lived in the house and how they had met their end.

Farther still into the woods was a dried stream bed that had been used many years before as a dumping ground—-another place to hunt for antique bottles, crusty old toys, and other treasures. One day I walked farther into the forest than ever before. Up ahead I could see muted sunlight and I thought I might have finally reached the edge of the woods. Suddenly Babes bolted from beside me and tore through the trees toward the light. I followed, dodging low branches and the two of us soon burst into a beautiful meadow of tall grass and wildflowers. I was awestruck by a magical place where it seemed fairies might actually exist. It was quiet, motionless and regal, like an empty church. A feeling of overwhelming joy filled me, like God Himself was there in that perfect meadow with me. I lay down in the grass with my dog for a long time looking up at the sky.n the sun sank below the treetops I headed home, but from that moment on, the meadow became my favorite place to escape.

Upon returning from my special place one morning, I had an overwhelming urge to share the experience with someone else. I tapped on my mother’s bedroom door and heard an impatient, “Come in.” She looked up from a romance novel with her head cocked at an angle as if to say, “Well, girl, make it snappy.” I said, “Never mind,” and began to retreat. “No, no, come in. What is it?” she relented with a martyr’s sigh, folding the corner of a page and setting the book on her night stand next to an overflowing ashtray. I sat down and told her about the meadow and God and the flowers. Then I told her about the feeling of incredible joy that filled me when I was there. A queer look came over her face while I was speaking. When I finished I looked at her for several moments waiting for her to respond. “Yes. I know that feeling. I used to get it, too, when I was a child,” she said. “Some day you will grow up and you won’t feel it any more.” She reached for her book; a clear act of dismissal. I left her room a changed person. It felt as if I had just learned for the first time there was no Santa Claus or that I would die some day. I was confused and didn’t understand why she had told me this awful truth. It did not occur to me to disbelieve her. The next time I went to the meadow my feet felt heavy. As I grew near the light I didn’t feel that warm glow building in my stomach. I stepped from the trees and looked around me. It was still just as beautiful, but The Feeling had gone. I was inconsolable for a while and for the rest of my childhood I never felt The Feeling again. I was sad and angry, but mostly I tried not to think about it at all. It was easier that way.

Years later I gave birth to my daughter Grace. From the moment Doctor Lloyd placed her soft, warm body on my stomach The Feeling was back. Grace and I were still connected by the cord that had brought her life while she was inside me and I was filled with such incredible love and joy. Every time I smiled into her impossibly blue eyes and she smiled back, I felt It. Every time she reached out and wrapped her chubby little fist around my finger, I felt It. And when my son Ian joined us, and his sister Catherine after him, I felt It. They have brought me more joy than I can describe and I am sure now that The Feeling never leaves unless you will it. I wonder why my mother never felt The Feeling after she grew upãeven when she looked at her own babies. I realize now that she taught me an important lesson, one that I heed every day as I raise my own family. Be careful what you say to children. They just might believe you.

 

Theresa O’Neil Knight is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in Boston, Virginia, with her daughter Grace, son Ian, and husband Jeff.