It was the summer of ’97. I had just finished drying my tears filled with memories of Weibel Wildcat runs, apprehension for the uncomfortable and defining period of my life people kept calling Junior High, and the realization that my innocence would perhaps be forever lost. We spent our days under the blithe California sun sneaking into the neighbor’s neglected backyard concocting stories of the witch and her cauldron of a pool filled with all the potions and magical artifacts that would one day blow up in her face and avenge all her wrongdoings. In the afternoon I would go to gymnastics class, frantically changing in the back of Trooper, the red Volvo station wagon that kept chugging along due to its “sturdy German upbringing,” get to class 5 minutes late, huffing and puffing, having missed stretching, with my leotard inside out, and my grips mysteriously misplaced.
One particular afternoon that fateful summer, Miss Ronnie decided we were to work on our parallel bars and floor exercises. She asked me to show her my favorite tumble and then my best bars routine. I hated both vehemently, but knew for some unintelligible reason I was always working harder than the rest to do the simple stuff, so I squared off, took a deep breath, and sprinted towards the tumble of my life; a cartwheel-aerial-back handspring- back flip into unconsciousness. When I came to, I was on my back with an ice pack on my head and off to the side of the gym. Miss Ronnie nonchalantly strolled towards me and drawled out, “Shab, your legs are just too damn long for your own scrawny body. I think it’s time you pack your grips and try something else.” I stared her straight in the face and said, “No, I am a gymnast. Just give me one more chance.” She said if I could climb the rope of hell and touch the ceiling and do a Kip on the bars, my two greatest foes, then she’d reconsider.
Through a haze of choked back tears, I climbed the rope and barely grazed the ceiling as my teammates cheered me on from below and Miss Ronnie watched with a skeptical glare. I apprehensively approached the bars and watched my dreams slip away as I tried again and again to pull my inconveniently long legs to the bar. Deflated teammates began drifting away as I let the tears fall and wondered in bewilderment how I could possibly fail such an imperative test. With defeat on my shoulders and all my accessories in tow, I slumped out of the gym and waited to be picked up and taken home, where I could wallow in my sanctuary and stare in disbelief at the black and white photos of famous gymnasts plastered on my bedroom walls, knowing I would never fulfill my destiny of U.S. Olympics Women’s Gymnastics team.
30 dreadful minutes later I heard Dad screech around the corner in his Saab, pull up next to the curb, unlock the doors, and avert his eyes from my already averted eyes. During the tense ride home I went through a shotgun version of acceptance of failure starting with denial, then depression, and culminating on blame. I blamed Mom for giving me long legs and pushing me to be an ‘athlete’, I blamed Dad for always being late and making me do Lego instead of practicing my routines, I blamed Yogi for being a great gymnast and proving he was in fact the talented one.
That night I started a list of all the things I hated about the way my parents brought me up. I would never be late for my kids, I would never force my kids to do things they didn’t want, I would never shout at my kids, I would always let my kids decide what they liked and what they disliked. And I would definitely have more than two kids, because what if one pair wasn’t getting along or despised one another through the difficult teenage years of identity crises and attention seeking?
Although it was unfair to place blame on my parents that night for something they had no control over, today, I look at that 30 page list with a smirk on my face and slight shake of my head, and wonder what effect it will have on my children. That list encompasses both the unbelievably unconventional and ludicrous moments of my childhood that have shaped me into an unusual person today, paired with the treacherously painful memories of anger and struggle leaving lingering bitterness from a time long ago. That list makes up a set of standards, a bible, a cookbook of riddles and conundrums and paradoxes with fill-in-the-blanks that I will bequeath to my children and expect to appreciate and diligently create one of their own.
What will become of their books? Which major, nonnegotiable necessities will they throw to the wind and which silly derisory ingredients will they continue to transcribe into their own, seeing the value that I have. Which items did my parents take from their parents and which have boomeranged full circle from grandparent to grandchild? Did Grandpa’s traveling itch make Dad’s turbulent and unstable teenage days a thing of the past, only to find his daughter’s sedentary life crippling and suffocating, pushing her to discover that itch once more? Did Mom’s love for languages teach her son to love other cultures, making her granddaughter half Indian and trilingual by the age of 2?
Is it possible to write in the clearest words, leave all the obvious blanks, use the basic ingredients, flavored with the perfect spices, strike out all the bitter scraps, with a picturesque exemplar illustration up above, and create a masterpiece that looks just as you’d envisioned it? Or if we surrendered to the possibility that perfection is in the eye of the beholder, being not us, as a parent, a sister, or a grandmother, but the person we’ve helped to lay foundation upon which to build, will we create an unhinged immoral serial killer or sculpt a self-sufficient, unprejudiced, free thinking person who sees the world as their oyster?