My two older brothers used to have a map of the United States hanging on a wall in their bedroom. I was jealous of it, the way little sisters can so easily be. The map was beautiful in its own rightâ€”a large and colorful representation of America. But the most fascinating thing about it was the colored plastic thumbtacks scattered across it.
I was not a particularly pesky little sister. I didnâ€™t push limits or patience often, and I graciously accepted any bones of kindness thrown my way. I wanted to be included in their lives and, most especially, their favorite activities. If that meant being Miss Elizabeth for the millionth time instead of the golden-haired and glorious Hulk Hogan, so be it. I could compromise.
The map always remained off limits. Not for lack of effort on my part, though. I would point at it, eye it longingly, ask if I could move a tack. The answer was always no. Maybe because it was the item I coveted the most and they knew it. Possibly because they had some intricate reasoning behind the placement of thumbtacks and were afraid I would mess it up (I hoped so and I would not).
Whenever I could I would sneak into their room to look at it. Their world never felt more secret from mine than when I stood in front of the map. I wanted to understand what they were giving relevance to and why. What made one place deserve red and another blue? Was green better than yellow? I was only four or five, with no understanding of states, let alone cities, and just beginning to read. I couldnâ€™t pinpoint exactly what I loved about that map. I just knew I did.
But the only thing I loved more was the house we lived in.
When I was born my father was the caretaker for an Episcopal church. As part of his employment, he was provided with the caretakerâ€™s home. His salary wasnâ€™t much, but the massive old stone house with utilities included and room for a family of five, which more than made up for a lacking savings account.
The house had been a preschool at one point. In the mudroom, there were small cubbies with hooks that I loved to sit in. The mudroom opened to a sizeable backyard and to the right of it was an apartment complex where one of my brothers and I sometimes visited an elderly woman whose name I now forget. She would have us in to sit and talk with her. Sometimes give us pieces of candy we did not like, usually black licorice or cherry-flavored hard candies. The trade-off for our listening and pretending to enjoy our treats was access to large amounts of pavement to ride bikes and skateboards. We played unsupervised a lot. This was a perk for the two youngest, perhaps not so much for the eldest.
We moved out of the house I loved when I was five years old. The coveted map did not come with us.
Iâ€™m not sure what happened to it or whose decision it was to leave it behind. I learned to keep quiet about these kinds of disappointments because I could tell there were already enough present in this new, much smaller, home.
I think there is at least one moment in most childrenâ€™s lives that they can clearly see, as adults, shifts everything. For me, it was the move. For my whole family, maybe, it was the move. There were a lot more fights and much fewer rooms to escape to when they happened. It was easiest when we were behaved. It was even easier when I stayed in my room and picked my own bedtime. Silence, however, is not always golden. I craved some guidance.
I wanted to create my own internal map littered with thumbtacks. I dissolved into books. I poured over the atlas at the school library. Destinations, book characters, favorite last sentences, dance moves, little-known facts about animals,. Each earned a place in my mind with a thumbtack. Most people try to figuratively find their place on the map and I was set on doing it literally. I wanted to understand as much of the world around me in order to pick my place in it. As I grew up, I went to those placesâ€”sometimes literally, sometimes just in my headâ€”when life got difficult. The weekend my father went to jail. The first time I hurled â€śI hate youâ€ť at my mother. When depression settled in for a full year of college. When a professor called my writing â€śweirdâ€ť in red pen at the top of my paper. I turned to the map in my brain for guidance about who I was and what I wanted.
As adults, we have never discussed the map that used to hang in my brothersâ€™ bedroom. Iâ€™m not sure either of them remembers it.
One of my brothers is a parent now. I watch the way he carefully speaks to his son, the way he sets parameters and goals, and I think about the map again. Think about how my brother is explaining the thumbtacks to someone, finally.
Amanda Oliver lives in America, most of the time. She also tweets.