“Why did you do that, Grandma?”
“It was the right thing to do.”
“But why?” asked Alex.
The aging woman took a quiet moment to reflect back to the past, to the year her life took a sudden and dramatic turn, to thoughts of the simple choice she made and the outlandish results that became her life.
Grandma’s facial muscles seemed to soften. Her eyes focused on a spot just slightly off to her right. And though Alex could still see her and he knew that he would still feel the soft, squishable layer of skin if he reached out to touch her hand, he remained where he was. Looking at her eyes, he became aware that his Grandma’s mind had traveled a long, long way into her past…
“Cynthia, come here!”
“Cynthia, go there!”
“Cynthia, do this!”
“Cynthia, do that!”
“Cynthia, that’s not right. This is how it should be done!”
“Cynthia, that looks terrible. Change it!”
“Cynthia, stop crying! Only babies cry.”
“Cynthia, stop laughing! You look foolish when you laugh.”
“Cynthia, don’t talk back when you’re being spoken to!”
“Cynthia, answer me! I’ve asked you a question.”
“Thia. Please call me Thia,” she would say to herself.
“Thia,” she whispered sweetly. Somewhere inside her, behind her eyes, between her ears, tucked underneath her hair and protected by the shield of bone was a magical place. A place all her own, a place where she could call herself Thia if she wished. And she did wish it!
“Your name is CYN-thia,” she heard her mother’s voice in a different part of her head – the part that was not magical.
But the children at school called her “SIN-thia.”
“SIN-thia. SIN-thia. Do something WRONG-thia!”
And then they would laugh.
They laughed when Thia had designed a beautiful construction paper mosaic of lovely colours. She had created a balanced, mirror image of letters – large letters – in the very center.
T I T
Miss Byrd (the children called her “Tweetie” when she was not close enough to hear them) admired Thia’s craft. But even Miss Byrd had the start of a smile at the edges of her mouth. She patted Thia’s head, as though Thia were a puppy that had done something bad but didn’t know any better.
“Class, it is not polite to laugh at someone else’s innocence!” Miss Byrd had demanded.
Thia’s classmates pretended to stop laughing. But all of them muffled their giggles behind their hands as they covered their mouths. Thia was confused.
For the remainder of the day, every time anyone looked at her, they would put one hand over their mouth to cover the laughter. The other hand they would use to point at her and then laugh louder. Thia did not understand.
After school Thia’s best friend Eva explained what the word “TIT” meant, and why everyone thought it was so funny. Once Eva had explained, Thia’s feelings of confusion turned and left, only to be replaced by the more achy feelings of embarrassment. And with her embarrassment came her body’s tell-the-world-how-I-feel-and-embarrass-me-more colour of red. The red flooded her face, her ears and even her throat with visible heat.
She really didn’t mean to, but Eva couldn’t seem to help it. She laughed out loud. Eva had a loud laugh. It was a pretty sound, nice in the ears. But it was loud. All the kids that were nearby could hear it. They turned to find the cause of Eva’s joviality.
“They know!” thought Thia. “And now they know that I know too!”
And instead of making her feel better, Thia’s face and ears and neck got even redder.
“SIN-thia. SIN-thia. Do something WRONG-thia!” chanted the children.
As a grownup, Thia reflected back to those early years, the years of her youth. She recalled more…
A bright light shone upon her as she stood with her body turned one quarter of a circle away from the projector. Thia was facing the classroom door. A different teacher that year and whose name Thia no longer recalls, drew a pencil line upon a large piece of white paper.
When Thia stepped out from the glare of the light, what she saw amazed her! The teacher had traced the profiled shadow of Thia’s head. Upon the paper was a drawing of Thia looking sideways – Thia’s silhouette. It was a picture of Thia. Thia with a lovely chin and curly hair. Thia with almost no nose.
Everyone else had noses. Sloped noses or rounded or pointy noses. Big noses. Slim noses. Regal noses. Proboscis.
“Proboscis, class. Say it with me. Pro-boss-kiss. It means nose. Again! Proboscis. Louder this time! Proboscis!”
And, while printing it on the chalkboard, “Spell it with me, class! P – R – O – B – O – S…”
But Thia did not repeat the word. She did not say the letters out loud. All she could hear in that private place in her head where she heard her mother’s voice so often, were the words “NO NOSE.” All she could see filling her vision was her silhouette. Noseless.
Thia had never seen herself as others must see her when they stood beside her. They would see that she had no nose.
Yet she was not upset. Thia had always felt it, but on this particular day she knew and understood something wonderful. She was different. She was not like all the others. Her thoughts, her feelings, her mistakes, her imagination set her apart from all the others. And now, she had learned, even her body was remarkably unlike that of her classmates and friends. She was one of a kind. She was unique.
With that thought came a new feeling. Thia did not have a word for the way she felt in that moment. It was a very strong emotion. She actually noticed that her body seemed to be standing taller.
Thia was able, in later years, to put a name to that particular emotion. It was PRIDE. In that moment Thia felt proud.
Proud to be herself.
Proud to be different.
Proud to be unique.
Proud to be Thia.
And just as fast as that new emotion surfaced for her, it was shattered. Shattered by sound. The sound of disapproval. Children’s laughter. Pointing fingers and piercing voices all directed first at her silhouette and then at her.
“Thia has no nose,” they all chanted. “Thia has no nose!”
“I do so!” cried Thia in the loudest voice she could manage.
But Thia’s voice was quiet and soft and could not be heard above the raucous, critical sounds of hilarity and ridicule. Sounds and fingers were pointing out her difference. Sounds and fingers were pushing the pride of her uniqueness down, down deeply into her body. Down to a place where she could no longer see it, could no longer feel it. Where it was now hidden, even from her.
Pride had its moment of glory within her. Then as quickly as it came, it submerged to a spot where all the bad feelings go, where they all get locked away and never seen again.
Well, almost never…
Sometimes when Thia is on the verge of sleeping, the face of a bad feeling – thinking it is safe to come out to play- peeks out of the door of this secret place. It is then that Thia can glimpse it briefly. And when she does, all the memories and thoughts from that particular feeling come rushing at her. Rushing. Pushing, Shoving. Frightening. It is like the time when she got separated from her parents in a crowd of adults at the mall. Everyone was rushing about and not noticing a frightened little girl trying frantically to find her Mommy and Daddy amongst all these huge, unknown bodies.
As quickly as an old memory arrives, Thia pushes it and its feelings back inside that secret place. She closes the door and locks it again.
Many years have passed. Many opportunities have presented themselves for Thia to take pride once again in herself and in her accomplishments. But as each situation arose, Thia was sure to suppress it – to hide it behind that door, within that secret place. And each time she did, she also accepted the views of those around her. She began to believe she was different. That different was a bad thing. In being different she saw herself as being less than other people. She saw herself as being something not right.
She began to believe in SIN-thia.
Thia grew up. She became an adult, a wife and the mother of two fine children – a boy and a girl. Then one marvelous day something very unexpected occurred. Something happened that changed all of their lives, especially hers.
Thia was always trying to do more than other people did. She would do more just to prove to herself that what she saw as her differences from others was an acceptable thing. She often took on extra projects. This particular day it was Thia’s responsibility to coordinate an art show.
All year long the men and women of Thia’s tiny community made beautiful and lovingly crafted items to sell during this one day event. The proceeds from all sales always went to a local charity. And everyone took a turn at organizing the event. This particular year it was Thia’s turn.
Thia did not want to be in charge of the craft show. Thia knew her ideas would be seen as different. Her enthusiasm and creativity were often perceived as wacky, weird, and not normal. Only one of the many suggestions she had made to the craft show committee had ever been adopted. The committee that second year had agreed to have a clown wander around the arena giving out balloons to the children. It was Thia’s suggestion. Her recommendation had been heartily approved.
Every year since, Thia’s neighbour Mary-Beth had worn the same costume she had made that first year from scraps of material gathered by the women of various clubs and organizations throughout the area. Mary-Beth’s husband had found, on one of his business trips to the big city, a perfect, frizzy green clown wig. Patchwork costume and frizzed green wig atop her head, Mary-Beth, as the craft show’s clown, quietly paraded around the arena handing out helium balloons to timid children. Many times it was actually the parents of timid children who would take and hold the balloons. Sometimes Mary-Beth had to berate the occasional boisterous and demanding child from grabbing the remaining batch of colourful balloons from her hands.
At the final meeting, the last one before the show itself, it was evident that there would be nothing new again this year. Thia sighed inwardly. Though she had tried, there was no consensus on any of the new suggestions she or a few of the newer members offered. It was the known rather than the unknown that was comforting to most of the committee members. There was to be no change from last year. There was no change from the year before that either. Nor even back as many years as she could recall. The last change was when the clown was added to the show.
Though Thia was disappointed at the sameness again this year, at least there was no conflict. There was no reason for the townspeople to have cause to say, “This year’s show was a failure because Thia was in charge.”
The morning of the show dawned grey and cool. It looked like it might even rain.
“Perfect!” thought Thia. “People tend to go to indoor activities when the weather is cool and unpredictable.”
Thia had just gotten dressed and was pouring herself a juice when there was a knock on her door. Expecting to see tiny Mary-Beth, Thia was surprised to find Mary-Beth’s very tall and muscled husband John filling the doorway. In his hands John held a brown paper grocery bag. He extended his arms and thrust the bag and its contents at Thia.
Thia accepted the bag. She must have looked at John with a question in her eyes. In his shy, gruff voice, John quickly announced, “Mary-Beth’s costume. She’s in the hospital. She had her appendix out last night. Bye.” And with that he turned abruptly and walked off Thia’s porch. Thia called out to ask if Mary-Beth was doing all right. John did not seem to hear her.
Still holding the bag, Thia entered her home and promptly sat in the closest chair.
“Now what?” Thia wondered. Mary-Beth was tinier in size than any of the show committee, including herself. Where were they going to get a clown on such short notice? Would the costume fit one of the daughters or sons of any committee member?
Thia was about to fret and to worry. Fretting and worrying came naturally to her. In her head she heard the rebuke of the women. She could feel the sting of their disapproval. She could hear their words, “This year’s show was a failure because Thia was in charge!”
And then the voices of her former classmates seemed to shout from that secret locked room deep within her.
“SIN-thia! SIN-thia! Do something WRONG-thia!”
“How did they get loose?” Thia heard her own voice comment. “I thought that door was locked tight!”
Just as the childhood chant began again, “SIN-thia…” Thia stopped for just a moment. That moment was long enough for her to forget about the voices taunting her. A thought had come to her mind. It was a magical thought, from a magical place. The magical place she had locked away many, many years ago.
And remembering that magical place, Thia also remembered something else. Something she had tucked safely away in her home. It was a gift she had been given when she turned thirteen. A gift from her friend Eva. A precious gift. Over the years Thia would take it out of its hiding place, open the box and admire it. Then she would put it back in the box and hide it once again in its safe location. She had hidden it where no one in her family would find it. It had been a long time since she had taken it out to gaze upon it proudly.
“Now, where did I put you?”
Thia looked everywhere. She checked in drawers. She opened all her cupboards. She looked in closets and under blankets. She peeked into storage boxes. Suddenly, the thought came to her. She recalled the little space she had hidden her treasure.
Once the memory came to her she almost ran to the spot she knew she would find it. There it was. She picked up the small box. Opening up the box, she took out the item inside and held it gently in her hands.
“This will do perfectly!”
While Thia had been looking for the little treasure, she was imagining another incredible idea. And as she searched for the tiny box, she uncovered and discovered some wonderful objects. Objects that she knew she would need.
“Maybe this will do.”
“If I add this.”
“Now how about that?”
Thia pulled a suitcase out of her closet, opened it and put it on her bed. She then stuffed all of her gathered items, including the tiny box, into the suitcase. She grabbed her makeup bag and marched herself over to the arena. With the key she had been given Thia opened the facilities early for her friends and neighbours to set up their art displays. Then she quickly checked her design layout to ensure every table was in its proper place.
Once that was done to her satisfaction, Thia went to the women’s washroom. She laid out the unusual array of objects she had brought with her. Thia removed the outer layer of the clothes she had donned freshly just that morning. She folded each one neatly and placed them all in the now empty suitcase. She closed the case lid. Standing back one step, Thia critically looked at what was laid out before her.
There was a delicious feeling rumbling around in the area of her tummy. She gave thought to the naming of that sensation. Was it excitement? Maybe it was enthusiasm?
“Both!” she decided!
There was a flash of a second, less than a moment, when a niggly feeling surfaced in that same spot. That feeling told her she was being foolish.
“Foolish, shmoolish!” Thia shouted at her reflection in the mirror. She laughed. And then she laughed at her own laughter. The awful feeling went away.
Thia’s heart was beating rapidly. Her palms were sweaty. Her hands were shaky. Yet for the first time in years and years, Thia was truly excited!
Thia got busy. She did what she needed to do. Everything she brought with her had been placed upon her body the way she had imagined it her mind. With her outfit complete, Thia grabbed her makeup bag and pulled brow pencils and eye shadows and lipsticks from within.
“Simplicity,” Thia thought.
She swiftly but effectively put on her makeup. When her handiwork was finished, Thia again looked at herself in the mirror.
But there was still one thing left to do. Removing from its box the precious little treasure Eva had given her so many years ago, Thia fastened it in its appropriate place of honour. Then she stood one more time in front of the washroom mirror. If anyone had entered just then, what a sight she would have seen.
Thia’s callused feet were tucked into pink rubber swim fins. She was wearing not one, not two, not three, but four full, flowing skirts – all various lengths and contrasting colours and patterns. The longest skirt – a red plaid one – could be seen tickling Thia’s ankles. Next a slightly shorter, purple flowery skirt was visible above the plaid. Then green polka dot material could be seen. On top of that swirled an even shorter blue and pink paisley skirt. Overtop of all of these was Thia’s high school graduation, full flounced, knee-high crinoline. By itself it always reminded Thia of a ballet dancers’ tutu.
Atop her skirts was an equally unusual bodice. White crimped lace peaked out at her neck and her wrists from beneath a yellow and brown checked flannel shirt Thia normally wore when she did her housework. Layered over that was the brightest, gaudiest orange T-shirt Thia could find in her children’s clean clothes’ basket.
Attached to Thia’s head with bobby pins was the top of a newly purchased, but not yet used, rag mop. Long neglected hair barrettes of every imaginable colour and design – no two the same – were clipped into the mop for decoration. A huge, shiny fluorescent green bow she attached to the mop like a flower. This adornment she placed on the mop hair-do, just over her left ear.
Then there was the face – what used to be Thia’s beautiful face. Thia had attached a pair of false eyelashes. She was amazed that she had kept the things. They must be at least 20 years old. That was the last time she had sung on a stage. The added lashes weighed noticeably upon her lids now dramatically bright blue. Next Thia had painted her lips a bold cotton candy pink. Her eyebrows were very noticeable black arches. The only other makeup she applied was the single tear drawn upon her cheek – one huge teardrop. Thia’s sadness visible for all who cared to see.
Yet with all of the colour and the garishness, one feature stood out above all the others. Placed with pride and attached with honour, was Eva’s gift to her that long ago day. In the center of Thia’s face was a crimson red bulbous nose – the proboscis known as the trademark of a true clown.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Thia liked what she saw. And, liking what she saw, she stood tall. She stood proud.
Proud to be herself.
Proud to be different.
Proud to be unique.
Proud to be Thia.
Oh my! It felt wonderful! She felt wonderful!
Courageously leaving what had seemed to her to be the privacy of her own dressing room, Thia ventured onto the arena floor. Gathering up that year’s collection of helium balloons, Byrdie the Clown stepped with finned feet into the future…
Thia took a deep breath and returned her thoughts to this beautiful child of her child.
“Yes, Alex. I hear you, Dear.”
“Grandma, why did you do that? Why did you become a clown?”
“It was the right thing to do, Alex. I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do the very first time it happened.”
And, smoothing out her flouncy crinoline, Thia lifted her grandson onto her lap. Alex gently reached out to touch the teardrop painted upon Byrdie the Clown’s – his grandmother’s – cheek. A single tear. Unique. One of a kind. Special. Just like she was!
Thia smiled lovingly at the child. With her arm tucked snuggly around him, she spoke again, “Alex, let me tell you about a time when I was a little girl…”