In longing you close your eyes,
but in wonder you open them…
-Myra Shapiro (full poem here)
I started writing—really writing, like my life depended on it—when I was 11 and went off to boarding school for the first time to a country a 10-hour drive plus a 5-hour flight from where my parents and little brother and sister remained.
It was the height of Summer in Chile and in my mind’s eye they were at the lake everyday. Or picking raspberries, which surely they were plopping straight in their mouths rather than saving for dessert. Or roller skating down our street, the cracks and bumps of which I knew by heart. Or playing hide-n-seek well into the evening of late-coming darkness in the Southernmost part of the Southern hemisphere. Pretty much anything I had ever loved, they were doing. Without me.
It was more than jealousy. It was about belonging and wanting to stay a part of it, of them, of what had been us. Writing became connection.
On my first morning not at home, I woke up early. The smells were odd. The sounds were odd. The equatorial light coming through the window was odd. Even I, myself, felt odd. I spoke English with a Spanish accent, and Spanish with a Chilean accent and my clogs and knee-highs looked dorky.
Quietly —so as not to wake my odd roommate— I found a pencil and notebook and began the first of what would become, over the years, hundreds of letters home. I have no doubt that letter was filled with all sorts of details: an obsessive and agonizingly accurate accounting of my brother Karl’s and my first trip alone by airplane.
What I left out, in my desire to prove myself the trustworthy oldest daughter and responsible big sister, the one any parent would be proud of, is that I’d gotten on that jungle-painted airplane and cried and cried and cried. And for all the trying in the world, those tears had not ended until long after my madly-waving parents were the merest fraction of dots in the distance where they stood with white handkerchiefs on the rooftop of the Aeropuerto General Arturo Merino Benitez and I had to close my eyes to make the waving handkerchiefs continue materializing in my mind’s eye.
And so began my closing of the eyes to remember and to make gone things linger a bit longer.
At boarding school I was assigned a light blue metal bed, like a big tin can, with a shelf on the headrest. That’s where I put the picture. My dad developed all his film as slides, and so, snapshots were hard to ever come by. The family portrait at the head of my bed, taken in the States 3-and-a-half years earlier, was the only actual picture my mom had been able to find for me to take.
But I would come to find out it was oddly special: not because we were all posing in our Sunday best; not because a formal family portrait like that only happened every four years; not because my little sister Judy and I were in our very special matching red and white dresses Mom had stayed up sewing for us into the wee hours so we’d have them to wear to church on Christmas; not for any obvious reason, really.
Its specialness was only something a girl that stared at it from every angle could have discovered: my brother Danny’s eyes followed me magically around. I experimented. If I moved to the left, he was there. If I moved to the right, same. Up. Down. All over. Anywhere I went, there he was, looking me right back in the eyes with his silly little half smile.
Years later, at the Louvre in Paris, I would discover that Danny shared those superpower kind of eyes with the Mona Lisa.
Maybe I have Danny to thank. Maybe Leonardo Da Vinci. Maybe my preacher dad with photographer’s eye. Maybe boarding school. Maybe every single thing that ever happened in my odd life, but at some point I started opening my eyes, curious to see what might be looking back at me.