My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is obsessed with school buses. There’s a bus stop right on our corner that provides a full morning of excitement. More buses pass our house on their way to pick up “kids go big school.” We must cross paths with at least ten more on the way to daycare. Each time a bus passes out of view, my sweet baby demands, “More bus, Mama!” She thinks I control the world.
Of course, it’s developmentally appropriate for her to have this unshakable faith in me. I love her so much for her trust and optimism. But because I am so acutely aware that I do not control the world, it’s also occasionally painful.
My obsession with control started early. When I was five years old, my parents separated, and my mother and I moved away. I had been pretty happy in my small town Catholic school. I knew most of the kids before I started kindergarten, and my cousins were at the same school. My teacher was warm and friendly. My new school was a different story all together. I wasn’t used to city life where I didn’t already know everyone. It was mid-year, and all the kids had established friendships that didn’t include me. Then there was the teacher. Oh, the teacher.
I was familiar with nuns, but this one was different. Sr.Mary wore a down-to-the-floor black habit with the full head covering. Only her face showed. This type of habit was long out of fashion in the 1970’s, but she was a throw-back in more ways than one. I was scared to death of her. Her teaching style was far more authoritarian than I’d experienced previously, and I could tell that she really didn’t like me. When she broke the class into group activities, she’d take me and one other child aside.
I didn’t understand why we were singled out, but eventually it became clear, if not the reason, at least the purpose. At first, I was mere witness to the torture of my little companion. Sr. Mary had a full litany for poor Tasha. Her parents were divorced and, according to Sr. Mary, Tasha’s mother had abandoned the family. Somehow in this twisted old nun’s mind, Tasha’s parents’ divorce and the fact that they were African-American were irredeemable sins. The nun claimed all “negroes” go to hell when they die. The fact that Tasha wore braces on her “crippled” legs was punishment from god for both being African-American and having divorced parents. Tasha’s father was a member of the city’s professional football team. Each time he left town, which was a lot during football season, Sr. Mary would tell Tasha that her father wasn’t coming back just like her mother hadn’t. She was destined to become an orphan.
Eventually, Sr. Mary set upon me. She told me that, while I was at school, my mother and father would have a terrible fight, they would stab one another, and I would become an orphan. Just like with Tasha, this insane nun had figured out my greatest fears and then went about convincing me that they were a destiny over which I had absolutely no control.
Tasha and I never exchanged any words about our shared torture, just knowing glances when we were called aside. We shared a common shame. Each afternoon as the other children played with blocks or dolls while they waited for their parents to pick them up, Tasha and I sat paralyzed in fear, waiting to see if her father and my mother would arrive or if the day Sr. Mary predicted had finally come and we were orphans.
School became a nightmare. I had horrible dreams about blood, my parents’ death, being all alone, and Sr. Mary. Around the time that my parents decided to reconcile, my mother found out what the malevolent Sr. Mary had been doing and withdrew me from the school. But Sr. Mary had one last prediction. She said my parents wouldn’t stay together and that we would all go to hell. She was right about the first part.
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of relief to be away from that psychotic, but I also felt guilty for leaving Tasha. Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt. In some way, I also felt isolated to be separated from Tasha. After all, we were both on the same road to orphan-dom.
The next school year was first grade, a full day of school with bus transportation. Each morning’s goodbye with my parents at the bus stop was like then end of a World War II epic film. I just knew that this would be the last time that I would see them alive and that when the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, they would be dead in a giant pool of intermingling blood. I would be an orphan.
Sr. Mary was gone, but my paralyzing fear was not. I symbolically transferred it from her to the school bus. After all, the bus and the school where it delivered me were the only two places I was ever apart from both of my parents. Since my child brain was convinced that I could somehow keep my parents from killing each other, the school bus was taking me away and thus creating the opportunity for Sr. Mary’s prediction to be realized.
I screamed and sobbed at the bus stop. The bus driver offered to let me sit right next to her. My mother bribed and threatened to get me on that damn bus. Didn’t she understand that I was trying to save her life?
One of Sr. Mary’s forewarnings came true. My parents’ reconciliation didn’t last, and they divorced when I was seven. My mother and I moved to a neighborhood where I walked to school, and my school bus phobia subsided. But my white-knuckle grip on everything else I could conceive of controlling did not. I became hyper-vigilant about my surroundings and pathologically organized with my toys and books. As an adolescent, I developed an eating disorder.
Adulthood and therapy smoothed out a lot of those rough edges, and I evolved into a run-of-the-mill control freak. Through my twenties and most of my thirties, I went about doing quirky things like alphabetizing my spice rack. I found that my obsession with control and order was also a great asset. After all, that was the aspect of my personality that made me good at my job.
Then I got a rude awakening. Four years ago, while living in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina blew my fantasy of control out of the water. Puns intended. I had moments of panic and despair and railed in anger at god. It was hard, but eventually I rallied on, feeling a bit free to relinquish my compulsion for control.
Parenthood mellowed me more. When waiting to adopt a child from Africa, you either go with the flow or go crazy. And parenting an infant who has been orphaned requires the patience and flexibility of the Buddha. I was feeling the groove, that is until the recent “economic downturn.”
It’s difficult to be a single parent and self-employed while facing economic uncertainty. I think I’m doing a good job of keeping my priorities straight and my fears at bay, but I have my moments. There aren’t a whole lot of nuns in full regalia roaming the streets, so my old symbol of panic—the school bus—sometimes flips the switch. You know, the bus I’m supposed to welcome. The one I’m supposed to materialize.
I didn’t realize that my daughter can see my face in the rearview mirror from her car seat behind me, but she can. One morning, as a bus turned a corner and rambled up a hill, she said, “More bus, Mama!” I gave my usual reply of, “Let’s look for more.” A moment later, she spied one and exclaimed, “Look, Mama, bus!” Then she sweetly added, “No more sad Mama.”
And so it goes. It took me a while to see how the past connects to my present and how an everyday experience can have a hidden meaning waiting to be confronted. I am raising the child Sr. Mary predicted Tasha would become. My daughter relishes the sight of the very symbol of my worst childhood fear. Each day, I have the choice to fall back into old patterns of panic and control or release and relish my child’s bright-eyed enthusiasm.
Let’s look for more!