Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Secret Codes

I was talking to No. 1, (Katie) on the phone this afternoon, and she was describing an assignment she has in a class in which she is a TA. She’s a grad student at UT Austin and just began her first semester there, the smarty pants. The assignment has to do with unusual forms of communication, and she’s gathering ideas—I suggested the old codes hobos used in the early 1900s to warn other wanderers about the nature of people in various houses. I’ve written about that before.

Those codes got me ta thinkin’, in the vernacular of someone who might have hiked from town to town carrying nothing but a hobo sack over his shoulder. When I was a kid, around 12 or so, the last of my sisters moved out—two were married, one was in college, and all three lived in a different state, three different states, actually. And I was left alone to deal with our dear mother who was not always kind, or stable. Some days, she was just as inclined to smack you upside the head as to speak to you, if you get my drift.

Well, as much as band was my refuge, and old movies and books, keeping a diary proved a handy form of release, and I would journal my thoughts in one with a latch and tiny key that fit into a basically useless lock. Not all of my thoughts were about my mother, nor were they very interesting, I suspect as I was only 12, but whatever it was I was writing down was important enough to me at the time to put pencil to paper and to do it in secret.

I was so afraid my mother would read this journal of mine, especially the parts that involved my response to her personality quirks that I developed a secret code. I drew 26 simple unique shapes and paired them with letters of the alphabet and memorized my new alphabet. I got so good at using this secret code that I could write entire pages documenting all sorts of unsavory remarks or threats or even just the fun I had with a friend at school that I could go back days later and re-read my diary with complete understanding.

This went on until I decided the coast was clear, and by high school I reverted back to your regular English alphabet. Then one day I came home from band practice or something, and my mother met me in the kitchen, red-faced and tense, and she read me the riot act for the swear words I had used in my diary. There was no mention of how offensive it was for her to read my diary, and I knew better than to bring that up, but it’s a wonder I didn’t revert back to my code and become completely mute at the same time.

Well, that was a circumstance I hadn't thought of in years until today when Katie mentioned languages. Funny how the mind works, how it stores things away in the brain folds and then spits them out decades later based on one simple conversation.

And funny, too, how one memory can lead to another, like hopscotch with the No. 2 square being a diary and the No. 3 square being a story that was surely in that diary, told in code. As I was remembering my code today, I dug through my blog archives because I was reminded of something. Several years ago, one of the bloggers I used to correspond with asked us all what we had been hit with as a child, and her question ironed out one of those brain folds beneath my skull. I told the story excerpted from a paper I had written in college. It goes like this:

When I was in middle school, my mother was obsessed with Saturday cleaning, and when the assignment was given to clean our rooms, the job better be done. NOW! My sister and I were diligently gathering dust and empty shoe boxes from under the beds in our shared room when my mother dragged in the tired vacuum cleaner. She saw my behind sticking out from beneath my bed frame as I pulled out old Twinkie wrappers and spiral bound notebooks, but because her vision was clouded by her obsession, she didn't believe I was actually cleaning. I must have been fooling, she thought, trying to get out of a day's work.

She screamed, "Why aren't you cleaning under your bed?"

"I am," I said, cowering behind the spread of trash.

"Don't tell me! I see you just sitting there."

Before I could think of some proof of my work beyond the visible accumulation of under-the-bed-hoarding, my mother reached down and smacked my head. I looked up and saw another blow coming, so I threw up my arm to block it. When my mother made contact with my arm instead of my skull, she was sure I had hit her. Shocked that her own daughter would do such a thing, she grabbed the nearest object, the hard-wood-floor vacuum cleaner attachment. It was metal with a thick pad of felt glued to one side to protect the floors. She hauled back and hit me right in the head with the thing, on the metal side. "Don'!" As she stood swinging and I sat screaming, "I'm cleaning, I'm cleaning," my sister ran out into the hall and watched in horror from the doorway. She was screaming as well, begging my mother to stop.

My father had been out running errands but came home soon after the "episode." My mother was in her room crying, and my sister was in our room with me as I was literally hyperventilating. My mother ran to Daddy and told him that I had hit her and he needed to go do something about it. My sister tried to tell him she was wrong, but he was a dutiful husband, and he took off his belt and gave me two lashes to the back.

I don't remember the belt hurting, mainly because I focused on the skull damage. But I do remember intense anger and I do remember wishing I could have knocked my mother to the ground. And I do remember wishing I could have wrapped that belt around my father's neck for not listening before he swung. But children are powerless, and all I could do instead was sit for hours in the corner of my room and gasp for air.

So, that's that for the reminiscing for today. Back to the present day, and back to happier thoughts. We should be grateful our brains store thing in folds and don't keep everything right out there on the surface, don't you think?


dive said...

Brr … A real horror story, Robyn. You have to confess, however, that your Mother knocked you into an amazing woman: intelligent, witty, hilariously funny, inspiring, super-talented at writing, music and all manner of other nifty things, and - bizarrely, considering the amount of whup she laid on your ass - a wonderful mother.
Ain't life strange?

savannah said...

oh my, sugar!

you area treasure, robyn! i'm reeling, but i completely agree with dive! xoxoxoxo

savannah said...

you are a treasure... (damn typos!)

Katie Martins said...

i don't think i ever knew about your secret alphabet! very clever. somehow learning the hebrew alphabet seems more fun if i pretend it's a secret code.

and the african beads from the previous post are very cool.