“The retrieval of childhood experience is one of the most mysteriously unpropitious of human endeavor,” Janet Malcolm wrote, ” neither of the two ‘I”s through which the story of a childhood is told is trustworthy.” But Most of the stuff I say is true because I saw it in a dream and I don’t have the presence of mind to make up lies when I’m asleep. Having clarified that, my mind can afford to ramble.
Being in the military (Navy), we made an almost annual migration to many places within the United States. Often, when my mother went to be with my father for an extended period, I did not accompany her, and instead, went to stay with my great-aunt. I don’t recall being either happy or unhappy, and though an only child, I don’t believe I was spoiled. Of course, that may be my own opinion. Upon each arrival at a new school, it was my habit to change my first name. I had no repugnance to my own given name, but as I was always an outsider, I became an actress in my own play. The propensity began in the first grade when I was totally smitten with Jackie, a cute little redhead with dimples and freckles. Before her I became Hallelulia for a blessedly short time. Other schools and names took their place, and the next name I recall was Elsie, named for Elsie Dinsmore (a book) or Elsie Brown a girl who lived near my great-aunt. My Elsie was “born” when I was in the fourth grade in San Diego. I was able to live a secret life for most of that semester until a census taker arrived and informed my mother that she had two children; Kathryn and Elsie. After her disappointment in my duplicity, Elsie suddenly disappeared. Also during this year I suffered what should have been, (next to having my name change caught out), my deepest embarrassment. The school held a talent show, and I signed up to play a selection on the piano. In addition to no particular skill in eiher singing or dancing, I also could not play the piano beyond Chopsticks. For my first selection, I chose a heavy duty ” Russian” piece. Needless to say, I was booed off the stage.
We lived in San Diego, which had been the site of near-disaster at the age of four when twin boys of six enticed me into a deep ravine near the San Diego Zoo and left me. My memory is not one of fear but rather of anger amplified when the police found me sometime after dark. I was given a boxing lesson the next day and threatened with punishment if I allowed anyone to treat me so again. My first opportunity to exact revenge came shortly thereafter, and after delivering a few good punches, I was never bothered again.
There were other name-changes, but not until the 10th grade, did I come up with the first original name of “Arvie” made up from my own imagination. I truly loved that name, and would have kept it if the War had not started and we moved. I was sent again to live with Auntie, a no-nonsense New Englander, who would never have understood my need for anonymity. That was the year I was forced to grow up and accept my own identity for what it was worth.
Why would a quiet, well-behaved child choose to play-act her fantasies under a new name in each new location? Perhaps loneliness or a feeling of inferiority, or maybe just an opportunity to escape from a life she did not feel a part of. As adults, we cannot know what is in a child’s heart or mind. Most fantasies are harmless, and end with childhood. We do what we can and hope for the best.