This weekend, we got together with some friends for a story-telling party around the theme of embarrassment. We sat in a circle in the living room and told each other true stories about embarrassing situations, mostly childhood memories, since nothing seems to equal the humiliations of childhood. In fact, as an adult, I’m still puzzled at how much of my childhood I wasted being paralyzed with shame about situations that now seem perfectly trivial.
Dina was away at a sleepover, so Miki was the only child at the event. He sat quietly in Gil’s lap as the adults told their stories about silly misunderstanding, awkward situations, and our own shameful behavior. I think it was a revelation to Miki that adults can be just as clueless, stupid, and embarrassed as children.
In the morning morning, as Miki and I ate breakfast together, we continued talking about the theme of embarrassment and Miki asked me to tell him more stories about my childhood. I told him about my first exposure to the manipulations of other children when I was in kindergarten:
I had been very sheltered as a young child. My father doted on me, and as an only child until age eight, I spent most of my time around adults. When I went to kindergarten, I had no experience with the rules of children's society.
One of the first girls to befriend me was Dora, a beautiful little Italian-Dutch girl who had grown up with her two older sisters and who was the sassiest girl in class. She already talked back to the teachers in kindergarten and had the cursing repertoire of a sailor before she even reached first grade. She must have sensed I was an easy victim.
One day, a friend of my mom who visited us from Italy gave me a bracelet of Venetian glass. I was so pleased, I insisted on wearing it to school. I still remember the colors: dark blue glass beads blended with bright yellow and orange flower shapes. During recess, Dora convinced me to let her wear my bracelet in exchange for a string of plastic beads. I was too shy to object. As soon as we had made the switch, she declared that this was a deal and that my bracelet now belonged to her. Since I was aware that I had no idea how things were done among children, I assumed I had somehow agreed to this unfair exchange through my own ignorance. When I got home and my mom asked me what had happened to the bracelet, I mumbled that I had given it to Dora. My mom was furious about my carelessness with such a precious gift and told me to get my bracelet back. But I was too shy. I couldn’t make myself confront Dora, and I preferred to act as if nothing had happened. My mom eventually forgot about it, but I didn’t. I spent the next six years in the same class with Dora and always remembered that she still had the bracelet because I had been too cowardly to demand that she return it. Even now, the bracelet is still on my mind and I still feel its absence.
I told Miki that now, as an adult, I can’t even understand why I let myself be intimidated like this. I asked Miki if he understood.
“Yes, Mama,” he said and pointed at his eyes, which were tearing up in empathy. "Where is Dora now?" he demanded, "I want to tell her to return that bracelet to you!”
And then we both burst out laughing at my silly self who had obsessed her whole life about a bracelet she lost because of her own timidity and who had to wait three decades for her nine-year-old son to finally stand up for her.