Legs: her skinny legs have carried her through all walks of life--from cement sidewalks to the convent.
The child stands with legs spread directly under her shoulders like an opera singer, though she has never seen one. She listens to her father's opera records and drinks in the drama. While her mother manages the household in the upstairs apartment, her father kneels outside his aunt's summer kitchen before his firstborn and snaps the picture. His angle dramatizes her height, her importance, her skinny legs.
She was born to run, climb, slide, elude, kneel, and kick a football. At 9 months she ran across her Aunt Frances' hardwood floors and fell. There is a picture of her sobbing: one diaper in the usual place, another acting as a sling for her broken arm. At 3 she managed to drag a chair, climb aboard, and proceed up the china cabinet. The whole thing came tumbling down on her. Still, she managed to crawl out from under the wreckage of all those broken dishes.
After this she abandoned heights and went for the straightaway, the narrow street in front of the apartment. Here the legs barely slipped by an old Ford. Unfortunately, her father was behind the wheel and things were not too pleasant when he got out.
Still, on her fifth birthday he bought her roller skates. She strapped on the skates and made a roller derby of the sidewalk around her Uncle Joe's store and past her Great-aunt Zia shucking peas in the morning sunlight. Of course, the legs were no match for the cracks, and she fell. Her aunt and the peas jumped up and the child screamed in the nest of her aunt's apron. Her uncle grabbed a handful of jelly beans from the candy counter on his way out, filled her hands, and pointed to the sidewalk. "You broka my sidewalk," he said. That was the end of the tears.
There were no jelly beans and no angel of mercy to stop the car the day her cousin Ann Marie ran across the street in front of her home. She died in her mother's arms, a heartbreaking pieta. Someone thought it was a good idea to have her cousin be an honorary pallbearer. So one child lay in a white casket in her white first communion dress and the other stood by her side in her own first communion dress, the long white stockings sliding down her skinny legs. She tried to pull up the stockings. She tried to pull on the white gloves the funeral director gave her. What she really wanted was to hold her first communion book and rosary, the same as her cousin Ann Marie.
After the funeral they all came back to Aunt Frances and Uncle Phil's house. She was ushered into a small alcove in plain sight of the grief in the parlor. Here she sat in her white clothes, her skinny legs in the rumpled stockings, and a Snow White coloring book spread across. "Please finish coloring Ann Marie's book." It was her Uncle Phil in a voice hardly his. And the legs stayed strong while the hands colored.
The skinny legs were very strong. They fell but did not break when the bicycle she rode fell over and the school principal carried her home with a steady stream of blood pouring out of both knees. The doctor stitched as best he could, but the scars were permanent. Playing backyard football didn't help, so the picture needs to be amended with sizable scars just below each kneecap.
She was never going to be Miss America, but she was going to win every race and every tennis match in the city tournaments. Her serve was unorthodox. She had no backhand to speak of. But she was fast. Those skinny legs could run around every backhand, track down every lob to the baseline, every shot in the corner. She was junior champion four years running. Everyone called her "Legs." Then she entered a convent.
That was the end of the white shorts and the beginning of black skirts--long black skirts showing dense black stockings and not much else.
The legs disappeared completely the day she received the long, black habit. She knelt for hours on sturdy legs in front of the host in the golden, sun-like monstrance. When she wasn't kneeling in the pews, she was kneeling under them, nudging specks of dirt out of the screws with a toothbrush. After this chore, she climbed the stairs to the choir loft on knees that scarcely touched the marble, more pilgrim than charwoman.
Nobody saw the skinny legs in the thick, black stockings when she taught high school. Nobody saw a thing until the day they all raised the hems of their skirts to normal. One day she put the shorts back on and started running the streets of the cities where she was sent to teach.
When she wasn't running, she was rollerblading with thick pads on knees, elbows, and wrists, her head encased in a sturdy helmet like someone from outer space. Swinging rhythmically left to right, she navigated the long parkway, adjusting to currents coming off the lake, saying the Jesus Prayer, cracking a few ribs.
Now she looks at herself in the picture with a grapevine twisting up the red brick wall. It is herself, the child of cement pavements and possibilities. She looks at the bit of window with the curtains and the spool of thread on the sill. Behind those curtains was Great-aunt Zia's summer kitchen and a table on which they made cavatelli. The old aunt mixed, rolled and cut the dough in small pieces, and the child rolled them with her finger. When the child's mother called down that she was to come up to the apartment, she replied, "I can't. I'm helping Zia make macaroni." Some said it was an early indication of willfulness. More likely it was the earliest clue to her heart's desire: the creating of something new with people she loves.
Now she looks at the child's white dress, fading into a beautiful first communion dress, fading into a long white wedding dress covering the skinny legs which walked solemnly to the altar and promised God her life.
She looks at the legs, knowing now that they will not crawl out safely from every wreckage, that they will not run around every devastating shot coming across the net, that they will never be fast enough to outrun the shadow of death.
Now the long, skinny legs with the scarred knees jump in the night, as if practicing their leap into the heavenly realms. There the streets are paved in gold and there are no broken sidewalks.
By Joan Sauro, C.S.J., an award-winning author living in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Does God Ever Sleep? (SkyLight Paths).
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2015|
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