Our bathroom ceiling had a leg sticking down. That sums up the image of my first memory, paired with peculiar thuds and muted yells pouring into the bathroom of our second-floor apartment that summer morning on Elm Street in New Haven.
“What was that?” My mother poked her head out from the kitchen and darted toward the commotion, black heels telegraphing urgency across the hard oak floor. I followed her, pedaling in my orange toy truck. I was two, maybe three.
Mom stood at the doorway as I rumbled to her side. She wrung a kitchen towel from breakfast dishes as we looked into the bathroom, our mouths agape, eyes wide like pancakes. A stout round leg poked a crater in the ceiling, a stocky wrinkled foot trying to waggle free in a torn black stocking. Amid muffled squeals of the tenant upstairs, an older woman yelling words I did not know, a single black shoe had fallen onto a matching toilet seat now sprinkled white; the bathroom air filled with morning sunlight slicing a galaxy of plaster dust falling to the checkered floor.
Perhaps my knack for laughing off a crisis was borne from this very moment, as the leg dangled through our bathroom ceiling, splattering chunks of plaster into my bathtub and the toilet below, with an accompanying torrent of percussive Ukrainian expletives.
Behavioral sciences tell us that when a young child is learning how to feel in a given situation, he looks to the faces of others’ for clues. The first place he looks is the mouth. With fingers tapping her lips, my mother’s mouth clearly hinted at a slight grin. Evidence of frivolity, I may have thought.
As a newcomer to crises, it must have seemed odd to me, my mom’s smile, at that particular juncture. So I sought more evidence, garnering clues about how to react as a good citizen in this particular circumstance. For never before in all my two years of life, had I ever seen a leg poking through a ceiling. So I had better know what to do the next time it happens. That is what is called gathering experience, I would later learn.
The next place I looked was her eyes. She seemed to be searching for what words to say. I needed more data, because something was not making sense, what with all this smiling and the giggling and the leg coming through the ceiling. Then she spoke, her words sliding out on a chuckle.
“Can I… Can I help you?”
My gaze swung up to Mom, then back and forth to the leg in the hole punched through the ceiling. Is she serious? I may have thought. Can I help you? Is that what you’re supposed to say when your ceiling has a leg sticking down? I guess so.
Looking back, perhaps her words, her very carefree demeanor, her humor itself may have contained some divine intention and purpose, designed specifically to lighten a potentially stressful, traumatic incident for her first-born son. That incident might have become a very non-assuring image to etch permanently into a little boy's mind. That may indeed have been the first moment in my life I experienced my tongue planted so firmly in my cheek. I could well have developed a phobia of bathrooms, or toilets, or ceilings, or even black stockings, had the situation not been handled so gracefully by my mother. But Mom was not frightened. She in fact seemed okay with it.
I thought that since Mom is actually laughing about it, then I suppose all will be well. Perhaps now I should chuckle along with her. And so I did.
During all the times when my life has had a hole torn right through it, crumbling and tumbling to a mess on the floor, Mom has always said in some way, despite everything, all will be well. Regardless of anything though, what a tremendous gift I have of my very first memory, sitting on a toy truck in a bathroom doorway, sharing a laugh with Mom. At a time when we probably shouldn’t have been laughing, everything turned out okay.
It might be good to remember that more often.