I spend a lot of time looking up.
My parents aren’t short. My mom’s even on the tall side. But my grandma Mittens (we really call her that) is tiny. I’m not good at science, but sometimes the genes from another generation sneak in and scramble the action. This might be to help you bond with the old people in your family.
One night when I was in the third grade I felt a sore throat coming on. I went down to ask for an aspirin or at least warm salt water to gargle. If there was a peanut butter cookie left on the dessert plate, I thought that might also help. My parents were hanging out in the living room, and I heard my father say, “Well, we’re lucky Julia’s a girl. What if she was a boy and that short?”
I stopped moving. They were talking about me.
I waited for my mom to say, “Come on, Glen, she’s not that short!” But she didn’t. She said, “Right? It’s my mom’s fault. Mittens did it to her.” And then they both laughed.
Something had been done to me.
Like a crime.
It was someone’s fault.
I know they love me like crazy, but I’m short and they aren’t. Until that moment I didn’t realize my size was a problem for them. Their words made a heavy feeling on my shoulders and I wasn’t even wearing a bathrobe. It was like having sand in wet shoes or a knot of tangled hair that can’t be combed through because there’s gum in the middle. Plus part of their statement was sexist, which is also wrong.
I went back up to my room and didn’t even ask for pain help. I climbed under the covers next to my dog, Ramon. He was asleep with his head on my pillow. When we first got him he was not allowed on the bed. But rules with dogs don’t count in the same way as with people. I whispered in Ramon’s ear, “I’m never going to say the word ‘short’ out loud again.”
I didn’t know how hard it would be. The word is everywhere.
These are the facts: In school I’m always in the front row for group pictures. None of the kids—even my best friends—want me on their team when we split up for basketball. I have a good shot, but it’s too easy to block.
When we’re on a family trip, I sit in the third seat, the one all the way in the rear. It’s easier for me to curl up next to suitcases, plus I don’t mind riding backward.
I need a stepstool to reach the water glasses in our kitchen, and I’m still small enough to fit through the dog door at home if we accidentally get locked out, which happens more often than you’d think.
Grandma Mittens calls me the family terrier. She says that terriers might be small dogs but they are also tough. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, because the only terrier I ever really knew was named Riptide, and he bit people.
Until seven weeks ago we had Ramon.
He wasn’t a terrier.
He had black and white spots and was a mixed breed. Another way of describing him is to say he was a mutt. Only I don’t like that word. It can have “negative connotations,” which means it can come with bad thoughts. People think he was part pit bull because his head was big and he had a similar shape. But I don’t want to label him.
We adopted Ramon from a rescue place that meets on Sundays in a parking lot next to the farmer’s market. He was pretty much the best dog in the whole world. We had him for more than five years, and then only a month and a half ago he climbed up into my dad’s chair in the living room (even though I don’t know why it’s called my dad’s chair, because we all sit there, even the dog if no one is looking). Anyway, Ramon got up into the chair, which was the only place he wasn’t supposed to sit. It was okay for him to be on the couch because we put a blanket there and it can be washed. But dad’s chair is made of leather.
I came in and said, “Ramon, get down!”
He knew a lot of words, like “treat” and “sit” and “walk” and “squirrel” and “down,” but that day he acted like he’d never heard a single sound in his life. His eyes kept looking straight ahead, and then his whole body sort of snapped. Like an electric shock happened.
We found out later he had heart disease. What happened in the chair was because of that.
Ramon died that night wrapped in my favorite green quilt at the vet’s office.
We don’t really know how old he was because of being adopted. What we do know is that we loved him with everything we have in us.
One thing that’s still happening is that I’m looking all the time for Ramon. I walk into the living room and I expect to see him on the couch. Or maybe in the kitchen, where his favorite thing to do was sit on the little blue rug right in front of the refrigerator. Ramon’s specialty was knowing how to get underfoot, but it was really that he figured out all the best places.
My grandma Mittens loves the obituaries, which is basically the dead people news. When she’s visiting us she reads them aloud to me. I wish they had a pet section. It would be filled with interesting stories like:
Local Cat Dies in Two-Car Crash
Dog Was Greatest Beauty of Her Time
Hamster Pioneered Theory on Exercise
Noted Goldfish Leader Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances
Grandma Mittens read that headline to me when I was little and I’ve never forgotten. Only it wasn’t about a goldfish. It was about a military leader in South America. I don’t remember his name because I’m not good at storing historical facts.
One thing I’ve decided is that life is just one big, long struggle to find applause.
Even when people die, they are hoping someone writes a list of accomplishments about them.
Pets also like praise.
Well, maybe not cats, but I know whenever I said “Good boy, Ramon!” he just filled up with happiness.
Ramon Marks’s obituary would’ve read:
Best Dog in the World Leaves Broken Hearts and an Empty Home
Since the night of the heart attack in the leather chair I’ve been trying to get over losing Ramon. My parents tell me: Time heals all wounds. But that’s not actually true, because all kinds of things aren’t healed by time. An example of this would be if you break your spinal cord in two, which means you would never walk again.
So I think what they mean is that one day the ache will feel not as achy.
The better expression might be: Time has a way of making pain hurt less.
That would be more accurate, but it’s not my job to fix these kinds of sayings.
My school year ended ten days ago. I don’t know why the school year and the regular year don’t stop and start at the same time. The New Year starting on the first of January just seems all wrong. If they put me in charge, which no one ever has done, I’d make a year start on June 15 and I’d let kids off from school for two months to celebrate.
Now that school is finished, I’m hoping I can break free of feeling sad about Ramon, because it might be holding me back.
But I’m not going to forget Ramon.
I asked for his collar, and I feel like my parents weren’t that happy when I put it around the lamp right by my bed. If you look really close you can still spot his hairs stuck to the inside part. Also, it still smells like him.
It’s not a great smell, but it’s his smell, so that’s what matters. I keep the metal name tag facing my pillow so I can see RAMON every morning when I wake up. It’s important that I start my day by remembering him.
To be honest, I’m guessing he always started his day by thinking about his food bowl. He really loved to eat.
I’m the one who fed him.
I’m not saying that’s why I was his favorite. But it was probably part of the reason.
Besides the collar I also have a small wooden carving that my uncle Jake made me. It looks just like Ramon.
Uncle Jake was once just a regular insurance salesman in Arizona living with Aunt Megan. One day they got in a car accident. Uncle Jake hurt his back and had to lie down in bed for a long time. Aunt Megan was worried he’d go crazy because he was a twitchy person, so she went to a craft shop and got him a whittling kit, which means carving stuff out of wood.
The first thing he made was called The Old Sea Captain. The kit gives you a block the size of your hand and it’s already in the right shape for the project. You just take the tool and carve away because they show you where to put the little knife by giving you a stencil. This isn’t cheating. This is how you learn.
Uncle Jake went from doing The Old Sea Captain to all kinds of things that I guess were more complicated, and then he settled on carving birds. There are people who do this and enter contests, and he became one of those guys. He is now a world champion woodworker specializing in waterfowl.
It turns out that his secret talent is knowing how to very carefully move a sharp knife.
All of this happened before I was born, but he makes his money now carving sculptures instead of selling insurance.
Two and a half years ago he made me Ramon out of wood. I loved it then, but I really love it now.
My goals for this summer, if I had goals, would be to not worry about my height and also to find new ways to be happy now that Ramon is gone.
But I’m not much of a planner. I usually let my two best friends do that.
I’ve known Kaylee and Piper for more than half of my life. We like to go bowling when we can get the money together. On the weekends during the school year the three of us take the bus downtown to the library to check out books. I don’t finish every book like Kaylee. She’s a bookworm, which is an unattractive way of saying she loves to read (because who would want to find worms in books?).
One of our favorite things is to get ice cream, and they sell flavors we like for not a ton of money at the drugstore. Last summer when we were there once, we bought a turtle instead of a single-scoop cone. The turtles were for sale in a big bowl of water at the checkout stand.
The three of us were going to split our turtle, which would mean ten days a month at each of our houses. But our parents didn’t go for the idea, and we had to return Petula. The store wouldn’t give us our money back, which wasn’t fair.
We like to say we miss her, but that isn’t true, because we only had her for two hours.
According to Kaylee’s mom, who is a nurse- practitioner, we put ourselves at risk of getting Salmonella at that time.
This year Piper got sent away to summer camp. She left two days ago. Her mom went to the same place when she was a kid and that’s supposed to make it a tradition. Piper didn’t seem very excited. I told her that I’d write every day, but so far I haven’t. There is no technology at summer camp, so I can’t send her any other kind of message.
Kaylee didn’t go to camp, but last week she went on a trip with her family to see baseball stadiums. I’m not making that up. She’s in a car driving around staring at fields. She’s not good at sports, so I bet it’s really awkward.
Since they’ve been gone I’ve spent a lot of time doing nothing, but I’m totally good with that. I’m not moping around the house. I’m looking for Ramon, but that’s on the inside, so no one should be able to tell.
Only maybe they can, because yesterday my mom said she wants me to go audition at the university to be in some kind of play.
I told her that I don’t want to do that.
She said my little brother, Randy, wants to audition and I should think about it (which means she’s going to make me go).
I have an older brother named Tim, but he’s allowed to do what he wants in the summer because he’ll be fifteen on his birthday. I know being in a play isn’t right for me, and my little brother should audition without me. But it’s my job to watch Randy if Mom’s working, and I get paid for that. So I’m thinking she’s trying to save money by sticking us both in something organized.
The next thing I know, I’m waiting in a long line of kids for my turn to sing onstage in a very dark theater on a college campus. I listen to the adults talking as I wait, and I hear: “Some of the actors are professional.”
“That’s what the woman in the office said. They’re getting paid. One is flying out from back east.”
“Anyone we would have heard of?”
“I guess we’ll find out when they make their big announcement.”
“The director’s from Florida. He’s supposed to have worked on Broadway.”
I’m happy that my mom isn’t talking to these women. She’s returning e-mail on her phone while we stand in line. Randy has a rubber band in his mouth. My mom doesn’t know. He’s way too old to be chewing something that isn’t gum, but he likes to do stuff like that, and I’m not going to rat him out, because maybe he’s nervous standing here waiting to sing. I know I am.
I hope Randy takes the rubber band out of his mouth when he’s auditioning, because he could choke to death. That would make Mom sorry she came up with this plan.
Randy has a good voice and he’s always singing. He can hear a song twice on the radio and it just sticks in his head. In a good way.
I’m not musical.
More than two years ago my parents bought a piano from some people who were moving to Utah. Mom and Dad gave it to my brothers and me for Christmas. I had to act really happy because it was such a big present, but I pretty much hated the thing from the second it was carried into the hallway upstairs, which is right next to my bedroom. The piano glared at me. It was like a songbird in a cage. It wanted to be set free. But I just didn’t have the talent.
Once a week, for almost a year, I had to go to this old lady’s house on Skyline Drive after school and take my lesson. The torture lasted for forty-five minutes. I learned the scales, because a person can probably do that in one class, but I didn’t advance.
Mrs. Sookram had other students and they were mostly kids around my age, but I was lucky because we went to different schools. I never wanted the girl after me to hear my playing. She would know for sure how bad I was and that I was not progressing.
Part of the reason I wasn’t progressing was because of the practicing. My fingers just didn’t feel right on the keys. Maybe they’re too small, because they didn’t glide or find a mind of their own, which was supposed to happen.
It was such a struggle, not like my big brother, Tim, and his music. He plays the guitar and he begs for all kinds of accessories like amplifiers and shoulder straps. He practices for hours and hours in his room with the door closed and you can hear him outside in the yard, which might be hard on the neighbors since he plays the same song over and over again.
Kids are just different, but he’s firstborn, so he gave my parents “unreasonable expectations.” That’s what I heard my dad say once to my mom. Tim’s guitar picks can be found all over the house. They’re like the droppings of some kind of animal.
I did learn something in the year of piano class with Mrs. Sookram. I figured out how to make conversation with an adult and get them off track. The key to the whole thing is to ask a big first question, and then follow that with smaller ones that prove you are listening.
My big question was always about Mrs. Sookram’s life when she was a kid. Where did she grow up and when did she know that she liked music so much? If I got her going, which wasn’t hard, she would just rewind back to a town in Idaho for the whole lesson. I heard about her childhood, piece by piece, week by week. I know more about this lady’s history than about my own parents. The main thing was that she grew up on a potato farm and she was so crazy about music that she walked four miles after school to listen to a lady play a harp in the lobby of a hotel.
I think the harp must be the saddest instrument to fall in love with, because you can’t haul it around with you and you can’t just go into someone’s house and expect the person to have one, like with a piano. They won’t point over to the corner and say, “Yeah, we’ve got a harp. Why don’t you play us a song?”
Once I figured out that Mrs. Sookram liked talking about music better than listening to me hit the wrong keys, the lessons were more under control.
But then one day she said, “Julia, I’m going to call your mom this afternoon. I just don’t feel right taking her money.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, but I managed, “She doesn’t mind.”
Mrs. Sookram looked sad. She said, “Honey, I don’t think the piano is your instrument.”
I nodded in a way that was half yes and half no. And then I heard, “I’m going to miss you, Julia.”
Mrs. Sookram took my hand. It was way warmer than mine. I realized she was telling the truth, because her eyes got all watery and stuff leaked out of her nose and I was pretty sure she was crying. Or else having bad allergies.
I should have said that I was going to miss her too. I wanted to say it, but a lie that big would’ve been impossible. So I put my arms around her waist and I gripped her really tight. She was a big lady, so there was a lot to hang on to.
Minutes later, I was lighter than air walking down her driveway. It was a kind of feeling that maybe happens when you’ve finished serving a prison sentence or have just gotten out of a full body cast. I didn’t realize until I was on the sidewalk how much I hated the piano, and how much I’d learned about potato farming.
I pretty much haven’t thought about music since, and now here I am waiting to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with a zillion other kids at some big-deal audition that half the town has shown up for.
I didn’t have a lot of time to figure out what to wear to this torture session, so I settled on my leather sandals and my jean shorts and a white shirt that’s called a “peasant blouse.” The shirt is my favorite. It has puffy sleeves and a round neck and it’s made of thin cotton. I didn’t give it the name “peasant blouse,” because that’s like saying “poor person shirt.” But that’s just what they call these things.
We don’t have peasants in our area. We have some farmers just outside of town, and I’m guessing they hire workers who don’t make much money, but I don’t think those people wear festive blouses while pulling weeds.
Anyway, I have on what I consider to be one of my best outfits, and that’s important because one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s good to feel cozy with what you’re wearing when you’re going into a situation that is new and scary.
The last thing you want to do when you are nervous is wear wool.
My little brother has on a striped shirt and brown shorts with an elastic waist that I think are very unfashionable. And he has a rubber band in his mouth.
We all make our own choices, except of course when it comes to the big things. Those decisions seem to be made for us, which is why I’m standing here.
After what feels like forever, it’s my turn to get up onstage.
Most of the kids who went before me sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But I watched a girl ask the man at the piano if she could perform “Amazing Grace” and he didn’t have a problem with that. I could barely listen because her song reminded me of losing Ramon, so I put my fingers in my ears. My hair is long, so I made it look like I was just holding my head.
When I walk over to the piano I suddenly come up with a plan and I say, “Can I sing ‘This Land Is Your Land’?”
The guy nods and then winks at me. This is a nice thing to do because his wink makes me think he knows something I don’t know—like what I’m doing singing in front of two hundred strangers.
I start “This Land Is Your Land” and look right out at the auditorium past the woman who is recording us on a video camera.
I don’t want to be here, but Grandma Mittens says I’m a terrier and they can bark loud. So I sing with everything I have in my lungs and I make sure my hands aren’t all knotted up in fists. I watched some of the other kids before me and they looked like they were ready to throw a punch.
After I finish my song I look back at the piano player and say, “Thank you very much.” He winks at me again. I can’t help it—I laugh. And then I take a small bow directed to the piano. I have no idea why I do this.
I guess my mom knows that today is hard on me, because once we are done auditioning we go right to the bakery and Randy and I each get a chocolate cupcake. We eat them in the car on the way home, even though dinner is only a half hour away. While she’s driving Mom says, “You did a good job taking that bow, Julia. It was very theatrical. People liked that.”
I don’t answer because I wasn’t trying to be theatrical—I don’t even know what that means. But I’m happy that she thinks I did a good job.
I know my singing isn’t anything special. When my little brother sang I heard honey in his voice. Some kind of sweetness. My voice is loud but not sugary because I don’t have the right flow.
Randy has what Mrs. Vancil (who was my favorite teacher at school) would call “real potential.”
It’s not because I’m not tall, but my singing potential just isn’t that high.