JUST PASSING THROUGH
By Mary Elizabeth Gillilan
the crest of Scenic Drive, a brick and clapboard house sat on a
knoll. Dandelions and crab grass overpowered the rows of strawberries
that made up the front yard. Morning glories strangled anything
in their path. The house overlooked the Yakima Valley; it was Mama’s
dream house, but Mama’s dream clearly was not the garden. It
looked as if the only gardener had been God, who after throwing the
seeds out had gone onto shape the valley and dry, mud foothills of
this eastern Washington town. That is if you believed in
God. I had a problem believing in God. I was fourteen.
The year was 1964, and I was just beginning the eighth grade.
school day I walked to the bus stop in front of Diana Crane’s
house. We were in the same grade at Wide Hollow School. In back
of the stop was an apple orchard, and on early mornings the golden
delicious apples provided breakfast from September until harvest.
yawned at myself in the mirror. My braces shone but my face bore
even brighter red pimples. When I put on my glasses my
hair looked worse than I thought. I tried combing it again, but
ugly is ugly. God, I was going to be late; I just knew it, and what
difference did it make if I looked like a piece of crap or not? The
mirror sat on a stained birch desk that had been Granddad’s. My
little room’s window looked into the garage. My bed came from the
Salvation Army; no one liked the lumpy bed but me. The springs sprang
in just the right places and fit me as if it were made to order.
thought of school made my stomach cramp. September 15th, school only
in its second week, and already it filled me with an all too familiar
dread. Co-ed P.E. Right now we played co-ed baseball with that
stupid snot, Gary Neubaurer.
“Catch the ball
Mary, you moron. Hey Retard …” and the ball sailed on
overhead from my place in center field. As I looked at myself in
the mirror, it seemed that today would be a whole lot like the day
know any word other than retard?”
I had one strong arm and
one weak arm – one weak leg and one strong leg. I couldn’t
protect myself because the right hand couldn’t make the cup
necessary for catching the ball, and I couldn’t run fast enough to
get out of the way. I hated being laughed at because of my
clumsiness. I hated my body. I hated being The Retard ; especially
since I tried to keep my cerebral palsy a secret. I hated the words
I looked back at my bed and wanted to
crawl back inside, but the clock left no more time for hesitation –
I had five more minutes until the bus pulled up down the road. I left
the house quietly so as not to wake up my sleeping parents and hoped
there would be enough time to grab an apple at the stop.
“Yeah, my alarm didn’t go off.”
started eating her stolen apple.
“You want a
I knew Diana only
meant one bite, and the apple was so good.
“They must have
smudged last night – did you see all the black haze in the valley?”
I handed the apple
“I’m glad they don’t have to do it up here,
wouldn’t that be gross? Bad enough at school,” Diana said.
use smudge pots to keep the trees warm when it freezes. They burn old
tires, too. We’re up higher; you’d think it would be colder
yet they don’t use pots up here.”
The bus came and we got
on and I tattled on, “They’ll pick the apples pretty soon then
they’ll be all done…”
Diana yawned and looked out the
everybody knows that. Why do you have to be such a
I hated it when I said the obvious, and I was
always doing it. I did wonder what the growers burned in the black
pots that lined evenly with the trees in the immaculately tended
apple orchards. I doubted Diana knew, and if I asked her a question
that she did not know, it would just piss her off. For awhile I just
stared down the aisle of the bus, as it jolted to stops and let more
kids on. The bus driver had the radio on, and Bobby Vinton sang about
Blue Velvet something.
“Hope I get to be pitcher,” Diana
good, and Miss Heid said she’d let me.”
so,” I muttered.
School was still
four miles away and I did not have to live it until I got there. I
looked at the orchards and wanted to walk among the round red apples
and get lost in the black fog and pass through to the other
“What do you want to play?” Diana
“What position do you want to
“Anything but center,” I said in a controlled
effort to make my voice light.
“Oh, don’t be a baby … if
you didn’t run away from the ball every time it came to you …”
bus pulled into the parking lot of Wide Hollow School. I wished I
was the bus driver: Mr. McCorkindale knew what he was doing. After he
got everyone to school he could just walk away – away from the cold
morning, the noise and that god-awful brick building.
school’s playground was immense. The baseball diamond was in the
north portion clear out by the fence separating the school from the
pig farm next door. Up closer to the building were the swings and
slides; parallel bars and other equipment. The most threatening to me
was the Ocean Wave. A series of ropes and pulleys atop the circus
tent shaped ride controlled its motion. The children climbed onto the
flat board seats and pushed off with their feet. A lot of the
children stood on the seats and leaned into the ropes as the ocean
wave undulated as high and fast as the children wanted. One time in
second grade I stood on the seat like the other kids, but I lost my
balance and my right foot slipped. I fell at the high point of the
wave and hung onto the seat. When we swooped down I rolled off in the
dirt beneath the Ocean Wave, but I was caught directly under it, and
stared at it; too scared to move as it went high again, and then down
it came. I rolled to safety and walked away brushing the
dirt from my skinned knees.
Inside the school were two long
hallways connected by stairs. Every ten days the janitor oiled the
floors which made them glisten and kept them slick. No one but me, I
thought, noticed how hard it was to walk on such a slippery surface.
They all had sure feet and good balance. As I figured it, the floors
were like the Ocean Wave and my braces and my pimples – things I
had to get through to go to somewhere else.
September morning this year, we went into the locker rooms. While we
changed into P.E. clothes, I envisioned Miss Heid in the teacher’s
lounge smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. As the buses arrived
more girls came into the locker room. Becky, Kay, and Linda were
neighbors and always went along together. I sat in front of their
lockers and started tying my shoes. My fingers were cold and
uncooperative; each loop meant I was that much closer to the playing
field. Fear froze my fingertips. I tried to start a conversation with
Kay, but the image of the ball chasing me choked off any attempt to
Miss Heid came into the locker room, whistle jammed
between her teeth. The piercing sound startled everyone to silence.
She read the roll and dismissed us to the field.
I ran behind the
other and I could see the boys were already out there. They
looked hazy in the black muck created by the smudge.
up to the rest on the diamond, Miss Heid stood by Mr. White, the boys
“Will the team
captains for today choose their teams? Brad and Gary – come on
guys – let’s get started,” Mr. White said after Miss Heid blew
I watched the others get chosen, as I had every
day. Finally, I stood alone feeling bent and raw inside.
don’ wanta take ‘er,” Brad said.
“We had ‘er last
“She can’t do nothin’ right – I’m not
takin’ ‘er,” Gary said.
Everyone waited restlessly.
Mr. White finally
said, “Mary, you’re on Gary’s team – c’mon, play ball.”
took my position in center field. Diana had gotten her wish and was
pitcher. Gary at first base yelled back at me,
“Ya better catch
one today, fumble fingers.”
Brad was the first one up and I
knew he was good. I ignored the cramp in my foot as I watched him at
the plate. Diana threw the ball and I heard it crack against the bat.
“Right to me,” I
whispered, right at me,” and I ran toward the ball but fell as my
foot stiffened into a full spasm which ended my split second attempt
I fell on a rock and
bloodied my knee. It was hard for me to stand. Brad
laughed his way around second in a slow gallop. Gary ran out to get
the ball and made a wild toss to the catcher.
Shaking his head
in exaggerated disbelief, Gary yelled, “It’s just not fair –
not fair at all.”
As Brad slid into home plate, Miss Heid
blew her whistle and jogged out to me.
“Are you all
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said doing my best to
“Why don’t you go in and take care of that knee?”
Miss Heid said.
A pure burst of relief sprung from my lungs.
“OK if I go to
the library after I shower?” I asked.
I turned my back to the field, I heard the whistle blow and the call
for the game to resume. I thought about them playing out
there, laughing and cat-calling, and the relief I felt turned into
longing to pass through barriers my body would not allow. I was
ashamed of my weakness. In the quiet locker room I stared at myself
in the mirror.
change, never change,” I said aloud.
I turned on the
shower and took off my grass stained clothes. The water felt good. I
could cry here – no one would see – no one would hear – no one
would ask why – or tease me.
At dinner that night
my mother and dad talked about their work that day. Mama worked for a
surgeon and Daddy owned a typewriter store. The conversation finally
came around to me.
“School was OK,” I said when asked what
happened that day, “same ‘ol stuff.”
I tried to change
“You know in ten
years we’ll all be so different, it’d be kinda nice to just press
a button and just be there, ya know?”
Daddy leaned back in
his chair and looked at me.
said, “these are the best years of your life, don’t wish them
I wanted to laugh.
“Could I have
something to drink?” I asked.
My nostrils flared
like they do when I get mad. My dad was more of a moron than I had
“You can have more milk when you finish what you
have,” my mother said.
“Well look at that,” I said.
“A full glass and
I hadn’t noticed. Jeese, will I ever change?”
laughed. I knew my dad was wrong, he just had to be, but
he would never believe me if I told him that. I knew
tomorrow there would be baseball. I knew I was not really living:
living was grace and
laughter and fun. My head hurt from all I knew.
night as I pulled the covers tight around my shoulders I let the bed
that fit no one else hold my grief. I hoped that if there were truly
a God somewhere, he might remember my face. I really didn’t
think he would.
pass through. With the help of Mrs. Johnson, the librarian, and
Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I discovered the wonderful world of
imagination, story-telling, and poetry. I am a teacher and edit a
small literary magazine. I lead writers’ groups and although my
marriage ended in divorce, I have beautiful adult daughters who
remain the blessing in my life. Humor helps in this world of ours,
and words heal. As we pass through, we discover that living is all of
it, and that courage was something we had all along.