Maggie Hussar, Pace Center for Civic Engagement
2019-2020 Staff Essay Contest
Sometimes, in the warm quiet of a motionless day, I will squat down just a little and observe my surroundings from what would have been my five-year-old perspective. With the subtle drop in height, I am catapulted decades back into my memories. Trees instantly loom taller, their branches reaching miles above me and hugging pockets of warmth between each leaf. The paintings on walls tell stories created long ago and forgotten over time. Bookshelves turn into mountains begging to be summited, and staircases shapeshift into snowy slopes. I am reminded of what it is like to look at the world with fresh wonder.
In my childhood memories, the world feels like an enormous, uncontainable stage with sprawling playgrounds and indomitable adults. My neighborhood is not a colorless cul-de-sac, but a vast kingdom with secrets to uncover and adventures to take shape. The trips to visit grandma are voyages across roller coaster highways and endless sandy dunes. Every person and place is larger-than-life, saturated with mystery and awe.
When I revisit places from my youth as an adult, though, I am often taken aback by the matte and magicless mundanity of maturity-infused reality. My elementary school cafeteria, once a booming cathedral with vivid murals dancing along the tops of the walls, is transformed by adulthood into a pastel, tile-covered box that can barely muster an echo. It is always humbling and often nostalgic, but more than anything, it is a reminder of what used to be.
My parents still live in the house they raised me and my sisters in, and this continuity of environment helps when I play my perspective-shifting game. Memories tiptoe back in, first in faded hues, then growing with vivacity, until I remember looking up at my mom, impossible in adulthood with my legs now longer than hers.
I recall walking into the living room with my mom, the forest green carpet beneath my feet, my hand wrapped around her index finger. She leads me to the wicker chair in the corner and sits down to join me at my level. I stand in front of her, smiling and twirling in my floral jumper as she asks me about my school day.
Placing this memory in the context of my life’s timeline, this conversation happens in the midst of my newfound passion for Little League sports and an insistence on never wearing a dress again. My bouncing, blonde curls were recently lopped from my head by a hesitant hairstylist, aiding in my quest to fit in with all of the other boys on the field.
Her questions are standard, each one delivered with a smile and a patient ear, as I respond with animated exclamations about what I learned. When I giggle through a story about how some of the girls in my class have crushes on some of the boys, she responds with more questions.
“Do you like any boys at school?” I smile and shake my head, blushing.
“Do you like any girls at school?” My toothy grin emerges again, and I shake my head, turning rosy once more.
The seamless flow of these questions is lost on me in my youthful ignorance. The normalcy of her tone, the lack of expectation or judgement, leave me completely unphased, and I trot away to begin crafting at the dining room table.
It is only in adulthood that I begin to reflect on the foundation laid for me in how I came to love myself. It was forged not in the kind of defiant resilience that sweats and bleeds, stumbling over all of the barriers built in front of me by the dark hatreds and misunderstandings of the world, but the kind of coming to love myself that starts small, from the seeds of two innocuous-seeming questions, and grows with quiet support. In a world that so many others like me experience with defenses raised thanks to years of questioning, threatening, shaming, or silencing, I was nurtured in a world predicated on a little girl being allowed to answer “yes” to whether she liked any boys at school or if she liked any girls at school. This world provided no hurdles to self-love. It was a place built for me, even if the rest of the world was not.
I know now that this creation was every bit as intentional as it was transformational for me. I also know now that it was fed by a parallel understanding from my mom of what it is like to exist in world not built for you.
My mom is deaf in her left ear and hard of hearing in her right. She does not share this aspect of her identity with many, and most would never know unless they dissected her tells. With a slight tilt of her head, she curves her right ear toward incoming sound, knowing she needs every degree of soundwave alignment to receive the clearest message. When listening to others, there is often a gentle furrow formed between her brows as she squints to focus on reading their lips. She does so with charm and grace, sharing with others the same full-toothed smile that she passed down to me.
My mom constantly maneuvers through a world that requires her to advocate for herself so that she can be included, though she would never concede that she lives in a deficit. Her life is full and normal, and I believe that this layer of her identity affected the way she nurtured my sisters and me. She raised us to live confidently, lovingly, and joyfully; not in spite of our identities and experiences, but because of them.
In her endeavor to best support me, she once came home with a documentary about a transgender boy to watch with me, just to let me know I was not alone if I thought I was “supposed to be a boy.” Once it was over, I told her in elementary school simplicity that I liked being a girl. My version of girlhood was not what the world was built to accept, but I lived it, nonetheless.
That pattern of unconditional acceptance continued into high school. When I dated my first boyfriend, my mom naturally teased me, smiled, and let him come over. The next year, when I dated my first girlfriend, my mom teased me, smiled, and let her come over. It was all normal: No matter what my answer was or how I told her I felt, it would all be normal to her.
I never struggled with my sexuality or my gender identity because I was never told that there was anything wrong with me. In my world, I never had to “come out of the closet” because there was never one built from which I had to emerge. Even with the occasional schoolyard teasing, I felt confident that although the world was not built for me, I would be happy and feel loved.
When I tumble back into that memory in the living room and feel my shy toes curling into the rough, green carpet, I can clearly identify the seeds my mom planted in me. As I grew, my limbs lengthening and the world widening, she continued to nurture those seeds into a full-fledged forest. With two simple questions and a lifetime of unconditional acceptance, she ensured that I could choose to take my life in any direction, and I would always find love.