Harilyn Rousso

from DON'T CALL ME INSPIRATIONAL (Temple University Press, 2013)

"Why do you walk that way? What's wrong with you?"

Completely self-absorbed, I was walking home from school, thinking about a chemistry exam I had just taken; it was difficult, but I felt had done smashingly. Now my fantasies of being the top student in the class and maybe winning the Nobel Prize were interrupted by an elderly woman in an ugly brown winter coat who took me for a common cripple. I wished I could have come up with some smart-ass answer, but at the age of fifteen, any physical differences — weight, breast size, or cerebral palsy — caused extreme self-consciousness. "There's nothing wrong with me. I have a disability that affects how I walk, but it's no big deal" was the best I could come up with on a moment's notice. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Have you asked Jesus for help?" she went on. "I don't need help, and besides I'm Jewish." When she said, "Oh, he won't mind," I thought but did not say, "But my rabbi will. And who asked you, you old battle-ax." I abruptly crossed the street to stop the conversation.

My mother was home when I put my key in the lock, and she immediately picked up the cues. "What's wrong?" she ask, and I said, "Oh, not you, too!" and immediately relayed the "What's wrong with you" story. She responded the same way she always did with my disability tales of woe. "Well, if you'd practice walking straight in front of the mirror like I keep telling you to, people would stop staring. I don't know why you won't do it. Don't you want to walk straight?" "No, as a matter of fact I don't!" I shouted and retreated to my room, s lamming the door. Once safely inside, I resumed my Nobel Prize fantasy. My studies had always offered a refuge from stupid question s and instructions on how I should walk, talk and be "normal" Thank God I as smart, but never quite smart enough to figure out how to silence those questioners.

My mother and I had wrangled over my walking for as long as I could remember. Because of my disability, I was a disturbingly late walker. But once I was up and more or less running, my mother found my toeing in, my awkward gait more distressing than any of my other imperfections, disability-related or otherwise. She explained that she grew up with a girl who was "pigeon-toed" and the butt of endless jokes. By coaxing me to improve my walking, he hoped to save me from even worse abuse. My mother seemed so identified with her that I sometimes wondered whether my mother herself was that pigeon-toed child. Yet family stories suggested she was extremely well coordinated and an excellent athlete. If that were so, it must have been hard for her to see herself in me, falling over my own feet the way I did. Perhaps her insistence that I walk straight was a cover for her sadness and remorse over birthing a disabled child. In fact, the "crooked" way I walked was the most immediately obvious aspect of my disability and the focus of much of the teasing by my peers. Mostly I ignored it, but sometimes I would cry; I'd vow to practice walking every day until I walked like everyone else, but such vows were short-lived.

When we moved to Queens, my mother immediately set up a full-length mirror on the far wall of the basement. The basement was a fabulous play area, full of nooks and crannies where Sandy and I would play hide-and-seek or set up a pretend school with lots of activity corners — she would insist on being the teacher. But I would always avoid that mirror. On and off, my mother would hire a physical therapist to work with me on my walking in front of the mirror, I was not a very willing patient, and invariably, my mother would dismiss the therapist — "No sense throwing good money after bad" — and drill me herself. "Walk toward the mirror. See how your toes and legs turn in? Point your toes out, more, more. Now, that's it; walk just like that." I would follow her directions exactly, while under her watchful eyes, but as soon as she left the room, I would abandon the mirror and go back to my old ways of walking. "Why don't you want to walk straight?" she'd ask, totally exasperated.

I never knew how to answer her. I just knew I didn't want to walk the way she or anyone else wanted. Part of it was that I wanted her to accept me the way I was, my crooked feet and all. I also knew that I could never improve my walking enough to satisfy her. She wanted me to walk like everyone else, to look "normal." That was impossible. My disability would not go away. More important, I didn't want it to go away. I had always been uncoordinated — since the day I was born. That was just the way I was and who I was. I learned to identify my body and myself partly through my jerky way of being in the world. My mother's attempt to smooth out my crookedness was tantamount to murder.

I never could or would explain why I wouldn't practice walking, but my mother must have sensed that it was a life-and-death matter because eventually she laid off. One day, the mirror mysteriously disappeared from the basement wall and found its way to the inside of a storage closet. Occasionally I would wander into that closet to fiddle with the mirror; it was a safe place to put on more makeup than my mother allowed. Not that she and I stopped fighting. We just fought about other thing like skirt lengths and padded bras. My mother never liked how I walked, but by mi mid-teens, she had learned to keep her judgments to herself. Perhaps her reticence developed as she found herself facing criticism about her own body — her weight. The nasty comments never inspired her to diet — quite the contrary. She seemed to resist just as I did, determined to hold on to her soul.

I was relieved when my mother finally got off my case about my walking, but I longer for so much more from her. When that old lady in the ugly coat asked, "What's wrong with you?" I needed my mother to be there with me to confront the questioner, to challenge her authority. She seemed unable to do so. My mother agreed with the old lady's assessment and tried to change me. I wanted to change the old lady.