My friend Maryse called me the other day with a question, she said, about her daughter Laurie-Maude, who is in the same grade as my daughter Caroline. It was Korea Day at school, she said, and Laurie-Maude wanted to dress as an Otter. “How do Otter’s dress?” Maryse wanted to know.
At least, that’s what I thought she said. Maryse is French Canadian, from Montreal, and it’s sometimes hard to understand certain words she says, particularly over the telephone. Nevertheless, that’s what I encoded: “Laurie-Maude wants to dress as an Otter for Korea Day.”
And as one part of my brain was struggling to decipher what else she might have meant, another part set to work trying to recall an otter: What does an otter look like? Is that the one with a flat tail? Or tiny front paws? Like a meerkat? Like a beaver?
Then it occurred to me: Why is Laurie-Made, who is Chinese by birth and both Canadian and American by nationality, honoring Korea Day… when my own daughter, who is not Korean, either, hasn’t breathed a word of it? And, further, what do otters have to do with Korea?
Wait a sec—the first sliver of light peeks over the horizon!—Maryse is asking about Career Day, not Korea Day! And Laurie-Maude doesn’t want to be an Otter, she wants to dress as an Author, because she is one of the best 10-year-old writers I know. The sun hangs full and buttery in the cloudless sky.
I grew up quiet and nervous, the youngest by far in an extended family with a wicked sense of humor and a tendency to unleash it on each other. As the smallest, I was at best the mascot of the family, the one cute and clueless and in the dark, as if I really did live inside a giant padded suit. At worst, my tendency to cry easily made me the natural butt of jokes. In truth, my collection of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins could have easily been the most mild and benign unit that ever lived—although they weren’t—and I still would have been reserved and guarded. Some things just are.
As I grew older, I did my best to mask that extreme sensitivity in various ways, but friends—often inadvertently—poked at it regardless. So I spent much of my childhood embarrassed in one way or another. Sometimes, I understood exactly why the joke was on me, and sometimes I only suspected that it was—which was, in a way, worse. And sometimes I was embarrassed for no good reason at all, other than judging myself obtuse, simple-minded, imperceptive. A lifetime of feeling out of the loop will do that to you.
Which is why now, on the phone with Maryse, I’m suddenly embarrassed, and then I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed. And for whom? Not for her—because she has an easy laugh and an open nature. She doesn’t take herself—or her mistakes—too seriously, and she brushes it off whenever she butchers a word, or she asks plaintively, “How do you say it…?”
Instead, I’m embarrassed for myself, because of some perceived lacking, for an inability to understand what Maryse was actually saying. Because of my general inability to lighten up and laugh easily.
Later, I called Maryse back and told her jokingly, “You know what Laurie-Maude should carry? A fifth of scotch, or something else to take the edge off the pain. Writers lead miserable lives.”
She laughed with me and then said, “Well, I’ll do it and then blame it on you, because what do I know? I’m foreign!”
If only we could all laugh as such, inside our alien skin.