It is funny the memories one’s mind chooses to hold onto. A smidgen of information about childhood formed in a handful of brief flashes. I cannot recall to mind the first day I started school. Nor the last. I cannot remember the shape of the dining room table we ate at, night after night in those early years. But I can recall with a vividness beyond what should be, the formation we sat in in our kindergarten class.
Our names written on masking tape marking the spot on the ground where we were to sit. The first few days, the letters meaning nothing and then over time, they became as part of the every day as the nose on my face.
I was Jenni. This was different than the other Jennis in class. We also had a Jeni and a Jenny. My mother was always adamant that my name would end in an “i.” And so it was that it became and so it was that it is to this day.
We would sit quietly on the mat. Our legs criss-crossed, and called a politically incorrect term. One of the first things taught to all of us children was to sit upon the ground with our legs folded. A formation that continues in our current schools with a slightly different name.
I have no idea who sat to the left of me. It was not one of the Jennis. I do not know if it was a boy or a girl. I do not remember our knees touching or our shoes colliding. My focus was entirely upon the girl to my right. I do remember her name, but we will not use it here. I shall call her Charlotte. For reasons only I will know.
I am sure while we were all sitting on the ground with our knees in salute, our teacher must have been teaching us something. But the entire time I sat there, my focus was upon one thing. And it had nothing at all to do with school. My mother had always told me that it was impolite to point. I am sure she also taught me that it is impolite to stare. However, a five year old stumbling upon something from a fairy tale seated right beside her, could not help oneself.
I was mesmerized.
Charlotte had two thumbs. Oh, yes, I know. We all have two thumbs. However, Charlotte had two thumbs plus one. Upon her right hand, she had two thumbs. One was much thinner and smaller than the other. A shriveled twin to its functioning sister. I loved it. I was insanely jealous of her gift. For to me, it was a gift. An abnormality to be sure, but so different. So wonderful. I had no idea that nature could go awry. I did not know that human beings could be created differently other than in books.
Because Charlotte’s thumbs were upon her right hand, and I sat upon her left, it was at an awkward direction that I would have to turn my head to stare at her appendage. Thankfully, in addition to crossing our legs, our teacher frequently also had us cross our hands. And so I could gaze down at Charlotte’s wonder with ease whenever our teacher felt we were in need of structure.
Sometimes this would be difficult. At the time, I was Charlotte’s only friend. She was a quiet girl who whispered answers and even then it would take much prodding for her to do that. She had long coarse black hair that curled at the ends. Even though it was long enough that she could sit upon it, she never did so. She took to putting her head down at such an angle that her hair would almost completely cover her face. Hiding in its stringy shadows, she could escape from inquisitive children and ignore curious eyes.
This actually proved to be beneficial to me, because I could stare at her hands without her noticing. Although looking back, she obviously knew what I was doing. I probably provoked her into her solitary cave of hair with my rude envy, but I did not think about it at the time.
Every day I would sit next to Charlotte. Charlotte with her wonderful thumbs. I never asked her about them. To me, they were simply there. She had more than the rest of us. She had extra. And more is always better. And extra did not need to be explained.
One day I went to school and Charlotte was not there. You would think this would mean I finally paid attention to my lessons, but alas, that was not so. With Charlotte gone, her name sat all alone on the floor. The tape peeling at the corners, collecting bits of black fuzz and countless specks of dirt. I would stare at the letters of her name. She had more than I did. A different variety. The girl seemed to be blessed with an abundance that the rest of us were lacking.
Charlotte was gone for a week. I was relieved when she finally returned. I had begun to pay attention to my lessons and there was no fun in that. She sat down on the floor beside me and that is when I noticed she was different. On her right hand, she had a white bandage. It covered where her small, innocent extra thumb had laid. I stared at the gauzy covering with alarm. And for the first time all year, I felt eyes upon my own. I looked up and Charlotte was staring back at me. Her stance was defiant. Her mouth was set. And I knew in that moment that she did not like my attention upon her hand. That she never had. I felt the heat of embarrassed shame creep up my neck and I averted my eyes from Charlotte’s penetrating accusation to our teacher’s back.
This did not stop me from stealing glances each day at the hand. I was not sure what was under the bandage, but I had a heavy sick feeling in my stomach that I knew. I was terrified of the gauze being removed. I did not want to see what mysteries it held.
But as the saying goes, time does heal all wounds. And one day, Charlotte came to school without a white bandage.
I nervously looked down at her hand. Instead of the dainty, precious appendage that had once lay next to its stronger, more useful digit, there lay instead an uneven furious red jagged scar.
It was appalling.
The hows and whys were too numerous for my young soul to count.
Why would someone remove a perfectly wonderful abnormality?
What happened to it?
Where did it go?
I could not bear to look at the empty space where a miracle had once existed. After that day, Charlotte began to wear her hair clipped behind her ears. She still whispered when she spoke but did so more frequently. She became best friends with another little girl in class. A louder girl. They became inseparable and the last time I saw either one of them had been at our high school graduation. I was not invited into their fold. And if the truth were to be told, I did not want to be.
For Charlotte’s differentness had never scared me. I found it fascinating. I found her an enigma crawling with unanswered questions of the universe. But from the moment she removed her special, she alarmed me. It made me unexplainably angry. She became just like the rest of us. Which as an adult I imagine was greatly to her relief and exactly the reason she had her surgery. But to me, the odd child searching for the eclectic among the mundane. Hoping that the tedious normalcy I had begun to view in the everyday world was a deceptive barrier from the truth. I wanted the fantasy of magic. The wonder. The infinite answers. To be more. Charlotte had had more and she chose to remove it. What did that mean? Why would one choose to be normal when you could choose to be more? Charlotte once had two thumbs plus one. Eleven appendages upon her hands. Twenty one digits to count with. One more finger than all of the rest of us.
At the age of five, I grieved for her loss. And for my own. I had never had the opportunity to hold her hand in my own. To stroke the small little marvelous irregularity. To ask all of my questions and dance in the happiness of the unknown. I hastened to try to make sense of what she had done. And I couldn’t.
Charlotte had once been The Girl With Three Thumbs.
And now she was minus one. Just like the rest of us. Just like me. Just.