• Unlettered

    Pamela Royston Macfie

    Fall 2022


    When I was in first grade, I decided to teach my brother the alphabet.

    Two small desks in our family room invited me to the task. My father, an elementary school principal, had purchased them when I started kindergarten. He had sanded their wood satin-smooth and blacked their metal legs. Each featured a groove to hold pencils, a lip to keep papers from sliding to the floor, and an inkwell I filled with flowers.

    My desk offered me order and adventure. Its fixed chair required me to sit at attention; its slanted top let me feel the world move.

    My brother regarded his desk with suspicion. He disliked hard surfaces.

    I chose April, our birthday month, to begin our lessons. On April 6, David would turn ten; on the nineteenth, the day that marked my birthday and my mother’s, I would turn seven.

    Every afternoon, I returned from school, looked for David, and found him nestled in his cushioned swivel rocker. He laughed at my approach, tipped the chair to cue its rhythm, and initiated its orbit by tapping the wall with his bare foot. I retrieved my large-print alphabet book, calculated the speed of the chair’s rotation, and jumped into the whirligig my brother had set in motion.

    Whirligig. When did I learn this word?

    My father used to say, “the whirligig of time brings in its revenges,” and I pictured time as a spinning top. I didn’t know he was quoting Shakespeare. In college, I learned a whirligig could be a device of punishment: a spinning cage that dizzies its prisoner until he or she is sick.

    Our tutorials included the emphatic gestures I borrowed from my teacher Mrs. Rodney. I showed David a candy-red apple next to the letter A and said, “A is for Apples Aunt Agnes will bring . . . aah, aah, aah.” As I voiced the vowel, I raised my right hand, touched my knuckles to my mouth, then extended my forearm and waggled my fingers. David toed the wall and twirled the rocker. Pointing at three golden bells, I repeated three times, “B is for Bells, which the Boys do ring.” At “Bells” and “Boys,” I drew David’s fingers to my lips so he could feel the consonant’s soft pop; he pulled my lips as if they were taffy. When I reached “C is for Cows that Come to be milked,” I crisped the hard C with my teacher’s precision; David wailed and made the chair spin faster.

    I can still feel that chair bucking in its circle. Wild, a-tilt, and clattering, its rotation made my stomach fold in two. This movement defined the vertigo of my childhood.


    Two portraits hung above the living room sofa at 421 Woodbine Avenue. On the left, my brother cast a puckered smile; on the right, my gaze drifted to my hands.

    My parents had argued about the portraits’ frames. As my father unwrapped the paintings, my mother barked that their frames worked against one another, that it would be impossible to hang the oils side by side. She asked my father if he was an idiot. David’s portrait was mounted in a frame of burnished gold with a black vine curled about its edges. “This,” Mother said, “is as it should be: traditional.” My frame, shell pink and adorned with flowers, she dismissed as “kitsch.” Not knowing what she meant, I wondered if my picture would hang in the kitchen. I worried there wasn’t enough wall space; I didn’t want to hang over the stove. When my father bellowed, “God dammit, I’ll have it redone,” I burst into tears. I saw my frame as a fairy confection. I didn’t want it to match my brother’s, which seems funereal even now. Within two weeks, my portrait had been reframed in gold, its edges plaited with leaves.

    Why did my parents commission these paintings? Surely they knew when they engaged the artist, Louis Barbour, that David would be unable to sit for a portrait. I can’t even imagine him posing for the photographs from which Mr. Barbour worked. David hid from strangers. When they entered a room, he took flight, his right arm flapping a semaphore of warning. If he found himself trapped in a corner, he hammered the wall with his head. Once, he opened a hole in the plaster that exposed four wooden laths. Our house was a text scored by such injuries.

    Mr. Barbour photographed me on the rise overlooking the farmhouse where my father was born. The day was pale blue, candescent. Dressed in a white eyelet skirt and blouse, I took care as we climbed the hill to avoid the tall, rough grass, though I picked a handful of daisies. Louis was a gentle man, a friend of my father who kept peacocks and horses. When he settled me on the stone wall, he asked me to fold my hands in my lap and told me to smile. “Not too much,” he said, “maybe a little more.” I did my best to please him.

    After my mother’s death in 2011, I discovered in my father’s desk the black-and-white photographs taken that summer afternoon. One had a ragged tear, crusted with pine-green paint, where it had been clipped to the easel; another showed three flowers falling from my hand. I look mournful but remember being happy. I had climbed a hill with my father. A painter had told me I was radiant (I knew this word from Charlotte’s Web). My brother was nowhere to be seen.

    David’s portrait captures him in a wingback chair. His shoulders form a straight line; his dark eyes are unblinking; a red bow tie spreads its wings above his spotless shirt and bright blue vest. He is enormously handsome. Sometimes, I look at his portrait and see my son’s beauty.

    My father’s desk did not yield a single photograph of David like those Mr. Barbour had taken of me. I believe my brother’s portrait was a fantasy, though his paisley tie was real enough. My mother kept that tie long after David had moved to a home for the mentally disabled. She had folded it neatly and tucked it within the top drawer of his dresser. Lined with paper printed with horses and cowboys, the drawer held the tie and a satin baby book my mother had left incomplete. I still have that book, its first pages recording pounds and inches, its final pages blank.


    My mother gave birth to David at the University of Maryland Hospital in downtown Baltimore on April 6, 1950. Once, I overheard her telling her youngest sister about the night she went into labor. My father drove her down Woodbine and turned left onto Charles Street, one of the main arteries from Towson into the city. As they approached Johns Hopkins, she reminded him to avoid the storm drains, which could make a car roll as if it were at sea. “Did he keep the car steady?” Beth Ann asked. “He hit every single dip. He was in such a rush I doubt he even heard me,” my mother replied.

    When I was in junior high school and my parents took me to the Hopkins Club for Friday dinner, I studied those drains from the Fairlane’s back seat. Their roller-coaster effect may have been a portent regarding David’s life, but I knew they had not compromised his safe delivery. That threat had materialized at the hospital, where another woman’s emergency caesarean had delayed the obstetrician from attending my mother.

    When I was expecting my own child, my mother told me she been left in a ward so empty it echoed, her sheets wet and cold after her water broke. Remembering that she had been alone for hours, she looked away, then sighed, “I think I was too patient.” I did not share with her this word’s Latin root, which means “to suffer.”

    When David turned five, two specialists surmised that oxygen deprivation during a difficult labor had damaged that part of his brain responsible for speech acquisition. Perhaps the umbilical cord had choked him; perhaps it was something else.


    David communicated in whoops, yelps, and yammering. At times, he stuttered, “da, da, da,” but this rapid-fire battery referenced neither my father nor David’s name. It noised something inscrutable.

    By day, David tended to be quiet. He spent hours spinning in his chair, his expression cool and sphinxlike, his anxiety soothed by the records my mother stacked five high on the stereo turntable. David loved classical music: Holst, Satie, Beethoven. He listened to the same pieces over and over again. When I heard the “Moonlight Sonata” for the hundredth time, I felt as if I were attending a funeral in a black-and-white movie. David’s taste for Frank Sinatra with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra, an enthusiasm cultivated by my mother, was worse. I wanted to shut my ears against Sinatra’s insistent query, “Don’t you know, little fool, / you never can win.”

    Once, I pushed two plastic pearls into my ears to keep the music out, which mandated a trip to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center emergency room. In that cool, tiled space, my mother asked, “Did you do this to get attention?” I wanted to explain that I did it so I could read, but said merely, “I’m sorry.”


    Where I hankered for silence, David took it as an anathema. In the hush of night, he was spring-loaded to roar. Sleeping in the room next to his, I kept myself on high alert. I didn’t want to startle at his sudden keening; neither did I want to echo him. If I cried out, my mother would call from her room, “You too?” or “Isn’t David making enough noise for the both of you?” Sometimes David would shriek like a fox; sometimes his cries slid about the night as if he were playing a didgeridoo.

    One bleary-eyed morning, spreading my scrambled eggs across my Hopalong Cassidy plate, I asked my mother why David screamed at night. She swallowed hard, then said, “I think he hurts.” Her reply shamed me. Jealousy had prompted my question. I resented that David was permitted to raise havoc whereas I was rebuked if I asked for a glass of water. When David wailed, my father unlatched David’s door (whose exterior hook and eye prevented my brother from wandering), climbed into bed with him, and began reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee”: “I was a child, and she was a child, / In this kingdom by the sea.” Some lines came to me clearly; others I strained to hear. The words, I thought, should be for me; my father often spoke them when he took me field-walking with our beagles. Now, he crooned them to my brother.

    As I listened in the dark, loneliness clutched my throat, and tears slid onto my pillow. I didn’t make a sound. I had taught myself how to weep in silence.


    When I was very young, I sometimes imagined that David had chosen not to use words. In my view, his speechlessness granted him considerable power. He could not be summoned. He could not be asked to explain himself. His world was impenetrable.

    My world was easily breached, especially by my mother, who was expeditious in calling me before her. Sometimes she did so to remind me of a house rule. My pet rabbit should not roam the screened porch; David would eat its droppings, which he mistook for chocolate chips. My books did not belong scattered about the house; David was likely to tear their pages, scattering them like the leaves of the sibyl. The beagles should not be left unattended in David’s presence; one day he had dropped a puppy and broken its neck. More than once, my mother knelt before me, took my hands, and said in a serious, adult voice, “Pamela, I have two children. One can’t do anything; the other must do everything and she must do it right.”

    If you break the word perfect into its Latin components—per, which means “completely,” and facere, which means “to make”—you recognize it is impossible for a child to achieve perfection. A child is not fully made. She is a creature in process, an agent of gains and losses.

    My juvenile self-making entailed many failed experiments. I let my friend Susie Hihn cut my hair with pinking shears. I used a purple crayon to draw three lopsided clocks inside a museum-quality antique cupboard. I devised a game called Rawhide in which I led a brace of my father’s beagles into a field of steers (I had to carry the runt), unsnapped their leads, hollered Rawhide!, and created a stampede. When my mother discovered my ragged haircut and ill-placed art, she wept. When the Rawhide adventures came to light, she shrieked: “Don’t you know a steer can crush you?” Running across the field, I had been exhilarated by the smell of dust and danger. This bravery dissipated at school where I became another person.


    My parents’ decision to enroll me six months early in the Lutheran kindergarten in Berkeley Square perplexed me. Why should I start school ahead of schedule when David, at seven and a half, had so much more to learn?

    I cried the first day—and every day—as my mother led me to my classroom’s yellow door. There, Miss Thaelheart would ask me to help greet the other children. Bright-faced and grinning, they stamped into the room with an energy that ricocheted to the ceiling. I hid behind Miss Thaelheart’s skirts, clenched my hands, and slowly, arduously brought myself under control.

    My triumph in composure was always short-lived. Before morning had turned to afternoon, fear or disappointment would bring back my tears. They gathered behind my sternum and climbed into my throat. They made my face hot and left me gulping for air. I was the youngest child in the class. My crying did not elevate my status. I wonder now if my weeping might have been a learned behavior modeled upon my brother’s.

    Before I started kindergarten, David was attending the Searchlight Training Center, and I accompanied my mother as she drove him there and back. The route was long: down Charles Street, across Lake Avenue, over the zigzag hills of Mount Washington. I struggled not to be carsick, especially in the winter when the windows were closed and my mother smoked. My head seemed to float about the car. Behind me, David squeezed himself into the well where he should have rested his legs and pulled his coat over his head. When the car rolled to a stop, he began to sob.

    Every morning was the same. As David howled, an aide tugged him from the car and told us everything would be fine. My mother said, “All right, then,” changed the radio station, and drove away. Once, Johnny Mathis’s plaintive “Fly Me to the Moon” crackled on as we pulled from the curb, and my mother sang with him: “Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.”

    Returning to the school in the afternoon’s slanted light, I often saw David before he saw us. He stood by himself at the chain link fence, his fingers hooked about the wire, his eyes scanning the sky even when it was empty of bird or cloud. When I asked my mother if he could be looking at heaven, she replied, with a strange, metallic laugh, “Maybe he thinks someone will save him.” I believe David’s wild crying, like mine, came from a place of utter loneliness. David could not communicate with the world; I had words, but couldn’t voice my family’s sorrow.

    Pamela Royston Macfie lives in Sewanee and Maine. She retired in June from Sewanee’s Department of English, where, as the Samuel R. Williamson Distinguished University Professor, she taught Shakespeare and the Literature of Memoir.

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