And the Sun Came Out
I came over on a U.S. cargo plane from England in my mother’s arms where, she said, I slept through the whole flight. My dad was an American airman whom my mother largely leaves out of the story because they divorced when I was seven. My mother raised my American-born sister and me alone.
From the earliest time I can remember, my mother’s accent rang out across the backyards and store aisles announcing that we weren’t from around here.
I was an immigrant. I didn’t look like one, or sound like one. But I was.
In sixth grade, Mr. Adamonis assigned our class the short stories of Ray Bradbury. The story I read over and over again was “All Summer in a Day.” In the story, the planet Venus is bleak and dismal; it rains, drizzles or storms every day and night, each and every day for seven years. But a break in the rain is predicted for a brief moment and a class of children await their first ever glimpse of the sun.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to have the rain constantly clattering on windowpanes, clanking on metal and hammering rooftops, a reverberant, endless soundtrack to my life.
The story centers on a nine year-old girl named Margot. She is an immigrant, like me-even in the same, unremarkable way. She doesn’t look or sound like an immigrant, but she is. She is from Ohio, a detail I found magical and serendipitous since that is where we lived.
Margot thinks of nothing but going back home and feeling the sun on her face again; the rain saddens her and she grows sallow. Her parents promise that they will soon take her back to Earth, before she fades to nothing on Venus.
The other children tease her. They hate her for where she is from, what she knows of the sun and they hate that she is destined to go back to it. As Bradbury wrote, “Everyone knew her difference”.
Margot has a savage need to glimpse and bask in the fleeting sun that is predicted that day. When she speaks up in hopes of the sun’s appearance, the other children want to punish her, not even believing the prediction for themselves. As the rain slackens, the children herd Margot into a far, interior closet and lock her in.
The children leave her shut away and they watch in disbelief as the rain stops, enveloping them in a deafening silence. They emerge into the sun to whoop and frolic under its brilliant, blazing warmth, Margot momentarily forgotten in her dark seclusion.
Like Margot, I was too pale, too thin and there was something about me that a certain kind of kid did not like. I was the student that the teachers had to place on a team—always with jeers and groans--because no one ever chose me.
I was teased about my over-worn, store-brand tennis shoes: “Did you mow the grass with those shoes?” But when I returned to school in gleaming new shoes, the very same kids pretended to be blinded by their whiteness. “Nice Kmart shoes,” they sneered.
My pants were often both too long and bunched at the waist. I was hurt by words like “shrimp” or “anorexic” (before I even knew what the word meant). Sometimes my pants were too short. “You waiting for a flood?”
In “All Summer in a Day” we see Margot teased and bullied. We see her stand apart from the other children and refuse to participate in their games. She has seen and experienced what the other children only dream of.
I imagine that Margot took it as I did. The teasing made me retreat further into myself and my books and my own world of story writing, making me seem that much more “different”. Margot and I felt out of place and waited for the day when we would leave our strange, alien place.
The teasing felt more extreme to me than it probably was. I already felt different because my mother told me that I was. Different even from my sister, who probably felt displaced in her own way, in her own home, just for being the one born in the States and with the dark hair and eyes of my father who left us.
My mother saw a difference between me and other children. She complained that they were loud and disrespectful, without manners and restraint. She focused on physical attributes as well, claiming my long nose and thin lips were European and more appreciated in England than the pert noses and tanned skin of Americans.
At the same time my mother insisted I was British, she criticized me for not being British enough; for slurring ‘for’ and turning it into fer, for attempting to eat with the fork in my right hand and with no knife, for singing the national anthem but not being able to remember the words to ‘God Save the Queen’.
I straddled two worlds not knowing how to maintain my footing in either.
I rarely saw my dad, so I had only my mother to identify with. The comparisons my mother made between our hand-to-mouth life here and the cossetted, sheltered one she left in England left me feeling as exiled as she did.
Maybe it was also the stories my mother told about England that made me feel I belonged there and not here. Stories about her dad, my grandfather, about her uncle Denny and his pranks. About her sister and her brother and the inn by the seaside that they used to run. How she missed them like a lost limb.
Random hours of the night, once a month or so, I was led barefoot downstairs to the kitchen where the phone was, dazed and fuggy with sleep, the receiver put to my ear where my grandmother’s spry, smoky voice prattled on. The long distance line crackled and purred as she asked questions she didn’t await the answers to, as she repeated things my mother had told her about me; Your mum says you are a big helper, what a darling, aren’t you, doing the dishes and even making dinner and taking care of your sister so your mummy can work… there you are! When are you coming back, right? You tell your mummy to bring you all back, alright, you’ll love living in Yarmouth and growing up near your cousin—you two are almost the same age, aren’t you, wouldn’t that be nice to grow up next to each other? Now put your mum on, there’s a dear, we’ll talk to you again soon, won’t we? Cheerio darling.
I would pad upstairs, dazed by the whirlwind conversation, my mind spinning with thoughts of moving back, knowing my mother was more determined with every phone call.
Just like Margot’s parents, my mother promised that we would go back. America was not home. This is not where we would lay our roots.
I lived my life around my mother’s promise. My mind was in constant preparation for a life back in England. I knew which Barbie dolls, books and stuffed animals would make it into my suitcase. I daydreamed of playing in the cold, wet sand of the North Sea shore and the hollow clunking of the wood as I walked the pier. I imagined the friends I’d have who would be just like me. How I would finally fit in.
At school, I kept potential friends at a distance, only bothering to talk to those who were the most tenacious. Instead, I preferred roaming the creekside on my own, choosing to read or play Barbies in my room rather than play with the cherubic girl my age and her boisterous brothers who lived across the lane.
I built up a deluded type of resilience against the teasing. My mental retort went something like; I won’t be here long and then none of you will matter, though I’m sure I said something like it out loud on occasion, to further isolate myself. While their words hurt and defined how I felt about myself in this place, I was sure that once we went back I would finally blossom like the ugly duckling my mother compared me to.
I was teased, but probably no more than anyone else. Instead, I became the bigger bully of my own story. I locked myself in a closet of my own making. I set myself apart and lived a transient life, not letting others in, thinking at any moment my mother would whisk us away back to England.
I asked my mother; “When are we going back? Why not now? What are we waiting for?”
There was always an excuse. Mostly, I was told that we needed to save up more money. Sometimes the excuse was that we couldn’t take our dog, Fred, because there were quarantine laws. After Fred was gone my mother couldn’t possibly leave the horses we boarded. After we sold the horses because we were getting too horse-poor, I was told, “we need to wait until your sister finishes grade school.” We’d moved around so much that my sister was having an even harder time adjusting. We’d all be happier once we went back, I thought. What were we waiting for?
Why did I consider it “going back” when I hadn’t lived even a full year of my life in England? It wasn’t quite like Margot, who had lived under the sun for the first seven years of her life. But it was so real in my imagination and then in my memories of the trips we took back there and to my dread, always returned from. I was always disheartened that no one among our family offered to keep me there. I was a well-behaved child. I would be no trouble. In America, I was withering away like Margot. In England, I would blossom. Could they not tell that I belonged there?
Then, my sophomore year of high school, I met a teacher. Another teacher I was friendly with introduced us.
“You guys will hit it off. You have a lot in common,” he’d told me.
And we did. I’m not sure what drove a thirty-something teacher to a fifteen-year-old, but we spent his free periods talking about books, history, and dream interpretation. We gossiped about other teachers as well as griped to each other about our home lives. Sometimes we just read or worked in each other’s company. I was finally beginning to realize that I wasn’t as different as I felt. I began to see that different is not always bad when there is someone who appreciates that difference and connects with you.
Through our conversations, he learned of my mother’s repeated promise that we would go back to England one day. He swatted the air with his meaty hand and said, “You’re never going back. Sit and stay awhile.”
His words were hurtful and shocking.
But they were also a revelation. We were never going to leave. This was home.
He had opened my eyes to the reality in front of me. I had to stop daydreaming and I had to start living. He unlocked that closet door for me. But unlike for Margot in the story, for me, the sun was still shining.
I suddenly wanted to belong. I wanted to lay down roots. I thought of myself as American. I joined French Club. I tried out for the flag corps and didn’t get chosen. I tried out for the spring concert solo and didn’t get that either. But I took interest in people and they, in turn, took interest in me. I learned that I had been perceived as a snob. “It seemed like you never wanted anyone to talk to you,” I was told. By the end of my senior year I was not the life of a party but I was invited to the graduation parties and told by a boy I had admired since sixth grade; “Man, Autumn, I never knew you could be so much fun!”
If we had been asked as a class back in sixth grade to write a continuation of the story, I would have imagined Margot withering away, never reaching her beloved and sunny Ohio. I would not have given her that pleasure while I was denied (how melancholy I was).
These days, I like to imagine Margot made it home to earth. I hate to think that her parents stalled and prevaricated on the chance to go back. But if they did and she never returned home I hope she found a way to forgive the classmates who stole that moment of light and warmth from her. And I hope she found her tribe or even just one person, to tell her, “Sit. Stay awhile.”
About the Author: Autumn Shah lives with her husband and two school-aged children in Dublin, Ohio. She writes her memoir and fiction in the wee hours of the morning and works as a school library assistant. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Anomaly Literary Journal and Adelaide Literary Magazine.