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I once heard an anecdotal story that to this day, moves me emotionally in the retelling of it. Perhaps it was because I had received so much criticism over the years for playing Florence Nightingale to every child crossing my path that I felt wasn’t sufficiently cared for. It made sense of my compulsions. Or was it because… well, I’ll save that for later....

I don’t know if the story is true. I suppose I could consult snopes.com, where they address various urban legends and expose the truth and fiction of them. They’re quite reliable. But, it doesn’t really matter if the story is true, or if the little boy is real, or even the starfish.

This is how I see the story in my mind’s eye:

An intellectual type – the kind who only visits the shore often enough to be in vogue – stopped, took a step back, and watched in cynical amusement at the little boy picking up starfish that the tide had left behind, one at a time, and tossing them as far into the surf as he could manage. After a few moments, he walked up to the boy and tapped him on the shoulder. The boy peeked up, squinting one eye through a split in his bangs, peering at the man just long enough to decide that he wasn’t dangerous, before going back to tossing starfish into the surf. “Excuse me,” the gentleman said. “Why are you throwing the starfish into the water?”

Hardly acknowledging the man, the boy simply said, “So they don’t die.”

The man gazed across the miles of sand before him, and as far as he could see, the beach was amply speckled with dying starfish. “But, you don’t understand,” said the man. “You are wasting your time and your energy. You should be having fun – you should be playing in the surf. There are thousands of them. It’s nature’s way. You can’t make a difference.

The boy looked up at him with a shrug – the way kids do when they pity an adult for having lost the simple wisdom they were born with – resting his hands on his hips just long enough to lean his head back for one more concentrated assessment of the man, now standing in front of him, and then turned again to the surf, bending to pick up a single starfish and throwing it deliberately into the deepest water he could reach. Then he looked back at the man with a satisfied, confident smile and said, “Sir? I made a difference to that one.”

Which brings me back to why I like that story so much. Maybe it’s because I spent so much of my life, being the little boy, saving so many helpless starfish -- one life at a time. I remember doing it before I was even in kindergarten, and all through elementary and middle school. I remember spending endless hours, as a sophomore in high school, listening, and consoling my young niece as I busied myself at the sewing machine, making her a skirt and vest so she’d feel loved and nurtured. She told me about the terrified years when her parents stole her from school yards and whisked her back and forth across the country, always being forced to find acceptance in a new culture of children who were generally cruel to newcomers.

The same year, I agreed to teach religion classes at the Catholic Church to a large group of 8th graders that no adult was willing to teach. I didn’t even have an aide – which was the standard custom – because no one was willing to take the abuse. I took that notoriously bad group of kids and loved each one individually. One of them, would come in and talk to me before class as he struggled with survivor guilt after his estranged father entered their family home one night, killing his mother and her boyfriend, his sister and his half-brother, asleep in the crib.

The same year, I babysat a family whose drunkard parents would leave the children in squalor to go out and party – Mom dressed to the nines – while the kids suffered from poor meals and a couch full of fleas. I remember seeing a wide array of sexy shoes, tangled in used nylons, dirty clothes and random bottles of nail polish in most rooms of their drunken-rage damaged apartment, and thinking that just one of those pairs of shoes would buy a new outfit or a few decent meals for the children.

Upon arrival, I would scrub down the tub and draw a bath, making mountains of suds with dish washing liquid and tossing in a few toys that I thought would keep them in the water long enough to soak all the dirt out of the creases of their nails and soften the knots in their hair. I’d shampoo them and rub sufficient amounts of their mom’s expensive conditioner into their little rats’ nests and comb out each knot, slowly and as painlessly as possible, singing meaningful folk songs and silly nonsensical ditties. I’d sift through the apartment for one clean and cozy outfit or PJs for each that I would dust with baby powder before sliding over their fresh hair and clean bodies.

I hated going there. It was like another country. My parents weren’t overly concerned with tidiness, either, but this was another thing entirely. I knew I would spend the night, sorting the children’s belongings from everything else, soaking dolls and toys in scalding, soapy tub water to remove dog feces, and placing them freshly combed and dried in their bedrooms, and then hand washing an outfit for each that I would leave on a hanger on their door handles, drying for morning. I knew the parents would return hours after promised, too drunk to keep the car between the lines as they drove me home. I knew they would say idiotic things that offended me, in a car with torn seats, the air permeated by alcohol fumes. I knew they would not notice the efforts I had made – and that if I were lucky -- I would get 50 cents per hour for my pains. But when they called, I’d always say yes. There were other babysitting jobs; rarely did I have a night off, but when they asked, I knew I would get to see the children again, and give them a short reprieve from their glum life – and myself a short reprieve from worrying about how they had been since my last visit.

Back then, it never crossed my mind to turn the parents in for child neglect. We never thought in those terms. It was simply a fact of life that some people were better parents than others, some were even abusive, but they were always still the parents, and had the right to behave however they chose toward their children.

This compulsion to help others never went away until when, in my late 40’s, I became very ill and unable to care even for myself. I guess, I really still did it to some degree – even then – leaving an open door for the young people who would frequent my home to tell me of their emotionally conflicting sense of loss over the death of a stepmother they hated – and had wished dead for so many years… or to talk of their writing aspirations, or about getting fired, or of their recent catatonia and diagnosis of schizophrenia. Even when I could barely walk, or hold myself upright on the couch, I would lie there in a bundle of tangled blankets, in a room heated by candles, and encourage these poor souls – with the hope that I could would somehow make a difference.

Maybe the little boy in the story justifies my life. Maybe he makes me feel better about how I spent all those years, when at times, I still wonder if I have ever actually made a difference in any life, in the long-run.

The other theory is, of course, that tears come to my eyes at the telling of it, because I, too, have been the little girl with tangled hair, the young person losing a job that stood between respectful survival and homelessness, and the person so emotionally strained they felt they were losing their mind. Maybe the tears come, not entirely from empathy for others as much as a mild narcissistic sympathy for my own plight.

Maybe I weep because I have always been the lone starfish, waiting for that proverbial hand to reach down and save me.



------
Here, I share, with stark honesty, my life.


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Comments

The following comments are for "Lone Starfish"
by FeliciaStone

Felisia
Glad to read your tale.

Please take care, as I am trying to do.

John

( Posted by: Flonigus [Member] On: November 30, 2011 )

Flonigus
Thank you. Yes, do take care.

( Posted by: FeliciaStone [Member] On: February 6, 2012 )

Well done Felicia!
Felicia...I didn't see this when it was first posted...I rarely read anything but the poetry section...but it touched my heart and soul.

Were these experiences truly a part of your life, or just an excercise in journalism?
If a true account...whatever happened to hose children in life...were they ever able to overcome their upbringing?

In any event...it was beautifully done.

Bea

( Posted by: Beatrice Boyle [Member] On: February 6, 2012 )

Beatrice Boyle
Real people, true anecdotes. Most moved on, others didn't.

One just called me, out of the blue, making her way through New York to spend the holidays with her family in Maine.

I met her and her boyfriend in Times Square and we had lunch. I was so happy to see that she had settled into a healthy relationship with a great guy from a southern state -- oddly enough, I had gone to high school with his mother, (in rural Maine)who was -- and still is -- an absolute doll.

I'm always thrilled to run into them. Often, one of these "kids" contact me on Facebook and let me know what's new with them. I like that.

( Posted by: FeliciaStone [Member] On: February 26, 2013 )





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