This is my college admissions essay from 1999.
The Blackbird’s Eye
When I was six my second favorite toys were paper, tape, and scissors. My favorite toys were Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, and my brother’s He-Men, but when they got lost (and they always did, no matter how many we accumulated) I would sit on the floor in my grandmother’s room and make things. I built a pagoda with pencils; post-it notes became geometric petals for octagonal flowers. When my brother was home sick, I made him a paper theater and performed puppet shows.
My mother always said I had my grandmother’s creative eye. My grandma was a typist, smart in a wasp-waisted plaid skirt and jacket, clicking the sidewalk in narrow alligator pumps with one-inch heels and a netted hat perched on a bed of practiced, doll’s head curls. My third favorite photograph is of her poised by a balustrade in Central Park: her big, elegant mouth is curved into a smile, she has the indescribable grace of a movie star. What she didn’t have was money. The shoes were second- hand; she made her own clothes with patterns from Sears.
My grandmother was an orphan and ward of the state; she spent her childhood working in other people’s homes, ironing clothes for children twice her age. She didn’t have a set of tempera paints or paper to fold as she liked. Her handiwork is from her adult years: needlepoint kits from the five-and-dime, a crocheted jacket for my mother’s baby bottle. Everything she made is articulate, elegant; she saw through the stitches to capture the flash of a blackbird’s eye or the shiver in a branch hung with magnolias.
I spent my childhood in my grandma’s room. She lived with us and took care of me while my parents worked at the hospital. In my second favorite photograph, we stand outside my ballet class at the School of American Ballet. I’m a wispy little thing, blond hair almost white, eagerly anticipating the sight of my tall, able brother on stage. My grandmother too is a wispy little thing, hair almost white and shimmering around her head like a pearl. She still wears her huge smile, showing her white teeth in tired, tested joy. My brother has my mother’s teeth, narrow and cylindrical, but ours are broad and square like sheets of paper. In three weeks my brother would dance The Nutcracker, and we would dress up, my grandma and I, in our ankle length coats and hats edged with pretend fur, hands soft in pretend velvet gloves. I have her hands: big and slender, with long fingers and knobby joints in either thumb. “So like each other,” my mother would say, “you two are birds of a feather.”
My grandmother raised my mother in Passaic, New Jersey. Mom was hardworking and shy, with uncurled hair and humble, earnest smarts. She was the only one at her school to score an 800 on an Sat II. They sold her father’s life insurance so she could go to Harvard. She was 16 when she left home, completely unprepared, the first in her family to attend college. “I remember meeting all these boys with brushed hair,” she told me. “It was amazing. In my neighborhood they used hair gel and Ace combs. The girls in my dorm complained about reading the Greek plays ‘again’-I didn’t even know the Greeks wrote plays.”
She tells me about her graduate work, late nights bicycling home from the lab where she navigated the spiral shape of hemoglobin. “Harvard is the place of true learning,” she says. “Sometimes in class I would cry from the beauty of it.”
It happens to me too, when I make 3-D graphs with my calculator. I cry because there it is! surface twisted like a seashell, folded like an envelope, yielded by an equation smaller than this sentence.
My mother taught me to see beauty everywhere: in the unique face of every person on the earth, in the ways we relate to each other, in sine curves, electron trails, poetry. It’s in class when something changes in your brain, connections light like neon, a new landscape swings, yawning, into view. The simple act of knowing more is beautiful. The world fills me with wonder, faster than I can paint, faster than I can write, faster than I can breathe.
In my favorite photograph, I sit on my mother’s lap with my head on my grandmother’s shoulder. We’re on the lawn of the house where I grew up. The just cut grass is green around our knees, the sky is full of tattered, happy clouds, and in between we make a triangle of smiles.