Scenes from Childhood

My name is Sara Desidarius. Granted, not the name I was born with, the name I have now. I was born Sara Christine Foster on 17 March 1879 in Rochester, New York. My father was James Anthony Foster and my mother was Christine Marie Stevens. I had three brothers and a sister.

I'm the baby girl of the family. Always daddy's favorite. He indulged my bizarre hobbies and seemingly unladylike behavior. What would be considered commonplace now was absolutely unheard of after the war (that would be the Civil War, ladies and gentlemen). I was always extremely interested in learning, reading and art. The art part was fairly accepted. Girls were allowed to be artists all they liked. The reading, learning and wanting to go to school, were extremely out of place. Women did not go to University. Women did not move out and live in the city. Okay, so maybe they did. But not women who didn't need to leave home. I didn't need to leave home. I could have stayed in Rochester with my parents and lived an extremely comfortable life. It would have been boring as all hell, but I could've done it. It would've driven me mad. However, contemplating living at home for the rest of my natural life is a little bit silly now, I think.

I started drawing when I was 5. Most children start drawing when they're 5, but how many do you know who draw portraits of their family members at the age of 5? I moved quickly from drawing to painting. Somewhere there is a painting of my family home. Probably hanging in my family home. Convenient, no? My parents indulged my artistic dreams. It kept me out of trouble... most of the time.

My older sister, Amanda Rose really didn't like me. I cannot for the life of me figure out why. She was the golden girl of the family. She had beautiful long, curly blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a smile that made hearts melt. At the same time she had a glare that made those same hearts freeze. We bumped heads on more issues than I can count anymore. When we were young, more than anything in the world, she wanted to get married, be wealthy and have beautiful children. I would make fun of her something awful about that. We never agreed on the subject of men. I never wanted to get married and thought Amanda's dreams were foolish and limiting. The logic of my statements and sheer defiance of her dreams vexed her to the point of violence. She was always mean to me. Most of the time, she'd pull my hair when no one was looking and bump my elbow while I was painting or drawing. That sparked some serious catfights. I got her real good one time.

Amanda managed to completely ruin one of my paintings. I didn't say a word. I simply took the canvas from the easel, walked up to my room, and stored it in the closet with my other art supplies. I didn't speak to her for two weeks. Whenever she walked into a room, I'd be busy doing something else, like reading or sketching. She was extremely confused. I was 8, she was 10, and everyone was expecting me to react. Even my oldest brother David, who had seen me flip out a million times over Amanda's antics was downright shocked that I hadn't done anything. I didn't run to father like always, I kept silent and calm. Under my veneer of tranquility, I was quietly plotting my revenge. By the middle of the second week, I got a late night visit from my other older brother, Stephen. I was sitting at my desk sketching. He sat on my bed and watched me for about five minutes. When he realized I wasn't going to look up he spoke.

"Sara?"

"Hmm?" I replied, not looking up from my paper

"Darling little sister, what are you plotting?"

I paused for a moment, turned my head slightly towards his watchful eyes and said plainly, "Absolutely nothing, Stephen. Why would I be plotting anything?"

He raised an eyebrow and gave me the most incredulous look, "I know you, little one. You're up to something. You don't just sit quietly when she does something like that. You're just as spiteful and cunning as Amanda is. Tell me."

I completely stopped what I was doing and turned in my stool to face him. I merely smiled at him. He just looked at my innocent face and sighed. "All right, but I know you're up to something." With that he took one of my tiny hands in his, stood, kissed my forehead and left.

Three days later, a high-pitched, scream emanated from Amanda's bedroom. Everyone ran to see what the commotion was about, including me. Before us was my older sister on the floor playing with her favorite raven-haired doll. Amanda's yellow dress and hands were covered in inky black paint. Mother and David immediately took to cleaning up the hysterical girl, admonishing her to be more careful around my work. I took my five-year-old baby brother Robert by the hand and led him away from the scene and back to his bedroom and toys. Stephen came in moments later and informed me that Father wanted to see me in his study and to make haste. I know my face went deathly pale. But, I did as I was told and headed straight for his study.

I knocked lightly on the huge mahogany door and waited for acknowledgement. A deep, "Come in, Sara," came from the other side.

I sighed deeply, steadied my hand and opened the door slowly. As I walked in the room, he ordered for me to close the door and sit down. Never once did he put down his paper. I bowed my head and dutifully walked to one of the leather chairs in front of his desk. I sat in it, folded my hands and placed them in my lap, all the while keeping my head down and eyes on the floor.

When I was seated, he folded his paper carefully and placed it gingerly on the desk. A task that would take seconds took an eternity in my 8-year-old mind. He placed his elbows on the desk and folded his hands in front of him. Leaning forward, he asked me, "Do you want to tell my why you did what you did?"

I just shook my head slowly, no.

"I'm very disappointed in you, Sara."

With those five words, my heart fell out of my body and hit the floor. I could not stand displeasing my father. He was my world. My father gave me everything in life that I could ever want and then some. Disappointing him was the last thing I ever wanted to do. But I had this time and my heart was broken.

"Do you know why I'm disappointed in you?"

I nodded my head, yes.

"Tell me why."

"Because I did a mean thing to Amanda and I shouldn't have."

"Do you know why you shouldn't have?"

I thought for a second and shook my head no.

"Because she's your sister, Sara. She's the only one you've got. And she's the only one you'll ever have. Treasure her. She thinks the world of you. She envies you sometimes, I can see it." He paused for a moment and continued, "You are a good girl, Sara. And you're smart and strong. Revenge does not suit you. I don't want to ever see you doing something this childish ever again. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Now, I want you to go to Confession. Have Stephen walk with you. While you are walking there, I want you to think about what you've done and how you could have handled things differently. When you get back, you will apologize to your sister. I want you to promise me, right now, that you will never do anything like this again."

"I promise, Father."

To this day, I have never broken that promise.

When I got back from Confession, I went up Amanda's room. She was sitting on the floor; tears streaked down her face still. She looked up and saw me standing in her doorway.

"What do you want now? Come to ruin the rest of my dolls?" Those words stung with the venom of a thousand bees. I almost completely lost my composure and ran out of the room. She could pick on me till I was blue in the face and my eyes were shrink wrapped in tears, but when she finally got as good as she gave, she couldn't handle it and felt horribly wronged by the world.

"No. I came to apologize."

"Really now? Well isn't that just lovely! Go away. I don't want to talk to you."

"Amanda? Stop it."

"Stop what?" She was genuinely confused. I was appalled.

"Stop playing like you didn't know this was coming. You had to have seen it from a mile away. When have I ever ignored what you've done to me? This isn't fair. You're always doing mean, horrible, nasty things to me. And you never get what I got today. To top it all off, when I come to apologize, you turn me away with a sneer. I give up. I'm sorry for ruining your favorite doll. It won't ever happen again. I promise you that." With that, I turned on my heel and walked out of the room.

To this day, I have never broken that promise.

Over the years, she would bother me less and less. She stopped completely because I stopped reacting. Amanda would consistently bump my elbow and pull my hair. I'd glare in her general direction and remember my promises. After David's wedding in 1894, she had completely stopped bothering me. She would even come to me for advice about things. That took me off guard every time. Occasionally, she'd come to talk to me just to get into a fight. After I got used to it, I would enjoy the debates. Needless to say, my relationship with my sister was anything but normal. But who can honestly say they had a "normal" relationship with any of their siblings?

As far as I know, she got married and was very wealthy, just as she had always imagined. Reluctantly, she invited me to the wedding. I will admit, it was an extremely lavish ceremony and the dress was to die for. As a wedding gift, I painted her portrait in her wedding gown. It was painted over the canvas she ruined when I was 8. It was the first time she truly understood that I loved her. Despite all the nastiness we put each other through as children, I loved her with all my heart. She was my sister. Amanda started crying when she read the note that went along with the gift. It said, "A mistake forgotten, a memory rewritten and old wounds healed. A canvas reformed and beauty renewed throughout it. Congratulations, Amanda. -Love, Sara" I smiled at her from the back of the room, blew her a kiss and left. It was 1900. As it would turn out, I would never see my sister again.

&

David James Foster, seven years my senior, never understood his baby sister. He expected me to be the perfect, darling little angel that Amanda had proven herself to be in only five years of life. David was expecting a three-year-old to act like the vision of perfection. God, help me, I loved my family but they were the most confusing lot of human beings I would ever come to know and adore.
I wanted to draw, paint and play in the snow. He wanted me to play the piano and have mock tea parties like all the other girls. When I didn't lash out at Amanda during that infamous two weeks in 1887, he was so proud of me. I was sitting outside under the old oak tree, sketching the flowers and trees, when he came up beside me, looked over my work and give me a familial kiss on the forehead.

"What was that for, David?" I asked.

"For being the proper young lady, I always knew you could be."

I was silently plotting my revenge at that point; so I just smiled at him and went back to work. Now, the pangs of guilt sing through me like icicles. Then, I just smiled up at my big brother and went back to work. He really was that oblivious.

David was extremely intelligent, devilishly handsome, and dreadfully boring. The first-born son and destined for greatness. By the age of 15, he had already had his entire life planned out perfectly. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He was positive that he was going to be wealthy. He would be damned if he were going to live the rest of his life in Rochester. That was the one and only thing we agreed upon.
Rochester was a beautiful town. Everybody knew everybody else, gossip spread like wildfire and everybody was happy. Except us. David and I wanted to get away from the friendliness and false congeniality that come with close-knit communities. It was by no means a small town. But it paled in comparison to our dreams. We wanted New York City. Just like immigrants always believed America was the land of milk and honey, David and I believed that New York was where everything was happening. The difference between the immigrants and us was David and I were right.

My father would sit me on his knee and read me stories from his paper about the gallery openings and about all the artists that made their home in Soho. I loved it. I couldn't hear enough about this big beautiful city teeming with life. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted my father to some day read about me in his paper. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see David standing just outside the threshold taking in the magnificence of the stories being told to me. We never spoke about it, really, but David and I both knew the dreams in each other's hearts. Our eyes gave us away every time.

In 1890, David went off to University at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut to pursue his law degree. Every month, I would get a new letter from him describing to me our city. He told me of busy streets during the day and the high society parties during the night. He met so many fascinating people. He was happy there, but despite it all, he missed us at home. During one of his breaks, he met Cassandra Evans. She was the most beautiful woman in Rochester and everybody knew it. She always had her eye on David and everybody knew it. And secretly, I knew that they started courting two months before he went away to University. The engagement was announced officially in 1893. A year later, after he graduated from Yale, they wed in December of 1894. Amanda and I were bridesmaids.

At the ripe old age of 15, David commented on what the refined young lady I had become. Despite our shared secrets and the city we had in common, he was still boring. Shortly after the wedding, David and Cassandra moved to New York City, where he started his own law firm. Two years after that the letters about my city stopped coming. He would only write to tell us the wonderful news about his three children being born and to send his well wishes and love on our birthdays and holidays. He lost touch with the family and that was something nobody expected.

I saw him for the last time at Amanda's wedding. He had grown a mustache and looked more like our father than he ever had before. His hair was beginning to gray and the hard lines from poring over law books at all hours of the night were starting to show. He found me as I was leaving the reception.

"Take care of yourself, Young Lady," he smiled.

"Always, Old Man," I smiled back.

He pulled me into his strong arms and for the first time since he held me as a baby, he hugged me warmly. David let go and kissed me on the forehead. Before I could even get the question out, he silenced me with his hand. "For being Sara," was all he said.

So, maybe he wasn't as boring as I thought.

&

I felt the hot breath of a four-year-old and the prodding paw of Mr. Bear on a cold December morning in 1885.

"Sairwa?" I heard in a loud whisper behind my ear, "Are you awake?"

I turned on my side and with sleep filled eyes, found a trembling Robert Daniel Foster at my bedside. Without a word, I scooted away from the edge of the bed, and lifted my covers to welcome my little brother into the warmth.

"I had a bad dream," he began. He told me the story of all the bad monsters in his dream chasing him and how scared he was. He almost got away but he turned a corner and there they were waiting for him to catch him. I just stroked his hair and listened to him. Mid-sentence, he was fast asleep, still clutching tightly to Mr. Bear.

Robert always had bad dreams. Sometimes they were about ghosts and goblins. Other times, they were so frightening to me, I couldnít bear to hear them and I wasn't even the dreamer. He would have dreams about Mother crying all the time. Each time he'd go to comfort her; she'd push him away. His descriptions of her to me were so vivid. He had every detail down to the stitch. Mother would be sitting in a rocking chair, wearing only her white dressing gown. The chair would be in a dark cobweb filled room and in front of a roaring fireplace. Mother's hair was long and ragged and her eyes were strained from staring into the fire. Robert said that she'd be muttering to herself and rocking back and forth. When he got closer, he'd see the tears running down her face. He reached out his small, trembling hand to console her but she would recoil instantly at the attempted contact. This was always the point where he'd be jarred awake by his own flinching and he'd come to me.

I know the story better than he could ever imagine. After Robert was born, I would hear sobs coming from the library and hear the crackling of a fire. Slowly, I crept down the hallway keeping perfectly silent. When I reached the doorway, I poked my head around the frame and looked in. I saw my mother rocking in her chair, rubbing her stomach and crying. She mumbled unintelligible sounds in between sobs. Ever since Robert was born, she was different.

Although people told me I looked exactly like her when I smiled, I never saw my mother smile. Stephen would tell me stories of how beautiful Mother's smile was and how it would light up a room. But after Robert was born, something inside our mother died. I would find out much later, that Robert was a twin. Our brother, Anthony was stillborn. Complications in their birth prevented our mother from ever being able to conceive again. She couldn't handle the stress of it and became extremely depressed. Robert never really had a mother to speak of. When he needed advice or comfort, he would come to me. I was his support system and mother figure. I got a lot of help from Stephen.

With Stephen and me as his role models, we shaped Robert into the consummate artist. He was typically depressed and moody, more like our mother than we would ever have imagined. Robert managed to channel those feelings into music. Under our tutelage, he became an accomplished pianist, cellist, and composer. Later, he would arrange pieces for smaller chamber ensembles. Stephen and I were the ones who attended his recitals religiously and encouraged him in every way possible. He very much enjoyed playing his cello alongside the great organ at Sunday Mass.

When Father agreed to let me move to New York and pursue my art career in 1898, Robert begged me not to go. Stephen had just graduated from Eastman and moved to Connecticut with his wife earlier that year. Robert was bound for Eastman himself. He couldn't bear the thought of both of us being so far away from him.

I touched my gloved hand to his cheek, "Hush now. Be strong for me, please. You have to."

"Sara, do you really have to go now? Can't you wait a few more months? Please?" he begged.

"Darling, I can't. When those few months have passed and it's time for me to go again, you're going to try and persuade me to stay a few months more. It'll be that much harder for the both of us if I wait any longer." I took his other hand in mine and moved over to the small couch in my bedroom. I sat down and he knelt on the floor beside me and placed his head in my lap, just as he always had done when he was upset. I took a glove off and gently started to pet his hair and calm him down. "You'll be heading off to University soon, yourself. Instead of me leaving you, you'd be leaving me. It's time to grow up, Robert. Time to take our first steps out into the real world."

"But who's going to... and where will I when... Oh, please don't go, Sara." He wrapped his arms around my knees and held on for dear life.

I sighed and placed my hand on his head. He looked up at me with pain filled eyes and found a smile. He let go of my legs, stood up and helped me to my feet. His six-foot frame towered over my petite body. My little brother was all grown up, yet the fearful child inside of him was trembling before me.

"Be strong for me."

"I will," he replied.

"Promise?"

"I promise to be strong, Sara."

"Good. Now walk me out. The carriage is waiting."

I saw him again several times over the next few years. He was always strong for me. I was so proud.

&

"Sara Christine! Stephen Christopher! Get down here right this minute!" Shouted our extremely unhappy mother from the living room.

We both froze in our tracks and flashed one another worried looks. I sighed first and headed towards the stairwell. Stephen was soon behind me. We knew we were in trouble when she shouted our full names. The minute I stepped off the staircase, I felt a cool hand take hold of my left earlobe and pull me into the sitting room. Mother let go of my head and simply pointed at the center of the room. Scattered on the rug were several pieces of paper, bottles of ink and paint, and pens and brushes.

"I want this room spotless when I come back in 10 minutes. Do you understand me?"
 

"Yes, Mother," we said in unison.

She left the room and Stephen and I just looked at each other and sighed.

"After you," he said. The cleaning commenced.

Stephen was always my partner in crime. Ever since that time when I was six and we made a huge mess with our art supplies in the sitting room. David had his favorite little sister, Amanda. Stephen had his favorite, me. Before Robert was born, it was clearly us against them. There would be dirty looks across the dinner table, sabotaging the other's fun, and framing somebody else for our messes. It was great fun. After Robert was born, the campaign was on to turn him over to one side or the other. Stephen and I won, hands down. The fun eventually stopped and the five of us did our own things from that point on.

If forced to choose a favorite sibling, Stephen would easily be that one. He understood me better than anyone ever would. He knew when I was lying, upset, plotting, and keeping things to myself. He always knew where to find me. He always knew what was on my mind. He just always knew. It drove me crazy sometimes. But, I absolutely adored the fact that he could read me like a book and I could talk to him about its pages. Our midnight chats were the best. We talked about everything: music, art, literature, and superstitions, random hopes and dreams for the world. Looking back on it now, the way he indulged his little sister's idle ramblings, I know he made a great father.

Long before he became the perfect father, he was the perfect artist. I swear the man could do everything. My brother, when he was five, and I was one, was already planning out his first sculptures. By the time he was seven, he was practically a piano virtuoso. When he turned fifteen, he turned his talented mind to poetry. Like me, he was a perfectionist when it came to his art. Everything had to be just so or it was garbage.

I never saw him lose his temper over his work, before, though. He would be less than pleased with the results he was getting with a sculpture and just stop. A few days later, I would find it in the garbage heap. Drawings that didnít turn out right ended up in the fire almost immediately. He knew when the work was crap. He knew immediately. Two lines of a poem would barely get written before they were completely scratched off the page and written again.

I take it back; I did see him get upset once. He had turned 20 and was on break from Eastman, where he was studying piano and composition. Stephen hadnít written a line of poetry in two months. Not out of choice, but because he was blocked. To take his mind off of it, he turned to the piano and began to pound out Bachís Well-Tempered Clavier. He missed a passage in the second c minor fugue and was off the bench and in his room immediately.

Sounds of crashing could be heard outside his bedroom window. He was throwing things out of his window and letting them fall to the ground below. The first things I saw hit the ground were his sculptures.

"Stephen! Stop!" I burst into his room, without knocking.

"Go away, Sara. I donít want to hear it." He just continued on his merry way of destruction.

"I will not, until you stop acting like... well, like me." I looked at him bravely.

He lowered the small sculpture in his hand back to its place on the mantle and just looked at me in utter defiance.

"What has brought on this surge of rage and display of manly passion?"

"I canít write," was all he managed to get out before turning his back and staring out the window.

"Ever again? Or just right now? Whatís the matter?" I moved to sit on his bed and waited for his response.

He turned his head to the side, as he spoke, "Maybe not ever again I donít know. Iím afraid that Iíve written all I can and that will be the end of it."

"Iím sorry, Stephen. I donít know what to say. I think if you just..."

He cut me off mid-sentence, "Give it time? Sara, youíre becoming predictable in your old age. Look, I donít really want to talk about this right now. Please, go."

"But, I was..." I pleaded.

"Go."

Without another word, I just stood slowly and left. Stephen never turned to see me go.

When I moved to New York in 1898, I would always write letters home and to Stephen and Robert. At first things were lovely. I was learning quite a bit and having a wonderful time getting to know my city. I took art classes for a few years before the teachers told me not to bother any more. There was nothing they could teach me that I didn't already know. I realize how arrogant that sounds, but it is the truth. They didn't have anything else to teach me. So, they sent me off into the real world with my raw artistic talent and hoped for the best. A few of them got me in touch with different art galleries to help me get on my feet. But that is a story for later...

Needless to say, I struggled quite a bit. I was lucky enough to have my father still sending me money and paying my expenses. I was not getting where I wanted to be at all. However, I never told my family of this. Robert believed my flowery lies of everything going wonderfully and how truly happy I was. Stephen refused to believe a word of it. He was furious with me when he read the letters. I got one letter, late in 1900 long after Amanda's wedding, announcing that Stephen would be up to visit me and I had better have the truth ready for him when he got there.

A hard knock came on the door to my small loft in New York. "Sara, it's me, Stephen."

"Coming."

I opened the door and my 25-year-old brother immediately took me into his strong arms, giving me the warmest hug I've had in ages. "Oh, it's so good to see you," he muffled into my hair.

I led him into the loft and showed him the multitude of paintings that were piling up there. He was stunned by all of them. Over the years my work had gotten much darker, apparently. I was capturing things on canvas that he hadn't seen before. He was so proud of me. Unfortunately, the other gallery owners in the city didn't agree with him, and I told him as much.

"They're idiots, Sara. This is wonderful work. I can't believe they could possibly turn these down. What did they say when you showed it to them?"

"I'm sorry, Miss, but it's not quite what our audience is looking for," I said imitating perfectly the same answer I'd been receiving for over a year and a half. I motioned for us to sit on the small couches and few chairs I had in the loft. "It's because I'm a woman, Stephen. I know it is. They just can't handle the idea of a frail creature like me producing such pieces as that. I've had some people accuse me of forging the works. I don't know what to do anymore."

I just put my head in my hands. Stephen leaned my head over onto his chest and just comforted my frustration. "Sara, there's something more to this story, isn't there?"

I just nodded feebly. I was also furious that he was doing it again... He just knew.

"Tell me."

I adamantly shook my head no.

"Tell me, Sara. Please. I can't help you if you don't tell me." He tilted my face up to look into his. Genuine concern was residing in his deep blue eyes. Stephen sat me up straight, brushed the hair out of my face and took hold of one of my hands.

"I can't, Stephen. It's too embarrassing. I just..." my voice trailed off.

Stephen gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.

I took a deep breath and began again. "The gallery owners didn't just reject my work. They..." my voice trailed off again.

"Oh, God. Sara, they didn't. Please, tell me they didn't."

Tears started to flow down my face at that point. I just nodded no at him and mumbled, "Not for lack of trying, though."

Stephen pulled my sobbing body against his and just held me. He gently stroked my hair trying to shush me and reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. I felt so ashamed of myself, ashamed of my weakness. I couldn't do anything to stop them or to keep their eyes from penetrating my flesh. Their leers are forever burnt into my memory.

Although Stephen was doing his best to stay calm to keep me calm, I could tell he was furious. He was furious at those men who tried to cheapen his sister and he was furious at me for not telling him earlier. "Sara, why didn't you tell me before?"

"I don't know. Because I don't want anyone to know about this. It's horrible and disgusting and I don't want anyone to know. Promise me you won't do anything. You won't say anything. Please, promise me, Stephen." I looked up at him with pleading eyes threatening to overflow again with stinging tears.

He sighed and pulled me to him again, "I promise."

That night, he tucked me into bed and stayed by my side until I fell asleep. I felt like a small child again. I can't imagine how he felt. We never spoke on the matter again.

We stayed in touch consistently for a little more than a year. He would write to me making sure that everything was going all right and if there was anything he could do for me. I wouldn't lie to him any more. I told him when things were going horribly and when things were going all right. The trauma of situations never escalated the same way ever again.

In 1902, I told him of a great inspiration I was having and how excited I was to get it out on canvas. He wrote that he couldn't wait to see it and anxiously awaited news of its completion. I promised I would tell him as soon as it was done so he could come up and see my masterpiece.

To this day, I have not kept that promise.

On April 24, 1902, I met a man named Maximilian and I never saw anyone I knew, ever again.

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Scenes from Childhood © 2001 by Jessica Robinson. Reproduction of any part without permission is strictly prohibited.