Memory/Character Essay: Thirteen Examples

I Told You So

Jillian McDonnell

When I was a baby my legs were really big, especially my thighs. My mom said everyone commented on them, “Look at her thighs. They’re huge!” I look at pictures of them and agree. They look like the Michelin Man or the Pillsbury Doughboy, chunky and wide. My eating habits were testimony to those meaty limbs, as it is claimed that I ate eleven pieces of lamb in one sitting at my aunt’s house at age two, everyone gawking at me certainly did not faze me as my hands moved from one bone to the next. My legs were chubby, but like most baby fat they faded away over the years.

Jump to elementary school and I am tiny. Small all over, my legs nowhere near as plump as they were before. I am short and I am very thin. I don’t like the sandwiches Mommy makes me every day so I eat everything but the crust (a whopping three whole bites with my teeny mouth). These legs are petite and as thin as toothpicks, covered weekly with a new scab here and a new scab there. One day before school in first grade I shake with excitement while my mom ties my brand new Keds on. They’re pink with letters on one face of the shoe and green zigzags on the other. I hop up after she’s done, sprint down the two flights of stairs and I’m off, headed for Baba’s green Civic so ready for school and—BOOM—I’m down. I’m sobbing and Mom’s carrying me in and my knee’s bleeding a whole bunch and she’s cursing those new Keds because she “Knew it, I just knew they were too big Jillian I should have never let you get them in the first place.” I walk in late to school and stroll into class with a big gash in my knee once embedded with rocks now instead covered by two Band-Aids. One just wasn’t thick enough to cover the battle scar.

Cuts are not the only thing that shift places and show up on my legs. I have hair, blonde and brown but thin, too young for me to shave yet so they streak and shine in the light. Past the little hairs are mosquito bites. Always there, never to leave. Not because they bite me all year round, rather my fingers scratch them again and again. So close to healing but then my nail feels one scab, and off it goes again, destined to never disappear as they should and instead leave a pinkish mark faded but always there. These marks that make my mom tell me “You look like a leper,” or “Well there goes your leg modeling career,” (which we all know is a joke because I don’t grow past five foot three after tenth grade) and the most popular, “Jillian Mary! Stop scratching those things they are going to scar. Forever.

I have a birthmark on my ankle. Not a dark one like the ones women draw on their face, but instead a little brown freckle slightly raised, and I hated it. It was always there and so, of course, it always bugged me. One day at a family dinner party it peeked right above my sandal strap and that was it. The nails equipped to pick at scabs upon scabs were ready, and they went at it. I picked at that thing for an hour, and finally, it gave in. The little brown fleck gave way and slowly raised. Alas it ripped off, but to my horror it started bleeding. I panicked and didn’t want anyone to see, especially Mommy, so I covered it with my hand as my eyes searched frantically for a napkin. Good, I had replaced the millimeter-wide freckle with a gush of blood and a napkin and a hand, much less noticeable, much less eye- attracting. That night, once the bleeding had stopped, I looked at the little dig out on my ankle and cried. How could I have been so stupid?! That freckle was a part of me and I had erased it, what if it never returned? So I waited, checking the scab nightly, but unlike the mosquito bites this would not be touched, I needed it to go back to its normal form. Finally after fourteen days of care and caution, I looked and sighed a big happy sigh of relief. It had returned, and it is still there now, located on my right inner ankle, approximately half an inch below that knobby bone that juts out.

I look back through a photo album of my fifth-grade graduation. My mom walks by and she cringes, “God you were so thin. You look sickly.” I gaze at pictures of me beaming ear to ear next to teachers and friends and I have to agree. The angles of my face are far too chiseled for the face of a child. My chin juts out like a sharp knife and the tendons on my neck are far too visible. That was the outcome of me not eating those sandwiches, those were pictures taken only a month before my doctor told my mom I was severely underweight. The night after the doctors I sit down for dinner. That night, like most nights, the food stares back at me for one, two, three hours. Everything is eaten but my salad, and now it is soggy with dressing that I don’t particularly like. My mom gets tired of waiting to do the dishes, but this time it’s different. She comes back and she’s crying and she’s screaming. She’s scared for me, blames herself because I refuse to take care of myself. And then I’m crying, I don’t want her to be upset. I sit on her lap and cry and she looks at me, “That’s it. This is done. No more of this you have to eat so we don’t have to get in trouble with the doctor again.” I agree and sit down. I eat my salad piece by piece and ignore the feeling in my stomach that says, “No more. No more.” This night is followed by the constant nag and worry of my mom. A yearly finger crossing when I step on the scale at the doctor’s office is expected and fear of me ever leaving her watchful eye becomes quite apparent.

I ran track in sophomore year, against my mother’s wishes, “You lose one pound and you’re off the team, I’m not joking.” Nervous to keep my mom happy, I kept the weight from runner’s highs and Friday night pasta parties. So yes, I ran. Well, I ran half of the season anyways. Midway, Coach Kaminski yells, “McDonnell, you’re signed up for the walk Sunday.” Everyone laughs and I argue but he won’t change his mind. So that Sunday I speed walk one mile in the correct form. Legs landing unbent, nineteen other girls and I get to waddle around an indoor track for ten minutes in spandex that rides up your butt. It’s walking, but it’s sure not easy, I get off the track grateful that my torture has ended. My legs feel like noodles, I don’t know how to walk the right way again until the next morning, a morning teamed with lots of Advil to kill the pain, the pain from walking. Each morning after an intense workout or a race my mom laughs and then nags, “What’s the point? You don’t need to run track you’re just killing yourself for nothing.” Yet I get sucked into doing the walk again and again, and finally am granted the high and prestigious honor of “Dobbs Ferry’s Number One Speed Walker” out of the whole two girls doing it (me being one of them). After every race my legs feel like noodles, and they look like them too, the petite shape from elementary school never went away, but now two friends are added and during that sophomore year of winter track, I get the nickname Boobs and, even more clever, Boobian.

My mom doesn’t want me to leave for school. Why would she when I’m a “Train ride away Jillian everyone does the commute. You could even get rides from Mr. Scroope he is right next door!” These comments result in constant fighting and constant tears. I am so frustrated with my mom, how could she not trust me to leave, I can take care of myself I am not an infant. I beg and plead and finally I get the monotonous answer a thousand times, “Do what you want, but you can pay for dorming yourself.” And to her surprise I do.

I don’t feel pain like the speed walk again until college, in a spin class I was talked into going to by my roommates. I take the class as a newbie, I don’t know what’s going on, but I do it all the same. My legs continue to bounce out of the feet holders and I keep pausing and going, a perfect forty-five minutes of “When is this over?” and “How did I end up in the front? I look like a complete fool. Finally it’s over, and I feel the noodle legs once again, but the pain was not contained in that forty-five minutes. My legs can’t move, they are so sore I limp through my week of classes, and finally they have me in an ER. That’s right, like a great TLC special, Spin Class Sent Me to the ER. I go expecting three hours of fluids, because they say I have something called Rhabdomyolysis and I am probably dehydrated. After sitting on the bed for two hours with an IV in one arm and a needle puncture in another, I feel a smile of excitement come on because I can’t wait to get out of the place. But no, I get to stay overnight because the last blood test shows elevated levels. The doctor tells me this bad news and now I’m scared. I call the house phone and dread the answer I’ll get but, “We’ll be right there Jill.” I have to keep sitting like this, trapped to the IV that keeps beeping, my “dancing partner.” I feel fine physically, but I can’t help but keep tearing.

I cry when my mom comes in, she looks so frightened for me, “How did this happen?! I don’t understand.” And runs over to me arms outstretched crying just as much. I keep tearing the entire night, my eyes redder and puffier each time my dancing partner and I wheel ourselves over to the bathroom. During one trip I don’t sit down right away, and instead fling my fists around to no destination and think loudly, “This doesn’t happen to anyone what the fuck is happening to me.” Finally my mom looks at me and pleads, “Please talk to me Jillian,” and I throw the covers over my face curl myself up into the tightest ball possible and release. I sob big heaving sobs and in between each I admit word by word I can’t stay overnight and I just want to go home. I hate letting her see me like this, this is just the thing she needs, the “I told you so” of the century, but I can’t help it. I need her, I know I do. So when she offers to stay overnight I quietly say, “No it’s ok, you need your sleep,” but I know she’ll ignore me and answers to the nurse, “Can we get another pillow please? I feel fine, but I’m stuck, no way to get out of it. That night my legs start to swell, they feel worse than they ever have. My little toothpick legs swell so large they are touching each other just like they did when I was a baby, but this time I’m hurt. I’m crying and the ice packs aren’t working, the Advil’s not working and the hot packs aren’t working. I keep feeling them tighten and tighten, my body squirming with an endless discomfort. Finally the doctor comes in and says, “Ok go give her the heavy stuff.” I don’t even know what it is until I’m injected with a clear liquid when I hear the nurse say to my mom “morphine” and then I’m out.

I wake up the next morning and my IV’s pinching me. I’m a bit dazed, but Mom’s right next to me. She’s sleeping but she’s doing so much more. She’s just…there. As always, but now she’s just the only comfortable thing in this room. This room where they stick me with needles every six hours. This room where they come back with good and then terrible answers leaving me confused and disappointed. She’s here like she always is, and there is nothing more comfortable then feeling her warm figure against mine in this tiny hospital bed.

Another nurse comes and she fixes the IV but a spurt of blood comes out. She sighs and starts removing the sheets so she can bring me a clean set. She lifts the covers off of my now semi-swollen legs, looks at them and says, “What are these, mosquito bites?! Don’t you know if you keep scratching them they’re gonna scar?” I look over at my mom and she looks right back with a look of, “I told you so.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
  • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
  • How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
  • Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
  • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
  • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
  • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
  • Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
  • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?

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I Told You So by Jillian McDonnell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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