Our first theme in the Guided Autobiography class I am teaching is entitled, “Branching Points.” James Birren, the creator of Guided Autobiography, describes branching points as, “turning points in your life – the events, experiences, or insights that shaped your life and its directions. They may have been big events such as marriage, war, moving to a new city, or retirement. Or they may have been small events that had big outcomes, like reading a book or going on a hike.” Or, I would add, going to see the doctor, but more on that later.
The class is given the task of creating a life graph full of these branching points. They are also given several sensitizing questions which help loosen those memories from long ago and bring them forward into current remembrance. The second part of the assignment is to then go home and write 2-4 pages about one of the branching point memories.
The questions that sparked a memory for me were, “What was the earliest branching point in your life? What happened and why was it important? How old were you at the time?”
Those questions brought to mind the little girl in the photo; me at age five. Here is part of her story:
I Wanna Be a Nurse
The smell of rubbing alcohol and some sort of pungent antiseptic filled our nostrils as we opened the glass doors to Dr. Don’s office. Our footsteps echoed off the marble steps up to the waiting room. Magazines were scattered across tables which sat between rows of chairs. A gentle bell rang now and then, sometimes twice, sometimes three times, in some sort of secret code only nurses and doctors were privy to.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the nurse when she came to take us back to the exam room. Her crisp white uniform made a ruffling sound when she walked. Her white hose had a white seam down the back that was perfectly centered on her calf, and her white shoes had nary a scuff mark on them. Her cap sat atop her head neatly pinned in place. She had a kind smile, but exuded a “no nonsense” attitude. I imagined an angel must look something like her.
I watched her every move, never averting my eyes as she filled a glass syringe from an ampule of some sort of magic potion. It stung when she put the needle into my arm, but I watched anyway, in total fascination. I was completely absorbed by the entire procedure; wiping the skin with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, then quickly jabbing the needle into the skin and in one graceful motion, emptying the syringe’s content into my arm.
“I wanna be a nurse,” I declared to Mom as we left the office.
Mom’s eyes brightened. “You do?” She never asked me why. She simply embraced the idea. Secretly, I think she felt relieved that perhaps someone else in our family would be willing to tend to cuts and bruises. My brothers paraded through life with regular episodes of fingers smashed by a hammer or a fish hook stuck in a thumb, bloody stubbed toes, and gashes in heads from over exuberant hammering techniques. Mom hated the site of blood and would hide her eyes and cover her mouth in an attempt to stifle her gag reflex. I, on the other hand, jumped right into the middle of it, anxious to see all the gore. I also enjoyed picking out just the right bandage to cover the gore, and I especially enjoyed my Mother’s praise over what a good job I did.
“You would make a wonderful nurse,” she said in a slightly too enthusiastic manner. A nursing uniform complete with a blue cape and white cap soon appeared from Mom’s sewing machine and were added to my dress-up repertoire. That was quickly followed by a plastic doctor’s kit with a syringe and plastic scissors and even a stethoscope. I swore I could hear my doll’s heart beating through the plastic tubes I stuck in my ears.
Soon everyone in our family and all over town knew that I wanted to be a nurse. No one asked if I had ever considered any other profession. Instead, they asked where I wanted to go to nursing school and what kind of nurse I wanted to be. They all echoed Mom’s excitement and told me how wonderful they thought it was that I was going to be a nurse. I absorbed it all.
So it was that, at the age of five, my future became locked into place.
That’s my story. What about you? Do you have branching points you can recall?