I got a whole, real paper dollar for my fifth birthday. I was very excited. My dad was always generous with his change and I was quite fond of that too. You could buy a cherry or grape sucker for a nickel, or a piece of double bubble for a penny, or even a chocolate or two for somewhere in between. Sometimes, I would get candy cigarettes, wear my mother's shoes around the house and play “grown up”. That particular game led my mother to tell people that I was very pigeon toed as a child. I explained that she was mistaken, as I was only imitating how she walked in her high heeled shoes. This information was not received well for some reason.
We lived in a small house with a large tree in the front yard. My dad cut a piece of wood, drilled four holes where he could thread some sturdy rope and spent an afternoon tossing the rope up and over a branch to build me a swing that would become my first sanctuary. I spent many hours on that swing, dreaming of what I would be when I grew up, where I would live, who I would marry and what I would contribute to the world. (a stewardess or an actress or a singer, On the beach, a sailor prince, velcro) On that swing, all things were possible. I came up with many ideas for making the world a better place. One that I remember in particular was a very special glue. One that would glue my doll's arm back on and still enable it to move so she could hug me still and would motivate my mother to take her out the the big round trash barrel at the end of the driveway. It didn't matter that I had many other dolls that I loved just as much. The wounded one was the one I loved the most. I took my baby out of the trash and with her in one hand and her severed arm in the other, I marched back to the house with a mission. Mom, of course, caught me at the door. “We can fix her! I promised!” With as much patience as she could muster, mom explained that dolly's arm, could not be glued, sewed, stapled or pinned, shooting down every option a 5 year old could come up with. “I'll just hold it then.” With that, I went to the bathroom, got out a box of band-aids, and applied them as neatly as I could where her arm was supposed to be. Rather than argue with me, she just waited, hoping at some point I would forget the old ratty doll and move on to another one.
Every now and then, Mom would try to get rid of one toy or another that was no longer, in her eyes, worth keeping. I would catch her, retrieve my beloved stuffed bear with no eyes, Barbie missing a leg, clothes long lost, or armless doll. I would always pull them out of the trash. When she would try to convince me to let the toy go, I always said the same thing. “I promised!”
I don't remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, or just a time my dad came home and brought me a gift from his travels, but I got a new stuffed bear with a large ribbon around his neck. I was delighted. He was soft and his fur felt nice against my cheek. I hugged and squeezed him and whispered in his ear, “ I will take care of you. I will sing to you. I will be sweet to you. I will love you. I promise.”
At the age of five, a promise was sacred. You didn't make promises you couldn't keep. I used the phrase “I promise” like some people use “Thanks” or “Hello” or “I love you.” I expected the same loyalty from others as well. If someone promised me something, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be so. I believed what people told me. Their word was their bond. I did not know that sometimes people did not tell the truth. I did not know that sometimes, people would say things they didn't mean. I did not know that sometimes, people will say things just to get what they want. I wonder what happened. When did a promise become a bargaining chip, a tool of coercion, a meaningless idiom?
And why? Is it a commentary on the degradation of society? Have we become so debased that our word is no longer essential? Is it cultural? Do only some communities or societies suffer from this lack of verbal allegiance? Or, perhaps, it's the result of the age of technology. Instant gratification has spoiled us into thinking waiting is unnecessary. Possibly the fine line that exists between wants and needs has become so blurred that it's indiscernible. Or is it something much simpler than that? Maybe, as we become older, we use it so much that it becomes common place. We say “I promise” like we say “thanks” or “hello” without much thought to the meaning behind it. Whatever the reason, saying the words “I promise” doesn't mean what it used to.
But it can. :-)