Perception, Deception, and Wandering to the Woods

My mother sewed a lot, until into her 50’s when arthritis in her hands made it difficult for her to cut fabric. She’d tried electric sheers, but they were unsatisfactory.

In my early childhood, before I started school, I remember her sitting at her Kenmore machine, giving the flywheel a start with the palm of her right hand and keeping it humming along with her right knee pressed against the lever protruding below the cabinet.

We had a Crosley portable radio with two big dials: an alarm clock on the left and the radio dial on the right. A knob beneath each dial controlled the volume and the tuner. It was blue. Usually it was in the kitchen, but my mom would place the radio on the floor beneath the drop-leaf surface of the sewing machine while she worked. Sometimes I’d lay on the floor, propped on my elbows, staring with curiosity as the rhythmic chchchch of the machine accompanied whatever was playing on the radio. The only thing I can remember coming from that radio, though, was Arthur Godfrey saying, “How wah ya, how wah ya, how wah ya?”

Once, while I was playing in another part of the house, I heard my mother cry out in pain. I ran to where she sat at her machine and saw the little mound of blood well up from the center of her fingernail. I don’t remember what happened next, nor do I know how far, if not all the way through, the needle went. All I can retrieve from my memory is that little spot of blood.

It was 1955, and I was four years old. Near our house was what I thought of as “the woods.” For all I know, it could have been just a small patch of scrawny trees.

One day as I passed by the sewing room, my mother hunched over her project, I called out, telling her I was going to go to the woods. Over the chunk of the sewing machine she called back, “Okay.” So off I went. Sometime later (whether two minutes or 20), satisfied with my adventure, I strolled back to the house where my frantic mother, both relieved and angry, shouted, “How dare you leave this house without telling me where you’re going! I’ve been calling and calling for you!”

“But you told me I could play in the woods,” I said.

“I most certainly did not.”

“But I heard you. You said it was okay.”

She was unmoved. “Don’t you lie to me, Paul Edward!”

I was crushed and confused. Could I have been wrong? After all, her back was to me. Had she not heard me over the machine? Had she thought I’d said something else? Did I imagine she said it was okay only because I wanted her to? Did I not really call out as loudly as I’d thought, knowing if she were to hear me she certainly would have said no? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I do know this: I have heard my mother’s voice, deep in my mind, dozens of times throughout my life. Each time she calls just my name, just once: “Paul.” It’s not an angry or frantic cry, as it must have been when she discovered me missing. Rather, it’s as though she were calling me into the kitchen for a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Her voice, clear and crisp.

My father would describe this sort of thing as “your mind playing tricks on you.” I heard that phrase a lot growing up. Maybe it was about a sinister shadow in the corner or the creaks of the house settling in for the night sounding as though someone were creeping right outside my bedroom door.

These little tricks keep me busy all day long as I spontaneously navigate through millions of perceptions—what I hear, see, touch, smell, taste, and think—each day, every day. What a challenge. Without perception neither I nor you could function. Most perceptions are correct and accurate enough interpretations of our surroundings to guide along without difficulty. Some perceptions are inaccurate and, I suspect, most misperceptions go unnoticed because they have no immediate impact. Sometimes, though, misperceptions will lead to bad decisions, petty arguments, embarrassing moments, collisions, missed appointments, unhappy marriages, disastrous political consequences, and war.

Errors in perception have great potential for disaster because with every perception comes the potential for deception. Every one of them. My wandering away from home one day in 1955—based on a simple misperception in my oh-so-young mind—could have ended differently.