The first time I ever went on a ferris wheel was when I was very young.
In those days, ferris wheels did not have gondolas enclosed in cages as they do now, nor windows or doors of any kind.
When my mother, sister and I climbed onto the gondola platform, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a picnic bench with a canopy, suspended from a hanging arm.
Everything was open to the elements. You could even see through the floorboards, and between the boards on the seat. This was not so bad when you were at the bottom but, once the gondola got way high on the wheel, seeing through those boards was scary.
This particular ferris wheel had been described as the largest in the southern hemisphere at the time. As it climbed to breezy heights, the only safety precaution was a thin metal bar closing the ‘gate.’ If you saw that contraption today, safety issues would come to mind. A child could easily fall through the space under the bar. It was a visual barrier, only.
Otherwise, the only warning we were given was to ‘remain seated’ and ‘don’t rock the gondola.’
Tell that to my mother and sister, who thought that ‘rocking the gondola’ was the most exciting fun to be had.
Way up high over our city, with breezy views for miles, and sitting on a picnic bench in the air, my mother and sister blew loud gales of laughter as they swung our gondola about as much as they possibly could.
My knuckles were absolutely white from hanging on, and if I hadn’t been so young at the time I’m sure my stiffened muscles would have been aching by the time I got off.
I really thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to fall off that flimsy bit of wood and splat to the ground.
I must have been completely ashen, but my mother and sister thought that my reactions were so funny they kept going the whole time we were on the thing – and we spent a very long time on the thing, way at the top of the wheel, (while the operator was obviously having a cup of tea in his safe cubicle on the ground…)
By the time I got off the ferris wheel, you could never get me back on one of them again. (I thought).
I refused every offer thereafter, year after year. By that time, I was also extremely afraid of heights. (Not to wonder, really).
When my own children grew old enough to attend the city shows, it was my husband who took them on the ferris wheel. I would proclaim that someone had to stay on the ground to look after the picnic bag, and I even took a small fold up stool to sit on while I waited through the event.
For them, going on the ferris wheel was a regular part of going to the city show. By the time they were going on the ferris wheel, though, the gondolas had been fully enclosed in cages. But I still could not bring myself to ride in one.
My children grew up and ferris wheels are no longer seen just at city shows or fairgrounds. Now they are sight seeing attractions and we have one installed beside the river in our city.
My daughter thought to surprise me with a treat for my birthday one year and bought the whole family tickets to ride.
How could I say no ? She had already bought the tickets !
So for the first time since I was a little girl, I got into a gondola on a ferris wheel . (The things you do for family…)
This one was fully enclosed in glass – a vestibule with airconditioning and cushy vinyl leather seats. But as soon as it swung away from the ground my heart started zooming and I felt the blood drain from my face.
I struggled to keep my eyes open, but I just couldn’t. They kept shutting their lids and I really had little control over them.
I prided myself on self-discipline, but no matter how many times I tried to open my lids to please my daughter by taking in the view, the dizzying height just got to me and they shut down.
I did get to see the city, in glimpses – but it was nothing like ‘taking in the view.’
The rest of my family laughed off the experience. They had a wonderful time, laughing and joking while I visibly ‘slept.’ But as the guest of honor for the trip it was obvious that I did not do the event justice. The length of time I was affected showed clearly how distressed I was, and that left a bad aftertaste by the time they all got off.
My daughter was the most affected. She was very upset that I wasted her gift by keeping my eyes shut almost every second of the trip. No explanation was enough.
I had never really told my children about my childhood experience with the ferris wheel, or how it had affected me, because I didn’t want my fears to rub off on them. I wanted them to have the same fun going on ferris wheels that my mother and sister had had – though I did always tell them not to rock the gondola.
So my daughter really didn’t know that there was anything wrong with her gift. All she had memories of was how much pleasure I got from seeing them going on the ferris wheel each year at the city show. She didn’t know that my pleasure was in knowing that my children were braver than I was, and that they were able to experience things I felt unable to experience.
No matter how close we get to others, we don’t always know their full stories. There are many reasons why people keep certain events secret from others.
And not all experiences can be therapised and got over. Sometimes, scars remain that will always be a sharp reminder of fear and terror, and less salubrious moments.
Talking about such bad experiences is not always good if you can’t find a way to manage them. Sometimes the best option is to just put them away and hope the dark shelf they sit on will never be found.
Such things can be like grief. Even years after you thought you had learned to cope without the people or things you lost, a tiny memory can trigger the grief of their loss, as if it was yesterday. All you can do with such feelings is move with them and through them.
You can face such feelings as often as you like, but they will never be completely numbed. When they come up again, the emotions attached are as powerful as if the events are ‘now’.
Bad experiences are really a form of grief, too. What remains is a sense of loss.
When I got on the ferris wheel as a child, I lost my sense of security. I lost my trust in the people who were close to me to really care for me and keep me safe. I felt that the only person I could fully trust with my life was myself, thereafter. And that, too, was a loss, because it caused a disconnect in the core of my relationships. No matter how close I got to people, they could always sense a part of me that was held back.
I have conquered my fear of heights enough to fly in an airplane, now – to stand at a mountain outlook to take in the view, and to cross a footbridge over a freeway – but I still cannot bring myself to enter a ferris wheel gondola again.
I did my best for that now past birthday event, but never again… I know my limits. And that is one of them.
My daughter got that message, too.