When we were growing up, my younger brother and I fought a lot, with our fists and with our feet. I’m not sure why, but we just did. Maybe we were following the harsh example of our dad, whose understanding of discipline involved using his belt. No explanation was ever given, just an order to turn around, drop your underwear and lay down on the bed. I got the belt a lot. I don’t remember my mom ever hitting me. Her understanding of discipline was to send me to my room and tell me to wait there until my dad got home. I don’t know if being hit with a belt taught me to be good, only that I learned to hate the sound of my dad walking through the door.
My fist-fighting eventually extended past my immediate family, which I guess was bound to happen. One day my two brothers and I were getting to know our new friends down the street. Laurie and her family had recently moved to the neighborhood, and I don’t know why, but Laurie and I got into a fight. I remember hitting her in the face, sending her eye glasses flying through the air. It didn’t take long for Laurie’s mom to meet my mom, and I was marched back to the scene of the crime to locate the missing glasses. It took a while, but they were eventually found, dangling from a branch in a near-by tree.
I got mine, though, a few years later. One dark day while I was doing time in junior high school, I must have said something bitchy to one of the mean girls, because after school her older sister beat me up. I never even saw it coming. I was just told that someone wanted to talk to me across the street from the school, and so I went. There was a group of teenagers standing around, and when I approached them they parted and out stepped Cherie, a tough girl who wore lots of heavy make-up and big rings on her fingers. She walked right up to me and said, “Sorry to do this to you” and that was it. I tried to fight back, but she was on me and my ass was kicked. I was beyond hurt and humiliated. Later that night, I remember trying to eat my dinner, which consisted of a fried hamburger patty and fried potatoes with ketchup. The ketchup stung the cuts in my mouth and I was miserable. Cherie called me and told me how sorry she was, not for beating me up, but because she had forgotten to take off her rings.
One summer when I was a kid our family took a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. I don’t remember too much about the long drive from our home in the San Fernando Valley, only that we were all packed into our station wagon, and there was a little camping trailer hitched to the back of it.
When we finally made it to the park we stopped along the road, excited and scared as big bears came right up to our car, looking for food. We staked our claim in a wooded campground, surrounded by other families doing the same. There was a dirt walkway down the middle of the camp, leading to the restrooms at the far end. Every evening the air was filled with the smell of dozens of campfires, including ours, where we would sit together under the stars and roast marshmallows.
One night as we were getting ready to turn in, the park ranger announced that a bear was just spotted near the campground. He instructed us to make sure all of our food was put away, to get inside as quickly as possible, and to stay put. My family rushed to the safety of our camper, all except my mom, who was in the restroom. I remember frantically looking out the little window and feeling so relieved when I finally saw her. She was walking toward us, seemingly unaware that her life was in danger, carrying her big, plastic make-up case. I don’t remember if she had curlers in her hair, only that her face was covered with white cold cream, part of her nightly beauty ritual. My two brothers and I screamed from the windows for her to hurry, and when she made it inside, we told her the harrowing tale of her close call with the deadly bear. After all the excitement, it took us quite a while to calm down and settle in for the night. I’m not sure what the sleeping situation was in that tiny camper, but I’m sure it must have been crowded, what with my mom’s cold cream and all.
Years later, my mom shared with me a re-occurring nightmare of hers. In it she was running away from a killer bear. The bear was right on her heels, and whenever she got to what she thought was the safety of a house, the door was always locked and she couldn’t get in.
I knew that eventually I would write about my childhood. I needed to. I had carried around with me so many painful memories. They were always there, just below the surface. I could call on them whenever I needed to explain to myself why I felt or acted a certain way. They were my story. My sad story. But they scared me, too. So I kept putting it off, until one morning I woke up with a title for my story. A way in. A place to start.
As I knew would happen, once I began writing I was immediately flooded with memory after sad memory. They came pouring out of me, through stinging eyes and an aching heart. I had no idea where it would lead, or if I would ever share the words with anyone. But it didn’t matter. I was getting it out. I was telling my story. Every night I would read what had spilled out of me, and I would burst into tears. I broke my own heart every day.
After about a week, another memory came to me. It was about a road trip I had taken with my family when I was really young. I hadn’t thought about that trip since… since we took it. So I wrote about it, sure that its sadness would reveal itself to me. But it didn’t. There was no sadness in that memory. Only happiness. What? Where did that come from? My memories, my stories of my childhood, had never been happy. And this memory had no place next to all the others. It didn’t belong.
I stopped writing for a few days. I was exhausted and confused. I couldn’t include a happy memory in my tale. It would feel like I was betraying my wounded child. Or could I? The next day I remembered another happy story. So I wrote about that. And then another. It was like they had all been hiding under the sad memories, just waiting for a way out. So I let them all live together on the same page. And suddenly the tone of my story, of my childhood, changed. Yes, it still included a lot of bad stuff, but there was also a lot of good stuff, too. So I invited it all in, and my writing expanded. It felt more complete. I felt more complete.