Tag Archives: Childhood

It Took a Village

When I worked up the strength to tell Emilee that her dad died, she didn’t believe me. She still pictured him in the hospital, like he had been so many times before. Only this time he wasn’t coming home. I knew I had to somehow convince her that he was gone, but how? I closed my eyes and silently asked for divine assistance.

Before I knew what I was doing I picked up the phone and called the mortuary. It was after hours, I knew, and a long shot, but someone answered the phone. In a shaky voice I asked if we could come by. The man on the other end of the line said yes, of course. And because he did, Em was able to say good-bye to her dad that day, and kiss his cold brow. I will always be thankful for that.

And so began our lives without Jerry.

For twenty nine years it’s been that way. I’ve been Emilee’s mom and dad since she was five years old. And now she’s engaged to be married, and I will be the one walking her down the aisle. Unexpectedly, this has stirred up some deep-down pain that is coming to the surface in the form of nostalgia and hot, heavy tears.

I doubt any of us are strangers to having a life event bring up sadness. It doesn’t even have to be big or important. Loss is loss, after all. Maybe it’s nature’s way of opening our wounded heart to release a little pressure now and then. And that’s a good thing. Once it passes we can let out a long, deep breath.

I’ve been remembering the times when being the only parent was the hardest, when those big moments were right in front of me and I needed so desperately to share the weight of them with someone. So I did. I reached out for help, sometimes without even realizing it. Our warm community here in Northern California welcomed us and helped me raise my girl, and really, myself.

My first big solo decision was whether or not to move back to the big city where our families were. Emilee was to start kindergarten soon and I needed to figure it out fast. I thought back to when my parents got divorced, and how my mom had chosen to keep her three kids in the same schools, where we at least had friends and a history. I knew I wanted that for Em. I wanted her to make life-long friendships.

So we stayed. And I’m so glad that we did.

We both met new friends who grew with us and are still a big part of our lives. Em met her best friend while in kindergarten, the one who will now be one of her bridesmaids. And I met wise and beautiful women who have become like sisters to me, and whose friendships mean everything.

That first year without Jerry we faced so many milestones. Emilee’s first day of school, bittersweet birthdays and some lonely holidays. Where was he? I needed him here to help me learn to live without him. I filled up dozens of journals and wrote poetry and cried every day in the shower. It took a long time to believe that when one of us got sick it didn’t automatically mean death.

I didn’t know any other widows, so I contacted our local Hospice. They were just starting a new kids program so Em joined it. Their caring staff gave traumatized little ones a way to express their feelings through rituals and art and sharing. I joined a bereavement group and shared with others in our deep grieving.

Slowly we healed. The people we were meant to know came into our lives.

One of our new friends belonged to a babysitting co-op and invited us to join. The group began with trusted friends who traded babysitting time with each other. We are still close friends with many of those families we met through the babysitting co-op. I was able to finish college and Emilee spent time around families with siblings and dads, many of whom will be at her wedding.

Mother’s Day that first year was hard. Before, Em and her dad loved doing crafts together and always made homemade cards and sweet gifts. So a few days before Mother’s Day I called our little gift shop in town and spoke with the owner and told her our story. I remember sitting in our car in front of that shop, watching as the owner greeted Em at the door and together they picked out little gifts for me.

Music became a way for Emilee to express her emotions. Someone had left an ancient upright piano in the home we rented when we first moved north, and Em loved playing it. I could just feel the sadness and melancholy in her music.

Emilee’s childhood years went by. There were dances at granges and pot lucks in homes. We went on hikes in the redwoods and swam in the rivers. Autumn brought apple harvest festivals and high school football games. I wished so many times that I had a partner to share it all with.

I made some mistakes.

We grew up together, Em and I, and I didn’t always recognize or enforce parental boundaries. We were a team. I remember meeting with one of her grade-school teachers. He wanted to help me find ways to motivate Em to get her homework done. He suggested a reward system, like maybe a special treat of going to the movies once a month with each improvement. Huh? If he only knew that we went to the movies just about every week, good grades or bad, I might have been sent to the corner wearing a dunce cap.

I was struggling, just then, to find meaning in the little things when I had my hands full with the big ones. Why did it matter? It could all change in an instant, so why trust the future? It’s taken me a long time to believe that I can let someone new into my life, into my heart, and that if it doesn’t work out I’ll survive the loss. To be honest, I’m still struggling with that one.

I was often selfish with my time. I needed to be alone to process and recharge. Those around me didn’t always understand why I sometimes withdrew. How could they? I’m an introvert by nature anyway, so when a new wave of grief washed over me, I wanted to close up shop and nest until I felt okay again. That still happens.

I encouraged Emilee to speak her mind, to become a strong and caring woman who could make her way in the world. And she has. So this day is good. My daughter is raised, and it took a village to do it. She is marrying the man of her dreams, the one who had first called me to ask for her hand in marriage. They are a team. And now I can make plans for my own future, and maybe, just possibly, begin to let out that long, deep breath.

IMG_20140812_0004


Curiosities of Childhood – Part 1

When I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, it seemed like every house in our neighborhood had kids. During the summer, my two brothers and I spent most of our days outdoors. We hardly ever wore shoes, and we’d take off on our bikes and be gone all day, exploring and playing. We would ditch our bikes on front lawns and build forts in backyards and just hang out.

Looking back, it seems like we had way too much freedom for little kids, and maybe we did. But we always knew that if we crossed a line, and if our dad found out, we’d be in big trouble. Our mom was easier. Nicer.

I know she never told our dad about the time we started a fire in our “way backyard.” A concrete wall separated our regular backyard, with its healthy lawn, big shade tree and little patio area, from the smaller yard beyond. The way backyard was dry and held a Jurassic-sized pointed plant that you could sort-of step into.

We didn’t play in the way backyard too often, but once when we did we had some matches, probably stolen from our mom, and started a little fire. I’m sure we must have put it out right away since I don’t remember it becoming a big deal. I guess one of us was wearing shoes that day. Anyway, somehow our mom found out about it. Maybe she saw smoke coming up over the wall. I don’t know.

We had been curious about fire, I think, after hearing about the new boy across the street whose family had to move because he burned down their house. We begged our mom not tell our dad, and she didn’t. But we had to promise not to play with matches again, and we didn’t.

For a while the most popular outdoor game on our block was kick-the-can, which we often played at night. I can’t remember if we used an actual can or where we placed it, but I think it might have been in the middle of the street. Kick-the-can could be both fun and frightening. There were a lot of dark places to hide in our neighborhood, and I remember the anticipation of waiting in the shadows, and then the thrill of running for the can before I was caught. We knew it was time to go home for the night when we heard our dad’s distinctive whistle. I think other dads used their own whistle calls, too.

I remember one summer day my brothers and I barefooted our way to Ralph’s grocery store for our mom. She gave us (well, probably our older brother, Tim) a dollar to buy a loaf of white bread and I think a bottle of milk. The store was close by, just down the alley and across Kingsbury Street.

Once our feet met the scalding blacktop on the parking lot it was every kid for himself. We shouted and screamed as we zigzagged our way from one shade patch to the next, until we finally landed inside the air-conditioned store, our feet practically hissing with relief.

Once we got the goods (including some left-over change), and started to make our way back through the parking lot, I remember coming to a sudden halt in the shade of a particular car. The driver’s door was open, and there was a man sitting in the seat with his legs hanging outside the car. His pants were open and he was touching himself and watching me. I don’t remember how long I stood there, but the look in that man’s eyes stayed with me for a while.

When I was around eight I found out that I had a reputation as the neighborhood bully. Quite a feat for a young girl, I guess. I didn’t do it intentionally, and I was hurt to find out that a girl on our block wasn’t allowed to play with me. I knew I fought a lot, but as it turned out that wasn’t the only thing I did. It seemed that I also had an unusual curiosity about sex. I wasn’t really aware of this, only that I felt uncomfortable around older boys and especially men. But what did I know? It turns out I knew a lot more than an eight-year-old should about such things, and was deeply ashamed when a friend’s father called me a nasty little girl.

My nights were sometimes filled with terrifying images. In the shadows of my bedroom I would sense eyes watching me and ghostly figures moving around. I would pull the covers up over my head, too petrified to move. If I was able to work up the courage, I would take a deep breath, jump out of bed and run to my brothers’ room. Once there, I would climb into Tim’s twin bed with him, where I would eventually stop shaking long enough to fall asleep. I don’t remember if Tim ever woke up, but I always knew that even if he did, he would never kick me out.


Game Changer

One night when we were kids, my younger brother, James, and I were eating banana splits in our parents’ bedroom. We were watching a show on their little television set while sitting on the bed, laughing and eating. At some point James grew quiet, and when I looked over at him I saw that he had fallen back on the bed, his mouth was open, and he had a wild look in his eyes. I think he was also shaking.

I screamed for our parents in the living room, and it seemed like they were there within seconds. My mom told me to run to the kitchen for a glass of water, so I jumped off the bed, and as I was running down the hall I heard her say, “Don’t let him swallow his tongue.”

When I got to the kitchen I was so panicked that I couldn’t find a glass. I don’t know how much time passed, but I finally found one, and with trembling hands filled it with water from the faucet. I started to run back down the hall, trying not to spill the water, but on the way I stopped when I saw that the front door was wide open. My parents were gone and so was James. I don’t know where my older brother, Tim, was during all of this. That’s all I remember about that night.

Life changed for our family after that. James recovered, sort of. My mom said that he had turned blue in the car on the way to the emergency room, but once they got him there he was saved. Thankfully, we lived less than a block from the hospital; just two doors down, through the alley and across San Jose Street.

There was little verbal communication in our family, so I didn’t know at the time if James had choked on a piece of banana or if he had suffered a seizure. In any case, my baby brother was never the same after that night. Over time, he seemed to withdraw into himself, and would often get agitated and angry.

I don’t remember if our parents told Tim and me to be extra nice to James because of what happened to him, or if I noticed that he was now allowed to get away with behavior that in the past would have caused him punishment. But in my little girl mind I must have been jealous and resentful. I probably didn’t care that he was more fragile. He was my bratty little brother, and when he directed his anger at me, I didn’t hesitate to fight back.

Our physical attacks were sometimes vicious, leaving us heaving with exhaustion. If our parents were in the room, we would continue torturing each other behind their backs by using our knuckles, where we would bend our middle finger into a weapon, hold it together in a fist, and then either twist or punch it into a tender arm or thigh. This aggressive behavior continued throughout our childhood, and didn’t stop until we were much older.

I don’t recall ever fighting with Tim. He was more of a protector. I was comforted in knowing that whenever I stumbled, Tim would let me hold onto the back of his shirt to regain my footing. Or more likely, he would sense that his little sister was in trouble and put out a steadying arm. James, as the youngest, always followed behind, forever kicking at the ground or at the back of my ankles. He seemed to live inside a private world that only he knew. I don’t know if he ever tried to hold onto the back of my shirt, but if he had I would have only slapped his hand away, sure that he was just trying to pull my hair.


Building a Childhood

I was the middle child and the only girl. I was sometimes a tomboy, which I had to be if I wanted to play with my brothers. I remember the three of us building little towns out of dirt under the big shade tree in our backyard. Working together, we would spend hours planning and constructing roads with long winding driveways, leading to our estates. Then we would casually move our Matchbox cars around, happily going about our business. I loved the angles on the front of my little car, and how good it looked as it made careful turns around our tidy little town. I was an excellent driver.

I could never convince my brothers to play dolls with me, so I often played by myself. I sewed some clothes by hand and had a little wardrobe with lots of accessories for Barbie and her best friend, Midge. I remember building them a two-storied, colonial-style house out of five cardboard boxes. The fifth box was for the attached garage, which held Barbie’s pink convertible. I cut the garage door out of the end of the box so that her car would fit inside. Their whitewashed mansion had double doors in the front, and symmetrical windows draped with hand-made curtains. I always kept the curtains closed. I used to sit in front of that little house and stare at those windows, pretending that it was cold and raining outside. I saw soft lamps glowing in each room, making the space warm and cozy. I imagined a happy, loving family living there.


What Goes Around

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.


Camping

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.


The Journey’s the Thing

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.