Category Archives: childhood

1962

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It happened a long, long time ago. But it is also happening this very minute, like time travel. And I cannot make it stop.

I am 8 years old.

I smell the bacon as I pull on my dress.

I hate this dress. It’s ugly and it leaves scratches on my side. But she likes it.

I go into the kitchen. She is angry. I must have done something wrong. But I’m afraid to say anything.

She makes us eat breakfast every morning. I am queasy in the mornings and I hate breakfast. But she is a good mother and we are lucky. She wasn’t so lucky. She won’t talk about her childhood. She says it makes her sad.

She turns the eggs in the skillet. One of the yolks breaks. She sets down three perfect eggs, one for her, one for my brother and one for my father. She gives me the broken one. Now I know I have done something wrong.

My father comes to the table. He is angry, too. He and my mother don’t look at each other.

My brother doesn’t notice that anything is wrong. She speaks tenderly to him. He is the best thing in her life. I am just there to help with the housework. I wish I knew what made the difference.

So I ask her. She stammers and I never really get an answer. It’s a question I will ask her again when I am older.

“I was always afraid that you would be smarter than me,” she will say. “But I realized that since I am older than you, I will always know more than you.”

She doesn’t love me because I am smart? What do I do about that? I thought I was supposed to be smart. They fuss at me when I don’t make all A’s, even though they are happy with my brother’s B’s and C’s.

I already know I am not pretty. She is always telling me how pretty my friends are. She tells them how nice they look and she laughs with them. I wish she would laugh with me like that. But I am a disappointment.

I think if I were not around my parents would be happy. My brother is their true child. I wonder if I was adopted. That would explain why they don’t like me.

Maybe I can smother myself. I crawl into bed and put a pillow over my face. But I can’t do it. The air feels so good when I breathe it in. I would hate to die by drowning.

My mother comes into the room. “What are you doing in bed? Get up. You’re burning up.” My hair is wet from sweat. She thinks I went to bed because I am lazy.

She tells me to fold the laundry. I don’t know why she gives me this chore. I never do it right and she always complains. I’d rather be outdoors with the other children. But after this she is going shopping and I have to go with her. Dad is watching the game on TV and I will bother him. My brother gets to stay home and play outside. I do not understand this.

I hate shopping. It is boring. The store smells bad. But she loves it. I walk between the racks of clothing. I like the way the fabric feels. If I squeeze myself into the middle of a bunch of dresses it feels like a hug. Someone tells me to stop and behave myself.

My head hurts and I am tired. I just want to go home. But I don’t even know where home is anymore.

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mindvideo

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I’m so distracted I lost a shirt and my cup of coffee between the kitchen and the living room. I started a home project and couldn’t focus on what I was doing. So I’m just going to write it out.

My mother is dying. Conversations with family members invariably turn to memories of her.

Mine seem to be different from everyone else’s.

Utter one of her several bynames, and mindvideo from my vast collection queues up, my mother’s face distorted in anger, spewing criticism and humiliation.

This morning I am trying to see if I can edit those old tapes. I’ve never done this before and I can only make a start. But I figure anything I try can only make things better. And I have to trust the process.

Someone posts a photo of Mom on Facebook, remembering her with tenderness.

I see a woman about to explode with rage.

I step into the photo. Mom holds it together until she and I are alone. Then I will witness a barrage of frustration and vitriol. Granted, it’s not all about me. Maybe none of it is about me. But it will wound and deplete me all the same.

I’m trolling my mind for times when she and I laughed together. Those are the easiest ones to find. And the one that shows up is 50 years old. As other loves entered my life and vied for my attention, the laughter began to die. But in 1969, I was her best friend.

My father was 6 feet tall. Mom was 5’4″. When Dad was happy he’d come into the kitchen, where she and I were preparing supper. He’d hug her and then lift her straight up off the floor. He’d bounce her in his arms and she’d complain that he was hurting her boobies. But they’d both be laughing and I would be, too.

Mom loved to laugh and laughed easily, as did my father, when they weren’t fighting, which was often. When the two of them were laughing together, I knew my brother and I could relax for a few hours and they would be sweet to us and to each other.

Today I will play this mindvideo over and over to see if I can find footage before and after it, to look for details, like the pan of potatoes I was peeling or the dishes she was washing in the sink of our tiny kitchen. I will remember that I went to pick okra from the garden, washing and slicing it, dredging it in cornmeal and frying it in a cast iron skillet.

My mother is happy because I am helping her and I am good company and we are going to have a fine meal very soon.

As I write this, I’m aware that my palms are sweating and my heart is racing. I really don’t want to dig this deep. My friend, pain, is a festering abscess and I’d rather run in the other direction. But the only way to heal is to open the wound. And I’d rather face pain than live with bad memories.

It was only in the last couple of years that this type of abuse had witnesses. By then it was dismissed as a symptom of her dementia. No one believed me when I complained because she was consistently charming and kind to others. By the time I was 8 I was convinced I was just not worth loving.

What I do know is that hurt people hurt people and my mom’s story is full of pain. And through our family’s generations we have changed that trajectory. My grandson is proof of that.

This is limbic memory and no amount of positive thinking is going to change it. So I’m just letting the truth emerge as it will. And when it shows up, it looks like confusion, pain, anger, distraction, depression.

So I write. If the gods are with me, the stories emerge. I’m trying not to judge them as they do. What’s new for me is it no longer matters if anyone believes them. I know what happened.

My goal here is to tell my truth as I know it and to encourage others to tell theirs. It serves me nothing to perpetuate the myths of my family. If I do, I will never heal. And maybe through my healing, others will as well.

In one of my last conversations with my mother, I lay all my cards on the table. I like to think that I made amends to her but the only thing I remember is her saying, “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

That’s what this is all about. I’m sure gonna try.

elijah

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One of my best friends turned 13 today. He also happens to be my grandson.

I once said to him, “We have the best conversations.”

“We DO!” he agreed, grinning.

Yesterday we discussed the fine points of finding a clean restroom while on the road. I explained how I manage to avoid touching the seat and he told me about a retail chain where the facilities are always pristine.

“Do you realize,” he said, “that we just had a 30-minute conversation about toilets? And that we didn’t say anything disgusting or offensive?”

We marveled at that, as we frequently do when our queries and conjectures take us deep into the mysteries of the universe.

I called his phone this morning and sang “Happy Birthday” in a voicemail. He called me back to give me times and directions for the day.

The last thing he said to me was, “I can’t wait to see you.”

I feel like I’m the one having a birthday.

Happy day, beautiful boy.

little girls

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I am getting a pedicure. The technician has lulled me into a stupor with her gentle, rhythmic foot massage.

Nearby, two little girls are chanting one of those pat-a-cake rhymes that every generation has had since there were little girls.

My version had something to do with a cookie jar.

As I watch them I remember my own daughter, giggling with her friends about nothing. And a single tear escapes from each eye.

This seems awkward in a nail salon and I discreetly brush them aside. And smile.

Little girls.

Bill

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Bill

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. ~ I John 4:18.

In J school we were taught not to bury the lead. But this is my blog and I can do what I want to because I am a grownup.

I remember a sermon decades ago; the minister was saying that John was the Love Apostle and in his gospel account of Jesus’ life, John was just getting warmed up.

The intro in my Bible to I John says his gospel and three books were all written around the same time and that II John was written to a Chosen Lady, who may have been a person or who may have been the Church.

Times were tough and there was a lot of double-speak in the fellowship because, well, you could get killed just for knowing who Jesus was.

So when in I John 2:10 he says, “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light,” he was probably talking about the disciples, but for me this verse is about the other child of my parents, Bill.

He was named for my dad’s dad, William, and for my dad’s favorite ball player, Stan Musial. He showed up in our family a week before Christmas on December 17. His birthday was like the pre-party for Santa. I’m trying to remember if Bill ever had a gift that wasn’t wrapped in red or green.

I was not yet 2 when Bill was placed in the car seat (yes, we had them then) next to me in the back of our ’53 Plymouth. I wasn’t sure what he was or why he was there, and I promptly smacked him on the head.

What ensued was a lot of yelling and crying from the front seat of the car. I have been viewed with suspicion and alarm by my parents ever since, and rightly so.

Bill and I haven’t been a big part of each other’s life for the last 30+ years. We’ve made up for it over the past three weeks, I think.

What has been remarkable has been our ability to work in tandem. On July 21 and 22 when my dad and mom respectively went to the ER, we chose to trust each other, in spite of what we’d been repeatedly told was the truth about us.

For myself, I sent up a short prayer right about then to God, asking Him to please help me to keep my gnarly ego quiet. If I could play nice, that most certainly would attest to the power of prayer.

I tell folks (when I can remember to do so) that in every tragedy lies a blessing. We may not see where the blessing falls, but if you’re lucky you can get some on your shoes.

So my blessing today is that I know Bill has my back. I hope he knows that I have his. I love him. And I am in the Light.

lovebirds

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Last night my daughter called. There doesn’t seem to be a flat rock in the middle of our lives where we can just sit in the sun and be still for a while.

“It’s an icky place to be,” I said.

“It’s icky,” she replied.

I woke this morning with a familiar flutter in my chest, about two degrees of stress away from a panic attack. It sort of feels like too much caffeine, only I haven’t had any yet.

Last Sunday afternoon my brother called. Mom was afraid and had called the police. Dad was angry and combative.  About six hours later he was admitted to a hospital room.

On Monday Dad’s nurse called me to come get Mom. About five hours later she was admitted to a room around the corner from Dad.

They both have some form of dementia. It doesn’t matter which kind, they’re impaired. Their bodies have outlived their minds and that just doesn’t seem fair.

On Wednesday I went to their house to remove anything that burglars might want and to bag up what might need laundering. I filled the hatch of my car with boxes of files, anything that looked like an important document. I left the four leaf bags full of laundry on the living room floor. I put two leaf bags full of ruined bedding in the trash.

On Thursday I went back and removed boxes of photos, more documents, stacks of mail, folios of papers: my dad’s military records, my mom’s notebooks.

I went home and began looking for the money. A memory care facility for both of them is going to be expensive.

By Saturday afternoon I had it all sorted. I had discarded enough paper to fill the garbage cart: junk mail, magazines, empty envelopes. Mom’s carefully collected recipes are on the kitchen table. Boxes of cancelled checks and insurance policies and medical records litter the living room floor.

My parents never owned a computer. My dad has an Underwood typewriter that uses a ribbon. Among his stuff I found a box of typewriter erasers and brushes and several packs of carbon paper.

As I type this I am thinking that some of my readers will not know what these things are, and I can feel them Googling now.

st.francis

Grammy & Grampy are both patients in the hospital. Both have dementia. She doesn’t remember why they are there, and she keeps trying to take him home. Doc says they are trying to keep the #lovebirds together. ❤️

“Have they ever been apart?” my brother asked.

“In the ’60s Dad went on active duty for two weeks,” I replied.

I took my parents some clothing during visiting hours. They were sitting in the hall with another patient, in chairs lined against the wall across from the nurses’ station.

Mom now talks of nothing else but caring for Dad. His welfare is her only need.

She asked me to help her find a place for them to live. When she began to weep, I cradled her. She rested her head on my shoulder like a little girl and quieted. Her body felt like delicate glass that might shatter at any second.

Gently prodding Dad awake, she said, “Look who’s here.”

Dad slowly brought me into focus and smiled. He was too groggy to speak, but he winked at me. To this day it thrills me when he does that.

Mom rose from her chair to wipe his lips with a corner of his blanket. She smoothed his hair and kissed him on the mouth.

“We want to keep the lovebirds together,” their doctor said.

Yes. As long as we can. #lovebirds

tribute

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You sleep on the sofa because you put the sheets in the dryer this morning before work.  Tonight you’re too tired to put them back on the bed.

You go to work with bronchitis because you used all your sick days nursing your kid through his cold.

You went to your kid’s soccer game last night instead of going to the grocery store.

So you’re drinking your coffee black this morning because you gave the rest of the milk to your kid at breakfast.

There’s a 33% chance that you spend more than half of your paycheck on rent.

You pay on average a third of your income on child care. In New York, Minnesota and Massachusetts, if your child is 3 or under, it’s more than half.

This is because you’re paid less than single dads or married men with the same education. If you were paid fairly, your income would increase by 17 percent and your poverty rate would fall by half.

You’re a single mom.

Some folks say, well, you’d be making more money if you’d opted not to have a child.

Some of these same folks want to limit your birth control options.

It’s tough for you. But your love, unlike money, can buy happiness, and it comes to you through hugs and butterfly kisses and nite-nite prayers.

I’m proud of you.

Permanent

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I am not a boy.

I have straight, dark hair.

I am four.  My best friend is beautiful. And I am not.

She makes me sit in a chair.
She pulls my hair and twists it around tiny plastic things.
I like to play with the little sheets of tissue paper.

Sit still, she says.
Here, you can hand these to me, one at a time.

I feel important.  I am helping her.

I don’t like the cold dripping down my neck.
I don’t like the smell.
It’s hard for me to breathe.

But she looks determined and certain.  This will make you beautiful, she says.

The plastic things are sticking into my head.
I want to scratch but she says no.
Just a little longer and you will be beautiful.

I want to be beautiful.  Then she will love me.

She pulls a chair to the sink and pushes my head under the faucet.
The water is warm and feels so good I want to stay there forever.

But I have to be neutralized first.

I am wet and cold and the skin of my head feels like a blister.
But she squirts the neutralizer onto my head.
We’re almost done, she says.

The sun is shining.  I can see the lawn through the glass door.
My friend comes to the door.  She is beautiful.

But I cannot go outside.

I am not beautiful yet.

a southern girl’s rebellion

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I feel left out.  I feel like I have to compromise who and what I am to play their game (join, join, join, no matter what the outcome). I prefer to maintain my autonomy and let my gestures be from me and not from an amorphous political group. But I feel left out.

So I’m looking at WHY I feel left out.  I’ve never been a part of that group. Never.  I’ve been wooed and solicited by them as individuals, and even by women who are not a part of the group. I suppose I took some sort of proprietary interest in the group through others.  But I am no more a part of this group of women than I am a part of my mother’s church.

So there must be a part of me that WANTS to be a part of them.  And that stuff goes back to junior high! when I was the weirdo on the outside, the girl with the strange pantyhose, too tall, too homely, too moody and too foreign to fit in with the cheerleaders, the popular girls, the ones who were always at the top of all the lists.

But such is the incubation of the artist, I think. Even then I was ahead of the curve and not afraid to express what I saw coming, in spite of the guffaws and the naysayers.  When trends eventually emerged and they remembered that I was wearing those strange hose a year ahead of them all, they looked at me with something that looked like fear.  I didn’t like that part of it, but they began to treat me differently.  They began to ask my opinion of things, and when I answered they listened.

I suppose it all comes down to trusting my instincts, believing my inner voice, the body of work I’ve done around romances gone wrong, when my instincts were derailed and my voice was silenced.  That guidance is just as strong as it ever was.  But as an addict, I constantly look for affirmation from other sources: people, food, sex, drugs, etc.

So the incubation continues.  As the Big Book says, it’s a lifetime pursuit.

There for the Taking

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Jones Orchard is just a nice drive into the country since they put Highway 385 into place. We, my daughter and I, had dragged her son along that afternoon to pick peaches with us. Elijah is a child of video games and books and the occasional jigsaw puzzle.  He wondered, as I would have at his age, why we were going to pick peaches when we could have bought some at the store and been back home in less than 30 minutes.

We prepared admirably for the excursion:  insect repellent, gardening gloves, a large Thermos full of ice water and plastic cups. Rachel slathered Elijah with sunscreen and I brought along a long-sleeved shirt just in case I was overwhelmed by sun, insects, peach fuzz or the outside chance of a cooling breeze.

What ensued was a memory in the making, the stuff of family folklore.  We had picked the hottest day of the season so far, and had gone out in the hottest part of the day. The Thermos had overturned en route and all our ice water was in the floor of my car. And somehow we’d managed to pick twice as many peaches as we could afford to take home. The guy in charge agreed to keep the ones we didn’t want. It seemed like he was getting a great deal. They were the prettiest peaches we could find among 50 trees.

We brought home 30 pounds of peaches. We’d eaten many, given away many more. Now we were down to the last bowlful, past their peak and facing a moldy demise without prompt attention.

During a summer of feast and famine we were solidly in the famine part. Pennies were scarce in the household, dollars even scarcer. We had slowly, slowly stopped treating ourselves to fountain Cokes and frozen custard.  We were trying to satisfy those cravings with PB&J and cereal.

The pantry was full of odds and ends that seemed mostly unrelated.  There was a Mason jar with a handful of old-fashioned oats, not enough for a decent bowl of oatmeal.  Some freakish sense of frugality had ensured the survival of a tablespoonful of butter-flavored Crisco. It was flanked by half a pound of flour, some sugar and some pancake mix.

While looking through the freezer for hope one hungry afternoon, I noticed a bag I’d stashed the summer before. It was a quart of wild blackberries.

Before moving in with my daughter, I lived near the University in a sweet old neighborhood.  During work breaks I’d walk to school and back to stretch my legs. I was keeping an eye on a clump of wild blackberry bushes growing at the edge of a campus parking lot.  One day when the mood was right I drove over to see them.

I stepped into the blistering sun wearing a dress shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and a baseball cap. I ignored the stares of passersby and picked as fast as I could, dark berries that bruised easily and bled purple onto my gloves. By the time I was dizzy from the heat I had a pailful, which I washed and promptly froze, forgetting all about them. And here they were, remembered on a day when I needed to remember them.

Cobbler takes hardly anything at all to be a wonderful dessert.  And we had plenty of hardly anything at all. But we also had hand-picked peaches, just waiting in the bowl, and wild blackberries.

In our refrigerator, amid two dozen jars of pickled and preserved things, I spotted a lonely pat of real butter.  And we had milk.  Thank God, we still had milk, for cereal and for coffee and today, for cobbler.

I set a pot of water to boiling so I could blanch the peaches, and filled the sink with ice water. I examined each peach for doubt. I melted the Crisco with the butter, and poured it over the oats. I tossed in enough flour to make a pea-sized meal. I padded this out with pancake mix and stirred in milk until I had a nice-sized ball of dough. Flattened out between two sheets of waxed paper it yielded a generous top crust.

I diced up the fresh peaches and sprinkled them with sugar, then added the frozen berries and added sugar to them as well. Something reminded me to throw in a little flour for thickening. This pile of fruit, shiny with its own syrup,  completely filled my old Corning casserole. The crust went on and curled up on the sides, almost running over the edge.

It seemed like a celebration sliding that cobbler into a hot oven. I reasoned that no matter what I did, I couldn’t have messed up such spontaneous bounty.  And cobbler is very forgiving, as long as you add enough sugar and don’t let the thing burn.

And so we were forgiven. The crust was perfect, rustic and crunchy, the berries and peaches singing with juice and sunshine. I may never make another such perfect dessert, because I may never again be so broke and bent toward improvisation. But I hope I remember that I was able to find everything I needed and more — it was all right there for the taking.

©27 July 2010 Stormy Bailey