Category Archives: Childhood

Mother Arranged Marriages

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I met Brian Gillespie in grade two. We were both short and loved to imagine, talk, and write. He wore coke bottle glasses.

After grade two, my family moved, but my mother never forgot Brian Gillespie.

“He’s okay,” she’d say if I told her in high school that I liked someone, “but he’s no Brian Gillespie. I’m telling you, Brian Gillespie is the one that will make you happy. Your brother, by the way, is marrying Lizzie Burdick.”

Lizzie Burdick is too little, I tried to point out.

“Now she is, but she’s the perfect girl for him. She used to help me clean the house for fun while you guys were out playing. I like her. I know what I’m talking about. A mother knows these things.”

Fast forward to now and I’ve almost narrowed the search:

I chose Boy one’s wife at a Christmas concert. She sings like an angel. Plenty of power but nothing grates.  She performed at the talent show with another girl and a boy who can’t talk but loves music. And she has short hair. Do you know how many normal looking girls wear their hair short these days? That’s right, almost none. Girls are born, walk into factories, assimilate to as many uniform qualities as possible and walk out. The ideal model is disturbingly free of any kind of original thought or impulse and almost always has long hair. I don’t need to meet this girl to be sure; she has a heart and she thinks. What else is there?

Boy two is a little trickier. My top choice is cheerful, silly,  kind, and friendly to kids and adults alike. Having never done sports, she ended up on a team by default and did crazy things like ask questions, try again when she messed up, and accept advice. She is a big time team player in every sense of the word. And like I said, she is quite silly.

I met Girl one’s future husband at her second birthday party. Other children arrived with the usual gift bags assembled by mom. Husband 2B had done it himself. In fact, in addition to some fancy markers, he had drawn crooked lines on a lot of pages, stapled them together, and drawn a cover that said, “Girl One’s Journal.” I knew you liked to write, he said. The last present was the story of a miller. It was a favorite of his so he had carefully copied the words of the entire story out and added his own illustrations. His father said he spent hours.

Girl two is not yet seven. I remind myself that we still have time. The best candidate has major focus issues and wears rubber boots to gym class, but I’ve got one of those already; they’re not so bad. Candidate runs fast, tries hard, and isn’t the least bit intimidated by Girl two trying to yell him down on the playing field. His birthday request is what rocketed him to the top of the list.  He’s in love with WWII planes. His mother suggested a book about them, and I began to hear the bells ringing.

The truth is, I am happily married to someone other than Brian Gillespie. I don’t even know what became of him. What I can say is that as a mother now, knowing what I know, if God forbid anything were to happen to my husband, before I’d go posting on personals and checking the local availabilities, I’d first figure out what exactly the status was on my good friend from grade two, Brian Gillespie.

Not alone

compliments of Kenia from morguefile.com

compliments of Kenia from morguefile.com

We are not alone. None of us are. We’re stumbling in the dark trying to figure out how to be it or do it. Hold on to it or let go of it. Sometimes we don’t even know what it is –  except we’re sure that everyone else does.

Voices whisper that there is no one like us. No one would understand. We are lonely and afraid to be ourselves. We live expecting someone to come through the door and tell us we’re not doing it right.

If it’s not we, at least it’s me. My childhood was soaked through with confusion. Life was a puzzle with the box missing and it was never clear which picture we were trying to assemble. I prayed, went to the library often, and wished I knew who to talk to.

As far as I could tell, talking wasn’t what people did. It took years for me to understand that this was because most people assume that they are alone. That they believe their feelings of inadequacy (and all the proofs thereof)  are unique to them alone. Life was, I discovered, a great deal of pretending. Performance and appearance are some of our world’s most sacred values.

I’ve made some new friends who don’t have it all together. They don’t try to hide their struggles. No one has any energy or interest in pretense. My friends are giving me something that I want and without meaning to, I find myself studying them, trying to understand it.

This caught my eye in a paragraph from writer, Heather King talking about what we have to give each other. We have, she says, “our wounds, our holy longing, our groping in the dark.”

What we have to give each other is the truth that we are not alone.  Despair and shame assail, but against the sharing of “our wounds and holy longing,” they are rendered mute by the voice of love.

It’s like we live in ditches, sitting up to our armpits in mud with the garbage of every car that’s gone by squishing up against us. We can see neck and shoulders of the person across the road. We’re equipped with a washcloth, a voice, and a curling iron. Standard etiquette is to keep your face clean, your hair curled, and make frequent reference to the sunshine or the birds.

One day the unthinkable happens. The woman across the way stands up from her stretch of supposedly manicured lawn. The ear rings you’ve admired from afar are the last nice thing about her. Not only is she muddy, she only has one leg. A diaper and a squashed coke can are stuck in the mud on her.

Relief floods you. Tears wash down your face. You are not alone.

In your ditch, there might be diapers and coke cans. In mine, there is a winter’s worth of dog poop, some very frustrated dreams, uninvited levels of emotion over little things, a lot of uncertainty, some recurring unhealed mess that is completely fine until the days it isn’t (which really ticks me off unless it makes me cry), shame, self doubt, and an abiding loneliness. My bounce backer function is also behaving rather erratically these days.

We are not alone. This is the truth that we have to offer each other. These are the words of our gift until the final word which is love.

Brilliance in the becoming

 

saw this happening out the window and got the camera

saw this happening out the window and got the camera

 

Turns out this was the goal. :)

This was the goal.

 

Boy two has a bruise on his head. During our work day he began taking the split logs in his hand as they came off the splitter and tossing them behind him onto the wagon without looking. He stopped after one log flew straight up and came straight back down on his head.

——

Girl one is reading a novel to Girl two as we drive back and forth to school. It’s a mystery with illustrations of art in parks. I tuned in to catch this.

Girl one: It’s crazy, but sometimes in really old art there are sculptures of naked people.

Girl two groans loudly in protest.

Girl one:  I know. It sounds weird, but it’s the way they were learning about the human body. They didn’t know very much so they made sculptures of it so they could learn about it.

Girl two resigned herself to the senselessness of our ancestors with an exhausted, okay.

——

Boy one recently completed a submission for an essay contest. The potential prize money is big. Aided by the whole optimism disorder, he decided to give it a try. I was quiet about the possibilities of winning. For a few months my secret service, reverse psychology skills have been frequently required. Due to stealth constraints about my actual interest in him completing the project, the number of times I could say, “how do you not see your current state of not finished as an emergency!” was limited. The essay was due at 11:59 on a Friday night. Around 11:50, his father asked him where he was supposed to submit the project. He wasn’t sure. Turns out there was a form to fill out. The fact that the project was submitted at precisely 11:59 is something he’s immensely proud of. He sees it as a kind of good luck charm.

——-

Boy two announced that he is kicking Boy one out of the solemn brotherhood. He says he can no longer tolerate someone so obsessed with hygiene. Boy two does not have this problem. Following a thoroughness inquiry from this interested mother after a recent shower, he explained that he had indeed washed everything from the top of his head down to about six inches below his knee.

But why would you stop there? I asked. That means you didn’t even wash your feet.

Who would ever wash their feet, he wanted to know. All the soap from your whole body goes there.

——

There was a knock on my bedroom door recently. Most knockers wait for my invitation then nudge a few inches through the open door to ask their question. This time the knocker closed the door behind them, strode across the room to the other side, and turned to look at me.

I’m almost in tears about everything. Do you know what’s wrong with me?

Becoming Lazarus

La résurrection de Lazare (English titles: "The Resurrection of Lazarus" or "The Raising of Lazarus") by Leon Bonnat, 1857.

La résurrection de Lazare (English titles: “The Resurrection of Lazarus” or “The Raising of Lazarus”) by Leon Bonnat, 1857.

Sometimes when things are not good or safe, you separate yourself into pieces. In hospitals and battlefields, this time honored tradition is known as triage. There are not enough resources to save everyone, so you save those most likely to live. Losses are unfortunate but inevitable.

Growing up and into my twenties, the survival of some of me came at the cost of the rest of me. This has been a source of grief. Not to mention a long and bitter war within myself. (The parts of me scheduled for early demise were not that cooperative with the parts of me giving the orders.) I wasn’t happy about the executions, but then again I didn’t exactly see other options. The ferocity with which some parts tried to live troubled me. I worried that if they did not die, they would spread through my bones like cancer, and then there would be none of me.

I got them before they got me – those other parts of me. But the death bothered me. It might have been the only way I knew to survive, but it wasn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Through the years against my wishes and without planning to, I would find myself like Mary and Martha weeping inconsolable at the tomb.

Engulfed in sorrow, I mourned the loss. But I did not dream of resurrection. In matters of life and death there is no going back. I did not think of Lazarus. Dead is dead. What’s done is done. These are true things which even a child can verify.

At least they were true until yesterday. On a Tuesday after Easter, some irrevocably done things were undone. The dead were invited to live. Love spoke and the parts of me long wrapped in grave clothes and buried were called forth.

I believe in the necessity of risk. I believe in betting on the gamble of love. But sometimes you don’t do anything. You aren’t even hoping terribly hard (on account of being dead and all). From the depths you begin to hear a voice. This is strange because dead people aren’t known for their listening skills, but the sound of your name becomes unmistakable.

It is shocking. So much so that you don’t do anything about it for a very long time. Months. Years. Dead people don’t lie around anticipating change or feeling urgency. (It never crosses your mind to remember that the dead lie waiting to be called forth.) The voice is insistent, beguiling. It dances invisible in the air around your corpse until it seeps into you. Until it is moving through you like blood from the determined heart of a lover. One moment you are resigned to death; the next you cannot lie there another minute agreeing to accept it as a permanent condition.

You rise up not knowing what waits. You find it a surprisingly long walk from where you were lying to the entrance of the tomb. You walk blind, shaking and stumbling because you aren’t dead anymore but you aren’t used to being alive either.

You look, sound, and act like you came from far away because you did. You don’t know for sure how to take off all the chic death wrap but you’re looking forward to it. How much help you’ll need or what you can manage alone you’re not sure. But you don’t care. He’s there. It’s an Easter story. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a resurrection.

Whatever the word on the street, death is not the last act. And resurrection isn’t earned. Resurrection is offered, with it’s power hidden behind such tenderness that it takes your breath away. I know because yesterday, this was me.

For the Story Tellers

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 - 1663)

The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea. Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)

I had naked tea last week. A friend and I talked storytelling (that wasn’t the naked part) and then sitting in a donut shop, we quietly told our own. Naked is better with a tea cup than without, but given one cup of tea and three places requesting coverage, it isn’t easy. If the tea weren’t so hot, the best solution may be to keep the cup moving in a triangular blur, but the thought of burning tea is scary, so you take your chances, keep what you can behind the cup, and trust that your uncovered self can manage an hour of exposure. (The value of a practical imagination for diversion in the midst of emotionally difficult subjects cannot in my mind be underestimated.)

Awake in the night with no tea to consider,  I wondered a question whose answer I have debated for years. Why do we tell our stories?

There are all the noble reasons people say they write . . . to save everybody else, etc. but I take those pronouncements with a grain of salt. They may well be true, but the only thing one can reliably say about preachers is that they preach.

Ten years ago and even five, the desire to tell my story was almost a burning. Then I put the pages in a drawer and gave them a time out. To my surprise, the words took to what I thought would be a brief sabbatical and requested an indefinite one.

Why now, I also asked in the night after my metaphorically nude tea time, do I want to forget my story?

The next morning I wrote a sincere list of reasons in favor of forgetting. It ended with, I don’t. I can’t. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

My desire for written memoir is either dead or deeply dormant, but that isn’t the same thing. I don’t wish to remember out loud very often. But sometimes is good. When the children of Israel escaped safely through the Red Sea, Miriam wrote a song to tell the story. She named the terrors of the past to be present to the joys of her new unfolding reality. Deliverance foresees a future. Telling our stories assumes we were delivered for a purpose.

Writer, Andrew Solomon tells a story of an experience in Senegal where he tried a traditional treatment for depression. At one point of the day long ceremony, he was asked to repeat the following:

Spirits leave me alone to complete the business of my life and know that I will never forget you.

I like that quote. It captures both my reticence towards gazing backwards for too long and my conviction that remembering is a gift. I found the musical celebration below after I’d written about Miriam above, but ending with it helps say what I’m trying to say. We may tell our stories with tears but telling them dares us to dance.

 

 

Defeating Dragons

Slaying Goliath, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1616.

Slaying Goliath, by Peter Paul Rubens. 1616.

Hate is a scary thing. I don’t know if most people are afraid of it, but I am. Hate hangs heavy in dark places like a towel sopping wet on the line. Seemingly like Thompson’s hound of heaven, hate haunts down the narrow back alleys. Waits to find us unawares. Stalks us with intent.

To escape it is no small feat. Victory is rarely won in a single battle. Hatred is a tempting response to hatred. Many of us, therefore, know both sides of the monster rather better than we wished.

Like love, there are lesser forms of hate. One of my children “hates” one of their siblings right now. Most everything said sibling does is cause for disgust. I don’t think child A hates child B. I think they love them but feel so terribly insecure about themselves that they need to put another person down. It isn’t hate yet, but unchecked it has the seeds to grow a bumper crop.

I listened once to a mother explain to me how strongly she felt about violence. She could not tolerate it to the extent that were someone to enter her home, she could not imagine attacking them to protect her children. I, on the other hand, can imagine without any effort attempts to inflict as much bodily harm on said intruder as possible with whatever frying pan, steak knife, or cat was handy. This may reflect primordial instinct and a parent’s duty to protect (I think it does) but in my case at least, even the idea of this kind of danger taps into a rage against threat that is not all good.

Most of us have our own supply of hate. The never ending news feeds  encourage it’s close cousin, terror. In our rising fear we borrow liberally from a great bank of hate. With so much danger all around, hate (like State Farm insurance) is something we can never have too much of.

The following occurred in my presence. I share because it begs the question.

 

A boy not mine. Deeply wounded. Deeply troubled.

A girl. Smaller. Younger. Upset because the boy has called her an idiot.

Me. Sighing. Boy breathes rage. Nothing can be done but this is not the time to say that.

Say something loving, I offer, not at all sure of myself.

The girl hesitates the walks to the boy.

You  hurt my feelings, she said softly.

What? interrupted the boy loudly.

You hurt my feelings, she said. But I forgive you.

Ok, said the boy.

The girl walked away. The boy followed her.

Hey, he said. He tapped her on the shoulder. Hey, what did I do that hurt your feelings?

You called me an idiot, she said.

For a second he looked confused. Then he tapped her on the shoulder again.

Hey, he said. I’m sorry I said that. Then he followed her across the room and said sorry two more times. For the rest of the class, there was no rage.

Siphonaptera

2013-06-08 10.12.30-2

At an anonymous and unclarified point in time (assume ancient history out of generosity) I was combing Girl two’s hair. It was the morning of a busy day. The kind of day with thirty things clambering for completion on the list and only room for twenty if absolutely nothing went wrong. Girl one was already waiting in the car – after a none too gentle chiding for the explosions of contraband I emptied from her backpack.

Girl two’s skin is fair. Her hair is fair. Even in the morning shadows I saw the black speck dart through her hair. My fingers moved with purpose while my brain began a calming meditation about the silly ways that dirt can seem alive sometimes.

Don’t move, I commanded.

Ow, yelped Girl two in surprise as I tore at some strands of hair in hot pursuit.

It can’t be helped. Don’t move, I said again.

Overnight guests were arriving in less than ten hours.

It was not a piece of dirt. It was not lice.

It was a flea. I think.

I think this because our house growing up had more than one flea invasion. I remember the worst time sitting and watching the carpet hop like popcorn. Our only carpet here is on the stairs. I inspected. No popcorn. Ditto for furniture.

What do fleas do? asked Girl two.

They make you itchy, I said.

I was itchy as soon as I got in bed last night, said Girl two.

It’s true, I realized. She’s been complaining of itches every night lately. How could this be happening today?

I grabbed a comb and a cat and inspected. No fleas. I took the kids to school.

Boy two looked at girl two, somber. “I promise I won’t tell anyone at school that you have fleas,’ he said.

“She does not have fleas! There was one flea.  And it’s dead so she doesn’t have it anymore.”

I’m not sure that he believed me.

I got home and left a message for my husband to buy updated animal flea protection just in case. I checked the internet for signs and symptoms then resumed my search. Bedding clear. Mattresses clear. I found the wool blanket I added to Girl two’s bed last week with a small measure of relief. It would be a better reason to be itching than the unspeakable.

Meanwhile I’m itching. My head. My back. Even my fingers are itching. Wool blankets, winter dryness, these things we can manage. A flea invasion shortly before the guest arrival on the other hand . . .

I calm myself between mantras that it wasn’t actually a flea or that the flea market was a one man show.

Against the Dark

It was quiet in my house this weekend. I was home to take care of animals and write. The rest of the folks went camping. It was lovely. And ground breaking. The victories were quiet. No fireworks. They came the way most victories come. Steadily pushing on, like the forests overtaking the fields, year after year they’re back. More seeds. More seedlings, try again.

I am afraid of the dark. More specifically, I am afraid to be alone in the dark. As a teenager, I maintained a strict routine. I did not walk to my bed after turning off the light. I flicked the switch and leapt into bed from three feet away. No errant unknown things reaching for my ankles, thanks. I knew there weren’t monsters under my bed. Probably no people either, but the routine helped and so I did it.

I was a nightmare child. And really, who am I kidding, the nightmares have been significantly reduced from the paralyzing strength they held in my twenties, but they still come round now and again to say hello. Remind me about darkness and what I think of it.

Since high school, I’ve either had a roommate or been married (a package that conveniently comes with a roommate). My husband has gone away many times, but there have always been children in the house or someone. I have gone away and had hotel rooms to myself. But never, until this weekend, have I ever spent the night at my own home alone.

No houses in sight. No hotel guests on the other side of the wall. Just me, the cats, and the dog.

Fear traumatizes. If we could see each other’s souls, and I do believe we can for tiny moments, but anyway, if you looked at mine, a lot of the scars you’d see would be from the swaths fear cut. Where I grew up, the reasons for fear came and went, not like seasons you saw coming, but like tornadoes out of nowhere.

Children are not sophisticated. They smell a storm, any storm, and having seen a few tornadoes touch down, they wisely fear the power of all harsh winds. So it was with me, alone in the dark for what felt like a very long childhood.

Time, love, forgiveness. They all do their part to heal. But nobody it seems was assigned to heal the little bit about the darkness. Hence, at 42, I remain afraid to be alone in the dark.

Going into the weekend I was a little anxious but determined. Now, with my family home again, my roommate returned to where he should be in the bed beside me, I feel a bit triumphant. I did it. I stayed in a house by myself (fully mobile and functional) two nights in a row.

Look, Mom, no hands!

Rich

summer 2014 437

The children have taken to telling everyone that we had three vacations this summer.  There never seems to be a way to explain my side of it. The first, “vacation,” was a weekend invitation to a friend’s cottage. We left earlier than planned in order to get to the hospital and brush up on appendicitis facts, but prior to that it was quite wonderful. The second, “vacation,” was a once in a lifetime week by a lake with family, an hour from home. Cousins, the chief excitement of my children’s world, were present. But my husband was still working. There were 14 people to feed. Our calf was sick part of the time. Trips had to be made home, vets called, and well . . . I loved seeing my family, I just couldn’t say it was restful.  Which brings us to, “number three.”  This was the real kind . . . with my husband, six hours AWAY from the farm and all its potential needs.

For the record, we did not have three vacations! If we had, I imagine I would be rested. Instead, I watch the clock longingly until school comes tomorrow to take the rest robbers away. People with three vacations are rich. We are not rich.

Except we are and I know better. Forget clothes and food, we go to school, drive cars, spend money on things that might not pan out, quit things because we don’t like them. My husband pays for a cook (me), maid (also me), chauffeur (me), and tutor (still me) for the children. Since I don’t worry about getting fired, I also spend quite a bit of time writing. Lots of people we know have more than we do, but it is a matter of degrees. From a global perspective, we live solidly on the rungs of the rich ladder.

Light broke through this weekend though. Girl two is about to be a first grader. That got me thinking about me in grade one. Six years old for me was a bad year. A lot of things went terribly wrong. Girl two, bouncing up and down happy, turns six today. The comparison has me profoundly to my bones, grateful. The brokenness I came from is not her inheritance. She doesn’t know a thing about it.

I am thinking about that. About being rich. So rich I can’t keep track of everything. I wake up to discover stocks grown wildly that I hadn’t checked in ages. Investments I’d forgotten I even had.

My husband is hoping to take the kids camping for a weekend soon. I’m thinking maybe they can stop telling people how many vacations we have and just say we’re so rich we basically live on vacation.

But seriously. Some days I can’t believe it. My kids are really happy people. For real. How rich is that?

 

Beet Red

 

I love beets. Pickled or plain they please me. I like the greens too. My husband professes a dislike for beet greens, a fact which I can’t quite get my head around. This winter, sing the bags upon bags of beet greens in the freezer, we shall find our way to his stomach by so many circuitous routes that when we are gone he will miss us. I smile knowing at some point he will read this and think himself forewarned. Determined do I rise to the challenge.

I did up beets for the freezer this week. Beets aren’t like beans, rinsed and tidy. Beets come with dirt and grit and infinite red juices. I can only wipe the oozing red pink from the counters so many times without remembering my mother over a boiling pot of pink.

It was Halloween, a definite NOT holiday for us. My mother the minister’s wife had helped the church get an All Saints Day party off the ground instead.  Kids were asked to go as a character from the Bible. My mother suggested I go as Lydia, the seller of purple, and promised to make me a purple tunic. By make, she meant dye a sheet and towel the appropriate color and wrap it around me. I can still picture us standing in the aisle at the drugstore reading directions on different colors of purple Rit dye.

At home in the kitchen, my mother stirred my sheet in a canning pot of water and dye, less than impressed.

That’s not purple, it’s beet red. Could have made this color myself for free, she said.

We dried the sheet and towel, and dressed me for the party. All along the way she muttered about throwing in a few beets for free and $5 for something that could hardly be called purple.

I didn’t mind the wrong colored garments so much as being twelve and wondering if I really belonged anymore at something for little kids, but being twelve turned out to be an advantage. The woman assigned to run the evening, leader of all games and parties, upon whom all eyes would be fixed at all intervals requiring direction . . . being twelve, it was hard to miss the horror in my mother’s eyes when they saw each other. My awkwardness changed to absolute delight as our host’s bright red lips and ample bedecked bosom jiggled over to greet us. A fifty something, slightly overweight church lady host, enthusiastically dressed as Rahab, the prostitute.  I gazed at her very fine impression of a hooker and felt glad indeed to have agreed to come. Thirty years later, I’m still slicing beets and smiling.