I apparently had a terrible childhood although I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I have a few bad memories of childhood – who doesn’t? – but a lot more great ones – fun, goofy times, happy days, weird events, errors in judgment (that little stream really was deep in the middle) and all.
Apparently childhood can be something like childbirth when it comes to fading memories of bad things happening. I know they’re not really the same at all, of course. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I’ve been through both.
I’ve also been through the requisite late 20th century/early millenium therapy where I learned about all the bad and sometimes very bad things that happened to me. These were not repressed memories that the therapist dredged up out of whole cloth. They were real memories, and I remembered them well once we began to talk. I was unhappy at the time and the therapist was doing her job and doing it well.
As a kid, I knew things were not always story-book great at home. I read story-books all the time and nearly lived at the Library. I knew my life and the lives of people in the books were not the same. I especially knew that the lives of my friends differed in lots of ways from mine – money, the kinds of houses we lived in, the clothes we wore, the vacations we took.
I’m not a psychologist so I can’t really tell you from my own experience how these differences affected me at the time except that I had what’s a fairly standard kid reaction to the “wrong” family – I couldn’t belong to these people. I must have been adopted. The thought crossed my mind more than once although I knew all the stories of my birth and young childhood and, in the deep place of my heart, I knew them to be true.
Which, of course, made it worse. I really did belong to these people!
So I’d think about that for ten or twenty minutes and wish that I could be adopted by people who understood me or at least lived in a big, fancy house where I could wear ruffled pinafores and take piano lessons. Then I’d dash out the door to meet my friends and play jump rope or jacks on the sidewalk or outfit the dolls in lovely new creations we’d make out of cloth napkins and safety pins or to walk around the neighborhood and investigate anything new since we’d been there the day before.
A side note: When I was a kid, kids could do that kind of thing. Helicopters had barely been invented and helicopter parents were so far into the future as to be unknown. I really think this may have been the key to a happy childhood, at least the one I had even though it was apparently terrible. I certainly would not have wanted “those people” who didn’t understand me hanging around any more than necessary.
Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the kids I envied ended up in worse places than I ever visited. I’m always sorry to hear these things, but it’s another truth of growing up:
A happy childhood is no guarantee of becoming a happy adult.
When I grew up, I became a writer, and writers love to indulge all the worst things that ever happened to them. It was good luck that I had such a fine therapist who helped me uncover the best possible material – painful, wrenching events in my young life that could make me a million bucks if they ever got into print. I wrote and wrote and wrote and some things did get into print although not much about my apparently miserable childhood.
Any time I seriously tried to write about it, the words just sounded pathetic and whiny. Besides, I knew my life was not as bad as that of the girl in the sixth grade who wore her coat in class every day. Word on the playground was she did this because she didn’t have blouses to wear under it. Who knows the truth? I just know I had blouses.
I was disappointed, of course, that I couldn’t write about the angst, but now I’m really glad it worked out that way. Because I’ve come to see that it was the happy stuff I remember that was the best. I know all about perspective and how our memories change, but I’m opting for a choice. I love those happy memories so much more than any of the others. I’m not kidding myself about things that went wrong, but those other memories have bogged me down for too many years.
I’m going for the gold now – the gold of memories that let me remind myself that jumping rope and playing jacks and being with my odd family were pretty wonderful, even with all things considered.
I know there are kids in families that make mine look like a Mary Poppins story, and my heart goes out to every kid in such a bad situation. We need to do as much as possible to keep the kids all right, all the kids, all the time. But “all right” is not necessary perfect and you know what they say about perfection: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” So I say to parents and kids:
Parents – be as good as you can be to your kids but forget about trying to be perfect.
Kids – know that your parents are trying to be as good to you as they can be. Forget about nailing them because they’re not perfect and don’t even think about writing a whiny memoir, novel or poem twenty years from now.
My writing? Well, I used to do a lot of art, but somewhere along the line I stopped and started trying to write those intense grown-up novels and stories instead. I’m shifting gears now to writing and illustrating children’s books. I’ve signed up for an art class this summer. I’m reading children’s books everyday. And I’m already having a happier adulthood than I could possibly have imagined.
I don’t know where it’s all going and I don’t care. I may be too old for hopscotch now, but we’re never too old for the dance! So I invite you, as Alice did in her delightful and wildly fantastic book:
“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”