Monday, March 22, 2004

Childhood and Happy

I've always said I had a happy childhood. I'm not sure why I think that. My parents moved twenty-five times by the time I was five years old. And not just down the street. We moved from Wisconsin to Kansas to Montana and points in between until finally, we landed down in Washington state like the house that settled on the Wicked Witch of the East. I remember very little of the tornado that was my early childhood.

When I was five years old and halfway through kindergarten, we moved to a house in a housing development called "Whispering Firs." My dad teased and said the house was haunted. It was the first house we owned--three tiny bedrooms, a living room with a fireplace that had two sides, so you could enjoy the fire from the family room, too. Not that I ever remember a fire burning. Small kitchen and sliding glass door leading to the back yard. When I was very small, at night I was scared of the side of the yard that sat on the other side of the garage. No light shone there at night.

I loved animals and one year, my dad asked me in the hallway what I wanted for Christmas. With uncharacteristic boldness, I said, "A puppy" and he said, "Don't count on it!" But he presented me with a small black poodle anyway, a black poodle that my mother doesn't remember at all. She was named "Midnight" and one day when I came home from school, she was gone. My mom had a new baby and the dog was just too much and so they just made her disappear without warning.

Then somehow, years later, my dad presented me with another dog, a Miniature Schnauzer he named Mitzi. He'd made some arrangement with the breeder and contrary to that arrangement, the breeder bred her while the dog was boarded and one day, shortly after I remarked that Mitzi's tummy sure was getting fat, Mitzi gave birth to four tiny puppies on my twin-sized bed while I slept. But the time I fully woke and ran through the house to my mother's bed, Mitzi had licked off the last pup and placed it in my slipper for safe-keeping.

But Mitzi eventually became too much, too, and she was sold.

My dad had cancer when I was in the second grade. He had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and he was extremely ill. He endured chemotherapy and wasted down to a skeleton of himself. He shaved his head one night while we were at church and then he wore a hand-towel over his bald head and scared me by yanking it off his head and making a face.

I hardly knew my dad because he worked graveyard shift from midnight to 8 a.m. Then he worked in his own shop, tinkering with ham radios and electronic equipment and eventually, computers. He never ate dinner with the family. He was sleeping then. I was kind of scared when I had to sit next to him at the dinner table because he was so unfamiliar to me.

Once, I jumped out my bedroom window to join my siblings in the back yard. I bit my tongue hard when I landed and blood spurted everywhere. I ran inside where my dad gathered me in his arms and sat me on his lap, though I was much too big to sit on his lap. He rocked me in a chair while I cried and he kind of laughed at me and asked me if I was going to live. I can't remember him ever holding me or rocking me at any other time.

My mother stayed at home and took care of us. She was stern, yet she gave us a lot of freedom. We rode our bikes until the streetlights came on. We walked down to the creek and got muddy. We played all afternoon in the "honda fields", pressing down the waist-high grass to make little rooms to play in. Her friends came over while we were at school and drank coffee and ate cookies and made crafts.

Every week, my mother would bring home friends from church, or my dad would invite some of his ham-radio buddies over and the grown-ups would play cards and eat snacks. I'd try to linger outside their attention, but I'd always give myself away by crunching giant pretzels in my mother's ear and then she'd shoo me away to play with the kids.

We played a lot. Outside, inside, in the backyard, in the streets. I read a lot. I had friends in the neighborhood and I remember them trying to get me to dance, but even then I was too self-conscious and had no rhythm, so I would just watch while they danced to the Jackson 5.

When I was in fifth grade, my parents divorced. We lived with my mother for maybe a year, but by then, my dad had remarried (six months after my parents divorce) and my mother soon remarried, too. My childhood essentially ended when we moved out of that house and into a rental house a few miles away. My room had hot pink carpet, but the rental house did not have my mother, but a stepmother who hated children and who had no idea what to do with an 11 year old girl.

By then, I lived almost entirely inside myself. I remained self-sufficient for the rest of my school years. I even bought my own shampoo and my own clothes from then on.

But the thing is, I remember my childhood as being happy. I thought I was happy. I was happy. Did my parents even think of my happiness? Did they obsess, like I obsess about whether or not my children are having a happy childhood? It seems like parents used to just live their lives, dragging their kids along for the ride. And we survived. We scared ourselves sometimes when we went too fast down the Big Hill and crashed our bikes with banana seats, but that was just part of being a kid. If bigger kids threatened us, we just adjusted our paths and put on a tough face and averted our eyes and dealt with it.

Sometimes, I think I am still eleven years old, wondering what I will do, now that I am so alone. Is it possible to avoid any more pain? Is it possible to do everything just right so I will never stub my toe again? I guess not.

I wish my kids had a guaranteed Happy Childhood. I wish I could be sure I was doing everything right. I wish I could let them eat chocolate and potato chips all day and never tell them to turn off the t.v. for their own good. I hate being the Mean One who makes the rules and then reinforces them. I hate it when they yell that they hate me.

We don't have quite enough money and they don't get to have enough fun, nor do we travel as we should. I yell too much, I am not consistent enough, I am tired too often.

But here is what I know I'm giving them that I did not have:

1) Parents who stay married forever.
2) A mother who does not leave.

I don't know if they are having a Happy Childhood. God, please let them remember it that way, though.

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