Sunday, June 15, 2008

Childhood

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate...
--Daphne du Maurier, Manderley

Mother's Day and Father's Day make me think back on childhood. I had another dream, last night, of the suburban Illinois home where I spent my life from age seven to seventeen. The same place where my parents still live, where I stayed again for the first time in sixteen years last spring and summer.

There are things about my childhood that haunt me. When we moved - my parents, my younger sister and older brother - from California to the Far North Suburbs of Chicago, the change was hard for us kids. We'd gone from a sunny climate to terrible winters; from the sunny kids of our Pasadena area home to the vicious little snobs of our new suburban community.

The lands surrounding that upper middle class development were still quite rural then, with woods and cornfields and cows and two windmills, no public transportation, and little to do in the way of entertainment as we usually think of it today. Did I read? Hugely, and gladly. I loved our outdoors life there too, in summers at least. We had a beautiful park with a spring-fed swimming hole and a knotted-rope swing to fly out over the water and drop in, and lots of places to explore; we'd ride our bikes all over...but still, too much time was spent in boredom. Enough to foster some of the evil that was done to kids and young women like me.

Or not. Perhaps that sort of badness needs little reason to thrive.

Back in California we had a big black and white TV. When you turned it off, a beautiful eerie white-blue dot would flash on, then get smaller and smaller and disappear.

Five years old, watching President Kennedy's funeral procession, not really understanding...I remember the boots backwards in a horse's stirrups, the saddle empty; my Goldwater Republican mother watching with me and trying to explain, sitting in our hushed living room, silent tears rolling down her face; this child grasping only that something momentous and terrible and sad had happened. It was more than the death of a president. I didn't understand the word *assassinated,* or the crushing violent death of the innocence of a nation.

1968, when I was 10, was a year of riots in Chicago and elsewhere, and in August the Democratic National Convention came to town. The convention and its protests were on the air and in the newspapers. *Shoot to maim, shoot to kill,* the mayor had said, back in spring. The order was for arsonists and looters, but some of the public weren't entirely confident that the police could accurately single those out from ordinary neighborhood residents. Shutting off the electricity in Rogers Park, now, that was democratic enough; everyone's frozen meat spoiled, innocent resident or resident evildoer alike. Well, the visiting looters had no meat there to spoil, so they lucked out I guess.

A year later, mankind first landed on the moon. I was at Girl Scout Camp when it happened. There was some debate among our adult leaders over whether we should be allowed to stay up to watch this momentous event live on TV. You see, it happened at 10 PM, which was past our bedtime. They decided bedtime was bedtime, and we shouldn't be allowed to stay up for the moon landing. I never went to Girl Scout Camp again.

I've often wondered if, over time, any of them regretted that act of enforcing the letter of rules against the spirit of such very special circumstances. We lived in a time when the issue of rigid enforcement was a battleground all its own. On one side, rules were rules, and not to be questioned; they were absolute and valid in their own right, dissevered from the causes and reasons that gave them inception. Simply to enquire into their origin could brand one a Hateful Unpatriotic Rebel. And Generally Bad As Well.

The Vietnam War was claiming the lives of my classmates' big brothers, and photos of the realities of war were being displayed in news media, not censored in the same way they are today. Protests were everywhere. At Kent State, with a community's fears heightened after prior looting, the National Guard was sent in. Four students were killed and nine injured - after a nonviolent protest had mostly dispersed. Two of the dead weren't even protesters; one was just walking to class. Even if they were, why were they killed for it? They were not rioters.

What they were doing appeared (to us puzzled kids at school) to be engaging in emotional, but essentially innocent, free speech and public assembly. Those activities were deemed so crucial to our founding fathers that they made sure the rights to conduct them were written in to our constitution. Our civics classes taught us all about that constitution. It was fresh in our minds. To their credit, most government entities involved in sorting out the mess over the next decade agreed; and crowd control measures evolved into better planned, less hostile, less lethal ones.

I was 15 when the Watergate hearings were first broadcast live. A TV was turned on at our school, a shocking and radical thing to do at the time; an act to match the hearings themselves. During and between classes students and teachers gathered in front of it, watching the proceedings, listening to news of far-reaching organized wrongdoing, of CREEP, of slush funds and hush money and I Am Not a Crook. The counting of the votes for Nixon's impeachment as more and more information came out rang like a death knell, like Madame Lafarge with her knitting, until one day the impeachment vote was finally high enough to succeed, and Nixon chose to resign. Another national loss of innocence.

Has reading this tiny synopsis of a very few historical events raised emotion in any of you, especially those old enough to remember them? No matter which *side* you were on, then or now?

Think, for a moment, how fraught it was to raise a child then.

Those were emotional times. Turbulent times. So very much so. The generations of my parents and my peers were constantly clashing with an intensity that's hard to fathom for younger people today. Parents everywhere, all over the world really, had great trouble raising their children, and often couldn't understand or control the reasons why. And me, I would not have been an easy child to raise in the easiest of times. Not at all.

Being born with a high IQ, *gifted,* is not something anyone can ever take credit for. That's your genes at work, with which you had nothing to do. No bragging rights attach. It works the other way too: nobody, ever, should be looked down upon for being born with a low IQ. That's not their fault any more than a high IQ is an accomplishment. Either way is just an accident of fate.

Gifted children aren't easy to begin with, and I was one. I was also angry and rebellious, bullied and ostracized and resentful. I despised the people we lived among, and hated cold snowy winters with a deep and abiding passion. My parents took the brunt of my anger against events and circumstances they didn't always understand or even know about.

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, which my mother has been dealing with herself the last fifteen years or so. When I was seven, though, this was not a condition anyone really understood yet. If they had, a child's sadness probably wouldn't have been attributed to it anyway. Society was intensely committed to certain preconceptions about children: one of them being that kids don't suffer from maladies like depressive disorders. Those were Phases, and Phases were not to be taken seriously; if they were, it might harm the child.

Playing in the snow and ice was rational parental advice, by way of a cure; but my hatred of it could not have seemed rational. I wasn't yet diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis that first winter. Besides, the idea that cold could make RA hurt worse was held to be an old wives' tale. Unfortunately, it was true for me. How was anyone to know I had fibromyalgia as well, that playing in the cold caused such brutal pain it could only be rational if the physical conditions were known?

But I don't want to make you think my early years were some sort of universal state of misery. They most certainly weren't. What I'm trying to do is explain, from my childhood's point of view, how difficult it must have been to be parents back then. Especially parents of mine. We had those incredibly turbulent times in society overall, and we had...small me.

I have wonderful memories too, and there were ongoing saving graces in my life. A second grade teacher, Mrs. Wills, took me to an exceptionally good local library whenever she could, as did my mother. My parents had always been lovers of nature and of science. We went camping and fishing in California, in the mountains, in the deserts of the Southwest, in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, in Colorado, in Florida, in far north Canada. We took day trips to the local forest preserves. I love nature, and loved those excursions.

My mother is a writer, and as a child I *helped* edit some of her articles and a wonderful book she wrote. I've got my doubts about how useful I was. I've no doubt at all how much good I derived from those experiences. They were fun in themselves, and gave me confidence and comfort that fit me when many of a child's more usual endeavors could not.

And from the earliest years, I spent bits of time in my father's various laboratories. To this day, those times are etched in my memory, oases of happiness and wonder, of fascination and acceptance. A place where I fit.

Last summer's odyssey, that return to Chicagoland, started with the simple desire to see my nephew graduate from college. I had some trepidation about staying in the area where so many demons had haunted me. There are things that happened there, in the suburbs and Chicago too, that my parents know nothing about, and probably should know nothing about. The bulk of my nightmare memories were acquired there.

But I love this young man, my excellent nephew. Love draws us to be strong. He was only doing the graduation walk because I'd asked him to. If demons lived up there too, well, perhaps it was time to stare them down, or do battle to their death. Put them to rest or put them in their graves. The young woman I was no longer exists, really, except in memory. I felt ready. Finally. All these years later.

My parents and I share a love of taking a drive for fun, and they took me all around that suburban area to see how it looked today. The nephew I went to see graduate knows something of my history, and with his customary great and gentle generosity, offered to drive me around to visit many of those places in the city, including one I'd discovered but never seen: the current residence of my first ex-husband. The kind we refer to, these days, as an *evil ex,* an EE. Our divorce was amicable; the evils were committed before and during the marriage alone.

Understand this: Last time I'd been out there at all, driving quickly through in 2002, I still couldn't enter that zone without shaking from head to toe. I had heart palpitations, night sweats, panic attacks, and the flashbacks and nightmares came into my head whether I slept or stayed awake. PTSD.

Not last summer. No. To my surprise - to my wondering, scared-to-believe-it, slowly dawning glad shock - everywhere I looked for them, girded for battle, those demons were gone.

They just weren't there any more.

Place after place I visited, those scenes of horrible experiences long ago were calm and free of taint. My old grade school, junior high, high school. That home suburb and others nearby. My old apartments and neighborhoods. The apartment the EE lives in today.

Nothing.

Every single one of my human tormentors had moved away by then. Buildings were either torn down, so rebuilt, or so surrounded by strange new things that they weren't recognizable. The whole area had become so developed, my parents had to think very hard to figure out if there was a single cornfield or cow pasture left in the entire county. I was sorry to see that. I prefer nature. But it helped me that the face of that place was so altered.

All of it helped. But even if those great changes hadn't happened, I bet the demons still would have moved on.

How could I fight something that no longer existed?

I lay down my sword.
.

8 comments:

SeaPhoenix said...

Bravo...K, you should write a book. Good G.D. Read. Bravo again.

k said...

My gracious, blogson! You are way fast on your feet.

And...thank you.

pepektheassassin said...

And turned your sword into a plowshare!

This is a great piece of writing,k. Gee, I had my first experience with dead presidents when Roosevelt died, and I only understood that everyone was sad, my mother cried. I was an adult through most of your childhood. And now, through this wonder of the "puter" we have become contemporaries! Sort of. Anyway, friends! Good job.

Pretty Lady said...

Lovely.

John P. McCann said...

Did you drive through Skokie? The Lanes just closed in April. The fine old landmark with its Old Style sign will probably be torn down soon.

Perhaps memories are linked to place and when the place changes, certain memories lose their power.

In any case, nice piece.

Nancy said...

You've outlived the demons.. that counts as a victory in and of itself.

Granny J said...

I visited the first house that my LH and I ever owned. On the slummy side of Old Town. All this was on Google Earth; I had heard that places in that area were going for a $mil or so (as opposed to the $17G we had paid and the big $27G we got when we sold. It looked like the whole street (Howe St.) had turned into an area of tear-downs (what an awful, awful concept) & been rebuilt. Most of the lot was covered with with building instead of garden (my first.) Your memories, k, are rekindling many of mine and I thank you. I think!

k said...

Pepek, indeed I did.

And thank you.

Contemporaries and friends, both. There's something about the internet, or perhaps being bloggers, that makes us contemporaries no matter our age, origin, where we live anywhere in the world today.

Friendship, now, that's a little different story. That's one-on-one, and doesn't happen all that often really, and is a treasure to me.

Pretty Lady. Thank you.

John, that's one place I didn't get to go by in the time I was there. Some locations I'd *saved* for the time just before my trip back home. Then, of course, the House Emergency happened and I had to run back to Florida, with places unseen and things undone...

I'm really sorry to hear about the lanes! If it's still there next time I am, I'll be sure to get some pix.

Yes, I think that's part of it, how the physical changes affected the power of the memories. Part of the *more to it* involves a sense of attitude change up there. A different post, that bit is. I'm still processing it all, of course.

Nancy, oh yes. I'm still standing. Just knowing that, remembering that, all in itself makes me stronger.

Granny J, then I bet my next trip down my Chicagoland memory lane will do it even more. Did you know that the direction of rush hour traffic has reversed?

That tear-down thing...it's as if not just buildings but we humans are become disposable, although we still have real value and our memories intact.

Then the new buildings, like the *McMansions,* cover the whole footprint of the land as if to further eradicate not just the memory of the building before, but any claim it had to be there or to assert it had any intrinsic value. As if its failure to cover every possible speck of earth meant it were useless and wasteful, and thus had no right to exist in the first place.