I spent the first 24 years of my life in the same N.E. Minneapolis house in which my mother had spent all but the first two years of her 85 years. The house itself was torn apart and remodeled into a two story, single family home the summer before my fourteenth birthday but it is the unremodeled version of my childhood home that still dominates my thoughts.
I’ve written hundreds of pages and thousands of words about what went on inside those walls but I’ve never been brave enough to put my words on paper. I created phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs in my head. But I never wrote them down. Could someone be hurt? Possibly. Would I be considered disloyal? Probably.
But now I’m in the last quarter of my life. I look back and I wonder: Who were these people? Where did my dad’s combustible temper come from? Why did I get a strong sense of “push me/pull you” from my mother? And most importantly, why do these thoughts haunt me more today than ever before?
It’s time to probe the stories I’ve been telling myself all these years and face up to my fears.
Memories come back like the black and white photos that were popular with the advent of the Kodak Brownie® camera. Tiny triangular corners anchor small pictures in albums filled with gray paper. I see myself in those imaginary photographs as if I were looking through a dried out, frayed scrapbook.
Although I was too young to recognize it then, my childhood and my adolescence were enfolded in layers of secrets, the biggest of which was that Dad was a binge drinker. Even before I was old enough to understand this, I learned to hide it from my friends.
Another secret: Grandma–Dad’s mother–didn’t like us. I didn’t question this; it was just a fact of my young life.
And then there was the fact that Mom was embarrassed by the house we lived in. It took years for me to realize that was the reason we never had guests.
Might these secrets be the reason that I always felt distanced from people, including those in my own extended family?
Nevertheless, mine was a happy childhood, partially because of that cloak of secrets. It kept relatives and neighbors in the dark and it protected me from my turbulent father’s anger and from my mother’s self-consciousness about living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” That cloak of secrets fit me so well that it was years before I realized that it had become my uniform.
So many of my early childhood memories are centered around our kitchen. I played for hours under that round wooden table. The green and dirty-white linoleum tiles became rooms for my paper dolls and the lives I created for them. And like all little kids, it didn’t take long for me to learn that the quieter I was, the more likely that Mom and friend Gladys would forget about me. That must have been where I first heard euphemisms like “PG,” “that way,” and “female troubles.” (It was at least another ten years before I learned that a girl who was PG or ‘that way’ was pregnant. It took another five to learn about menopause, a word I’d first learned as ‘man pause.’)
Mom spent far more time at Gladys’ house than Gladys spent at ours. In a neighborhood where even one car to a family was rare, our mothers formed friendships the same way we kids did: proximity mattered. It was rare that Gladys came to our house; more often Mom walked the 150 feet to Gladys’. But either way, I knew that when they were together I would be protected from witnessing my father’s volatile outbursts. Like this one, a memory that haunts me still:
She huddled in her favorite hiding place, squeezed in tightly between the stove and the kitchen wall where there was just enough space to squeeze her skinny six-year-old frame. This was the safe spot, the spot where she was protected from the violent energy of her father’s wrath, the violent energy that would find as its target her younger brother.
She never could tell when it would happen but the muted clank of the belt buckle, the insistent hiss as he yanked it out of the loops of his denim work pants–these were the danger signals: Tommy was about to get it again.
She watched and she listened, glad she wasn’t the recipient of his anger, yet torn that she couldn’t (or didn’t want to?) stop him.
I couldn’t tell you what set him off that day, nor could I tell you where my mother was. It’s the sounds that are clear: “I’ll teach you to (fill in the blank).”
My mother had to have been in the house but she’s not in this memory. No matter how I try to place her in that scene, I can’t make it happen. Nor is there a conclusion. Did Dad really hit Tommy with that belt? Did I cry out? Like so many of the events from my childhood, there is no hint in this black-and-white photograph of a memory as to what came before I snapped the shutter of my mind’s camera, nor what happened after.
Coming soon: “Grandma Never Liked Us Very Much”