Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Having a horrible childhood seems to be a reason for many indiscretions, be it criminal or legal. When someone commits a heinous crime, it is inevitably described as being caused by a terrible childhood, filled with abuse and neglect. When someone turns to drugs, turns to drink, lives life as though balancing on the edge of a precipice, childhood is immediately blamed. It's the mother's fault. It's the father's fault. Poor thing, he..or she...had no guidance!

Or, if a person rises to a lofty status in life, whether with financial means or positions of power, they almost always give credit to their childhood experiences. Even Abraham Lincoln gave credit for his brilliance to his beloved stepmother.

It is a terrible burden to bear, raising children, to think that you are responsible for what they may become in later life. I am not sure this is entirely true. We can always blame genes, or bad companions, or some other reason. But, childhood evidently plays a huge part in it all.

So, there is no doubt about it that the occurrences in our childhoods affect us throughout our adult life. Either these events drive us into a dark, shadowy place and we flounder through our later years, or they contribute to a strength that helps us survive the bad times.

Family life is more difficult today than ever before and the reasons are obvious. First, it sometimes takes both a man and a woman working to survive in this world, what with this payment and that payment. Two paychecks are often needed just to keep the wolf from the door and the victuals in the pantry.

But it goes beyond that, if one digs into the reason for the loss of closeness in today's families. People are on the move. If one person doesn't move from the east coast to the west, the other one does. We live in a sea of change. Sometimes it is because of a job, or sometimes it is because the grass always looks greener in the distance. Whatever the cause, families are spread out like cities on a road map, unable to see each other except on special occasions.

Today, Mom and Pop are the founders of a huge, huge family. There are portions of their family spread across the world. Their children have had children who have had children who have had children. It is like that game with Kevin Bacon. I may actually be related to any stranger I meet on the street. I may even be related to Kevin Bacon. And I have had the experience of finding a relative in the damndest places, a grocery store, a park, on a vacation.

In fact, in an incident that happened to me years ago, I walked the Promenade in Quebec, enjoying the flavor of that city, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Then suddenly, a nephew of mine walked around the bend, a woman clinging to his arm.....a woman, I have to say, who was clearly not his wife and, the way they were kissing and hugging each other, clearly not a chance acquaintance.

We went through a series of stilted greetings and, finally, he introduced the woman as a "friend." His face was a brilliant red. He stuttered and stammered. He probably cursed the Gods that would cause him to run into an Aunt in such an out-of-the-way spot. I can hear his Inner Voice..."Damn! Who would have thought? Isn't there anyplace one can go to escape them?"

It wasn't his fault. It is the Curse of a Big Family. You can never be sure you're alone. You can never be sure your antics will not be reported at the next family picnic. If there is a downside to being a member of a large group, this may be it.

Only children, with no brothers or sisters, and children with just a few siblings almost always regret not belonging to a larger group. Our world is hungry for family life. We yearn for it, hope for it, and are disappointed when it doesn't occur. It is an intrinsic need, this yearning to share experiences with people who share your ancestors. It may explain why adoptive children set out to find their birth parents. It's a pressure impossible to ignore, a search for meaning.

My childhood was a blur of people, each of them precious to me. They were my world and the remainder of the universe did not exist for me until I reached adulthood. This world consisted of Hubert's practical jokes and Hjalmar's musing silence, Helen's helpful hints and Hilda's maternal solicitations. There was the ride on the haywagon, with Pop driving the team and the sweet, cloying smell of alfalfa encouraging the horses to hurry to the barn. There were the nightly spats with Helma over who took up more of our communal bed, and Herman's voice as he chatted with Pop.

The evenings were best, when the old woodstove was puffing like a redhot dragon and one had to scoot one's chair ever backward to escape the blasts of heat. Then someone was always strumming a guitar and singing, and Gerry would join Hubert for a duet. She denied this to me, stating that she never sang, but I know she did.

Those evenings were bucolic memories of good times past, presided over by a white-haired patriarch and his brood of children. We had little money. We didn't dress fashionably...except for Hubert, whose sartorial splendor was always evident...nor did we discuss the social issues of the day. We simply indulged in familial horseplay, enjoying each moment we spent together.

All of the little children would sit in Pop's lap and I can remember his laughter at each antic. We twirled his hair and tweaked his fingers. We studied the leathery quality of his sun-burnt skin and the loose threads in that old green sweater he loved to wear. We could do no wrong where Pop was concerned. We were children, spoiled brats that most of us were, and he treasured each moment spent with us.

Mom had the work of feeding and raising the children. She labored from morning until night, bustling about the kitchen, hoeing in the garden, bent over her sewing machine. She had the work and Pop had the pleasure. We did not pile on her lap, rustle her hair, dally with her fingers. We loved her, but there was a space between Mom and the children. It was Pop who opened his arms and held us close.

These moments...this childhood...gave me more than it took away, because it was a shock to me, an electric jolt, to discover that not everyone came from such a noisy clan. When I entered high school, I was amazed to meet these prim, fastidious, well-groomed students whose parents looked as staid and serious as they did. I could not imagine a world without laughter, without music, without dozens of neices and nephews hanging about. It seemed to me to be an empty existence, a vacant world, a world of decorum I had difficulty entering.

So, from Monday to Friday, I played a role, sitting obediently at my desk, copying graphs and learning my phrases. Then, on Friday, at the end of the school day, I would shove all thoughts of the civilized world into the shadows of my mind and return to the scene of laughter and liveliness at the farm. ...from schoolgirl to gypsy in one short moment of time.

Somehow I gained from all this, a knowledge that has helped me throughout the years of my life. I learned that it doesn't matter if you are poor. It doesn't matter if your rank is low on the echelons of power. This is just smoke and dust and can be swept away with the wave of a hand. What matters is the pride of being. If you can take pride in who you are and what you are, you can succeed. If you can take pride in being yourself, you can move through the world's highest circles and thrive.