When I was growing up, one of my father’s regular pastimes, when he and my mother weren’t arguing, was haranguing and verbally accosting his children at the dinner table. We were all trapped. As my older brothers & sisters moved out, there were less of us at that table which considerably upped the chance of being targeted. I remember literally keeping my head down and focusing on my plate so as to not attract attention. This had limited success; your number always came up. Only having a job was an acceptable excuse for missing dinner. The summer I was 16 and had my first seasonal lifeguarding job I was so happy to work evening shifts.
My sisters were all older but they didn’t do the things that I’ve become wise to (over the passing decades) that older sisters are supposed to do. They did not teach me how to put on makeup, or how to do dance steps, or tell me anything helpful about boys. They didn’t give me good advice, or show me how to knit, or teach me to read. They did not buffet me from the chaos and drama that infused our household, or model admirable character, or guide me in how to live successfully. It goes on like that.
But here’s the thing. When I’ll being fair and looking at the whole scene, I know nobody did all of that for them either; they could not embody for me what no one had embodied for them. Their strongest influence was our mother. It was up to her to show her older daughters how to lead her younger ones, whether by her own example or by instruction. She did not.
But here’s the bigger thing. My sisters loved me. I never doubted that. Whatever else they lacked, wherever they fell short in my eyes, they loved me. That love was something I hung my hat on for a long time. It was love I returned. It made so much difference. When I look back at the gaps and what my sisters were not, I make sure I remember that too.
When I was a girl I loved tennis. I just took to it. I haven’t played in a long time. I’m afraid that in order to play now I’d have to wrap so many body parts – wrists, elbows, knees – I’d look like a tennis-playing mummy. Anyway, when I was young I’d often go to the “backboard” to lobby a ball back and forth to myself. The backboard was actually a wall to the local swimming pool so that poorly lobbed balls went over the fence and into the pool. In season someone might throw the ball back to you, but for nine months out of the year if your ball went over that wall it was gone.
There was one time, I remember it as being nice weather, somewhere in the spring to early fall range, when I went to hit tennis balls against the backboard. Lying on the grass nearby was a man I knew as “Animal.” Animal – that was the name his pals called him – wasn’t any friend of mine or anything. He was a man for one thing (which could have meant he was 18 or 20 or 24 for all I know) and I only recognized him because the community was small and he was a loudmouth who was often out and about. Another kid had told me that Animal had killed somebody and “buried him at the lake.” The veracity of that tale seemed unlikely. Asleep in the grass, he wasn’t a loudmouth or killing anybody this day.
He was probably drunk and passed out. I’d seen people drinking and even drunk but I had no recollection of seeing anyone passed out before so I didn’t immediately understand that was what was amiss. I cannot tell you, scaredy-cat that I was, why I didn’t just leave and go home. Maybe I wanted to play tennis too badly. Maybe I wasn’t alarmed because he was quiet and not bothering anybody. I don’t know.
Two girls I knew, twin sisters, who were about 3 years younger than me, came along and decided it would be a good idea to start throwing rocks at Animal. I don’t know what possessed them. I think they were trying to wake him up. Or just having a little sport. Where they got the nerve I had no clue. I sure would have never thrown rocks at a grown man passed out in the grass. When they got bored, the sisters stopped and wandered off. It occurred to me then that I had best move along too because if Animal woke up he might think I was the one who’d been pelting him with rocks.
I must have been in my late teens. I could figure it out exactly if I really had to, but that part isn’t important. Our cousin and his wife were visiting. The women were sitting around the dining room table talking the way we did. Our cousin’s wife was pregnant with their first child. My older sisters informed her how the birth would be, how she would be screaming in agony and cursing out her husband. They knew all about it. That my sisters had never given birth, or even witnessed a birth was beside the point. It was not the last time I would think my sisters were full of sh*t.
My childhood was full of religious books and stories. Some of them I liked well enough and others I found very odd, even horrifying. I really did NOT like the stories about Christians being fed to lions. Because of stories like that I would seriously ponder whether I’d “renounce Christ” in order to be spared being used as lion bait. There were beheadings – John the Baptist’s head on a plate – crucifixions – of course – and all sorts of macabre tales for an impressionable child. This stuff messed with my head.
Not all were quite so dramatic as those I’ve mentioned. In fact, there were stories intended to hit closer to home. A whole series of them with illustrations. These were kept in our house and, as a kid who read constantly, I remember reading them mutiple times. Most are long forgotten (though likely still making hash out of my unconscious mind) but one in particular I remember. I’m going to tell it the way I recall it, which is to say generally, but if a few specifics are forgotten, the basic idea is intact.
A Little Girl lived with her parents in a fancy house with servants. The kid had everything she could possibly want. But did she appreciate it? No. She was a brat, sassed her parents, and was unkind to the servants; Cook, Maid, Gardener, and so on. So an Angel shows up to give Little Girl a tour of her future in heaven. Off the pair go. They start down a fine road. I’m a bit fuzzy here so let’s just say it’s a gold brick paved road for the sake of creating a picture for you. The first house they come to is a palatial spread (picture an antebellum, columned mansion if you need something to work with). “Is this my house?” asks Little Girl. No, says the Angel, that’s Cook’s house. Little Girl figures if COOK gets a crib like that, HER own house is going to really be amazing.
Angel and Little Girl continue down the road. They come to another huge, fancy house. “Oh that must be my house” says Little Girl. No, says the Angel, that’s Maid’s house. They go by one or two more fancy houses, made of the finest materials, each of which belongs to a servant. Little Girl is starting to get concerned. Why do the lowly servants get grand houses?
The road begins to deteriorate. It’s no longer paved. The trees by the road have no leaves. It’s getting creepy and downtrodden. There might as well be a “I’d turn back if I was you” sign. But the angel continues to take Little Girl down this path. Why, Little Girl wonders, are they going down this unpleasant road? Finally, they come to a pathetic, clay, one-room hovel. Little Girl is sure there must be some mistake. Whose house is that she asks? That house is yours says the Angel. Little Girl begins to sob uncontrollably beside her clay hut. How could this dreadful house be hers?
Angel explains that this is the house Little Girl’s crappy actions on earth are building for her here in heaven. But there’s a ray of hope. If Little Girl straightens up her act on earth, she might build a better house in heaven and move out of the clay district. Little Girl is all for that. She goes back to her home on earth and immediately commences being a sweet, Little Girl who gives nobody any problems. The End.
In my family sick children were not indulged. If you had the flu or a cold or another childhood ailment, you were essentially sequestered in your room (one which I always shared with a sibling) and left alone for the most part. The amenities included if appropriate, a barf bucket, and a radio. Don’t get me wrong – I was plenty excited to have a radio – which otherwise was not there. In fact I first heard the barking dogs performing the Jingle Bells song on said radio when I was sick around the holidays. The child-me was delighted! (Now when I hear it not so much.) This was pre-computer; there was no TV, no record player, and no toys in the bedroom (the TV and record player were in the main living areas and toys stayed in the basement). You might get a coloring book to occupy your time and possibly a stuffed animal. Probably books too. I hated being cooped up like that – I got so bored! – and wanted to join the others. My mother’s refrain to such requests was a martyred, “We don’t need you spreading your germs all around here.”
I grew into an adult who didn’t know how to be sick. This must have been true for some of my brothers and sisters too because I remember one of my older sisters commenting later in life that a friend told her as much, recommending she watch daytime TV as a way to pass time. This hadn’t occurred to my sister, nor did it to me for a long while. What a whacky, self-indulgent notion.
Most of the time when I’m sick I take care of myself. Thankfully, I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve also learned to think ahead a little bit, to have things on-hand before I get sick, like OTC medications. (In the last few days I discovered the sore throat Chloraseptic I have expired in 2011; I didn’t let that bother me much – after all stuff like that never even used to HAVE expirations and we all turned out fine, FINE DAMNIT! – but it’s probably time to lay in new sick-bed supplies.) I have a tendency to be rather immediate in my response to life; in this case when I’m not sick I can’t think of what I’d really want or need when I AM sick. I remind myself to pay attention so I can get whatever it is in advance. You’d think by my age I’d have some of these things down, but sadly, that is not entirely the case.
I grew up using Vicks Vapo rub and I took that trait into my independent adult years but I stopped using it years ago. I don’t care how much it helps. I cannot STAND to have that greasy, smelly stuff on my body – which ends up in my hair, on my sheets, etc. ICK. These days I find it preferable to get a big pillow (from the couch) to prop behind my bed pillows so I’m essentially sitting upright and can more or less breathe through the night. I don’t want to tell you how long it was before I gave myself permission to do something so obviously frivolous and WRONG.
I’m a big fan of Echinacea too; I really do think the herb cuts symptoms and speeds recovery. Celestial Seasonings teas, especially the ones made for throat and sinus are really nice. I take extra Zinc and Vitamin C. I avoid the high potency vitamin C concoctions that are mixed with water; they have too many ingredients I try to avoid like colorings and added pseudo-sugars. If I’m thinking ahead – which again isn’t often enough – I like to have shelf-stable Miso soup packets. I just water them down to cut the high salt. I never buy canned soups and mostly make my own. I try not to indulge in too much junk “as a treat” when I’m sick since I figure healthy foods help healing.
When you are sick that is all you are. The world gets very small. If your fever is high enough it also gets fairly surreal. You just “go away” to this weird state (and I don’t mean Arkansas or North Dakota). I’ve had a philosophy for years that getting sick is your body’s way of talking to you. It wants to slow you down and focus on looking after yourself. It’s pretty effective in that.
I don’t often contact my police station in part because of past experiences which have ranged mostly from indifferent to antagonistic. One time though, many years ago, I went there for assistance after having a weird incident with another woman and her 3 unleashed dogs that had surrounded me, barking and growling on a woodland path. I wanted to know what I could do should it happen again (we do have a leash law).
An officer met with me alone at the station. On contact he shook my hand. Normal enough right? Then instead of releasing my hand, as one would expect, he held onto it and turned it over in his own hand to examine my turquoise ring, which he then commented upon. Jeez-o-flip. TODAY I totally know that for a power play, a sexual/dominance thing. TODAY I hope I would pull my hand away. But at the time I didn’t. I was taken aback and deferred to his position which I’m sure he counted on. It still pisses me off. He didn’t help me either. His advice? He actually told me to grab the dog by the balls. Riiiiggght. This was a younger officer too, not some good ol’ boy with no clue about women. Grab the dog by the balls.