“What stories were you told about your babyhood?” asks a writing prompt.
Well, I had in an unfriendly beginning. I was unplanned, and although this leans toward melodrama, the honest truth is, I was not wanted.
I came into the world when Dad was 40, mom was 37, L was 16, J was 12, and D was 8 years old. At this stage in the family’s life, everyone was busy with sports, cars, growing up and even, in 1962, growing slightly old.
My mother, who from childhood had only ever wanted one daughter, had given up hope. My brothers, embarrassed by their parents behavior, protested the thought of ever babysitting or changing a diaper. My mother didn’t relish dragging a diaper bag around again. Plus, she herself was embarrassed because she had heard ladies from the church whispering about So-And-So who had children later in life (“My goodness. You’d think they wouldn’t let that happen at this age,” etc.) Appearances were everything to my mom, especially as seen through the eyes of the church family, so she procrastinated telling her friends the big news. In sum, my mother was depressed about this pregnancy and even confessed me to when I was teenager that she had wished it (me) away. That’s hard to hear when you’re 16 and on any given day not feeling a reason to be alive, anyway.
However, and she was always quick to get to “However,” when I was born, the story changed. I was told, many times, that upon the announcement of my gender, my dad and our pastor, who waited with him in the waiting area, danced a jig of happiness.
My mom was now in her element. She was ready to girl-it-up!
My brothers warmed to me, but they never babysat or changed a diaper, partly because boys usually didn’t do childcare chores back in that day and partly because my mother claimed ownership of me the way an explorer plants a flag to express ownership. I was hers. This also meant no babysitters. Ever. OK, twice she tried, once with an aunt, once with a church member, and both reported disastrous outcomes. That was the end of babysitters.
I developed, according to a sparsely filled baby book, at an average rate. My first word was “dog.” One evening after church, I was carried into the house and placed on the floor where I stood and walked to an ottoman, climbed it and stood up like a circus bear cub to the roar of my audience’s applause and whoops. I would never repeat the stunt no matter how they coaxed.
I had a rich vocabulary at an early age and used words that stunned my mother because they were not part of our family’s regular lexicon. She though I was a genius. I suspect I was listening to the television more than she thought. Still, I was using big words in the correct context to the extent that it spooked my mom.
When I was potty training, my parents were in the midst of remodeling their new home somewhat, mainly moving one wall, but apparently, the move was a topic of many conversations. One day, while on my potty chair, I shared a genius idea with my mother: “I know! We can move this wall over here, and this wall over here!” The end result was that I would remove the wall between my brothers and me. I loved to be with them.
I had a few precocious moments but was usually well-behaved. Once I ate little red bumps off of tree leaves and convinced the next door neighbor who was one year younger to also try this new treat. Our mothers panicked and called the pediatrician who said we simply ate insect eggs and would be all right. I can’t imagine the din and feverish reaction this would cause in 2017. But in the mid 1960s, our culture was a little less worried about events like this.
Another time, while my mother was tethered to the phone on the wall, I found a Windex bottle and stood on furniture to spray the ceiling–the brand new, expensive, texturized ceiling I was warned to “Never, ever get wet, or it will crumble and fall to the floor.” To this day, I don’t know what imp spirit possessed me and caused me to disobey in such a blatant way. It wasn’t my usual modus operandum.
I had a pink flannel blanket that I carried for a while, but my mom eventually talked me into giving it up.
My imagination was robust. I had an imaginary friend I called “Tacko,” who, in my head, looked similar to Alvin of the Chipmunks. I pretended with dolls and stuffed animals constantly. I pretended to do homework in a big blue notebook because I observed at least one brother at least at one point doing homework (not a popular past-time with them, as it would be me later.)
I was not a healthy baby/child. I started out with eczema, and I had lots of bouts of tonsillitis and strep. I had chicken pox and other common childhood diseases, but seasonal allergies plagued me. “Seasonal allergies” is such a benign term for what effect they have on a child. At four years old, I was hospitalized for a few days for kidney tests. I had repeated infections.
During this stay, Doctor’s orders were that I was not to have anything to drink before the tests. One morning, my parents (Look! Dad appears in my story!) arrived just before the early visiting hour to find me on tip-toes on a makeshift stool at a water fountain or sink in the room trying my best to get a drink. The separation at night from my mother was worse for her than me. Every day at the proscribed visitation times, my parents brought me a new toy, usually a Barbie, so that stay had its perks. All of my life, my bladder and kidneys have been a little wonky. I still remember my roommate, Terri, and her cast, the first I had seen. That cast was so glamorous. She let me sign it. That was a big moment for a four-year-old. I still remember it, 50 years later.
In addition, when I was a baby, my mother noticed that when I was in my bed, my legs fell flat to the bed, knees and all. She suspected something was wrong with my hips or legs, but I developed on time. However, my feet have always turned out, so I walk like a duck. My right foot turns out further than my left, which I see clearly in snow prints every year. I was put in corrective shoes with the promise that if I wore them as directed, I would finally get that puppy I had wanted, but I just could not do it. My mother and doctor gave up when she told him I would simply sit on the couch and not play or walk as long as I had them on. So now I leave duck prints in the snow.
The worst injury I’ve ever incurred happened in early childhood. I was toddling over a kerosene lantern while the family was camping. I knocked it over, and it blew up between my legs. D grabbed me out of the fire. I wore bandages around my thighs for a time and had very light scars at least until my early 20’s. The only memories I have of that event are lying on a doctor’s table with my brothers standing around me giving me lots of attention, with J forming a Play-Doh duck to distract me, and then at home, when I slid off the pink sofa with the metallic thread in it, how it hurt.
My first childhood friend, Susie, lived right next door. On summer days, my mother says I could hardly wait to eat breakfast and get dressed so that I could go out to play. Susie was one year younger, and I’m ashamed to say that although I loved her, I was able to manipulate her emotions. When we would bicker, she would say she was going home and would begin to put her shoes on at our back door. Not wanting her to go but not wanting to ask her to stay, I would ask my mom for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I knew Susie would want to stay for that. It worked like a charm–many times, I’m ashamed to say.
Finally, I loved books. The stories, the pictures, the front and back covers–I loved every part of a book. I still have some today that enjoyed back then and attempt to read them to my granddaughters. A few years ago, I found one book that had been lost on line and ordered it. I shared it with my mom and asked her if she remembered reading it to me. I was able to write a column for Mother’s Day about how much her reading meant to me. And I can still remember what I think is the opening line of my very first book: “Good morning, Mr. S
unshine. Have you seen Tommy?”
In sum, I’d say my early childhood years go like this: “Mother … nonevents … Mother.” It all began and ended with her bookending my preschool years. Our brains are fabulous receptacles. I’m glad to put down some memories here before they are gone, like the title of my first book whose pictures I can still see and whose words I can still hear in my mother’s voice, but whose presence is long gone.