My Childhood Was a Happy One
Unless maybe it wasn't
I wrote this tongue-in-cheek but the truth is, I did have a happy childhood. While it was fun to write, I wrote it this way, as a pseudo-confessional, as a way to put doubt in other’s minds, because I write often about social issues and societal woes and I feel sometimes like a poseur.
How can I possibly know anything about dysfunctional families or abuse of any kind if I’ve never experienced it? I thought for a long time that I didn’t have the right to tell stories about myself so I kept the facts about my childhood and about my marriage mostly private. (It could be because it’s not all that interesting.)
I do know a lot about chronic depression—my own and others I love—and I’ve written about it before, but I can’t relate to abuse. I’ve always had a healthy support system so I understand the need for one. I do know what it feels like to be loved and cared for when it seems impossible to go on. And I’m acutely aware that I’m lucky in that way when so many others aren’t. My advocacy may be a way of paying it forward, but I don’t want to step on toes. Or, god forbid, appear ‘privileged’.
Those other stories are most often better left to the people who lived them; there’s no doubt about that, but I believe the rest of us have an obligation, as friends and witnesses, to help them tell their stories and keep them alive. They may see us as outsiders but if we do our jobs right we’re there as empathetic outsiders.
Because I’ve led a relatively quiet life I don’t always know how to process the pain of these realities. I don’t, for example, watch violent movies or shows that are too true-to-life because they stay with me. I don’t get over them. Yet I have no problem stepping in and advocating when people, especially women, are being abused or are getting the short end of the stick. I do it, I think, because it’s not fair that their lives should be so shattered, so out of control, so hopeless. If I have a voice, if I feel it, I need to write about it.
So here’s our topic for today: Should we only write about what we know? If we haven’t lived it should we weigh in? Where are the boundaries? Can I write humor about a happy life without seeming insensitive, given I see myself as an advocate?
It occurs to me that I may have written this foreword for that very reason: because I’m not sure how this bit of humor, as fun as it was to write, will be taken. As I publish it I must be feeling I need permission—which may or may not be silly. I just don’t know, and that’s why I’m asking you to help me sort this out.
I’m open to any thoughts. Go for it! And thanks for being here.
For nine blissful years I was an only child. Then, from out of nowhere and without my permission, my brother Michael came along. I was probably a very spoiled only child (I’ve heard stories . . .) but from the moment he came into our lives I really took to that kid. He was a “blue baby”, meaning he had heart problems right from the start, so it wasn’t like I could resent him, even if I wanted to. I mean, he was blue. Then, later, he was so darned cute I just had to laugh. All the time.
By the time my brother Chris came along I was 13 and feeling a little queasy about the rumors I’d been hearing about the bedroom shenanigans that brought about the little guy’s birth, so he wasn’t so welcome at first. But he looked like a little golden cherub. Where did he come from? Michael and I were slim and dark, but Chris was blond and blue-eyed, chubby and adorable. I had no choice. I loved him, too.
But back to me.
My parents, both of them, showered me with love. I realized only later, when I went merrily off to school, that they did me a HUGE disservice. I was not as special as they made me out to be. Some kids didn’t like me. Some teachers didn’t listen to me. That hurt! Still, I adjusted to second- and even third-place status because, you see, in my happy home, I was loved.
At least I think I was.
I have a memory of packing my little red satchel when I was very small and threatening to run away. (Those two must have done something to really annoy me, is all I can think.) I remember them standing near the door, not to stop me but to hold it open for me! They actually said Goodbye! Then my mom couldn’t play that game any more and she cried. And I cried. And I dropped my bag and went for hugs.
Or at least it seems to me that’s how it happened.
I was never spanked. I know that for sure. But might there have been some subliminal irritation or even disinterest that I, wrapped as I was in my constant companion, my bunny blanket, totally missed? I know for a fact that nobody really believes happy childhoods actually exist, so there must have been something. . .
I don’t mean to push the notion that nothing bad ever happened in all the years I was a kid. I have some vague scars, both visible and psychic, to show I didn’t live in a bubble all that time. But when I remember my childhood in broad terms, I have to admit I loved being that particular kid in that particular time.
When I first decided I would be a writer (I was 16 and had just moments earlier finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”) I hated the fact that nothing really bad had happened to me yet. How was I going to write if I knew nothing about angst or conflict or fear? (Not that I could even begin to relate to the horror that was Anne Frank’s life–I was 16 and living a sheltered life. I couldn’t relate to real horror at all.)
The first thing every writer of fiction learns is that her story had better be leading somewhere and there had better be some semblance of danger or fear or at least the kind of worry that causes periodic wringing-of-the-hands.
I couldn’t come up with any of those things on my own, so I decided it would be best to write about people who wallowed in that sort of stuff. My first choice was Charlotte Corday, killer of Jean Paul Marat during the French Revolution. (Side note: She killed him on the day before Bastille Day, which is July 14, which is, coincidentally, my wedding day!) I wrote many, many pages before I dead-ended there, too. I could write the facts but not the emotions. It was the 1950s and I was 16 and typing on a rented behemoth of a manual typewriter (Thank you, Dad!) in my tidy bedroom (Thank you, Mom!). Charlotte’s desperate revolutionary thoughts just didn’t compute. I had grown to love her courage and saw nothing wrong with her stabbing Marat while he soaked in his bathtub, (It could be I was wrong there, too. I’m still not sure which side I’m supposed to be on.) I was upset for days after reading of her subsequent and swift execution, but it had happened so long ago. . .
But life moved out of the ’50s and I grew up and got married and had a trio of kids of my own and I kept on writing. What I learned to do over time was to make stuff up. I got pretty good at it. So good that everything I’ve told you about my childhood today might just be the product of years of honed fertile imagination.
But before you even go there, I should tell you that everyone you might want to ask about this is gone.
So we’ll never know now, will we?