Chapter 1: Childhood

Rebel Without a Clue

I ran away from my babysitter when I was eleven.

My parents were at a meeting with a group of church members, and we kids were at the pastor’s parsonage next door. Two teenagers, a boy and girl, oversaw the little crew of kids ranging in age from toddlers to me, a preteen.

I loved that house. It was a Victorian masterpiece like many in the old sections of town, with elegant touches like pocket doors and a two-way staircase and a beautiful portico on the corner. The second floor had a laundry room, which I thought was mind-blowing. Years later I would babysit the pastor’s three children there regularly. The house is gone now. That makes me sad.

We spent the night playing games and watching movies. As the evening wound down, our teenage supervisors sent the youngest to bed and the rest of us were asked to be quiet and lay down on whatever pillows and blankets they tossed on the floor. I was confused. I was practically grown. I wasn’t a baby. I propped my head on my chin and looked at the other children in disbelief.

Then, I got a brilliant idea. I would just go get my parents. I leaned over to my brother and whispered my genius plan. We’d simply bail. No one would be upset at all.

We waited until our babysitters were out of sight, we told the youngins to stay put and not follow us, and we bolted out the front door. The teen boy came bursting through the kitchen door, screaming for us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him sack my brother like a Browns quarterback. I didn’t relent, sacrificing my little brother. Poor kid.

I made it all the way around the church to the door. It was locked, so I rang the doorbell, breathless and victorious. The pastor answered, his face twisted with confusion. Right then, I knew. I knew I was in trouble. I knew what I had done was inexplicably dumb. What I thought I’d achieve is still a mystery to me.

I fell to pieces when I was forced to face my mother’s calm wrath. I sobbed as she lectured me on what could’ve happened. She tried to understand whatever possessed me to do it. I didn’t know. I really didn’t. I was rebelling. Badly.

The worst was yet to come. I had to apologize to my babysitters—and their parents. My eyes were swollen with tears as I choked out the worst apology of my life, a replica of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night a backdrop behind them. That painting still affects me to this day. I wrestled with guilt over my escape for years, begging God for forgiveness, hoping that didn’t hinder my chances of getting into heaven.

Lesson Learned: The worst kind of apologies are made when you’re the guiltiest.

The Upstairs Window

I used to spy on the guy who replaced my dad at the newspaper.

We lived on the corner of an alley overlooking the parking lot to the local newspaper where my dad worked. Since he walked the block and a half to work every day, the twenty spot lot meant little to me aside from overflow parking when we had parties and a place to ride my bike. When Dad was forced out of his position and found employment elsewhere, he was replaced by a guy I’ll call Craig.

In my memory, Craig looked like Prince Charming, with a flowing crop of nineties blond hair that gleamed in the sun. I colored over his picture in the position announcement in the paper and left the page out in plain sight. It was my vote of solidarity with my parents. My little eight-year-old heart was broken at the injustice of the world. My dad worked hard. I knew that. Now there was Craig with his sports car and his shiny hair parking in the lot across the street. Our lot. Our street.

My brother and I would post up at the front window upstairs and watch him at closing time. Craig’s presence was an invasion, his car a blight in my neighborhood and the once meaningless parking lot. Craig would stride down the alley with his important briefcase and his important mane. He had a daily ritual when he got to his car. He’d open the door. He’d take off his jacket and toss it in the backseat. He’d put his briefcase on the passenger side floor. Then he would sit in his swanky car for a minute and leave.

I didn’t like Craig. I didn’t understand why. He was probably an okay guy. He probably had a family and kids and a nice house. But I didn’t think about that when I quietly seethed from the top window. Everything in my small universe had been shaken up like a snow globe and I blamed Craig for it.

The people who you think have wronged you are just people.

Tucker

My brother and I brought a frozen chipmunk into the house.

The winter of 1999 was brutal. The temperatures barely eked out double digits and the wind chill was negative twenty and below. The night before we were scheduled to go back to school after the New Year, school closings popped up on local TV, giving us an extension on our break. School was canceled the rest of the week due to the heavy snow and bitter cold. It was any kid’s dream situation. I’m sure my parents loved it.

So, like all children do when it’s negative thirty out and the air hurts your face, my brother and I bundled up in our snow suits and went sledding in the backyard. The back of our property dipped down into a shallow creek that had a trickle of water in it. Our only sledding hills ended in the creek, and you hoped for an icy crust to keep you from getting soggy boots. After traipsing around in snow to our knees, we stumbled upon something in the creek basin that stuck out from the white blanket. A tiny chipmunk lying on its side in a pile.

I had never seen a chipmunk up close. They’re too stealthy and stay in the underbrush. We crouched and brushed the snowflakes from his chestnut colored coat. His little feet moved. His sides fluttered with shallow breaths. He was alive.

I declared an emergency. We needed to save this helpless creature from his imminent demise. I scooped him up and took him in the house where we wrapped him in an old washcloth. We took turns sitting on the couch cradling our new friend, who was livening as he warmed back to life. If you’re noticing a pattern in these stories, where I concocted a brilliant plot and roped by brother into my scheme, you’ll find 97% of my childhood experiences are exactly that.

The sound of the garage door lifting made us both perk up at the same time. Mom was going to be so proud of us for tending to this little guy. When she walked through the door, we hoisted him up and proclaimed, “Look, Mom! We saved him!”

Imagine our surprise when Mom screamed, “Why do you have that inside the house? What is wrong with you? Take it outside!”

“But, Mom,” we protested, “we named him Tucker!”

At that point Tucker started wriggling in the washcloth, less docile than before.

“That’s a wild animal. It could’ve bitten you. Take it outside now!” Mom cried.

Dejected, we placed Tucker in a deep plastic bin in the garage and Mom left the garage door open a crack for him to see his way out. I suppose it was a compromise for our supposed heroism. The next morning, Tucker was gone. I don’t know how she broke the news to my father, who sets traps on the porch for chipmunks as if for sport and delights in catching them.

I’d like to think we’re legendary among the chippies, Tucker’s many ancestors passing on our tale.

Lesson Learned: We are so lucky Mom didn’t put us in the garage overnight for that stunt.  

Non-Disclosure Agreements #1

The first time someone told everyone I’d had cancer I was in fifth grade.

My parents, as was their yearly custom, had a meeting with my new teachers at my new school and told them about what had happened to me at the ripe old age of four. I was still in the danger zone of five to ten years post treatment, and they wanted them to know my situation, what to look out for, and what signs could require an emergency intervention. Due to the massiveness of my surgery to remove my kidney, I had two intestinal obstructions requiring even more surgery, so it was best for the adults in charge of a bulk of my waking hours to be vigilant. Not like I’d tell them. I’m kind of too brave sometimes.

I had perfect attendance that year, a rarity for me, because I always caught something. This achievement came to an end in the spring when my great-grandmother died. Her funeral was the only day I missed.

When I returned to school the next day, a boy on my bus peeked over the seat where he was driving his Ertl tractors and told me he was sorry. I was honored. How sensitive. How kind to share his condolences.

As the day went on, I was given the same treatment at my locker. And in my homeroom class. And it started to feel a little weird. A little too… familiar. Look, I’d gotten those pity stares in public when I was sick and bald. I still get those “I can’t believe she’s still here” looks from my own family members. They’re subtle, and I see them, and I know.

I asked a friend why everyone was apologizing to me, and she said, “Oh, when you were gone, Mrs. A told us you had cancer.”

I think I may have blacked out for a moment. She did… what? This was a violation of not only my privacy, but my quest for the almighty sameness I’d been fighting for, for much of my young life. Now everyone knew. People knew that I didn’t want to know, my personal business laid bare to my fifth grade class without my permission. We rotated classrooms, so when I say everyone, I mean everyone.

Kids thought I was sick. Kids thought I was dying. And I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t stop it. It was a scary, terrible day for me.

I wish I could say something happened, but I can’t. Nothing happened. Because reaction was useless. The truth was out there. It was one of many early experiences that influenced me to shrivel my truth inside to make sure no one could label me as different, broken, fragile. Until the next time, and the time after that.

Lesson Learned: The most colossal damage to children’s lives is caused by the adults they are supposed to trust.  

The Canoe Trip

I canoed 9 miles in 45 degree weather with my girl scout troop.

I had been in girl scouts since kindergarten. As we all began entering the awkward tween stages, getting together became more of a challenge. Add to that the fact that we no longer went to the same school and things got complicated. 

It was our custom to do a group outing before breaking for the summer, and we had a scheduled canoe trip in late May. The weather had other plans for us. When we woke up that morning, it was in the forties, gray, and raining. The trip was scheduled and everyone was gathered, so we went, wildly unprepared.

It was not fun. I’m an Ohioan, and we start wearing shorts as soon as the snow melts. In my optimism, I wore my best jorts and a sweatshirt under my poncho. The air was chilly and the rain never stopped. My shoes were soaked. It was absolutely miserable.

At one point, at a bend in the river, another canoe of girls got caught between a fallen tree and the bank. As they stood and tried to get themselves loose, they tipped. Everyone landed in the water. Their gear went bye-bye in the current. 

My mom, who was commanding our vessel, banked our canoe and jumped into the water. Strangers grabbed paddles and seat pads. The submerged canoe had to be turned over and the water was too deep to dump out. All the girls were assigned to different canoes, I gave my sweatshirt to one of my friends, and my dad towed the lone canoe, tying it to his with his belt.

If you’ve ever canoed before, it always seems like a good idea to do nine miles until you actually do them. Add the frigid temperatures and it’s extra painful. All we wanted to do was go home.

We canceled our plans to camp out that night and went back to my house, where we showered and changed and slept in the pop-up camper, which was set up in the garage.

Lesson learned: The weather cares little of your plans. 

Nun School

My cousin gave me a black eye when we played Nun School.

My cousins are the best people in the world. There’s no competition. We were each other’s best playmates throughout our childhoods. My cousin Jenn, who is four years older to me, was a person I considered a surrogate big sister. I looked up to her then and still do now. She’s an incredible human being. 

We invented ridiculous premises for our play, and the most infamous and memorable was Nun School. I don’t know where we came up with this idea. None of us are Catholic, attend a parochial school or, at that point, encountered a nun in person. 

The goal of Nun School was simple. Jenn was the nun, and we were the bratty students who constantly and egregiously defied her. In return, she would exact punishment, the more absurd the better. We were not, under any circumstances, allowed to break character and laugh.

One day we were playing Nun School in the basement playroom at my house. My brother and I were giving poor Sister Jennifer a run for her money. She picked up an old Kermit doll–you know the kind with the hard plastic eyes on top of his head, distributed in the 70s and 80s? Well, she grabbed his skinny legs and began twirling him above her head like a helicopter, menacing us to be quiet. I think you can guess where this is going. She got too close, and she whacked me across the face with it, those plastic eyes slamming into mine.

I was stunned at first. Then hurt. I ran upstairs to put ice on my face. I’ve never heard a person apologize so profusely, mostly in the “please don’t tell my mom” kind of way. But the damage was obvious in the fat bruise forming under my eyebrow.

Lesson Learned: Do not, under any circumstances, test the nun. 

The Disqualification

I got DQ’ed in not one, but two, track meets. Maybe three. It’s too embarrassing to remember.

Seventh grade is a horrible time for all people. If you liked being twelve, I have a lot of questions about your life. Insecure and itching to belong, I did something bold and wrote my name on the sign-up sheet for the track team. I wanted to try something new.

I have always been more artistically inclined. By middle school I’d been playing piano for over five years and I was always interested in dance and theater and writing. Aside from a few stints in recreational soccer leagues–and I wasn’t very good in those–I didn’t have much athletic experience.

Track in Ohio starts when snow is still on the ground. During practice, we ran in the gym and did laps through the building, up a couple flights of stairs, across the hall, back down again. 

When the weather was tolerable, we got to run on the high school track. I wasn’t a distance runner, so I was looking for an event to participate in. I’d done the hundred meter dash and was average at best. One day I joined a friend who was learning how to jump a hurdle in the grassy area in the center of the track. After a demonstration, and a lot of false starts, I cleared the hurdle.

It was exhilarating. It felt like flying and got addicting. I jumped over and over and over. At present day, I’m 5’1″, and I haven’t grown since I was sixteen, so at twelve I was probably in the higher end of four feet tall and doing the 100 meter hurdles. It was my only event, and occurred early in the meets, so I had to wait until all the events were finished to leave. 

Jumping one hurdle is quite different than several. If you lose a step anywhere in that lane, it’s impossible to get it back. I was petrified of tripping over a hurdle and faceplanting in front of everyone. I lost most every race. I imagine my parents in the bleachers, forcing a smile, and cheering me on, probably thinking “Please, girl, find another hobby.”

Friends, I am not a runner. No matter how hard I wanted to be. On two occasions (probably three) I reached the finish line to find I’d been disqualified from the race. Why? Because I went around the hurdle instead of over it. It was humiliating.

My illustrious track career lasted exactly one season, and I drifted into clubs and activities that had challenges and struggle I preferred. 

Lesson Learned: Don’t go around the hurdles. Jump them. Fall, crash, skin your knees, but don’t go around them. It’s never better. 

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