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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Young Heart

It's funny. (Or not?) I have the worst memory. There are some things I can remember with the most amazing clarity and then others that are just gone. A girlfriend posted pictures on Facebook of a trip our 7th grade class took to Pittsburgh. Apparently I was there. She had pictures of me there in my favorite high-waisted (ha!) Liz Claiborne shorts. It looks like we had a good time. We're all smiling. I don't know. It's gone. The fact that I'd ever been to Pittsburgh is gone. It makes me wonder just how much I've lost.

I have some very specific memories from childhood, though. Some made me realize how different I was. I've always said that if no one had ever told me that I was adopted I'd have figured it out. I looked like I fit. I'd even say I look more like my mom than her natural children. But I never felt like I fit in. I've always been very sensitive. I struggled to deal with bad things that would happen to anyone I loved, or anyone at all, really. I lived a pretty cloistered existence where I rarely knew what was going on in the world. But when I did learn about things I didn't know how to process them. My parents, so far as I knew, had no idea that the world held injustices and if they were ever mentioned I was quickly reminded that these were none of my business. It was hard to deal with the genuine anxiety I had over things when I had no one who would talk to me about them.

In the third grade I remember watching the Jerry Lewis telethon. They would have entertainers perform between stories that introduced you to families who struggled with an MD diagnosis. I had a friend in my class with MD. His brother had it, too. I was very moved by the stories that afternoon and decided I needed to help. I called the number on the screen and pledged $25. I had no idea the true value of money but was pretty sure that was A LOT of money and would really make a difference. I wasn't old enough to donate so I gave them my dads name. If he had seen the show he'd certainly want to do something to help. I didn't have a credit card so they had to mail a pledge card to my dad that he could return with his donation. So I went along in my day and I'm sure I forgot to tell my dad about his generosity by the time he got home from work. Some time later, however, he received his pledge card in the mail. He was not as excited as I'd thought he'd be. He was very mad. At least I thought he was mad. As I look back, many of his emotions looked the same: anger, frustration, stress, nervousness, etc. Whichever he was experiencing, he did not appreciate my giving his name to the charity and promising them money. I was going to have to work at the store shredding papers and doing mailings to earn that money to teach me a lesson. In retrospect, I'm sure I would've done the same to Audrey. But it would've been for a different reason. After I told her how proud of her I was for having such a beautiful heart and caring for others, I would teach her how wonderful it feels working toward a goal; especially when your goal is generosity. It hurt my feelings that he was mad at me and I went to my room to cry.

In the fifth grade we learned about slavery. I have to believe that I knew about it before then? But the lesson from Mrs. Mauzy is the one that I understood and the only one I remember. It was horrific. I was confused. How did people steal other people? How did they get to beat and kill them? How could they possibly OWN them? It was something that hurt me. I kind of even felt guilty for being white. I wanted to hate white people. I got home that day through the back door and entered the kitchen to find my mom ironing and watching the little black and white television on the counter. I told her what I'd learned that day. I was certain she didn't know about it or we would've had long talks about how awful it was and she would have answered the myriad of questions that were now running through my mind. She just told me that she knew. She said it was a long time ago. I know. We learned about that today. It was the 1800s when they were freed. But it was so wrong. And evil. And how could people do such things? My mom has a way of speaking to you that lets you know that it is now time to stop talking about whatever you're saying. It always starts with her clearing her throat and starting a sentence with "Well..." As I recall, that was the end of our conversation. I still struggle to understand how so many people all over the world got (get) away with it.

The hardest memory of my childhood came the following year. As we didn't yet have a VCR, let alone digital movies on command, every Sunday I would head to the living room after dinner to watch The Wonderful World of Disney. You were offered a different Disney movie every week. One evening I was sitting on the ottoman directly in front of the TV crying and my father came in having no idea what could've possibly just happened. I had been waiting for my Disney movie to come on but it hadn't started yet. A news show was still on. They were showing black and white footage of a large hole and a bulldozer shoveling many naked, skin and bone dead bodies into it. I couldn't understand what it could possibly be. I pointed to the TV and asked "What is that?" My dad answered, very matter-of-factly, "That's from the Holocaust." That is a thing? It has a name? "What does that mean?" I asked. He told me to stop watching it if it was making me upset. He didn't understand how desperately I needed to know what it was. I needed to have it explained to me. There had to be an answer that would let me know it wasn't what it looked like. My dad never understood my desperate need to understand things. It just frustrated him. I thought he was mad at me that night. I now realize he was frustrated. A man who lives in a pristine world where little existed outside of the store or the house, and nothing existed outside of Alliance, had no way of understanding that I was genuinely pained by such things. And that I needed to have long talks about them so I could ask every question I could come up with.

As the family was coming into the living room to watch the movie I was unable to stop crying. I was crying harder now (that cry where you can't catch your breath), because I had seen the most horrific thing imaginable and I thought my dad was mad at me. I don't know if they had a secret head nod or a wink but no one asked if I was ok. There was always a general quietness as if an order had come down "Leave her alone. She'll get over it." I went to bed because I wasn't going to sit there and ruin the movie for everyone else. I never fell asleep that night. Eventually I calmed myself down and stopped crying, but I couldn't stop seeing that footage in my head. How did those people get so skinny? Why were they all naked? How did they all die? What happened? What is a holocaust? Hours later, as would happen many times to come for the rest of my years living in his home, I could see my dad coming to my door. There was always light that came under my door from the hallway. I could see shadows of his feet getting closer. He opened the door to see if I had calmed down yet. I told him I wasn't able to sleep. I didn't sleep that entire night. I was afraid of the world now.

There were countless nights in his home when I couldn't sleep. He was confounded by it. He bought me a hypnosis tape with the ocean playing in the background. Didn't work. He would give me NyQuil even if I wasn't sick. Usually that worked but he had a hell of a time getting me to school the next day. He bought me a journal to keep by my bed so I could write down the things I was worried about to revisit the next day. Of course, he didn't understand how my brain worked; one thought would lead to another thought, to another thought, to another. I could write you a book by morning.  I always thought he was mad at me when he came in to find I was still awake. I wish I had realized it was just frustration. I wish he would've realized that I needed an outlet for everything I worried and cared about and telling me not to think about it would never be the answer. I imagine when I leave this world and get to see him again we will have a lot to talk about.



4 comments:

  1. You are blessed with a loving, caring heart. It is comforting to know one of my classmates gets it. I feel like i am reading my own unconscious thoughts. Keep it up!

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    1. Likewise, my friend. Thank you for your support!

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  2. I recall seeing a newsfilm of the 1940's WWII bombing of an English city, and a child being carried out of rubble clearly dead. I was freaked out. We were visiting my grandmother in Boston. I cried and had to be comforted, but I do remember the parents being aggravated at my reaction. But it was the right reaction. It was horrific what you saw. I think parents don't quite know, unless they prepare for it, how to help a kid feel safe AND acknowledge the world has unimaginable horrors! Enjoy your big, tender heart--the world needs it, although it is hard to be the owner of one. I declare that Ownership of a Tender Heart is not for sissies!

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