Family History - Pt 4


“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Every child, once they are grown, looks back on their childhood with a critical eye. Parents do the best they can, but are only human, and flawed. Many thoughts/memories/issues come floating up from the deep recesses of your memory once you get married and have kids, bc you are re-living the same situations and making decisions every moment to do things the same, or differently, than what you experienced before.

You may have heard dad and I talking, over the years, about our childhoods....which were so different (and I leave dad to tell the story of his life) and yet contain many similar parallel elements. Both our childhoods were dysfunctional - that's part of our bond, our strength as a couple - but in entirely different ways, yet with similar results.

In some ways, my childhood was fortunate - my parents were educated, we were upper middle class, the new house my parents bought was in the neighborhood with the best schools in the state. Truly. My sister and I had the usual advantages that come with that - piano lessons, girl scouts, church/Sunday school (Presbyterian), educated parents who read to us and encouraged us academically, lots of friends in the neighborhood who were similar. The new house was large - over 3000 sq ft, a sprawling ranch style home with 4 bedrooms and 3 full baths; everyone got their own room. During most of my childhood, my parents owned 2 or 3 cars and a travel trailer - first a medium sized complete box-type trailer, then later the kind with a pop-up tent-like top, and a huge SUV to tow them.  We took vacations every summer to Co and NM-camping, hiking, riding the train in Durango, shopping, seeing the sites. Remember, this was the 1960s and many people then only had one car -the dads worked, the moms stayed home and drove everyone around in a station wagon. Grammy didn't work until I was 13. We had a large standard black poodle named Madeleine, bought in 1966 (after Corky died, and we moved to the new house) and later, she had pups and we kept 2 - Giselle and Genevieve, born 1972. We had toys, clothes, food, vacations, went to posh summer camp in East Texas, Sky Ranch .....

......and yet there there were many things that were "off", or not quite right. I didn't start to notice it until I went to school, made friends, kids who came over, observed, and commented, and I spent time I their homes and saw how their families lived. Normal families.

By the time I was in 1st or 2nd grade any relationship with my sister as a playmate or friend was fraught with problems and not getting any better. Playing with her, solo, was ok. We'd play with dolls and for the most part, she could interact appropriately. But every time I tried to include her in a group of friends - and every few years I'd give her "one more chance"- she'd start demanding things, or attention, throwing temper tantrums if she didn't get her way, demand to join us if we tried to do something without her, lie about what we were doing (these are 6 year old girls - we were playing with Barbies) and run tell the adults ridiculous made up things, as well as the hand print slapping thing (she'd slap herself, run show adults the red welt handprint, say I had done it ) .....which got us all punished, and forced to include her. I wasn't the only one who resented this - kids her own age, as well as my friends, started refusing to socialize with her. (Absolute power corrupts absolutely.) Frequently I was forced to play with sister K and another little odd misfit girl who lived behind us named Sherrie, who was also 3 years younger and had no friends. I was angry, felt I had no say in the matter, and so one night snuck over and threw tomatoes at Sherrie's front door. Everyone figured out it was me and I was grounded for days - which was ok w me, as I wasn't forced to play with them any more. When she was included, K would often just stare at people - she had large eyes, she'd pop them out to make "bug" eyes, and it was unnerving. No social skills at all. My earliest closet friend Monica pronounced K evil and disturbed, and no one would come to my house to play any more - so I started going to other people's homes. All. The. Time.

Grammy was a stay at home mom during these years, but she refused or was somehow incapable of doing the normal things you'd expect a mom to do: clean house, cook meals, do the laundry, run errands (even though she had the car) .....she could never seem to get to the grocery store......from the time I learned to ride a bike - 4 or 5 years old - she'd send me to ride on my bike to the grocery store, by myself, a few blocks away, with a couple of dollars, to buy chicken , coca-cola, and candy bars (only Baby Ruth's or Butterfingers, which is why to this day I can't stand those 2 types of candy) - that was our staple diet for most of my growing up. (When my parents got divorced in 1979 that was one of the insults Papaw lobbed at Grammy - that he was sick of eating nothing but chicken for dinner for over 20 years.) She even outfitted my bike with a larger basket so I could carry the heavy coke bottles - six In a pack, like beer, but at the time they were thick glass, and quart sized, and you returned them for a refund when they were empty; they were very heavy to tote around. So, while we had food - always dinner (to feed papaw when he came home from work) we never had anything else. There was never food in the house for breakfast, lunch, or snacks, and I do remember spending a lot of time being hungry, scrounging around for something to eat, eating at friends' houses, or getting them to buy me food. (Never got an allowance. My friend Monica did, and shared hers w me frequently.....we started eating at a Dairy Queen we rode our bikes to, ordered one burger, split it, drank water.) During the school year, Grammy would buy white bread and bologna, so that's what I ate for lunch-every day, every year, from 1st grade through 12th. Summers were hardest, bc she didn't buy it then, and I was often hungry. Since I was the one toting the recyclable glass coke bottles back and forth, I learned pretty early on that Grammy never kept track of this, and I kept the money - it was like 5 cents a bottle - to eat off of holidays and weekends. I remember you could buy 2 donuts and a drink at the Winchells' donuts down the street for 25cents, and frequently that was my lunch.

Imperial proof of all this - until I reached puberty, and started to grow , I was one of the smallest kids in my class at school. Thin and short, always in the front row at class photo line up time. 

Grammy had a set of books , one titled The I Hate to Cook Book and the other, titled The I Hate to Housekeep Book. I am not making this up - bc I read them both. The cooking book had lots of great 1960's recipes like : put the chicken in a dish, pour on BBQ sauce and butter, (or Campbell's soup, etc) and bake for one hour. Potatoes made the same way, only with cheese- that's what we ate for dinner most of the time. These books were supposed to free up women from the drudgery of running a home, bc the women were supposed to be out there going to grad school, getting jobs, protesting Vietnam and becoming feminists by burning their bras. My mom just did what the books told her, and nothing else. I really have no idea what my mom did with her days - I'd come home from school and she'd be watching tv, the house a mess, no laundry done ( learned at a very early age to do it myself) no food cooking till I rode my bike to buy the chicken and cokes. As soon as I was able, I got put in charge of cleaning (sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing bathrooms). Every mom I knew did this to their kids, especially the eldest daughter. At a minimum, all kids were expected to make their beds and clean their rooms, help out around the home. All my friends - and their brothers and sisters- did. But my sister, of course, did none of it.

I developed into a bit of an OCD neat freak - my bedroom was always spotless, decorated, organized, cleaned, arranged. My childhood room was painted light blue and furnished with hand-me-downs from Granny Ruby's house - dark wood Victorian furniture. I loved it - although sometimes I wanted a "cool" bedroom like Laurie on the "Partridge Family" - all wicker, and bright orange and pink flowers.  I kept it freakishly tidy - put my clothes away once I washed them, and my toys away as soon as I played with them - even on Christmas morning. It was a compulsion - I'd unwrap them, stack them, throw the trash away, take toys to my room, put away, take one out, play with it....put it back, play with next. It was the only aspect of my life and my world where I felt I had control. I created a little hidey-hole cubby deep inside my closet and often hid in there or under the bed (it was a high four poster bed, with a long fringed white hobnail bedspread) when mom was on a yelling rampage about something. I sucked my thumb till I was 12, trying to soothe myself from the stress. I don't ever remember Grammy hugging us or touching us - if I ever asked her to, which I did when I was really little, she'd laugh and say "no" and "you run along now".

My sister K took the opposite strategy. Her room was not just a mess, as dad once pointed out, it was a barricade. Not only did she never make her bed, she had a swirl of clean and dirty clothes/toys /papers/books all over the place, this pile was waist to thigh high. Added to the mix were an odd assortment of things : a cast off Christmas tree no one used any more (fully set up and decorated), all the odd bits of furniture that were broken, no one wanted any more, things we'd outgrown (high chair, playpen, a tricycle) inflated pool toys, just a bizarre jumble of crap - and of course, the bazillion toys she had that Grammy bought her every day to go to school. Grammy not only never made Kristie clean it, she didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with this situation.  The crap in Kristie's room filled the room up, waist high, all the way to the doorway, without any sort of path running through it - the only way she could even get into and out of her bed was to go through my room - we shared a connecting bathroom - and jump the last few feet, onto the bed, from the doorway. Her room was infamous, neighborhood kids would come over just to see it . And she lived this way till she went off to college.

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