I wonder how many of us, when really put to the test, remember the same childhood our parents or our siblings or our teachers or our friends do. I expect that if you took the five members of my immediate family and asked us individually what those years in the depths of Alabama were like, you would be returned five entirely different stories.
If I’m honest – and honesty is part of the game here – I would have to admit that I don’t recall much about the reality of the day-to-day.
I recall genuine fun. We lived in a broad space. There was a lot of land, but there weren’t any other kids around. There were, of course, snakes. And, we, of course, lived in fear of snakes. And all of the trees – quite a few, actually – were very tall pine trees, so we didn’t have a tree house. I do believe the stories of my sister and my brother and me would match on this point: we desperately wanted a tree house. I don’t know if any of us actually knew anyone with a tree house, but, certainly the ones we read about in books and the ones we saw on television looked A-MAZ-ING. We wanted one. Unfortunately, our trees were not made for houses. . . . What we did have was a bush-house. I’ve no idea what the particular type of evergreen bush was. I’ve only seen them in our ‘yard’ in south Alabama and somewhere along the coast of Australia. Anyway, we loved our bush-house. I’m pretty sure we even took furniture out to make it more complete. I’m pretty sure my parents did not love that. Remembering the bush-house always makes me smile.
I also remember the woman who took care of us. Thinking of her fills me with joy. From her I learned about kindness and patience and altruism. Given the awareness of disparity and inequity that comes with age, remembering her also fills me with guilt. Were we racist in our attachment to this woman who gave us her everything? In hindsight, I can see the hideous racism that was everywhere around me throughout my childhood. But now, as then, I can only feel love for this woman, and I continue to believe that the love she showed to me and my sister and my brother was completely genuine.
I remember that my dad worked. A lot. And when he wasn’t working at his clinic or at the hospital, he was working in the yard or reading in another room. I remember that mother worked at my dad’s clinic and when she wasn’t working she was studying, usually taking classes at the junior college in a nearby town.
I remember always going to church.
I remember that ‘being good’ was very important.
I remember that I was the ‘smart one’.
I remember the library. It seems to me that I spent hours at the library. Always checking out books. Always reading. I loved biographies especially. I think the adults saw this as proof I was the ‘smart one’. I think, in fact, I loved the ability to escape into someone else’s reality.
It was in no way a bad childhood.
But when I was 8, something changed. I don’t know what changed. Nothing catastrophic happened. No one died. I wasn’t abused. There was no terrible tragedy. But something changed. I changed.
I read recently, I know not where, that mental illness often kicks in around the age of 11. Maybe I was just an early bloomer.
It’s easy for me to recognize now that I was depressed. I also got fat. And, I know now that people who have addiction often first exhibit eating disorders – food is, after all, the first mood altering substance we are able to access.
It’s easy to see that now. Then, I think, not so much. I’m not sure there was much treatment for or discussion about depression in adults in the 70s, let alone for children. And, well, even now addiction is generally considered to be something that’s self-inflicted, not something that could be recognized in a child.
I’m not moaning, really. I’m just recalling. Recalling with hindsight.