Good-bye to childhood

My childhood ended on September 25, 1977, the day my dad married his second wife. I wore a long polyester dress with giant peach polka-dots and a ruffle along the bottom. Someone shuttled us to the wedding which took place on a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound. Instead of wedding cake, they had cheesecake, which I’d never had before, nor did I understand. (I know. What’s to understand, but at the time I was like, hey, where’s the buttercream?)

True, my dad had endured more than his share of calamity by the time he exchanged his second set of vows on that blue-skied September day. He’d survived a childhood with an alcoholic, his own parents’ divorce, a battle with Hodgkin’s disease while still in his twenties. He had a long scar down the length of his torso and a failed thirteen year marriage behind him. He wanted this second chance at happily-ever-after. I see this with clarity now that I am 43 years old, a decade older than he was on his second wedding day. But then I felt only the flip-flop of the world as I had known it, the shaking of everything as if we lived in a snow globe.

Sometimes, I think that when I grieve over the loss of my dad who died just after turning 47 I am really mourning the loss of my childhood. Even before their divorce, my parents were preoccupied. I caused no trouble and caught no one’s attention. I happened to be a self-sufficient child, the one my parents looked to for help around the house and assistance with the other children. I began babysitting when I was ten years old. Once, between my parents divorce and my dad’s remarriage, I woke up in the morning to find that my mother never returned from a date.

The terror of being abandoned has never fully left me. And yet isn’t that a fundamental truth about life? People leave, sometimes willingly, sometimes without choice. My dad left us the first time because he wasn’t happy married to my mother, living in our little tract-house in Whispering Firs. He left me the second time when cancer killed him.

Red full

I lived with my dad and stepmother when my mother remarried six months after my dad’s wedding. My 29-year old stepmother proclaimed that she never wanted children, and yet, there we were. My mother’s new husband didn’t want us all–only me and my baby sister–my dad said, no, they all stay together. I remember him asking me: who do you want to live with? I was eleven. Who asks an eleven year old to choose?

After we moved in with my dad, I hardly saw my mother. She had a new husband, a new full-time job, a new apartment. I navigated middle school alone. No one asked what I ate for lunch (an apple every day or a bag of corn-nuts bought from the snack bar). I bought my own clothes. I rode my bike to school and then home again. No one reminded me to do homework. Despite a couple of good friends in high school, I always felt alone. Loneliness was my dependable companion from the moment my childhood ended until the day I left for college. I was close to my baby sister, seven years my junior, but not with my brother and sister who were close to my age.

I lived down the hallway in the last bedroom on the right. It was painted lavender and had a lock on the door which I always locked behind me. I came home from school on days I had no extracurricular activities and went straight to my room where I’d play the piano or read. I could tell from the sound of the gears that my dad or stepmom approached our house on the dead-end street. The only difference between me and a renter living with strangers was that I didn’t pay rent. I did, however, buy all my own shampoo and clothes which I washed, dried and put away myself. I was a roommate who cleaned up after herself.

My parents didn’t mean to abbreviate my childhood. They didn’t purposely treat me like an adult when I was a mere child. My self-sufficiency disguised my longing to have someone sit by my bed and stroke my hair while I fell asleep. Being self-contained saved me even as it closed the door on softness and childhood.

I’m grown now, but I grieve the passing away of my childhood as if it happened only ten minutes ago. Why didn’t any of the adults in my life treat me like a child when I was just a little girl? I was never abused and I am grateful to have been spared what too many children have to endure. But still, I wish I could remember even one time when someone scooped me up and twirled me around just to hear me giggle with glee. I wish I had a memory of snuggling on my dad’s lap, of having a storybook read to me while we rocked. I wish I could recall a day of laughter, a time when someone took me out to eat pie other than that time my dad took me to a restaurant to break the news that he was divorcing my mother.

“But I will always love you,” he said. He never said those words again.

He loved me; I know that. But in my family, we were all broken. Jagged edges preventing us from embracing. Like the shrub in my backyard, I am covered with sharp quills, the better to keep you away.

And then I cry because I’m alone.

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Good-bye to childhood

21 thoughts on “Good-bye to childhood

  1. You don’t know me aside from blog comments now and then. But, you have written this and I sit here teary because of the failings in my own life that I’m facing and deciding upon right now. It reminds me of how great the decisions as parents we make can really be. I won’t go into more detail except to say, this really spoke to me tonight during my bout of insomnia. And, I hope that you surround yourself with your family and remind yourself that you are NOT alone anymore. Hugs.

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  2. Oh Mel. I had a little sniffle at my desk reading this on a rainy Monday morning. As a lawyer, I deal with broken families all the time and it is far too easy to forget the quiet children, the ones who seem to be coping and “taking it well”. Our court system provides that children should, if they are old and mature enough, have their views taken into account on any decisions affecting them, like who they are to live with after a divorce. I understand the principle but so many times have seen children stressed beyond belief at the idea that they have to choose. Just horrible. On the plus side, while you will always mourn for that little girl-who-wasn’t, I bet you are making up for it tenfold with your own kids. That is worth a lot, isn’t it?

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  3. {{{ HUGS }}}

    I am going through a divorce myself, this is a good reminder to make sure my kids will stay be able to stay kids.

    I know I can’t fix your past, but I will send lots of positive energy to you while you work through those issues in the present.

    Karen

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  4. Mel,
    I so relate with you and grieve lost childhood with you. It is strange to be un-abused, but unnoticed; loved, but not as much as was needed. I pray that God makes up for the years the locusts have eaten, as only He can. I’m in awe of how He’s been doing that in my life lately.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Sometimes I forget that others might relate.

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  5. Mel,

    I haven’t commented much lately, and haven’t heard from you in quite a while, either, but this post so cried out to my heart. The loss of our childhood and/or more especially the loss of a father is such a terrible thing. It is, sadly, more and more common, and those scars stretch for generations. Being involved in Christian based therapy myself, for the same reasons, I have been struck by how much our fathers affect our lives, our relationships and our childhoods. My initial assessment of my own disfunctions was that it had to do with my mother’s mental illness and the abuse that happened because of it… How strange it is to find that once the superficial curtain of those issues has been brushed away it is the inadvertant, little things that my father, a man I consider my best friend (and a very good man at that), did, unintentionally, that have wounded me most into my adulthood. So much of who we are has to do with our relationships with our fathers that we now know that it is more devistating to a child’s development into adulthood to loose a father than a mother… I am not talking about being nurtured as a child, though, that is a mother’s office, is it not? But I think the reason God chose the metaphor of being our heavenly “father” is because of how important our relationship with our father is to who we are as adults. Reading about you and your life in your blog I can see how God has strengthened and blessed you past those trials and believe that as in my own life he can continue to heal those hurts… But I also know that even with healing there is often a scar. It is good too, therefore, that you can recognize the pain that created it and learn to work around it… (or as in my case, work on working around it…) God continue to bless you and father you on your journey. Just the fact that you blog as you do, tell me that the quills on your shrubbery are softer than you think…

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  6. Our circumstances were different, but the toll it took on you and me is hauntingly similar. My parents never divorced but they may as well have. They put us kids thru our own personal hell here on earth. My Dear Hubby reminds me when I sink into a ‘past life funk’ that those things happened to me YEARS ago and I am so well-loved by him and our kids I shouldn’t even focus on the past. But the past IS a part of me. It will always be there, no matter how far behind me I try to put it. But I wouldn’t be who I am without all those rough years. I wouldn’t have the compassion, the empathy, the sympathy for people in pain like I do. I don’t think I’d hold what I have now so close to me, either, because I am well aware of the real, true blessings I do have in my life. A gentle (((((HUG))))), Mel…I know quite well what you’re talking about here.

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  7. Oh Mel. Isn’t it something how childhood wounds stay with us long after the child has grown? I am so sorry that you experienced this sadness and will pray that your heart will be healed completely and know the full sweetness of complete forgiveness. I pray that your pain will be reduced to a memory and no longer a gaping wound. This is possible dear one. Thank you for sharing this deep place in your heart.

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  8. Rachel says:

    Wow, Mel. I have no words …. except God bless you. I have a huge lump in my throat, reading your post.
    Rachel in Idaho
    (vowing to hug and kiss and notice my kids continually……)

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  9. I think being a parent has made me feel more than ever the hurts of my childhood.

    When we were kids, we were focused on getting through it.

    Now that we are parents, we can cry for what we lost.

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  10. wow, i could have written almost all of that!
    it hurts to relive it in my mind, so i try not to think about it.
    my parents divorced just after i turned 8. my brother and i moved in with my mom and her boyfriend, and i missed my dad like crazy. when i was 9, my brother and i had a saturday with dad, and when he dropped us off, we found that my mom had deserted us. she left notes about not being able to be a mom anymore (she was 30) and my dad was left to raise 2 kids. i didn’t see my mom for 5 years (and didn’t know where she lived). not contact at all!
    when i was 12 he re-married. we thought this new woman would be a good thing. we were wrong. she hated me right from the start and quickly made my dad chose between loving me or her. he chose her. i was self-sufficient, did all my chores, ate alone every night, starting working 2 and 3 jobs so that i could afford to buy all my clothes (she wouldn’t let my dad give me money). i hated home and felt abandoned. she started stealing things from my room. i had to bring my purse to the shower with me because i was tired of having to replace my id.
    she stole my clothes, my shoes, and then my viola. i was an aspiring musician and now had no instrument. my dad could do nothing (or so he thought) because he didn’t want to get a divorce. i left home while i was still in highschool, and moved in with a friend.
    there are many days that i just wish my parents were dead, so that i wouldn’t have to think about the fact that they are alove, but that we have no relationship at all.
    i have forgiven them, but it’s too painful to love them.
    i have vowed to love and adore my children more than humanly possible. my kids only know security, love and a sense of family. things i never had.
    i do believe that this crappy childhood has made me a better person, and especially a better mom, but it still hurts (and i’m 39).
    hugs

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  11. Cherie says:

    I can relate to so many of the things that you went through in your childhood. God’s mercy shines when he gives us our own children to love!

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  12. Amy says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, Mel. I was in 2nd grade when I had to lock myself in my mom and step-dad’s bedroom to call the police because he was beating her so badly. I started dialing, until I heard him threating to kill me, so mom called me off the phone. Do you find yourself revisiting those milestones as your children reach significant ages? As I watch my daughter grow, at different ages I think to myself, “When I was that age, I remember…[insert ugly memory here].” So I agree with Cherie. Having our own children is like God’s grace in the form of a do-over.

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  13. Lisa Burns says:

    hmmmm, i am in awe, yet again, by your amazing ability to take me there.

    i have been so consumed with life, and am playing catch-up…i am so very glad you are here to actually catch-up with. i love you.

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  14. BJ says:

    My heart aches for you, and all the commenters with similar pain. I am in the process of counselling for such a similar childhood…I highly recommend it. I am with a Christian psychologist, so we get the good psychology AND intercession…I so badly WISH my past was full of mom being around, and dad being faithful and available to us. It’s not. But I don’t want to be trapped in that forever. I feel so incredibly alone at times, as well. I do my best with my kids, and make sure every single one of them knows they are loved, wanted and important. And most of all, they know that mom and dad are together for good…which gives them such security. A security I’ve never known, and still long for. A security that we’ll all only find in the love and mercy of God. I wish I could hug you….thank you for your vulnerability. You are beautiful and precious.

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