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.
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 car engine 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.