Even in the best of families, there can be childhood sorrows. And even in the worst there are still times of genuine happiness. Unless you grow up in a cage, in a basement, in a closet—and don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t happen more than you know—there’s something that clings to your bones, makes you worth knowing, keeps the secrets coming like an onion unpeeled.
It used to be that I carried sadness with me, a rucksack weighing me down to be opened up: a display of all the things that would make you want to leave. If you saw my collection of scar-ridden artifacts, there might be a chance. What wasn’t clear is that I wasn’t giving myself one.
Anne Lamott says we have to let things go, that happiness isn’t possible if we’re still carrying all that baggage. A friend who died two years ago used to tell me everyone has baggage. You just need to find someone whose bags are the same size or smaller than yours, doll. I still carry some of it around, but it grew so exhausting after a while. There’s only so much complaining before you become the problem you were trying to escape.
Lightness. A writing teacher told me years ago that even teenage boys in concentration camps felt joy at seeing teenage girls in various stages of undress. I scoffed him then. Silently thank him now. It is true, a fact I hold dear, that there is something good about everything, even what is so abjectly bad. I’ve written lists of the things my parents taught me. Most of them were good things. The bad ones are things I wanted to be their fault but were under my control after all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood. My childhood. The time we spent in the Chicago suburbs before moving to Texas. The time in Texas. The time spent plotting my escape. The leaving. I was but a child when I moved out of my mother’s apartment, sent off to play house with only dysfunctional examples. It’s no wonder I got married and dropped out of college, rinsed and repeated, for so long. Start college at 16 and graduate with your B.A. at 32 and see what excuses you have. Two master’s degrees later and my family doesn’t understand why I had to do it. Really, it doesn’t matter.
The 70s: Super 8 films and striped athletic knee socks, Charley’s Angels and the Love Boat. Fishing trips to Wisconsin before dawn, the Dells, KOA and pop-up campers, fathers with mutton chops, long hair rolled with orange juice cans. Swing sets and lawn-chair forts and RV shows. Time-share presentations, just for the free stuff. Watching my father work in the basement. Wood-paneled station wagons with rear-facing third row seating. Seeing my parents kiss when they thought we weren’t watching. Plaid bell-bottoms. Clogs. Feathered hair, trying to be like Cheryl Tiegs. Finding a Penthouse and thinking the “Letters” section was what it would be like to grow up. Tree forts. Burying dogs and fish. Weaving homemade pot-holders by the dozen. The Kool-Aid Man. Pachinko machines. Simon Says. Pong. Racquetball and handball. My dad sitting in the oven after working 36 hours outside in a Chicago winter. Neil Diamond, Englebert Humperdink, George Jones, The Muppet Show. Tornados parallel to the prairie path. My best friend’s house, where my mother lost the twins. Mrs. Morris handing out candy walking back from the market. Floyd, who came with us fishing, smelling of old man: cigars, shaving lotion, life.
My parents were so young—18 and 19 when they married, 20 and 21 when I was born, 28 and 29 when we moved to Texas. It’s a wonder we all came out alive. The scars are a given. Even if they’d been older, it was the 70s. For my 25th birthday, my then-husband bought me a 1968 Firebird convertible. Its owners manual offered instructions for kids in the car: if no seat belts are available, children should stand behind the bucket seat(s) and wrap their arms around the headrests. Car seats weren’t even invented when I was born. Being alive is a miracle, or just what it is. Helicopter parents would have been shot on sight in 1978.
[Why 1978? The year I started school, the year my youngest sibling was born, when I got my tonsils taken out and almost broke my arm trying to ride no-handed and was given my first IQ test. No reason in particular. Just a year when things started happening for me other than preschool and singing my favorite song, Puff, the Magic Dragon.]
Pachinko machines. Everyone on my mom’s side of the family had one. Usually in the basement, sometimes in the front room. No one knows when it started, only that they crept up to be used after Easter dinner, before cake-and-coffee birthday gatherings, to keep us kids busy after wakes and funerals, just because. I don’t remember fighting over who got to pull the lever, pour in the tiny steel balls, or sit up front. The lights, sounds, all uniquely Japanese, which we didn’t know from anything. (Asian food, in my family, was La Choy chop suey from a can and gluteny white rice.) It was a simpler time. Which everyone says, looking back at their childhood compared to the frenzy of the moment.
Cliche or no, I can’t help think that it’s actually true. That childhood in the 70s had a charm lost to anyone who wasn’t part of it. That these tiny pieces—and the little steel balls of a Pachinko machine—carry us through, together, into a world no one ever dreamed would be possible. Growing up, my father had me learn CB lingo and practice my handwriting. In school, computer programming—in BASIC—involved coding a picture to appear on the screen (mine: Mr. Potato Head). I took typing classes to know pica from elite, ran mimeograph machines, used tokens on 1970s buses, and wrote research papers on non-Selectric typewriters. This makes me as much a dinosaur to my nine-year-old son—who has been crafting Power Point presentations since kindergarten—as my grandmother was to me in 1978 (when she was 53).
Childhood sorrows. Everyone has ‘em. I was born on the day terrorists stormed Athens. My younger son, when the Washington D.C. sniper was on the loose. The older one, in the midst of the Timothy McVeigh trial. Someone is born into the midst of every tragedy, be it a massacre or war rations.
Mostly it’s easier to look back than forward, to remember of a time of wanting so badly to grow up. For what? No one making you eat peas, go to bed when the sun was still out, or brush your teeth. Being able to swear with oblivion or date someone ten years older or procrastinate on laundry for a month. Enter most frat houses and you see what happens when teenagers leave home thinking they’ve got this adult thing going on. But then have a baby, bury your best friend, sign the mortgage papers. It’s more than the freedom to stay up until 3am drinking Mountain Dew and watching porn without worrying your mom’s going to walk in on you.
I don’t know what my children will reminisce about when they’re close to 40, whether Wii and Magic cards and the Toy Story trilogy will be things they pull out of their rucksacks as examples of simpler times. I know we all do it, probably since time immemorial. There’s something about remembering what the world was like when no one expected you to shoulder it all yourself just yet. My mother used to tell me not to be in such a hurry to grow up. I didn’t listen, then foolishly wished my own children to grow up more quickly. Everything should be slowed down to a crawl but that’s just not how life works.
Me? I’m a child of the 70s who came of age in the 80s and set up adult-shop in the 90s. Original Gen X, with Slackers on the TV and at least one Douglas Coupland novel on the shelf. It’s weird — to me, anyhow — that I am now what Baby Boomers were then, what notch babies were once. I find some solace knowing my children will realize this someday, this cycle going nowhere and taking us everywhere.
Meanwhile, I’ve got my memories and I’ve got my pachinko machine which, as it were, my kids love as much in 2012 as I did in 1978.