Tag Archives: childhood

Sally

Sally, my only full sister, and I don’t have a lot in common. We both share fairly intense blue eyes, but otherwise we barely look related. She’s fair-skinned, blonde, and short. She looks just like our mother, Kathy. I’m darker, olive-skinned and brunette. I look Sicilian, just like my father. I’ve always been a little bit of a brute, big and aggressive. Sally and I have spent a lot of time together. For our whole childhood, we shared a room and sometimes a bed—and, for a short time when we didn’t have a bed, just space on the floor under a single pink blanket. Despite all of this time together, and despite the fact that I’m only a year and a half older than her, our relationship has always been strained. She’s more sensitive, analytical, and optimistic. I’m more quick to anger, more reactionary. She’s prone to posting inspirational quote memes on Facebook and I’m prone to rolling my eyes. Once, when we were teenagers, she made me angry and I shoved her hard, sending her flying into our closet. She was nothing in my hands. Seconds later, I felt horrible. I had wanted to hurt her, badly, and it had been so easy.

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becoming a young man

The same year Ben found out about Santa not being real was the same year he found out that his parents would be separating. It will be one of those years of his life, I imagine, that he will run through the sieve of therapists and romantic partners and his own mind again and again to see what kind of insight catches. I was 10 when my mom died. It’s a year I return to often. A month after Benjamin turned 10, our divorce was finalized.

Ben did not take the Santa thing well. Here was a boy who did not believe in God but clung fiercely to all things magical, like Muppets and the Easter Bunny. I promised myself when he asked me if Santa was real, I would tell him the truth. One night, he asked. “Do you want the truth?” I responded. Yes, he told me. He looked sure. I looked straight into those sweet blue eyes and told him. And he shot betrayal back at me, howled from somewhere deep inside, ran down the hall and into his room, and slammed the door shut. He cried in ugly heaves, his face smeared with tears and snot, and Ryan and I sat next to him and tried to calm him. He reminded us about this dream he had in which Santa broke into his room and “rifled” (he said rifled) through his things and determined that he was good. In his dream, he had seen Santa’s boots at the end of his bed and looked up to see Santa staring down at him. This sounded pretty terrifying to me, but he was certain it was real and good. We had to assure him it had all been just a dream. We petted his hair and gently scratched his back and gave him all of the best lines about Christmas being in your heart etc. etc. but nothing made it better. The magic was gone. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny fell in quick succession. He gradually came to accept it, but I felt horrible for lying to him in the first place.

Then, later that year, we had to sit Ben down and tell him we were separating. It went much the same way. He made a terrible noise from somewhere deep within. It cracked my heart. He ran away from us and slammed his bedroom door again, but this time he locked it against us. You promised me, he said. You promised. He was right. I had promised. Years before, he had asked my why my dad and stepmom lived in separate houses, and I told him about divorce. I told him not to worry because it would never happen to us. I believed that then. That was back during the time when I believed that I could simply bend everything to my will and make it the way I wanted it, that I could give the kids a childhood completely free of some of the struggles I faced as a kid. But we were not doing well, and hadn’t been doing well for a long time. We sat together, all three of us on the bed, and Ryan and I petted and tried to soothe him again. We listened to all of his worries. We told him we would always be friends, would always love each other, just in a different way, and, most importantly, would always love him and his brother. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much of it Ben believed. I can’t blame him.

Ben is growing up. In the past few months, he started asking about puberty. So I got out my trusty It’s Perfectly NormalHe knows all about male and female bodies, sex, the changes he will go through. Given his age, he still seems to see sex as primarily a way to make babies. He’s into science. That aspect isn’t yet upsetting. But the body thing, he isn’t happy about. He does not want acne and sweat or hair sprouting out everywhere. He told me he is going to make an invention to stop all of it. I try to make it sillier. I make up a song about puberty. I ask him to imagine what his dad would sound like with a young boy’s voice. He laughs and then his little forehead wrinkles again with worry. He thinks so much, all of the time, in all directions. I’m sure he tells me just a fraction of it. He does not want to grow up.

I remember when I was a little older than Ben, and I looked around, and everything seemed less magical. I had seen divorce and my mother had died and my family was weird and I didn’t have any friends at school. I went to Disneyland for a school field trip and found myself calculating ride line times and performing price comparisons with increased efficiency and reduced joy. I could see, plainly, how crowded and expensive it was. It seemed small and hot and not worth it. I didn’t enjoy it again until I got to take my own children there and see it again through them.

Ben is growing up and seeing that life can be difficult. Magical things are tarnished, or gone altogether. I hope he will forgive me for my role in helping him to realize that. I want to smooth everything in his life that is rough, but I can’t. I am just trying to love him through it, even the wounds that I inflict. I want him to avoid growing as cynical as I can be, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I, too, have grown up and seen that life can be difficult. I had a bunch of illusions about myself that have just imploded. But it’s not necessarily bad. Being more uncertain has opened me up, too. There is so much to still learn about and see in a new way. There are so many small things to marvel at, like that spot of moonlight I notice on the floor of my bedroom at 3 a.m. when I am awake, worrying.

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my mother’s kitchen

2009_06_15-FlourOnce, I walked in on my mother and my stepfather, sleeping in the early morning hours, naked. I don’t remember why I was there. Their bed was a mattress on the floor. My stepfather’s flabby white ass glared back at me, peeking above the blanket. That blanket had some sort of animal on it–an eagle, a bear, a wolf howling at the moon, something like that. He was the sort of man who would own a blanket like that. He had a large, bushy mustache. He owned a yellow Datsun. He collected beer bottles and knives. He was also the sort of man who instructed me each night to lie on my stomach so he could tell me a story. He would gently pull my pajama bottoms and underwear down, and lightly trace his fingers over my own bare ass before bed. I remember the heat and alarm that flushed through me, but I didn’t know what to say or do, so I said and did nothing.

I was maybe 7 or 8 years old when I walked in on he and my mother, and I recoiled at his surprising nakedness, and quickly and quietly shut the door. I felt like I had made some grave violation, that they would find out and punish me. But they simply slept on, and I went back to my bed and fell asleep. When I woke, I found them in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, like always. The smoke hung around their heads and mixed with the morning light.

In that kitchen, my mother taught me how to mix equal parts cinnamon into sugar, to spread butter onto warm toast, and pour the mixture over it. We shook the excess onto the plate, and dipped our fingers into the sweet brown powder and licked them. I could eat six slices of cinnamon bread at a time. I could eat a loaf. I was a heavy child, a voracious eater, and I always wanted more.

We did dishes together in that kitchen, filled water balloons for fights. My sister and brother and I spent hours building Play-doh and Lego creations at the big, round table. There’s something incongruous about the fact that my mother was a drug dealer whose life was unraveling, but that her kitchen counter featured matching ceramic canisters marked “Flour,” “White Sugar,” “Brown Sugar.” This was a novelty to me. She owned a spice rack, and she used her spice rack. Also a novelty.

The house the kitchen occupied was a shabby rental at the end of a dirt road in the hills above Lake Elsinore. The house was infested with carpenter ants and tarantulas. The tire swing in the back yard swung directly over a cliff. The kitchen, though, was clean, organized, inviting, safe. I only went to my mother’s house for sporadic weekend visits, and, once, a whole summer, over the course of three years. It was a temporary place to her, but it was the only place in which I ever remember her living. I have a lot of terrible memories of her, of that house, but none of them took place in the kitchen.

Photo credit: http://www.thekitchn.com/good-question-54-87349

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david

David and I slide down the steepest side of a dirt and gravel hill. Our bodies rattle, plumes of dust rocket from our sneakers, we scream out in terror and joy. There is dust in our teeth, dust in our lungs. We have scraped our legs. Everything is blue sky and orange groves. Our stucco tract home is no more than a couple of miles away, but it might as well be gone. Our sister Sally is still there, neatly tucked into the sofa, reading, or playing Solitaire. She prefers to stay inside.

*

David tells me he sees visions of our dead mother all of the time. God inserts these images into his brain. God talks to him, too. He tells him to stop listening to Supergrass and Radiohead. I ask David, “If God told you to injure yourself, would you?” He hesitates before he says he doesn’t know. David was too young when she died. He doesn’t remember her.

*

David asks me if I have thought about my long distance phone service provider. I have not. He wears dark, shiny shirts now. Ties. Slacks. There is gel in his hair. He says “sweet” all of the time, like punctuation. He is a member of a pyramid scheme that has been banned in several states. I tell him I am not interested. I use very few words. I know I am hurting him.

*

David brings a Franciscan monk with him to Thanksgiving. The monk is a stereotype. He looks like Friar Tuck from that 1970s Robinhood cartoon. He wears a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. He is cheerful and round. He eats two slices of pie. I want to make fun of him, to shout to everyone, “There’s a monk at our table!” But he is kind and we take a photo together. I rest my arm on his shoulder and smile.

*

My friend Betony posts an Instagram of her brother on Facebook. His hair is brown, wind-whipped and frozen in place, and he wears a button-up denim shirt. He’s smiling. He looks like Betony, especially around the eyes. His fingers are curled around a tiny plastic figure. The caption says, “Love means making your brother pose with a Twilight doll.” I laugh when I realize her brother looks exactly like the miniature Robert Pattinson. They are wearing the same clothes. The hair, the complexion, it is all the same. Then, suddenly, I feel like crying.

*

David will propose to a girl this year. There will be a ceremony at the Catholic church where she lives and teaches. I am not invited. The news I receive about David never comes from David. I heard she has an extraordinary amount of siblings. 16? 17? Aren’t they all girls? That can’t be true. David holds signs outside of abortion clinics. He tells me he is praying for my children. David believes I should stay at home, but I can’t stay there. I can’t believe in God. We seldom speak, there’s too much to avoid. David will marry this girl and move back east, and there is nothing left to recover.

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