Random Memories from Childhood and What They Taught Me

Children are very impressionable.

Children are very impressionable. A flip, sarcastic remark may become a life lesson for them, rightly or wrongly. Here are some lessons that I learned growing up. Some I have worked very hard to unlearn.

I had taken a magic marker and doodled “bad” words on my white Keds. Given my age, around 5, they were probably shockers like, “poopy head” and the like. My mother wasn’t thrilled, though. But she hated confrontation. We went to the grocery store and I was wearing them. After we had loaded the groceries into the trunk, I was getting into the back seat and one of my shoes fell off in the parking lot. I said, “Hold on, Mom! My shoe fell out of the car!” She sped away, saying we were in too much of a hurry to go back, and that there were other cars in the parking lot wanting her to move. Lesson: Adults can lie when it suits their purposes.

We were trailer camping, and the camp manager came up and told us to stay inside, as a man had broken out of a nearby prison. We heard helicopters and saw flashlights in the distant woods. But I had brought no toys or books (I was about 7) and after about an hour I got really bored, and I begged my mother to let me at least go outside and sit at the picnic table. She let me, because she got tired of my whining (which from my adult perspective was a horrible solution), and I went out there and sat in the dark. Then I saw a man walking toward me out of the fog. So I got up, went to the trailer’s screen door, and it was LOCKED. I didn’t want to yell for my mother, because I was afraid I’d draw the man’s attention. So I stage whispered, “Mom, let me in!” and scratched at the door. She was sitting right there, lost in her book. I could see her. She had to have heard me. She was just annoyed that I had been such a pain earlier. “Mom!” I was convinced I was about to be killed or taken hostage. Then the guy walked up behind me and said, “Ma’am, you should keep your daughter inside.” She let me in. I have never been so scared in all my life. And I also learned that my mother was indifferent to my needs at the best of times. I pretty much had to raise myself. When I look back at some of the emotionally neglectful and/or downright irresponsible things she did to me as a child, I’m horrified and disgusted. And kind of proud that I survived.

A teenaged boy, at the swimming pool, once put his hand on my head and pushed my ten-year-old self under the water and locked his elbow while I underwater screamed and struggled. If he hadn’t let me up, I would have drowned. I ran home and told my mother, and she didn’t take it seriously. I learned two things from that one. If a guy wants to kill you, you’ll be dead. And when the sh** hits the fan in my life, I’d be on my own.

When, at age 13, I finally told my mother that my stepfather had been sexually abusing me, she said, “You’re making too much of it.” Lesson: My safety mattered to no one but myself, and grown ups live in convenient little fantasy worlds and can’t be counted on.

My mother had gotten herself a brand new aluminum cake cover. I noticed that if you held it by the handle on top and thumped it, it made an amazing “bong” sound. I was 8, and was also experimenting with my cassette recorder. She wasn’t home, so I decided to record a home cake cover concert. When she returned, I proudly played the recording for her. When she discovered my instrument of choice, she went into the pantry to find her cake cover covered in dents. I had been enjoying the sound so much I hadn’t even noticed the results. Lesson: Not everyone finds joy in the same ways that you do. (And also that when I’m in the zone, everything else tends to fade away. That’s still true to this day.)

My sister, twisting a half a grapefruit in my face and laughing as I screamed and cried. From that I got that my sister (who was 9 years older) genuinely did not like me at all, to the point of taking delight in my humiliation, so I must not be likeable. (She likes me now, and always loved me. But I struggle to feel liked by anyone to this day, and while this incident wasn’t the primary reason for that, I’m sure it didn’t help.)

My other sister, 10 years older than me, got chronic kidney infections. One day she looked at me and said she may have to take one of my kidneys someday. I was 8. It made me feel as though I had no autonomy, even over my own body. (And let’s face it. As a woman, I still feel that way quite often.)

A more lighthearted one. I was sitting in the kitchen with my stepfather. There were about 3 flies buzzing around. He told me he’d give me a nickel for every fly I swatted. So I propped open the door and let in more flies. From this I learned that it pays to think outside of the box.

Lessons can come at you from all directions. They may not always be the right ones, unfortunately. You, too, are teaching, even when you don’t realize it. So it’s important to be thoughtful with your words, kind with your deeds, and make sure everyone feels safe and heard. Anything less can cause a lifetime of destruction.

Claim your copy of A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude today and you’ll be supporting StoryCorps too! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Cycle Perspective

My bike was everything.

“I used to love my bike more than life when I was a kid,” I said.

“Then why don’t you have one now?” she asked.

Good question. I thought of that feeling I used to get as a child, zooming down the street on my blue banana seat bicycle with the extended handlebars. No doubt I was on a mission.

I’d be going as fast as I could, feeling the wind in my hair. I’d let out a triumphant whoop. It was freedom. It was speed. It was distance from my stepfather and my family dysfunction. It was the closest thing I had to control over my life. I was calling all the shots. It was pure joy.

I would do figure eights in the street. I’d ride around the speed bumps as fast as I could. I’d wave at people as I passed, but I wouldn’t stop.

One time I was riding barefoot (stupid) and I somehow got my pinky toe caught in the bike chain. I nearly ripped it off. I came home bleeding and crying, and my stepfather decided to take the bike away. (Wouldn’t “wear shoes” have been sufficient?)

My solution was to steal my own bike and hide it and still use it. It’s not like anyone knew or cared where I went or what I did anyway. And that’s what I did for a good month until everybody forgot I wasn’t supposed to have a bike in the first place. I lived in a world without consequences. I’m amazed I didn’t misbehave even more than I did.

One time my bike actually was stolen by a kid from down the street. (That family would steal bikes, repaint them, and then sell them at flea markets, so it was hard to keep a bike in my neighborhood.) But as quiet as the experienced little thief tried to be, I still happened to see him. I ran screaming after him as he tried to cut across a field with my beloved bike. I wouldn’t give up. I just kept running and screaming for my freedom, and shouting, “I know who you ARE!” He finally dumped the bike and ran away.

It’s never a good idea to underestimate me. Especially when I know I’m in the right. And to think that I rode the school bus with that little sh** every day.

My childhood was strictly about survival, and in that, my bike was my best friend. It gave me superpowers. It allowed me to be alone and yet active. My bike was everything.

When I got older and got a used car, I dropped my bike like a hot rock. I don’t even recall what became of it. Maybe I gave it away. Maybe I just let it rot. Children rarely pay the proper homage to the people or things that were once important to them.

I didn’t have another bike until I was in my 40’s and living in Vero Beach, Florida. It was a nice way to cruise my neighborhood in the evenings. I brought that bike with me to Seattle, but I was shocked to find out that the place had hills. The bike went quickly to the Goodwill.

Bicycles no longer represent freedom to me. If I want to get away, I just drive now. Besides, my house is on a highway, so it’s not suited to doing figure eights. And I’d look a little silly doing those at my age. That, and I don’t really enjoy sweating anymore. All my exercise these days is in the swimming pool of the YWCA.

But every once in a while, I close my eyes and picture myself zooming down the street, the wind in my hair, triumphantly whooping. And it’s good.

Hey! Look what I wrote! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Adult-y Chores

I was feeling petulant, so I did what petulant people do these days. I left a snarky post on Facebook:

Screenshot-2017-10-20 Barbara Abelhauser

“There’s nothing worse than adult-y chores,” I was thinking. I had to go to the dentist and get a filling. I had to have the rear struts on my car replaced. I had to go to a home improvement store and buy 3 huge bundles of fiberglass insulation to put on the under-floor of my house. I had to grocery shop and get gas. I was tired and grumpy just thinking about it. And to make things even more special, it was raining. I would have greatly preferred staying in bed and cuddling with my dog Quagmire.

Then a friend responded to my post, “Just remember what it was like being a powerless child. Those chores are ok by me.”

Whoa! Perspective!

That’s a very good point. I still go into a bit of a panic when I’m feeling powerless. And that was my status quo as a kid. Sometimes I felt like the only logical person in my world, and yet I wasn’t taken seriously. I could see disasters on the horizon, and I’d speak up, and not be heard. And then sure enough… catastrophe. It was frustrating.

I absolutely hate not being heard. I’ll take a visit to the dentist every day of the week, rather than go back to that powerless place of childhood. As an adult, I get to make choices. They may not always be fun choices, but at least they are mine. There’s an awful lot to be said for that.

______________________________________________________________

Portable gratitude. Inspiring pictures. Claim your copy of my first collection of favorite posts! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Stepping on Cracks

The other day I was walking up the bridge to work and I realized I wasn’t stepping on any of the cracks. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I took that very seriously when I was a kid. I spent most of my childhood convinced that my mother would die at any minute, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything to help that along.

Now I think I avoid cracks out of pure habit. But here’s the thing: As of this summer, my mother has been dead longer than she had been alive in my lifetime. I should be rather used to it after 26 years. I certainly shouldn’t be worried about some silly childhood rhyme.

So, just as an experiment, I decided to step on all the remaining cracks on the sidewalk until I got to the bridge tower. And lo, the sky did not fall. Actually, it felt kind of liberating. I am the master of my own pace! Woo hoo!

Granted, it must have looked kind of funny, because to step on each crack I had to use this weird, lurching gait. And I was kind of giggling, too. I’m lucky I didn’t get locked up.

It makes me wonder, though, if any other aspect of my life is ruled by myths, old wives’ tales, children’s rhymes or simple mistaken beliefs. I’m going to have to watch for that. In the mean time, I’m going to step on every crack I can until cracks, or the lack thereof, don’t loom so unreasonably large in my life.

crack

Like this blog? Then you’ll LOVE this book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

My Happy Easter Memory

Since I’m not a kid or a Christian, Easter tends to go by without my taking too much notice these days. Like Halloween, it’s kind of a non-holiday holiday for me. But when I was little, I absolutely loved coloring eggs. (Come to think of it, I’d probably still find that fun. Therapeutic, even. )

My mother would put fuzzy pussy willow sprigs in a vase, and we’d glue pastel ribbons onto the eggs and then hang the eggs from the sprigs, so it would sort of be like a spring Christmas tree, with just as many Pagan connotations. I wish we had taken pictures, but I don’t think there is one anywhere in my boxes of photos. It would have been in black and white anyway, so it would have lost much of its charm. I’ll just have to rely on my memories, as long as they last.

I have another amazing memory that always makes me smile at this time of year. One Easter morning I woke up and there was an Easter basket beside my bed. It was empty, except for a note. It was a little poem, along the lines of “roses are red, violets are blue…” and it gave me a clue as to where to go next. At that location, there was a chocolate egg or something, and another note with another clue sending me off on another tangent.

It was all really exciting. It led me throughout the house and yard, and took me ages to work out. At the end my basket was full of peeps and candy. But the best part about it was that my sister Andrea had done this for me. I recognized her handwriting.

It was clear that she put a great deal of effort into this. She’s 9 years older than me, so she must have been about 16 at the time. That made me feel really, really special. It’s that warm feeling that I remember most whenever I think about that day.

The funny thing about it is that Andrea doesn’t remember it at all. All that work, and all the joy it gave me, and it seems not to have remained in her memory banks. That always surprises me. And it kind of makes me sad, because I’d love to thank her, but when I’ve attempted to do so, I think it stressed her out that the memory is lost.

So these days I just smile to myself, and think, “Violets are blue, red is a rose, go to the place where we dry the clothes.”

Thanks, Andrea. I love you.

egg tree

A book about gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Assuming the Worst

When I was 11 years old, I brought some candy to school. They were those little, sugary mints that most kids have seen a million times. My best friend back then was kind of gullible, though, so when she asked me what it was, I told her it was drugs. I thought it was kind of funny, because by all accounts I was the most straight-laced kid on earth. I wouldn’t have a clue where to get illegal drugs. (Frankly, I still don’t.)

She saw me eat the candy, and bunch of my classmates did, too. I tried to tell her it was a joke, but she wouldn’t partake. I felt bad about that.

Then she went home and told her mother. Her mother called my house right after school, before my mother got home from work. And she screamed at me. I mean, she really, really screamed. She called me a little drug dealer and told me I was going to hell. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me I was never, ever to talk to her daughter again, or I’d be in BIG TROUBLE.

So I didn’t. And that felt horrible for the rest of the school year. Then we each moved on to different schools and I never saw her again.

Lately that seems to be a recurring theme in my life– people assuming the worst of me. There has been a very sharp uptick of that since the most recent election. And it’s not even about things political most of the time. Is this the world we now live in? Hostile judgments at every turn?

It always takes me by surprise when these misunderstandings occur, because I have the exact opposite problem. I tend to assume the best of people, and then I’m shocked when they show me otherwise. So these negative assessments always feel like they’re coming way out of left field, and I’m generally so stunned that I can’t think how to defend myself.

The bottom line is that I seem to be losing people. And I can’t decide whether that’s bad or good. Where these people ever really my friends if they can think the worst of me? Should I have to work so hard to prove myself? Am I absolutely clueless as to the image I put across?

I really would go live in a cave somewhere if I could find one with wifi and pizza delivery. And a supply of sugary mints.

sugary-mints

Okay, so it may not be wifi or pizza delivery, but it’s a good book, even if I do say so myself. Check it out! http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

Tent Life

Every day here in Seattle I drive past little homeless encampments. They seem to be everywhere. They gather under the overpasses, in the little clumps of forest, and even on the sidewalks. Their tents are ragged and dirty, and usually they sit amongst a field of garbage. It’s heartbreaking to witness, especially during a pervasive harsh winter drizzle.

This always stirs up a complex stew of emotions in me because I spent a good portion of my childhood living in a tent. Yes, we were that poor. From an adult perspective it astonishes me that we as a family managed to sink that low. But often you can only deal with the cards with which you have been dealt.

There are many aspects of tent life that people don’t even think about. Here are some.

-You never know when you’ll have “company”. My sister once crawled into her sleeping bag and was hit in the knee by a scorpion. We had to rush her to the hospital. My other sister accidentally stepped into a fire ant hill and had such an allergic reaction that her throat closed. Another hospital visit. Since our tent experience was in Florida, we also had to contend with snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, mice, and cockroaches.

People will accuse you of being lazy. There was a complicated set of circumstances that caused us to live in a tent, but laziness wasn’t one of them. I have worked since I was 10 years old. There wasn’t a single member of my family that wouldn’t have moved heaven and earth to get out of our situation. It’s just really hard to focus on shelter when you are struggling to obtain adequate food and clothing. This pervasive attitude that poor people need to just snap out of it and get with the program has got to change.

None of your possessions are safe. Ever. I’ve yet to come across an efficient way to lock a tent. I never knew when I was going to come home from school to find that things had been taken from me.

It’s impossible to stay healthy. I had bronchitis for, literally, years. My lungs are permanently scarred. You’ll also be exposed to ringworm, scabies, lice, colds, flu, athlete’s foot, sunburn, heat exhaustion and hypothermia.

There’s this constant state of shame. As a child, you’re self-conscious enough without having to hide the fact that you have substandard living arrangements. You don’t invite friends to visit you. That would be totally out of the question.

It’s nearly impossible to stay clean. Sweep and scrub all you want. You’re going to track in sand and mud and bugs. Think of it as camping times 1000. And your shower and bathroom facilities are going to be 100 yards away if you’re lucky, and that fact isn’t going to change if you’re sick or it’s raining or you have to pee in the middle o the night or the temperatures are in the low 30’s.

You have no privacy. Forget about having a room to yourself. You have nothing to yourself. And you are most likely surrounded by other people who live in tents as well, and just as with the general population, a certain percentage of them are bound to be predators. And again, tents don’t lock.

Nothing in your life will ever be dry. Try storing clothing long term in a tent some time. Now throw in your school books, your food, what few worldly possessions you manage to keep from getting stolen. Then mix that with a thin wall of tent fabric between you and every torrential rain. Toss in humidity for good measure, and the added threat of mold.

Expect to battle depression. As if the constant anxiety of worrying about where your next meal will come from isn’t enough, now cover yourself with a wet wool blanket of gloom so that everything seems to take ten times as much energy as it should. (And it probably does, because you’re constantly sick.) Then multiply that by years on end and tell me how easy it would be for you to maintain a positive outlook.

Most people drive past these homeless encampments and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not me. I think, “Please, God, never again.”

 Tent

I Was a Book-Nosed Girl

To say I had a dysfunctional childhood would be putting it mildly. Purely to save myself, I spent a great deal of time dissociating from my daily reality. In fact, I really can’t recall much from ages 11 through 13.

I can say that I watched Mr. Rogers until an embarrassing age. He was the calm center of my storm, the one voice of reason and compassion. Sadly, his show wasn’t on 24 hours a day, so the rest of my waking life I dove headlong into books.

I carried library books with me wherever I went. I even brought them to school, in spite of the fact that I also had to lug around about 30 pounds of textbooks. Without a book, I felt vulnerable.

You can hide behind a book. You can lose yourself in one. Books don’t judge you. They don’t shout. They’re safe and reliable. They never let you down or put you down. And they can transport you to better worlds.

My favorite books growing up were the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I must have read each one about 20 times. Recently, in an effort to get in touch with my inner child, I started reading them again.

It’s interesting to revisit the planet of Pern from an adult perspective. I can certainly see why these books would appeal to a troubled child. Pern was an amazing place. Yes, there were bad people there, there were trials and tribulations, but justice always prevailed in the end. The good people pulled together. They took care of each other. Bonds were strong. Work was hard but it was honest, and you could take pride in your skills and talents.

McCaffrey also created her own vocabulary, which delighted me. There was a coffee-like substance which was called klah. Klaaaaaaaaah… That’s perfect. What would be better to wake you up on a cold morning? And crablike creatures were called spiderclaws. Of course.

And when a dragon or a fire lizard loved you, you were loved and protected for life. There was no question. You could count on it.

On the back of a dragon, you could fly away from all your troubles. Pern probably saved my sanity. I bet the Harry Potter books do the same thing for kids today. There’s something to be said for getting lost in a book.

Dragon

Coloring for Adults

I seem to have stumbled upon a new fad: coloring books for adults. These are books of very elaborate line drawings that you can then color with pencils or crayons. I even heard on National Public Radio yesterday that it’s become so popular that there’s currently a worldwide shortage of colored pencils!

I discovered it the other day because oddly enough, my local library was having a coloring for adults get together on one of my days off and I thought it would be fun. Now I’m hooked.

What appeals to me so much is that it’s a chance to live the childhood that I didn’t really get to live the first time around. It’s a rare opportunity for my inner child to come out to play. And yet the pictures are detailed enough so that my adult self doesn’t get bored. And it’s relaxing. I’ve always found creativity to be relaxing. Anything that causes me to focus and not think so freakin’ much is relaxing.

So here’s my very first creation.

IMG_1285

I had planned to bring it home and put it on my refrigerator door (where else???), but then I realized that today is the 90th birthday of my very favorite aunt, so instead I sent it to her. (Waving hello to Aunt Betty, and apologizing that the picture won’t get there on time for her big day.)

I think she’ll appreciate it. I get both my sense of humor from her and also my tendency to neglect my playful nature. If it makes her smile, giving her my first coloring in 40 years will have been worth it. Aunt Betty, I hope you get to play today! I love you!

Tractor Mentality

When I was 12 years old I was growing up in a semi-rural, semi-farming community, and one of the classes they insisted we take in school was agriculture. I vaguely remember having to identify various breeds of cow, and planting trees as a community project. It was the 70’s. Times were simpler. And Florida schools were, if anything, even worse than they are now. That’s really saying something.

Times were also a lot more dangerous. You could still buy lawn darts. Kids were a lot more free-ranging. They still went outside to play, and no one had heard of a bike helmet.

Apparently people were a lot less litigious as well, because child safety, both in and out of school, seemed to be a mere afterthought. It’s amazing that any of us survived to adulthood. I, for one, am surprised that I survived agriculture class.

One afternoon, beneath the blazing Florida sun, our teacher led us down to the football field, and there, right on the 50 yard line, stood a full sized, honest-to-God tractor. In front of the tractor was a maze of traffic cones. “Pop quiz, kids! We’re going to drive this tractor through those cones, and your grade for this endeavor will go down slightly for every cone you knock over. Who wants to go first?”

Well, these farm kids didn’t even bat an eyelash. They’d probably been driving tractors since they were 8 years old. But I had never been behind the wheel of anything, let alone a tractor with a bucket on the front and a manual transmission. I was just supposed to know what I was doing. I freaked out.

I was the last to go. Everyone else had done fine. I felt sick. I shyly whispered to the teacher, “But… I don’t know how to d–” “Nonsense! Hop on up there! You’ll do fine!”

So there I was on this huge machine that had tires taller than I was, and its engine was roaring. I lurched across the field, knocking over every cone in sight. I could barely hear my teacher shouting for me to stop, but he hadn’t told me how to stop. He had barely explained how to go. He wound up running beside me, and as he leaped up onto the tractor he was shouting at me.

Seriously. HE was shouting at ME. I was just a kid, so I felt stupid and humiliated, but from an adult perspective, he shouldn’t have put me in that situation. I’d have been justified in knocking his block off. I wish I had. A scene like that wouldn’t happen in a junior high school in 2015. Too much potential for lawsuits and Facebook publicity.

Every once in a while I have a nightmare where I’m rolling down a hill on a tractor and the brakes don’t work. It’s funny the way school can scar a person for life. Luckily all my scars are “only” emotional.

tractor