This past week, I’ve had several things present themselves that have made me think about childhood in general and my childhood in particular. Once I got somewhat older, I realized what an odd childhood I had. Let me rush to say that my parents never did anything to hurt me, and in fact did the best they could; they had odd, neglected, emotionally barren childhoods themselves, and really did not understand children. I responded by withdrawing, at a very early age; I also tried very hard to fit in with my older siblings, by learning to read very early, by helping my oldest sister with rote exercises in high school French when I was four. I tried to be invisible; when very young, curled up reading in an overstuffed chair; when older, by outfitting the box our new couch came in for a retreat in the attic, complete with cushions and lamp for reading.
My aunt was one of the adults who connected with me, teaching me embroidery at age five, knitting the next year, crocheting the next, and tatting when I was eight. She was brought up in the Southern tradition of keeping one’s hands busy. I heard a statement this past week about how young girls in the nineteenth century were taught to knit at age four; while the crowd around me shook their heads sadly, I realized that I wasn’t much older. Childhood was certainly not a concept in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t a concept in my home in the late twentieth, either. I remember when I first tried to play with my step-daughters, who were five and three at the time. I was at a loss how to play with dolls or hide and seek, to swing high in the air or slide in slippery freefall. I don’t think I ever told them that they gave me a childhood that I never had.
As a child, I read and wrote. Once I went to school, I got into trouble constantly for my “vivid imagination.” I observed the popular girls, the other families. I wrote about lost children finding their parents, of girls with friends and the parties they would have. In high school, I wrote about imaginary boyfriends, in terms that, although really quite innocent, horrified the nun who was teaching English. I learned then to be very careful who saw my work, and most of it went straight into the file drawer. More recently, as I said in an earlier post, I write about misfits who manage to conquer their oddities. Perhaps “misfits” is too strong a word, but people who have to work at getting what they want.
Writing has been my escape for the greater part of my life, but I am slowly working around to being able to use my experiences as well. I don’t think I’ll ever abandon the escapist writing, but I’m finding deeper corners to explore as well.