Tag Archives: Childhood

BitterSweet

As mid-June approaches my thoughts inevitably waver between memories charged with happiness, mourning, and a sense of gratefulness.  This is the time of year to celebrate fathers, and I had the wonderful gift of knowing my father for fourteen years.  You see, I can’t help but smile at the image of him conjured up in my mind; yet, I catch a slight frown at the feeling of his absence.   The loss of a parent, or someone dear, I believe is never entirely healed.  I wish he had lived longer.  How I would love just one more conversation!  I wish he could see me now.  I wish I could hug him.  I wonder what he would look like today as a man in his 70s.  It’s been over twenty years since he died and I still miss him terribly.

But this is not meant to be a “woe is me” sort of post.  I mentioned that I experience happiness and gratefulness as well during this season of Father’s Day.  His love established a strong foundation for me to journey through this crazy thing called life. A voracious reader, he impressed the habit onto me from my early years.  In the evening we would sit in the living room each holding a copy of the same novel and take turns reading it out loud.  Our first book together was Treasure Island.  We moved on to Wuthering Heights, and War of the Worlds. Even as I type this I grin at the vivid recollection.  I remember that his nightstand teetered precariously with the weight of books, and as I glance at my own nightstand cluttered with fiction and philosophy I see (with delight) that I am without question my father’s daughter.

As an adult I recognize a lot of his habits, interests, and even appearance echoed in my existence.  I gravitate towards the humanities and dabble in a bit of science.  He earned two undergraduate degrees: English and History with a minor in German, and then went on to graduate studies in History. My nose has a wee bit of a bend like his.  Indeed, every time I catch my reflection in the mirror at my unruly eyebrows, dark hair, and Polish features, I understand that I am not at all without him.

Recognizing his influence, be it in manners or genetics, pushes me in the direction of happiness and the realization that our brief time together was an absolute treasure.  This conclusion did not come easily.  In a recent talk at my alma mater high school for a scholarship dinner, I told the audience that scholarship is about falling in love with the world and it is also about rebellion.  For example, the thinker Mary Wollstonecraft argued for women’s education: it was evidence of a love of the world, and a rebellion against the prevailing opinion.

However, in order to fall in love with the world support is essential.  When my father died I exhibited anger at the world.  I retreated.  I did not want to participate.  What did it matter?  Fortunately, my teachers pulled me out of that dark disposition, and they exercised an incredible amount of patience.  My grades plummeted for a good couple of years.  Eventually, with their encouragement, I found a way to fall in love with the world and embrace education.  This transition required me to view the beauty of my relationship with my father instead of harboring a resentment over his unexpected passing.

Let me end with this: I think it is okay to be sad and to even be angry for a while about loss.  I think it would be bizarre and unhealthy to seek out a quick solution, after all, I’m still quite attuned to the loss even though it has been over two decades.  But, despite this, the sentiment comes because love is so powerful.  That is, it is because of the relationship nurtured by my father, this good man, that the loss felt so cutting.  I don’t know how else to describe it. I do know that I can’t be angry.

Thus, in the spirit of celebrating fathers, I do join in and cheer!  He is present in my memory, in my way of doings things, and in the way I participate in the world.  He was a gift.  That is the joy and the reason for me to celebrate.

One of my favorite photos of us.

One of my favorite photos of us.


A Quirk

I never remember where I park.  On more occasions than I’d like to admit, I’ve walked around in circles holding out my keys trying to beep beep my way to my vehicle by zeroing in on the sound like a cat ready to pounce.  People slowly driving by seeking out a perfect spot begin following me.  They believe I’m heading straight to my car.  I have to turn to their hopeful face and shrug my shoulders.

No, I’m not walking to my car, I’m looking for my car.

They shoot past me annoyed.  I don’t mean to be a tease.  Lugging a heavy bag of books and wishing I wore different shoes, I snake up and down the university lot’s aisles of cars.  It is not my most dignified of moments.

What makes this a truly regrettable quirk is that my mother also never remembered where she parked.  She drove a tan ’86 Volvo.  It was horrendous.  It was a flesh colored box on wheels, but she loved it.  Hell, she wanted it.  In my mind, it solidified our differences.

One afternoon in the late 80s we wrapped up some time at the mall, and when she stepped outside she said (as usual), “Now.  Where did I park?”  The search began.  Normally we’d find the car pretty quickly.  This one instance, however, required serious investigating.  After considerable time pacing we decided to split up.  I zipped about looking left and right.

It suddenly dawned on me that the car might have been stolen.  With renewed effort I ran faster, not in the hopes of finding the car but with the hope of not finding the car.  Good-bye ugly Volvo!  I giggled.  I prayed.  I fantasized filing a police report and telling dad that we had to go buy something else now.  Perhaps I’d have a say in the purchase.  Maybe a pink convertible with an awesome cassette player for me to blast my Jem and The Holograms tape.

And when the possibility seemed so close I heard my mom calling my name from a few rows over.  She yelled, “It’s over here.”

We kept that Volvo for twenty years.

People say that one day you’ll do something just as your parents.  That “one day” feels like an ominous rite of passage into adulthood.  I suspect I’m not alone in thinking I’d be immune to it, but it’s inevitable.  The moment that perfect imitation escapes your mouth it’s a shock.  The world moves in slow motion.  Your actions don’t feel like your own.  Your “self” is no longer under the illusion of being something singular but rather a collection of experiences and influences.  Every time I park my car in the university lot I take deliberate note of my surroundings.  I’m just a few paces from the third divider.  Or, I’m next to the scrawny tree.  But, after a day of lecturing, chatting with students, and sorting through readings I find myself approaching the parking lot and whispering, “Now. Where did I park?”


I Harbor a Book Grudge

Books on my shelf, desk, and nightstand fall into three general categories:

1. Read

2. Partially read.

3. About to be read.

One book in particular sits outside the bounds of these categories and haunts me.  I do my best to not look at it directly lest I be hit with a pang of guilt.  If it could talk I suspect it would say: “J’accuse!” accompanied with a rigorous finger wag.

Fall 1991. It was a time before the interwebs, reality television, gluten-free labels, and Miley Cyrus.  I loved all things Madonna, the show 90210, and my bangs loaded with enough hairspray to cut glass.  My younger bookworm self devoured the VC Andrews series, Silence of the Lambs, Anthem, Treasure Island, and Wuthering Heights.

But, when assigned Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for Freshman English, I shunned the book.  No specific memories surface regarding how I managed to simply not read it and show up for class (this is pre-wikipedia for you youngsters out there); however, the sentiment of disdain for a story about an old man fishing remains absolutely clear.

Over the years, my justification for evading this book has gone something like this:

Why require a young girl to read Hemingway?  Sheesh! 

Is Pride and Prejudice assigned to fourteen year old boys?

You see, I’ve been placing blame on my Freshman reading list rather than simply sitting down with the darn book and giving it a try.  Although, to justify my justification, there is something to be said for inappropriate timing.  Oops!  There I go again weaseling out of responsibility for not reading.

A part of me feels sheepish about this vexing hole in my history of bookwormishness. How can I continue to recoil from this short novel on my shelf?  Nothing I believed to be true at the age of fourteen is still true for me now.  Yet, I harbor a grudge against Hemingway as though I were my younger-1991-self.  It’s time to face my unsubstantiated grudge.

Thus, this week, my friends, I vow to correct that gap and finally put an end to my trepidation.  Be gone, Guilt!

My book grudge.

My book grudge.

I will give Hemingway a chance…

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

Okay…hold on..I think I’ll pour a glass of wine first.


Hugs Can Mean So Much

The summer of ’92 my world changed unhinged.  My parents were traveling in San Francisco for a weekend and I enjoyed the respite of freedom while staying at a friend’s place.  On the second day of their holiday my mother phoned unexpectedly.  Her words, brief and to the point (or so I remember): “Gwendolyn, your father had a massive heart attack and died.”  My knees buckled.  I gripped the phone and sought out a chair for balance.

My fourteen year old self desperately tried to maintain a degree of stoicism.  I adored my father, and the reality of his absence relentlessly echoed at every turn in my childhood home.  Pacing from room to room I was surrounded by the evidence of his existence and dreams: books piled on the nightstand half-way read, his favorite foods untouched, a new computer barely used, travel guides marked for the following year, clothes never to be worn again…

I can only recall feeling the need to “deal” with the practical.  It hadn’t occurred to me to mourn.  What was mourning for a fourteen year old anyway?  Instead, my reaction manifested in a brewing anger.  I demanded unequivocal silence from my emotions.

Sophomore year of high school began, and I remember getting ready for the first day shadowed by an air of fear and hope that no one would feel sorry for me.

When searching for my locker early in the morning I bumped into my Freshman English teacher in the hallway.  She immediately extended her arms wide and I ran into them without hesitation.  It had been a little over a month since my father’s passing and I had not shed a tear until that moment.  With my cheek resting on her shoulder the bottled up pain unleashed.  This woman, this wonderful woman, simply embraced me and allowed me to release a turmoil I buried deep within.  My carefully stowed rage finally found some semblance of peace.

Just last week I crossed paths with that English teacher.  It was a glorious day, for I had the chance to thank her for that precious moment.  She offered me love and support when I absolutely needed it, when I was blind to such a need.  Our hug lasted for a brief moment in time, yet I can still feel the power of that gesture as if it were yesterday.  Hope, security, and care radiated through her and helped me find some footing on tumultuous terrain.

Cheers to the people who extend a loving embrace, and cheers to the opportunity to say “Thank you.”


Childhood Sans Pop Culture

I was doomed to nerdom by my upbringing.  Rarely allowed to watch television, I fell painfully behind on the lingo and fads.  What was this Married With Children and The Simpsons everyone talked about? I’d feign a knowing chuckle at the recess table chatter or act busy peeling the bruised banana mom packed in my lunch. The occasional movies permitted to me were musicals like Oklahoma, The King and I, and Singing in the Rain.  I found Donald O’Connor’s scene “Make ‘em Laugh” gut-busting hysterical. I watched Gone With the Wind obsessively, tried adopting the ungodly one eyebrow arch of Scarlett O’Hara, and thought “fiddle-deed-dee” a useful expression. It was a lonely joy. For awhile, I believed in earnest that love could only be conveyed through song, glorious costume, and that choreographed dancing was a perfectly normal means for getting about town or simply completing household tasks.

I thought shoulder pads were cool, but I can’t totally blame mom for that.  Indeed, everyone in the 80s suffered. But, I can (and do) hold mom responsible for this haircut.

One side is noticeably poofier.

I fell in love with the play Phantom of the Opera.  When most kids listened to the Fresh Prince, I blasted my Michael Crawford cassette tape.  This didn’t go over well at birthday parties when we took turns putting music in the boombox.


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