Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Growing up alone

"Leo, you're raising ten only-children," Mrs. Hart once said, and I wondered for a long time what she meant. How could you be an only child if you had nine siblings? But the more I turned it over in my mind, the more it made sense, at least for myself.

The Harts lived in a dark red house that was on the way to downtown, and every time we passed it, we shouted out joyfully, "There's the Harts' house!" from the way-back of the long beige station wagon. It wasn't that we adored the Harts; it was more that we didn't know very many people and theirs was one of the few houses we recognized, and that made it thrilling.

Big families create their own societies, and ours was divided into cliques: The Big Kids, the Three Little Kids, and me. Sometimes, I joined in the Little Kids, at which point the clique was briefly renamed "The Three Little Kids and Laurie." I was never part of the Big Kids. Mostly I was by myself, a solitary, bookish child who sneaked around and spied on the others, and wondered and wondered.

When we were quite small, tricycle-riding age, I was close with David, who was two years older. He told me that we were stuck together by an invisible piece of Bubble Gum, which bonded us always, no matter what. "What happens when we go through a revolving door?" I asked. I was literal-minded, and a fretter.

"It knows what to do," he said, and I tried to feel reassured, although every time I pictured it, all I could see was pink Bubble Gum winding around and around inside the revolving doors, and me on one side, and David on the other. I took it on faith that the Bubble Gum knew what to do. It was one of the few things I ever took on faith.

David was bold and adventurous, and by the time he was 10, we no longer hung out much. He didn't want to play dolls or make mud pies or wander through the ravines of Old Main, picking flowers; he had his own mysterious life, which took him away from the house and the yard and the neighborhood, and which got him in trouble.

He was often in trouble, always in trouble; yelled at, punished, sent to his room without dinner. I don't think I ever knew what, exactly, he had done. Broken curfew? Missed dinner? Talked back? There was yelling, he was seldom contrite, and the next thing I heard was the slam of the door to the boys' room, and the rest of us were called to the dinner table, where we sat quiet and chastened and feeling vaguely guilty for we knew not what.

The pull of the Bubble Gum was strong, and after dinner I slipped into the kitchen and loaded up a plate with whatever I could find--Saltines, and bread and peanut butter, leftovers, if there were any (there often weren't), and a tall, teetering glass of milk. I put the dishes on a tray and sneaked up the stairs as quietly as I could, set the tray down outside his door, and knocked. Then I disappeared around the corner into the stairwell, and held my breath.

My dream was to vanish, to have David open the door and find the food magically waiting for him, food to restore health and happiness to what I was certain must have been a starving and unhappy boy. Now he shall have dinner! Now he shall know he is loved!

That is never what happened, of course. Usually I'd hear the angry, "WHAT?" and I'd pop back around the corner, knock again, and re-hide. The "WHAT? WHO IS IT? WHAT?" would come again, grumpier now, aggrieved.

Sometimes I was still there when he opened the door, and he accepted the tray with much less gratitude than I thought I deserved. And sometimes I'd hide in the stairwell and wait, hear the door open and a shuffling noise and the door closing again, and I'd peek around the corner and see that the laden tray was gone, had been dragged inside his room.

But I was no good at being the mysterious Angel of Mercy. The next time I saw him he did not say anything about the food, and I found myself torn up about it, needing thanks, requiring praise. "Did you like the crackers?" I asked, every time, and he always looked surprised, as though he had forgotten them, and then he looked embarrassed, but he always nodded and said thank you, and I'd walk away, confused by how unsatisfying that felt, not understanding that asking for thanks negated it, even when it was sincere.


Sandy said...

My brother-in-law always swore that my mom raiser 4 only children so I know exactly what you mean.

I do love this vignettes of childhood. Thanks, Laurie.

Byf said...

As you know, I'm also from a big family, and this rings true. When you are commonly seen as a piece of a group, your and your partners' differences can magnify to yourself and others. Post- childhood, I have met many a person who has guessed that I'm an only child -- not one of eight.

Charlene and Storm said...

loving your stories of growing up laurie, i can picture everything in my mind as i read them.

Hope the dogs are doing ok :)

Charlene and Stormy

Indigo Bunting said...

I found this so touching. Thanks.

Wisewebwoman said...

I can relate, there was always a child banished from our table, even on Xmas Day.
Our mother cherished our uniqueness, our father lumped us together even when innocent - "you led him by bad example".
Well told, Laurie.

Flea said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying your childhood stories. Thank you for sharing. Onlies and youngest children are so much alike, in my experience.

Thea said...

I was an oldest "only". Four of us, 5-6 years apart, so I guess each of us was an only child. This is, as always, Laurie, beautifully written. I can see that little girl.

Thea said...

I was an oldest "only". Four of us, 5-6 years apart, so I guess each of us was an only child. This is, as always, Laurie, beautifully written. I can see that little girl.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Ah, your writing is always so lovely.

Ann Cordner said...

Your discriptions bring your family to life Laurie. What speaks to me is the fact that we learn all about coping in our own way in that protected family environment before going out into big bad the world.