Tuesday, December 6, 2011

This isn't my life

I was eight years old when I realized that I'd been dealt a bad hand in life.

When I was very young, my father was in the military. I don't know if his mental illness came and went or it was just that he came and went so we didn't see evidence of it that often. Regardless, life was good, as children's lives tend to be. My brothers and I did what kids do - played, fought, ate three meals a day and fell into bed at the end of it without a care in the world, ready to wake up and do it all over again tomorrow. On occasion, this strange man would appear, be around for a few days and then leave again. He said a few words to us, but on the whole, he took no more interest in his children than we did in him.

Nothing is permanent in the military. The three of us, (a fourth was added, nine months after one of those short visits from the stranger)  would come home from school and our mother would say, "Pack up kids. We're moving to _____."

It didn't matter what was in the blank. It wasn't like we had any choice. We even lived in a third world country for a while, with a maid, gardener,  a couple of horses and even a camel.When war broke out, we were shipped back home to the United States. To us, it was an adventure, a chance to meet new friends, explore new vacant lots, get in new trouble and run like the devil when our mother caught us at it. It wasn't until many years later that I heard my mother's perspective on it all. She hated it. She hated having servants - "strangers in the house all of the time, no privacy, never any time to herself". She hated the moving, the never being able to make friends or have nice things.

So, we stopped moving. She certainly didn't have to be bothered with servants after that, although the nice things and friends never materialized, either.

My father went to college on the GI bill and for a few years we lived in a neighborhood full of students.   Lots of mothers were working as secretaries to put the fathers through medical school, graduate school, law school. There was an air of superiority despite the fact that everyone was barely getting by. These were people in a top university and when they graduated they were going to go somewhere and be somebody. Everyone around us was anticipating a better life.

 Of course I was too young to even know the word "anticipating", but I can tell you this, there is a difference living in a hopeful atmosphere. It's almost as if you can breathe it in, the belief that the future will be better than today. When you are in that other world, where everyone knows that we are stuck here in an endless, hopeless, mindless repetition where tomorrow is just like today, it is just the opposite, it's as if there is not enough air in the room. I should know.

University ended. My father, who had always pretended to believe he was brilliant beyond all others, could only get accepted at a third-rate graduate school in the middle of nowhere. We moved into the house with the leaky roof and blood-stained basement. After a year or two, my father took his comprehensive exams, bragging that he hadn't bother to study for them, he was so superior to those state university students. He failed. My mother chided him that he should study for the exams and re-take them. Even at eight years old, I could tell you that would mean, if he failed again, admitting that he couldn't do it even if he tried, that maybe he wasn't better than everybody. So, he never went back to Mediocre State U.

He got a low level job at a huge corporation, mom kept working as a secretary because by now there were seven mouths to feed. That was that. Fifty years later, he died, still in Calhoun, Missouri.

We were the poorest family in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Our neighbors looked down on us because we lived in a run-down house, wore second-hand clothes, drove beat up cars and had a tribe of ill-mannered children.

Not that my parents wanted to associate with the neighbors. They were uneducated, ignorant and untraveled. My family looked down on the people looking down on us. Hence, the ill manners. If you were told on a daily basis that everyone around you was too stupid for a conversation, there was no point in trying to speak civilly to them, now was there? Not that any of us would have had any idea where to begin.

Dropped out of graduate school, low man on the totem pool at work and not on speaking terms with the neighbors, my father had no one to lord it over but us. Speech in our house was a constant stream of insults and one-upsmanship.

In normal families, a child learning stuck learning multiplication tables would ask a parent for help. That only worked if my father was not around. Otherwise, it went like this;

"Mom, what's 8 times 7?"
"Can you believe that? The kid doesn't know what 8 times 7 is. So much for intelligence being genetic."
"Bob, that's really not necessary."
"What? You think the kid knows what 'genetic' means? She doesn't even know 8 times 7. Hey, you! What's 'genetic' mean? Your mother thinks you're so smart. See, what did I tell you? She must take after your side of the family."

We had no money, no friends, no manners, in a town with nothing happening and were told every day that we were worthless. That made us exactly no different than millions of other kids growing up in America. Generations with no hopes, no dreams, no chance. I'd just finished the third grade but it was obvious that most of the people I saw every day would end up in jail, on welfare or, if they were really lucky, married to some man working at the local factory who didn't come home drunk too often.

I remember the moment exactly like it was yesterday, sitting out in the front lawn under a shade tree, trying to avoid both the heat and the people in the house. Hidden by the trunk of the tree, I could watch the whole neighborhood. There was 17-year-old Darlene, in short- shorts and tank top, "dressed like a whore", my father would say, flirting with Leo from next door, who was in my oldest brother's grade although he was three years old. Across the street, a babysitter minded the Madison boys while their father was away and their mother was "visiting" the man who lived next to them. Two doors down, Mrs. Donnelly sat on her porch, silently rocking her fourth baby in as many years.

A psychologist might say that it had its roots in all of those years of hearing my father say how much better our family was. Maybe. To my not-quite-nine-year-old self, it seemed to hit like a bolt out of the blue, the sudden insight that came into my brain and never, ever left from that point on.

"This is not going to be my life. These people were born here and they're going to die here, not ever even really imagining being anywhere, anything else. This isn't my life."

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