Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Choosing Joy

The end of my Age of Innocence - 1979

When asked about my childhood, my first impulse is to declare it as "dysfunctional" or "unhappy."

It cannot be denied that my upbringing was less than ideal. It was at times physically abusive, most all of the time emotionally abusive, and all of the time impoverished not only in a financial sense, but also in the sense that there was seemingly never enough love and affection to go around.

In keeping with my resolve at the beginning of the year to reclaim my Joy, I decided to take a broom and give the corners of my mind a good brisk sweeping. In doing so, I've discovered that although there are many unhappy and damaging memories from my childhood, there are also some jewels strewn among the debris.

*When I was not yet in school and was the only child at home during the day with my mother, I remember her making homemade bread. My favorite memories of this are of her braiding the bread, which I thought was just beautiful, and of her giving me my own little piece of dough so that I could bake my own loaf. I love the smell of homemade bread to this day.

*One of my earliest memories is of tasting baby aspirin. You know, the little orange Bayer ones? I think I probably faked being sick a hundred times just so I could get those little orange bits of delight.

*My Gram Colclasure made the best homemade ice-cream in the world in my opinion and I always got to sit on the bucket while Pa churned it. As payment, I would get the first scoop of ice-cream. I will take the taste of Gram's banana ice-cream with me to the grave.

*My Gram also taught me about hunting 4-leaf clovers. In southern Illinois, there is no shortage of clover and I spent hours on her farm in quest of the ever elusive 4-leafer. Anytime I spy a clover patch, I always get down to look...just in case.

*My Pa and my father were both professional jockeys. My father became a trainer after he couldn't ride professionally anymore and so for the better part of my life I grew up on racetracks and horse ranches. I learned not only a great deal of respect for those beautiful animals, but a true love for them as well. I still can't enter a horse barn without inhaling deeply and taking in their warm and lovely smell.

*One of the delightful things about having parents that were too preoccupied with their own lives to pay attention to what you were doing, was being able to run wild from morning 'til night. We always lived out in the country and our entertainment was the rowdy and rough play of little country bumpkins running along the train tracks, digging clay out of the cliffs by the stream so that we could make tiny pots and dry them in the sun, climbing on barn roofs, climbing up trees and running barefoot through acres and acres of seemingly giant rows of corn stalks. Sometimes I still miss the feeling of damp dirt between my toes.

*In southern Illinois, there is also no shortage of blackberries. They grow wild and we had vast patches of them in the woods down the road from our house. Buckets in tow, we'd spend the day picking and eating, eating and picking. Inevitably, we'd all end up with chiggers all over our bodies and spend a couple of miserable days trying to rid ourselves of them with every hideous home remedy my Granny Hazel had in her book of magic potions. The reward was homemade blackberry jam. There's nothing quite like it.

*My Granny Hazel was a world class pack rat. Every nook and cranny of her house was stuffed full of This and That. When she ran out of room in her house, she managed to fill an Airstream trailer in her back yard with more of This, and even more of That. The really great thing about this from the standpoint of a kid, is that you could build a slammin' Halloween costume at Granny's house in no time flat. She had hats and wigs, scarfs and coats, shoes and fishnet stockings, make-up, gloves and any other wondrous thing that you could possibly want or need. During the time that my family lived in close proximity to my Granny, my sister and I would win or place in our school's Halloween parade every year. It made Granny so proud when I brought her my first place prize of a shark tooth necklace. After that, she'd try to outdo herself every year.

*My Granny Hazel also had a big wooden bridge that crossed a giant deep ditch in her yard. My sister and I played Billy Goat's Gruff every time we visited Granny. It was the most fun and sometimes a little scary! Years later when I was much older, I went to visit Granny and asked her where that giant ditch was with the big bridge over it. I'd looked in the yard and didn't see it. She said, "Well, it's right out there, right where you left it!" When we went to look together, I saw it. It was a rinky dinky little ditch with a tiny little bridge over it. It had seemed so big and mysterious and wonderful to a seven year old. I'm so glad I had visited my Granny because it was the last time I ever saw her alive. But, I wish I'd never seen that ditch. I liked it just the way it was in my seven year old memory.

*When my family moved from Illinois to Oklahoma, we moved to a horse ranch and the ranch owner just happened to have two sons who were the ages of my sister and I. Instant friends! We had so much fun on that ranch. We learned how to build intricate mazes out of hay bales in the hay barn and at the end of those mazes were secret forts where we could hide away from the adult world. And, who said painting fences isn't fun?! Four kids, paint brushes and gallons of white paint on a hot summer day? It's a sure recipe for loads of fun, four really white kids, and poorly painted fences. At the end of those days though, fishing off the dock and ending up in the pond to cool off was a treat. This was also where I learned the difference between a good persimmon and a bad one (still makes me pucker just thinking about it), how to drive a riding lawnmower and the joy of spinning cats in buckets on a hot-walker. (If you don't know what I'm talking about in that last part, I'd be happy to tell you, but if you're a cat lover you might not want to ask.)

The days on that farm in Oklahoma were the last of my happy memories of childhood. I was growing up and life for my parents was on a downhill slide for the next several years until it all ended horribly with reverberating consequences that ripple through us all still.

I actually have more happy things on my list, but I won't bore you with them all. I'm glad I made the list and I'm glad that they took up an entire page. It's not possible to weigh them against all of the bad memories and see if there is a weird sort of balance there, because there isn't. It's almost as though the good memories and the bad memories are two separate movies that I have running through my head.

If I look at it like that, I can choose to replay the one I like the most and let the other just slowly disintegrate until there is nothing left but a wee bit of something that I can stick in my pocket and pat gently now and again.

"A childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it."

Carol Shields


Angie said...

What a great post Amy. Thanks for sharing your childhood memories with us.

And banana ice cream sounds really good.

lakeviewer said...

Isn't it fun to relive those days? Things get reevaluated; receive another spotlight. At times, they reveal more than we knew.

Andrea said...

I say you should do just that - "choose to replay the one I like the most...."

And, I completely get the baby aspirin thing!

Amy said...

Thank you ladies! I've finally reached the point in my life where I feel I have a say so in how I go about my present and future, regardless of the things in the past that were beyond my control. It's a good place to be.

Angela said...

You had me choking there, Amy. These memories sound wonderful to me, and oh yes, please, keep them and let them grow. Even write books about them! They are so much like the Astrid Lindgren memories (Pippi Longstocking and the Children of Bullerby and Madita...), and you know, her life afterwards was not easy, either. Your childhood is a different thing, and yours sounds like a good one, mostly, until, well, the other things rose up. But you have a good remedy plan!! Do as you said! We always have choices concerning how to LOOK at things.
Will you write me another email, telling me more? And also I want that banana Ice cream recipe, please!

Amy said...

Angela -

Yes, of course I will send you the banana ice cream recipe! You will love it. (Too bad you can't grow fresh bananas in that garden of yours!)

I will tell you as much as you want to know. The good and the bad.

Big love,


Angela said...

Please tell me all you want to tell me. I am way past being shocked by anything (that`s what having lived a few years does to you - you hear some stories...), and maybe I can help you put things into perspective. Nod at some, laugh at some with you (that helps a lot, even with the worst!), and just tell you that nothing which your elders did has anything to do with YOU! Yes, I would love a letter from you. And a banana palm tree, please!
Oh, haha, veri word is conessig, yes, that is what life is like: con (with)essig (vinegar). Sometimes.

Reya Mellicker said...

Grandmothers are the best!

And orange flavored aspirin? YUM!! I always loved it when I had to take it.

It cannot be denied that my upbringing was less than ideal. It was at times physically abusive, most all of the time emotionally abusive, and all of the time impoverished not only in a financial sense, but also in the sense that there was seemingly never enough love and affection to go around.

Are we separated at birth? I had the same childhood, though recently, through Facebook I've gotten reaquainted with old friends from high school who have helped me remember that along with all the painful experiences, I actually had lots of fun growing up. It has been such a gift, so healing.

You are so CUTE in our big ole glasses. Adorable!

Fragrant Liar said...

Fascinating contradictions family can create. I'm glad you have so many great memories to sustain you. Sometimes when I'm sad about being molested when I was three, I imagine my three-year-old self (as seen in many family pictures) and I hug her as well as I can, and I tell her how special and worthy and loved she is, by ME. Always makes me feel good.

Amy said...


Yes! Isn't Facebook amazing?! It's so odd and wonderful to have people relate to me the good things they remember about me from days gone by. I always thought myself a bit of misfit, but have discovered that quite a few had great memories of me. Very healing indeed.


(That sounds absolutely horrid. You must tell me your real name!) It's a wondrous and amazing journey you've traveled to be able to find comfort within and to be able to love your little You. I'll have to share with you one of my terrible little poems on the subject.

Thank you all for sharing my memories with me and for sharing yours in return

Anonymous said...

One of the most frustrating things about childhood is the not knowing that there are others all around you either going through or have gone through so many similar things. Things happened with me that I just blocked out and moved on. I was lucky it was not an ongoing thing. But being little, I thought the usual...that I was all alone. When in reality there were others in the same situation. We, as children, just really had no outlet to express ourselves to the "adults". I've tried to let my kids know that if something is going on with them, that they are not alone and have tried to encourage communication. I know the communication thing is asking a lot when they become teens. :-)

Anyway, just some thoughts on how alone we all were as kids but not really alone. If that makes sense.

Bob F.

Amy said...


Yes! Of course it makes perfect sense. It's one of the tragic things about being a child. You have no voice. And, on top of that, your world is a very small place where only you and your family exist so, yes...you feel as though your experiences are singular to you.

Years after I was out of school and working my way towards adulthood, I had many people ask me, "Why didn't you let us know what was going on?! We could have helped!" My answer was always, "It never occurred to me." And, it didn't.

A million kudos to you for opening up the line of communication between yourself and your kids. It's difficult to get them to talk sometimes, but if they know that you're trustworthy and willing to listen, what a gift it is to them.