When I teach, I have students read to the class about a significant event in their lives. One young woman said she didn’t mind being locked in the cellar with her older brothers, but she didn’t think it was fair they had to share one plate of bread and milk. Her brothers were bigger. The class was silent and I rushed in to say something supportive, but I couldn’t undo the silence. She left after that class, and I think of how lonely she must have felt; her story isolated her from the stream of bike accidents and grandparents dying. She had lived eighteen or nineteen years without knowing some essential fact about the difference of her childhood.
My family was not starving the year I was ten, but we were hungry at the edges. The place we moved to after losing our house in Maine was a farmhouse in Southern New England. We had no refrigerator, and sometimes no running water when the well was dry or the tap chunky with bits of mud. The woodstove seemed identical to the model my great-grandfather had in his cabin. We arrived with a single bed, which the baby slept in. I think about how that was for my mother, who had grown up hungry some of the time and in need all of the time. We were surrounded by palatial estates in an upscale neighborhood, and we had come from a place of genial ignorance and rural poverty.
Although no good candidate for the most terrifying year of my childhood stands out, this was the loneliest. I was tormented by the other children and I tried to torment back. I wore their hand-me-downs. They had French lessons. I could not speak French and had never been to France. I did not know how to play tennis or soccer. The more the year wore on, the less I knew or could know. Stories swam beneath the surface, but nothing dared to land.
A wealthy family invited us over—I don’t know why. I was running through their house in a game with one of their children, and I ran into the kitchen to the far counter. The remains of a huge roast beef sat on a cutting board. I know that I gaped at it, and the mother of the house saw me. She asked me if I was hungry and my mother and I agreed I was not hungry. I recall us folding our arms gently across our chests. I think of how the mother of that household must have felt, seeing us, and how my mother felt.
I was visiting a family referred to my agency because the toddler was a behavior problem. Toddlers are, by definition, a behavior problem. I was expecting the usual: temper tantrums, food battles, the push for independence and the pull of closeness.
As it turned out, they had two children; a child nearly three and a child of about fifteen months. They kept them behind gates in separate bedrooms. The bedrooms had a bare mattress on the floor and no toys because they threw them. And if the children got into the living room and touched something they shouldn’t, their parents put them back in their rooms, waiting for the spontaneous ignition of rationality and order.
The older child was so deeply recessed into his fears and anxiety, it was hard to make any contact. He had a couple of words when most kids have a couple of hundred words. He couldn’t assemble a simple puzzle. Deprivation and neglect are powerful forces, especially in the very young. What doesn’t happen permanently shapes the cognitive and emotional life of a child.
It was totally understandable from the father’s point of view. The father controlled the household and he was enacting both his understanding of child development and the prison system he had graduated from. To see such need and his folded arms. He was astonished to find out children need to be taught everything.
Years and years later they lost custody of their children, one of the many families passed around the human service system. They had case management from the program for homeless families, and later, case management from a program for families with difficulty parenting, and many programs in between. They probably knew more service providers than they had relatives.
The children were also shuffled to different schools and programs. We assume the ordinary possession of language and logic in humans, that cause and effect is the simplest law to see, but not if you are raised in chaos. Someone else was going to be impatient with those children, enmeshed in a system that couldn’t understand such profoundly damaged children. And they wouldn’t know their own story, not even as the young woman shut in the cellar knew hers.
We were discussing a poem in my writing group and I have the speaker notice the smut left on the window from burning wire. The speaker is in Italy and one of the women said: typically, people whose families burn wire to collect scrap metal don’t travel. And I thought that was so, but I couldn’t confess it was an actual detail from my childhood because I hadn’t thought of it as a marker of poverty. I wasn’t embarrassed by my childhood, but I felt stupid. I had failed to recognize another signifier.
We weren’t really poor, at the time my father was burning plastic off wire in a barrel, but he was a kind of Sisyphus, pushing against my mother’s schizophrenia and looming debt. We had a stable place to rent, TV dinners, and the occasional trip to other parts of the Northeast. My mother started getting her hair done.
Different parts of us survive. The missing parts of me were shaped by the chaos of my childhood, by the explosive and equally silent emotional life of my family. The young woman that walked in and out of my class, the boys confined to their bare rooms, the stories I silenced in other rooms—sifting through fragments.
We were having dinner with friends, and one mentioned an obit, and said: This person went to Harvard. He was someone. My family of small farmers, auto mechanics, and factory workers could not be someone. Their lives would not be heard; the audience would not know how to hear stories so far from their own. It didn’t matter what kind of cellar or room they had escaped from. The language of the possible never touches them.
Image: Oil painting by Layers, via Pixabay.