Home Before Five

My mother’s due date is to be the makings for a New Year’s Day celebration or there about, but even at birth, I take the road less traveled; in desperation, I draw my first breath one month late. I am purple from head to toe, having difficulty breathing, and my skin is pealing from being in the womb too long. My mother tells me in that day, they did not induce labor; they allowed life to happen naturally. Her labor did not progress; it was prolonged with exceptional pain. Laughing, she tells me she screamed quite loud throughout the entire ordeal, annoying the staff, the doctor, and probably the entire labor and delivery wing. Ultimately, she rips the curtains off the hospital window. She says the doctor strongly urges them never to have any more children. Because I am struggling to survive (the story of my life,) my mother does not hold me. The medical staff work on me as she says she prays, “God, please let her live. If you let her live, I’ll give her to you.” My mother tells me that my father took one look at me and says, “She’s an ugly little shit!” So, near dying, one wants to give me away to God and the other thinks I am ugly! Let’s get this late New Year’s party started!

My brother is a little over two and half upon my arrival. He has been an only child, grandchild, and nephew his entire short life thus far. Naturally, all dote upon him. I am told he is full of life, always on the go, in to everything, very active, all boy, and always hungry. In the pictures I have, he is one cute little boy with brown naturally curly ringlets of hair! When I begin talking, I call him “Bubby” and he calls me “Sissy.”

One Easter, for some insane reason, my aunt brings us each live little yellow baby ducks. Now, we do not live on a farm; we are city folk. What pray tell are we going to do with ducks in the city in a small yard? My brother wants to see if they can swim. He goes out to the garage; I follow him. He gets out a five-gallon bucket. He fills the five-gallon bucket with water from the garden hose. He goes back indoors and gets the baby ducks. He places the baby ducks into the five-gallon bucket of water. We are standing over the five-gallon bucket watching these baby ducks trying to swim for their very lives. The baby ducks do not know how to swim; they gurgle to the bottom of the five-gallon bucket and drown.

My brother loves playing with matches and fire. Where and how that began is a mystery to me. Again, my aunt for some insane reason, buys my brother a white Styrofoam life-size surf board and lifesaver ring. We do not live near water. We do not own a pool, other than a little plastic yard pool in which these items do not even fit. They are useless to my brother other than futile folly. I am unclear how my brother has a book of matches, but outside at the corner of the house, he begins breaking off little bits of the surfboard and ring, setting a match under the pieces, and watching them melt. I vividly recall standing aside watching the melting with great intrigue. He runs out of matches in his matchbook and asks me to go inside and get more matches out of the drawer. I do. He continues melting Styrofoam as a black soot mark begins accumulating on the corner of the house. My mother comes home, rounds the corner, and I literally think my brother’s death date has arrived. Her wrath swoops down upon him like a typhoon. Now, I strongly believe in proper discipline, rules, boundaries, consequences, punishment fitting the crime, etc., but corporal punishment  and ear- splitting vocals cause grave life-long trauma to a child.

Frequently, I hear my mother and father say, “We have to break his spirit!” Before I am five, who knows what that cognitively means, but visually and audibly that meant watching my mother turn into a category five hurricane with rantings and screaming at decibels beyond the Krakatoa Eruption of 1883 chasing after a little boy. Now my brother says he probably deserved everything he ever got, but harsh physical spankings and cruel punishment equate to abuse and I refuse to define it by any other term! How about they take responsibility for safeguarding access to matches and such, playing with him rather than leaving him up to his own mischievous wiles, and seeking out participation in constructive activities, which they had no interest in doing throughout our entire childhood. They wanted him contained and controlled by punishment and sought measures to “break his spirit” not considering they were breaking much more than his spirit – his self-esteem, his belief and joy in who he was as a little boy, changing his internal chemistry into someone he was not created to be, and emotionally creating defiance, anger,  and rebelliousness. They did not break his spirit, they altered and wounded his spirit.

My father is rarely home. He works three jobs. One I know, he scrubs, buffs, and polishes floors at night in an office building. A couple times, he brings the buffer home to do our floors. We get to sit on the buffer for a ride as he swirls the machine all around the room. His main employment is working for the grounds department at the state university. He enjoys that job and does it for his entire career, working countless hours in the winter plowing snow around the clock. A co-worker of his plays Santa at Christmas and travels about the town visiting little children at their homes. My father arranges for him to drop in for a visit to see my brother and me during a few Christmas seasons. Santa boisterously emerges through the front door shouting, “HoHoHo!” I run for the bedroom, but my brave brother goes right up to Santa, sits on his lap, and tells him everything he wants for Christmas. I keep my distance, peeking around the corner to see. I am still given a little netted stocking filled with candy. One Christmas we get bicycles. Mine, of course, has training wheels. We do not stay long, but in the snow, my father takes us to the school playground to ride our new bikes. Before I am five, I gravitate toward my father. He really does not have much of a clue about me as my mother keeps a solid grip on my life. In his absence, he thinks my mother takes care of everything for the kids. However, he certainly gives his two cents about doctors and dentists. My mother is not to take us to the dentist while we have baby teeth. He thinks that is a waste of money. We do not see the dentist. I am given a toothbrush, shown where the toothpaste is, and how to put the toothpaste on the brush, but I am not taught how to brush my teeth.

My mother tells me I was a sickly child. My nose dripped constantly. I struggled with severe constipation to the point she says she was frequently checking and administering some type of medication from the doctor. I have chronic earaches. Apparently, my mother hears of an old wives’ tale that suggests if she heats dry salt up in a pan on the stovetop, puts it in a baby sock, and places it on the child’s ear, it will draw out the pain. I beg for salt socks regularly. Did it draw out the pain? Who can say, but it is comforting and soothing quietly lying down on the couch with my hot salt socks pressed into my ears. I have migraine headaches, primarily on Sunday afternoons, that pierce my skull, throbbing and pulsating with a rhythm of a bass drum. She speaks to the doctor and gets another type of medication. I yearn for the isolation of a quiet dark room to lie down and let the pulsating subside. My mother tells me I was an angel sent from heaven. She tells me I never cry. She says I sleep all the time. She says she flicks the bottom of my feet to wake me up to eat. She tells me mostly she props a bottle up for me to drink in the crib and walks away, only to find the partially drank bottle somewhere on the floor. She tells me my brother wants me to come outside and play with him, but I am just a baby, so he decides to bring in a bucket of dirt and proceeds to pour it in my face. She says I nearly suffocated, turns me upside down to get me breathing, and has a terrible time getting all the dirt out of my eyes, ears, nose, and throat. She tells me I do not like to be held except for my paternal grandmother. She tells me that I do not talk. She says it is because my brother speaks for me. She decides to send my brother to my grandparents for a week and somehow forces me to speak. My speech is abnormal; I talk like Elmer Fudd for a couple years. I remember my mom and aunt mimicking my speech and words. It feels like they are making fun of me and laughing at me.

My mother tells me when I am able to sit up by myself without tipping over, many days she sits me in the middle of the dining room floor surrounded by toys and goes off to take a one to two hour nap. She says that I never move or cry; I sit there until she returns. I actually have a foggy memory of a few of those times.

At age three and four, I begin to have some of my own clear memories. My mother loved to watch, I Love Lucy in the mornings. Many mornings she sits me down beside her with a basket of laundry and teaches me how to fold washcloths and dishtowels – perfectly, while watching I Love Lucy. If it is not perfect, we start all over again as she watches The Price Is Right and The Young and the Restless. I eventually learn how to fold all the laundry – perfectly. In the afternoons, she takes a nap and begins giving me a choice. I can either take a nap or stand on a chair at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. I no longer want to take naps and always choose to wash dishes. By age four, I am a master class laundry folder and dishwasher – with perfection.

Now I am unclear of my naughty behaviors, but I am very clear on spankings. My mother spanks me; I do not cry. My mother spanks me again; I do not cry. My mother becomes infuriated and spanks me again; I do not cry. My brother tells me it became laughable to her. I remember this escapade a couple times. She is out to break me as well.  

I have no recollection of being played with, other than by my brother. Before I was born, I believe an uncle built my brother a super large roofed sandbox that stray cats used as their litter box, and a swing set was erected in the side yard. I want to say I was three. My brother and I are playing on the swing set. He pushes the swing sideways at me, gashing my forehead open. My mother rushes me to the ER where I am stitched up, not crying, all the while asking for my dad. I have no memories of sitting in laps, being read to, being told ‘I love you’, or any of those warm safe and secure feelings.

The doctor decides to remove my tonsils and adenoids. My mother decides that my brother will have the same procedures done at the same time. It is summer. We are confined to house arrest in the mornings and limited activities in the side yard for a short bit in the afternoons. We each wear ice cuffs around our necks for a few days; we each drink pink medicine. My earaches cease and my speech clears up. I am five.

Love you, mean it!