Crossing the frontier of childhood

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Our nearest neighbor, The Golden Gate Bridge

The party started at Shakey’s. All of the other girls had already passed over the border from twelve to thirteen; we were celebrating my crossing. The twelfth year had been all uphill; my childhood treasures abandoned one by one as I slogged upward. The changes in my body made the climb harder, but I believed that if I reached the marker “Thirteen,” I would arrive in a place closer to freedom, a place closer to where dreams lived.

 

After the birthday pizza party, the girls came to my house for a slumber party. We lived in military housing on Fort Baker, a small Army base sitting across from San Francisco in Marin County. Our nearest neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge, bore the scrawl of our names on its pillars. My stepfather, an Army Captain, defended us from the communists by working in the Nike missile program. We lived in one of the large duplexes up on the hill above the parade grounds.

 

Mother met Ralph within months of my daddy’s death. My father may have been the love of her life, but he was gone, and she needed a man. Her need, so much more than a want, compelled her to go in search of someone to marry her and take care of her. She searched in all the wrong places, but she found her man.

Our house on Fort Baker (photo taken over 20 years later)

Mother met Ralph at a bar; he was seven years younger and a first lieutenant in the Army. She was out dancing and drinking, doing her best to stop being a widow. She succeeded; less than six months after they met, they married. At that time we lived in El Paso, and Ralph was stationed at Fort Bliss.

 

After they got married, the dancing stopped, but not the drinking. Mother had married an alcoholic before, so you would think that she could recognize the signs. She didn’t, or maybe she didn’t care. She had someone to share her bed and her expenses; she wasn’t alone anymore.

 

The night of my thirteenth birthday party, Ralph went to Happy Hour. He always stayed longer than an hour, and it never made him happy. He came home late, while my friends and I were in my bedroom, laughing, whispering about boys, and eating snacks.

 

Ralph never liked my sister and me, and the older we got, the less he liked us. Particularly me. He talked ugly when he was drunk, so I was used to being called a bitch and a little whore, but I never thought he’d call my friends that. He did. Then he told them to get out of his house. Now.

 

I can’t remember much of the chaos that followed. I think my mom took the girls home. One or two lived in Sausalito; two of them lived in Marin City. I do remember that Ralph passed out in the bedroom he shared with my mother.

 

Sometime after midnight, my mom packed suitcases for all of us. Then we got in the car to drive to Texas to my oldest sister’s home. Mother took all the cash in the house, including a piggy bank made from an empty soap container that belonged to my three-year-old brother. Afraid that Ralph might hear the car engine, she put it in gear and let it roll down the driveway before starting it.

 

My sister welcomed the four of us into her small three-bedroom house, already full with the five of them.  Ralph sobered up and pled with mother over the phone until she agreed to go back. It will never happen again, he promised. Whatever he felt for mother or for us never looked like love to me, but maybe it was. Or maybe he needed a wife and a family to get promoted. He had his reasons, and she believed him or pretended to. I told her I wouldn’t go. My oldest sister invited me to stay; she understood why I couldn’t go back. She had lived the same story; in fact, all of mother’s children did or would. My daddy had been her stepfather, and he had never liked her; so she ran away at 17, got married, and had her first baby when I was two years old.

 

I spent a year away from home and loved living with my sister, her husband, and three children. I never noticed the cracks in the foundation of her home, but that year the walls still stood and they sheltered me. Within a couple of years, the walls crumbled; my sister fled, abandoning her children.

 

During that year, I had time to heal some of the wounds and forget some of the ugliness. In the middle of my freshman year at Irvin High School in El Paso, Ralph got orders for Alaska. My mom wanted me to come with them, and I agreed.

 

They came from California to Texas to get me, and in January of 1965, we drove up the ALCAN Highway to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. It looked like a new beginning, a new chapter in our lives, but it wasn’t. That first chapter wasn’t over yet.

 

It’s a simple story, with more pain than some, but less than others. Standing on the peak of thirteen, my childhood looked to be a million miles away, the pathway back, long forgotten. On that first summit of my teenaged years, I thought I would be able to see the world, or least find a clearly marked path that would lead me to my dreams. I didn’t know what they were yet, but was sure I would recognize them once I saw them. No one told me it would be so hard. I had two choices: keep climbing or go through the dark valley. I chose the dark valley.

 

45 thoughts on “Crossing the frontier of childhood

    • All of my siblings have stories like this, and we all have (or had) a slightly off-kilter sense of humor. I only share the same father with one of my siblings, so it must have come from our mother. Oddly, she didn’t have the same sense of humor.

  1. That gave me goosebumps and made me cry. Beautiful writing.

    On a much lighter note, before I got to the meat of your story I was excited because I live in Sausalito and spend lots of time at Fort Baker (not a lot of people know about it – it’s a hidden gem) running around what I call “the circle, ” but what must be the parade grounds in your story. And the funny thing, I thought just a few days ago – the day after Christmas – I wonder who lived in these places? Now I will be thinking of the 13 year old you when I am there (and not Ralph).

    Here is an old post with a photo I took from Ft. Baker (you have to scroll down to “Running” http://worrywarts-guide-to-weight-sex-and-marriage.com/2011/10/19/our-new-life/

    Did you ever view this post (photos taken from Hawk Hill above Ft. Baker)?
    http://worrywarts-guide-to-weight-sex-and-marriage.com/2011/11/17/drops-of-jupiter/

    • Thanks for the links. I had not seen either one of them. What beautiful photos you took above Fort Baker! Fort Baker was where I did my one and only intentional shoplifting (a tube of Coppertone – great for those foggy days beside the bay). I attended Richardson Bay School 1963-1964 and my teacher was Mrs. Larson. Still have the class picture. I got into so much trouble back then, but loved Sausalito. Such a beautiful place.

  2. At the end of each of your stories, I am reminded of what a relatively, normal childhood I had. But, I am also reminded that the most difficult things I have endured are the things that have made me the strongest. How about you?

    • They certainly inform who we are. I am still wrestling with some of these things, and have found that writing is the best way to think through them. If we survive, we have the chance to grow stronger, so I do think we can gain something from our hardships.

  3. Like Margie, I’m reminded by this post of the fact that as a child I was far luckier than I knew. I think we all tend to assume, when we’re growing up, that all families are pretty much like our own. What surprises are in store.

  4. Thanks, Kate. This blog is my book for now. It’s a kind of therapy for me to write about some of these things. I know it’s odd, but often after I hit publish I have a little cry. In between this kind of post, I need to write silly stuff and give myself some space.

    • Thank you. I made a lot of bad choices after age 13, and although it would be easy to blame it on someone else, that wouldn’t be the truth. I want to be strong and brave, but I’ve still got a ways to go.

  5. RAB’s noting of our youthful ignorance of how different families are is spot-on. I was blissfully unaware, as a child, that anything could be other than pretty idyllic. By the time I hit that sort of sentience–probably around that age you’re chronicling in this post–it came as quite a shock to know how far different life could be indeed for many, if not most of my friends and classmates. Ever since, I have marveled that while we may tend to repeat the forms and patterns we grew up knowing, many of the most wonderful people I know bucked that trend and chose a brighter and healthier life for themselves when they had a chance. That’s far more impressive and, ultimately, engaging to me in a companion, because I know that there’s thoughtful depth and a will to seek out the good and the happy, and that tends not only to pay off in their own lives but in what they radiate to those around them. That’s certainly something I see in you, with your ability to enjoy the ridiculous and absurd in life even while being honest about what’s not so swell. I thank you for sharing it, all of it.

  6. Thank you, Kathryn. It has certainly made me love goodness, plain and homely as it seems to people. As you know and so wonderfully portray through your art and words, it really is the most beautiful of all.

  7. Thanks for sharing. You certainly took many steps on the road to adulthood that year–and drew on your inner strength, courage, and witty insights that still work for you today. This is a powerful piece, as are the posts you call silly as you move forward with the inbetween stuff of life. I look forward to your wit, wisdom and insights.

  8. Beautifully told. I agree with your statement up above, that the writing helps the healing so much. And if beauty = healing, well then you are well along after this post.

  9. As I read this, I kept saying…yes…me too. I thought the path to a gracious maturity would be clearly marked. I was pretty confused to discover otherwise. You’ve just helped a lot of younger women discover how to take the journey into their own hands. Lovely.

    • I think there are signs and markers along the way sometimes, but when you’re going forward, they’re easy to miss. After you’ve gone down the road a bit and turn around, you see them clearly and can’t believe you missed them. At least for me, that’s how it’s been.

  10. You touched me again. My first novel is about a girl who turns 13 and struggles with her body and the mess in her life. It’s not my story, and yet it is. I was lucky, my father who was an alcoholic, died in a car crash when I was 13. I read after I was grown that children who are forced to adjust to problems as they grew up made more resilient adults. I hope that is true as I continue to look at kids who are clawing their way toward adulthood.

  11. It’s hard to bare our word-souls out there into the blogosphere. But when we do, I think we hope that the pain will fragment and dissipate during the process…which is what writing is all about in many ways. This is a powerful and brave thing you have done. Just be careful not to get stuck inside the story after visiting old haunts. Step in and step out is my motto. Well done.

    • Great advice, Pat. Some things are hard to write, but I feel like I need to write them down. In a way, I’m doing what I wish my mother had done – write down her stories. Now I feel like I have to do it. In a way, I feel that all of my stories are really hers.

  12. As I read this, two things came to mind. First, though my childhood seemed fairly normal because of an extremely loving father, it had it’s fair share of dysfunction because of my mother’s issues (which I won’t go into here). Secondly, what you wrote reminded me of what I now know to be my mother’s traumatic childhood (explaining her issues). I only wish she would be able to work through them like you have/are doing, but they seemed to have emotionally crippled her. She is like a scared, defiant child in the form of an 85-year-old woman who has lost the man she didn’t appreciate before his death. Thank you for sharing more of your story. How do we give hugs across the blogosphere?

    • Your words are like a hug. Thank you. I’m glad that you had a loving father who was able to make up for some of the things you may have missed getting from your mother. I feel for her; now that people are living longer we have more time as we age to reflect on the past and hopefully make peace with it. Perhaps there’s still time for her.

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