Monday, May 23, 2016

Even A "Boring Childhood" Yields Nuggets of Gold

I didn’t write much―if at all―about my childhood in my memoirs. My childhood seemed inconsequential and uneventful.

No Kill a Mockingbird or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn childhood for me. No abuse or divorce, or civil rights’ quests . . . just rhubarb stew bubbling on the stovetop in summer, winters sledding on neighborhood hillsides and a dog named Lucky.

Writing about those growing up years as I have begun to do offers this insight: I became a writer because of that ordinary life, alone in my bedroom imagining a magical world waiting outside the solitude of suburbia.

Writing prompt: Write about your childhood starting with this line: "What I really want to say ..."

What I really want to say is that loneliness has been with me as long as I can remember. My July birthday is a quiet affair. All the families are away at the New Jersey Shore or Pocono mountains. The plastic inflated swimming pool filled with icy water from the hose offered relief from the heat and humidity. I see myself in the pool wearing my blue and white checked bathing suit with strings that tie behind my neck.

Lucky, a mix of spaniel and terrier, is by my side. A vanilla cake, a few presents, one friend and the sound of humming cicadas set the scene. The purple and pink Rose of Sharon bush by the side of our house blooms on my birthday, July 11. Dad calls it “Susie’s Rose of Sharon,” as though this is celebration enough.

The sound of my childhood is a small glass wind chime bought on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. I tie the wind chime to my bedroom window catch and the soft breezes of summer and the cooler winds of autumn lift the thin rectangular glass panes. The tinkle perfectly captures a sense of possibility that the world outside my window holds  romance, a child’s imagination spurred on by fairy tales of women who found happily-ever-after in a devoted Prince Charming. How was I to know that my prince would die long before I, leaving me with a tangle of thorns, bittersweet memories and an eye evermore scanning the horizon for storm clouds?

A sledding party.
On a bookshelf in my bedroom, I display my china horses: a palomino, a black horse and a little brown pony with a beaded saddle and a tuft of white furry mane purchased in a  tacky boardwalk shop in Ocean City where everything is made in Japan.

Horses, wind chimes and the Nancy Drew mysteries fill my quiet child’s world.

Those years remind me of a way of life long gone now, one I value the older I get for its utter simplicity, at least on the surface. Barbecues, kickball, hopscotch and sledding on neighborhood hillsides.

I walked to my elementary school along tree-lined sidewalks, past stone houses with big chimneys, tucked behind ancient arborvitae and oak trees. My pale brown hair pulled back in a barrette, I remember thinking I wasn't very pretty. "Pretty" was a word for the girls with the thick hair and upturned noses; not me, skinny and gangly, already the tallest girl in the class.  Maybe then I began to build a shell to protect myself, not let other people see I cared. . . .

Pennsylvania is, if nothing else, a place where trees, flowers and plants flourish. Monkey vines in the woods behind our house, black snakes and turtles in the creekbefore development stripped every acre for profitformed the woodsy montage of my childhood in the 1950s.

I dug gobs of gray clay from the creek banks and molded them into little people with rounded balls for heads and torsos; squiggly, wormlike arms and legs. I dried my little people on newspaper in the sun, there in my own outdoor arts and crafts workshop until Mother called me in for lunch.

In second grade, our teacher Miss Stafford talked about leaves a second grader's introduction to photosynthesis. A shy child, I heard myself tell the class we had a red sugar maple in our backyard and before I knew it, sixteen or so second graders followed our teacher’s lead from Strafford Elementary, walking the sidewalks to my backyard where a perfect turquoise sky framed the tree. We gathered gold and crimson leaves, took them back to school and fashioned clay ashtrays in the shape of those leaves. Mine looked like a mitten. I stained it bright aquamarine before firing it up in the kiln. My father kept that ashtray in his den by his books for years. I wish I'd saved it. But even then I thought it ugly, not very good.

So you see? Even in a boring childhood, the "takeaways" exist, a map to the unknown, a memory here and there sparked by a thought or two. Who knows where it might lead?

What about you? Can you share a childhood memory or how it sparked your writing?

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