books, Family story

Our childhood, the ‘do-over version:’ Brought to you by my sister and starring my niece & nephew

It wasn’t until my niece and nephew were 10 and 8 that my life was in a logistical and financial place to take a week off and fly from Milwaukee to Edmonton to visit them.

That's Sweetheart sitting between Elizabeth and Noah. Elizabeth is listening to her cousin Alex, and the guy with his back to the camera is my brother-in-law, Dave. We're in his parents' living room.

That’s Sweetheart sitting between Elizabeth and Noah. Elizabeth is listening to her cousin Alex, and the guy with his back to the camera is my brother-in-law, Dave. We’re in his parents’ living room.

My brother-in-law, who travels a lot, was going to be gone even more often that month and my mother had mentioned that Debby was not looking forward to a longer-than-usual stint of being the only adult at home. Mom was still living on Cape Cod then, her life a whirlwind of book groups, synagogue activities, shopping, entertaining and traveling to exotic locales with her sisters and nieces.

“I have some time off coming,” I told Mom. “I’ll go up and help her.”

I called Debby as soon as I hung up.

“But Dave is gone that week and it’s their last week of school!” wailed my sister. “We won’t be able to do anything!”

“That’s why I’m coming,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I want to see your life and theirs and hang out and be helpful.”

Which didn’t happen exactly, since I got sick as soon as I arrived there.

Even so, it remains one of my very favorite trips. Elizabeth and Noah were exactly the right ages for what I really wanted. Which was to visit their house and spend some real time with them while they were:
a) young enough for a visit to become part of their childhood memories
and
b) old enough to remember it clearly.

The kids went to a primary school down the street that only went up to sixth grade. They took music lessons. Elizabeth played in a quasi-elite soccer club. Debby wrote while they were at school, and took them wherever they needed to go after. Even when Dave was in town, he was at work a lot and not around much.

As kids, Debby and I went to an elementary school up the street that went up to sixth grade. We took music lessons. We took swimming lessons. Our mother worked, but her teaching schedule meant that we weren’t home by ourselves for very long before she got there. Dad worked nights and weekends, and wasn’t around as much.

It was about the third day, walking to – or maybe from – school with Debby and Noah, when it occurred to me that my sister had recreated an idealized version of our childhood for her own offspring. My next thought was that recreating any version of my childhood was the last thing I would want to do to someone I loved.

To this minute, my flesh crawls just thinking about it. But it was fascinating to see it in action. I had no idea Debby had been so pleased with Management.

Perhaps if I’d had a different relationship with my mother – one more like Debby’s – I might have felt differently. For me, life at home meant existing in a state of constant low-level terror. Mom had a volatile temper. It took nothing to set her off. I hated being screamed at even more than I hated being hit.  When she wasn’t angry, she was dismissive.

At school, the terror was delivered through a different mechanism – my classmates. Having undiagnosed, untreated AD/HD was no picnic in a small school. I sometimes joke that everything in my life has been easier than elementary school and the marriage part of my first marriage. But I’m not entirely joking. It’s no fun spending the formative years of your K-12 education as a social pariah and teacher’s nightmare.

Books were my refuge. I learned to parent from the way the mothers and fathers in my favorite books treated their children – by conveniently dying (“The Boxcar Children”), staying the hell out of their children’s way (“Harriet the Spy”), or listening to them and treating them with respect (“Honey Bunch,” “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Nancy Drew,” “Trixie Belden,””Stuart Little”).

I don’t know what Debby’s influences were. I do know that she and my brother-in-law have raised a pair of lovely human beings. It’s lucky to end up with relatives you like and enjoy spending time with. It’s even better when they’re people you met before you knew whether that would happen.

So, here’s to my sister for finally giving me someone to enjoy clothes shopping with. Elizabeth was worth the wait. The same goes for Noah, who is kind, practical, reassuring and treats me like a person, not an auntly obligation.

I’m so grateful they survived my childhood.

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