One’s People…

Hi folks – this piece may be a bit more emotionally intense than previous ones you’ve seen. If heavy emotions, talk about drug/alcohol abuse, family arguments and (a little, not graphic) sexually suggestive content are upsetting for you wait for the next entry.

I am two years old, squatting alone in the dirt outside my house. Seals and Crofts are singing about a Diamond Girl who sure does shine. The North Carolina sun beats down on me and the smell of Marlboro lights 100s mixed with meatloaf wafts out the window. I’m using a spoon my mom gave me to dig a hole underneath a hose tap. I’m digging myself a swimming pool.  Suddenly the neighbour girl comes out of nowhere, grabs the spoon from my hand and runs as fast as she can back to her house. I’m not sure what just happened or why but I know what to do. I ask my mom for another spoon and she gives it to me. Almost immediately this spoon is taken away the same way and I ask for another one.  When she takes the third spoon I decide to run after her. I’m not fast enough to catch her, but I’m fast enough to see where she lives. I knock on her door and as the girl’s mother opens the door for me, my mother is there behind me. “Let’s go honey,” she says. I start to cry “She took all of our spoons!” I shout. My mom says “It’s OK, let’s go home.”, puts me over her shoulder and carries me home. 

“How about we read a book and have a nice nap?” 

I nod, still sniffling. We don’t just read one book, we read four. She pauses every couple of pages to ask me to try to sound out some words and I am proud of myself when my mom says “You’re such a good reader!”

I am five years old and I’m at the doctor’s office. My kindergarten teacher has told my parents to take me here because, she said, “He just sits and stares at books. We haven’t taught him to read yet so he must have a problem.” Everything is bright white. The doctor asks me my name, my favourite games, if I have a pet. 

“I’m Todd, I like Candy Land, and Charlie is a good dog who once jumped out a window because he wanted to protect me from the neighbour’s dog who was barking at me.”

He taps my knee with a hammer and I kick just like on TV, and he bounces a tennis ball for me to catch. I try to catch the ball, my hand moving to where the ball was seconds before. The ball bounces under the examination table.

He hands me a Cricket magazine and flips to a page with a man holding a stack of books nearly as tall as he is. “Read this,” he says.

“I can pack for a trip with great speed,
For I know in advance what I need:
It isn’t clean socks
Or toothpaste or clocks –
It’s an armful of new books to read” – Eve Merriam

The doctor writes the teacher a note with his diagnosis: “This child has no developmental or physical issues. He is spending his time in your classroom reading books. He also needs to work on hand-eye coordination. He may return to class immediately.” 

Two days after my return to school I’m sent to a new classroom with more time spent reading and doing math and less time playing Red Rover.

In the summer after kindergarten I go to my grandparents house in Vermont. It is so hot that I don’t want to play in the sun. Instead I sit on the shady porch with a big book. Three kids from next door run up from the backyard we share with them

The oldest, a 7 year old with a blonde crew cut says “What’re you doing?” 

I’m startled and worried. These are tough kids. I’ve really only seen them shouting and punching each other. What if they’re bored punching each other and want someone new to hit?

“Reading about Winnie the Pooh”

“Baloney. Prove it.

Fifteen minutes later four kids are sitting on the porch in front of me. I’m reading them stories just like at the library.

I’m seven years old and am waiting for the bus. A big girl, almost eleven turns to me, sees my glasses and book and says “Hey lawyer! Whatcha readin’? Guys, he looks just like a lawyer. Where’s your briefcase, lawyer?” They laugh and laugh and I stand there looking at my Buster Brown shoes. I don’t know what to say.

When I get home I tell my dad and he says. “You’re not like them,” he says. Don’t pay attention to them. You’re a different kind of person. You’re smart and good in school. You’re going places.” This is such a relief and explains everything. They don’t have to like me. Different people will like me.

After grade three sometimes nights are really hard. When I go to bed my parents are laughing and drinking beer together, but then late at night sounds wake me. Sometimes it’s my mom crying and my dad yelling. Sometimes it’s the other way around. One night my dad is so upset. He’s crying and shouting at my mom. “Take this knife. Just kill me!” I run out and they are shocked to see me awake and promise to quiet down. I can’t get back to sleep so I turn on my light and read The Phantom Tollbooth until I hear my mom and dad both stumble to bed and I can no longer keep my eyes open.

In high school, I wear a special invisibility cloak. Only my best friend Michaeline can see me. Michaeline, the teachers – and of course the librarians. And so I float unnoticed through school. My dad is right. I’m not like them and so they can’t see me. They can’t see me to invite me to the drunken parties at the lake that happen every weekend, and they can’t see me to pick on me.

I listen intently in class, focusing most on math and science, my favourite subjects. After class I spend time talking with my favourite teachers and sometimes miss the bus, walking three miles to get home.  On the weekends while others are at parties, I’m exploring the woods with my dog or reading a book. When times are tough at home and my parents and their friends are drunk, snickering at racist and sexist jokes together, I go into my room, put on my walkman and read. Soon, thanks to the likes of Douglas Adams, I am also laughing at jokes based on science, sociology, math, and most of all intelligence.

In the summer before my senior year, my dad has some exciting news: We’re going to Boston for a weekend vacation. I make my plans: we’ll take the subway, we’ll go to the Museum of Science and the Aquarium and eat Chinese food. That afternoon the plans have changed. “Let’s have a vacation at the hotel in the nearest town. They’ve got a pool and you can swim and we can watch cable TV. I bet they have MTV”

I’m disappointed but it’s still more exciting than staying at home. Soon we’re in the Sheraton hotel. Duran Duran is on the TV singing about a woman named Rio and I smell like chlorine having spent the past two hours in the pool. But now there’s a knock on the door. My mom’s brother and sister in law have arrived with two cases of beer, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a two-litre bottle of coke. I say hello and go back to the TV where Billy Idol is now sneering as he sings. 

By 10:00, I can no longer keep my eyes open. I lie on my bed, turn my back to my parents, uncle and aunt, who are gradually getting louder.  I do manage to fall asleep but then wake to the sound of my uncle responding to my dad,

“But cocaine’s the only thing that really keeps me awake long enough. If I give up coke, I’d have to quit being a truck driver.”

My stomach starts to hurt and I will myself back to sleep only to wake to hear them all talking even more loudly and laughing. My uncle’s speech is really slurred now as he talks to my dad.

“Remember that time you walked in and these two were kissing? That was funny. They should do it again, right?”

I fidget under the covers trying to make myself noticed so they will stop but they keep going. I grab a pillow and push it hard against the top of my head. I doze for some time and am awakened my mom sobbing her heart out. Her speech is so slurred I can’t even understand her words. I pull the pillow down tighter on my head and somehow manage to fall asleep again. At 3:45 AM I’m awakened by the sound of the hotel door closing. Within minutes my parents are passed out in the other bed. There is sunlight leaking from around the curtains by the time I finally fall asleep.

My dad is a little unsteady on his feet as he gets into the car to drive us the thirty minutes home. I’m totally silent. Inside my mind is turning. Who are these people I’m living with? We share DNA but what else? And then it occurs to me. These aren’t my people.

These aren’t my people. But I have people.

My mother, in teaching me to read, connected me to my true family tree. It’s not my biological family tree but it’s even more powerful. My Uncle Douglas Adams would tell jokes to me when I felt sad. My aunt Madeleine L’Engle would take me out on adventures. Other relatives took me to New York City, through the Phantom Tollbooth to a fantasy world, to the Shire, or even to a world that only had two dimensions but still had love. They’d teach me about space, evolution, quantum physics or what it was like in countries I never before imagined. And closer to home I had more roots: Michaeline became my sister, her mom and dad showed me how parents could be kind, responsible and loving. My teachers showed me what it meant to love and care for someone. 

I’m 15 and I’m reading college catalogues, and at 16, I’m reading my freshman year text books.

I’m 20 and I’m reading an offer letter for a job in a biotechnology company.

I’m 21 and I’m reading an Al-Anon brochure and learning that I’m not alone in having a biological family that doesn’t look like the ones on TV. I’m also reading the text of a marriage license and signing my name on the bottom line. My family of choice, of authors and teachers, librarians and friends gets one more person.

I’m 22 and together we’re reading a lease on an apartment in another state far away from my biological family.

And at 27, I’m reading all the parenting books I can get my hands on. I’m going to do this right.

25 thoughts on “One’s People…

  1. Should you ever choose to change careers and write professionally, this piece alone could serve as your ticket. May we each find the ability to view our pasts sans woe-is-me seasoning and with as much clarity and detail as you shared.

    1. Thanks so much, Alice. I definitely had lots of help in that respect.

      As for the parenting books – they were definitely necessary at the time. I undertook becoming parent with the idea that everything I knew was questionable and quite possibly wrong. So I read tons and tons, lots of it read aloud with Sage. By the time our son arrived we at least had a general idea of the direction to go even if we weren’t exactly fully confident there. And of course Sage’s mom was incredibly helpful – especially in the first 3-4 years of his life as we were still getting our sea legs so to speak.

    1. Thanks! I’ve been thinking lots about why some people have difficult times in childhood and go on to do well while others do not. This piece begins to explain it for me. I think the other big piece is to always have a “refuge” where things feel normal. For me that was school in the school year, and the forest and books in the vacations. But there were a few times in my life where those refuges were not available to me. Had that been a more permanent situation the outcome wouldn’t have been so good, I’m sure.

  2. You are an amazing person Todd and I really mean it. The way you handled various situations in the past keeping all the positivity and kindness til date is remarkable. Stay blessed.

      1. Yes, that too. But it’s a complicated web, I think. Where did that attitude come from? In great part from my parents. It just goes to show that things in life are rarely, if ever, fully black and white.

  3. Todd… dear beautiful soul,

    Reading this micro-memoir, I was with you every second of the way. I felt the hurt from what was written and felt the pain from all that wasn’t said.

    What a great piece of writing, mon ami!

    Sending you hugs and lots of love,

  4. Is that you Todd in the last picture? Reading your post once again made me realize that Aravinda did not face problems in spite of not being able to see properly. At home, in school and his friends were a great support to him. Thank you sharing.

    1. Yes, indeed. They’re all me!

      Thanks for commenting. It really is amazing how much friends and others around us matter. I am not sure my teachers and friends fully understand this even now.

  5. I couldn’t stop reading – despite your Content Warning.
    As a piece of prose, post-Modern in its (un)sensibilities, it was riveting and compelling. Douglas Adams would be proud.
    As a sharing, it is heart-wrenching in its intimate honesty – thank you for your gift of transparency.
    Books are still very important in our family. In a time when we are turning to digital sources, we continue to accumulate paper books, because we like the touch, feel and smell of them. They, too, are our friends, and continue to keep the world open for us.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comments. It is interesting to approach writing stories like this now, as my own child is an adult.

      I also love paper books but now read e-books and paper ones about equally. I will say that over the past several years after social media started to reduce the time spent reading I’m reading more and more. The pandemic, of course, has made me read even more.

      1. One of the benefits of staying home more!
        I, too, have started reading ebooks – our local library has an extensive eBook service. That is my go-to when I find things I want to browse or get my hands on quickly! Our bookstores have dwindled sadly, even before this pandemic began. So, mail order books take time.

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