Memories of Hard Times

I was standing in my grandmother’s living room, full of summer afternoon light. I heard Nana in the next room, her bedroom, talking on the phone to a friend. I remember clearly what she said: “Those kids are between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

Glib, dramatic, I thought. I was surprised at her summation of my circumstances. I didn’t feel myself to be in such a predicament. “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” is an archaic expression now. If you are in that place, you are trapped between two very bad things. There’s no good option. 

I was 12. My mother and I had just moved from our big old suburban house to my grandmother’s apartment for what would be about three months. One late spring Sunday morning a couple of weeks earlier, my mother woke me with the news that we were going to stay at Nana’s. That is all she told me. My mother and older sisters spent the morning packing up some of our necessities while I wondered what was happening. I did not ask any questions. While I went out through the front door I remember looking through the dining room at my father, standing in the kitchen with his back to us. I remember thinking: “I’ll be back soon.”

We left my father and my two older brothers back in the only home I had ever known. We were gone for three years.

In my family, we didn’t talk about things. I was the youngest of six children, shy and quiet. That day, nothing was explained to me but I was not totally in the dark. Though I would never have conceived of such an upheaval in our lives, my parents’ separation was not much of a surprise. 

In my earliest memories, my parents barely spoke. There were no smiles, no pleasant relaxed moments. Occasionally there was fighting–verbally. It might be late at night, after I was in bed, on a school night, or just before a swim meet.

I hurry to add that both my parents cared for us and did not direct that negativity toward us. My mother was particularly warm and maternal toward me. But the effects of their own strife upon us was perhaps a blind spot.

I was a child who went with the flow, a good and compliant child. The people around me were the ones with power. This is how I perceived the world. I went along for the ride and kept a tight lid on my reactions.

Looking back as an adult, I can see how terribly anxious I was. I was afraid of everything. I was extremely quiet and easily overwhelmed. I never felt free to express myself. Once, in elementary school, I asked permission to go to the bathroom and was told to wait. I peed on the floor sitting right there at my desk. I was not a toddler; I was in third grade. I didn’t have a clue that I was carrying around a metric ton of stress. My anxiety needed an outlet somewhere.

I could not see myself. I was not self-aware; I couldnt evaluate my situation nor my own reaction to it. I didn’t know I was stressed.

I took whatever came my way. I was adjusting to living in Nana’s apartment, and to the idea of looking for an apartment for my mom and I, and my older sister, who was away at college most of time. Of starting next fall to a new school, still painfully shy, where I knew no one.

I was fine, I thought. What’s Nana talking about?

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