Archive for the tag 'childhood'

Essay: Life in bed

NS June 30th, 2010

I wrote this essay in winter and sent it to two of my favourite magazines in the hopes of having it published. I received a rejection from one and never heard back from the other. Instead of letting it gather dust while I am busy with other things, on hiatus from submitting, I’m going to publish it here. No more waiting and hoping, just my words in my space, on my terms.

Bed. It is a place I so desperately want to be but also a place of worry and restlessness and exhaustion; the scene of a cruel prank in which I am awakened at the peak of a much-needed REM cycle but to which I will not easily return, even after the baby, my youngest, is soothed and asleep again. I strain my ears to confirm that which made me stir and find my brow furrowing with annoyance, anger and misery before smoothing itself into placid resignation when the cries become clearer and more urgent. In performing my nightly routine of Bedtime Bolero, I stumble and sway from bed to crib and back again, only half conscious. Too tired to sit upright in the velvet-covered feeding chair that belonged to my husband’s great-grandmother, I trundle back to bed with my warm bundle and curve my body around his, like we’ve done a thousand times before. The drug-like effect of milk production feels like small weights being pressed down onto my eyelids, willing me to nod my head sleepily in time to my son’s hungry gulps and allow his warm, searching hands to burrow beneath the fluffy blue collar of my robe. ‘How could I be angry at this little soul?’ I admonish myself, though I suspect that’s the oxytocin (the so-called ‘love drug’ produced in lactating women) talking. Seeing only occasionally the glow of the street light outside the window through the slits of my bleary eyes, I nestle into my pillow and reflect on the spectrum of life experienced here.

Though it seems quite a boring, unassuming place, so much happens in bed. We spend approximately one-third of our existences there, sleeping. We also read, write, eat, drink, smoke, dream, agonize, cry, vomit, laugh, make love and die there, among other things. Great novels and political manifestos have been written in bed. Inventions conjured up, cities planned, wars plotted, great love affairs begun, families started. In fact, that’s where the offspring of yore were born – in the same location as their creation. Today, the most common bed to be born in belongs not to the family but the hospital; the scratchy-linened, stirrup-equipped, mechanically-reclining kind or, if things don’t go to plan, the steel, sterile one in the operating room. Some babies aren’t born in bed at all but rather into bathtubs, on rural kitchen floors or the backseats of cars that didn’t quite make it in time.

Though we may not remember our own births, bed quickly becomes a central theme in our lives. Early childhood memories revolve around that most magical and frightening place, where we are meant to peacefully slumber. The first flash of consciousness I can recall is clambering over the rails of my wooden crib, aged two, in order to dump pail after pail of water from the bathroom sink onto my older sister’s mattress, a middle child’s revenge for the new baby in the house who was taking up all her parents’ time. At age four or so, the light from the living room glowing in a thin yellow line under my darkened door was a portal into a strange adult world of which I was infinitely curious but infuriatingly barred. From bed I learned to listen carefully and observe with my ears, my parents’ parties intoxicating in more ways than one. The clinking of ice in a glass of bourbon, the crack-pop-fizz! of a beer being opened, the rapid ph-ph-ph-phhhlump of a deck of cards being shuffled, the chatter and laughter of friends…it seemed so glamorous and mysterious then. Eventually though, snooping would give way to somnolence and my head would connect heavily with the pillow of its own volition. Dreams would have to do while my body and mind rested.

Later, at perhaps six or seven, monsters made their way under my lavender dust ruffle and a fear of the dark and unknown often gripped me as I lay awake with blankets clutched tight, heart pounding in my chest and eyes inspecting every suspicious shape. This was not helped by my father’s propensity to allow us to watch age-inappropriate films when my mother was away, featuring nasty characters with evil grins and masks over their eyes, or a wild-eyed clown with an insatiable appetite for children. Nightmare on Elm Street brought just as many to Locust Street, I can tell you. Then, age nine, hearing the sobs and cries of my mother from her room, mourning the loss of her youngest child to the real monster under the bed: cancer. Though the other creatures faded from existence, that was the only one that never left my side and lurked, forever-more, in the shadows of my childhood. It never had a face or discernible features; it was just a deep, dark mass of seemingly indeterminate cruelty. On more than one occasion, I knelt in prayer before climbing into bed at night, even though ours wasn’t a particularly religious family, promising to be better, braver and stronger, if only God would lift the fog of grief engulfing us. Eventually, it cleared enough for us to find one another again, though the mist of loss will always be present.

Cancer wasn’t the only real-life monster I became aware of as a child, unfortunately. At a sixth-grade sleepover a couple of years later, what had begun as a standard pre-teen slumber party (giggling, videos, popcorn, talk of our first schoolgirl crushes, perhaps a bit of make-up or nail polish) turned suddenly into a confessional booth in which I was thrust into the role of priest and my three friends the confessors. But what they confessed that night were not crimes they had perpetrated or sins they’d committed, but those of the man in the next room: our host’s stepfather. It seemed the bed upon which we were sitting was not only the site of make-overs and sing-alongs, but of horrific abuse and intimidation. Ten minutes before I had been eating sickly-sweet candy with my friends. Very quickly, my head was spinning from not only the sugar rush but the sudden rush of reality. The next day, I sat down on my mother’s bed as she folded laundry and told her everything. She hugged me, then sprang into action. After the flurry of doctors, police and child psychologists had passed and their monster was safely locked away, the girls distanced themselves from me, from the pain, and our friendships faltered. I often lay awake at night, counting the stick-on neon stars on my ceiling in an effort to quiet my mind enough to sleep, wondering if I did the right thing. All I could do was hope that, one day, their beds would become places in which they could dream again, not cower in fear.

Upon entering the teen years, my bed became less a place I wanted to escape and more a place of retreat. I vividly recall throwing myself onto the mattress and crying tears of frustration and angst, sure that I was the most misunderstood, mistreated and misjudged 14-year-old the world had ever known. Weren’t we all? I lay there for endless hours, listening to the albums that best expressed my burgeoning independence and scribbled furiously and clumsily in my journal about my rage and the metaphorical cage against which I beat my wings, so desperate to unfurl them and fly away. When I wasn’t sulking in bed I was using it as a launchpad to adulthood with the opposite sex. Bed was simultaneously a place of exploration and exploitation, intimacy and intimidation. It was not only the stage on which we acted out our desires but where we learned of the thin, thin line between ecstasy and agony, of the art and importance of reading subtle body language. It is also where we learned that bedroom politics and the power therein will always be with us, even when we are well past our teens. Even now, as a woman who has been with the same man for eleven years, the vigorous campaigning for more, better, different sex and the why and how often and when it will occur is still ongoing. The passion of new lovers may have been replaced by something more familiar, but the complications remain the same.

A real turning point on my voyage to maturity was when I bought my own bed. After having slept on a succession of mattresses provided by my parents, relatives’ and friends’ cast-offs and landlords of ready-furnished apartments, my husband and I finally made the big leap to orthopedically-correct ownership. It wasn’t as intimate an occasion as we might have hoped, given that my father stood nearby while we tested for potentially embarrassing squeakiness, but we didn’t have a car back then and needed Dad’s pick-up truck and adeptness at moving large items to get the thing home. Still, it was ours and it was freeing, in a small, mundane sort of way. No more worrying about stains, chips, unsprung springs or ill-fitting firmness levels that had us rubbing our backs in the morning. We could make love in our bed and not think of who had done the same before us, or would do so after us. We could smoke right then and there after a marathon session, with the sweaty sheets tucked around our waists and chests, in a perfect, L-shaped improbability, while he grinned or slept and I looked, wild-haired and open-mouthed, into the middle distance — the very picture of Hollywood-styled post-coital bliss. We’d sleep there ’til 10, 11, even 12 on Sundays, with nowhere to go and no one to see but each other. Then, I had excuses not to get out of bed; now, I have none for not doing so. Even though we enjoyed nearly seven years of pre-children cohabitation, I sometimes look back on those days with intense longing and wish I could tell my younger, more carefree self to enjoy them while they lasted, that my older, parental self would want me to ignore the phone, the cat, the laundry or that movie time. ‘Stay in bed!’ I would shout. I’d tell that young couple to bottle up those moments so they could be uncorked and appreciated later (perhaps in the midst of an argument about whose turn it is to get up with the crying toddler or whose career is more important), allowing the weight of responsibility to drift away on an effervescent memory.

If I could replace the nights when anger and resentment sent us inching towards the far corners of the bed with fond memories of his arm draped protectively over my baby-laden, wriggling mountain of a belly, I would always be happy. If I could erase the time I wrecked our computer in a fit of sleep-deprived rage and substitute the memory of him placing our son in my arms immediately after he’d been born, I’d never again feel guilty. But I can’t and I wouldn’t. The bad with the good, that’s what we promised when we married. All the nasty, gory, ugly grimness in order to enjoy the uplifting, companionable, heart-melting wonderfulness.

My reverie is disturbed by my son’s babbling, his wide-open eyes and mischievous grin telling me I have no chance of slipping back into sleep. I smile at the blond mess of hair peeking out from the other side of the pillow, confirmation that my little girl has wandered through at some point in the night to curl up beside her father, her best friend in the whole world. All four of us lie there — breathing warmly on one another’s closely-assembled faces, tucking elbows and knees respectfully to our sides (us) or flailing about indiscriminately (them) — pressing our bodies together to form a pulsing, nuclear mass of love and security, stronger together than we ever could be separately. Despite the lack of sleep, the arguments, the bedroom politics and the hardships, this is what he and I wanted when we decided to become parents. This is what we dreamed of. Our idea of familial bliss, what we saw when we pictured our lives with children, revolved around this image, in this bed. All of the other stuff goes out of focus until only this moment becomes crystallized. We are reminded by their beautiful faces and rising, falling chests of why we do this, of what makes each day worth facing. My lover’s hand finds mine somewhere in the tangle of blankets and we smile faintly at one another, the outlines of our lips barely perceptible in the pink-grey light of a winter’s dawn.

Finally, as the first rays of real sunlight begin peeking through gaps in the blinds, illuminating the thin layer of dust ever-present in our house, the reality and routine of everyday life sets in. I swing my feet out of bed and into slippers. I change a diaper and brush my teeth, squinting away from the easterly-facing bathroom window. I pour the cereal and feed the cat, then wash the bowls and pack the bags. I contemplate crawling back into bed with my second cup of coffee, knowing it won’t happen. Instead, I sip from my mug in the kitchen while I write, my effort to forge a career in snatched moments of peace a distinctly exciting and frustrating endeavor, the possibilities as endless as the limitations.

Later, when the boy is napping, I go upstairs to make the bed. My hands linger as they fluff and smooth the duvet and my lips smile at the morning’s memory. I perch carefully on the edge, close my eyes and try to picture what other memories I will create here, how many more times I will sob into my pillow or lay awake with worry or excitement. I wonder if, once the children are grown and gone, my husband and I will revert to modified versions of our pre-parent selves, with less mind-blowing sex and more cups of tea, but with the same unfettered blitheness on a Sunday morning that we enjoyed in the beginning. I imagine our rekindled closeness will make the likelihood of watching him die, perhaps in this very bed, all the more unfathomable. I’m not able to imagine any further than that before the ache in my chest makes me draw breath and shake off the vision. I go back to the scene from this morning and hold it in my mind until the monsters and demons, both past and future, scurry back under the bed where they belong.

I hear my son awaken in his room, calling to me. I stand and sigh good naturedly. Up and out once more.

Glad that my apple fell near this tree

NS May 10th, 2010

I know (US) Mother’s Day was yesterday but procrastination, as my own mother would tell you, runs in our family. Things that also run in our family: fat knees, night owl tendencies,  long goodbyes, a love of bourbon and laughing at the annual Christmas party until sides are clutched, bladders threaten to burst and asthma inhalers are needed.

Like most teenagers, I swore I’d never become my mother. Our relationship always remained largely amicable and intact but we fought like cats and dogs for many years, mainly because we were so alike in personality and spirit. I see it now in my own daughter, the similarities that will make our future relationship tumultuous. One day, probably in about nine years, she will hate me. If I’m lucky, she’ll just be embarrassed by me. If things go like they did for me and my mom, she will do both in small doses but come back to me, back to a place of love and respect, once those rocky, hormone-fuelled, independence-driven days wane as the maturity level grows.

And I know that when I call my mom to mull all this over, angry and sad and confused over my changed status and mourning the little girl lost to me, she will understand perfectly and yearn to wrap her arms around the phone, around me, and provide comfort. She won’t say ‘I told you so’; she won’t tell me I’m blowing it out of proportion. She’ll remember how much it hurt and think not of what I inflicted on her but how she can make my hurt better. Because that’s what mothers do.

I want to tell you more about her, my mom. In thinking about what a hero and inspiration she’s been to me, I tried to come up with some less-sappy and clichéd synonyms because those kinds of euphemisms are meaningless, overused and not at all my style. And the great thing about my mom? She would not only understand but completely agree. So instead of telling you in minute detail how strong she is or how she shaped me, I’ll just share a few glimpses into what kind of person she is.

  • Never afraid of getting her hands dirty or of physical labour, she drove a forklift at a factory when she was eight months pregnant with me. She can also move a sofa or bed in or out of a house, on her own, literally on her back. Her brute strength and pivoting skills are unmatched
  • My mom is the McGyver of the crafting world. Give her a bit of cardboard, a scrap of fabric, a safety pin and a magic marker and she can make a superhero outfit, an exact replica of an ancient Egyptian funeral pyre or a Native American headdress
  • She never gives up on her dreams, no matter how long it takes to achieve them or how slowly she progresses. I know that before she dies she will have put on paper the book that’s already inscribed in her mind, have taken those glass-blowing and language classes she’s talked about for years and have travelled to many of the places she dreams of seeing. My biggest dream is to be able to, one day, help her achieve at least one of these
  • She is the most honest, hard-working, ethical person I know. This is a woman who would not take even ten minutes over her allotted lunch break without docking it from her own pay. And she does the payroll! As a result, I am utterly incapable of cheating at games or not saying anything when given incorrect change that would be to my advantage
  • If caffeine were made illegal today, my mother would be in jail tomorrow for trying to procure a coffee or cola on the black market. This is the only thing for which I can envision her breaking the law
  • She is an unashamed backseat driver of the most extreme proportions. I’m not talking about little arguments over map-reading skills or a bit of bickering about speeding, I’m talking about being surprised she hasn’t actually shoved my dad out of the driver’s seat of a moving car and taken the wheel herself. My dad affectionately refers to her as The Nagigator
  • Her dedication to tirelessly advocating and caring for everyone in our family who has ever been terminally ill (including her own daughter, father, mother, grandmother, brother and father-in-law) leaves me speechless with awe. The kindness and respect she showed to the most socially awkward, mentally unstable and physically unwell or disabled people she dealt with on a daily basis in her former job, one she held for nearly 20 years, had a huge impact on me and my views towards fairness, equality and the importance of humanity
  • As a busy working mom when we were growing up, she often cleaned at night instead of sleeping, when the mess got to be too much. I would wake up in the morning to a tidied room, vacuumed carpet and new sheets on my bed, all done right under my nose while I slept. It was like magic. Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar crap had nothing on my mom
  • The holidays were never complete until she’d uttered the words, “Merry fucking Christmas” before slamming a door
  • She always apologised afterwards and we always forgave her because we knew how hard she worked and how much she did for us, even when she didn’t

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Writing Workshop: House number six

NS April 15th, 2010

The following was written for Josie’s Writing Workshop #20, using prompt number one: ‘Tell me about a time you decided to move house’. I may write a second part to it, describing more about the house itself (which was fascinating in its own right, and just as dear to me as the farm).

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Of the seven houses I lived in as a child, number six is the only one that ever stole my heart.

It was called Shadow Lake Farm and was off a country road, in a country town. We rented the farmhouse which sat on a 362-acre plot of land and could only be accessed by the winding, gravel path that twisted for a quarter mile from road to hearth. I walked up that lane on the way home from school many a time, kicking up gravel dust with my school shoes and shouldering my heavy backpack, unable to even see the house until I was almost upon it. At the height of summer the corn on both sides engulfed me, making it seem as though I was in a crop tunnel. Just the crickets, the corn and me. When I got to the top of the lane I would often turn, one hand shielding my eyes from the golden sun, and look all around me, at the corn and the waving wheat, the scattered masses of grazing cows, and the grain silos that punctuated the cloudless blue sky like exclamation points, clinging on to the remains of an era slipping by. My heart swelled with a quiet joy and sense of pride; ‘This is my kingdom!’ I wanted to roar. And it was.

I never needed to go to theme parks or petting zoos or hiking trails to get my fill of adventure and nature. It was all around me, every day. Anywhere my legs and imagination could carry me, I went. Book and apple in hand, head in the clouds and calloused, bare feet dangling on either side of my horse, Applejack, I could do, go and see anything I wanted. I secretly fancied myself a female Huckleberry Finn.

The land, owned by a renowned surgeon in the nearest city, included three fishing ponds, a disused cottage and an old abattoir, its red-streaked walls and rusty meat hooks evoking in me a sense of fascination and sadness on the few occasions when I stacked up bricks to peek inside the barred windows. In my younger years I often sat on a rock by the side of the pond, casting my rod into the water below, hoping to catch one of the fish darting between my submerged feet. I used worms I dug up in the gardening patch. Failing that, I would borrow my dad’s tackle box with its vast, colourful array of lures and bobbers, hooks and lines. He was usually too busy cutting the endlessly-growing grass surrounding the house to even notice. I remember looking at him on the riding lawnmower executing sharp turns, narrowly avoiding trees and rocks and forming neat rows of shorn lawn for us to enjoy for a whole week before he had to do it all over again. I sometimes wondered if he ever felt like throwing his hands up in the air, saying, “I give up!” But he never did. Instead he mopped his sweat-soaked brow with his red bandana and then headed inside for a large glass of iced tea and a rest in his favourite chair before getting up resignedly to confront another vast expanse of grass.

Down by the pond, my yellow labrador, Dino, often sat beside me, occasionally jumping in to cool off and then splattering me with the droplets when he decided to shake dry. We’d had ducks at one point but Dino, being a fowl hunter by nature, had taken them out one by one, often depositing their heads in odd places around our house. I used to joke that he was like a one-dog mafia. As far as the fish went, I rarely caught anything of size and even when I did, rarely kept it. Gutting and cleaning fish was not something I’d ever been particularly fond of, though my fishing-crazy cousin had patiently shown me how many times. One would think I’d be tempted to go vegetarian as a veterinarian-wannabe with all this animal killing going on around me, but it was just part of life at Shadow Lake Farm.

As I got a bit older and outgrew fishing and playing in the fields, I took instead to one of three favourite ‘hiding spots’: in the tree house, at the top of the hay stack in the barn or underneath a grove of pine trees near the abandoned cottage towards the back of the property, where I could sit for hours on a bed of soft, fresh-smelling needles, protected from the sun and the eyes of anyone who wanted to find me. If I grew tired of walking or taking Applejack (who often dumped me off and raced back to the stable to bury his nose in the oat bucket) to the far corners of the farm, I would sometimes hop in the golf cart or red go-cart that were kept behind the barn, alternate modes of transport for those of us who couldn’t drive cars yet.

When I ventured home, hungry for lunch, I could usually find my older sister sitting on the sofa, flipping through magazines and listening to her favourite radio station. Her allergies and asthma prevented her from pursuing many of the things I did so she was always more ‘indoorsy’ than me. I sometimes wished she could come out and go on one of my adventures with me, but at the same time I relished the independence. In retrospect, it did me a lot of good. Perhaps that is why, even today, I crave solitariness when I need to get out of head for awhile. To be joyful with other people is lovely, of course, but to be alone and happy is a gift, one I feel that time alone on the farm gave me.

On warm nights when we had company, my dad would get the grill out and barbecue some burgers or chicken. I’d always volunteer to pick a few ears of corn from the field to add to our meal. I loved standing on the edge of those majestic plants, like so many soldiers in neat rows, before stepping into the maze. I never ventured too far towards the middle, being too nervous of getting lost, but the fire flies, always thick in the sky at nightfall, lit the way home. Back at the house, I prepared the corn with my sister. Peeling away the outer layers (called ‘shucking’) to reveal the sweet, golden kernels within was almost as enjoyable as slathering the finished product in butter before it hit our plates. Oh, how I loved summer on that farm.

My childhood was a charmed one in many ways, despite its sorrows and hardships, not because we were well-off (we weren’t) or because I had a perfect family (we weren’t), but because I had the gift of space and time. Space to roam and explore and time to be and do things on my own. The land we lived on wasn’t mine, we didn’t own it, but it was just as much a part of me, and I of it, as the seeds were part of the soil.

When we left Shadow Lake for a much smaller house on a much smaller plot of land in the middle of town, I was heartbroken. Leaving my horse, the ponds, the fields, the lane, the house….it was almost too much to bear. In retrospect, it was the perfect time to leave as I was entering into my teenage years and the new house’s more central location was ideal for getting lifts, going to friends’ houses and so on, and I probably would have quickly outgrown all the wonders of the farm, but at the time it felt like a loss; another loss on top of the one we’d already suffered.

But as with many things in life, I adapted and moved on because I had to. Like a childhood friend who fades from your life but never your thoughts, this house, number six, will always live, perfect and true, in my memory.