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Posts from the ‘Childhood’ Category

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

Lost at Sea

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I was molested by a relative when I was a preschooler.

Some of my memories of this are murky; others are surprisingly vivid. I remember blue-jeaned legs, a round red face, and not being able to breathe. The most disturbing emotion, which can send my heart racing even today, was fear for my baby brother in the next room. I was his big sister, entrusted with his care. I loved him with all my heart. His happiness and suffering I felt as my own.

I also remember what I was wearing at the time – a blue sailor dress with a red tie. I loved Popeye the Sailor Man and felt invincible in that dress. I remember standing on the couch in my dress with my arms out like Popeye – showing off my muscles. That dress and the big sister status — it had to be heady.

In one fell swoop, in that one miserable day, a terrorist entered our home and changed the course of my life forever.

When my parents reappeared to save me, I remember longing to sail off on a fairy boat with my mother.

That this occurred, is not a particularly unique thing. It is estimated that one in ten children are abused before the age of 18.

I believe my parents and other relatives knew what happened but, as was typical of the time, it wasn’t talked about. I am guessing they all assumed (hoped) I was too young to remember.

And I didn’t for a time, but eventually the clues kept appearing, memories returned, and certain mysteries about my life started to made sense.

A month or so before I moved to the Oregon Coast from Portland, I found an old photograph of a little girl at a thrift store I haunted for vintage art supplies. She cost a full $1.00, which was a steep price for where I was shopping. But, after I kept returning to look at her, I splurged and bought her. After I settled into my new coastal house, the first thing I did was pull the photograph out and begin a collage not knowing why or where I was going with it.

When I had finished, I saw a sepia toned phantom of my past – the Popeye girl in the sailor suit.

That little girl had gone away and I would never know her. I was consumed with grief. I call this collage “Lost at Sea”.

There is a memorial to lost sailors in the coastal town where I lived then. Their names are carved in stone and I think about the people they might have become had they lived.

If I could, I would carve the words “Betsy the Sailor Girl” into the stone. Instead, I made this collage memorial to the girl I was who was lost at sea – who didn’t become who she was meant to be, but lived to become another – no better or worse, but who, frankly, has had to swim through a tsunami to get this far.

Brave little girls, big sisters and beach angels

Bandon Beach Labyrinth

Bandon Beach ~ May 2015

Walking on Bandon’s beach last week, I remembered another day at this same beach — some 20 years ago. There was the same ominous heavy moist grayness, the same biting wind and moaning fog horn, and the same super low tide – which left a wide sandy beach covered in a thin glassy sheen of water. Rock outcroppings, usually underwater, were left high and dry, revealing damp caves and passageways.

20 years ago my husband, myself and our two kids were here on a family vacation. Our daughter, Hailey, was six years old. At the beach, this high-spirited little girl turned into an exuberant water nymph, kicking and frolicking at the edge of the waves. She was in her element and I always breathed a sigh of relief because, finally, here was a wild energy that matched her own.

Our son, Kai, was a new walker — a sweet chubby toddler — who we had thoroughly bundled up against the elements. He was happily walking along, with stiff arms and legs, as best he could.

With so much space and a long view, we relaxed and gave the kids free rein to run around.

But when we turned around — Kai had disappeared.

We heard Hailey screaming from a short way down the beach. Next we saw our beautiful fearless daughter plunge into a deep moat circling a large rock and fish little Kai out by his coat collar, dragging him onto the sand. He had gone in over his head – and sunk like a rock.

We ran over, bundled up our two soggy kids in beach towels and carried them up to the car. For a moment, our eyes met — sharing a silent terror – the grim knowledge that, had Hailey not seen Kai, we might not have found him in time.

This is not one of those stories that you laugh about later on. This is the story that you don’t want to remember because it leaves you chilled to the bone with “what ifs?”

Hailey is now 26 years old, a mother herself, and Kai is 21. I had happily walked this beach many times since that family vacation, but on this day I felt weighed down and traumatized. Perhaps it was the similarity in the weather or the season — or maybe even the actual anniversary. They say the body remembers these things and you never know what your subconscious has in mind for you.

I thought about the people I have known who had lost a child. I thought about the premature dissolution of that little family we were back then. The losses and traumas just seemed to pile up. I wondered how any of us can go on.

At one point, I came upon a sand labyrinth, expertly drawn in the sand. The words “Enter Here” with an arrow invited me in, so I stood at the entrance, quieted myself and began slowly walking. By the end of my walk, my dismal mood had turned to sobbing.

I cried for that scary day 20 years ago. I also cried for an even more ancient time when I was a child – a new big sister too – and had been unable to save my little brother from suffering.

I cried for all the times I had been powerless to help those I loved. I cried for the collapse of our little family, and the many times since, that their father and I had let our kids down. I cried for the times we hadn’t been there or done the right thing – or even known what the right thing was. I cried for my lost dreams of how things should have been. I cried because when we failed, it had hurt the two people I care for most in the world.

And also I cried because I was tired of being strong and brave. I was tired of being the one who carried this burden alone – the one who was blamed for everything.

The labyrinth builders, two women and a man, – unknown and nameless, but angels just the same – came up to me. I told them the story of the near drowning of my baby, just the tip of the iceberg, and they took turns hugging me as I cried.

We cannot plan these things consciously – these steps along to healing our life. They come when they do – if we give them the attention and the opportunity. I no longer believe I am to be blamed for everything. I know I cried for the person I was who used to believe that.

I meant to take a simple walk on a beach. Now I recognized it as another step toward the freedom I had been seeking when I first set off on this walkabout.

A freedom I am just beginning to taste.

A little research led me to the website of Denny Dyke, who I believe is the labyrinth maker on Bandon Beach: http://onepath.us/

 

 

The No Bullshit Selfie

3-2015

True to my walkabout path, I took a small step out of my comfort zone a few days ago and did something new and moderately scary. The repercussions resulted in an inner earthquake I could not have anticipated — catapulting me into a new version of myself — that feels like growing up.  As a friend said, this is a “no bullshit” selfie. A bit of unnecessary protective fluff is gone. It is all good.

Self-Portrait: Woman with a Key and Clocks

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What’s up for me in 2015?

Time. (And being in control of it.)

I’ll be turning 60 this year — and this fact is working powerful magic for me.

Up to now, I felt I had plenty of time — eternities of time. I didn’t ever think about how I used my time. I just went along, spending it haphazardly on things as they came up. This wasn’t all bad. My unconscious ruled, and it has been an interesting unfolding of a life. But now it is different.

I am aware of limitations in all areas of my life, and TIME is a big one.

That explains the clocks above my head. The big key is important too. I am taking charge. I will open and lock the doors for myself now. My hands are big, over-sized and strong. I want to make things. The E and L  are my initials. I use my given name, Elizabeth, when I mean business. (I love doing self-portraits. I never know exactly what will show up — but it is always revealing.)

I think the cowboy getup, (clipped from a Sundance catalog), is a little more shallow — a wish fulfillment. I dreamed of growing up to be a cowboy as a child, and as an adult would like to dress like a Sundance catalog model!

A woman in the apartment across from me just had her 2nd knee replacement surgery. After her first surgery, I drove her to a couple PT appointments, waited for her and drove her home. That’s the nice person I am, but I felt resentful — and that is key too. Ironically, I barely know this person, yet I felt obligated to BE THERE for her. This 2nd surgery I am refraining from offering. She has financial resources, there are cabs and she has friends and family who could help her. I don’t blame her – who wouldn’t want to save $ and get a ride from a neighbor. I was the one who OFFERED to drive her that first surgery! This second surgery, she seems to be getting along just fine without me. I don’t have to feel resentful and a true friendship between us has a chance of developing.

In many other ways, I am refraining: Not doing work that doesn’t inspire me, declining social invitations, limiting visitors, letting myself be the introvert that I am and the extrovert that I am — when it fits.

I find myself taking refuge in being almost 60. I am OLD for God’s sake – give me a break! But, I have never really needed an excuse.  I am well aware of how my past, my upbringing and my gender has led me to ignore myself — especially as a mother. As hard as it is, I am working on letting my children figure things out by themselves.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be there for others in the future. But, I will be discriminating and consider myself first (gasp . . . did I just write that?). I just have to see those clocks, me as the holder of the key and those big hands screaming, “Make something now!” — to remind myself. I think the kick-ass boots are a nice touch too.

There are things I want to do. I don’t want to die regretting not doing them. There is no guarantee that all those people, for whom I have sacrificed my own needs, will come to my funeral and say nice things. And who wants to spend their precious time securing glowing eulogies.

I am also thinking about buying those boots and taking myself off to a dude ranch for my 60th birthday!

A love letter from my past

baby announcement foot

Today is my birthday. Born this day in 1955, I am now 59 years-old.

I have lived one year longer than my mother did, and nine years longer than my father. I was the first-born in a family of four children, and I am also the first of these children to live longer than our parents did.

Today I stand here at the edge of the proverbial cliff, intrepid, but marveling at the uncharted territory before me. I’d rather not move forward, although I guess I have no choice but to take the first step off into the wild blue mystery.

The other day, just in time for this birthday, I came across a love letter from my past – my birth announcement, handmade by my mother and father. The blue lettering is in my father’s hand. My parents obviously inked up my foot and pressed it to paper for each announcement. Inside, in my mother’s handwriting, are the usual facts about length and weight and it is signed off with the words:

“Proud, I guess we are!!”

I am touched that my parents created this card. I am also curious about their use of the word “proud”. I am guessing new parents were more likely to call themselves “proud parents” in the 50s. “Proud” was also the word my father used often when we were growing up, mainly to warmly acknowledge an achievement.

At the time of my birth, however, my achievements were as small as I was. All I had done was arrive at a convenient hour, a little after lunch, and be born healthy. Still, my parents were “proud”, and I can only assume it was the word they used to express the excitement and the overwhelming blooming of love in their hearts for their newborn.

I know this feeling. I have experienced it with own my children.

I have come to think that “proud” was our family code word for love.

Today, as I step forward, off the cliff once again into the wild blue mystery — as we all do, every day, I am also reflecting back across my 59 years. I see a life’s journey that has been rocky and tragic and, in equal measure, pretty wonderful.

I seriously doubt it has rolled out anything like my starry-eyed, proud parents imaged for me at the time of my birth.

Today, as we mourn the loss of comedian, Robin Williams, I think, “But for the grace of God go I.” So far at least, a dogged resilience has pulled me back from the brink more than once.

But then I have always known I was loved — from the moment of my birth.

And if anything can inoculate you against the vagaries of life, love can.

Baby announcement text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The summer my mother disappeared (Part 1)

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard - In the Garden.

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard – In the Garden.

That summer began with the disappearance of my mother.

Oh, it was clear that someone knew where she was, but no one was talking. If I was to find out anything, it was what the adults blurted out by accident or what I could decipher from their code. Every once in a while, I would get a direct statement from them in passing — while they were on their way to something more important – like mowing the lawn.

“Oh by the way, your mother is visiting her brother.” There it was. The critical crumb tossed my way by my dad as he dashed out the door on his way to work. If a person wasn’t paying attention all the time, they might have missed it.

The four of us, my younger brother and my two little sisters, were moping around the house, looking like those sad big-eyed kids in the posters for sale at the Five & Dime. We were hungry for information, all ears tuned in and alert to when our next fact crumb was coming.

But we knew better than to ask. My dad had always said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” When the out-of-state relatives were called in, we knew it was something big, but that summer of 1968 — no one was telling us anything. Did they think we were morons and didn’t notice a think like our mother disappearing?

Sure, my mother had kind-of not been there mentally lately, but we always knew where she was. She had laid in bed in her room doing nothing but smoking for weeks – ever since she had returned from the hospital. Next to the bed was an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts. Sometimes she was difficult to see with all the smoke, but at least you could always find her.

Occasionally she would emerge with her big vacant eyes and wander around the house — doing pretty much nothing. I had been taking up the slack for her and had a million questions, but she was pretty useless in that department also. I started raiding her closet and wearing the one or two outfits of her’s that weren’t ridiculous looking. She didn’t even notice.

To be honest, the whole thing was getting old fast. Everyone was always going on about how happy they were that my mother had survived brain surgery. I wanted to scream at them, “MY MOTHER IS NOT OK!!! ARE YOU BLIND, DEAF AND DUMB?” But of course I didn’t do that. I was too mature to say stuff like that anymore. It seemed easier to just nod my head and agree that everything was hunky dory.

Things got scary at times that summer too. Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to flashing lights, loud voices and the sound of gurney wheels clicking down the hallway. Although I was afraid it was a zombie attack or the end of the world, I got up to take a look. Uniformed men with walkie-talkies shooed me back into my room and the next morning I found out that an ambulance had come to our house and returned my mother to the hospital for a couple of days. On top of that, every once in a while, my mother would go missing – just up and wander away. My dad would panic and the police would come to our house — which was really embarrassing.

One night my dad was cooking tater tots for us for dinner. We were getting a lot of TV dinners and tater tot meals — which was probably the one good thing in our lives that summer. Well, he burnt his hand taking them out of the oven. Then the worst thing I had ever seen happened. He threw the pan on the floor and started crying. I had never seen my father cry before. I felt like the world was coming to an end. I walked into my bedroom, climbed into bed, pulled the covers over my head and hid until morning.

One day, near the end of school, we ran out of shampoo. My dad told me to use a bar of soap. He said he did it all the time. That was terrible advice! My hair ended up lying flat and gummy on my head. I am not the most popular girl at school, but the one thing I had going for me was my long blonde hair. NO WAY was I going to school with my hair like that and I let my dad know — in no uncertain terms. He got that almost going to cry look on his face and yelled, “OK, don’t go then!” and stomped out the door. I was stunned. In my family you had to practically be on your deathbed to miss school. I ended up staying home and washing my hair about twenty times using dish soap. I knew mom would have known what to do. I vowed to never ask my dad’s advice again.

My brother and sisters had started to drive me crazy too. At 10, 8 and 4 years of age, they were being obnoxious and bratty, having stupid fights, making huge messes and breaking things. Once, my brother threw a fork at my sister. It missed her, but cracked the sliding glass door. I just wished they would GROW UP!

That summer our dog, Ollie, disappeared suddenly too. Dad said we couldn’t keep an eye on him anymore, so he had to go to “a farm.” The little kids were crying and sniveling and missing Ollie. Frankly, I was glad I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, although I thought “the farm” story was highly suspicious.

Mid-summer it was decided that the three little kids were going back with the out-of-state relatives for the rest of the summer. Since I could not bear another minute of their childish behavior, I decided that I would stay home with my dad. Though I knew a trip to my relatives would mean regular meals, swimming, a tan, horses, amusement parks, lots of ice cream and an unending supply of shampoo, I didn’t want to leave my dad alone. I had already taken over a lot of things my mother used to do. My dad needed me. It was time for me to grow up. I was no longer a child.

I was almost thirteen for heaven’s sake!!!

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