Monday, June 6, 2016

memories and villages...real and imagined

There's been talk of a "village" on the internet these days.

From one essay: "When one of (sic) was feeling sick or needed extra rest from a long night up with a child, we’d swoop in and tend to your children as we would our own for as long as necessary — no need to even ask. You would drift off to a healing sleep with full confidence. We’d want you to be well because we’d know that we’re only as strong as our weakest member — and not only that, we’d love you, not with the sappy love of greeting cards, but with an appreciative love that has full knowledge of how your colors add to our patchwork."

As someone who has not, since giving birth almost 30 years ago, drifted "off to a healing sleep with full confidence," I don't get the current fascination young women seem to have with the concept of this "village" that helps you raise your children.

Apparently, in some land not so long ago or far away, women cared for one another in the fashion describes in the above fantastical paragraph. I have never experienced such a thing, and I know my mother and probably grandmother had nary a day in such a world.

I'm 51, which means I grew up in the 1970s. My mom had advanced degrees, but she stayed home, even after my brother and I started school. Back then, many of the moms in our neighborhood went to work during the day. I think our neighbor to the south was home too, but she and my mom weren't friends. She was at least 20 years younger than my mom, and they didn't have much in common, except kids the same age who played together. Their house, which sat back from the curb and was surrounded by a fence, was a run-down structure too tiny for the family and the dobermans they kept. Good thing the dogs stayed outside. That way they could keep better watch over the garden of tall, green plants that didn't smell anything like the cucumbers my dad planted.The plants smelled even stranger when my friend Jay's dad dried them in their garage. I wasn't supposed to go in there, but sometimes Jay and I snuck in (we used to hide in the doghouse, too, which was really stinky) but the garage creeped me out, mostly because of the poster with the colorful silhouettes on the black background, one for each sign of the zodiac. It was the 70's after all, so astrology was in, but even a kid like me, who had several pieces of Capricorn jewelry, knew this poster wasn't something a child should see. I learned more about sex from that poster than I ever learned in any class or from any parental discussion. Let's just leave it at that.

Creepier than the poster was Jay's dad. He was young and skinny and really ugly, with frizzy hair and a pocked-marked face, and he and his friends rode motorcycles. His daughter, Jay, was my age, and his son a couple years older, although he was only a grade or so ahead of me in school. He had at least one other child, a baby girl, but she didn't live with him. Her mother, whom he was sleeping with in addition to Jay's mom, his wife, would bring her over occasionally. Jay and I loved this, because there were few children younger than us in the neighborhood, and a real baby was way more fun to play with than a doll. We were 10 or 11 and getting too old for dolls anyway. Often we would go to Helen's or Terri's - the young moms who lived on our street - and ask them if we could play with their babies. Usually Helen just left her little boy, Jamie, out in a playpen in front of her house, while she stayed inside and watched soap operas and smoked cigarettes or something, so it was easy to play with him without even bothering her. We had to knock on Terri's door, and she never once said no when we asked to play with her 18 month old daughter. She would even wake her up from a nap if need be. She was so nice like that. And we could play with her for hours and hours and bring her back before supper. Sometimes we brought her back sooner, but only if her pants got so wet it wasn't fun any more.

We didn't like to knock on Helen's door because her husband Joe might answer. Sometimes he was in his bathing suit, which looked like tight underwear to me. I remember Jay once saying he should have been embarrassed to come to the door with a boner, but I didn't know what that meant, and I was embarrassed about that, so I just nodded.

I nodded at at lot of things Jay said. She seemed very wise and old, even though she didn't understand the things I did. She was my age but a grade behind in school, so I used to help her with her math facts. I got really frustrated when she didn't get fractions, and I felt our friendship begin to change, which made me sad. She was thin, tan, and athletic, and I thought she was beautiful. Even in my immaturity I could tell that she was really smart, but that something hadn't been quite right in her upbringing thus far. If we were friends, maybe I could help her. If she could just get those math facts straight, she might have a shot at something.

She didn't think she was smart, but she knew she was pretty. That's what her dad told her.

I don't remember when she told me her dad was raping her. I just remember the day she told me she started her period, and I didn't believe her, because I hadn't started mine yet and I was older and had bigger breasts. I was jealous. Then she told me she didn't mind having her period, but now it meant she might get pregnant from her dad, and that scared her.

I'm sure it scared me, too, but I don't really remember.

I don't know what I did next, but I know I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my mother or my teacher, or any of those other mothers in the village who were hanging out caressing each other through life.

I didn't tell Mrs. Todd, who was our neighbor to the north. She was at work all day, and I was only allowed to talk to her daughter Debbie, who was 13, through her bedroom screen. She wasn't allowed to come out of the house until her mom got home from work. I didn't think Debbie would have any good advice anyway.

I didn't tell Teresa's mom, who was probably home across the street, because she had her own kids to worry about, and had never really talked to me about anything other than what time Teresa and I would be done jumping rope, so I doubted she would be interested in the sex crimes and child abuse of our common neighbor on the corner.

I certainly would not have ventured around the block to talk to Vicky's parents. Vicky was just a bit younger than me - maybe eight or nine - and she never went home during the day, not even to go the bathroom. Even though she was old enough to know better, and even though we kids scolded her, she just went in her pants, right there on the sidewalk. Surely she had a good reason not to go home during the day, or even until well after the street lights went on.

I didn't live in a slum. I lived in an average neighborhood in a suburb of Metro Detroit. My blue-collar dad brought home a paycheck every week. My mom did housework and spent the check frugally, sewed us some nice clothes and made us dinner every night. We walked to the neighborhood public school, and my brother played little league baseball. We went to church every Sunday. Most of my friends were probably not being abused by their parents, but I don't know much about that. Some of the moms worked, and some stayed home. Some parents were divorced, and some swore and smoked cigarettes. My parents didn't, but they had other faults, as all folks do.

My mom had a sister and a brother, and each of them were married with six children. Both families lived within three miles of my home. My dad was one of four, and his two sisters and their families lived within the same radius. Any one of them could have walked or ridden a bike to my house, but I don't recall that ever happening. They were busy living their lives in their own neighborhoods, with their own stories.

When my brother or I stayed up all night puking, so did my mom (minus the puking part. Moms don't puke.) The next morning she got up at 4:30 to make my dad breakfast, then, if it was Friday, she scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom floors.

When the water heater broke and my mom had a newborn baby and cloth diapers to wash, she dealt with it. Dad had to go to work, after all.

When the next door neighbor (she moved away to make room for the Todds) came over to tell my mom her husband had been killed in Viet Nam, my mother tried to get my brother to be quiet long enough so she could show the new widow a bit of compassion. He was a needy child, so she didn't stay long.

There was no one to "swoop in and tend to the children" as long as was necessary. I don't think there ever has been, and I think this sort of stuff tends to do more harm than good to mothers who are trying to figure this all out.

The picture I've painted ain't pretty, and to be fair, it's only a portion of the picture. I was well-cared for. I was a sensitive child who happened to befriend one who was being abused, and neither of us could have been expected to do anything about that. My mother knew nothing of it until years later, and she certainly isn't at fault. She did the best she could.

I did the best I could, too. When my girls were little, our family lived in a lower flat in Hamtramck. Sometimes family lived upstairs, sometimes not. Sometimes we got along, sometimes not. Family is like that, it's OK. I had a husband and while we lived there, two more children came along. Most days I was lonely. I didn't have a car, and there was no such thing as cell phones and internet. No Facebook or blogs to read; no other mothers to reach out to or commiserate with. On my block, there were a few other young moms. One had a little boy, Bernard, who was my son's age. She was Yugoslavian, and she didn't speak much English. I allowed Bernard, who often had black eyes or bruised legs, to play in our yard. When he went home I could hear his mother yelling at him, and even though the words were foreign, I could understand.

I finally met another mom like me one day at the library. She also had two daughters and was even a Catholic homeschooler! We became friends; our families ate dinner at one another's houses, and our girls shared sleepovers. They moved soon after we met, and then again and again. It soon became apparent there was something unusual about the family, as they seemed to move almost compulsively, sometimes more than once in a year, even though there was not a job-related or financial reason to do so. Soon they moved to Florida, and not long after I got the news that my friend was dead. Her charming husband, with whom my husband had shared more than one cigar in our backyard on a summer evening, had murdered her before killing himself.

I live in a different neighborhood now; we've been here for 21 years. Most would say it's gone down over the years, but I think it's quite lovely. The widow Browne lives next door with her daughter - she was planting some annuals just this morning. To the north is a couple with two grown sons. One of them is in the military (a West Pointe grad!) Like us, they have been married about three decades and are proud grandparents. Across the street, Carol has done a great job of keeping up the yard after Carl's death, which is really saying something, as he was very German.

I have three boys still at home, although one is actually a man, not a boy. One of my daughters lives less than two blocks away, on the same street. My son, his wife and three little ones live one street over. My younger daughter and her brood are less than two miles away.

I look at them, and I see something of that "village." They care for one another so well, babysitting one another's children and listening to one another complain about their husbands, their children, politics, the way life is, or me.

They exercise and shop together. They have "girls nights" and google hangouts.

But truthfully, at the end of the day they have their husbands and their children and that gal in the mirror. They are the moms, and that job title indicates a one-woman show. I worry sometimes that the job is too hard for them, but mostly I worry that they don't recognize how capable of doing it that they truly are. I worry that they might be expecting a village when what they really should expect is that they can and will be the women they need to be.

To hell with the "village" What you have is an imperfect family and friends who love you and support you like crazy, one made up of individuals who are all truly trying to do their best at this thing called life.

You will have neighbors and family and friends. Some will be right next door, others a stone's throw away, but the work of daily living and raising your family is YOUR work - your precious, sacred, difficult work. 

When things are really difficult (one of your children dies, your husband has a heart attack or an affair, you have a truly life threatening illness) your people will come rallying. There are many who love you, and they will abandon their daily struggles for a time while helping your tend to your extreme situation.

But the daily struggles and challenges? Those are yours to carry. Don't worry; you can do it!

You will make plenty of mistakes, don't worry, and your children will remind you of them. Hopefully your children will then grow up to have children of their own, at which time they might realize that there really was no way for you to know about the child abuser next door, or any other evil you may have encountered.

Like every other decent mother out there, my mom did her best. Pretty much on her own, dammit. She made the breakfast and wiped up the puke and made dinner AGAIN. She poured the glasses of milk that we would undoubtedly spill, and she tried to be a good person and muddle through life somehow.

I refuse to judge her for the evils she didn't see or the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, when I think about Jay, I pray that she turned out OK. I heard she became a nurse, which means she probably learned those math facts. I hope that when she remembers our childhood, she remembers the fun we had playing with the babies, and that she knows I loved her, even though I didn't know how to save her.

I choose to remember the good times, too, which is why I don't write like this too often. Today it just seemed right to focus the magnifier on that sliver of dark memories that can still make me feel dirty and scared sometimes. The bright, shiny image of that imaginary village made it seem necessary.

My children and their children are lucky to live in a family/village that is wholesome and mostly healthy. There might be scary things next door but they are being kept safe; as safe as their very capable mothers - myself included - can keep them.

3 comments:

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Vicki DePalma said...

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The Dogmas have in fact ... been hidden from you.

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Catholic Faith (pre-fulfillment) writing of Job 21:27 >
"Surely I know your thoughts, and your unjust judgments against Me."

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Proverbs 30:4 > "Who hath ascended up into Heaven ... what is the name of His Son."
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