I remember the day I first looked at a book and realized there was more to it than pictures. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 at the time; I was sitting in our family car with my mother while the older kids went into the library to check out books. There was a magazine on the seat, a comic book. I picked it up and saw the little bubbles above the characters’ heads, and seeing those strange markings in those bubbles, it dawned on me. Those people are saying things, and this is what tells you what they’re saying!
I learned to read in kindergarten. Dick, Jane and Sally. Always doing things together, being kind to each other, having a mother at home and happy to see Father when he would come home in the evening from the office. So different than my life where there was so many siblings, bickering, scrabbling, hitting, and a father, who, when he came home from work, we avoided as much as possible because he was easy to anger and seemingly eager to become angry. People in my books lived lives where families would smile at each other, hug, apologize, and go on outings without worrying about the car breaking down and their dad taking out his frustrations on the closest person or object because he was unable to fix it . Families who would have sit down meals without shouting and threats of beatings with a belt if you didn’t eat everything on your plate. Families that didn’t have to worry about what the rest of the neighborhood was saying about your family behind your back. Families that rarely worried about having heat, electricity, water, and food–every day. Families who would actually talk about and plan for the future, not just parents telling the children that they can get the hell out when they turn 18 and by God then you’ll appreciate everything you’ve been given, until then you do as I say or else. And families who would touch without hitting, converse without insults and threats, families that prayed together and loved and supported each other.
But, of course, these were families in books. Fictional Characters. I could not fathom a group of people living this way, unless it was in some faraway land like Siam or Illinois. It wasn’t normal. Normal is what you wake up to each morning and go to bed from each night. Normal is not expecting trust, tenderness, security, and forgiveness from the ones closest to you for fear you will be ridiculed for being “weak”. Normal is being tough, cynical, sarcastic, crude, and keeping your distance from anyone who isn’t. Because they aren’t normal. And when I did actually meet people who lived in a loving home enviroment, I just knew they were fakes. I hated phony people, so I avoided those and kept company with friends who I felt comfortable with. Friends who were just as cynical and tough as I was, friends who could be trusted not to be trusted upon, friends who used fists instead of words, downing alcohol instead of facing life head on.
I left home as soon as I was able. I was 17, and married a really nice guy from a really nice family. Yep, one of those phony families who got along, were glad to see each other and sad to see them leave. I mocked their sentimentality, made a point of being out of the room when they were leaving after visiting. It made me nervous, to watch them hug, kiss, weep loving tears, and promise to keep in touch. There was no acrimony, no snide remarks made when someone was out of earshot, no threats of bodily harm if the other didn’t agree with them. I never thought that my mindset was wrong…after all, it was normal, to me. And the saddest thing was that I didn’t learn to change my ways when my children were born and while they grew. Since I had known only stern disinterest at best from my parents, I truly believed this was the correct approach to raising children.
I rarely cuddled my babies, because I never saw my mother cuddling babies. That was a job left to the older siblings, who only did it because it was their job. I spanked my children because, of course, this was the acceptable form of discipline I grew up with. And spanking lead to beatings, which is the normal course of punishment, or so I’d been taught. Along with the physical abuse came the verbal abuse, because, of course, this was how it was in my own childhood.
But reading books through the years taught me that there was another form of life out there in this world, one where love and respect ruled, and pain, guilt, and suffering at the hands of a parent was not the norm. Sad to say, I didn’t learn these things until later in life, after my children had become adults and parents themselves. I met and married a man who, even though he was raised in an environment that made mine look like the life of Dick, Jane, and Sally, is tender, loving, kind, and respectful. This man, who was told over and over again by his alcoholic mother that she didn’t want a son, who spent a good part of his early childhood in a childrens’ home because his mother didn’t want to be saddled with a boy child, is the sweetest, gentlest man I’ve ever met. How did he turn out this way? He is an avid reader, and learned through books, as I did, that his childhood was not normal, and that only he could change his life for the better.
I want my children to know how sorry I am that I was such a defective mother. If I could do it all over again, I would look at my children as the unique creations they are, and cuddle them and let them know that, although our family wasn’t all Dick, Jane, and Sally, they were, and are even more now, loved.
Thank God for books.