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Sensitivity

As my mother grew older, she seemed less invested in some of her former feelings towards people or issues; this new attitude surprised me. She might shrug her shoulders, glance away and let a grievance dissipate. Formerly, and like me, she would hold on to an upset, a slight, and strongly express bitterness, and hurt. And like me, her skin was thin, and the hurt sustained, painful, festering, was not allowed to be released for some time. Whether slow encroaching dementia or just not truly caring about world wariness, I’m not sure. She just seemed to let it go.

I always felt I shared that aspect of her character, sensitive beyond necessity, experiencing the slings and arrows of life way too intensely. In fact, my father’s attitude towards me often shouted, “ Don’t be so sensitive, Pat,” as if being sensitive was reprehensible, like smelly socks not to be exhibited in public places.

But unlike her insouciance, I developed a façade of cynicism and aloofness to battle what was seething inside. Perhaps this defence system began at Forest Hill where not being one of the sheep and demonstrating individuality was a cause for ostracism. Today I might be diagnosed with social anxiety as my discomfort in groups and an inability to converse would be treatable with Paxil. But this inner shyness lead me to pretend I was invisible, particularly later in life at cocktail parties and gatherings, that way insulating myself from pain: silent wallpaper to the tittering groups who laughed and intermingled with delightful ease in the twinkling of wine glasses.

I always desired that I might go to the camps that the rich kids attended in my area. Our summer aways were car excursions, drives to some place for a week and less: what felt like a trip there and then a turn around, a stop for a historical monument or nature reserve, an overnight stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel and if I was really lucky, a magazine at the check out : the purchase of a Calling All Girls or Jack and Jill magazine.

Many memories are overwhelmed by the smell of vomit as my sister was a poor traveller and the tedium of sitting in the car for hours. So I lusted for those summer camps, imagining they would do for me what the slipper did for Cinderella and I would become the beautiful star of the golden pumpkin, exchanging bon mots with all the other lovely ladies.

As an elementary school student my parents agreed to send me to Mr. Salmon’s ( he was the principal at West Prep in the 50’s) camp. Even then I must have fantasized that camp was a magical place. My mother arranged for two of my cousins to attend with me so I would not be alone. What I remember is this: because I loved pistachios, my parents on visiting day showered me with several pounds of the salty crunchy green treats. But the rule – and I always followed rules- was that we had to share our goods with others. So I turned my luscious pistachios into the camp office and received only three shrivelled morsels. Yes, three single pistachios! Sharing did not displace my disappointment or feelings of stupidity of how I might have savoured those tiny nuts in secret.

But even at that age, I found that camp was no panacea .One of my cousins, Rima, had an incident with ketchup and demanded her parents immediately remove her from those two weeks of torment. With the exception of being put to bed with Nancy Drew stories in my head, I deemed camp all right, but no nirvana.

It was years later when camp again assumed the illusion of a golden holiday where even the nobodies in everyday life might became special, relaxed, happy and I imagined passing through the looking glass of camp that would transform me into a socially acceptable being, complete with manageable hair, no glasses and twirling skirts.

When I was old enough I applied for a summer job at one of the coveted camps. It should have been no surprise that I did not fit. One night as I pretended to sleep I overheard my co-counsellors trash my hair, my body, my behaviour. It was as if I were in attendance at my own funeral where the guests are not your friends but people who truly hate and ridicule you venomously, with such hatred that you feel yourself charred from top to toes.

Eyes tightly clenched, I did not bob up and face them eye to eye. Most likely they surmised that I was listening to every hurtful word, winking at one another and suppressing their laughter. For me, the unraveling of me seemed to continue for hours. Nor did I confront them the next day. I merely plodded on. Every detail that I had tried so hard to make conform had been torched, observed and found wanting in their privileged midst and I would always be the outsider, not a belonger or part of the circle where talk is easy and smiles that glaze over you further amplify your self-confidence.

It was a contest of endurance that summer and although I found other outlets, even the head of the division suggested that perhaps I might prefer the sister camp for disabled kids the next summer.. One campfire night as the cool guy from London strummed his guitar, crooning from the Beatles, “Do you need anybody…?” I loudly and emphatically proclaimed, NO! The camp I had l imagined was certainly not my life raft. Did I hear a giggle close by?

A normal person might have just let the camp incidents go, but they seared my soul, branding me to myself as an outcast. I don’t think I would have gone on line as Amanda Todd did, but the feelings of rejection certainly stayed with me and coloured my actions and interactions with others for some time after. The bullying I received was not outright, subtler: the kind dropped on the naive with looks, smirks and condemnation.

The obsessiveness of my thoughts and the label, particularly from my father of sensitivity seemed to damn me further in my inability to approach or make friends and interact with others. Where I was a slightly shy toddler and friendly little girl, my experiences at school pushed me towards the edge of loneliness so that the discovery of another little girl in the lane next door to my house stood in as a convenient prop to walk with to school so at least I might appear to have a friend, even as she was as ostracized as I.

As I write this I reflect I am again making too much of this, being too sensitive, that perhaps it is only in memory that I felt myself so alone, for I can easily picture myself as a little girl fairly content, involved in art classes, going to the show on Saturdays with my cousins, hanging out with them, being my parents’ daughter. Perhaps too I am overlaying this blog with too much “ sensitivity” , standing back as an adult and sifting through moments that have arisen to enable me to review my years growing up. What do I make of the image of myself as a little girl curled up on the sofa, always troubling with a scab, quiet, not really withdrawn, but quiet and introspective. Or in the blurry photo posed with my only tall and gawky friend in the back lane?

As we recreate these narratives, as we try to piece together who we were, the fiction grows and entwines us with some truths, some imagined , some pure fabrications. Without documenting how we actually felt at a particular moment, we cannot remember every event  or thought,only conjecture the event with what we think we might have felt. Yet I do strongly remember the pistachios and the girls in my cabin. But those were single incidents, not the overall symphony of my life.And in the midst of this, my mother, too, making wise suggestions or planning events to help integrate me into groups. A not always perfect person but an insightful support who tried to smooth out the  awkwardness of growing up.

When I think of my life at this standpoint, I can see in context the rollercoaster ride of adolescent angst, one that thankfully eventually passes as you begin to comprehend the mentality of the herd, the gift of sensitivity that allows you to see deeply and intensely, and light your way to relationships of meaning. The hard part is getting past those teenage years, waiting them out and learning to accept yourself, and discover how your special qualities work or do not work with others, re-evaluating what you once believed important. As Emerson and many others once said, “ Know thyself’- even if it takes years to do so.

Vacations

When I was a kid at West Prep, I longed for summer, the space between the beginning and end of school. I wasn’t a bad student, just maybe disinterested. Vacation was a space that suggested freedom. Yet as I remember back, it was not two long months of lazying out on beaches. I often fantasized about attending at a fancy camps as most of the Forest Hill kids did and sunning and swimming at golf clubs: all of those destinations that held magical mystery for me.

My mother eventually sent me to Mr. Salmon, the West Prep’s principal, summer camp, where those fantasies should have dissipated after my two week’s stay. I was surrounded by my two cousins, Rima and Carol, somehow engineered by my mother for staying with me. The memories except for listening to Nancy Drew at dark were not good and I so resented sharing the bags of pistachios brought on Visitor’s Day by my parents: an extravagant gift from them. I received a stingy 2-3, following, even then, the rules of handing over the bounty I longed to gobble all by myself.

With the exception of the above sojourn, I would help out at the free summer programs at West Prep, swing on the swings there, dawdle a bit, daydream in the school yard , the same place where I endured the rest of the year.

Usually in late July or early August, for a week to ten days, we would take a family vacation which meant my father driving somewhere and my mother dragging the heavy suitcases in and out of motels.

Once we headed to Florida where all of us, except my father who did not sunbathe, were fried hot red in the sun. Only cooling watermelon in Georgia seemed the salve for even burning bubbled lips. Howard Johnson Motels had just opened up in the 50’s and the price must have been affordable because we did stay there- but only for one night as the point of the trip, it seemed, was to drive to a specific location, and turn right around and head back. On reflection, it may have been a way for my mother to rationalize we were like all other families; and for my father, to DRIVE, and pretend he was as capable of the same mobility as all other dads. Or perhaps, more truthfully, he truly enjoyed the feel of driving and being on the open road, even as his kids, meaning me, squabbled and complained in the back seat.

During those trips, I think I did develop a love of seeing new things. We were introduced to the Hayden Planetarium , the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York, a gigantic replica of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ausable Canyon also in New York, our special toy store in Rochester, and any place that featured science museums or musical associations.

My sister was a terrible traveller and occasionally would puke. She was always accompanied by her stuffed toy, Bow-Wow Woof Woof for whom we once had to double back to some small town because she had left him beneath the covers. I used to announce at regular intervals, “I’m bored” and was repeatedly instructed to look out the window. I was still bored and harboured no understanding of how houses flying past or straight highways were supposed to assuage that tedium. I just wanted to reach our destination, throw off my sweaty clothes and heave myself into a pool. My parents would play the usual games with us“ I spy something with my little eye” or the geography one. All for me were continually boring, particularly as my competitive sister would jump in and know all the answers.

Once I recall an incredible treat as a hotel had a small cache of magazines and candies for sale at the checkin. My father let me choose whatever I wanted and I selected “ Jack and Jill”, a magazine much like Readers Digest . I cherished it because my father had offered me such an incredible prize and he had seemed to have melted a bit from what I considered his hard façade. Of course, I read it from cover to cover , beyond incredulous that my father had been so magnanimous to allow me such a treat. Holding it close was like a warm hug or kiss from him.

We greedily anticipated these summer outings, these trips that like a straight line reached its target and then doubled back home. For my father, I suppose it was the freedom of the open road, his car replacing his legs claimed by his illness. He had created a special hand control with which he could feed gas, a forerunner really of cruise control. Yet even as a boy he had followed the train tracks, fascinated and delighted by all things that moved electrically. My mother wondered if he had picked up the polio bug working on the radios in ambulances.

For my mother, she was always the uncomplaining slave, lugging, carrying, managing every aspect of our lives whether at home or on the road. I think of her as the porter, the go-between, the co-ordinator, her head turned out towards the window as the scenery flashed by. I do not recall resentment on her part or perhaps I was too young to empathize or understand the burdens weighing on her physically and emotionally: in her attempts to render our life “ as normal” as possible in a constructed world where my father’s disability had altered every aspect of her life.

Was he embarrassed not to be able to load or unload the trunk. Probably, but he hid it well in a gruffness that often turned to ridicule at me, particularly my being too sensitive. He had this bitter sarcasm—at life, I think that had felled him to his knees.

She made up for everything, or at least tried to smooth out the numerous wrinkles so we might grow up thinking we were an ordinary family: our lessons, our trips, our achievements at school. Both fact and fantasy. I’ve said it before: she was the glue that held our lives together.

Still I wonder at my longing for summer between kindergarten and Grade 7, away from the hot confines of school rooms in June , not being made to redo my sums.

Thinking harder about life at West Prep, I do recall the square dances in Grade 3 with Joey Marano, and being asked to read my story about a monkey who ate artificial cherries off an old ladies hat at a Friday morning auditorium assembly- before the entire school population. I remember with a rush of embarrassment, a movie called “Personally Yours” about getting your period, and a boy throwing my briefcase into the boys’ washroom. I recall signing all my valentine cards with the moniker ” Anonymous” in Grade 6 and then wishing I had identified myself, especially to Harold Goldstein in my class. I remember the music listening test to differentiate higher and lower tones where some children were identified for playing musical instruments, and I was not. I remember auditioning for a talent show singing, “ Around the world I searched for you ”, and not being chosen. And of course, I recall mean Mrs. Young in Grade one in her lace up oxfords, raking her nails through my hair when I could not perform a simple cutting task. A hodge podge of memories.

What shines through, though, is the summer vacation, the image of our family in the car: mother, father, sister and me.

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