My Childhood

Posted on October 27, 2010

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 The summer of my fifth birthday we drove as an intact family over the Bourne bridge, onto Cape Cod from Greenwich, Connecticut. Six years later, my parents were divorced and we’d moved from the old Victorian house in West Falmouth to another a town away…still close enough to play with the same friends and to go to the same schools, and visit my father every other weekend. But, light years away from the magic of those times.
                                   Six years of my life that seemed so much longer. So much of what I experienced from the age of five to eleven shaped who I am. When I look back I know that I have a selective memory. And for some reason the good outweighs the bad. That gives me hope as a parent! But, I still have trouble believing HOW good it was. I can barely believe the gift I was given. And what do I do with that gift? How can I ever repay my Heavenly Father for what He gave to me? I think the one thing I can do is tell the story. It’s not that unusual. That is until I think about all of the deprivation and abuse in the world that never touched me. How many children grow up feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually hungry? And I wasn’t one of them. This is one attempt at a pay back. Emulating what I was given has proven to be very hard. That’s another story…Here’s what I remember.                       
                                         How can I explain what it was like to grow up on the Cape? I really think all of us took the nearness of the water and the opportunities that provided for granted. For me there was no reason to go anywhere for a vacation. We spent from 9am-3pm every day at Chapaquoit beach. There were the swimming lessons, the tidal pools across the street, playing with friends, flirting with lifeguards, and sometimes an excursion down the road from the beach to jump off the bridge, usually into a mass of jellyfish! There were the monotonous peanut butter and jelly or fluff sandwiches…no variation for lunch. Every day! If you were with a wealthy friend they’d get you a popsicle from the ice cream man.
                                     Winter was an exercise in waiting for summer to return. Mine was spent on “private property” across the street from my house trying to float on the icebergs that would form. Once I really thought I was a gonner.The iceberg let loose from shore and I had to jump to another and make my way back to safety. All I could think of was Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys…and Gilligan’s Island! Boots were sneakers with bread wrappers lining them. Nothing stopped us from staying outside all day. On the rare day that we did stay inside we’d pull down the stairs in the hallway above the mirror and play dress-up in the attic.
                                        But, talk to any of my friends from that time and they’ll remember our animals. We didn’t have just a few. We had tons. We had cats who kept having kittens. At one point I remember having 15 cats and kittens. The same with the white rabbits.They were moved from a huge hutch next to the garage across the yard to the back sun porch. I was thrilled coming home from school one day to find  bales of hay with rabbits climbing them. INSIDE! They produced more rabbits as they’re known to do. For years! I lost count of how many there were. But the only name they ever had was Thumper…all of them! And then there were the mice, gerbils, hamsters, and turtles, all of which were stalked and tortured by the cats and dogs. Never in front of my mom! They multiplied endlessly it seemed. Then there were the skunks and monkeys my mother adopted. Sylvester and Darby, the two skunks, lived in the walls and surfaced if we left out raw eggs in a bowl under the kitchen cabinets, or in the hole in the built-in bathroom drawers upstairs. The two spider monkeys, Bonnie and Clyde, looked cuter than their temperaments! My mom built them an outdoor cage made out of chicken wire that they escaped from within 24 hours. I couldn’t believe we caught them with a banana halfway across town! One of the surprises of that phase in my life which was so incongruent with everything else was the out-and-out rejection of my friend’s best birthday gift to me. A rooster. Of course the Carlsons could have a rooster! I don’t know why my mother said no…in front of Lisa AND her mother! He couldn’t even stay the night. No bonding was allowed!
                                      I have no idea where most of those animals went when we moved. One dog was stolen, but our dog Pepper, the remaining cats, and a couple of rabbits made the move. Then we added Princess the pony, and Noah the goat. My mother got a shed and built a corral, and I spent many a day bringing Princess back home after another romantic escapade with the stallions down the road.
                                      The lessons I learned from having those animals were huge. No, I don’t think it was anything like learning responsibility by caring for them, as most parents hope. My mother helped a lot with that part. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. There just wasn’t any complaint from my mother about the cost to her in time, money or patience. The house was always clean. The animals were loved and looked after. I think it’s that I felt like my childhood was honored because somehow my mother saw things from a child’s point of view. I’ll have to ask how my dad really felt about all of those animals. Back then there really wasn’t a huge push on spaying and neutering your cats and dogs. And my mom had a kind heart that people picked up on when an animal needed a home.
                                       Then there are my friends from that time. There were the West Falmouth ones, Addie, Marybeth, and Lisa. Later on, when we moved Leslie was added. Not enough can be said for or about friends. We rode our bikes to George West’s Market for bags of penny candy and soda. We never felt the need to check in with our parents. We’d spend hours at the beach, or in the woods exploring and making forts. At Marybeth’s I learned to fold clothes, and cut a half gallon of ice cream into slices. That was so strange to me. They always had oranges, too. Such a luxury. At Addie’s house I learned how to butter toast, how much I disliked lima beans, and how skiing down even a small slope in the front yard was hard! I spent a lot of time at Lisa’s. We ate vanilla ice cream with creme de menthe syrup drizzled over it for breakfast. And I coaxed her into eating steak for the first time. She liked it. Lisa’s house was where I was introduced to junk food. Ring Dings, Devil Dogs, and Jax and watermelon were brought to every picnic at the beach down the road from her house. In front of her house was a creek that fed into the ocean. I hated the muck. We’d swim and float in that creek for hours. I lost a gold pinkie ring there one summer. It had my initials, EKC engraved on it. We searched for it for years. I still have hopes that it’ll turn up someday… sort of like my childhood. Leslie was the one that taught me how important it is to my soul to laugh. We got into so much trouble…almost. We were responsible for many brush fires and shocked drivers who were at the other end of the pebbles we threw at passing cars. Amazing that everyone, including my mom, never knew that there never were two “other” girls who were the real culprits of all those pranks! Most of what I did with Leslie was to make her laugh. To this day I love to laugh. and that’s when and why it started. There’s so much more to say about my friends, two that I still keep in touch with and that I consider forever friends.
                                        Lastly, my parents. I’ve written about my dad in another blog. He taught me by example to love to read…even if it’s just to escape the rain. He taught me to play. He never raised his voice or got mad. Except for one time he accused my brothers of stealing one of his beers. It was actually me and one of my friends who drank it in the tree fort behind our garage. Never admitted that one! I let my brothers take the fall. My dad gave me a lot in those few years he lived with us.
                                       But, my mother. What a gift. Never mind making the fun times possible with a house exploding with animals. Never mind that she never raised a hand or her voice to me. She was always quietly watching to meet my needs. She’d provide art supplies and never complained about the mess. She always cleaned it up I think. Maybe she just assumed we knew how to take care of our things. That’s how she is. She taught me that people are basically good and there’s a reason people do the things they do. It’s not laziness she saw, I’m sure, just a child focused on something REALLY important. She taught me to look beyond the surface. She was wise and knew that sometimes there were more important values to be learned in a situation. She always chose to make being creative a priority. She taught me to work hard. She doesn’t remember getting an upright piano upstairs. I do. I’ll always know that nothing is impossible to do because I witnessed it first-hand. She started a nursery school and ran it for 20 years. You’ll have to ask her about that. She knows more than I do how to explain her unique spiritual insights that influenced a generation of children and their parents. But I got to LIVE with her! She taught me unconditional love and patience as she ministered to my sister’s needs. Next to my husband, she’s my best friend and encourager.
                                       At some point I have to sum it all up. How to do that except that I believe that in my childhood I was given a very strong foundation of love, peace, and a sense of my uniqueness and value in the world from two people, my parents. And from four little girls (believe me there were many more, but that story would be long!) who grew into four beautiful people I learned how important it is for me to have friends to share my life with, and how to be a friend. I learned that a lot happens for a child in a very few years…childhood IS short. I learned that you don’t have to yell at a child to have him hear you. You don’t have to spank a child to tell him how serious you are. I guess it boils down to being willing to create moments that become memories with the people that God gives you. More importantly, I learned that I don’t want to be the ISSUE that keeps my children from experiencing life as it is meant to be experienced…full of joy and good memories. Everyone in my childhood, I know, was a gift from God. And I can’t thank Him enough!

Betsy Cross

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