The tiny, L-shaped room my father had once used as his office was even dustier than the basement. It was a room of ghosts. One layer of dust after another had settled on the contents: The bowling and baseball trophies. The framed photo of me at age six in my pink trench coat wearing my aunt’s orange high school graduation cap, grinning. The plastic chicken leg and piggy that had belonged to the dog. The black chair where our golden retriever slept whenever my father was in there, and where I often perched, holding onto his scruff as we looked out the window watching the cars drive by.
The paragraph above comes from a piece of my recently completed master’s thesis, a document of only a little more than one hundred pages that isn’t anywhere near complete. There’s a lot missing, and I didn’t realize really when I handed it in. My goal was to look at the illness I’ve developed in adulthood through the lens of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), hoping to paint a bigger picture (more than just the illness); hoping to gain some understanding for myself. Picking only a handful of experiences from my growing up, however, leaves the manuscript mostly flat. There are sparks and moments of deep hurt, but there is a level beyond even this that I did not reach.
A few years ago my mother posted a photo of me on Facebook, sitting in the my father’s home office (the one written of in the first paragraph above) with the family dog, Ellery. I don’t know how old I am in the photo or who took it. If I had to guess I’d say it was right around the time of first grade based on the length of my hair alone. My parents separated one year later, and their divorce was finalized two years after that.
As I stare at this photo of me and Ellery, I have the realization that I am far more haunted by my growing up than I ever imagined. I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t abused. I didn’t go without clothing or other basics. I looked taken care of, but I was often neglected: emotionally. The adults in my life never asked me if I was happy or sad. I was never asked what I thought or how I felt about my parents divorce. Not so shocking really, given that both sides of my family don’t talk about things much. Anything difficult tends to be viewed out of the side of one’s eye versus head on.
Is it any wonder that I ‘collected’ other families to be a part of, families I went to church with and became just another one of the kids in?
I was a cute kid so that probably prevented me from slipping through the cracks in school early on. The moment I showed up in first grade in those custom-made purple velveteen knickers and the matching lilac satin blouse, my teacher paraded me around to the other teachers. I was darling. In another few years I would be inventive and brimming with imagination, always seeming to get my special projects approved. My fifth grade teacher let me establish a school post office: kids could send mail to teachers and teachers could send mail to kids, in real envelopes with stickers standing in for stamps; mail was delivered each morning by student courier brandishing a real mail bag.
If I had gone unnoticed, I might not have been saved. When I look at myself in the picture below, when I look at myself sitting with Ellery in that chair, I can see the sadness approaching the edge of the frame. It would take another few years for it to fully settle in, but when it did, I turned into one of the unhappiest, loneliest kids ever. And only those who were really looking actually saw it.
My task now is to try and work these thesis pages into a manuscript that is truly dimensional. The story started in prose, but as I’ve continued to write since graduation, it’s clear that it actually wants to be told in poetry.
And as I draw literal maps of my childhood, giving visual form to the places that shaped my growing up, I’m beginning to remember much more than just the handful of formative events I included in my thesis, and I’m getting those out of my head and onto paper in lines and verse.