Alaska is where my consciousness came online. I remember dark wood paneling and dazzling bright snow and Sesame Street with my mom, who was super smart and had already taught me how to read. My dad was big and funny with golden red hair and a hard hat because he worked on the pipeline. My older brother and sister wore blue plaid uniforms to school, and, babynerd that I was, I couldn’t wait to join them.
As I recall, my family had an adventurous yet normal and fun life … but everything changed in 1977 when my mom found a lump in her breast. A year later she was gone. I was five, my sister was ten, and my brother turned twelve just a couple days after she passed. We were bereft, especially my poor grandma, who had just lost her only child.
This sucked for all of us, to be sure, but I think being little helped me out a bit, because there were parts of what was happening that I just wasn’t developed enough to understand or be upset about. Like, the morning they told me my mom had died, I didn’t imagine anything awful; I imagined her rising up to heaven in a glittering swirl, like Cinderella’s gown. She wasn’t “dead,” she just became abstract to me. I didn’t see her anymore, but it didn’t feel like she was really gone.
She was, though. A month or so later it was Thanksgiving and I remember staring out the window and thinking, “Well, this is how the world is, okay? Sometimes you get to go to Disney World and other times your mom gets sick and dies. Anything can happen. Don’t forget it.” And I accepted this as the Real Truth that it is, and I developed my strategies for dealing with it (reading, eating, doing like Deenie).
My dad, though … Sigh. My poor dad. Left a widower at thirty-two with three shell-shocked kids to care for, the love of his life taken from him in a painful and horrific way … well, it’s no surprise he foundered, and honestly never really recovered. He drank, he raged, he got and lost job after job. We moved three or four times a year, sometimes to a big beautiful home with a pool and other times to crash in my dad’s friend’s living room. I call this the “raised by wolves” portion of my upbringing.
Luckily, I was a smart little babynerd, and teachers loved to teach me, so school is where I got my love. I went to something like fourteen different elementary schools in total, and I faced the first day at each of them with one goal — to supplant whoever had thought they were the smartest kid in class previous to my arrival.
This rather mercenary technique actually ended up serving me pretty well, because my teachers did give me a lot of affection and attention. I mean, how could they not? I was a motherless little girl with big brown eyes and neglected dirty hair, so hungry to learn that I jumped out of my chair at every question, and they weren’t made of stone. So I spent my days eagerly learning as much as I could, and I spent my nights reading and trying to stay out of the way.
A lot of messed up shit continued to happen through those years. I was courted and beaten and abandoned by a succession of stepmom wannabes. One of them stole all our furniture and skipped town while we were at our grandfather’s funeral. Another one had a couple wretched kids of her own and liked to chase us all around the house with my dad’s leather belt. Another one sang Linda Ronstadt covers in her band when she was nowhere NEAR as good as Linda Ronstadt. None of them lasted long.
But here’s where I turned out to be super duper lucky — because my response to all this was never “Why me?” It was always “What the fuck?” I think if I had internalized that craziness to the point where I felt responsible for it, I’d be a very different person today. But thankfully, I didn’t. Whether this was the result of simple healthy self-esteem or some sort of in-born bitchiness, I’ll never know.
Though I didn’t take what was going on personally, I did notice that the way we lived was different from how other families lived. For instance, they stayed in one place long enough that their kids knew their way around, whereas I was always having to find a cop because I was lost. They had people over to their house. Their kids had piano lessons and ballet class and birthday parties. They ate dinner at home.
At first I didn’t understand why our family’s life was so different. I mean, sure, we didn’t have a mom, but there were other things, too, and over time I began to connect the dots. Like … I saw my dad drinking and losing his temper at home and I figured that stuff must be going on at work, too, and that’s why we moved so much. Or I’d notice how we went out to a fancy dinner and got a new stereo one week but our electricity was shut off the next.
I got it — a lot of these things happened as a result of my dad’s choices. I could never bring myself to get too mad at him, because my heart breaks for everything he went through and in spite of it all he was always a gentle and loving father to me … but I did learn a lot about randomness and choices and consequences by watching him.
My childhood gave me an early education in the fact that the world can be awful and it can also be amazing, and that sometimes which way things turn out is pretty random, but other times it is entirely about choices you make. So how do you make good ones? And how powerful are they? What are they capable of?
I’m still thinking about those questions, but I have learned something that is kind of mind-blowing: It is possible to make choices that transmute chaos and pain and bullshit into rocket fuel for living. It is possible to make choices that not only help us withstand the awful parts of life but also actually make our trials mean something.
So, what you have been reading here today is the story I’ve chosen to tell myself about the early part of my life, entitled What I Went Through as a Kid Didn’t Make Me Weird; It Made Me Strong As Hell. Being raised by wolves didn’t make me savage; it gave me the freedom to decide things for myself. Moving a million times didn’t destabilize me; it gave me the ability to walk into any circumstance and feel like I got this.
If human beings have a superpower, I think this is it — to choose what the events of our lives will mean to us. To choose what we become in their wake. To whatever extent we can.
Culture plays a role in all of this, too, as I learned when one of the stepmoms stuck around! More on that in Part 2 …