[Content warning: physical and verbal abuse]
It’s hard to remember the really good
When good was the absence of bad
And really bad taught you things you can’t forget
– Heather Coldstream
Earlier this year a friend pointed out that my personal childhood story sounded pretty bleak and that I should re-write it to include the good stuff. When good memories have a hard time escaping the gravity of bad memories, good memories tend to be the absence of the bad. Some day I’ll achieve escape velocity.
My many years-older brother used to torture me.
Being so much younger and smaller made me an easy target. Because he’s family and had regular access to perfect his technique, he knew exactly how to maximize my distress. His mixture of delight at being in control and expression of anger varied from day-to-day.
The good news is that this was not a daily occurrence. The bad news is that my body remembers enough of it for it to have left permanent scars in my bones and my psyche. To this day, should someone attempt to playfully smother me with a pillow or someone holds or bops me on the nose, my flight-or-fight response kicks in something fierce.
Using his advantage of weight, my brother would kneel on my elbows to pin my arms down and then slowly sit on my chest while holding my nose and mouth so I couldn’t breathe.
This usually happened after he’d made me cry about something, so not only could I not breathe, I was also struggling against the spasmodic jerks of my sobs and congestion in my head.
‘You’d better stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ his angry face would say as he let his hands away and leaned up.
I would gulp what air I could for another attempt to try to writhe away before he’d slap his hand back, cutting me off mid-breath. Usually there’d be a ‘sissy’ or two thrown in for good measure.
My shoulder blades would grind down onto the hard linoleum floor when he leaned forward, pulling my deltoid muscles away from the bone. My right shoulder still dislocates easily and I can’t sleep on my right side because my arm goes numb in just a few minutes. I’m reminded of this every time I wake with a numb arm.
My memory says he’d slap me, but I’m not sure I trust that memory. What memories I do trust have a general haze of pain about the face, but those could be just from him clapping his hands to my nose and mouth.
When he wasn’t angry he’d pin me down and tickle me with a big smile on his face until I could hardly breathe from the wiggling laughter. Then he’d do the typical mouth/nose trick with his hands.
I can’t recall how often he did these things or when he started. It happened enough to make me always sit where I can see where people are coming and to keep a large personal space.
I used to go across the street from my housing division and hide from my brother in the undeveloped, third-growth woods. They were my refuge in the summer and I was happy there.
There was a small drainage with exposed clay where the land had slumped away from a small drainage culvert that collected from the neighboring development. This runoff contributed to a small brook where I whiled many pleasant hours building dams and breaking them down, uncovering rocks for salamanders in the same color as the iron-rich and rusting clay, listening to the trickles of the water and calls of robins and starlings and finches amongst the rustling, viridian to bottle green alder leaves.
There were also scattered vine maples whose leaves made me think of the maple syrup I’d pour into each cell of my frozen waffles when my mom could afford to buy them or she had the energy to make them herself. Second-growth western redcedars with their peeling bark were more rare and bore witness to their progenitors who stood in silent, massive stumped decay with their rotting, red heartwood spilling upon the forest floor.
Being there meant I could look up at my pleasure through the canopy at snatches of blue sky instead of being forced to look at the sparkling popcorn ceiling that glittered as far away as the stars while trapped against the Earth by my brother.
In the winter or when the rain was too cold to stand, I’d hide in my room with my books and toys, which transported me far, far away from the growing menace outside my door. I learned that out of sight often meant out of mind, and it removed me from the crossfire between my mother and my eventual teenage brother when they argued about his truancy or when he showed up stoned or drunk.
There were so many books and authors that were my friends! Paddington Bear. The Great Brain. Bridge to Terabithia. The Chronicles of Narnia. Watership Down. Jules Verne. Walt Morey. Judy Blume. Beatrix Potter. Black Beauty. Where the Red Fern Grows. Winnie-the-Pooh. Kids encyclopedias. Science books. Ranger Rick. Animal cards. Mad Magazine. Comic books. And so many more.
Every story transported me away from a fatherless home, an overwhelmed mother, and an angry brother. I read about rockets and stars and animals and chemistry and physics and electricity and the body and inventors and discoverers. Those facts and people helped ground me to an endurance I developed. I learned life could be long and if I could only just bear a few years of my situation, there was a future out there waiting for me.
There were the joys in running or riding my bike to school and the exhilaration of knowing I could go places by myself and rely on my body to get there and back. I’d run to school in first grade and be winded when I got there but it was a good tired.
There was a satisfaction I gained when I realized that if I had a big enough head start, my endurance could outlast any person chasing me. This served me in good stead by middle school when I had to outrun my bullies and their taunts of ‘sissy’ and ‘pussy’. That made me happy.
There were many happy days at my grandparents. They lived in a 1950’s flat-roofed, single-floored rambler with radiant heat. On winter mornings, I’d dash through the cold house from warm spot to warm spot on the tiles and eventually learned how long the furnace had been going depending on how warm a given location was.
My grandparents had blueberry bushes in the back yard. On summer mornings I’d forage with my grandmother, dropping the berries into white plastic Cool-Whip tubs. We’d wash them, freeze some and put the rest into cut glass bowls, pour cream over them and then dust them with sugar for breakfast. There were grapefruits with sugar we ate with serrated, pointed spoons that had bamboo handles they’d bought in Brazil and poked my tongue in a way I liked and didn’t like.
My grandmother taught me to cook. How to use measuring spoons and cups. That you pack brown sugar but sift flour. That milk will scald if you’re not careful. How to spread mustard and mayonnaise to the crust for perfect sandwiches. What browning was. How to whip and fold egg whites.
We canned pickles after running them through the gentle cycle on the top-loading washing machine with the top up to watch them bounce around. I helped measure horseradish and put garlic cloves and dill in Ball jars, then stuffed the cucumbers in before my grandmother added the brine. We’d rinse and wipe the jars off before placing them in the back of the cabinets to age and we’d pull them out months later and consume the zest in them. That made me happy.
There were clamming expeditions with my grandfather in the frigid tide pool waters of Puget Sound. Rock crabs, sculpins, chitons, barnacles, tube worms, sand fleas, anemones in cold pastels of blue, green, and pink, muscles, Dungeness crabs, sand dollars, sand collars, broken bricks, bottles, polished glass, and concrete aggregates were there to examine and explore, and every rock turned over was universe unto itself.
My job was to fish around in the sandy slurry for the white- and gray-banded Manila clams we sought for the pail while returning the orange-red-brown ridged cockles. I’d carry the bucket back and we’d rinse them off and submerge them in fresh water with cornmeal, waiting a few hours for them to spit out their sandy guts before we’d boil them alive and then dip them in butter before slurping them down our gullets. That made me happy.
My grandfather had a shop that was a big converted garage he used as a refuge and hobby space. He taught me how to use a drill press, table saw, miter box, bench grinder, and various and sundry other tools. The boiler was in there and in winter it would roar and throb with oil-fueled fire, sounding like it was in continual explosion because it was.
In the back corner there was a freezer stocked with chicken pot pies, frozen chicken, blueberries and strawberries, all manner of meats, and fudge bars, vanilla ice cream bars covered in chocolate, or popsicles given the season. I’d sneak back there and steal a bar before lunch or dinner, greedily enjoying my purloined treat. That made me happy.
We’d travel places together to visit their friends and I was often the, ‘what a lovely granddaughter,’ that required an explanation. My long hair and shy demeanor gave me away when I didn’t know I was trans and now it seems like everyone knew but me and then when I did know everyone pretended they didn’t know. Families are like that.
When my brother also came to stay our grandparents, we’d fight. Better put, I’d try to run away from him and fight him when he caught me.
The worst ever was an angry tangle on the back lawn and my grandmother shouting something that I didn’t hear because I was fighting for my life. Then there was the loudest CRACK I’d heard so far in my young life as the bullwhip broke the speed of sound above our heads. The next stroke laid a terrifying sting on our legs and instantly set us in opposite directions. We would have run off screaming but you wouldn’t have been able to hear us above our grandmother’s screech of rage at being ignored that froze us in our tracks.
There were definitely a bunch of happy times at my grandparents when my brother wasn’t around.
My mom did her best. She was a mostly full-time single mom that struggled at times to put food on the table. I’ll aways remember the shame I saw in her eyes when a social worker came to evaluate our house to see if we qualified for food stamps. We did.
The first few times we used them were awkward. The cashiers in the suburban Safeway in our neighborhood we frequented weren’t familiar with them, so they often required additional assistance from the manager, which brought additional attention. Albertson’s cashiers took them in stride so we shopped there more and more, even though the quality of the food and choice wasn’t as good.
The TV was almost always on when I was at home. The amount of time I spent with the TV pouring into my head instead of doing something productive is something I regret in the way I feel about the video games I’ve had to intentionally delete so I’d stop playing them. Exceptions were watching the last moon landing in 1972 while my adult relatives got slowly drunk in the other room, science shows, and The Muppet Show. Those made me happy.
My mom would take me to the zoo or the aquarium and one year she even subscribed to the symphony, which I really liked but often fell asleep at, defeating or maybe making the point she was trying to make with it.
We took a few road trips when I was younger, but they became more infrequent as I became older and money became tighter. We’d go to Cannon Beach or Ocean Shores and stay in cheap motels with sheets that smelled of bleach and Lopez Island to visit a friend’s property and stay in a tent. All three of us went to Memphis for a cousin’s wedding in 1976 and everyone thought we were from Washington D.C.
I got to buy a new shirt for the wedding and it was country-style with little while flower shoulder patches on it and I loved it. We went to Disneyland Anaheim afterwards and that was just as magical for me as you’d expect it to be for a kid wearing their favorite new shirt. That was a happy memory.
My brother moved out when I was eleven and I claimed his larger room and the peace of not having to worry about him any more. That made me very happy.
I was able to come home to a quiet house and relax until my mom got home and then settle in for some TV with her as we ate dinner and she drank wine and smoked until she fell asleep on the couch. I’d rouse her when the show I wanted to watch was over.
On the nights she was more alert, it’d be an earlier bedtime for me but I’d wait until she left my room and sneak reading a book by flashlight under the covers.
She was single until she briefly dated a fat, balding, sweaty optometrist she went to high school with and then a man who wore a toupee came to live with us for a few months. He owned a boat and a small plane, and we cruised the San Juans and flew to Yakima and Bellingham. I even got to steer the plane a couple of times.
He drove a black 1979 Corvette Stingray that I only rode in once when my mom and I went to Albertson’s. She set off the alarm after we’d done our shopping and didn’t know how to turn it off, bringing a large crowd of men around to direct my mom on how to turn it off. She never drove it again.
I resented the man with the toupee because I had been kicked out of my brother’s room to make a spare bedroom for his kids who only came on the weekends. They only stayed a couple of nights total and I think the real reason I was moved was that my brother’s room was next to mom’s room and they didn’t want me to hear them having sex.
He disappeared not long after he yelled at me about mowing the lawn while I was mowing it. I don’t know if that was the final straw for my mom or if there was something else but he was gone a few weeks later and I got the larger room back. That made me happy.
Middle and high school and puberty were hell. Being at middle school sucked. I was bullied. A lot. That’s a whole other post. I was happy when I wasn’t at school.
I was an unwitting trans gal and I tried to play a regular dude, but I didn’t do it very well because I was a girl and didn’t know how to boy other than what I’d seen, and I usually did it terribly and you know how boys are during puberty. Ugh.
But there were happy moments here and there with friends. It was no random coincidence that I hung out with other outliers in school like the OCD dude who had to wash his hand three times before leaving the house, the Muslim dude who was always the designated driver, the devious psychopathic dude who was more slippery than an oiled eel, and the artist dude who sketched horror scenes non-stop, leading people to worry about him and who turned out to be a mid-list Hollywood makeup effects specialist.
We had teenage hijinks on golf courses, competing schools football fields, malls, basements, and office parks across the Eastside. My best friend’s girlfriend’s parents owned a movie theater and a laser disc player and we watched Warriors until I couldn’t stand that movie and watching them dry hump any more. She had Star Wars so we watched that instead, which had the side benefit of distracting my friend from dry humping his girlfriend in front of me.
After a series of young crushes where I had no fucking idea what I was doing and then deliciously caught oral herpes during my very first kiss, I met a girl and lost my virginity. That made me really happy because who isn’t happy having companionship and teenage sex when you’re a teenager? She also had a vagina and I was really, really interested in vaginas because I really, really wished I had one, wishing out loud many times that I wished we could swap.
This was after I had realized I was trans but I never told her. There were some really good times there that made me very happy. But we were teenagers with old soul wisdom in bodies with hormones that were doing things to our brains so we broke up.
The knowledge I was trans really, really sucked because transition felt like it was an impossibly so I lived vicariously through the girls and women around me. It was like being chained underwater. I could see the sun above the waves but no matter how much I wished I was above the surface, there was no way to escape the deeps.
Late high school was pretty happy.
My school schedule and homework wasn’t very demanding. I had beater VW rabbit with a windshield that leaked and a heater that barely worked that I drove like a manic and I’m happy I didn’t kill myself in some stupid accident. It required me to scrape the inside as well as the outsides of the windows when there was a frost.
I had a girlfriend and friends and we all had even more hijinks. I built a series of platforms in the alder trees that grew in the back yard and laid on them and read in the summer sun. I went to the beach with friends and ogled the girls in their bikinis while wishing I could wear one and have long hair like them.
For being a transfeminine femme queer girl, it could have been much, much worse, but my closet had closets with tidy little boxes to put things in so I managed.
Happy childhood? Not by a long shot. But there were definitely moments.