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Monday, November 21, 2011

Uphill, Both Ways

My mother and father grew up in the shadow of a war. I remember my mother telling me about the time she and her sisters went to the local market for their mother, and upon returning home discovered that they’d lost the sugar ration card.  Her mother sat at the kitchen table and cried.

My father lived the early years of his life on a farm, barefoot, barely educated, and then his parents split up and he moved across the country with his mom and his siblings, working odd jobs until he dropped out of school and joined the military.

I was told all of this as a child, of course. My parents had it rough. No TV till they were in their teens, and it was black and white! No video games! No VCR’s! I have an aunt who had polio. Polio! When was the last time you heard of anyone having polio? I still remember the salty vaccine – one I didn’t mind because you didn’t have to get a needle for it. Even so, I think I only had it once or twice and then they stopped giving it.
My parent’s used to toss out the “you don’t know how easy you have it” stuff when I was kid and then a teenager. I rolled my eyes, and I knew that even though they didn’t have much as kids, they didn’t have the problems and complications I had. That’s for sure.

So I grew up and things changed. I still remember when we got our first microwave, our first VCR, and the first time I played Pong, and then Ms. Pac Man. I remember the looks of my parent’s faces when my brother and I graduated college – we were the first college graduates on either side of the family. I got older, and more interested in the people my parents were. What kinds of things shaped their lives? And I asked questions – questions that they could answer now that I’m grown and they don’t have to shield me.

I knew my Mom and her five siblings grew up in a small house. We visited there a handful of times, between my Dad’s military assignments. As a kid, I didn’t think much about the environment, but remembering as an adult gives me a whole new grasp of the situation. The Purina Factory, half a block away, belching out that fetid smell – I still can’t compare it to anything else. The shabby, threadbare carpet, the two small bedrooms that barely held a twin bed each with room to walk around, the tiny back yard with the garden that took up half the space. The fact that there was no shower or bathtub in the one bathroom (we washed in a big metal tub in the kitchen, with a blanket thrown over the doorframe to the living room). My Grandmother didn’t have a washing machine, either. Neither my mother or any of her siblings graduated high school. They all dropped out to help my Grandmother make ends meet, after my Grandfather died at the age of 50.

As for my paternal Grandmother, I knew she divorced my Grandfather, who was estranged from my Dad all the way to his death. Dad went to the funeral, but only because Mom nagged him into it. I didn’t know  - till many years after - that my Grandmother packed up all six of her young kids one night, and loaded them onto a train headed for the west coast. My grandfather had abused his family for the last time.  She traveled across the country with a little seed money from relatives. There she started a restaurant, made a life, and watched her sons and daughters go on to higher education and fulfilling careers.

I know now what they were too afraid for me to hear then. Life is hard. Beautiful, but hard. Sometimes, it can eat you alive and bad things happen whether you deserve them or not. A lot of the time, things don’t work out like you thought they would. Now, with the passage of the years, they know I can hear this, and I know what it took for them to make it through all that. I can take those lessons, and I can carry them with me on my journey.

Someday, many years from now, my daughter will remember me telling her that there were no DVD’s, CD’s or Wii’s when I grew up. She’ll also remember that her Dad and I split up, just before she turned 9. She’ll remember how she felt, and what changed in her life. And someday, she’ll want to know more. What events shaped all that? What were our lives like before, and after, really? And I’ll tell her. She’ll know how I told her that she couldn’t sleep with me at night, not because she kicks in her sleep (which is true) but because I didn’t want her to see me crying after she went to bed. She’ll know that I used money from the jewelry I sold to buy the American Girl doll she wanted, because every other little girl on the block had one and she felt so left out.  She’ll know I took a bike ride with her even though I had 2 hours of sleep the night before, worked all day, made dinner for everyone, and still had to fill out all her brother’s therapy paperwork, do a load of laundry and pack lunches before I could crawl in bed and cry again.

My son may ask someday if it was hard raising an autistic child. It’s my fervent prayer that he does ask – that he’s that aware. And the answer will be yes. Yes, it was hard. Harder than I ever thought I could handle. But he surprised me every day, and in turn, I surprised myself. He’s a constant reminder that in some things, giving up just isn’t an option. That can either be a prison sentence, or an epiphany. Some days, it’s a little of both. It is what it is, though, and I’m living through it and someday, someday…we’ll both be stronger for having done so.

My children will know what it’s like to walk uphill both ways, barefoot and struggling. I’ll tell them my story, and their grandparent’s stories, and as they take their own uphill journey, they’ll have me at their side, until the day that only the stories remain.

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