Thursday, May 29, 2014


Where does the story begin?  Perhaps it starts with my happy childhood with loving, attentive parents.  Dad was a coach at a small Christian college in western Pennsylvania; Mother stayed home and took care of my older brother and me, sewed clothes for me and my dolls, and  baked the best pies I've ever eaten .  Tolstoy famously said, Happy families are all alike.  I certainly agree with the second part of his observation—every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—but I'm not sure I agree that happiness is as bland and uniform as his comment suggests.  Even as a child, I recognized that my happiness was not universal, that there were many people all over the world who suffered.  We used to go on shopping trips to the big department stores in Youngstown, Ohio, where we would pass through black neighborhoods.  From the cocoon of my father's car I would peer out the window at people who seemed to inhabit a different world from mine and my heart would lurch with sympathy.  

Yes, I was happy, but there were constraints.  Sunday was the bleakest day of the week because I was made to stay in my church clothes and not allowed to play with my friends because of something called “Blue Laws” that closed the movie theaters and the swimming pool in the park on Sundays.  It was decades before I was able to enjoy a Sunday and not feel the gloom of repression and guilt.  There was no anger in our home; it was simply not permitted.  My dad, the football and basketball coach, was a gentle man, so  I was astonished when I'd see him pacing the sidelines at  games, shouting at the referees or scowling at
 his players.    

 “Why do you get so mad?” I asked him once.  “It gets the players fired up,” was his answer.  

Anger, then, was not something natural or inevitable, it was a tool to be applied for a purpose when nothing else was working.  I learned from my parents that expressing anger was a  failure, a regrettable lapse, almost always inappropriate.  I knew this because my mother never got angry.  Never in my entire life did I ever hear her raise her voice, not even to call the dog.  If I misbehaved, she went coldly silent.  Her look of disappointment was more potent than any spanking.   

I loved my parents and when they went out for the evening I couldn't fall asleep until they were safely home.  I adored my big brother and craved his attention.  I must have been about five when Jim once told me he was going out and would be back in an hour to play with me.  I sat on a kitchen chair and stared at the clock on the wall for a solid hour, watching the minutes tick by, waiting.  As much as I loved my parents, I perhaps loved my brother even more.  He was eleven years older than I, so he always seemed to me to belong to a different generation, not quite my parents' but not mine either.  His age, even when he was still a teenager, seemed to confer wisdom and worldliness,
so when he teased me I took his attentions as compliments.  The day his draft card arrived in the mail—this was in those long-ago days of a military draft—I was sure it meant he was about to go off to war and be killed , and I was too frightened to mention it to anyone.  Later, when we were both older, he became my confidant, the person I'd turn to first if I had a
problem.  By the time I found myself pregnant with David, I had a long history of looking to my brother as a kind of hero, as someone who would help me without judging.

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