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“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
If I were to tell you my about my childhood, you would find nothing extraordinary in it, apart from those unique threads that make up the fibers of everyone’s soul. And my threads would look something like this: daughter of a symphony musician, three siblings – one biologically related and two adopted, a renovated old house for our home, an emphasis on education, discipline, manners and culture. That is what I would use to describe where I come from. Beyond that, my childhood memories seem to lack distinction, kind of like a GPS which is zoomed out too far to see the smaller details – those tiny roads that lead off the highway into smaller towns.
My memories are more like the movies my brother-in-law makes of the children playing in Bretagne each summer – there are seven nieces and nephews, plus our three in all. Each movie is set to loud music, with a whirlwind of bodies moving in fast motion across the sand, interspersed with close-ups of children’s faces that block the vision of the sea and the cliffs beyond. Those tell one story. And then there are the pauses in chaos where bodies move in real time or even in slow motion, with a deliberateness that tells another story. This is how I remember my childhood – a few close-ups amidst the whirling chaos.
My parents’ story was pieced together from offhand comments dropped here and there. They both studied classical music at Indiana University, which is where they met and started dating. But apart from their common love of music, their childhoods were wildly different from one another. My mother grew up in a wealthy part of Edina, MN, with a successful businessman for a father, the eldest child in a boisterous, extended family which met regularly in Wisconsin for family reunions. There they would stay up late, talking and drinking in continual festivity. When my mother was with friends or family, she was talkative and bright, but on her own, she loved to read and work silently while listening to music. I think I am something like her in that respect.
My father grew up with parents who were serious, hard-working school teachers, and they were very strict with their three sons. My father was the eldest, brilliant, and somewhat of a black sheep of the family since he didn’t fit into the mold of an obedient, religiously-minded son. Oh, he was obedient most of the time, as well as cheerful and hardworking, but there were too many incidents that occurred for his parents to be completely comfortable – like the day he skipped his chores to go fishing, and his parents drove up to the fishing hole just as he was swearing at the one that got away. When I would hear stories of his rogue escapades, I had trouble reconciling the image of a rebel with my determined, industrious father. But I suppose I have a few of his genes as well.
So my parents brought this history into their marriage, its savor into our childhood. And if I may say with light amusement, and without giving offense, the perceptions of the in-laws were such that one side of my family leaned towards teetotaling Baptist prudery, while the other side leaned towards pagan revelry. The shotgun wedding was a smashing success for everyone involved.
Our immediate family was more centrally located on the religious spectrum. We attended a formal Presbyterian church on Sundays where everyone was nice, but careful not to intrude too much in anyone else’s lives. The minister preached a lively sermon, but there were some rumors about his penchant for other people’s wives. I liked attending, felt like I was doing the proper thing by going to church each Sunday, but I always contrived a way to assist in the baby classes where I could eat my share of the cookies.
When my mother’s mother came for Thanksgiving, we knew to prepare satin pillowcases for her carefully styled hair, and to expect coffee before conversation in the morning. “Hold on,” she would say with her low chuckle, as we peppered her with excited questions and comments before she even had a chance to reach for a mug.
If she came downstairs and found me standing in bare feet (as was my wont) on the iron grate in the hallway, my nightgown billowing with the tepid air blowing from dying embers in the wood-burning stove, she would direct me back upstairs to get my slippers and bathrobe. And we knew we could count on at least one shopping excursion during her visit, even if it was only to look at boring antiques.
When my father’s parents came, they were eager to hear us sing or play our instruments, and they always showed interest in what we were learning in school. They were very constant in their relationship with us, even from a distance. However, the liquor cabinet would be locked up, as this part of our lives was hidden from them. I remember sitting with my grandmother at a young age, going on about how we all went to a friend’s house to make wine. I heard a pause in my mother’s clanking dishes in the kitchen, and my story started to falter as I met the look of horror on my grandmother’s face.
We had to tread cautiously with them over certain subjects, but in spite of it, I remember fondly how present our grandparents were for us. I was certain of being loved by both sides, even if I was a bit spiritually confused by the eclectic background.
My brother Jeff was just a year older, and he seemed to do everything effortlessly. I lived in his shadow, but I didn’t really mind most of the time. Part of me idolized him, and the other part of me tried to reclaim my place by telling him what to do. Even his naturally easy-going temperament was sorely tried on a regular basis by my preemptory commands.
After having Jeff and me, my parents then had the heart to adopt another child six years later. Stephanie was brought over from Korea when she was just four months old. We flew to DC to meet her social worker, and I remember thinking that the plane hadn’t actually flown to our home city, but rather had driven on the ground the whole way because I fell asleep before it took off. My new baby sister drank four bottles of formula in one go, and it was a short while before she discovered that if she cried, people would actually come and pick her up.
When I was ten, we adopted one more child – my brother Mark, whose father was black and whose mother was white. He was off to a rocky start, having been born an addict from his mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy, and having spent the first four years of his life in a foster home. When he first became part of our family, he hid under furniture when people visited, and behaved in other peculiar ways, like setting the toilet paper in the bathroom on fire. He had a lot of trouble in school, and even had borderline psychological problems. When it comes to family, though, you tend to make peace with the anomalies until they become the norm.
The presence of a spiritual battle pierced the veneer of my somewhat sheltered childhood. I believed in God, and at rare moments, communicated with him intimately. And yet I was frightened all the time. I would lie in bed at night, staring at the strange orange glow on the ceiling, trying to discern any small change in it. I was sure I, alone, was witnessing the beginning of a fire and that we would soon be engulfed in flames. No longer able to quell my panic, I would call out to my long-suffering mother who would sleepily come into my room and try to comfort me.
From early on, I was aware of being on the periphery of a war between good and evil, and evil was trying to pull me in and steal my life. At the age of nine, I was waiting to cross a busy four-lane street with a friend, and something compelled me to step into it. I knew it wasn’t the right time to cross the street as cars were whizzing by, but I felt something push me. It was like there was this voice whispering in my ear to “Go! Cross the street! Now!”
So I ran, with cars dodging me and honking at me, barely missing me, until I made it to the other side of the street. My friend followed me from a safe distance and admonished me to have done something so stupid. I just burst into tears because I couldn’t understand why I had crossed the street against my own will. I also cried with relief because I had actually made it across safely.
The minute I felt protected by God – like the time I was pulling a board game from a high shelf in my closet and a dart fell, skimming the bridge of my nose and missing my eye by centimeters – I would immediately stop and whisper, “Thank you,” conscious that I had just been spared. I knew God was present in those moments – I could feel it. But it was only in those moments of safety. In times of fear, I walked around the border of a yawning chasm in pitch dark, wondering at what moment I would miss my step and fall in.
One evening I was sitting on the brown tweed couch with my parents and brother, watching a television special on lepers in India. After a short while, I told my parents I was going to go to bed, which was met with a murmured response. But alone in my room, the panic mounted and overwhelmed me until my throat was closing in. I was forced to return downstairs and confess my fear of contracting leprosy and dying. I remember being embarrassed at my weakness – at having to go back and admit to being afraid, but the fear was too strong for me to stay silent. Only when reassured that nobody had leprosy in the first-world countries did I have any hope of returning to my room and sleeping peacefully.
As a teenager, I stopped asking my parents to calm my fears and started trying to manage my anxieties on my own. I couldn’t go to bed without first staring at the smoke detector on the ceiling of our stairwell to make it sure it blinked, showing that the batteries were in working order so we would be alerted in case of fire. This compulsion was as strong as my inability to step on a sidewalk crack on one part of my foot without repeating the operation on the exact same spot of the other foot. This caused me to walk in an odd, disjointed way for years.
I remember the first time I had a glimpse into the fact that I struggled with depression. I must have been about six or seven because we still lived in our old house, and I had just learned what the word “homesick” meant. I was standing outside in the bright sunlight, feeling exceptionally lonely. I kicked a tuft of grass with my foot and thought to myself, “I feel homesick. But I’m home.”
At the time we were living in an underprivileged area because that is all my parents could afford. I was oblivious to the fact, and played happily with the neighborhood children. It is only in retrospect that I can understand that the environment wasn’t all my parents could have wished for us. I remember being chased by a ferocious dog down the street until I ran up to a stranger’s house and rang the bell to be let inside. Another time I cut my foot to the bone on a broken beer bottle in the public pool, and sat crying on the poolside deck until my grandfather came back to our towels and was able to get me bandaged up at the First Aid center.
Although we generally took the bus to school, the one time we had to walk because the bus didn’t come, we were followed by some older boys who threatened to set my hair on fire with a lighter. Jeff and I were made mute by terror as we walked side-by-side in silence the whole way, not even daring to turn around and look at them.
We moved into a better neighborhood when I was nine. I was barely on level with my new class, whereas I was quite advanced in my old school. I had been in the habit of leaving my third-grade class every day to learn Math with the fifth-graders, and then attending the sixth-grade class for Reading. It was hard for me to be so far behind for the first time in my life, and I think my perception of my own intelligence remained low because of it all the way through to college.
The new house felt like the “Chronicles of Narnia,” with its walk-in closets and hiding spaces. I even pretended that by pushing through the coats in the deep closet, I would be able to enter a new land of magic, but my fingers touched the wall every time.
There were three floors, plus a basement full of nooks and crannies. We had a backyard, and then what we called the “way back.” Even the “way back” had a “way back” because the fence was broken down, and we could run for a distance in a wooded area before seeing the backs of neighboring houses. There was the loft above the garage, with a ladder in the shed to climb up. And there were the cubby holes cut out of the flimsy plywood walls in the attic – the cut-out sections matching the wall perfectly, and held in place by a couple of nails. There were closets upon closets (oh, how one misses that living in France), and there were even large drawers in the hallway where we used to keep our dirty clothes to be washed, and sometimes stow away in when playing hide-and-seek.
Since the house was somewhat run-down, we renovated the rooms in a joint family effort, thoroughly gutting and re-doing one room each summer. My father and brother would pound the plaster until it fell off the lath-board onto the floor. Then we would all scoop it up with snow shovels, put it in boxes and carry it outside to be picked up by the garbage truck. My father re-did the wiring behind the walls, and worked alongside my brother as they nailed up fresh sheetrock, applied joint compound, then sanded and painted the room.
My mother would stand outside in the sun with the baseboard and window trim balanced on two saw-horses. There she burned the paint with a small electric grill and scraped it off the wood – the old, cracked paint now bubbling and pliable. Then she sanded and painted everything so that the trim was smooth and white. When everything was in place – the trim, the freshly painted walls, the new outlets – the room became a blank canvas, ready to tell the story of our family with all the things we put in it. In this way, we conquered the house, one room at a time, and put our stamp on it.
We led a frugal existence by growing our own vegetables on a rented farm forty-five minutes away, and carrying firewood in each week for the wood-burning stove, which we used to heat our house. When we weren’t working – my cousins can attest to the fact that you can take a farm boy and plop him in the city, but he’s still going to give his kids hefty chores – we were playing. And these make up some of my favorite memories.
We played hide-and-seek and chase-around-the-house. We built lean-to’s in the back with the extra planks of wood lying around, and we made dishes out of the pieces of bark. In the winter we would go outside after school to the “way back,” which was set on a hill. There we navigated our sleds around the trees, zipping over the snowy moguls before skidding into a halt against the fence at the bottom.
We stayed there until it was dark, sometimes lying quietly on our sleds, looking upwards at the black branches set against the purple sky, feeling the snowflakes settle softly on our faces. Eventually we would deposit our sleds in the shed and traipse towards the house, my mother’s face framed by the light of the kitchen window as she prepared dinner.
We went to the symphony all the time – during certain periods, as often as once a week. I remember sitting, breathless in excitement and anxiety, as my brother Jeff played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto as a guest pianist with the symphony. He had entered a competition at age sixteen and won, so that a year later he found himself playing alongside my father in the same concert hall we knew by heart. He looked so small as he walked across the stage, but he confidently flipped the tails of his tux before sitting on the bench, after which he rattled the difficult piece off flawlessly.
I always felt privileged as we wound our way down the box seats after the symphony concert had concluded, taking the back stairwell with everyone else, but turning to the private door that accessed the backstage. There my father joked with the other brass players, everyone calling each other by their nicknames: Stevie, Brucie, Johnny, Dougie, Petie … Do you think classical musicians are serious? They are not – at least not the brass.
I grew up. I was awkward at times, eating alone at school at a large table meant for eight because no one wanted to invite me to their table. I was cruel at times, scorning a love letter dropped into my locker by someone who was mentally handicapped, only to turn and see him watching me mock him. And as I grew, my sensitivity to God and the spiritual world began to dull. I started to drink with friends when I was fifteen, and look for modest ways to show that I was a separate entity from my family. The darkness that so used to terrify me, became something to toy with, something attractive.
At seventeen, I was driving my boyfriend’s car with a learning permit. There was a sharp curve in the road and I wasn’t turning the wheel fast enough to stay in my lane. At the last minute, my boyfriend looked up from the map he was studying, and grabbed the wheel of the car to jerk us back to our side of the road, just as the oncoming driver lay on her horn in fear and anger. My apparent salvation barely registered through my flippancy. At seventeen I was as invincible as every other teenager is.
Still, at one time I was innocent. I moved over on my pillow as a small child and whispered to Jesus, “Here. You can sleep on the pillow next to me,” as I moved over to make room. This thought filled my child’s heart with an incredible joy and peace. And in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes wretched, long years since, I think that if there was anything worth redeeming in me, it was that innocent child, buried and forgotten.