Memories of a Rotten Childhood

My friends who have read this developing (from last year) series tell me it doesn’t sound like such a rotten childhood…and have given me some evidence of REALLY rotten childhoods.  But we whine a lot, and perhaps only with maturity can we see the latent humor in it all.  That is  hopefully, a strong element in this series.

In any case, it’s good to be back  WRITING instead of ‘auntie agony’ but that will come ’round again later….perhaps.

Lady Nyo


They are dead, at least the important ones, those who brought color to my black and white childhood.  Now ghosts but still haunting. Sometimes in the morning while drinking coffee, something crosses my mind, startling me with its clarity. It floats or flashes, depending upon its whim.  Then, for a time, we are together again.

Childhood is not the nice time of casually growing up. It’s the time of peer pressure, embarrassment, humiliation and some violence. That’s just the children, your friends, the ones who throw the rocks. Adults are much more savage.  All this life and wisdom, and when they pass casual judgement on your behavior, (meaning your essence) how do you fight that?  You don’t.  You roll over and something nasty is injected for the rest of your life until you come to some understanding about those particular toxins.

There was little to do growing up in the countryside of New Jersey.  Cows to chase, polluted rivers and canals to swim in and skate on, marked by chemical dumping from the 3M mining upstream.  We shouldn’t be surprised by those of us who are dropped by cancer.  Radon lurked in the basements of every house like  Leni-Lanape Indians bent on massacre though none had existed for 200 years in the state.

Nothing to do on the surface, but roiling right under the skin was sex with boys and girls who finally outgrew the pimples and greasy hair and the painful teenage years.  We matured into awkward adults, and either scattered promptly to the four winds or we ended up entrenched, expecting to take our places in a society whose vigor had leached out years before.  We looked at our parents and our future was bleak.  There was little to do except go to college, where we hoped our lives would begin.  Chasing Duncan Campbell’s milk cows from the winter pasture to the summer pasture held little promise.

I think we were all holding out for sex, real sex that loomed on the horizon. We didn’t talk about it much but we demonstrated our blooming interest when alone, a hidden and shameful secret carried on with glazed eyes in barns, in pastures and down by the river.

When we were young, it wasn’t sex. It was fumbling around in tents, ‘you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’.  I never really saw anything of merit, but perhaps it was the darkness of the tent or the unimpressive dimensions of what I was offered.

For a couple of years during the summer, with a hand-held 8 mm camera in Olsen’s basement, we filmed “Frankenstein”.  I always got to be the nurse, dressed in one of my mother’s nurse uniforms, with an old, starched cap on my head.  Silent movies, embarrassing to watch, painful just because.  The biggest guy, David, not to be confused with my brother, also David, the shortest guy, got to be eternally Frankenstein, moving with stiffened joints, his mother’s lipstick stolen for the scars.  I got to flap my hands a lot in distress, either what they were doing to poor Frank, or because he was threatening me, backing me into a basement wall. The script hardly changed, never much variety to it, but hey, we were kids and were easily entertained.

There* was* a subtle difference when one day I was tied to the table, still the nurse, filmed with my mouth open, screaming silently into the camera, Frankenstein threatening my carefully teased hair. I can remember feeling something akin to arousal, as IF  I was on the cusp of something.

For a week, the guys, about five of the neighborhood children, decided they LIKED tying down the nurse and threatening her from all angles.  Those films still exist in Olsen’s basement, but some adult had the good sense to hide the camera.  Frank lives on in all of us, a little bit of the terror of childhood that brightened our boring lives.

As we grew older, same ol’ same ol’ of childhood started smoothing out. Boys who knocked you down, now apologized for pushing you in hockey.  You had two responses, giggling and act like a girl, or raising your hockey stick and wacking ‘em.  Depending upon the history of the boy, you had a choice.  That was power.

The fellows you played with in “decent” games, sledding down Olsen’s hill, skating and playing hockey on Madsen’s pond, suddenly changed.  Our childhood activities changed, we all transformed.  Into what, we weren’t yet sure, but like growing pains, we knew something was happening.  Sometimes you were the last to know among your friends.

At eighteen life became complex.  Perhaps it is best blamed on the sex hormones that seemed to effect us all, especially in the sultry days of summer, when lying around played right into exploring more than your navel.  For some reason, ‘prone’ around boys, the ones you had known all your life had a new meaning.

But the guilt of society and mostly that your parents would kill you stopped much exploring.  You were always aware you were ‘saving’ something for marriage….a little like Green Stamps.  Perhaps you were collecting a sticky, green virtue to be cashed in when the Gods (Parents) approved and finally signed off.

You just kept your knees tightly together and waited.  Forever, it seemed.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2009

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