I’m going to be working with girls this semester who are on the edge of our society, girls who need someone to love and believe in them. As I’ve been thinking about them, I’ve also continued working on my memoir, remembering how lucky I’ve been:
A excerpt from my memoir, The Body Is A Storehouse:
We found ourselves homeless in 1982 when I was seven, so my mother moved us into the veterinary clinic where she worked with a veterinarian who kept our secret. We had no where else to go, or, at least, my mother believed she had no other places to turn. The clinic was two buildings situated off a main highway on the property of the old woman who owned it near the South Bend Regional Airport in Indiana. It has long since been torn down and is overgrown with trees and weeds. It’s as if it never existed. Because I lived there three decades ago and the place is gone, I ask myself: did I ever live at a veterinary clinic, play kickball in the parking lot with my brother Ken as the clinic’s clients drove in and out? Did I take baths in tubs intended to bathe dogs? Did I crawl into and lock the doors of the metal boarding cages, pretending I was a pooch left by my owners while they flew away from the airport up the road for vacation? Did I pretend to eat the dog food, even placing a few of the meaty pebbles in my mouth just to see if they were edible? I did.
Now, I live what might be considered a normal American life in a two-bedroom townhouse with actual furniture and a refrigerator stocked with food. I have plenty of clothes—too many. I own a car (two, in fact), something my mother always struggled to afford. I have two dogs that I occasionally board so I can go on hiking vacations in Hawaii and Tennessee and California. I’m married to a man who cares for me. I’m a writing professor at a college. And I often ask, how did I get here? It all seems impossible.
Years later my brother inadvertently found proof that we lived at a veterinary clinic even though the buildings have disappeared and the concrete of the parking lot has been turned to chunks of stone by weeds and trees. When he and my sister-in-law applied to become foster parents, Ken discovered that a case file had been opened for us in 1982 with the child protective services agency of the county. While the file doesn’t indicate who notified the department that Ken and I were living in shaky circumstances, I suspect my grandmother made the call. She was always trying to prove my mother was an unfit parent. After my parents divorced, she testified against my mother in court, saying my father deserved custody of us because my mother beat us, accusing her daughter of her own crimes. Mothers were given preference in custody cases by judges at that time. My mother was no different and the judge awarded her custody. In the case file opened by child protective services, Ken discovered that the investigator believed we were adequately sheltered and fed and we weren’t being mistreated, so we were left with our mother. If I’m honest, I’m thankful for it.
Thirty years later I was startled to learn we were being monitored by child protective services. It was as if the past were somehow breaking into the present, reminding me of a petrified little girl, who used to cry and worry and watch without speaking, a little girl who was so profoundly shy that every time she spoke in front of strangers, her face reddened and flushed and her entire body broke out into a sweat. That little girl had really existed, she wasn’t a figment of my imagination. She was me, is me. Was me. That little girl, who desperately wanted to disappear into her own imaginary world, is in some ways still living and breathing, though she has become adept enough in her adult world to appear as if she had never been afraid at all, as if she had never wanted to disappear from the world, as if she could move through her world easily and with confidence. That little girl is still alive and well; we are on speaking terms.
I often saw the three of us, Mom, Ken and myself, as on the periphery of the world, outside the boundaries of notice. When I found out we had been noticed by strangers, strangers who had the power to separate us, I realized how precarious our lives had really been, how unusual it was to move so often, to not have the stability of place to ground us in a certain kind of safety that home affords. I knew that not everyone lived the way we did—my friends’ families were proof of that—but the thought of not being with my mother and brother terrorized me. It was a worry that lurked in the periphery of my childhood. It kept me quiet, fearing that my voice would draw attention and take me to places I did not want to go.
Now that Mom, Ken and I are all living our own, separate lives, the three of us have fondly reminisced about how and where we’ve lived. That’s partly why it surprised me, too, that I was also a little frightened when Ken told me we had been monitored. Others had known about us. I don’t remember being questioned by anyone nor do I recall anyone knocking on the door to see if we were safe, unbruised, clean, and well fed. It scares me to think Ken and I could’ve ended up in foster care. True, my mother was unfit to care for two young children (I can admit that now and I think she can, too) because she couldn’t provide a stable home life, but I never doubted her love for me. Even though Ken and I would eventually move in and live with virtual strangers less than a year later because of my mother’s homelessness, I can’t help but imagine being forced from my mother, and possibly my brother, to live with strangers with no deep and abiding love for me, people who wouldn’t even know me. Alone. The thought of it shakes me loose. My imagination always turns to the dark and damaging possibilities. And, again, I find myself thankful.
If you think of it, say a prayer for all the children who are afraid.