“Train up a Child”
July 15, 2013
“How did you train for your trip?” the beautiful young lady asked as we shared breakfast on her porch.
I hesitated. How do you explain to a sixteen-year-old girl that every breath she takes, whether in pain or pleasure, ecstasy or mourning, while sleeping or exercising becomes a building block for the next breath, and every breath she will take thereafter will prepare her for life?
Too often when we as adults talk to younger people, we slip into cliché, using trite sayings to explain why we are where we are in life.
“Tee-Gee, can you pick it up yourself?” I remember my mother asking the first time I had ever packed anything into a suitcase.
I hated the nickname. She and my family had taken the words to an old nursery rhyme and adapted it just for my sobriquet, and every time she called me that, I cringed, recalling the frequently repeated taunt: “Tee-Gee, Gee-Gee, Puddin and Pie/ Kissed the boys and made them cry/ When the girls came out to play/ Tee-Gee, Gee-Gee ran away.”
I had been taught from the very outset of forming my gender identity that as a girl, my role was not to be sexual aggressor. “Good girls should be seen, not heard.” “Good girls don’t call boys on the phone.” “Good girls don’t speak unless spoken to.”
Yet my family constantly taunted me with that gender-reversing rhyme in which I was the sexual aggressor, causing “Good boys” who “don’t cry” to be reduced to tears by my aggression.
Additionally, the adapted rhyme reminded me that not only was I an intimidating sexual presence, I scorned the company of girls, a reversed gender role reinforced frequently when they always referred to me as a tomboy.
Yes, my favorite toys were cars. I would frequently use my meager allowance to buy my brother cars with the assurance, “If you buy it for me, I will let you play with it.”
Boyish, perhaps, but also gullible!
So rather than spending my money on dolls, jewelry, fingernail polish or tea sets—the usual gifts given me for my birthday or Christmas—I bought cars. Throughout the years, hundreds of them!
“If you can’t pick it up yourself, you have packed too much,” she added. Her instructions were practical. After the last round of abuse at the hands of my eldest brother (who is now serving a life sentence for sexual abuse on a child), she had decided to leave my father, who was physically abusive as well.
And as she did, since she had no transportation, the five of the younger children, those to whom she had given birth, would have to literally “walk out of the house.”
As it turned out, the contents I was allowed to take were minimal, and my second eldest sister had to share her suitcase as well as carry the weight for me, a burden that I still feel strongly any time she offers to help me. As a frail, pre-pubescent child, she was too young to have the responsibility of herself, much less her younger sister.
Yet it began the pattern of mothering she would always bear in the subsequent absence of both parents following the divorce.
For a few years, as my brother and I continue to add to his car collection, my muscles were strengthened by games, long bike rides, wrestling matches. I lived up to at least part of the early childhood taunt, still scorning the presence of girls, romping roughly with my older brother and his friends.
Then after my mother remarried, we became nomads. The two older girls were adults by then, and my weight-bearing, responsible sister continued the role she had assumed far too early in life.
When my mother and new stepfather chose to move out of the state for the first time only a few months after their marriage, my sister took on the responsibility as a junior in high school of staying in our home town to help my newly out-of-wedlock pregnant older sister.
My brother and I no longer had our primary caregiver at our disposal, so our games became even more far-reaching, more adventurous, and even more escapist in nature. Rather than relying upon books, chairs, shopping carts or toy cars for our diversion, we became increasingly dependent upon our bicycles for transportation, finding solace in daylong journeys exploring our new territory.
And we had much territory to explore, since we moved at least three times each year for the next four years of our lives.
My mother’s earlier instruction to pack only what we ourselves could lift became our motto dictating what possessions we were able to take each time we relocated. Household items were deemed more important, so for that first move, since we were “grown up anyway,” we had to throw away all our toys, as well as most of our clothes. It is no wonder we turned to our bikes; they had been the only possession we had been allowed to keep.
Yet even that was short-lived, because with the next move, the last sight my brother and I both recall is looking longingly toward our bikes out the window of the pick-up camper shell we shared with the few boxes we had as a family decided to take, a shell that would become our home for weeks at a time as my family struggled to earn enough money to pay for the next apartment deposit and first month’s rent.
The behavior became pattern: don’t acquire anything which may be too heavy to lift, and don’t ever keep anything that has no value, even if it happens to be a sentimental keepsake: a letter of a friend who had promised to be “friends for life,” a gift from our absent father, a picture of a dog we had adopted (and later put to sleep because we were on the move again).
Eventually, we learned not to make friends, thereby eliminating the potential extra baggage of those notes of friendship. Rather, we turned to one another for our own solace, our own friendship, and—since my mother still worked long hours and wouldn’t allow my stepfather to ever fully assume the role of father—even that of our own parents.
With each new location, at first we would trade who got the bedroom and who had to sleep on the sofa. Eventually, not even a sofa remained as an option, since often the only piece of furniture in the living room was designated as my stepfather’s chair.
Then my brother hit adolescence, and since he had “turned into a young man,” the bedroom thereafter was always his. Sleeping on the floor was easy enough; I was small, and it meant making my bed in the morning simply entailed neatly folding a blanket placing it on a shelf.
Initially, with each move, my father would send us Christmas or birthday money, and we would replace our bikes, only to have to give them up again with each subsequent relocation.
During the times between birthdays and Christmases, we would take to the same mode of transportation we had used when my mom “walked out of the house” so many years ago: our own two feet.
How did I train for my trip? I wanted to let my beautiful new friend know that every Tae Kwon Do punch she had blocked, every dance step she had taken, every bag of groceries she has ever bagged, every tear she had cried, every smile she has given trains her for whatever adventure may lie ahead of her in the same way that every breath I have taken up to this point prepared me for my journey.
Pack no more than I can carry, walk away from what I can’t, rely on my bike or my feet for my own transportation and laugh as often as possible.
Train up a Child….