Tuesday, January 20, 2015

CNF stuff—or, Musing around

I'm writing like mad. Here's a bit from the latest draft:

When a child is taken repeatedly to doctors and therapists for explanation of undesirable behavior, isn’t said child likely to think there is actually something wrong at her most intimate level? For every time a therapist has asked me how I came to develop self-reflection and I turned up empty, my answer should have been, “My mother taught me.” Doctors and therapists are an easy mechanism for needed attention, and assumed malady is a simple evolutionary adaptation for the children of perfectionist parents. Out of sight, out of mind children hunger on the vine; a good gardener tends to a withered crop—or some unspoken philosophy or other like that. 

So I learned to re-evaluate often. How bad was I? The stories start when I was six weeks old. I cried each time my mother put me down, thus preventing her from doing the pressing housework. At six months I bit her nipple while I was nursing. She responded by delivering my first spanking. I stopped biting. As a toddler, I refused to pick up my toys. I’ve seen the 8mm reel she took of the carton of raw eggs I dropped, one at a time, in a puddle of slime on the kitchen floor. She grounded me to the bathtub while she cleaned up the mess. I’ve seen that footage, too. I cut my own hair at three, and then my neighbor friend’s hair when we were five. At four, I found my mother’s temple clothes and enjoyed a game of dress-up. She screamed at me. I never really understood that reaction.

And then there was the incurable sense of wanderlust that settled over me at two and a half. I didn’t care where on the planet I was in relation to my parents; a testament to an inherent sense of self confidence, or perhaps pathological bravery that my mother has never possessed. The world was big and wide and full of wonder. To me, the fact that my mother couldn’t find me was only a problem when she couldn’t find me. 

Confinements spanned my entire childhood, but as I once heard it so wisely stated, grounding a teen is like chaining yourself to a bear to punish the bear. Still, around twelve or thirteen, I experienced a grounding that started at two weeks, and then expanded each time I didn’t return from school on time to a month. Then two. Until an entire year had passed that, in theory, I was sequestered to that cellblock most people call “home.” Running away was rarely on my mind; the adventure won the tug. But tell that to the cop each time they’re parked in your driveway once you wander home from fourth grade at 4:30 p.m. when school let out at 3:00. 

I can’t remember how many times my mother reported me missing, but she went to drastic measures to allow me a little extra length in my restraints. My father screwed a triangular wrought iron frame that supported a large metal bell into the siding at eye-level outside the back door of our house. The methodology was that if I stayed within ear-shot of the bell, as was allowed, that I could play in the fields for as long as I liked until my mother rang the jarring contraption as if she were calling farmhands in for a meal. I had five minutes to show up on the porch before consequences applied. It didn’t work well for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t adhere to the sound boundary. Second, rumor of ringing-for-your-child made its rounds quickly through the neighborhood. The practice embarrassed me. I can speculate how much talk was instigated by my mother, but I can’t be certain I wasn’t strange enough that my behavior alone is responsible for my recalcitrant reputation. In the end, my mother abandoned the tactic and the bell fell into disrepair. 

At the first opportunity I hopped onto the orange and pink banana seat bicycle and rode away to freedom. My favorite haunts included Lewiston City Library, a one-room dust receptacle replete with aging tomes of Mormon theology, an Oxford English Dictionary, and an increasingly unreliable world globe. I also took to long walks following a cemented irrigation ditch that ran along the length of the field behind the property where my home was situated. This conduit provided water shares to the acreage of backfields on the northeastern side of town. I tracked its path, which cut corner through my quadrant of Lewiston. About a quarter mile from my home it intersected precariously with a larger canal overgrown with algae, milkweed and cattails. I tightroped the four inch lip of the cement ditch bridging ten feet from one bank of the canal to the other. The swampy overgrowth dropped ten feet below the ditch, and tackling passage provided a thrilling rush of adrenaline for my ten-year-old self. That feat was necessary, however, in order to access the site of an abandoned home burnt to the ground probably a decade before my birth, and a copse of  cottonwood trees intermingled with wild rose bushes. If not at either of these locales, I rode my little one-speed two miles from my home to Lewiston City Cemetery, which bordered the western bank of the Cub River. By my twelfth birthday I acquainted myself with the river bottoms on both sides of town and adjoining routes to the ghostly reminders of life come and gone in between. Almost all of these were out of earshot of that haunted bell. My parents upgraded my wheels to a Huffy ten-speed, and then even the sprawling reach of Lewiston’s borders seemed too confining. My mother relented somewhat, and I pushed into adjacent towns—Richmond and Cornish—on hours long bike rides during the fair weather months. 

But before any of this, two incidents of disappearance need be addressed. 

When I was six years old, my parents relocated our little family for a single year to southeastern Idaho so that my father could attend BYU-Idaho. Several thousand people larger than Lewiston, Rexburg was still what most would consider small town America. I attended first grade in a crumbling ruin of an elementary school, Washington, set back on Main Street several blocks from my home, and far enough away that I took the bus morning and afternoon. For reasons I can’t clearly recall, perhaps preoccupation with some imagined adventure or discovery on the playground, I missed the return bus home one day. My father worked part-time in an appliance repair shop on Main Street, a relatively busy thoroughfare just off Highway 20 leading to West Yellowstone. The exact location of the business was unbeknownst to me, but I figured searching for him was the best option when I found myself without transportation. I walked up and down the street, checking in vain at the front counter of various vendors for my father before I gave up finding him. Traversing the grid back in the direction of my apartment home appealed to me next. I walked for a long time before I came upon the sizable city ditch carrying the swift waters of the South Teton River through town. This current may as well have been the Mississippi in comparison with the irrigation ditch and canal in Lewiston, and though fear may not have registered at my being lost and wandering unaccustomed through Rexburg, the water filled me with a memorable pang of anxiety. A group of older children played on the road that bridged the water. They dropped sticks and leaves, anything that would float, into the current from the guard rail on one side of the bridge and then raced to the opposite rail to see which object made it to the other side first. I kept my distance, but stayed close by watching them for a long time. This is where the officer found me. 

I knew I was in trouble, although I don’t know if I was given opportunity to explain once I was returned to my frantic parents. I’d been gone for hours longer than any child should be home late from school. This is likely the first instance they called the police to help locate me. Unfortunately, the officer didn’t stay at my home, because in spite of anything I might have said in defense, my parents, both of them, deemed a severe lesson was in order. Years later, after telling her I was thrown into the corner of a granite hearth and delivered a series of unjustified, open-handed blows from my father over a disagreement regarding simultaneously watching television and folding clothes, I realized that my mother’s criteria for a beating entailed closed fists. This one detail is all that separated discipline from abuse. They bent me face-down over both their laps on the couch, each restraining me with one hand, and then let rain a heated deluge of impassioned slaps as I writhed and screamed in pain to get free. I remember my mother’s nervous laughter in the struggle, which continued for so long that once they had finished meting out the fiery discipline I crawled weakly, exhausted and whimpering, toward the corner of the room near the front door and promptly fell asleep, cheek pressed against the cool tile floor.

This moment in time was termed “the Rexburg spanking,” and it was referenced throughout my childhood as leverage to bring my behavior in line. To their credit, my parents only followed through on the threat once more when I was about eight or nine, and my memory of this second incident is much less clear. But the severity of their discipline didn’t waver. 

I don’t mean to minimize my misbehavior by focusing on my parents’ inability to effectively cope.  My mother’s complaints weren’t limited to my wandering. There was also the issue of my destructive nature, an early criminal sneakiness, and a blatant disregard for the property of others. For instance, at the age of two I somehow broke the legs off of her blown-glass piano. I don’t even remember this kitschy knick-knack, but she brought it up often until I bought her a replacement for Christmas a few years ago. She let me know then that the one I’d purchased wasn’t an exact replica. I was a fiend with nail polish. My mother’s fingernails were prone to split and peel; she didn’t use the stuff. But there were at least two bottles in the house and I’d spilled some, permanently staining the carpet in two rooms. Of course, I also painted rocks and I may have made a few cents selling them door-to-door as talismans. And then there was the time I went down the stairs of our house in a sled and my feet went through the sheetrock wall of the landing at the bottom. My father replaced the sheetrock with particle board and plastered over it. I was informed that should I ever pull the same stunt again the force of impact would probably break my legs. I didn’t try. I also altered my toys irrevocably, puncturing dolls with pins to give them holes for nipples and vaginas, cut their hair, cut the rubber stamps in my toy printing press in half so that upper and lower case letters were separate from one another, sprayed mosquito repellent on dollhouse furniture so that the painted keys on the toy piano wiped away and painted carpet bled away from the center of the rooms of the dollhouse. The same repellant softened the detail on the face of my hand-painted señorita doll from Mexico and lightened the taffeta in spots on her dress. I’m not sure what I was up to with the mosquito repellant, but at five I figured out that it could eat through just about any pigment. How many five-year-olds know that? I wonder if it might have taken the nail polish out of the carpet.

The most memorable incident of destruction entailed the grand idea that if I stuffed a towel tight enough under the door of the second-floor bathroom and ran the bathtub long enough that I could convert the whole room into a swimming pool. All went well until the fluorescent lights shorted out below in the kitchen. Following this attempt at home renovation water flowed freely from the ceiling of the dining room for two days, obliterating plaster and electrical wiring, dripping from the crystals on the chandelier. My father tore out the ceiling next to this fixture to allow for ventilation while the wiring dried. During this period of time I packed up a small collection of costume jewelry, some mine, some my mother’s, in a cardboard box, and using a step-stool placed the treasure in the open ceiling of the dining room so far back that I could no longer see it. My father patched up the hole a few weeks later. Unless he spotted the box during the repair and threw it out without telling me, there is still costume jewelry plastered away in that house. I’m certain I created a corresponding treasure map on a scrap of newsprint from the bulk roll my mother kept for my artistic purposes in the kitchen closet, but it’s long gone.

My theft ranged from petty shoplifting to swiping dollar bills from my parent’s wallets, and everything my mother deemed hers and not mine in the house. I stole a bag of Hershey’s Kisses from a grocery store when the family was on a trip somewhere in Texas. I was five. I carefully opened the bag in the backseat of the car once we’d pulled away from the parking lot, unwrapped the first chocolate and popped it into my mouth, and then asked my mother what H-E-R-S-H-E-Y-S spelled. She asked me where I’d seen the word. I told her I’d read it off of a piece of paper on the floor of the backseat. She asked to smell my breath. We drove back to the grocery store and I confessed to my thievery to the manager. I’m lucky I wasn’t executed. I stole a marble turtle from a tile shop in Juarez on the same trip. My mother didn’t catch me for that until we reached home, but she made me do chores for her to make the money to send back to the señor who owned the store. After the swimming pool incident my father refinished the walls of the upstairs bathroom with tiles from the señor’s company; I suppose, despite my theft, they managed to keep a working relationship. 

I admitted to stealing from my mother’s wallet while I was bearing my testimony in sacrament meeting one Sunday. The guilt suddenly welled upit seemed the right thing to do. I bore my testimony a lot, which also seemed the right thing to do, although the other kids in town didn’t agree. A ragtag group of neighborhood boys started following me home after church each week. I already knew they didn’t like me; my mom had their dog put down when it chased me across the road. They jeered and yelled insults at my back until I reached the sidewalk in front of my house. “Give up, Gudri! Just give up!” And then I went inside and they went around the neighborhood gathering fast offerings. 

I did take certain odds and ends in my house without asking. Like scissors, nail clippers, tweezers, mosquito repellant, pencils, notebooks, liquid paper, the hole punch, tape, rubber cement, my mother’s jewelry, nail polish, and foodstuffs. This was considered stealing. If I hadn’t received permission to use any household item, or to eat anything other than a slice of bread or my mother’s bottled fruit between meals and I was caught with the item in my possession, a charge was added to the running tab my mother started keeping when I was twelve. She is a meticulous accountant. 

As illustration, if I baked my favorite shortbread cookies without her permission, and through some failure on my part to adequately scrub the kitchen to its original polish she discovered my deed, I was charged $5 for the cube of butter. Flour and sugar prices were minimal. If I was caught holding any of her office or beauty supplies, or if in their absence they turned up as she rifled through my cluttered dresser drawers or through the monstrosity reminiscent of a landfill that existed beneath my bed —$5. Cheese was also outrageously priced, along with ice cream, coconut, chocolate chips, cans of shrimp, tortilla chips, packages of Jell-O, and pasta. She eventually began hoarding all of these items in her room, since my bill quickly reached well over $500. This included the estimated $100 I’d stolen from her secret cash stash in the freezer, which I took with me on a two-week dance intensive in Boise when I was fifteen. With no real job of which to speak and a meager allowance of $5 a week, which was automatically applied as a deduction to the tab and never saw my wallet, I was reduced to extra menial chores in addition to my daily household responsibilities to pay off the debt. This labor carried on for four years, no end in sight. 

My mother’s solution was forgiveness. For my sixteenth Christmas I was told ahead of time that I wouldn’t receive presents. Instead, when I woke that morning, my mother handed me an 8 1/2”x11” sheet of paper, rolled up like a scroll and bound with a white plastic ribbon, bearing an official statement of my forgiven debt, and scriptural references scrawled in typical decorative font of the late 80s from PrintShop. “Though thy sins be as scarlet…” Gratitude was expected. And so, until the next time I snuck food in between meals I was back at zero balance. 

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