Thursday, August 1, 2013

Face to face with terror .....

When I was very young, I had a number of health problems.  More on that later, but for now, a quick detour to tell the story of one hospital stay.
At around three years of age, I contracted pneumonia and was very ill.  So ill, in fact, that my Grandmother told me later that I almost died.
At the hospital, I was placed in Intensive Care and Isolation, and my grandparents had to wear masks in my presence.
They brought me little gifts or flowers each day I was in the hospital, and on one visit my Grandmother decided to bring me something extra special.
I was sleeping, but woke up when she arrived.  She, eagerly anticipating my joy at receiving this special gift, held it up in front of my face so I'd see it as soon as my eyes opened.
What I saw, through a haze of pneumonia-laced grogginess, was my Grandmother leaning over my bed, her cat's-eye glasses glinting atop a surgical mask, and this hovering in front of my face:
Barbie, ca. 1960
Terrified, I screamed and started crying.
Despite our less-than-auspicious first meeting, I did later come to love that Barbie™ doll.  (And, fortunately, today's Barbie™ looks much less menacing than she did in my day.)

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World .....

My grandmother enjoyed taking photographs, and she lovingly mounted them in photo albums with a carefully thought-out (and usually sedately humorous) caption for each.

This has always been one of my favorite pictures, and was captioned:

"An angel climbed down from the Christmas tree and couldn't get back".

Christmas, 1959

I admit it -- I look cute here.  This may be the only childhood picture of me with long hair, as my Grandmother would soon start cutting it short.  Also, I look "girlie," something that didn't happen often, as I was much more of a tomboy than a girlie girl.  And, I must confess, it's nice to be referred to as an angel.
But an angel I was NOT.
If you're curious about the challenges of adopting a toddler, be sure to read Toddler Adoption: The Weaver's Craft, by Mary Hopkins-Best.  It's a wise and wonderful book.  In a nutshell, though, here's what she says can be the result1:
  • Toddlers whose needs have not been met learn to mistrust.
  • Most toddlers who have experienced rejection respond by becoming rejecting.
  • While some of these toddlers react similarly negatively to all adults, many selectively reject their parents.
  • Rejecting toddler behaviors range from passive indifference, to being physically and verbally aggressive.
Check ... check ... check ... and check!
You might recall this post and the pictures of me with my Grandfather and my Grandmother.  I don't know that I actually *rejected* my Grandmother, but I definitely preferred my Grandfather.  Not that I was ever a "daddy's girl," but my Grandfather was gentle and had a silly sense of humor that (usually) appealed to my childish nature.  My Grandmother, on the other hand, was prim and proper and wanted me to be likewise.  (I was a failure in that regard.)
What I definitely WAS, though, was angry, as well as violent aggressive.  I had temper tantrums as a toddler, and they continued well into my elementary school years.
When we moved to our new neighborhood, I met V, who was exactly four months older than me.  We immediately became best friends, and remained so until I moved away seven years later.  On her third birthday I was invited to her party and didn't want to leave when it was over.  And I mean I REALLY didn't want to leave.  I screamed, I flailed my arms, I thrashed upon the ground.  Fortunately, we lived just a block away, because my Grandmother had to physically restrain me and carry me home, still screeching like a banshee.
(ca. 1961)

In addition, I displayed many socially inappropriate behaviors:  lying, stealing, bullying, etc.

Did I mention that I was no angel?

My Grandfather's mother lived on a farm outside the city, and we would drive out for visits after Church every other weekend or so.  When I was very young, she kept chickens and I have a distinct memory of trying to play with them one day when I was around four or five.  I had been crawling around in the chicken coop (in my Sunday dress!) when my Grandmother called for me.  I appeared in front of her, wearing my by-now chicken-poop-stained dress and when she asked if I'd been in the chicken coop, I denied it -- looking her right in the eyes as I did so.
When I was eight, I got a beautiful blue bicycle for Christmas.  Our neighborhood was six blocks of middle class oasis in a desert of seediness.  In fact, located just south of our neighborhood you could find a minimum-security prison!  When presented with the bike, I was also presented with the rule that I could ride it ONLY on the sidewalks and ONLY in the neighborhood.  Oh, yes, I promised -- I would ONLY ride in the allowed areas.
That promise lasted about as long as my training wheels did.  I was soon venturing out of the neighborhood and into the seedy heart of the surrounding area.  I'd come home after an hour or so and my Grandmother would ask where I'd been. 
With wide-eyed innocence and a smile I'd reply:
"Oh, I was just sitting on the brick wall on 10th Street" (the mandated boundary) "watching the cars go by."
My Grandmother obviously knew better, but didn't press it at that point.  It wasn't too long, however, until I was caught in the act by my Grandfather, who'd been sent out to find me (after first checking and finding no trace of me on the 10th Street brick wall).  I was blithely pedaling along -- in the street, not on the sidewalk -- in a less than desirable area, when he drove up behind me in his dark green Hudson, rolled his window down, and instructed me to GO HOME NOW.

Not my Grandfather's Hudson, but it looked very much like this one.
I loved that car.
As I recall, my bike was confiscated for a period of time, and my Grandparents were on the receiving end of yet another of my epic temper tantrums.
Unfortunately for my grandparents, as soon as I got the bike back, I resumed my out-of-boundary adventures.  Although this was the mid 1960's and, supposedly, a kinder and gentler America, I recognize now that some of the areas into which I ventured were not safe for an unaccompanied preteen girl.  I'm not sure why my grandparents didn't permanently lock my bike away, as apparently nothing else was successful in keeping me close to home.
Of equal concern for my grandparents was my propensity for violence towards my peers.  Not toward my best friend, V, although I did often bully her.  However, I was physically aggressive towards other children in the neighborhood and one time actually beat up another girl -- and laughed afterwards.
I am not proud of this and offer no excuse for my behavior.

The best I can say is that it was a one-time occurrence, and it spurred my grandparents to (finally) seek out family counseling services.

Unfortunately it was, as the old saying goes, "too little, too late."