All posts tagged: Childhood

Sister, Sister: I’m a Black Woman with a White Sister

Penny, right, with her sister, Amy. (Photo courtesy of Penny Wrenn) When people ask if I have brothers and sisters, I don’t know where to begin. Do I say, I’m an only child, the youngest of seven or the seventh of nine? In fact, all these answers are true. I’m my mother’s only child and the youngest of my father’s seven biological children. But if we’re talking the order in which my father’s children entered his life, then I’m not the last. When my parents divorced, my father remarried and I inherited two step-siblings. Still, however I go about answering the “Do you have brothers and sisters?” question, I always get to this part: I am a black woman with a white sister. Her name is Amy. People would come to my old Harlem apartment see her photo on my bookshelf, the one where I’m standing next to her on her wedding day, and they’d ask, “Who’s that?” But I would never just say, “My sister.” I knew that I must follow up with an …

I’m 50 and I Can’t Remember Jack Shit

When I was a kid, super memory was my superpower. I was the youngest in my nuclear family, the second-to-youngest in my extended family, and I was regarded as a rememberer-in-chief by all my relatives. Trip to the grocery store? “Nancy, we need apples, tomatoes and cereal,” Mom would say, and I’d reel off the list to her until it was all in the cart. “Nancy, what was the restaurant where we ate in the Adirondacks?” Aunt Margaret would ask, and I’d answer, “Keyes Pancake House” before the question was out of her mouth. People marveled. “You never forget anything.” It was easy, this remembering of things. What was the big deal? I’d think to myself, with all the self-awareness a nine-year-old girl could muster. Later, when I was teenager and perfecting random cruelty directed at my mother, I’d openly mock her for her inability to remember things. “Did I see that movie? Did I like it?” I’d taunt her, after she’d ask me just those questions about some film I’d mentioned. How could someone …

Faith in Boys, Bikes and Wallpaper

I had all kinds of faith when I was a kid. Faith in Christmas presents, in the sweetness and chaos of my brother, in pathological lip-gloss reapplication, in swimming pools, in ketchup all over everything, in my bike. I had faith that my mother would remain fierce and beautiful and my father funny. I had faith that I could be those things if I paid attention. I would cherry-pick and incorporate. Season myself to taste. I would control myself. Everyone thinks they can do this. I didn’t know that then. But I had faith that concentrating really hard was the answer. Sometimes I notice myself being the things that they are, all kinds of things, and their voices are suddenly inside me, finding their way out. I’m surprised every time. Like I’ve belched in public. I have faith it doesn’t show. Did you read that on my face? I’m very good at not showing. I ask all the questions. I have faith that asking all the questions will fill me up. My story and others …

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Dreaming My Way to The Other Place

“She had always lived her best life in dreams. She knew no greater pleasure than that moment of passage into the other place, when her limbs grew warm and heavy and the sparkling darkness behind her lids became ordered and doors opened; when conscious thought grew owl’s wings and talons and became other than conscious.” ― John Crowley, Little, Big That other place. When I first read these words, I gasped. I have often felt as if I lived my best life in dreams, too. A life that I sometimes believed in more intensely than my waking life. I have always been a dream machine, spinning worlds both wondrous and terrifying. My childhood nightmares came from fairy tales, of trolls under a bridge or witches with eyes the size of dinner plates. These morphed into wartime survival epics, escaping and hiding from menacing men in uniform, perhaps drawn from the Nazis in The Sound of Music. I also have a recurring nightmare in which I am driving a car straight up a vertical road and …

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Death of a Salesman’s Samples

Back when I was growing up, we didn’t call it clutter. Or hoarding. It was just “the basement,” and most people thought of it as our subterranean treasure cave. When relatives came over for holidays or my friends visited for play dates, they’d be delighted to be invited downstairs. They’d make their way down the matted, pastel-colored rainbow steps to the lower level of our New Jersey ranch house. This was where my salesman father stacked his towers of cardboard sample cartons. My father would ceremoniously open one of these boxes with a utility knife. The thick strapping tape unfurled and revealed a mind-boggling array of wholesale items wrapped in brown butcher paper. He sold miniature antique dollhouse furniture. Cloisonné jewelry from Taiwan – necklaces with miniature scaled fish in every color. Almost everything came by the gross, which was not gross at all but, rather, the magic number 144 – a dozen dozen. My friends and I dove into grosses of faux birthstone rings, a dollar a dozen. They winked on our fingers, glass …

Prince Taught Me My Dirty Mind Was Just Fine

Opening night of the 1997 Prince tour at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. (Photo: Jon Stark) When I heard Prince’s first album, For You, I was a chubby 12-year-old girl with thick thighs, an ample rear and a dirty mind. I was an honor student whose tendency to correct my teachers and point out their flawed logic in class got me called to the principal’s office for insubordination. I was the girl the boys in school either ignored or called fat, while men in cars drove behind me as I walked home, shouting out of cranked-down windows what they’d like to do to my pre-teen ass. I sat next to my dad on the sofa every weekend, watching sports with him while quietly lusting over the quads and abs and glutes of my favorite players. As the youngest of six kids, I read everything my siblings read, from their biology textbooks to porn magazines, and I listened to all the music they listened to, from hard rock to jazz to pop to easy listening to …

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Prince Gave Me a Condition of the Heart

In the mid-‘80s, when I’d get home from school, my parents were still at work. Sometimes I’d eat cereal and watch TV or get on the phone with friends. But very often I’d pull out Prince’s 1999 and play “D.M.S.R.” on the family turntable and dance across the dark brown wall-to-wall carpet in my living room, using the staircase landing as a stage. I gave Purple Rain its due, too. I mean, it was the ‘80s; who didn’t? But “D.M.S.R.” was my jam, and I played it over and over and one more time after that. I only danced in my living room when I was alone, not because I was shy — I love dancing, and I’m good at it — but because it was like a meditation that I didn’t know I was doing. It was me creating a space where I could be my authentic self and let it all out, long before I could put words to what I was doing. My parents were music lovers who bought records all the time, …

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Policing My Mouth: On the Art of Self-Censorship

My second grade teacher, the truculent Mrs. Dunham, masking-taped my mouth shut. She pulled the shrieking roll of tape all the way around my head thrice in front of the entire class. My crime? Announcing in the middle of math drills that the Bookmobile was circling and circling the parking lot because its regular spot was blocked and it had nowhere to park. My classmates’ faces silently told me they were on my side and that I had shared news they needed immediately. What would the driver do? Why was that truck in the Bookmobile spot? It was almost Bookmobile time, so time was of the essence! Someone needed to go do something before the Bookmobile drove away! Mrs. Dunham didn’t want to do anything except punish me for talking. Again. So while the Bookmobile looped like a man without a country, the class beheld the new spectacle of me called to the front of the class while Mrs. Dunham attempted censorship via brown tape. Around it went, sticking to my hair but not truly …

I’m Incredibly Nearsighted but My Hindsight is 20/20

I did it again last week. We reach the moment in my son’s annual physical where the pediatrician checks his vision, and I instinctively held my breath. He’s turning nine, and his brother is now 12, and neither one needs glasses yet. But odds are it’s only a matter of time. My husband was just nine when a pair of glasses first was perched on his nose by a cheerful optometrist. We’re both ridiculously nearsighted. I was turning 10 when I got my glasses, just weeks into the fall semester at a new school where I had no friends yet. I can still picture the school nurse checking my eyes and ears, then handing me a folded slip of paper. “Take this note to your mother,” she said. “Tell her you needed glasses.” “What??” I wanted to scream. “I’m the new kid! I don’t know anybody yet! Now I’m going to be the new kid with glasses!” But I said nothing. She’d already moved on to the next kid in line, and my fate was …

The Ritual of Flying and Crying

The window seat on airplanes has always been my refuge. I can turn my face into it to hide my tears, or I can focus on a cloud while flashing back to an 11 year-old quietly sobbing on the nine-hour journey from London to Vancouver. Most of us experience at least one traumatic event that shapes and alters everything to come. As a child, my move to Vancouver had a shocking air of finality. I watched my whole extended family gathered at Heathrow Airport to see us off. There were various aunts sobbing, stoic uncles wiping deceptive trickles off their cheeks and unaware cousins who scoffed at the hoopla around them. I opted for a British stiff upper lip, hoping it would allow me to show a sense of decorum and unflappability. As I stood by the departure gate, I felt like I was going into exile. My younger sister and dad made the first move to go on ahead and waved back happily. This prompted a twinge of betrayal in me. How could they …

Out of Time: How My Teenager Fell in Love With R.E.M.

(Photo: YouTube.com) My son doesn’t remember the first time an R.E.M song soothed him, but I tell him the story often, much to his chagrin. He was not even a month old, screaming his lungs out, defying sleep as only an infant can. My younger brother Philip, about 25 at the time, grabbed him from me. The song “Electrolite” was playing and Philip rocked my rapidly quieting son in rhythm, singing along softly, “Don’t be scared…you are alive.” Not a typical lullaby, by any stretch. But I’d always been a big music lover and in particular, a lover of R.E.M. Since 1982, R.E.M. had a song for whatever mood I was in, milestones I celebrated, or challenges I faced. In early 1997, R.E.M.’s album, New Adventures In Hi Fi was just a few months older than my son, and it eased and guided me through shifting postpartum emotions that were amplified by exhaustion. That night, as my son wondrously nodded off, I saw music settle him as it had so often settled me. It was …

My Crime Novel Addiction Revealed!

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com) I was one of those kids who always had her head in a book. I didn’t just adore reading—I loved being transported to fabulous other worlds, rendered magical by clever fiction writers. The first books I remember reading were those “learn to spell” picture books Dick and Dora. “This is Dick. Run, Dick, run.” I don’t remember Dora doing much running, but Nip sure did. At age nine, I remember being asked by my teacher to read The Hobbit aloud. I had excellent comprehension skills and a quick eye, so I didn’t stumble over the tricky names or complex dialogue. No one else got up to read to the class. Towards the end of primary school, I was placed in an advanced reading strand along with one other boy and we were granted access to a more challenging set of kids’ literature. To keep up with my insatiable appetite, my mum enrolled me in a borrow-a-book club. Various slim paperbacks started arriving by mail every two weeks. It was so exciting! …

11 + 1: How I’ve Kept the Same Group of Pals Since Preschool

(Photo courtesy Lauren Young) Most women I know have drifted away from their childhood friends. Not me. My childhood friends are my partners in crime, my trusted advisers and an eternal source of laughter in my life. Remember the Pink Ladies in the movie Grease? Well, my group of girls has a name, too: We call ourselves 11 + 1. (We don’t have pink satin jackets, though.) Some of these friendships formed as early as preschool, and one was cemented as late as high school (she’s the +1). But this group of a dozen women fused together and we all love each other like sisters. We live in three different time zones — and eight different cities — so getting everyone together (with 25 kids among us!) is nearly impossible. Instead, we gather at the virtual water cooler known as Facebook, where we can share life’s joys, including a baby’s first steps, family trips, college acceptances, and, most recently, the birth of twins via a surrogate. We’ve also encountered plenty of the heavy stuff, too: …

Witchy Poo: A Cautionary Tale

(Graphic: Kat Borosky/TueNight.com) One Halloween, when I was about 11, my Mom sewed me a killer witch costume: floppy, pointy hat, black cape and all.  I looked awesome and fearsome. The year marked one of the first times we kids could go door-to-door by ourselves. Yes, at 11 years old. These days? No way. This was maybe five years before the razor-blades-in-apples scare (which was so not even a thing.) Gathering up my friends Anne, Kathy and several others, we prepared to become sugar terrors in the quiet, preppy neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Our aim was to get as much candy as we possibly could. We were unleashed by ourselves, no parental supervision. We OWNED this damn Halloween. So without any sense of boundaries or discretion, we’d knock on our neighbors’ doors, reach into the giant bowls of wrappers, and lunge at the pile of candy like ravenous baby bears. Maybe we were more polite and choosy than that, but I’m pretty sure we were bloodthirsty. I kept an eye out for my favorites: …