I went to Catholic school as a kid, and I was one of those neurotic kids who hated to leave the house. I must have made life difficult for my parents because I was always feeling sick in the morning. When my mother would make my lunch she’d write a little poem on a piece of paper and put it into my lunchbox to cheer me up. The first time she did this I was embarrassed and told my friends that it was a grocery list. But I now wish I had saved some of those lunchbox poems.
I look back and realize how much I owe to both my parents. They were good people in general, but they were also perfect parents for me: their extremely sensitive oldest daughter. I worried about everything–whether it was going on class retreat or going to hell. Even as a child I examined the implications of everything–there are snapshots of me with my brow furrowed as early as age 5, considering, no doubt, the anguish of having eventually to leave home.
My parents were a God-given corrective to the strict Catholic world of the nuns who taught at my school. I now see that this was the worldview of the 1950’s–a frightening combination of Cold War and Roman Catholic strictures. I was in the 5th grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuns used that opportunity to try to scare us–a class of 10-year-olds–into the possibility of being martyred for our faith. (Another example of the grip that dependence has on a child’s mind–being afraid that the Soviet army would march right up the Eastern Seaboard, past Washington, past New York, right into Centredale, Rhode Island, to the 5th grade at St. Lawrence School to line us up against the gym wall and challenge our faith.) My father sat up with me on several occasions after that when I couldn’t sleep, reassuring me that this was extremely unlikely to happen.
My mother was an elementary school teacher, and so she knew how to make special occasions for me out of ordinary days. She kept a stash of coloring books in her closet for the days when I was home sick. She’d crumble up the stale bread and put it out in the yard for the birds, and we’d watch them eat from the kitchen window. On other days, my mother would crumple up a big piece of paper, tie a string around it, and give it to me to tempt Puddy–our neighbor’s big tabby–with. Puddy liked to hide in the bushes, and I’d see one impatient paw dart out of the leaves when I dragged it along; then, overcome with desire, Puddy would jump out and chase the paper.
I’ve always considered myself to be more like my father: someone who likes to be alone at home with her books and music and family. But now I’m hoping a little of my mother’s caretaking nature has rubbed off on me, so I can return some of her love in kind.