|Humanist Essay for September 2014
[Reprinted from the HSNM September 2014 Newsletter.]|
We all survive our childhoods. Obviously, or we wouldn't be here. But we do not come through unmarked. The innocence of childhood is much overplayed. Children catch on pretty quick to both blatant and subtle signals coming from those around them. Adults' embarrassment, worry, amusement, satisfaction, confusion and dishonesty are all registered if not fully understood by humans of very young age.
Childhood by its nature is full of firsts. Novel experiences can stay with us forever. We hope these will be encouraging, educational, beneficial memories. Since Frank and I have been taming/raising a stray cat and her kittens this summer, I have been recalling being a kid and the time our pet cat gave birth to her litter in the middle of the night. That was an eye-opener, to say the least. We had gotten a paperback book about cat care and had prepared for the event. The mother cat had not read the book, but everything proceeded without too much fuss, naturally. I know we had the kittens long enough to give them names - all literary women: Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie and Daphne DuMaurier, though as it turned out, they were not all female. We kept "Daffy." Dad took the others to the SPCA. His earlier "jokes" about rocks and sacks and rivers hadn't gone over real well. I remember having the uneasy feeling that my father, in other circumstances, could have and would have dispatched the newborn kittens. He'd been to war, after all. But it turned out he was no match for three daughters, a wife and mother-in-law.
Memories of recurring events become embedded through repetition. It is hard to remember the very first experience of an annual family tradition. Details change from year to year, but the format is the same. An iconic memory emerges; here's one of mine: Every Mother's Day we'd pile into the station wagon, my Mom and Dad, me and my two sisters, Grandma Sarah and Aunt Sarah, and sometimes Grandma Sadie and Grandpa Julie, and drive to Bordentown, NJ, which was exactly halfway between our home in Wilmington, DE and my Uncle Irv's house in Teaneck. There was a Howard Johnson's at the Bordentown exit of the NJ Turnpike where Irv, Aunt Gladys and cousin Howie would meet us. It always rained (that's how we remember it) so that after our big lunch, we'd rush out to the station wagon and squeeze everyone in to give the Mother's Day gifts; and although Aunt Sarah wasn't married and wasn't a mom, she too got gifts. It was a happy time, all crowded in together, the rain beating down. Often the sun would come out, finally, about the time we were ready to head home.
How idyllic it all sounds. But even my safely swaddled suburban upbringing was edged with heartache, and rumbled with undertones of old, mostly stupid, family feuds. Worse was Hebrew School and the history lessons concerning attacks on Jews in the Holocaust, the Russian pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, and all the way back to biblical times. Not the best fodder for a young, extremely vivid imagination. When I was older and attempting an objective assessment of my "roots" I would look back on all of that as amounting to a form of abuse, though it probably didn't seem so to the more extroverted or inattentive or tough-minded kids. I wonder what it would be like to have grown up without having to look so deeply, so early, into the darkest aspects of human experience - to have ever been innocent. I will never know.
Still, I only had to experience those violations of humanity in my imagination, intellectually, emotionally. How much more branded, if not stunted, is the person who really suffered such things, who has survived physically but must live with the scars and trauma. People do come through and overcome the most horrendous deprivation and assaults. We console ourselves with uplifting examples of those who are "now living a normal life" and the knowledge that at least some are able to put the past behind them and enjoy a secure and fulfilled adulthood.
Yes, humans are resilient. We who are here are all survivors. But there can be no reclaiming the time when a healthy new mind is poised on the brink of awareness and prepared to burst into willful, curious, joyful discovery. That is a moment of potentiality that only comes once in a lifetime. Imagine the beauty and achievements of a society in which all children have that moment of innocence, that sense of security, that chance to thrive. Imagine a world in which we do more than survive.
Copyright © 2014 Zelda Gatuskin