Digging for Roots: My Upbringing

There is a weekly challenge on WP called “Digging for Roots” where it speaks of writing about where you came from, how you got to be you.

So I know where my DNA originated, know where my ancestors fit into the tree and I know my heritage as a human being. But how did I get to be me? I know we are all born, and that’s the logical answer..I was born.

Being born is just the basic way that we get to “be” in the world. Who we become once we are here is mostly through nurture and even then that is only a fraction of our roots.

As I dig through my mind and my own life I can see the defining moments that all impacted how I got to be me.

I’ve said before in my writing that I was born Butch. Born lesbian. Just like I was born white. And born female. But I was raised by 2 awesome people, and through nurture I was taught how to be a good person. This is where it starts, with how you are raised and what you are taught for values as a child. Those basic core values will follow you throughout your life, and while one may change now and then that core value system is very ingrained from childhood. Some childhoods are better than others. Mine was no different, nothing super special, and maybe even boring to some…Who I came to be today is a combination of my upbringing and now my life experiences along the way. Let me just address childhood and what I learned there that contributes to who I am today.

My childhood was fairly normal. It was a lucky childhood even, I was not abused, beaten or sexually assaulted as a child. I see so much of that today; so many people that I know have related stories to me of childhood abuse. I shake my head in astonishment, it just can’t be true, I never experienced anything like that. The worst I ever endured was a good old fashioned spanking on my ass, with a parent’s bare hand – never a lash from a belt or any instrument of pain. Yes, I was a lucky kid.

When I misbehaved I was sent to my room to think about what I had done. Then one of my parents – or both – would enter the room and make me sit on the edge of the bed while they stood in front of me and gave me the “talking to” about my infraction. Once you turned double digits in age you were then too old for the ritual “spanking” but the “talking to” got pretty heavy after that. I believe my parents did a pretty darned good job with discipline. They raised 5 of us successfully. Instilled good moral character in us, taught us ethics and self esteem. Never did they beat us, abuse us, call us nasty names, or cut us down verbally as I have heard has happened to many people during childhood. I can never understand child abuse because I never experienced it myself. I know it’s wrong, and I am blessed.

When the television show “Eight is Enough” became a weekly show on network tv we used to watch it because it was about a large family with 8 children. A big family like my own. So we could sort of relate to it. But … we were suddenly forbidden to continue watching it when the eldest boy, who was about 18-19 and out of school, decided to move in with his girlfriend. Not get married, but just live together with her. THAT was NOT okay with my parents, and they didn’t want to promote that kind of immorality with us. They didn’t want us to think it was “ok” to just live with your lover, and God forbid it was not okay to be having sex before you were married. This is how we were raised. I should inject here, as a side note, that I was born 6 months after my young parents married. And I was a full term 8 lb 14 oz. Baby. Anyone else see what I am saying here? Yeah.

I am the oldest of 5 siblings. I got to do all the “firsts”. And I got to be the test subject with my parents. They were new at raising kids, they were very young when they married days after my mother graduated from high school in rural Maine. (17 and 21) My father was in the US Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Lejune NC. I was born, their first child, in January 1962 in a Marine Corps hospital. There’s an angry reddish purple mark on my side where I was stuck with a diaper pin hours after birth. This incensed my mother and made her angry with the nurse of course. It gave me my Marine Corps mark for life. Still today if my mother sees that mark she gets angry…a reminder of someone hurting her newborn baby girl.

I’ve always figured that my upbringing was pretty normal and typical for a rural kid, with working clas parents struggling to make ends meet and having babies for the next 10 years, until there were 5 of us. My mother was 28 years old when she had her final baby, my youngest brother Steven. That’s young and a handful for any young woman, especially in the 60’s and 70’s. Plus she had my Dad, a young man himself, and she would sometimes refer to him as her 6th child.

Every night, until I left home at 18 yrs old, I would sit down at the dinner table with my family. All 7 of us, plus usually a guest or two from the neighborhood; some kid who was visiting or a friend of my Dad’s who would come over after they got done working construction. Dad always had construction jobs, he could build or fix anything. He was The Incredible Hulk. (it was his favorite comic figure and he playfully convinced his kids he was the Hulk. As a child I remember thinking my dad is HUGE and he can do ANYTHING. I suppose when you are all of 3 feet tall that a dude who is 5’11” does look huge!

My mother always worked as well, unless she was having a baby. Even then, she worked. She worked, raised us kids, put supper on that table at 6pm every night, helped with homework, fixed school lunches for the next day, put 5 kids into their beds, then stayed up and cleaned our huge 5 bedroom home at night…just so we could wake up the next morning warm and clean to have her go through it all over again. The woman is a saint. I know that I am not doing her justice here, she and Dad did a LOT more too. They were coaches for our sports teams, club leaders, cheerleaders for us all, the one-car family taxi service, helping with our paper routes, teacher meetings, birthday parties, and all kinds of other parental stuff.

So, I had this typical childhood, the best it could be actually. My parents did everything they could to make sure they raised 5 happy, good kids, with decent manner, morals and ethics. They took pride in every one of us, even when we weren’t being so good we knew we were still loved. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of what they must have gone through personally themselves to make all of our childhoods as nice as they could. We never wanted for anything. We weren’t rich, but we had a loving household and we had enough to be happy, well cared for kids. And we were good kids, to boot.

Our parents taught us good work ethics too. When one turned 14 in our household they got a job. All of us had our little after school jobs and made our own spending money. Dad had a rule that 50% of every paycheck had to be banked in a savings account. He collected every payday and made the deposits himself.  This way when you turned 16 and wanted that car you had some money stocked up to help buy one.  Either way, he was trying to teach us to save and be frugal with what we had to spend.  It was a good system.

We were also taught things like if you committed to something then you saw it through. You weren’t allowed to “quit” because you didn’t like it or didn’t want to do it anymore. So if you signed up for the basketball team you were definitely playing through to the end of the season, as you had so committed to doing so when you signed up. This rule has had a profound effect on all of us. No one quits.

We were taught to respect our elders. This was a hard and fast rule. Never was one to be caught saying anything bad to or about an older person. Period. No matter if you liked the older person or not. With age came respect, and this even meant that you had to respect your older cousins when necessary.

We were taught to be polite and well mannered. Table manners were especially enforced in our household. Ever caught the back handle of a butter knife on your elbow that was resting on the dinner table? I have. It hurts. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Ever. Chew with the mouth closed, never scrape the silverware on the plate, and always, always, always ask to be excused before leaving the table after a meal. And clear your place setting properly, dishes to the sink, etc.

We were taught that there are starving kids in Ethiopia that would love to have our plate of food. You cleaned it and did so without complaint, and with manners, every meal. You did not complain about food, mom cooked every night and she was damned good at it. There was somehow always enough and rarely leftovers. We were a voracious bunch. We played hard, worked up healthy appetites and were never late for dinner.

We were taught how to take care of ourselves and to contribute to the upkeep of the household as well. Everyone had chores. You did them without complaint too, or you would be switched to another more horrid chore if you did. Dishes were the dreaded chore, we all hated doing dishes, but with a family of 7+ eating every night there was always a lot of dishes to do after dinner. We didn’t eat on paper plates. Those were reserved for parties or deserts sometimes. Meals were served on real dishes, and Sunday meals were often served on Mom’s china.

We each knew how to make a bed that a quarter could bounce 12” high off of when dropped from above. (Dad=Marine=tight bunk), and you put your dirty clothes in the hamper, never on the floor. Your room was cleaned from top to bottom every Saturday. If you wanted to sleep in you had better be ready for the pan and spoon trick…Dad wasn’t into us sleeping late. You got up, ate, dressed and cleaned that room before you did anything else. We would be expected to help around the house until at least noon on Saturday’s then we could go out and play or whatever.

You knew how to do laundry, fold or iron your clothes and shine your shoes. And you knew how to look for school…THAT wasn’t negotiable at all. You would look clean, neat, and very presentable always – especially at school, no joking around on this one. Dad saw us as a reflection on him and Mom and he wanted his kids looking polished. This did cause tension, I wanted to wear jeans, and he and I butted heads on this around 6th grade or so. That’s another story though. I knew how to dress.

Everyone of us knew how to cook meals, clean house, care for the animals, mow the lawn, run power tools, wash windows, sweep the walk and drive and weed the garden. We all knew how to plant gardens, flower or vegetable. When you 16 you got your license and you learned how to pump gas, change a tire, change your car’s oil and wash the car.

Then there are the other little things you learn that actually help you become a good person.

-One was no tattle-taling. No one likes a tattle-tale, ever, so don’t be a snitch.

-No cursing (yeah, that lasted about until the youngest kid was in highschool)

-No saying the words “Hate” or “Can’t” Those are very strong words and never to be used lightly.

-Defend each other. You are family, you will be there to back up your brother or sister when needed.

-Family first. Remember blood is thick.

-Be honest, tell the truth and own up to your mistakes.

-Keep your word. This was one very stressed point. Never promise unless you mean it.

-Don’t be a bully – to each other or anyone else. Stick up for the kid that gets picked on instead.

-No sex before marriage…no living together in sin…

-Manners, manners, manners. Always be polite and well mannered.

-Always, always be nice to old people and animals.

Etc. etc…

And somehow this all seems menial, seems like it is stuff that every person should grow up knowing how to do; being taught how to do and expected to do for themselves, THEN they pass these things on to their kids, and so it goes. But today’s kids aren’t quite like we were….nope.

We also had a great time as a family doing things. We would take family camping trips, pitch tents and swim in the lake until we were shriveled and shaking from the evening cold. We would do long Sunday drives up into the White Mountains of NH, up past Franconia Notch to see the “Old Man in the Mountain” (he fell and is gone now 😦 ) Or to the top of Mt. Washington to see snow in July. We would go “down” Maine (which is actually north) to see my Dad’s side of the family, play with cousins, watch them hunt for our meals and learn how to steal a ciggarette to split with 6 kids. (we weren’t always good). Mom would take the 5 of us to the beach, often with 4 other cousins for the day, we all learned to swim by the time we were in Kindergarten. We would have big family cook outs and play yard games like volleyball and badminton, in the winters we sledded, went snowmobiling and built incredible snowforts…..and more… Yeah, recreationally we did a lot of stuff. I don’t know how my parents did it, but they did.

The more I think about this, the more I see just how much my parents sacrificed for family. And how much they did to keep us all healthy and happy; to make us productive people for the world. They taught us the basics to survive in the world on our own, they taught us to be proud and to take pride in all that we did every day. Pride in our work, play and ourselves. They produced 5 very confident, loving people and presented them to the world one-by-one.

My parents rarely took time for themselves away from us kids, but for the occasional Saturday night when they would go to my Aunt and Uncle’s house to play cards. They would send their kids to our house, so 9 of us would raise holy hell at our house, while the parents played cards down the road until 2am. I don’t know what went on in the card games. Maybe they drank. I know they all smoked ciggarettes and my Dad had an occasional beer. My parents were not drinkers. I never witnessed either one of them intoxicated while I was growing up. I’ve heard the stories from others about alcoholic parents, and I can’t imagine growing up with that. Both of my own parents each had a parent who was debilitated by alcohol…thus they chose not to drink or expose their own children to that kind of life. But I have to believe that those card games were a chance for them to relax without kids and have a couple of beverages together.

On those nights they played the card games we 9 would all get into our pajamas and haul all the blankets and pillows to the living room of our house. We would build blanket forts, create camp sites and watch the scariest black and white movies we could find. “The Blob” was a favorite. Back then at midnight they tv channel would put on 2 scary movies, each about 1.5 hours long and because all we had was a black and white console television, they were in B&W. Bowls of popcorn and bags of of Fritos were passed around. We all drank Kool-Aid or milk. We would tell bad jokes that we had somehow heard…usually we got them wrong, but we were just kids. Eventually all of us would fall fast asleep in a huge pile of legs and arms. I never did know when my parents came home…but breakfast was ready the next morning and we were recharged and ready to do it again. Right after we cleaned up that huge tv watching mess we had created the night before!

There is so much more I could add, but I think you get the gist of where I originally come from; of what formed my core values and what has helped to keep me on track in life.  I am very close to my parents today, they are just great people and I thank them for a great upbringing, for putting up with my rebellious personality and for loving me.


One thought on “Digging for Roots: My Upbringing

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  1. Dear MB, I thank you from the depths of my heart for this blog about your origins. I think you may have just described to a “T” the “typical” 50s/60s family of the working class in rural New England/or Maine perhaps more likely. Much I identify with; much of my upcoming was different. I am the oldest of 5, too, and I was a second mother and housemaiden – it sounds like things were a lot more fair in your home of origin.
    Some other differences is that my home was “broken”. Although I was raised by 2 parents, one of each gender, my father was a “step” and my mother remarried when I was 4. My biological father was an alcoholic and the abuse he heaped upon my mother and myself at those tender ages, though I can’t remember it, made a long and lasting life impression upon me and upon her, my mother. I did not know that bio man until many years later. Also very different was the fact that fundamentalist “Christianity” entered our village and my home and heart when I was the tender age of 9, very impressionable, and that hugely impacted my life.
    The thing I consistently found remarkable in your writing is the amount of praise and kudos you heap upon your parents. I want to know my family well enough to be able to comment on so many facets of their lives and behaviors as my parents. So my thank you is your having inspired me to really get into some hard work with my thinking cap and my memory. Keep on blogging, MB, you are great!
    Anne lesbiannefree

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