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.

My 12th Year…Where I Was…Growin Up

From “The Daily Post” “

Tell us about the home where you lived when you were twelve. Which town, city, or country? Was it a house or an apartment? A boarding school or foster home?”

I was a rather lucky kid.  I grew up in a rather complete family; Mom, Dad and two younger brothers, and two younger sisters – 7 of us total.  We were lucky as kids, we had terrific parents and we weren’t abused or living with alcoholics -like many of my friends tell me of their childhoods.  I had a pretty typical lower middle class childhood, living in a small rural town in southern Maine that hadn’t yet reached it’s hay-day of strip malls and outlet stores.  My parents worked their asses off to support and raise us, and I thank them for the childhood they gave each of us.

At twelve, I was living on a beautiful rural road, with sparsely dispersed houses, in a very historic area of town.  We lived in a huge old house, the first floor being over 300 years old, the second floor added in the 1940’s.  At one time the place had been a large farm, complete with two large barns that each burned long before I was born.  There were the remnants of ancient apple orchards, even a pear tree and lots and lots of grape vines gone wild.  The property was up against land that had been left to the town, thus it was called the ‘town forest’ – tons of acreage of wilderness with trails, old dumps, old foundations and even a couple of very old grave yards…ooooo….that we as kids would think were haunted by the old sea captain buried in one of them.

Along one edge of the property, just over the line into the town forrest, was a swamp with a small stream that ran harder in the rainy season. We played in that swamp for hours and hours.  We built crude bridges, caught frogs, tried fishing and manhandled turtles.  My mother would buy us tall rubber boots for our excursions into the swamp land.  I recall that we had a name for the swamp, but cannot recall what it was now…but it was a beloved place to play, get dirty, find adventure and live out fantasy life as sea captains of small boats we would try to build, or as army guys crawling through the swamp grass and muck in search of the ‘enemy’ neighborhood kids.

Toward the back of the property, behind the house was a small field where there were eight or ten old apple trees.  These afforded us plenty of tree climbing to pick apples.  Mom would make pies for us out of them.  They were old Macintosh type apples.  We would have “apple wars” throwing rotten ones at one another as we scurried for cover behind the piles of old stones used to build crude stonewalls along the border of the property between us and the town forest land.  Farmers would build the old stone walls that are found throughout New England when they would clear land to plant.  They really had nothing else to do with nor other way to dispose of the rocks and stones unearthed when plowing.  So up went stonewalls to mark borders, pen cows and horses, and to keep out the villains.  Our property had stonewalls on all three sides, and was fronted by the road on the fourth.

We had one neighboring house next to us, and one kind of diagonally across the street.  Next door was the home of the two elderly people who sold my parents the home for under $8,000. back in 1972 – when I was 10 years old, and we had returned from living for a short time in New York.  These two became our adoptive grandparents as we had none of our own grandparents living at that time.  The only grandmother I had known had died when I was 10 just after we moved into that old house; the house that would be in our family for 44 years and would be the center of family activity all that time and would shelter a million memories.

Gram and Gramps were awesome as neighbors, and they especially were sweet on my youngest brother, who went there daily for homemade cookies and some hugs from Gram.  One time Gramps even got out and rode the little guy’s bike around the driveway, which was quite comical!  Old man on BMX bike, knees up to his chin…you get the picture I am sure!  He had a big wide grin on his face too!  Gram and Gramp were killed in a head-on collision on their way to camp one weekend when I was 20 and in the US Army in Germany, sadly.  I’ve always missed them.  They always said they would “go together” and by golly they did.  Bless them.

To the left side of the property, as standing in the road looking at the house head-on, we would play baseball, kickball and football in the field there.  Gramps usually kept it mowed, as his property bordered it along that side.  He loved to see us set up our baseball diamond, even though we did break his garage window once with a baseball hit foul.  I think it may still be broken today even.  It’s a downhill slope on that side and we would roll down the hill, wrestle and play for hours there.  A few years Mom and Dad tried growing vegetable gardens on that side. The deer and bunnies would come and mow down the rows nightly.  But we did succeed with some stuff once Gramps showed us how to put down dried blood around the garden to keep out the critters.  Evidently they think of death and dying when they smell dried blood and avoid the area.  It worked and we did have a nice crop of corn one year.

So, when I was 12 living there at the homestead I was just coming into my more rebellious years.  But I was generally a good kid.  I loved to read.  I would find hiding places on the property, a flat stone at the far corner along the stonewall where I would lay and read.  The lilac bush out front would get so huge that you had paths and tunnels through the center.  It was near to the road along the front left corner, and there was a rock cliff that fell off to the road below; the lilac grew right on that cliff.  I spent hours laying at the top of that cliff reading Nancy Drew mysteries, Harriet the Spy, and anything else that I could relate to.

Around this time I found a book on the roadside one day, a porn book…which piqued my interest but had to be hidden like crazy!  I had a place in the old tin garage where I hid it, a platform up in the rafters where I could climb up and be out of sight to read the really nasty stuff.  Until someone told on me and I got caught…that ended my porn reading career until I was 18 and could get it myself! 🙂  Ah, what a memory!

At 12 I had a 2 year old brother who I just adored.  I would spend a lot of time watching him for my hard working mother.  She worked right up at the end of the road at a small motel where she started as a chambermaid and wound up as the general manager.  We could ride our bikes the half a mile to Route 1 and be at her place of work should we need her for anything in an emergency.  The summer of my 12th year we had chickens, as I recall.  Mom has always loved her chickens and fresh eggs.  We would sell the eggs to locals who would drive into our broken pavement driveway looking for them. Our coops were clean and the chickens happy.  We had one that would always get beat up in the pen, so she ran loose on the property and we named her Henny Penny.  (The sky is falling….)  She was friendly.  And in the fall when the chickens all became chicken dinners (and I cried on the cliff with my cat squeezed tight in my arms) somehow Henny Penny was no where to be found on that day.  She reappeared the next morning as if nothing had changed.  Eventually Henny went to a retirement farm to live out her days.  Dad just could not do the beheading of such a sneaky chicken – after all she had survived the carnage, she must have been a blessed chicken.

Back then, 1974, you could leave your 12 year olds in charge of your other kids and they would all survive.  Sure, bloody noses and cuts from fights happened and you held the victim down until they agreed not to tell Mom and Dad that you caused the injury!  Kids fell out of tree forts, crashed their bikes without helmets, and stayed out til dark, but it was a much safer time and we didn’t have video games, colored TV or social media to occupy our brains.  We had the outdoors and our imaginations.  We had tree forts that we built with our young hands and Dad’s leftover wood and good nails.  We held each other down and made each other drink lemon juice or hot sauce, just for fun.  We had rope swings that we almost killed ourselves on at times. There were neighborhood BB gun wars, single pump only!  And the occasional lawn dart in the head did happen, but you survived. You learned to swim whether you liked it or not, Mom’s rule.  You took a bath on Sunday night, whether you needed one or not.  And Walt Disney never dreamed of showing you Myley Cyrus!  Yes, it was a different time, and much more fun in my opinion, I would not trade then for now ever!

At 12 I was also discovering who I was as a person, and knew I had secrets that I could never talk about with anybody.  I was about to go into 7th grade.  Kids were starting to have little boyfriends and girlfriends.  I was mortified by the mere thought that I would have to be some boy’s girlfriend at some point.  I never knew at that time that there was an alternative for me.  That would come years later, long after a fun childhood of skipping rocks on the local beaches, and building sandcastles with my baby brother. And that would come just a short year after I would take him to the races in my 1973 Dodge Dart, and teach him to jungle pee because I didn’t want him in the porta-potties at the race track.   I had plenty of time for my future self, I was too busy being a fun, countrified kid from Maine who loved lobsters, clams, sunrises over the Atlantic, Seapoint Beach and my awesome family.