The Protections of Childhood

I don’t remember how I got the knife, only that I had it and wanted to keep it. I do recall either unconsciously or as an act of defiance walking into the kitchen where my mother immediately spotted it and demanded I relinquish it to her. I wouldn’t.

We lived in turn of the century row houses on Maple Street in Evanston, Illinois. Under the leafy canopies of extravagant shade trees the children enjoyed something akin to a magical life insulated by some unspoken social pact committing adults to silence on the unpleasantries of life in the emerging suburbs. I remember it as easy, free for the most part, from the conflicts and dramas that dwelt beneath the shiny veneer a child’s mind protectively lays over the more painful episodes of their relatively new existence. It is one of the miracles of childhood how we emerge from these early years mostly intact, unscathed and resilient enough to manage the clear-eyed and coarser years of unvarnished reality to come.

I was a little over seven years old, two years beyond the poorly understood illness that afflicted me shortly after starting Kindergarten. I have flashes of memory from the year I spent in bed with what had been diagnosed as nephritis. The night I was to be admitted to the hospital, I refused to go. We had no car and I cannot recall the presence of my father to assist with what was emerging as a challenging task of getting me to the hospital. Father Eldridge, one of the priests from the Church we attended, drove over to our place to assist my mother. Sick, weak and bedridden for many days, I sprung from my nest and they literally chased me around the room, holding out a Hostess Twinkie like a milk bone for a dog, if I would only comply and agree to get in the car for the ride to St. Francis Hospital. Astonishingly, I refused the Twinkie as well as the money in my mother’s wallet before I found myself sitting in the middle of the car’s front bench seat between Father Eldridge and my mother on the way to the hospital. I remained there three months preserving more clearly only a few brief, unrelated and sometimes seemingly insignificant incidents- a TV perched atop a rolling steel cart whose rabbit ears needed constant adjustment to broadcast a snow-laden soap opera or cartoon; a sleeping boy facing away from me on the other side of the glass that separated our beds I remember treasured visits by the Pink Lady. I especially recall her introducing me to the magic of an unfamiliar hue of a blue-green crayon in one of our coloring sessions. Even now, although rare, the sight of this very particular blue-green hue, opens a crack, as it were, through which the sensation of something transcendent and numinous overpowers me with a feeling of awe that remains beyond my understanding. If I attempt to dissect it, the sensation dissipates. I suspect that the visiting Pink Lady, while amused by my fascination with the color, was simply a messenger completely unaware of the encounter she had facilitated.

One of the final memories I have of my time in the hospital was a visit from my father delivering news that my release from the hospital had been delayed; my first ever recollection of feeling defeat.

The remaining nine months of my illness were spent between the bed in the room I shared with my younger brother, and my parent’s bed located in the dining room of the first-floor duplex where we lived. Strict instructions from the doctors required I be carried everywhere, as even short walks were regarded as threats to my recovery.

At the time I had no appreciation for the burden imposed on my parents, especially that borne by my mother. As an adult, I am struck by the unique power of a sick child’s unawareness; the impermeable bubble they live in, and the impact it no doubt has on those who make sacrifice upon sacrifice to accommodate the countless demands of the young and infirm. When I was done being sick- and that was very much how I remember it- I simply assimilated into the magical world of the children surrounding our new home on Maple Street.

I did not know I was expected to die, that masses were said for me, that my sister resented all the attention I commanded, and that my mother was walking on edge. I just didn’t know. I returned to the child’s world of playing war on the sprawling grass covered hillside of the Church on the corner. Count to ten and the mortally wounded were granted life anew. Lazy summer afternoons were often spent sitting with a friend on the drab olive-green mail box warmed by the sun talking and spitting for what seemed like hours. I spent $.35 at the penny candy store filling a brown paper sack the size of a lunch bag with Smarties, Necco wafers, Mary Janes, licorice, and candy necklaces infuriating my mother. We staged variety shows in the in the white picket-fenced backyards behind the row houses. A bedsheet sufficient for a theatre curtain was held aside to permit John, Ray and I to make a grand entrance. War themed vignettes were popular since WW II and Korea remained fresh in everyone’s minds. It seemed most boys possessed some sort of military paraphernalia their fathers had brought home from the war and so, for the show we dressed in a mish mash of what we could collect- army helmets, knap sacks, canteens that hung on army-green belts. We marched in place, toy rifles resting on our shoulders and sang marching cadances:

The shoes in the army

They say they’re might fine

You ask for size seven

They give you ninety-nine

Oh, I’ve had enough of army life

Gee Ma, I want to go home

Ray wore the steel helmet that belonged to his father. It bore the scar of a bullet graze along its side that elicited a quiet sense of wonder and respect from those who knew its story and solemnly ran their fingers along the jagged steel gash.

The row houses on Maple Street had large basements built around leviathan-like converted coal-burning furnaces that sat in the center. Sprouting atop these fearsome contraptions were a medusa-like set of pipes snaking their way across the basement ceiling and up through it to its designated room above. Warm air wafted through embedded floor registers making them favorite lounging spots for pets and small children. The size of the basements and the center placement of the furnace made created an ideal layout for spook houses which we offered annually. Enter through the outdoor storm doors, down the steps into the basement. Prepare yourself for horrific scenes inspired by the movies on TV’s Shock Theatre no one missed every Saturday night.

For a child it was idyllic, our neighborhood. We were never bored and easily entertained. Next door, John, the oldest of the three Pierson children was a few years my senior. But, age didn’t seem to matter much, and in quieter moments John’s better reading skills equipped him to offer the neighborhood kids a dramatic rendering from Boy’s Life’s monthly feature, “Scouts in Action”. John kept us perched in on the edge of our seats. His striking red hair, the husky voice on the edge of breaking lent gravity to his storytelling.  On this day we listened to how a model Scout saved a young girl who had broken through the ice in her neighborhood’s duck pond.

After two years, I barely remembered my illness and lived in the blissful innocence of a child’s self-centered world. So, I suppose my mother’s demand to relinquish the knife that afternoon felt like an assault on my child world’s sense of entitlement. I was defiant and told her “No, it’s my knife.” It escalated as these sorts of things do when a seven-year-old tries to set the rules for right and wrong and when he will and will not obey his parent. Arguing became, yelling, and yelling became screaming until I flung open the back door and threw the knife as far as I could beyond the yard and into the alley. I cannot recall how events unfolded after that, only that it occurred with lightening speed. I found myself on the floor. I was aware that the side of my face throbbed and my mouth was bleeding, I had been cold-cocked by my mother who was now sobbing. She slumped on a chair in the kitchen asking herself what had she done, “What have I done? What have I done? I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” The taste of blood frightened me, but I don’t recall feeling hurt. I was scared. The unbridled grief my mother expressed as she sat in that chair either unaware of my presence or simply unable to look at her son’s bloody mouth and swelling eye left me desperately looking for a way to tidy this…this…this outburst…no, this one-time episode up. I put my hand on her shoulder, assuring her I was OK. “It’s Ok”, I said. “It’s OK. It’s Ok. It’s OK.”

I forgave my mother the moment she began to weep, not because I understood she had been on the brink or because I felt empathy for the burden she had borne. Rather, I think, because I was frightened she had lost control. Small children want and need their parents to be in charge. She soon collected herself uncomfortably averting her gaze to avoid the emerging black eye she had given me. We never spoke again about the incident. I’ll never really know what impact it had on her but I expect it frightened her as much as it did me. Predictable feelings of anger or resentment I sought to uncover simply do not seem to be accessible if they exist at all. However, I have come to appreciate that people have a breaking point and a defiant child can be very adept and finding it. I did not have the capacity for empathy concerning her precarious mental state that day. For me it was about wanting to keep the knife and the fury I felt when she tried to take it from me. That’s all. For her, the complexity of feelings was far less elemental. I believe she felt forever ashamed by her actions that day. I mentioned it once in a heated argument years later and knew she was shaken by the vacant stare she returned. Now, gone for some twenty-five years, I just want her to know-

“It’s OK, It’s OK. It’s OK.”

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