Childhood memories are supposed to be golden aren't they? That's what all the commercials on TV tell me. Yet when I think back about being a child I find those golden moments are in short supply. Actually, I find moments in general, are hard to find. In many ways it's like those years are one continual blur. Distinct moments are few and far between. I know part of this is that I lived in a fantasy world as a child. One where I lived a thousand different lives straight from the pages of the novels and classic movies that filled my life. I dreamt of being Arwen Evenstar or Elizabeth Bennett, Holly Golightly or Rose Sayer. Different characters from different worlds, yet all with one striking similarity. Each inhabited a world far removed from my own reality. In those worlds I was strong, carefree or in control. In them I spoke my mind, or faced danger and challenges head on. I loved those places. I used to go to bed at night and wish I would wake up in one of those worlds. A chance to escape the claustrophobic world of my own existence. But I know the other part is my minds attempt to protect itself.
Where there should be memories of events or moments, I instead find memories of emotions; shame, guilt, isolation, uncertainty and above all, loneliness. Don't get me wrong there were some good times. Like sitting in our car at the local Drive-in, watching Return of the Jedi on my 10th birthday. I remember the crackling speaker stuck on the car window. The smell of popcorn, the taste of the syrupy pre-mix Coca-Cola, and the excitement of losing myself in a make believe world. But these moments are few and far between. The reality is that I have to search hard to remember any of them.
We had no huge secrets, especially by today's standards. One parent who was an alcoholic and gambler. One parent who was unable to cope, and had nothing left to give to anyone else. Loss of home and lifestyle. Becoming one of the poor. Years of marital separation. Disintegration of my family. Broken promise after broken promise. We were far from alone in our small town, as I was to find out through later discussions with my childhood friends. Yet we were not allowed to speak of it. The secret, that in reality everyone knew, had to be kept. What no one told me back then was that secrets destroy the soul. They are a prison of our own creation, with shame the shackles that bind.
As a child I received many lessons. I was taught to be ashamed of who I was and of my life circumstances. I was taught that my value could only be measured by what others thought. I was taught to be silent. To never trust others. To fear judgement. I was taught at an early age that I would never be good enough. I'm sure this was not my parents' intent, but it was the lesson I learnt through their actions and words.
Every day was a test to prove my love and my worthiness to be loved, and everyday I failed. Every action and word was sure to be coloured with disappointment. “I'm ugly”. “I'm useless”. “I'm stupid”. These words were sung every day. These words were never spoken in reference to me. Yet I internalised them until they were the only reflection I saw when I looked in the mirror. How can a young child differentiate between themselves and their parents? They are a product of the two, physically and emotionally. What the parent says about themselves, the child will always falsely attribute to themselves.
We all have roles in our families. I was given the role of mediator and hand holder. I don't know when it happened, or how. But I do remember sitting between my parents and making jokes to ease tensions, desperate to pacify my charges and smooth ruffled feathers. By age ten I had mastered the art of negotiation and mediation. I had an arsenal of tricks and words to maintain the calm. I took to this role like a duck to water, and they were more than willing to let me take the lead.
I remember the tension like a knot in my belly. The stress and worry that one misstep would see my family dissolve into chaos once more. I accepted the responsibility as a normal part of my life. I accepted a responsibility that as child I was ill equiped to deal with, and should never have had to take on. To this day I feel an overwhelming need to keep the peace, to comfort and soothe, and I am still sought for this role. Only now I have the courage to say nay and accept whatever consequences come my way.
As that child I learnt that comfort comes with a catch, a price that I became unwilling to pay. I learnt to be independent, apparently to a fault, as I am now told. I learnt that I could only rely on myself. That being alone equated to safety. That to ask for help was a sign of weakness. I learnt that I would only be accepted if I was willing to adhere to specific rules, rules that changed everyday. I learnt to build a wall around myself, adding a new brick everyday. So many bricks, it may take me a lifetime to take them all down.
I have no desire to return to my childhood. I have no sentimentality with regard to the past. I cannot selectively edit those years to portray a happy family, as my parents are wont to do. Those tales ring false and empty. I could never tell them any of this. Even all these years later they are not equipped to deal with frank discussions or acknowledgement of the past. I know they would be horrified that I have aired our dirty laundry. They see mountains where there are only mole hills. And silence, continues to exaggerate the horror of what, in reality, is the story of so many other families.
20 years have passed since I left home. I look back now through the eyes of an adult and realise that neither of them had anyone in their own lives to teach them they had value. To teach them how to relate to others and the world around them. I realise now that they were hanging on by their fingernails. That their selfishness was a survival mechanism, their only means to defend against the world. I know they loved us, I do not doubt that. I know that parents are not super heroes, they are simply people, as flawed as the rest of us. I realise now why my siblings left as early as possible, as did I, an attempt to save themselves. I realise now that at ten, I became a parent to my parents. It saddens me that to this day they do not have the courage to find happiness for themselves. That they continue to seek happiness in the things they do not, and will not have, rather than appreciating that even diamonds can be found in the dirt of the earth. These choices mean that disappointment and regret will continue to shadow their steps and shape their lives. Like that child I still love my parents. I wish simply that they can find peace and joy in their lives. Only now I have the presence of mind to re-examine the hurts of the past. To understand why they acted the way they did, that it is not my fault and that it is not my responsibility to heal them. As that child I can never forget, but as an adult I can now forgive them.
Now I sit here as a parent myself and I wonder what my children will say about me when they are older. I hope and pray that their memories are better than mine. All you can do is see your past for what it was, learn from the mistakes, and not be afraid to do different. To accept that you will make mistakes, but that it is still possible to try and give your children the upbringing you wish you had.
A long time ago I chose to make a concerted effort to not repeat those same lessons with my children. I chose to view the world through a different lens. I could choose to walk through the world as a victim to the past. To dwell in dark places filled with bitterness and resentment. Or I could choose to release myself from the burden. The past is what it is, it cannot be re-written. With that acceptance the shame disappears. Forgiveness is hard, but it is something I did for myself. I chose to free my spirit from it's shackles and I can feel the lightness in my step.
Releasing myself, leaves me free to give my children a gift. I can fill their lives with light and laughter. With feelings of self worth and confidence. To learn compassion and tolerance and to learn that the true value of any person is their truth of spirit. To learn that happiness is not dependant on material things or societal projections. That happiness comes from within and that you can only find it when you find value and love for yourself. That happiness is a choice we are all capable of making despite our life circumstances. That no matter what they do they will always have a soft place to fall. They are the gifts that I have endeavoured to give to them and will continue to try and give. They are gifts I may not have been able to give them if I had not had my childhood. The light can only truly be appreciated by those who have sampled the dark. You can only learn the true value of this these gifts if you know what its like to have not had them yourself. May they always know they are precious just as they are, and most of all that they are loved.