Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Upside to the Downside

I was seven when my brother was born and that’s when I learned how to change diapers and look after a baby. Learning childcare continued when my cousins lived with us for a short while; the family included a 3 year old, and an infant. These kids became my responsibility along with my 3-year-old brother. Obviously I went to school so my mother took over their minimal care, when I got home from school they were mine to look after. It's probably one reason why I never wanted children - I knew how much responsibility and work they were.

My mother went to work when my brother was 5 and that’s pretty much when she stopped participating in the household. So at age 11 I was pretty much it. Got up in the morning, got my brothers up, dressed myself and my younger brother; made lunches, dropped my younger brother at the bus stop, walked to school. On the way home from school, picked up my brother from the neighbors, went home, made the beds; ran the washing machine; hung up the clothes; started dinner. My father got home from work around 4:30 – he often then went out again to pick up my mother at work. Either my mother or my father would finish up the more complicated parts of dinner after which I cleaned up the kitchen and then did my homework. Major cleaning of the bathroom, the dusting, sheet changing and ironing was done on Saturday.

By the time I was 14 I was tasked with paying the bills. My father would leave the bill and the cash and I would go either to the bank or to the company itself. I was also the one who had to stay home if any deliveries or service calls were scheduled. Eventually my father taught me home to write checks and balance the checkbook.

Aside from most of the household chores I was also in charge of all the yard work, snow shoveling and whatnot.

Things I refused to do were: washing floors and windows. Absolutely refused.

So where is the upside to all of this? When I finally convinced someone to give me a lease on an apartment I was quite experienced in the financial ways of the world. Some of you younger folks might think “big deal” but in the 1960’s you were not legally an adult until you were 21 and therefore you could not sign a contract, which is what a lease is; vote, get a credit card – none of that cool adult stuff. I’m not sure you could even have a checking account until you were 21. So I couldn’t escape my parents home until I was legal – I managed it just a few months shy of my 21st birthday. Got the apartment; furnished it with everything bright and new; got a phone, a checking account, a credit card.

The kids I had gone to school and church with were all duly impressed. While they were living in dorms and Mommy and Daddy were taking care of everything in their lives, I was hot stuff with a job and my own apartment etc. After they graduated from college they didn’t have clue how to be an adult – no one had ever taught them; they learned later what I had learned earlier.

And that’s the upside to what seems like a not very cheery childhood. I learned how to be a responsible adult at an early age. When my father died my mother was 56 and had never had a bank account, never written a check, didn’t know what a mortgage was or that she now had to pay it; all she had was her Gertz Department store credit card. I had to teach her how to do all the things I had learned by the time I was 14 – interesting, no?

So when I think of what a childhood should be, according to the media or whoever decides these things, and I look at mine – I see both the downside and the upside. I had to be aware that other kids didn’t live the way I did, I mean I was never stupid, but I’m not really sure I realized how different my life was from the kids around me, and that's not including the physical and psychological abuse. You do what you gotta do to survive, you keep your head down, and your mouth shut (as much as possible) and plan your escape.

When I did make my escape it was rather effortless – I knew how to do everything I needed to do to set up an independent life. I find it funny that I waited as long as I did tho. Being me, and a Libra, there was no way I was going to move into some flea-bitten apartment. No, I bided my time and waited till I was 21, or as near as possible, so I could live in a nice apartment. I saved my money so I could buy new furniture, pots, pans, dished, linens - no second hand crap, no hand-me-downs for me – first class all the way.

I learned how to bide my time. To wait, to endure so I could finally prevail on MY terms. It is comforting to know I can do this because even now, today, I know that I will prevail. Eventually I will have it my way. I just need to wait, endure and bide my time, the way I learned to as a child.

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