Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A child's voice

The moments of my childhood appear to me now as lost treasures. I can't remember the bulk of them. I couldn't for the life of me, for example, explain how I got from there to here - what I was like as a two year old, a five year old, even a teenager.... not really. And yet I believe my adult life, for better or for worse, has been shaped by who I was as a child. Isn't that irony for you. I can't recall most of the innumerable defining moments in my life, and yet I can't escape them either.

My earliest memory is of falling into water. Missing the mark while trying to step from a dock to a boat. That's it - the dock, the boat, water. That's what I remember. Just flashes. My parents have filled in the rest. I was following my father. It was Kingston harbour (the horror). I apparently sank like a stone and Mom jumped immediately into the dark, murky water, trying to memorize where she'd seen me fall. She flailed her hands about in the water until she found me.

After the incident in Kingston harbour, my memories become a blur for a while. I remember my Grandfather telling me I had to go to school all day - that it was the law of the land. That was when I was entering Grade one. I remember, later, Mom having snacks ready for us when we got home from school each day. I remember having to face Dad when I was suspended for smoking at school. He said nothing for a long time. That was the worst part.

For years and years our lives are confined, to a greater or lesser extent, to the parameters our parents set up for us. And all of that time all we want to do is free ourselves from their hold. The boundaries our parents establish for us provide safety, security, comfort - a Garden of Eden of sorts. But let's face it, they also represent tyranny in the fullest sense of the word. But then so does the Garden of Eden. Is there any greater tyrant than God with his father-knows-best rules and expectations? All she did was eat a fucking apple.

But of course it wasn't about the apple for Eve, just as it wasn't about the cigarette for me. It was about asserting individuality - about saying, "hey, I'm here. I exist, I'm autonomous, and I can prove it. - I smoke, therefore I am." For Eve's sins, Man (and woman) was tossed from God's enlightened despotism. Just what Eve wanted, I presume, until she found herself having to make all of her own decisions and deal with her own mortality - nice touch God. "You don't want to play by my rules, you can figure out how to light a damn fire to keep warm, pay your own tuition, find yourself a job and oh, by the way, you're going to kick the bucket some day." Sound like Dad? Dads never pull any punches, and neither does God.

Of course there's nothing wrong with any of this - at least the parent part. Our most important role as parents is to a) keep the kid safe, and b) prepare her for a world without us - a world where she can assert her individuality and, by that assertion, achieve an identity and... freedom.

And for all that, as adults we have complex, often highly charged feelings about our parents. We long to be under their protection again. We're angry because we know we can't go back. As in the Garden, with knowledge innocence is lost but a certain freedom is gained. Freud, Milton, and many others have all explored these themes. We resent our parents for being less than perfect - after all, if they're human, how can they truly protect us? We're furious that one day they'll die and abandon us here. We resent that they brought us here but can't protect us from the one thing that matters, our eventual demise. And as we grow older ourselves, we soften and gain a more tender view of our parents. They are our the link, crucial to our story. Their humanity no longer angers and frightens us. It informs us. And for the first time, if we're lucky, we may eventually start to form a true relationship with each parent - one not based on power, protection or mentoring, but on two human beings who share an important bond, and a common understanding. It's not easy - lots of baggage, but it's possible. And it seems to me that it is an important step in growing up. That's the part that's missing with religion. God, the church, Mother Mary. They don't allow us to grow up. They continue to shelter us and direct us. 

I look at Chloe and the many trials she must face each day - both with us and the world, and it gets me thinking of our relationships with our parents. Everyday she's growing up, but most of the fears, the comforting, the little battles (and there are so many of them right now), she won't remember. She'll struggle one day, as I am now, to remember the details of a childhood that will so clearly inform who she is as an adult. She won't be able to go back, to be that child again. But she won't be able to escape it either. How many times a day do we tell her what she has to do to be a "good girl" or a "big girl." We tell her what she can't do, what she shouldn't do. She wants to please us (for now) and we exploit that desire to please in order to ensure that she has the right socialization to get along in the world. We have no choice. It's our job. But oh, how much she tries already to assert her individuality, to say, "I'm here, and I matter." And it's our role too, to acknowledge this assertion.  I don't remember all the childhood moments that have come to define me, but I do remember always being able to speak, to have a voice.


  1. Hi Sean:

    Glad to see you are still writing despite your busy parenting schedule--LOL! Your dad will have a look at this later. I know he will get a kick out of the smoking reference and, of course, your well expressed thoughts on the importance of having a voice, even when we are very young.

    It's so interesting to observe our children first becoming parents and then charting a path through that maze of parenthood hoping to reach the other side with a relationship that is not only intact but appreciative one of the other. I am reminded today of one of your fist comments to Chloe on the day of her birth. It is set permanently in my memory because it was so wondrous to hear and watch. While attempting to change her diaper (she screaming with fright as her arms flailed about in the startle refex), you said in a soft voice, "I'm sorry Chloe. Daddy's not good at this, but he'll get better." At that moment, I saw the years unfold ahead of you and hoped the rewards (as they usually do) would far outweigh the frustrations. What a moment! I was watching 'my' first born embark on a journey with 'his' first born. And the beat goes on!


  2. I had forgotten about that, but I remember now. Yeah, diaper changing I've definitely gotten good at.... one of the more concrete parenting skills, as it turns out. Thanks for recalling that memory for me.

    Actually, we've been fighting with Chloe for a few nights now over her wanting to do things her way. The issues are so trivial - who washes her hands, or in what order she does things, but she acts as though we've taken away the car. Yes, even the young want to make themselves heard - stand apart, as it were.

  3. i Sean,

    Distant memories are just that, frozen memories in time. One my first was that of a barn right in the middle of Donvale when we lived on Sackville Street.
    There was no hay or animal presence but that red barn was still there. More likely it was just a stable for the nearby store. I also remember picking chunks of ice from the iceman's wagon as he and his horse moved up the street. And then there was a rag man with his wagon, horse and heavy grey beard I remember mostly the sights, not the smells or sounds. Peculiar, isn't it?

    I remember too that time in Florida when we were about to leave the Jolly Roger and we couldn't find you. Finally, though, there you were, down by the bay, staring out at the water. You're comment about the place being there later but having experienced something only once, never again in the same way showed a tremendous perception, and maturity. And then there is the whole responsibility thing. All of a sudden you realize that you have it, that no one is there telling you about it. The choice was yours. But we weren't about to toss you out of the house, nor did we indicate that.

    Dads shouldn't pull any punches, well maybe the odd one to suit the exigencies of the circumstances. In fact, those punches, though not pulled, should be carefully constructed to provide weighted responsibility. I should think that the tyranny of which you speak is, rather, enlightened despotism.

    You write well, as usual, but wow, the Garden of Eden. That's really putting parents on a plateau, either that, or the denigration of God.

    Keep on writing Sean. It keeps on getting better.