I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. My dad was as American as white bread and my mom was so exotic I was never really sure where she came from… Israel, Tunisia, Libya… I never did get the story completely straight. But, the thing is, nothing was straight about my childhood. It was all curvy twists and precarious turns, windy tunnels and secret passageways
My parents would show up at school sometimes, halfway through the day, with no notice to us or to the teachers. They’d us pull us right out of math or English or whatever class we were in and smush us all into the back of the station wagon. Sometimes we’d end up on an island of wild ponies, sometimes in the parking lot of Disney World. Wherever it was would be fun and exciting and completely unexpected.
It’s not that we had a lot of money. In fact, for most of my childhood we were dirt poor. So poor we sometimes didn’t have running water, so poor my brother and sister and I all shared one bedroom and fought over the warm side of the room, so poor that when we went on adventures, the 5 of us and our dog would squeeze into one hotel room… the kind of hotel room that cost twenty bucks a night and had a machine that would make the bed vibrate when you put a quarter in the slot.
But we were never too poor to not have adventures.
Adventures didn’t always have to happen on the road either. At home there were vicious peacocks that would chase us down to the bus stop and then fly up on the roof of the bus and follow us to school, there were boxes of kittens crying out in the woods that we’d spend all night scooping up to safety, there were hawks with broken wings and baby starlings that fell out of the nest and injured bunnies… all of which we nurtured and loved until they set off for freedom again, leaving us with stories and memories.
You see, I was raised in a home where experience was valued over stuff. Where we’d shop in the Salvation Army for clothes so that we’d have enough money to take off on an impromptu road trip. Where my dad would miss the next morning of work so that he could wake us up in the middle of the night to watch a colony of beavers build their dam. Where my mom would stretch a meal for five into one that could serve 15, so we could welcome our Israeli cousins or a homeless family that needed a place to stay for the night.
The visitors didn’t come empty handed though. They brought adventure as well… sometimes in the form of exotic candies or toys from faraway places, more often though, they simply brought stories of life on the road.
Every now and then, they would even get us mixed up into their misadventures. There was the traveler that stayed with us for months who was later on America’s Most Wanted for killing his wife, the foreign student who turned out to be a bank robber, the homeless family that brought a ferocious dog that killed my own precious puppy right in front of me.
But, mostly… mostly, they brought excitement and mystery and whispers of worlds yet unseen. Worlds that I vowed to explore as soon as I was old enough to leave.
Because, as magical as it was to live on my parents’ farm, it could also be difficult. I was sometimes forgotten at after school activities because my parents were so busy. We never had the newest toys or more than 2 and a half TV channels or anything close to fashionable clothing. I didn’t always want to bring friends over because the house was so messy and I didn’t have my own space.
It wasn’t as if there were too many kids banging down the door to come over anyway. I was weird and bookish and lived mostly in my head. I longed for the day when I could move away from the provincial town to a big city with thinkers and seekers and questioners like me.
I never did make it to the big city though. Instead I ended up settling in the suburbs. The kind of place with good schools and old-fashioned candy shops and churches on every corner.
It’s a good place, a safe place and I know that I should be glad that my kids have everything they need. And I AM glad. But, even though they have good friends and (slightly) cleaner rooms and reliably hot water and far better schools than I had, I can’t help but wonder if they’re missing out.
My childhood was unpredictable and sometimes even a little scary… but, it was unquestionably magical. And, it was through that magic that I found wonder and mystery and even God. Because, when every day is a surprise and things are not in your control, it’s easy to imagine that there is a higher power in charge. That it was God that left that mysterious box of toys in my room, or MY prayer that made the sick baby goat get better.
It’s different for my kids. Their lives are organized and planned (well, as much as can be expected with me as their mother). If they get a new toy, it’s because they earned it. If our dog gets sick, we take her to the vet. For the most part, their life has been one of cause and effect, leaving little room for magic or much need to believe in God.
I know that won’t always be the case. That when they are grown up and on their own, there will be all sorts of twists and turns that science and logic will not sufficiently help them maneuver. That the straight line of their life will get just as wavy as my childhood was.
I just hope that, when that happens, they’ll have the tools they need to navigate it.