I learn shame.
|The earliest memory I have is of shame. I couldn't have been more than 4. We were living on Rockhill Road, not far from Aunt Hannah's. I was alone in the backyard garden; I needed to pee. I saw a watering can. I squatted and peed into it, experiencing pleasure at doing something out of doors that was usually done indoors. Mother chanced to come out and see me and scolded me. Suddenly shame--a false and overscrupulous moral sense-- was awakened. For years later when I heard about the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, I knew that they must have been doing something pleasurable, like peeing in the watering can.|
I experience happiness.
about 1936, when I was 5 and Carol was born and we needed more space, we
moved from Rockhill to a new Colonial home on 65th and Cherry, designed
by our father. It had enough rooms for all of us. Kathleen and I shared
a large bedroom on the front; Joe had a smaller bedroom on the back. Carol
was in a baby bed in the master bedroom. Later a large bedroom was added
in the back over the porch, into which Kathleen and I moved, leaving the
front bedroom to Carol.
I had been ill with scarlettina. It was in the wintertime; I was wearing a long nightgown. My mother was in the room with us, sitting on the radiator. She sat me on her lap and held me against her. The happiness I experienced was so strong that it made an indelible impression. I remember reflecting on how wonderful this was. I wished we would do it more often. But we didn't. That is the only memory I have of being cuddled. Maybe it was my fault for not being more affectionate toward her. For that brief moment, I felt happy, secure, complete, treasured, wanted by my Mother. It was my first conscious experience of love. Perhaps all my life I was, like Charles Foster Kane, seeking for this "Rosebud"--the lost joy of my childhood cuddling. I wonder whether my life would have been different had my mother cuddled me more.
Perhaps to get more
cuddling, I strove to be like the pretty popular girls. I knew that if
I had pretty Shirley Temple curls and dimple like the adorable Mary Lib
Cavanaugh in my class, whom anyone would want to cuddle, Mother would
like me, so I asked her to curl my hair. I didn't feel dimply and cute.
I felt solemn and serious and tall. I frowned a lot when I didn't agree
or approve. "Don't scowl," my mother was forever telling me.
Her critical attitude toward me begot a self-critical attitude toward
myself. I couldn't play easily and valued anyone who made me laugh.
I learn the Commandments and make my first Communion.
We attended St. Peter's
Parish and school, on Meyer and Holmes. In a large first grade classroom,
with 40 students at full-sized dark wooden desks, Sr. Jerome was preparing
us for First Communion and had asked us to memorize the commandments.
The pastor, Monsignor McKay, came in one day to quiz us on them. When
my turn came, I remember standing facing the door at the back of the room
where Monsignor was facing us. I recited them, and as I said, "I
am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me, "
I felt my soul bow down in submission to God's authority over me. Even
at six I understood this commandment clearly: I acknowledged that I owed
my existence to God who had made me; I belonged to God and owed God obedience
and allegiance. Other commandments really made an impression upon me,
especially "Honor thy father and thy mother" and "Remember
to keep holy the Lord's day."
I learn humility.
Mother had had four
children within six years and must have felt we were just too much for
her. She wanted us to be quiet and obey her. If we talked back, we had
our mouths washed out with soap. I must have talked back more than the
others, for I remember feeling humiliated and degraded as I bent my head
over the sink for Mother to wash my mouth out. The things we disagreed
over were nothing--perhaps only what dress I would wear, but I resented
that she did not believe I had any right to question her. Indeed, I never
questioned her right to punish me this way. She was the arbiter of morality;
if she decided I deserved this punishment, I deserved it. She called me
stubborn, obstinate, rebellious. We were all "hellions," a word
I have never heard anyone other than my mother use.
My dad brings me out.
Since we were frequently
out of favor with my mother, we also quarreled among ourselves. Whether
our quarreling really led to her anger as she made us believe, or whether
her furies made us quarrelsome, the atmosphere was often tense and retaliatory.
We grumbled and disagreed with each other; I became used to argument.
I loved to watch
him put his plans down on the counter in the kitchen next to the refrigerator,
hang up his coat in the dining room closet, sit down to his meal at the
kitchen table where we had already eaten about six, and talk to mother.
After dinner he would come into the living room, where Kathleen or I would
vie to bring him his slippers. I posted myself behind his chair by the
fireplace, where I would comb his silver hair. I loved the way the hair
waved from his high noble forehead. I could tell from his expressions
that he was pained by the quarrelling. Sometimes I thought he copped out,
dodging Mother's barbs, which she also aimed at him. He would only say, "Frances," to restrain her. She would cut him off with "Don't
interfere, Joe." Home was her world, so he wasn't allowed much say
in our family life. Mother set the tone, which was often critical and
quarrelsome, and we picked it up and used it with each other.
What I learned from my mother.
Mother presided over our home and organized our lives. She saw to it
that we always made our beds and did the dishes after meals without being
told. She gave us Saturday chores, which we did--although we weren't too
sure about Joe.We could not go out to play until our work was done.
I escape into fantasy with dolls.
Gloria Armstrong lived next door. (An early shock for me was to find out that she was not a Catholic. I assumed that everyone was Catholic.) Mother made us feel like we shouldn't even be allowed to play with her ("her father has left her mother"). We had to ask Mother's permission to go over to play paper dolls with Gloria.
Kathleen and I often walked to the Dime Store at Brookside where we bought paper dolls of Sonia Henie or Rita Hayworth (careful not to buy the same dolls), Betty Grable or Dorothy Lamour, all of whom had sparkling evening gowns and swimming suits, smart suits and dresses, tennis dresses and casual outfits. We even made new clothes for them, arranged their rooms, planned places for them to go and meet each other. Choosing what they were to wear developed in us a clothes sense. Imagination became a way of escaping from the turmoil of homelife. What happiness we had sitting on the floor of Gloria's bedroom where we dressed our dolls and created imaginary lives for them. They often went out to play tennis in the afternoon, since we liked to play tennis. In the evening they entertainied friends in an atmosphere of peace and kindness and support. I wanted to live the life I gave my dolls.
Gloria was really Kathleen's friend. Until sixth grade I had no special friend of my own, except perhaps Helen Schweiger, who was several years older and who told us there was no Santa; she became my mentor. Kathleen played with the neighbors more than I. I told myself that I was content on my own. Another neighbor, our babysitter Katie O'Reilly, was also a few years older than we and took it upon herself to help us to look for our Christmas dolls and tell us about sex.
I have my own Princess Doll.
Mother encouraged our interest in dolls and clothes, for she loved to sew doll clothes for us. Each Christmas our dolls would disappear, only to show up at Christmas with a new dress and wig and jeweled necklace. For Christmas one year, mother gave each of our princess dolls a new outfit. Kathleen's doll was blond with a new red velvet cloak and dress. Mine was brunette, with a brown velvet hooded cloak lined in gold, over a gold brocade gown, and a necklace with a goldstone heart pendant. This beautiful doll filled a hole in me; it was necessary to my happiness. For years I had not received the basic love from my mother, and I was needy. Love was unavailable, but things were available to me, and I became a connoisseur of what was the best, as this doll was the best of its kind, a jewel. Eventually I believed that it was up to me to supply myself with what I needed--to find my goods and to confer them on myself. I tell myself now that it was lucky I did not marry, because I would never have found a man who would be as good to me as I am to myself. Since others (starting with mother) were not giving me what I needed (affection), I would give myself what I needed. I would become that princess.
We envy the Havers.
Behind us on 64th
Terrace and Cherry lived the adopted Haver twins, Joanne and Jimmy. While
I was feeling often feeling unwanted, they had been "adopted"
into a life of luxury and spoiling. Their home seemed to me like a mansion.
They seemed to be raised in the lap of luxury. "Adopted" seemed
a magic word which meant "chosen," "wanted," "preferred,"
even "doted on," but, in our mother's words, "spoiled."
We Shaughnessy children were reassured that we were better than they because
1) they were not Catholics, and 2) they were indulged, pampered, and "spoiled."
Their yard seemed
to me to be the garden of paradise and pleasure, laid out as it was with
large paving stones and bushes and a wonderful stone patio with a little
wall for sitting on, long before patios became common. There were sliding
doors from the patio leading into their home, which was richly furnished.
To me, they were rich, which explained why they could indulge and pamper
their children. We must have been, by contrast, poor, for we had four
children instead of two, and we could not afford to be spoiled. Yet we
never were allowed really to play with them as often as we would have
wished, because they were "spoiled."
Note: (Having grown up feeling deprived and convinced that we were not rich I was surprised when I went to high school and met children from other parishes (St. Elizabeth) who envied me, it seemed, and thought I lived in the lap of luxury. Years later, when I had left home, my parents moved to a beautiful new home on Seneca Drive in Mission Hills, which they furnished with expensive custom-designed furnishings (some of which I have in my home). I was surprised at the happy turn our fortunes took after I left home. Suddenly we were rich--had, in fact, been richer than most. But this wealth was only confirmed when my parents moved to Mission Hills. Kathleen, Joe, Carol all experienced a new sense of themselves as wealthy Mission Hill residents, but I would always remain the poor but proud daughter of 65th and Cherry who envied the Havers.)
We escape into Reading
Kathleen and I were
both avid readers and together we walked to the library every week to
take out our allotment of 6 books from the Southwest Public Library. It
was a good hike from Cherry to Wornall across 65th street. Kathleen had
some books that she loved so much, like The Adventures of Remi, that she
had each of her children read them when they were young.
I refuse to believe anyone would want to dance with me.
Mother wanted us to be popular, so she sent Kathleen and me to dancing classes. We learned tap and ballroom. She made us dancing dresses. But her criticism had already had its effect on me. If she didn't approve of me, how could anyone else approve? So I was insecure socially and awkward and self-conscious about my height.
There was a dance at the dancing school. At the dance, when Steven "Sparky" Donovan came over to ask me to dance, I couldn't believe that he would ask me without being prompted by my mother or his (they were friends). "Did my mother put you up to it?" My independence made me rebuff him. I would succeed without my mother's manipulating on my behalf, thank you. She didn't understand me. Her desires were so different from my own bookish inclinations. She was forcing me into something I was not interested in. I felt I was not the daughter she wanted. My inclinations to separate myself from her ambitions by putting my nose in a book and escaping into the world of fairy tales grew. I was glad for Kathleen to take on the burden of being the dutiful daughter my mother wanted. I would be my own girl. My independence was founded.
I begin to have girl friends of my own.
In sixth grade I finally found a lifelong girl friend . Sixth grade in Sister Anita's room was a mixture of suffering and amusement. Sister Anita was noted for her sternness. She could terrify even the 11 year-old boys into obeying her. When the day was cloudy, she made us believe that we could make the sun come out, by praying. We were always praying for the conversion of Russia; we were terrified at stories she told us of religious persecution there. Most of her time was consumed frightening us and exercising her authority to discipline the bad boys. Some of us good girl students, like Esther Hart, Mary Catherine Cross, Martha Van Sant, and I banded together. We were not under her thumb.We criticized her. It was not right to spend all the time on the boys. What about us? Though I could not criticize my mother who dominated me at home, I could criticize this woman who dominated us at school. She was so outrageous that she became the first adult whom I could joke about. I respected her for being tough, and I was glad we met with her approval. I felt I was achieving independence. I was proving myself to others than my mother. I would never satisfy my mother, but I was satisfying tough Sister Anita, whom I respected and secretly made fun of.
I become a Democrat.
poor but proud made me a democrat, not a Republican, even in the sixth grade.
Much to my mother's consternation, I selected as my friends not the rich
but the poor. I selected as friends other proud but not too beautiful girls
like myself, who had merit, no matter what background them were from. I
rebelled at her displeasure with my school friends, whom I chose on their
merits. She was always looking for some ideal friend for me. She gave me
no support or approval for my choice of friends, until I got into high school
and had boy friends. My girl friends were not really to her liking.
Martha Van Sant was my first true friend. She was from Virginia, and she knew all about the Revolution. One of her ancestors was a Patriot who fought in the War of Independence. We had no such forbear, though Mother told me that our family was "related to Aaron Burr."
Martha helped me discover what I liked in books. She suggested books about the Revolution that I read. I wanted to know American history after I met her, for she seemed to have it in her bones. She became my soul mate. We were both romantics and together we escaped into novels and dreamed of becoming writers as well as readers. Mother was polite to her. The great friendship that I had with Martha meant that I was allowed to stay overnight with Martha and have her spend the night with me, occasionally.
I resolve to leave home-- if not now, then later.
Perhaps knowing that I had a best friend, and having become critical of an adult at school gave me the audacity one night to decide that I'd had enough of my mother's criticism and should leave home--or at least threaten to. Kathleen and I were still sharing the front bedroom. I was perhaps 11. Whatever I had done to provoke Mother, (perhaps involving a friend of whom she disapproved) has faded, but the memory of my frustration has not. As usual she accused me of being selfish, stubborn, strong-willed, going against the family good. I was crying bitterly and feeling that I could be better loved by my friends than here at home, so I announced "I'm leaving."
I don't know how
I expected her to act. Maybe I hoped she'd say, "Oh, I'm so sorry.
I didn't think you had anywhere to go. Please stay. We love you."
What did she do? She went to the closet, where I had found a small suitcase
and was angrily filling it with my clothes. "Here, I'll help you,"
she offered. She was actually encouraging me to leave! She would be glad
if I were gone. There was no inducement for me to stay, no freedom or
love, only the frustration of forever remaining her slave. If I could
have left, I would have, but my determination ran up against a wall of
knowing I had nowhere else to go. I had girlfriends, yes, but did their
mothers want me? When mother taunted me "where will you go?"
I thought, Martha's. But would Martha be able to take me in? I may have
actually called her up and said something like "Could I come over
and spend the night?" But I knew my folly--I was powerless, as was
Kathleen, who would never have threatened to leave.
Now when some of my little great nieces and nephews refuse to be comforted or helped, I wonder what their stories will be.