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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing My Way Back Into My Childhood by Linda Rader Overman

Writing My Way Back Into My Childhood

The other day my twenty-something son stopped by for a visit and decided to take a short swim in our pool. This was something unique, really, because he hadn't been a steady presence in our pool since he and his sister were of elementary school age. Then with only just the two of them, or with the addition of some sleepover friends, they would all play in the water for hours, and I do mean hours. Hunger, thirst, or my calls to exit the water because they were turning into prunes and needed to take a break did not deter this pack of four-legged dolphins to cease their joy for a minute.
Just before my son left to go back to his town house about 20 miles away, he commented: "Mom, I was thinking how when we were little, all we needed in the pool was ourselves and our imaginations to keep us happy. We didn't have to worry about work, errands, jobs, or anything. All that mattered was playing." Then he threw his hands up in the air as if accepting one of those light bulb moments, and we all have them, with great reluctance.
"Yes," I said, "we spend most of our adult lives longing to recapture those days of innocence."
And those days of my innocence have been lost for far too long. And that is partly why I undertook the task of writing my epistolary novel Letters Between Us. Spurred on by the death of an old schoolmate whom I had long lost touch with, I began writing Letters in full middle school teenage-ese the way we had in our childhood. The letters were not to anyone in particular, perhaps they were to my 13 year-old self, I don't know. I decided it would be interesting to write this series of letters the regular old fashioned way with pen and paper leaving in the mistakes, the scratch outs, and silly symbols kids often use for emphasis.
All I know is that the act of recreating those days of only caring about whether or not my patent leather shoes matched my patent leather clutch purse, whether or not I'd painted on my Twiggy style perfectly, and whether or not I'd had my bra snapped by the most "bitchin-est" boy in school mattered. Writing in such a vein re-awakened my long forgotten childhood again. Mind you we, my girlfriends and I, did not sound or act like Valley girls in the sixties. We sounded and acted like young adolescents desperately trying to fit in with the in-crowd. Often, I was assigned to the out-crowd, but even that was a crowd.
I can still recall the pangs of being told by a small group of in-crowd girls as I tried to catch up to them during lunchtime when they paraded around the quad checking out which of the cutest boys were checking them out being told: "Linda, we don't need you today." I immediately dropped out of step with them. I was dismissed and there was no appeal allowed or necessary. I was simply not "in" that day. I was deeply hurt, but I clamored for acceptance on another quad patrol day. And accepted I was because I was wearing a dress they all coveted. So simple really, no hidden agenda, no talking behind my back. It was a simple message reminiscent of the phrase, "....one day you're in and the next day you're out!" I did not need a memo, or a phone call, I knew exactly where I stood. If only boundaries were that clear cut over our entire maturing process.
In addition, during those times we were often bombarded with the exhortations of great democratic minds:
"Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country; Tune in, turn on, drop out; Do Your Own Thing; Love the one you're with; Peace now; Hell no, we won't go; Make Love not War." From the draft-card-burning protests of the Vietnam War, these are the slogans I remember the most.
How ignorant I was as to the true meaning of any of these slogans and their ramifications in the coming decades. Over and above all of those turbulent years, all I can recall is that when we are little, we either want to be a good kid or a bad kid. The sad part is that in the midst of it, we have no appreciation for the infantile challenges we face, like-getting up, getting dressed, brushing our teeth and even tying our own shoe laces without help, and all of those tasks that make us feel right in all their marvelous lunacy. When we mature and move beyond childish things, of course we pine for those days when we really didn't have much to fret about. Our parents woke us up, saw that we were fed, chauffeured us around, and made sure we got to school on time. We only had to make sure we didn't get into trouble with mom or dad, or our teachers. It was our playmates on the playground and who we hung out with and shared secrets with who counted.
The poignancy of such a time in any of our childhoods, notwithstanding the degree of just how dysfunctional a family we were raised in, is the beauty of existing in a state of such naiveté.
What still amazes me is how I miss it--the simplicity of being a child, the complexity of being a curious teen during a very unpopular war, and only needing to not be the last kid picked on a team for handball to feel alive.
My son called me about a week after his swimming visit to inform me that he had met up with his some of college buddies, about eight of them. They had all met at the beach and for the better part of that afternoon, they ran into the water swimming far through the waves, tossing, dunking and chasing after each other like the younger dolphins they once were.
"How did it feel?" I asked.
"Like it will never be that way again," he said.
"Yes," I said. "It won't."

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