Books saved my life.
Just before I started third grade, my family moved to our first one family house. After many years living on the ground floor of a duplex, we kids were thrilled to discover that there would no longer be any other family living upstairs. My older sister and I now shared the luxury of a third-floor bedroom all to ourselves. We even had our own bathroom. The previous occupants had left us blue wall to wall carpeting and pirate-themed wallpaper. Jolly Roger flagged galleons were manned by a collection of peg-legged and eye-patched old sailors. Some of the pirates, for some reason as large as their ships, floated mysteriously against the azure sky, brandishing curved scabbards and smoking muskets.
For several years around this time, Dad attended law school four nights a week, in addition to working all day. Weekends, he crashed. In our busy household, it seemed that Mother was always engrossed with our many younger siblings. (Sheila was the oldest, and I was number two of the eventual ten children in our Irish Catholic family.) Above all the hubbub, Sheila and I lived in our own little world. Most of the time, that meant parents and the little kids did not ascend the third-floor staircase. We could have Monopoly games going for days, and no babies would mess up the board. In exchange for this privilege, we were required to do our chores and to GO TO BED when told.
We hated turning off the lights at night. That third floor was dark. As a compromise, we negotiated to keep the bathroom light on and leave the door ajar just a crack, which allowed a thin sliver of light to pierce the shadows. Unfortunately, the light also hit against the wallpaper and lit up the pirates’ eyeballs, which glared out, menacingly. In preparation for this problem, I would put my Jesus, Blessed Virgin, and Holy Family fluorescent glow-in-the-dark statues directly next to the light bulb of our bedside lamp for several minutes before lights went out. Once darkness fell and the eyeballs glistened, I could line up my glowing Catholic talismans to defend me.
Then Peter Pan came to television, and Sheila and I were overjoyed to discover a world where little kids beat the pirates! Our game theme was set for the next few years. Like Peter Pan and Wendy, we felt in command and unafraid of the wallpaper menace. Unfortunately, though, we now faced an even worse peril: crocodiles. Crocodiles under the bed, ready to snap at your bare ankles. Crocodiles everywhere on the blue wall-to-wall sea. A trip to the bathroom became a mad dash on tiptoes. Sharp teeth loomed everywhere.
Sheila and I were avid readers, and books became our saviors. We kept stacks of them at the foot of our beds and spread them, like rose petals, beneath our feet as we moved about the room. They became our little islands on the ocean floor, and a nighttime trip to the bathroom was now accomplished by crossing our literary archipelago. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the C.S. Lewis books about Narnia, the Enid Blyton Adventure series… even babyish storybooks were used indiscriminately for protection. But heaven help you if you slipped off! A crocodile could crush your ankle in his powerful jaws in less than a second!
In bed, waiting for sleep to come, I would fantasize that Peter came for ME! He and I would fly off to Never Never Land, and live there forever. For months I even left our dormer window open a crack for him. If Dad felt the draft, he would tramp upstairs, huffing and swearing, “Jeez, waddya trying to do up here, heat up the whole town? Close the winda!” He’d slam the window shut with a bang, and I would scoot down under the covers, giving up on Peter for that night. “Maybe tomorrow,” I’d think, as I drifted off to sleep. The two fantasies coexisted peacefully; my fear of the crocodiles in our daily play was somehow detached from the dream to fly away and be free in a land where crocodiles roamed. I could picture myself swimming in paradise lagoons, perching in tree houses, and floating over exciting new scenery, like a cloud. No dishes, no homework, no diapers to fold and stack! I wanted to live in Never Never Land, have adventures, and never, ever grow up.
For Sheila and me, adults were just legs who wandered through our scenery, like in the Peanuts comic strip. And we were almost as independent of each other as we were of adults. We often shared helpful advice for each other, such as, “You don’t have enough books in your arms to make it all the way to the closet. Take more.” Or Sheila told me to try using old National Geographics; they worked just as well as hardcover books, and they weighed less. I shared with her my discovery that large, flat storybooks were the easiest to balance on – they provided a wide, solid foothold. But when it came right down to it, it was every kid for herself. No whining to parents to rescue us. Whether it was in real life or in the books we read, we believed that children could function almost totally without adults. And as we moved into the sixties, we continued to think that we could get along without adult help and never have to grow up.
Throughout it all, I generally felt quite capable of making sure I had enough books with me to get where I needed to go without ankle injury. Don’t get me wrong. Mother was a rock, and I depended on her for far more than I knew at the time. But, understandably perhaps in our large household, she was Mrs. No Nonsense, Mrs. No Time for Sentiment. “Time to get up. Peel these potatoes for dinner. Did you do your homework? Fold that basket of diapers, would you?” And as I mentioned, my father was just sort of not there, except to yell if we broke the rules. Never feeling particularly nurtured, not fearing the absence of warm bosomy embraces, I wasn’t afraid of leaving home.
I really couldn’t figure out what all that fuss was about the Lost Boys and Peter wanting a mother. I had a mother, and I didn’t feel any qualms at all about leaving her. Becoming part of a gang of lost children sounded like fun. In choosing a college and after, my siblings and I seemed to have a contest to see who could move away the farthest and stay away the longest. California, Wisconsin, Montana, Massachusetts, Louisiana, North Carolina… As each child graduated from high school, we received two suitcases as our graduation present, and off we went. For a while, we even had representatives in Zaire, Egypt, and Venezuela! And we took care of ourselves quite nicely, thank you, at least in all the practical things. We learned to make a living, and we saved dutifully for retirement, although none of us actually believed that retirement would ever come.
But time did pass. We Boomers couldn’t ignore it anymore. We began to diet and exercise.
And now both of my parents are gone. And since I’m in the famous first wave of Baby Boomers, I know that I’m not alone. We Boomers, who were never going to trust anyone over thirty; who, into our forties were still asking each other what we wanted to be when we grew up; and who have been fighting against the signs of age hitting us, have never really faced the ultimate impact of the passage of time on our parents, much less ourselves. While my sisters and I were nervously whispering about what we would do if Mother needed nursing home care, she slipped away. No nonsense, no fuss, a massive heart attack while we were sleeping, and we were cut adrift.
Suddenly I feel alone and exposed, surrounded by crocodiles. Funerals, estate attorneys, where to have Thanksgiving dinner this year, who to call for sympathy on that missed promotion. Do I take Social Security at 62 or wait it out to 67? Unexpectedly, I feel empathy for the Lost Boys. Sheila and I never felt like we had anyone to save us if we fell off our islands, but she and I, and our other brothers and sisters and friends have subtly, now, become each other’s islands. Like the Lost Boys, we are creating a new family structure for ourselves, hopefully one which will allow, even encourage, more closeness than before.
The pirates and crocodiles are out there, but just as we did up in our room on the third floor, we’ve discovered that we can create a new island refuge. And as each of us struggles to carry enough books to make it to where we need to go, we try to remember to look out for each other. The next few years will be tough ones, and we lost boys and girls will have to stick together.
For more stories like this one, I’ve published a memoir about growing up in this large family and caring for my youngest brother, who suffered from schizophrenia.