Zane Gray and Nancy Drew

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I wondered if Mom moved a lot on purpose, holding out for the day I wouldn’t find my way home. Moving all the time made me anxious, especially with not having a good sense of direction. I got around on my own, and as soon as I figured out how to get back and forth to a school, or to the Nazi dentist who crammed my cavities with glee and mercury, or to church to pray for forgiveness for what I’m not sure, we’d up and move. Mom wasn’t good with money and was often behind in the rent, so I imagine that’s why we kept moving. By the fourth grade I had gone to that many schools and lived in twice as many places. A good part of my childhood was spent balancing on street corners, trying to fathom which way to go, retracing my steps to start over, then getting hopelessly turned around. The problem with getting lost all the time is, after a while, everything starts to look familiar, and then you’re not even sure you’re lost. More than once I found myself wandering the neighborhoods, wishing I had breadcrumbs.

Cathy Clemens 2nd gradeI never thought of myself as abused (nobody ever hit me), nor thought of myself as latchkey kid (we never locked our door), but Mom wasn’t around much in the five years I lived with her. When she was, she escaped into sleep, her black eye mask blocking out the world, her small feather pillow covering her head, her round body hidden beneath her blankets. As a small girl, I watched her from the edge of the room, keeping vigil, waiting for her to rise from the void.

When she wasn’t sleeping, she escaped between the covers of books. She read everything, from hardcover historical fiction to paperback pulp: she read Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, she read True Crime and Detective Story. My mother and I shared a bed. It was soothing sleeping next to her, not so lonely. I remember one time I was sick; she let me rest on her. While she turned her pages, I lay my head on her soft stomach and listened to the sounds inside her, the gurgling and churning and popping commotion in her belly, the cadence of her heart, the passage of her breath. I wanted nothing more than to feel the rise and fall of her, to close my eyes and experience her warmth. She didn’t seem to mind. I loved the smell of her too; she smelled of Pond’s, with a dusting of Lily of the Valley. She smelled like flowers. I knew her by heart, and mine ached.

Her favorite magazines were Reader’s Digest and Cornet; she flipped through those while she ate; I loved Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse. We schlepped home stacks of books from the library, as many as we could tote without spilling words on the sidewalk. I loved reading too. I read comic books, cereal boxes, funny papers, Hansel & Gretel and Johnny Tremain, and our dictionary. Later I disappeared into Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. Reading saved us; it gave us other people’s lives to live.

Noreen Clemens

Our eyes were the same, a speckled hazel, but my mother’s were vacant. Sometimes she gave a little start and looked surprised when I passed in front of her line of vision, like she forgot I lived there too. She didn’t not like me; she was, well, she was just indifferent. Who knows, perhaps it wasn’t even indifference; maybe it was her bottles of pills, or maybe her bad eyes. She was myopic, almost blind without her glasses. The only person my mother was aware of was herself, dancing in her own galaxy to a drummer no one else could hear. It was confusing, wondering what she was thinking, attempting to make her happy, trying to figure out if she was even in there. After a while, I wasn’t sure I existed either.

Excerpt from Behind These Doors, A Family Memoir

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  1. Laura Dunning says:

    Oh my Catherine, this one makes me feel sad…

    • Laura, it makes me sad too. I reread it just now to see your perspective. As I watch my grandchildren grow, I sometimes look back and compare their life to mine at each age. That can also make me sad, but I’m happy they are well loved and cared for by so many, and I never take them for granted. My mother was about as useful a grandmother as she was a mother. I learned by her example how not to be. I’m also a better grandmother than I was a mother, but I imagine that is true for most of us.

  2. So sweet, vulnerable and poignant. You are are candle in the dark for those of us who did not grow up with June Cleaver mothers.

    • Thank you Linda. Family was dicey for many of us, and at times it did not go well. But if it’s true that we choose our parents (I scoffed out loud the first time I heard that), than there were certain lessons for me to learn this time around. Frankly though, I think I was in the wrong line. I would not want to live that childhood again, nor would I want any child to. But it gave me a resilience and a perspective that many don’t have, and I’m grateful for all the work I’ve done around it and how I turned out. I never really thought much about my growing up until I wrote the memoir, and was shocked how much I had locked inside. Maybe part of why I came in through that little girl was to make a difference for others by telling the story. We teach what we need to learn. I’m still in that process.

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