DISCLAIMER: This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this post (at least intentionally – I will have to contact my therapist to confirm). Rather, it is a still from a January 2017 episode of CHICAGO PD in which I played a protester outside of a church. I, and perhaps a hundred other performers, acted in very cold conditions for two full days, weathering startlingly cold food in addition to weathering the weather, and the final footage, when edited by hands steadier than mine, came up to less than a minute. So, as a tribute to my time on set, I’ve included it here.
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What I find most troubling about my childhood isn’t so much the missing swaths of time, but that the moments that are clearest in my mind are annoyingly disturbing. Let me take you to my very first memory. I was 13 months old. September 1966. I did not have a concept of a calendar at that young age; instead, it was only in retrospect that I realized it was a birthday party for my Grandmother Lucy, and her birthday fell in September. Everyone in the family is gathered around a large table in what was to become our TV room, once Dad bought the obligatory huge color set with the remote that physically moved the inner workings of the TV set with a CLUNK so we could switch between the five available channels without getting up.
As I say, everyone was gathered around the table, at the center of which was a cake. I recall everyone singing “Happy Birthday” (perhaps it was this unnatural din which awoke my consciousness and created my first memory). I was, as you might imagine, very small indeed, so I had to reach way up high just to hang onto the rim of the table, which I was doing precariously, as releasing my grip would certainly make me fall on my big, fat and no doubt full diaper. In that very moment, which I can still see with my mind’s eye to this day, I realized I was peripheral to everything. I didn’t know this bizarre song or the language it was spoken in. I was unable to participate in any way. And I was one stubby finger away from falling far away from sight from everyone around the table.
Another very early memory has implanted itself in my head, but it is only because the story was regaled to me by my mother in recent years. Apparently, I was an insanely happy baby. I never cried. I was happy to sleep, happy to wake up, happy to poop, happy to hide under the kitchen sink, happy to do some exploratory work on the parents’ stereo (which, like most stereos of the time, measured about five feet long and three feet high and was made of heavy, heavy wood). At times, I think I was probably the happiest during that period compared to any other period in my life. In any event, as my mother tells it, my maternal grandfather was starting to worry about this smiling, peaceful baby, thinking that something must indeed be wrong with me. Perhaps I was retarded. So he pinched my leg hard. And I started bawling. Crisis averted for my grandpa, at least.
I even recall my first nightmare, which must have come when I was about five. In that dream, I am in our side yard on Washington Street in the Mayberry-like town of Morris, Illinois, and my mother comes running out of the back door. She’s running towards me frantically, trying to warn me about something. But whatever horrible thing it is catches up with her and turns my dear mother into a stoplight – one of those old-timey ones, painted green, which stands on street corners and has shields above the red, yellow and green, not unlike golfers’ visors. She has been transformed and the stoplight she has become bends painfully, still trying to get to me before metal envelops skin and she is stuck in the middle of the yard, blinking red.
At that point, someone unseen grabs me and throws me over their knees. I realized I was in for a spanking of some sort, and I am looking down at concrete steps. That’s all I can see. I don’t know why I’m being spanked, but some authority figure has determined it is necessary, either for them or me – but probably not for me. The whacks of the spanking, which sound like thunderclaps, come so hard and fierce that I vomit out my own tongue. It falls out of my mouth and onto the concrete step, looking like a severed bit of strawberry, surrounded by something that looks like strawberry syrup mixed with saliva, which I take to be blood from my severed tongue.
I’m sure there were days, months and years of bliss in there somewhere, but the moments which step to the fore are always the ones above. At that point, I believed wholly in Jesus Christ and God and Santa, so I was convinced for years this was their way of telling me I wasn’t wanted. Like, at all. This was no fault of my parents, although memories of both are more tainted than they are clear, but rather little moments that, for one reason or another, decided to imbed themselves in my psyche. These horrific little bits of theater follow me to this day.
The current nightmare that is jostling around in my head lately is similarly morose. In the dream, I am an extra on a film set. And at one point, I realize it’s not a film. It’s life. And I’m in extra’s holding, staring at cold food, unable to convince anyone that I shouldn’t be there. (This can connect to the photo after all! Woo hoo!)
At times when all of these memories and dreams decide to visit, and they visit more frequently than I would like, I try to think that it’s a shame I’m not more broken. Really broken people can be really successful. I’m just the kind of broken that makes me broken.
I wish my parents had forbade me toys.