Earliest memory: potty training toilet. Third birthday, flying to Oklahoma. Series of early dreams where great-grandmother was decapitated, or my penis broke off. Early memory of a visit to Indiana that took place when I must have been three or four. Brothers’ rooms, visiting cousin and friend. The old volkswagen, the old truck and green car. Doing woodworking with my dad and brothers. Making a crude box while theirs were very nice with even cuts. Dad’s den where he read and smoked. R showing me Dad’s beer stash. Dad’s darkroom where he developed photos and let me join him. An old lamp that I burned my finger on. The garage door with jagged aluminum in the place where the door is hinged and slamming my finger in it. The dogs–Steiner and Tanya. Steiner was big and seemed like he wanted to eat me. Tanya was smaller and nice. Both German Shepherds. My first watch–a little plastic casio. My first calculator–a little TI calculator Mom brought me as a gift for the newborn little brother. The daycare she took me to before I was in kindergarten–only had to go a few times. A kid threw a rock at me and hit me in my eye. I sobbed for a bit, but never told anyone. I remember making fun of a little person at the grocery store, and my mom getting extremely mad at me. Picking up a five dollar bill at the store, and she made me return it. I remember wanting pop tarts so bad, that I stole some, and ran around the house and ate them.
I remember the first time I had the feeling I might not be quite like other boys–I had made a card for Grandpa John, and tried to make a joke by using his name and Long Johns — what we called thermal underwear back then. Mom had told me that Grandpa John liked jokes, and I wasn’t even going to put it on the card until she said he did. I can remember him just staring at me with a steely gaze, and I knew that he hated it. I must have been five then, because we’d gone to Florida. I can remember the first trips to Florida–the Everglades house, where I got to sleep out in a screened in porch and loved it. The youth rec center nearby that blasted disco music — “Let’s hear it for the boy…” very vividly remember that, and R and R wanted to go hang out with these kids and I think Mom let them, but she would let me go because I was four or five. And then, after a few years visiting Grandma (who shared a birthday with me) and Grandpa John in the Everglades, they bought a much nicer house in Naples, and that’s where we visited them in 1985.
But, I jumped ahead a lot. I went to kindergarten for about a month at a private Christian school, but my parents couldn’t afford to pay for it. I went free because my mom got a teaching job there. Then, the class she taught got too small for them to keep her on, and so they let her go, and I had to move to a public kindergarten that was in my neighborhood. Mrs. Walker. I remember the teacher’s name and she had long hair and was kind of on the chunky side and dressed up like a witch for Halloween. At the Christian school, I can only recall that there was a kid who was a girl, but I thought for sure she was a boy even though she wore girly clothes.
I didn’t get an inkling that my childhood was going to be different from other kids until we moved to Missouri. While still in Colorado, in the first grade I went to for a month or two, I can remember talking to a kid that I thought was going to be my new best friend about the movie ET. He thought it was really cool, and didn’t seem to react poorly when I told him I hadn’t seen it. I didn’t know that my parents were going to ban virtually every movie and TV show made after 1960 from entering my fragile soul. I didn’t get to see a modern movie until I went on a sleepover at the age of eleven or twelve. My dad would make fun of me when I complained about this, but I still feel like I had a valid complaint, even though I couldn’t articulate it–the fact that I was left out of almost every single social conversation on the playground and at the cafeteria table because I hadn’t watched the shows and seen the movies was making a difference in how well I adjusted with others, whether my dad and mom wanted to admit it or not.
But, my divergence continued rapidly. After the third grade, I began to clearly see myself as being different than everyone else in more ways than a few. My mom pulled us out of the local Baptist church where a lot of kids from school went, and put us into a Holy Roller church some twenty miles away from where we lived, where the only other kid my age most Sundays was the pastor’s kid, and he was weird and contemptuous of everything and everyone. I barely got along with him. I hung out with him by default.
Then, the issues brought into the family by my two older adopted brothers seemed to be reaching a breaking point, as my dad was constantly fighting with my oldest brother. One day, in 1984, when I was eight, R got in a fight with my mom over a friend who sold drugs, and he hit her, and my mom called my dad who came racing home, threw a tea jar at R, and then chased him off with his pistol. I knew this wasn’t happening to other kids, because I’d started to kind of befriend a kid who lived across the street from me who was a year younger than me.
However, I still thought that my weirdness and being different than other kids was socially accepted, that the other kids more or less took me as I was, and I continued to speak up a lot in class and participate in cafeteria and recess chit chat as much as I could.
I would like to think that a break took place inside my consciousness when I started to hit puberty. It was more than just the usual painfully shy self awareness, and the awkwardness of adapting to a changing body. It was as if my very core personality changed drastically. At this point, I knew that I was a much older person on the inside who didn’t want to spend the next six to ten years continuing to clown around and try to fit in with the kids around me. Only, I didn’t hold this close enough to me to make it happen.
Sometimes I wish the break had never occurred, and I’d remained an oblivious boy/man like this kid I knew in college who kept popping up in a bunch of my classes. He would ask the dumbest questions, and had no self awareness whatsoever. But, he integrated socially with a fraternity, drove a jeep, and had a girlfriend. What good is trying to be your true self if your true self scares almost everyone away?
I see this happen every time we go to church. The pews fill up around my wife and me. People will sit as close to the aisle as possible on her side, and people will cram into pews in front and behind us so they don’t have to sit next to me. People will perfunctorily smile and nod when I try to greet them, like they are making a huge effort to be polite. And then, when they see anyone at all behind me, their faces light up, and they exclaim with delight just how happy they are to see those other people.
How do I change this narrative? It’s not like I haven’t tried. I participate in social events outside of church, and briefly, it feels like I might be making friends. And then, a couple weeks away, getting busy with trying to get the house ready or attending a wedding. And, it’s like I’m visiting for the first time, only it’s worse.
The story of my life has been one of forever trying to adjust socially with wherever I land, and finding people much less than receptive to me than I would have expected. For me, “just be yourself” never works. If anything, that is the sure ticket to scaring away everyone. Just being someone else seems to work better when it comes to being around other people.