The Early Years

Chapter 1: the early years

I didn’t want to write my life story chronologically, but I keep feeling this spiritual pull to do that, so here goes. There is no easy way to tell almost 37 years of human experience concisely, so I will just do what I can. I think it’s an interesting story in many ways, but I am still trying to figure out what to learn from it all.

I was born near San Diego, California in the summer of 1980. My mother had turned 17 years old one month before. My father turned 20 a couple months beforehand. I don’t really know the story of my birth and now there is no one left that can or will tell it. I don’t know how labor started, or if it was difficult. I do know that my mother had a local anesthetic, but no epidural. My mother’s mother was there and fainted when she saw the large needle. My father wore his hair halfway down his back as evidenced by the pictures at the time. I wish I had those pictures, but sadly they are all gone, never to be recovered.

family photos_0018
Me, my Mom, my sister. Circa 1984

While I love my mother dearly, it was obvious that she did not make great choices for herself. I know from overhearing a conversation as a kid (maybe 10 or 11 years old) that my mom had at least one abortion before I was born. They did have birth control in the late 70’s, right? Anyway, my mother always told me that my birth was a miracle. I think I somehow filled a void within her, of loving her unconditionally the way that nobody else could. Although my parents were too young and often floundered in the parenting department, they were great parents. I’ve always known that my mom loved me so deeply. And my father too. My mom did not work outside the home until I was older, maybe in middle school. She was always there for me. She read to me constantly. She was my refuge in the storm of life.

I remember being scared of my own Dad and hiding behind my mother’s legs. I was an extremely shy girl who sucked her thumb until age 7 or 8. I slept with my parents until I was in kindergarten at least, and then after that, I remember climbing into bed with them in the mornings.

I remember Kraft mac and cheese and Nestle chocolate milk in a loopy straw. My dad worked really hard to provide for the family, and I’m pretty sure a good chunk of that money went toward eating out. My mom was not that great of a cook until I was much older. My dad always said she could burn water. I think I have inherited some of her cooking skills.

From my perspective as a scared child, life was unpredictable. My dad had many jobs, and although they tried to hide it, I was always aware of the drugs in the house. Pot, cocaine, speed along with the ever present alcohol and… I don’t even know what else. But I always knew to stay away from all the paraphernalia. One time my sister who was two years younger than me, dropped a bag of pot into a hole that had been punched or kicked in a wall. My parents were so mad! I do have a memory of my mom letting me take a drag off a joint. Coughing ensued on my part and laughing on hers. I think she was trying to distract me from a fight my dad and uncle were having.

But also, life was happy and my dad, especially, tried to make it fun. Whenever there was extra money, we would go to the San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld or even Disneyland. I have many memories of beaches and parks, birthday parties and cousins. My dad really wanted to provide a life that was full of fun. I think to him that meant he was succeeding because his life growing up was full of work. But my mother also provided a quiet backdrop. Walks to the library and laundromat, cartoons on TV, books, books, and more books. I guess it was a typical loving mom- fun dad kind of house.

1985 Denita kindergarten
My kindergarten picture.

I attended kindergarten in California. It was a half day afternoon class. (Neither my mother or me could have hacked a morning class with the way she allowed me to stay up until 2 and 3 am!) Halfway through the year, my dad lost his job as a trash man (that’s a story for it’s own post) and we moved into a 10 foot long travel trailer. We parked it at a friend’s house and stayed there until the end of the school year. I remember I sprained my ankle really badly in kindergarten and I have distinct memories of crawling around in their house on my hands and knees because I couldn’t walk. I remember Christmas that year. Our tree was a 12 inch tall potted plant with a few miniature ornaments on it. I got one set of Legos and fiercely loved that gift for a long time, keeping the legos in their separate spaces of the molded plastic the way it came.

I can remember that we would walk to the local school where I would get on a bus that took me to my school further away. I don’t really know the story behind that, but I think the local neighborhood school was full. My parents would always be there to pick me up after I got off the bus to walk a few blocks to where we were staying. One day they weren’t there. I thought I knew the way, so I started walking. As I passed by a larger vehicle parked in someone’s driveway, my dad jumped out and scared the daylights out of me. He said he had been watching me for a while. It was cruel but now it sounds like something I would do to my own kids!

I was a bright student probably because I started reading when I was 4 years old. I remember my parents being very proud of the fact that I was in the highest reading group, “the Bears.” I also remember art in kindergarten and singing 10 Little Indians as we sat in a circle on a carpet in front of my teacher. And I remember the dittos! Plus there were always boys who liked me. This never really stopped until 7th grade when I entered my awkward phase.

Just after kindergarten ended, our family moved to eastern Washington State. My grandparents had retired there, and would help my dad find work. We arrived on the 4th of July, 1986. We left behind my mother’s parents, brother, sister and the cousins that were really more like siblings to me.

I have so many more memories of these California years, but that is the gist of the first few yeas of my life. Perhaps the thing for me to realize is that love conquers all. I may not have had the best parents or the most solid upbringing, but I knew I was loved. Thanks for that Mom and Dad.

Background, Middle and High School, The Early Years

Football.

I am watching This is Us. We are on the episode when the Pittsburg Steelers win the Super Bowl. The conversation about their Dads watching football reminds me of my own Dad. He was a die-hard San Diego Chargers fan.

Professional football provided the background sound of my childhood. Sometimes it got annoying, having to make sure we weren’t blocking my Dad’s line of sight to the TV or being too loud. Actually, I don’t think he ever minded our noise. I don’t know that he even  paid attention to the commentators, because he sure was in his own world when watching football.

I remember one time he told us kids that his parents didn’t let him play sports when he was in school. He really wanted to, but they couldn’t afford it and didn’t think it was an appropriate use of time when there were chores to be done. My dad was the youngest of seven children.

When I was fifteen years old, I had had enough with football. This thing that dominated every weekend between August and February every year, I was done with it. So I asked my dad to explain the game. Naturally. Even though I had fifteen years of football watching experience behind me, I did not get it. (My conservative estimates put that at roughly 500 hours of football!) He explained the basics of the game, and it made my TV viewing experiences much more enjoyable. And then my senior year of high school I was a football cheerleader (don’t read into that too much). For a while there I really loved football.

These days I am the wife of a former player and mom of a future football player, and I completely understand why parents would not allow their son to play football. The fear of motherhood is not to be messed with.

I am at a point in my story that I am not sure how to explain football and my love-hate relationship with the sport. Do I embrace its influence in my life, or do I delve into creating some sort of symbolism with it? When we tell the stories of our lives, how much do we emphasize the positive and minimize the negative? Isn’t it funny that in the current moment, the opposite is true? We tend to emphasize the negative and ignore the positive. So I guess I will just leave it at that. Football: a neutral force in my life, both positive and negative, a balancing and evocative trigger of memories.

Baby-making years, Background, Germany, Homeschooling years

In Retrospect

My husband says I am never happy. Of course that’s not entirely true, but what he really means is that I am never content. I am always looking to the next thing. After we were married and still newlyweds, I really wanted a baby. Even though we were young and both finishing college, it seemed like the thing that would make my life perfect. Later, when our beautiful little girl came along, the transition to full-time motherhood was really hard. I had spent my entire life getting good grades and proving myself to others through academic performance and all of a sudden there was no one giving me that A+. That combined with my ingrained desire to be The Best was the perfect storm for a huge hit to my self-esteem. Looking back, I think that was the beginning of me feeling really lost in my life.

Of course raising a baby keeps you pretty busy, so I didn’t really think about it all that much. It’s only now in retrospect that I can see what was happening. And I do think I was a pretty good mom, but one with really low self-esteem. The things of life took over: we bought and sold a house, we moved states, bought another house, had another baby, and then a third right on the heels of the second. Those years are still a blur in my mind. My second and third children are only 21 months apart and there are days (or weeks?) that I just don’t remember at all. The status of BUSY kept me from figuring out why I didn’t ever feel content.

P1000477

When that third baby came along, my oldest was starting kindergarten and there is a huge learning curve in that whole rigamarole. When she went to first grade, it all just felt wrong. I loved the preschool years, but sending my kid off to school for 7 hours a day only for her to return home hungry, tired and grumpy left a bad taste in my mouth. So, for that reason and many others, I started down the path of homeschooling my kids.

This seemed to be an almost-thriving part of my life. I had always pretended to be a teacher as a kid, and it just came naturally to me. It was still really difficult, especially with a preschooler and a baby underfoot as well as a second grader. But I liked it! It gave me a sense of doing good and spending my time well the way nothing else since becoming a mom had.

Five years of that went by and suddenly our family was faced with an opportunity to move to Germany temporarily. What homeschooling family doesn’t take advantage of that? “It’ll be a grand adventure! We can learn another language! What a great bonding time!” we said. The pickle was that homeschooling is illegal in Germany. We are not a military family so if we took that plunge, it would shift our lifestyle tremendously. “But it is only temporary, two years max.”

And here we are, seven months into our stint in Germany. The kids, especially the oldest who was more than ready to dive back into public school already, are doing well and love their school. It keeps them busy.

But me? Well, not so much.  I get up with the kids and get them off to school, making them breakfast and lunches before they stampede out the door at 7:15 am. While my husband goes off to work all day supporting teams both here in Germany and in the U.S. eight time zones away, I am home.

IMG_6180

Because I am not accountable to anyone for how I spend my time, I have gotten really lazy. This makes me feel very guilty. I have a hard time not being productive with every minute of my time. And since the dust has settled on our international move, the silence of my days has been very loud. I am not busy. I don’t have friends or extended family vying for my time. We rent a house so we are not responsible for home improvement projects. I am involved in some church responsibilities, but it doesn’t take much of my time. I don’t work because I don’t speak the language. I actually thought I would spend this time getting some years-in-the-making projects done, but I don’t work on them.

Why not? I am living someone else’s dream life– seems like I should be able to write a novel or something. But instead I sleep a lot and pretty much just figure out what is for dinner and make sure all the dishes and laundry are getting done. I don’t even watch TV or movies; they make me feel like I am wasting my time- oh the irony! And I just feel…. lost. It’s like all the silence has made me realize that my soul hungers for something more. I am missing the passion and purpose in my life.

I have wondered if I am suffering from depression. It is a thought that has come up in my mind regularly over the years. I have lost my ability to feel happy for more than a fleeting moment. I am often angry. I remind myself of my mother and in many ways that scares me. I have no doubt that she was depressed.

I don’t want mental health issues to be a part of my story, but sometimes we don’t get a say in how the story of our lives unfold. And sometimes the protagonist in the story only has their own demons to overcome. I am certain there will be a time when this chapter is  behind me. Today I am trying to make it so.

Background

Absorbing Responsibility

My whole life I have absorbed responsibility for everything and everyone. I suppose it goes along with trying to control all the details.

When I was in kindergarten, my dad lost his job because he slept through his alarm and got to work late. I was awake and heard the alarm going off, but I didn’t know if I should wake him up, or if there was some reason he wasn’t getting up. (The mind of a 5 year old!) For years I blamed myself for the fact that my dad lost his job and as a result we had to move across the country to a place where my mom was unhappy the rest of her life.

P1000010Growing up, I was always the responsible child.  I remember one time I was sitting on my grandparent’s deck when my mom yelled for me (we lived on grandparents’ property for a while). When I came back later, she asked what my mom wanted. I told her I had to pour a glass of milk for my sister. I remember my Grandma shaking her head and telling me someday I would be grateful. I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me then, but over the years it became clear. I always had to watch out for my sister- make sure she brought her coat home or else she would lose one every week. In high school I remember finding a trail of papers someone had obliviously dropped as they walked along, only to find out it was my own sister with her backpack wide open, clueless as to what was happening around her.

My younger sister was, shall we say, a dreamer. My parents expected me to be responsible for her, but I think I took it too far. After we were both adults I still found myself giving her all the “you shoulds” until I had an epiphany: I didn’t need to be her mother anymore! I could just be her sister and listen and nod along without judgement as I would for anyone else. She was an adult. She could make her own choices and mistakes, and I no longer needed to take ownership of her faults as well as my own. Once I did that, our relationship got better over night.

IMG_5069Also in high school, I would feel so guilty for asking my parents for money when I had an away tennis game or other activity that required dinner out. They would give me $5. I would bring back the 32 cents, knowing that money was tight and I could at least do that much. My mother’s anxiety about money made me anxious and worried.

P1000230My parents always had a rocky relationship. Some of my earliest memories were of them fighting with each other. Thankfully, I never worried about them hurting each other physically, but in many ways the emotional scars were worse. When I was about twelve years old, my Mom asked me if I thought she should leave my dad. I distinctly remember feeling torn: I desperately wanted my mom to be happy, but I was afraid of how life would change if they separated. And of course somehow I figured that I could be responsible for keeping the peace and making them happy– that somehow if only I did more chores, or got good grades, or babysat my little sister more often– things would be okay.

P1000085Today I still feel like my little efforts can make a big difference. I still tend to absorb responsibility in places where I don’t need to. I could say that one of my life’s mantras is:

If you find yourself thinking, “Someone should _______,” then that someone is probably you!

For example, I feel passionately about recycling. If only everyone would recycle, maybe we could save the earth! I’ve seen a need at church and started a Facebook group to fill the need. Nobody asked me, I didn’t ask for permission, I just did it. When my husband is stressed I tend to get sympathy pains. If he has an upset stomach, I get one too. If he has a sore neck, I get one the next day.

IMG_6512Absorbing responsibility can be debilitating. No child should feel like anything their parents do or don’t do is their fault. No young person should feel so much weight on their shoulders, but be focused on creating their own fabulous life story, supported by their family. (This is not to say that children and young adults should shirk reasonable responsibility.) And no person should feel like if they fail, something bad will happen. I am trying to adopt the philosophy of just doing your best and the rest will fall into place. How faithless it is to feel like you have responsibility for everything and everyone around you! God is good, He will lift you up.