Sometimes it is the next door neighbor or the checkout lady at the store. Sometimes it is a friend’s mom or dad. Sometimes it is an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent or a teacher.
Their role is to provide a glimmer of hope, kindness, and a little bit of the love that by rights should come from the parent, but doesn’t; just enough to make life tolerable; just enough to get the child through the bitterness of life at home with some small sense of self-worth and the hope that the future might be better.
Benign and caring adults are remembered all your life, even if you passed through a less than dire childhood.
I can recall two men in my own life who showed kindness and an interest in me, whose connection felt good to me, who offered respect and seemed to enjoy the times that we talked. One would play catch with me on occasion, something I dearly treasured because my father was often at work. Mr. Maddock, our next door neighbor, was a handsome man with two sons of his own, but always had a good word and took the time to say it.
Another, Bob Hanel’s dad, a man tall and slender, talked baseball with me when he walked down the alley with his small dog. “Such a big man and such a small dog,” I remember thinking. He was blond, like his crew cut son. The younger Hanel, my older buddy Bob, became a dentist, I believe.
And, now that I think of it, there was the owner of a soda shop/candy store on Lincoln Avenue near Washtenaw, Mr. Sharon, who was loved by all the kids who frequented his establishment. A roundish and white-haired man with a warm and soothing manner, and a ready smile. He called me “son,” a common mode of address from a “stranger” to a male child in the ’50s and ’60s that implied a certain kind of protective relationship between a man and a boy.
A heart condition eventually laid Mr. Sharon low and he had to sell the store.
Ironic that his heart should have caused him trouble, because — for me at least — his heart was the best part of him.
I’m sure that adults who fill this saving role in the lives of troubled kids think nothing of what they are doing. They probably don’t know how tough it is for the child.
Parents usually succeed in hiding these things from the public. The household ethic is to keep up appearances. And the warning is never to talk about what happens inside the house while out of the house. Most children keep to this admonition, honoring the parents’ concern for reputation over reality, not wishing to disappoint mom or dad by an act that would be considered disloyal.
So much can be achieved for kids like this, just by being stable, smiling, asking a question, offering a cookie or a soft drink.
It means the world:
My last name begins with the letter “M.” Jane’s begins with “N,” so she sat behind me in the first grade. We lived just a block from each other. We became friends.
The first time I was allowed to go to Jane’s house, I was amazed at how different it was from my home.
Janes’s mother was out of bed, dressed, made meals, did laundry, cleaned their home and took Jane and her siblings places outside their house. I felt terribly sorry for them. Everyone knew that moms were supposed to lay in bed all day and give orders!
Making meals, cleaning, laundry, etc. were what the maid did. They didn’t even have a maid!
As I later realized, my mom’s illnesses were the kind that no doctor could diagnose, nor persuade my mother that they did not exist.
My family had more money that Jane’s. In retrospect, it must have been a hardship to keep feeding me, year after year, yet Mrs. N never even hinted that I should go home. Not even once.
Jane’s father came home every evening and had dinner with the family. Very strange. I wondered why he wasn’t always at work like my dad. Jane’s father wasn’t all that fond of my omnipresence, however.
I’m guessing Mrs. N never let him tell me to go away.
Over the years, Jane and I became inseparable. We spent almost every waking moment together. We did this at Jane’s house, rarely at mine. My home was bigger — had more room and more quiet. Neither one of us wanted to be there, although it was never discussed, simply understood. We played at her house, we ate dinner at her house, every weekend I slept at her house. This went on from age seven to approximately age 16.
During all this time, I never realized what a gift Mrs. N was to me. It was only much later that I came to understand that this woman probably saved me. I had a safe place to go. I had a place where no one criticized me. Where people were alive, not constantly “dying.” It was a relief not to be in the tomb I called home.
My mother believed that if something was easy for her, it should automatically be easy for me. One day she wanted me to swallow a Coricidin capsule. I couldn’t. My usually “bed-ridden” mother chased me around the house trying to force me to swallow. At last I was backed into a corner in the kitchen and told that I was going to swallow that pill or “I am going to know the reason why!”
It wasn’t a pretty day. Pill swallowing was enormously difficult for me. I don’t remember if I ever got that pill down.
As soon as I could, I fled to Jane’s house. Mrs. N made no comment about the incident. I’m not sure if it was then or a little later she suggested that if I put a tablet in a little applesauce, it might make it easier to swallow. It worked and mother never gave me grief about pills again.
As a young adolescent, I would run away from home, usually leaving in the middle of the night. I’d walk the streets of our neighborhood. Eventually, I’d head for Jane’s house and climb in the front window.
The first time this happened, Mrs. N was up waiting for me. My mother had called her looking for me. Somehow Jane’s mom knew that I’d show up at her house. She immediately called my mother, who had called the police. Mrs. N then said she would put me to bed with Jane.
For a couple of years, I ran away a lot. The police told my mother not to call them anymore. Eventually, she stopped noticing that I was gone. So, when I was ready to come back, I’d just crawl in through the window in Jane’s house, not my own. Mrs. N let me.
No critical comments.
She never, ever told me I was a bad kid who should stay home.
She never told me not to do it.
She simply accepted me.
On rare occasions, she would very subtly say something that led me to believe she didn’t approve of the way my family treated me. However, she never put down anything my family did.
Twice a year my father would take me shopping for seasonal clothes, to up-scale stores like Marshall Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue. I had nicer clothes and many more of them than Jane and her siblings. When, on occasion, Mrs N would be taking Jane and her other children shopping for clothes, she took them to what we called “schlock shops.” Basically, these were the counterparts of today’s Loehmann’s.
She would take me also. I wonder if she knew how wonderful it was to have a woman’s point of view and a “family” experience?
Mrs N never said a word, really. There was just her unending acceptance. I actually thought it was normal, unremarkable. After all, Jane and I were best friends. She never let me believe that I was getting anything special.
Mrs. N allowed me to be in every part of her family life throughout my entire childhood. I never wondered, until this very minute, if she loved me. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. I was not exactly a lovable child. Yet, she saved me. I don’t know if she did it consciously. Although I think she knew how desperately I needed her.
The years went by. Jane moved out-of-state. The only time I saw Mrs. N was when Jane came home for a visit with her husband, and later, their children. Once again, I fell back into Jane’s family. I hung-out at Mrs. N’s house whenever I could. She was still welcoming and accepting.
When I got married I asked Jane to be the matron of honor in our very small wedding. My husband and I had no plans after the ceremony. The next thing I knew, there was a luncheon following — given by Mrs. N at her home.
Mrs. N died a while ago. In adulthood, I often tried to tell her she saved me and how much I had come to appreciate her. She pooh-poohed me. Yet, she was always there for me, without my really knowing it.
That, I think, was the greatest gift of all.
The above image is I Wait, an 1872 photo of Rachel Gurney by Julia Margaret Cameron, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.