What’s the Story #60

There are lovely moments of childhood, but the stories we most remember are sad or even tragic

If you want to see something that will warm your heart—and then maybe make you laugh out loud or shake your head in amazement—Google childhood and click on Images.

You’ll see hundreds, maybe thousands, of portraits of loveliness and sheer happiness, connoting joy, pleasure, innocence. Kids hiking in pristine woods, playing games in the park, finger-painting, blowing bubbles, cavorting with beach balls. Babies with doting parents. There’s a little boy with a bowl of spaghetti overturned on his head, eating and giggling. All the children are beautiful, well groomed, dressed neatly. Most are white.

What the hell is this all about? I thought, scrolling. I don’t remember any of these scenes from my childhood. How in the hell did I miss the happiness boat, here?

Childhood has been on my mind lately—not only because it is the theme of this issue, but also because, for the past couple of years, off and on, I have been trying to write a memoir about aging. About what it is like to be getting older. (OK, fine: old.) I’ve been contemplating the health problems I may soon face and the decisions I need to make about my work or the end of my work, remembering and reliving my mistakes in marriage, fatherhood, on and on. And, too, I should say, my good fortunes and lucky breaks. But every time I start a story or try to confront these issues, I find I am thrust back to the beginnings of my life, to experiences that make me uncomfortable, even now. This is the stuff that made me who and what I am today.

Like being locked in my room or in the basement because I misbehaved. Being denied membership in a high school club of the most popular kids in school and feeling ostracized. Being teased and called names like “Tons-of-fun” or “blubber-belly” because I was so fat. I didn’t wear the fashionable Ivy League clothes like my peers, and I lived in a tiny walk-up apartment, squeezed into a cluttered bedroom with my two brothers, while my classmates, children of attorneys and physicians and CPAs, played Ping-Pong in their game rooms and watched TV in spacious living rooms in comfortable houses with neatly manicured lawns. Where were the beach balls when I was five? Why wasn’t I that little boy giggling with delight with spaghetti dripping from his head?

To be fair, my parents were hardworking folks who did their damnedest to take care of their kids in the best way they knew how, more or less. We did go to the beach on mini-vacations. We had a car. The neighborhood we lived in was shabby, but safe. My childhood was, if nothing else, acceptable and adequate.

But “acceptable and adequate” is not really much of a starting point for a story. Read Kathryn Harrison, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls, Pat Conroy. There are lovely moments of childhood in all of their memoirs, but the stories that grab us, the ones we most remember, are sad or even tragic, or downright spooky or frustrating.

The stories in this issue represent the contributors’ most memorable childhood experiences, none of which I found reflected in Google’s images. In this issue, we join Kristi Murray Costello and her family on their Sunday house-hunting expeditions, doomed before they even get in their run-down (but still running!) car. We go clubbing with Brian Broome, who desperately wants to be part of the in-group in his school and who tries to dance his way to popularity and a sense of belonging.

Judith Barrington, the grand prize essay winner, recalls her unusual relationship with her older neighbor, whose house she passed every afternoon on the walk home from the bus. Brendan M. Collins remembers the time he and a friend watched the neighborhood’s older boys dump a body in the woods. Beth Ann Fennelly never forgot the day when her dad marched her and her sister to church through a blizzard, completely underdressed. Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade have a cool collaborative essay about the National Toy Hall of Fame, interspersed with their experiences with certain toys. (“We had The Game of Life, but we never played it, not even once. I have my hunch as to why. My father always said, ‘Too many choices can be dangerous. …’”) And in this issue’s Exploring the Boundaries feature, Carrie Barker enlists the alphabet, one of the first structures we learn as children, to reveal and make sense of an unspeakable secret in her family—definitely not an image that comes up when you Google childhood.

These essays are powerful and compelling and memorable, suspenseful and eye-opening—and, at times, amusing—capturing what childhood was all about for these writers. They offer a true-to-life portrait of childhood, without sugarcoating. The writers in this issue are opening up their hearts and telling stories that will inspire and touch you, and bring back memories of your own childhood experiences: the good, the bad, and the biting truth, which is what creative nonfiction is always all about.

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About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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