My childhood was one of flight and narrow escapes. By the time I was five, my original father had signed over his parental rights to me. I was a rusted heap on blocks in the yard, and he handed the title to someone else. My second father gave me his name and his expectations, his storms and disappointments.
Before I was eight, I knew how alcohol could make a grandmother become a stranger, passed out and smelling of urine. Her absence made room for my grandfather’s groping hands, sneaky and demanding.
Before I was fifteen, I had spent far too much time thinking about suicide.
By the time my grandmother sobered up and my grandfather was so scared of getting caught that I could start learning to breathe, by the time my original father died without answering the only letter I ever wrote him, I had taken into my bones all their lessons about weakness, control, power, and pretending.
For all the bad in it, I actually manage to think of my childhood as being pretty happy most of the time, and I owe that to finding detours out of real life. At home with my parents, I swept down most of those roads in the pages of books that led me to Oz and Avonlea, London and Baby Island. Books were a hatch to other worlds, and staying quiet helped my dad stay calm and kept me off his anger radar. If I was careful not to get too lost in the pages and forget to do something he told me to, I could live impossible lives for a little while.
Because of all the big magic within them, books required quiet and a safe space; they were immersive and not an option when I had to stay aware of the world around me. Books were out of the question when my grandfather was lurking, waiting for a moment alone with me, waiting for my grandmother to take her first drink of the day. Luckily for me, there was always television.
When I spent summer weekdays with my grandparents, my mornings slipped away outside, finding things to “get into” around the yard or on the second floor of the garage that had once been my great-grandmother’s apartment but was now a shadowy, unlit storage heap. Sometimes I would ride my bike with my oldest friend on the lane or we would see if the twins were outside and play with them for a while. Eventually I would wander back to the house and fix something to eat for lunch. Sometimes I would pay half-attention to my grandmother’s “stories” on the TV screen, but Another World didn’t hold much interest. Sometimes I would watch the soap opera for a while; I had a little crush on the character of Rachel. There was something strong but soft in her face that pulled at me. I was too bored to watch an entire episode, but I tended to stick around the house even so, because when the soaps were over I was allowed to have the set to myself to watch Mr. Cartoon. After grabbing a Popsicle or a washed-out Vienna sausage can filled with red Kool-Aid powder and sugar, I would remind my grandmother, “Holler for me when Rachel is almost over.” Most days I could tell she had already been drinking and would be passed out long before the show finished, so I hovered near the porch where I could hear the closing theme music. After the credits rolled, WSAZ handed the next hour over to Mr. Cartoon and Beeper. By the time it was over every day, I was even more convinced that Tom was a very bad cat, that Wile E. Coyote must be pretty dumb to keep trying, and that Bugs Bunny was, indeed, a stinker. The best days included Witch Hazel with her crazy flying hairpins and that pre-Calvin boy who was always getting sent to his room to have delicious fantasies.
I didn’t see my grandparents as much during the school year and I spent most of my time reading at home, tucked in my tiny room. After dinner I was allowed to watch television with my parents; I thought Carol Burnett had the funniest show in the history of life and I had a little crush on Doc, sailing along on The Love Boat. It was a rare treat to get to stay up for one of my favorites, Fantasy Island; it came on past my bedtime, but sometimes I could manage to watch it if I gave my dad a shoulder massage and he sort of forgot what time it was. I was heartbroken that I wasn’t allowed to watch Taxi – stupid bedtime! – because it had the most beautiful theme music I had ever heard.
Most of my viewing at home was dictated by my parents, and I hated Sundays when my dad was in charge because he never wanted to watch anything interesting. Saturday mornings, though – cartoon day! I got up early, crept quietly down the stairs, fixed a bowl of cereal, and turned the television on low, sitting with my nose practically on the screen to hear it, happily skipping from channel to channel to watch my favorites. After my parents woke up and came downstairs, they indulged my love of Captain Caveman and Grape Ape, letting me retain control of the television and turn the volume up for Scooby Doo and Jabberjaw. Sometimes my mom would even sing along to the Jetsons’ theme song. Eventually all the stations would resume their normal (boring) weekend offerings of westerns and war movies, and I would find something else to do.
After my baby sister was born, my mom stopped working for a few years to stay home with her. During that time, I would rush home from school to play with the baby for a while and then settle in for an hour of CHiPs. I suspect my mom was a little amused at my love of this show, but the black-and-white of it appealed to me: there were clear good guys and clear bad guys, and cool motorcycles, and mysteries to solve, and the bad guys always got punished. In a childhood where the bad guys got away with it, the show presented a world I really wanted to be part of. Even though the program was supposed to represent real life, it was as much a fantasy for me as Fraggle Rock. That need for order and justice somewhere in my life also led me to The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I. Even now that I have some distance and peace about my childhood and the crimes it hid, I am drawn to the satisfaction of whodunit shows where the mystery is always solved and the evil is always destroyed.