Ruth Chamberlin portrait

Here I am, sitting straight, holding the ball, in rolled-down socks and hard-soled shoes and a dress my mother sewed. By all appearances, a treasured child. Yes! I was! Yet I grew up insecure. Babies’ perceptions — and misconceptions — can last a lifetime. Getting free of a life sentence takes work, but it’s worth it!

Does this happen to you? Things aren’t going so well, say, with a friend or spouse, when a kiddy-grump jumps into your head, some sad saying that granted secret power when you were small. It made you a prophet! You predicted “this” — whatever wasn’t going so well — would happen again, and it did! That proved it! Your saying was true.

It wasn’t. It was a child’s hidey-place, a child trying to figure out life from a child’s view. A “life sentence.” Can it be overturned?

I didn’t do a wide search for others’ experiences. Well, not wide at all. Two friends. One, an adopted, gifted artist, responded, “Yes! I think people watch me, saying, ‘She can’t do it, she can’t finish anything!’” She guessed that most of us have “life sentences,” and she urged me to write about them.

The other, who spent childhood in Africa and attended boarding school, emailed, “Life sentences … I like the double entendre of the phrase. Here are some of mine … ‘I will always be an outsider, always marginal, always on the outside looking in,’ not a terminal illness but prone to tying cold fear-knots in my gut. ‘I will say awkward and abrupt things, and people will dismiss my words. I won’t be heard. I will be abandoned again, lose connection.’ (They) linger and hunker, like hippos under river water and come to the surface in anxious thoughts and turbulent emotions.”

One of mine is, “I’m left out.” A scene: It’s fall in northern Minnesota, and I’m five or six, riding in the backseat with younger brother Morris, wrigglingly eager to get to Swan Lake. We’d left home after Dad’s shift at the mine, so by the time he pulls up to the cabin — crunch on gravel — it’s twilight. The cabin windows glow orange. The place rocks. Aunt Katherine, Uncle Ernie, their kids and extra uncles are there, plus relatives from Ernie’s side. Katherine fixes coffee, slices flat bread, fills the table with hot dishes. Ernie pulls pranks on the kids. Aunties lay out their famous foods, and uncles sit and slow-talk, eyeing the table but pretending not to. Kids chase each other, and play the hand-crank Victrola and hoot at the whining bass voice, the slow-down winding, “Reeeeeeeead ‘em and weeeeeeeeeeep,” the tone so low it drags the floor. They imitate the voice and shriek and play it again.

I don’t see or hear any of this. Rather, I see and hear it late. I’m asleep when we arrive. Mom and Dad let me sleep while they take Morris indoors, along with Mom’s pearled barley casserole, potted-meat-and-egg-salad sandwiches, pulla Finnish sweet bread, two kinds of cookies, and a three-layer cake with boiled frosting.

I wake up, and it’s dusk. I peer at the orange panes, at people having fun. No one comes to get me.

I sob and scream. Left out! Forgotten! Finally (eternity to me, probably a couple minutes), a shirttail teen-cousin rescues me. My hero!

My parents intended no harm. But I soak up my fears. I’m an afterthought.

There’s more to the story. I grew up sensing responsibility for something I couldn’t define or give, believing I was missing something from my mother. I differed from my math-tech-whiz brothers. I was a reader, writer, daydreamer. I fell short, it seemed. Even as an adult, if I felt slighted by someone, I’d think, “No matter how hard I try, it’s never enough.”

Then, in my 40s, in graduate school, I read a statement that crumpled me. My individual American Studies program led to John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Robert Karen on mother-child attachment, and one day I found this: A woman who suffers the loss of a child, perhaps by miscarriage or infant death, may have difficulty bonding with her next child, out of fear of losing this child, too.

My mother lost her first baby to stillbirth, the year before I was born. I had known this fact. I knew the baby’s name was Janet. But I had never faced my mother’s grief.

Now I wept for my mother. Of course she felt tentative with a new baby, loving me breathlessly, wanting nothing bad to happen to this baby, too. My infant self took her breathlessness as distance. I believed I was not quite the right child, a perception that lasted into adulthood, despite Mom’s sturdy love.

Before she died, we connected — profoundly, as if in recognition of what we shared, eye to eye, smile to smile. And these days, I have happy tears. I talk to her in heaven, sorry for my flibberty-jibberty-ness, my tendency to flit, to not stay still long enough to know her better. I thank her for her kindness, her gentle ways. I thank her for the clothes she sewed for me, brown corduroy jumpers, red plaid pleated skirts, and those we sewed together, college dresses of Pendleton wool, lacy wedding gown. I smile at her graciousness. She was in her 70s, when, prior to flying back to the West Coast with Dad after visiting us in Atlanta, she, my quiet teetotaler mother, packed into her suitcase (very carefully) a gift from Sharon, our gregarious African-American neighbor — a Mason jar of moonshine.

We didn’t say, “I love you,” out loud in our family. It got said in actions. But here I say it out loud and in public: “Mom, I love you!” Also, “Hi, Janet! We’ll be sisters again someday!” Thus is dispelled the power of a life sentence, or two or three.

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