The summer before fifth grade, my stepdad and the beagle he’d taken with him in the split, picked up my mother, brother, and I and whisked us off to a new apartment in a new town. After a year of separation, of living in my grandparents’ living room, we were going to be a family again. With my child’s eyes, I saw nothing but hope and promise.
By sixth or seventh grade, my parents’ relationship started backsliding. As I wrack my brain, I can’t recall anything being unpleasant. It was all flowers and rainbows. Except in reality, a fuzzy reality that only appears to me in tiny unpleasant, out-of-sequence images, it was not as Leave it to Beaver as I like to think. It wasn’t horrible, the way some childhoods are, but there were issues that in retrospect were not as well hidden as my mother would have liked.
These not-well-hidden issues manifested in stress illnesses in me. I had headaches and bad stomachaches all the time and was always missing school, going into Boston to see one specialist or another. My parents tried to make the visits fun, and all these years later, one of my strongest and happiest memories was the day we went to the Boston Common after one of the appointments. There was a man feeding pigeons and they hopped up on him. I was impressed but Dad said it was just the peanuts, and if I sat very still and gave them nuts, they’d jump on me too. Pictures in an album of a chubby twelve-year-old with frizzy hair and a rugby shirt, with her arms outstretched, pigeons lined up on her arms and hands, remind me that it actually happened. That day was magical.
There are a lot of random vignettes from those days: playing cribbage and Scrabble with my parents, singing in the school choir and school plays, playing with friends. But none of it feels real. I could just as easily have watched a movie about a neurotic, over-imaginative little girl living in an apartment in the 80s and my mind wouldn’t know the difference.
There were a select few bad things, all jumbled together in a blur: the time the neighbor boy killed a garter snake in front of me for no reason. The night my teen brother and some friends tried to steal beer off a train and he fell and broke his ankle. Or how he later abruptly went to live in upstate New York with my bio Dad and stepmother and stepsister. It’s all hazy. Did I miss him? Did my mother miss him? I’m sure she did but when I try to recollect how it really was there’s just…nothing. Only snapshot images of certain, unrelated days.
When my stepdad would go out until the wee hours of the morning, and come back drunk (so claimed my mother years later), and I’d hear those angry shout whispers through the wall that she was so good at, as she rode him over the rails for being out AGAIN, all I could think about was that when I got up in the morning there would be a new Smurf on the kitchen table for me. They used to sell them at Cumberland Farms back then. I didn’t care about the yelling, or feeling sick all the time, or being chubby, or not knowing if my brother was coming back or not. I just cared about the Smurfs. I got the Cupid for Valentine’s Day, and Smurfette, and so many I can’t even remember. The Smurfs were my favorite thing in the whole world and the most concrete part of my entire childhood, next to my beagle.
Then in what felt like days but was actually several years, life changed dramatically, the details of which I’ve talked about at length in this blog. Before I knew it, I was in high school. Everything was different. Except for living in the same apartment, and still being a neurotic, over-imaginative girl with frizzy hair, it was a night and day contrast. When I was a Junior in high school and was dating the boy from Maine, aka my first love, we used to visit his family. He had a little sister who lived up there. She was eleven and adorable. She and her family didn’t have a lot of money, or space, and she didn’t have many toys. At that point in my life, I was so far removed from my childhood and the man who brought me Smurfs, that I didn’t have any attachment to them anymore. Truthfully, I didn’t have attachment to much of anything and drifted through most of those years looking forward to a future phase in my life that would be pleasant and easy.
So, the next time we went up to Maine I took the shoebox of Smurfs who’d gotten me through so much, and gave them to her. She was surprised and happy, and I hoped more than anything they’d bring her the same level of joy they had once brought me.
Over the years, as I got older, I often thought of my box of Smurfs and how I wish I’d kept them. Realistically, Mean Guy probably would have thrown them out and I’m still glad that little girl got them. I like to think she loved them as much as I did.
Now that I’ve arrived at that place I dreamt of, where things are finally pleasant and easy, that one loss nags at me. As an adult, I’ve rebought a few things that I lost over time, like a pop-up book about kids in a haunted house I had in fourth grade, or The Witchmobile book which I LOVED as a small child. Ryan has bought me many items from my past, like the Merlin electric toy. A few years back, McDonald’s had Smurfs and I bought a few Happy Meals to get them. Those Smurfs are on my desk at work. Unless I spend a lot of money though and go to a specialty store or eBay, I won’t get enough to fill that empty Smurf hole in my heart.
Last night I was on Facebook’s local shopping page and a woman posted “20+ Smurfs, $15.” There were two Ziplock bags of Smurfs and my heart leapt. She’d JUST posted so I sent her a message immediately. Rapid fire and manic because I was so excited. “I can be there in twenty-five minutes.” She said tomorrow would be better and I planned to go see her on the way home from the office. Today, I met her and got my Smurfs.
Maybe it’s silly to think that two bags of blue plastic from a stranger in Pacoima will replace everything that the “bad years” took away. That setting them up on an already crowded living room shelf and playing with them and staring at them with utter joy will be the last thing needed to make me complete. But somehow, I think it will. I have worked hard to set my life up just right, and mostly it’s all flowers and rainbows, to the level that people probably think I’m high all the time because no one can be that sunny. But those darn tangible symbols of the adolescent Carly’s love for her father have haunted me.
Everyone arrives at adulthood with a least a few rips in their emotional fabric, tears that heal and scar over. We can’t go back and fix whatever happened but sometimes applying happy patches to the holes makes all the difference. Material things don’t matter, and at the end of the day, no one really needs “stuff.” But this once, stuff matters quite a bit, to me, still a neurotic, over-imaginative girl with frizzy hair.