Going back and forth on the swing in my backyard, I imagined if I went high enough my footprints would reach the sky leaving an imprint. I thought if all of the children in the world were swinging and left their footprints, what an interesting pattern would remain in the sky – feet of different shapes and sizes and shoe prints, too, an interesting mural that would go around the world with the turn of the earth. As a child, I sought comfort wherever I could find it. Usually that meant being alone.
I got to have the backyard to myself. My brother preferred to rock on his wooden horse in the living room while talking to my mother and father. He never was an outdoors person. I was grateful for these moments when I could be by myself, creating a world of safety and imaginary companionship. Every night after dinner I escaped to our small backyard with the swingset in the middle. I wandered around thinking about all the longings of my heart: ribbons for my hair, pretty dresses, saddle shoes to replace the brown leather pair I got at the beginning of every school year, and the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the closet, things other girls had that I wanted for myself.
I cradled my teddy bear, stuffed rabbit, pink blanket, and my doll, Snuzy, on the swing. Sometimes, I spread the blanket on the ground and it became an island where my doll, stuffed animals, and I lived together. Looking back on these times in the backyard, I believe these activities were more dissociative rather than mere child’s imagination. Unable to cope with my home life, I “went away” creating my own place to live.
My home didn’t feel safe and neither did the world. The Soviet Union was becoming more of a force among the nations with the launch of Sputnik. The educational system of the United States was thrown into a state of re-evaluation. What are American children learning? Are they behind their peers overseas? How could the Russians beat the United States in technology and space exploration? All of these questions circulated on the news and in newspapers regularly.
I was afraid Sputnik would land on the roof of my house and make a big hole. No one had explained to me the orbital nature of the space vehicle. All I knew is what goes up must fall down. I assumed it would fall down on me. Hearing bits and pieces of the national news on television each night describing the Russian accomplishments, fear grew in my mind. In a childhood like mine, I didn’t need more fear.
At school, I had difficulty concentrating, unable to be fully present and attentive to classroom assignments. My desk, like my pink blanket, became the island where I felt safe and lived within myself.
Life at home was restricting with little activity, variety, or excitement: no after school activities or enrichment, no friends coming over, no parties to attend. I went to school, played in the backyard, and went to bed. That was it. Occasionally the neighborhood children came over to join my brother and I in the sandbox, but exchanges between families were limited in my
neighborhood in the mid-1950s. Neighbors rarely lingered in backyards to talk. Having one car during the fifties was normal because the father was usually the only one who worked. Many mothers were stuck at home unable to take children to parks or the library.
“Lazarus is having a big sale today,” my mother announced after breakfast one warm morning, “We are going downtown this afternoon. We’ll eat an early lunch and be ready for the 1:00 bus.” Lazarus was my mother’s favorite store. Once each summer, she took my brother and I downtown to shop. We caught the city bus in front of our house. Malls weren’t built until the early sixties and department stores were located downtown. My mother made me wear a dress, and Sunday shoes. She wore a dress, too.
I didn’t like shopping, but I did enjoy the bus ride and the graham cracker sandwiches my mother made for a snack.
While I took the empty plates from the kitchen table to the sink, my mother reached for the box of graham crackers in the back of the kitchen cupboard. She kept them where my brother and I couldn’t reach them. No extra snacks in my house even though I often opened the cupboard door, looking at the box, wishing for just one graham cracker, something that would taste good and offer respite from the stress of my home life. I liked graham crackers. In today’s language, I would call them my comfort food. I liked to bite the cracker and hear the crisp crack. The whole wheat taste was interesting to me. My food experiences were limited on my family’s tight budget.
Getting the container of icing from the refrigerator, my mother took two crackers, spread one with icing and covered the top with the other graham cracker. She made one for me and one for my brother, both wrapped in wax paper. There were no baggies or plastic wrap in those days. She put our treat in her purse. If my brother and I behaved, she would give us a graham cracker while we were shopping, so she could look at items in the store and give us something to do. A snack is always good in the middle of the afternoon for two children not interested in shopping, especially when their mother was not looking for anything for them.
“It’s almost one o’clock.” I said, proud of my recent ability to tell time. “ The bus will be here soon.”
“Give me your hand, “ my mother said to my brother. She walked out the door, while I paused behind to make sure the door was locked.
“I hear the bus,” I said, the loud engine noise penetrated the quiet day. I smelled the fumes of diesel gasoline.
Going downtown was a break from the monotony of my daily life. I got away from home, and was refreshed seeing new surroundings and people. With only one car, I rarely had opportunities to go places. Riding the bus, I saw many kinds of people. I liked seeing the shapes and colors of the downtown buildings. The houses often had crumbling cement porches, broken windows, or chairs in the front yard arranged in a circle. I imagined family or neighbors gathering to talk on a hot summer night, maybe wondering about the Russians, Sputnik, or the election or sharing events of their days.
Lazarus was a large and busy store with seven floors. We always went to the fifth floor where my mother paid her bill. She shopped for purses and jewelry and clothes for herself, never anything for me or my brother.
Toward five o'clock we made our way to the store entrance where my father would pick us up on his way home from work, not too far from downtown. Getting in the car brought me back to a place I didn’t like nor did I desire to live. My stomach churned and knotted. I felt sad having to return home and not being able to observe more fully this place so different from my usual surroundings.
I wished many times to get on the city bus armed with my pink blanket, rabbit, doll and teddy bear and keep riding all day. I figured a nice lady would see me and wonder why a child was riding on the bus by herself. Maybe I could find a new family. “Would you like to come live with me?,” I imagined her saying, “I have a nice home and wonderful husband. We would love you so much. I have a box filled with ribbons for your hair. We can go shopping for dresses and saddle shoes. Best of all, I have a room filled with paint, brushes, paper, and crayons where you can make art every day after school.”
The life I created in my imagination was not accurate nor did my desires come true, but thinking about a loving home offered comfort during the trying experiences I was having.
As that day has come back to my memory in recent years, I needed to find something positive while flashbacks of abuse consumed my days. Using my left hand and a black pen, I drew a side-view picture of myself when I was seven and eight, wearing my favorite dress. It was the one I wore for my second grade school picture. The dress was all one piece, a white blouse, red jacket, and a pleated navy skirt. In my left hand I held a graham cracker. I drew my socks and ugly brown shoes. I wrote the word comfort in a little block, describing the simple, pleasant taste of graham crackers in a trying time of my life.
When I finished drawing I took an exacto knife with my right hand and cut out key parts of the illustration – the white collar, the sleeve, and bottom part of the jacket, the pleats of the skirt, my legs, socks, the letters spelling the word “comfort,” and lines around the square. An exacto knife seemed an appropriate tool to use because I felt like I was carving out of my heart those horrible memories, bringing them to the surface of my life so I could deal with the feelings of loss, rejection, and abandonment. With each movement of my hand, I felt my heart open and release moments that had been buried for decades. Art can provide an emotional opening, creating a picture from the past, exploring the pieces, and finally letting them go.
After cutting out the highlights of my picture, I mounted the white paper on a sheet of black construction paper making the empty places stand out. There were lots of empty places in my
life during those years, emptiness so deep that not even my imagination or dissociative events could fill it. Empty places are part of the human condition. We all have them in various ways: disappointments, impaired relationships, denied expectations, obstacles to success. Filling these spaces takes moments of self-examination and honesty and the ability to acknowledge and accept the difficult realities on our life’s path.
There are numerous unhealthy ways to fill empty places: drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behavior. These are quick fixes and barely skim the deep meaning of loss. Seeking more wholesome paths to wellness requires strength, courage, resilience, and perseverance, but the end result is worth the process, bringing a healthier life.
Exploring empty places in my life through art and word helps me work through loss. Art and prayer are synonymous for me, God guiding my hand in what I make. God’s companionship walking side-by-side is healing through God’s presence as well as making an image to represent my loss. In illustrating the loss, I am filled with God’s love, emerging with both feet on the ground, sustained, uplifted, and becoming whole.
What are the empty places you feel in your life? How will you explore the deep need and express the loss? What practice will you embrace to fill those empty spaces and restore sound living?