Unpacking My Suitcase
Moving from California to the Deep South marked the end of my early childhood. Though I wasn’t yet sexually aware, I was already carrying a heavy load in my 7-year-old female body and spirit. Because we didn’t have room in the car for extra luggage, I left behind more than I wanted to. I also brought things I didn’t want or need. Here’s what I’ve unpacked from my suitcase as of today. I have no doubt there’s more.
What I brought with me
- My teachers in kindergarten and 1st grade gave me all A’s. Or was it E’s? I can’t remember. It was all good. I think they were happy because I knew how to wait and follow directions and get along with people. I was happy, too. Maybe I was a Good Girl after all.
- My father didn’t give me a paper report card. He just gave me a lot of verbal reports. I can tell you I did not get all A’s from him. Isn’t that strange? He didn’t think I followed directions very well. And it seems I didn’t get along with him very well. Sometimes I didn’t get along with my sisters. I think we were competing for something. I’m not sure what it was.
- A report card from the school doctor. This wasn’t written down either, but my parents heard all about it. They told me I embarrassed them by not cooperating with the doctor. Here’s what happened.
When I was in 1st grade we had a one-room school with 1st through 3rd grades. One day we all had to line up for medical checkups in the principal’s office. They hung up sheets to make it look private. But it wasn’t. A nurse was there, too. One by one we got called in for the checkup. They did the normal stuff—eyes, ears, throat, heart and all that.
Then the doctor reached up and started to pull down my underwear. I stiffened my legs and resisted. I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me. The nurse came over and ordered me to lie still. She held me down on the table with her hands to make sure I did while the doctor looked at my private parts. I was so ashamed. The doctor scolded me for being uncooperative. I had to walk out from behind the sheets in front of my classmates. They must have heard every word.
Baby and childhood photos
- Me at 3 months old on a rare visit to see Daddy in the TB sanatorium. He’s on a hospital bed, holding me up. He looks happy. So do I. My face is very round. He looks thin.
- Me at about 10 months old, with Mother, Daddy and my California Grandpa. Grandpa is standing in the middle holding me as though he were the proud papa. We’re all smiles. I’m still chubby.
- Me at about 1-year-old, with Mother and Daddy. Looking a bit sheepish, like I don’t want to have this picture taken. Still chubby.
- Me posing at age 5 for a photographer. My normally straight hair is in small tight curls next to my scalp. Chubby legs and knees. Nice smile. Bad hair day.
- Me about 6 years old with my Great Grandma, my beautiful Mother, my cute small Sister #2 and my 3-month old Sister #3 reaching with her left arm. No polio yet. I’m standing up. Still chubby. We’re all smiling.
- Me about 7 years old standing with Mother and Sister #2, with Sister #3 in a toddler-size tricycle. Post-polio. Mother looks thin as a rail; Sister #3’s left arm is resting on the handlebar. I’m smiling a bit and getting taller. Not so chubby.
- A collection of Little Golden Records–small, yellow records to play on a small record player. Lots of classical music with words, and other children’s songs and stories. Click here to listen to “Down by the Station.” [Go ahead! It’s fun!] I listened to them, sang with them, conducted and sometimes danced to them.
- A big phonograph record of me singing in 1948. I was 4 ½ years old. Mother played the piano and I sang some of my favorite songs:
- Only a Boy Named David (about David and Goliath in the Bible)
- God Sent Jonah on an Errand, but Jonah Disobeyed (also a Bible story)
- Rolled Away (about every sin and burden of my heart getting rolled away)
- And my very favorite—I’ve Got the Mumps!
What I left behind
- My California Grandpa who loved me and wanted to hear all about how I felt and what I was thinking about and learning in school
- Other relatives from my Mother and Father’s families who were fun to be with—especially on Sundays when we weren’t allowed to do other stuff except go to church and visit
- Make-believe uncles, aunts and all their children who lived with us in the big California house
- My school where I was just beginning to feel at home
- The piano in the living room, and my toy plastic piano that I didn’t need anymore because now I could play a little on the big piano
- The dairy across the street where the farmer squirted milk straight from a cow right smack into our mouths
- Fresh juicy strawberries from the huge strawberry farm next door to us
- Special trips with friends and family members to parks, the zoo and the observatory on Mt. Wilson
- LA smog so thick we couldn’t see the mountains or the next block and sometimes had to clean our noses several times a day; disgusting and yucky
- The naughty neighborhood boy who threw a rock at me. It hit my forehead, which bled a lot.
- A boy who lived in the house with us and made fun of me for being a sissy girl afraid to jump from a big tree. I showed him, but he wasn’t looking and I never did it again.
- Having to raise my hand at school with 1 finger up when I needed to pee, 2 fingers if I needed to you-know-what, or 3 fingers if I needed to do everything and I couldn’t wait another second. It was so embarrassing. Sometimes I decided I would just wait until I got home.
What I wanted to leave behind
- Rules for Good Little Girls (not as long as Rules for Good Girls, but already too long)
- Spankings that I now call beatings
- Daddy’s scolding tone with Mother when she said something he didn’t like
- Polio and what it did to Mother’s body and Sister #3’s left arm and hand
- Daddy’s firm belief that I am stubborn, rebellious and angry
- Punishment for things I did not do
- Having to eat food that makes me gag–slimy okra and nasty liver
- Mother being so busy with babies and housework and polio that she doesn’t have time to hold me or hug me or tell me how much she loves me
- Daddy not wanting to listen to my ideas, or find out my opinions about how he treats me
- The crazy idea that because I’m the oldest, I have to set an example for my sisters and suffer harsher punishment when I don’t keep the Rules for Good Little Girls
- Adults who aren’t my parents but still try to boss me around without knowing me
- Adults who complain about me but are so busy with ‘important’ work that they don’t have time to listen to me
- Stomach aches and shots
- Doctors and nurses who don’t know how to explain things first or listen to children
When we got to our new home I wanted peace and quiet, piano lessons, and to have Mother and Sister #3 healed from polio. Also, no more beatings or face-offs with Daddy.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 March 2014