Elizabeth Cottage: A Place out of Time

I grew up cash poor and opportunity rich.  Maybe you won’t even know what I mean unless you too grew up in this way.  Some people are born poor without anything to offset the mental and physical impact of deprivation.  Others, like me, grow up with all they really need to thrive despite never having much in the way of money or possessions.  This is the way of teachers’ and preachers’ children, who never fear starvation or homelessness, who never go without educational advantages, but who at the same time don’t have a whole lot in the way of toys, clothes, or even arcade change.

This is what I can say about myself, but I didn’t know it was true until after we left Elizabeth Cottage.  Something about the combination of childhood itself, a large family, and life in the middle of a college campus insulated me from worry or awareness of problems outside my own day-to-day existence.  Later I would notice and care about disparities in my lifestyle and those of my friends.  At 12 and 14 I cared.  At 7 I didn’t know there were any disparities.

Part of this I owe to the fact that not only were both my parents working by the time I was old enough to have any awareness of possessions, but my older brothers and sisters were as well.  They worked part-time on newspaper routes, baby-sitting jobs, at a drug store a couple of blocks away.  They brought candy and trinkets home with them.  None of it was ever much, but between them all, I always had something new to call my own.

When you’re the youngest of six, you’re everyone’s baby.  This will become a bothersome fact well before the age of 40, but it’s not so bad at 4.

I think of this, of the buffers I had between me and the world, and I wonder if my memories are incorrect.  Proust would say they are necessarily incorrect no matter who I am.  Memory itself is unreliable at best.  I know this even as I write something like this, something like my last post about growing up in Elizabeth Cottage.

Physics teaches us that we cannot observe an event from multiple perspectives at once.  The more certainty we have on one angle, the less certainty we can apply to others.

This is true.  We can’t even tell the story of an event from multiple perspectives at once.  I have no real desire to try.

I remember a house where I was happy.  I remember watching Yogi Bear while someone went outside to turn the antenna.  I remember faking illness to stay home on Sunday nights for Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney.  I remember a dog named Booger and male cat named Thomasina.  I remember learning how to polish silver and putting together puzzle maps of the United States.  I remember people passing the Reader’s Digest around and everyone reading a joke from it out loud.  I remember painting fire hydrants red, white, and blue in anticipation of the nation’s bicentennial.  I remember my brothers working on a car they called White Lightening and driving me to school with anything from Led Zeppelin to Emmylou Harris playing on the radio.

What I don’t remember are the dark edges and undercurrents of my world.  Vietnam was going on, and it was on my TV every day, but it didn’t touch my child’s world.  Later the images I saw from birth on the evening news would haunt me.  They didn’t mean anything to me then.  I didn’t really know that they were real.

The town around us, the state and country around us, was divided over racial issues, but I didn’t know anything about that either.  Some of the politicians I remember hearing speak as a child were segregationists.  I only learned about that from school books later.  Some of the men who were part of the church that supported the school were active members of the Ku Klux Klan when I knew them, but I didn’t know that then.

Later someone told me that the church withdrew its support over the admission of black students to the college, that my father had taken a stand to accept black students.  I didn’t know that then.  I remember that there were black students on the college campus, but I didn’t know at the time that the world around me was at war over their presence any more than I knew that this same world was at war over my integrated elementary school.  I could tell this story with my parents cast as heroes of civil rights.  Then I could back up and tell it again from an angle where they aren’t so blameless.  The truth is somewhere in the combination of versions.

They were people struggling to get by like everyone struggles to get by.

I know only what they told me and what they didn’t.  They didn’t tell me that the world didn’t get along all that well.  They let me be a child.  They gave me stamps to mail letters to my grandmother and scissors to cut pictures out of magazines to glue onto construction paper.  They didn’t give me fear of my neighbors, and when people asked my mother in front of me how many black children she had in her classroom, she said, “I don’t know.  They’re all purple to me.”

That was in the early 70s.  You’d think that by now Mississippi would be different enough so that people would no longer ask such questions.  Still, I don’t know if I’ve had a year of teaching when someone didn’t ask how many black students I had.  I’ve never known the answer.

Elizabeth Cottage, this childhood of mine, it was a place of out its own time, but it gave me those good years of learning hope, trust, faith in my own imagination.  The world might have its troubles, but that’s okay.  In here, in this safe zone of my life, we’re all purple, and we’re all good.