Like many who grew up in large families, I longed to be an only child. A wealthy only child, even if it meant being an orphan. The Little Princess and The Secret Garden were books I lived into, dreaming myself into ruby-curtained tower rooms with tea and crumpets and sweet loneliness. I hated sharing and it seemed my brother and sister, eleven and twenty-two months my senior, always fought. We fought over whose turn it was to choose the song we sang in the back of the car, and if one of us was resentful we could hum “our” song under our breath while the rest of the family sang the chosen song. When I sat in the middle of the couch-sized back seat of our dodge, Jaine and Jackie each claimed one of the car’s windows and got mad if I looked out. Memories of family vacations are punctuated my my mom’s angry face turned over the back seat, imploring us not to fight. I had to share a bedroom, clothing, TV shows, and storytime at night. As the only one in the blue-eyed family with green eyes, I prayed that my “real” royal family would appear to claim me.
I grew to be a problem teen. In the suburb of Edina we’d moved to for the “good” school system, the mothers read women’s magazines, not Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker, and they decorated homes, selves, children, and yards. I longed. Not many other Edina families crammed seven people into four bedrooms with three toilets, one of which was dependable. Nor did other families stubbornly buy only one car and ride their bike to errands as my mother did. Our push mower was an anomaly.
My big sister Jaine quickly learned to polish the surface, changing her name spelling and putting whole circles over each dotted I. She beaded, made gum wrapper chains, and even then clipped coupons for free breath freshener and nail polish. I wore the same clothes to sleep and school three days running, refusing her helpful chart that would keep me from repeating the same outfit within a two-week cycle.
A family I babysat for offered to take me in for my last year of high school. At the Brandon’s, every room looked like a magazine only better because I could touch and ask questions. I shared the laundry room in the basement with the appliances. the rest of the basement has given to a grand L-shaped den with office offshoot, the son’s bedroom, and a shower/toilet bathroom I only had to share with him. Upstairs was the girl’s room, the parents room, another den, a living room, formal dining room, and screened porch. The dens, kitchen, and each bedroom sported a TV. No one had to share.
The privacy was glorious as was the abundance of junk food, the dad being a Pillsbury exec. I cocooned on the couch alone consuming canned frosting and Gilligan Island reruns, letting my brain and teeth race to rot, and no one said a word. Upstairs daughter was content with Brady Bunch and Mrs. Brandon (even though I am nearly fifty now I would never call her by her first name) watched the news in the kitchen while she made dinner while Mr. Brandon caught it in the den. Son was outdoor playing.
Now I see iPods and headphones everywhere, each of us in a world of sound we can control. I used to know I could knock on a stranger’s door to ask to use the phone if I needed help or was lost. Now that seems like a much more intimate thing to ask.
We don’t have to share now. We don’t have to take turns singing each other’s songs or learn how to fight and make up.
Am I crazy to long for that unbuckled roiling backseat of the old Dodge, for another chance to take turns singing songs with my family? We sang Broadway tunes, The Beatles, Christmas carols, Simon and Garfunkel. We were, at times, feelin’ groovy. We took turns, and although often resentfully and reluctantly, we shared.
My life since then has been more like a rollercoaster than a bumbling Dodge ride, but for a writer that’s a gold mine, so I don’t mind. I have had my chance to take my turn at many things, including living in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife and lots of money. I left the material world kicking and screaming at first, having spent most of my twenties and thirties trying to become Mrs. Brandon whist she tried to un-become Mrs. Brandon. We both found that financial instability is better than empty or deadening relationships.
I wish we could take turns at each other’s lives. I try to replace my fear about differences with curiosity. What is it really like to be homeless? I hope not to find out again, but if I ever do, I am sure I’ll be rockin’ the homeless world by song. I’ll take a turn listening and hear your story and sing your song, and then I’ll sing you mine if you like.
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