Raised by Wolves
Truth be told, I wasn't really prepared for this weeks blog, so I read over some old writing of mine and found this. I think it's appropriate...a bit of a Wild Cynthia backstory, if you will...my father died July 2nd 2003, and I'll miss him forever. I love reading this though, because it reminds me of his spirit, which moved mountains for me, and I am forever grateful.
I hope you enjoy the journey. That is where the joy is, after all...in the journey.
Okay, so I wasn’t exactly raised by wolves…but I was raised by a single dad for a few years in the late 1970’s. We were tucked away in a tiny hippie enclave in Northern California, which was where he and my mom had moved to from New Jersey, bought a business (Deli) and jumped right in to family life and business partners. For many reasons, their relationship quickly failed, and my parents decided it would be best if 3-year-old me stayed with my dad. My Bohemian mom left to Los Angeles with the hope that she’d come back and be a family woman, which never happened.
What happened instead is that I got to be raised in the most forgiving, wild and nurturing place I have ever wandered across. Our friends became my surrogate parents; strangers my caretakers. Of course, it was the ’70’s and life was different back then. I had free roam of my surroundings: on foot, on Big Wheels, by myself and with other kids. There were few rules and restrictions. I had to be home by dark. I couldn’t swear (or risk washing my mouth out with soap). I had to respect my elders. I had to finish everything on my plate or no dessert.
I was wily, wild, unkempt, impish, a little hooligan. My dad loved me dearly and I him, even among his absent parenting. He was, after-all, fairly ill-equipped to be a single father. He was born in 1933. He was old fashioned. He already had 2 older children he had left behind in New Jersey and he didn’t know the first thing about mothering. My dad’s version of a well rounded dinner was pork chops and applesauce served with pork’n’beans and canned fruit salad in heavy syrup. An acceptable candy bar was Reese’s Peanut Butter cups because they were good for you (peanut butter, hello!).
He had strings of girlfriends, my most favorite being the one who owned an ice cream shop (!!) in San Francisco; always fun to visit her. The least favorite would have to be the staunch hippie that tried weedling her way to my dad’s heart through his stomach. He loved sweets, so she gleefully produced whole wheat cookies (hockey pucks), pie crusts (needed an axe for slicing) and cakes (heavier than a brick) that were so disgusting I remember them even today.
My dad was what you would have called an “older parent” by those times standards…he was 41 when I was born (which actually makes him right on the mark for new parents now-a-days) and was the first single dad we had in our town. It was the beginning of 1978 and he wasn’t a hippie, but a ladies man. He wore plaid shirts, funny boots and a fisherman cap. He introduced the game of darts to our town, drove a VW bus, and ran a bike shop. I had a lot of freedom, and was always finding some way to get very close to the edge of trouble without actually falling in. He took me to ballet, to school, taught me to ride a bike without ever needing training wheels, and, certainly, wiped my snotty little nose when I was sick. He would leave me in the car when he would go into the bar to play darts and hang with his friends; hide me in the potted plants when we went to Reno for a dart tournament so he could gamble on some slot machine or other.
An avid Darts player, my dad would, with some regularity, go to tournaments in cities 3+ hours away from where we lived. There I would cavort with other hooligans that roamed the hallways as parents played round after round trying to win $10,000 or some such prize. It was there I once saw a child playing darts who looked like he was 100, but was only 12 (I learned much later it was something called Progeria, an extremely rare genetic disorder). I bummed quarters and popped them into the jukebox hoping to hear Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson. My constant companions were a yellow blanket that hung limply from my balled fist, thumb in mouth, and a rucksack filled with books (The Sky is Falling and A Chocolate Moose For Dinner being my two all time favorites).
Locally, my dad played darts too, of course. I have no idea how many days a week, but I can guarantee it was at more than 1 and less than 7. Sometimes I was relegated to staying in the car for the evening, only allowed to come to the bar door when I had to pee. “Hey Jim, your daughter’s here,” someone would inevitably yell. My favorite was when he played in the neighboring town. Next door to the bar was a park, and often there would be other kids playing whose parents had done the same thing; used the car as a babysitter. We played long and hard, into the night, and then, when tired, we’d go back to our respective cars, curl up in the backseat and fall into a deep sleep, as only a child under such circumstances is able to do.
Apparently I was wildly responsible, because (as I grew slightly older) I was also let alone to babysit myself at home from time to time, especially once he started dating my future step-mom. Needing a date, but without a sitter, they would tuck me into bed and promise they’d be home by the time I woke in the morning. They always were, though I usually awoke in the middle of the night, slightly terrified, with nobody around, nobody to call, probably too young to use the phone anyway.
When I was 6, my dad remarried and I continued to have the privilege of responsibility. We lived in San Francisco then, and I would walk myself to school 10 inner-city blocks and back home again. I’d wake up in the morning, make myself breakfast, pack my lunch, make coffee for my folks. On the days I had swim practice, I’d take the bus home, by myself, in the dark. I’m sure one of them took me to practice, probably my step-mom, but then she had to cook dinner and deal with the side effects early pregnancy brings. I actually encountered my first punk rockers on one of these trips home and ohmygawd, was I ever scared. In retrospect, it was hilarious; a 7 year old frightened of some teens who were just laughing, talking and wearing mohawks with died hair, safety pins lining the edges of their jackets like rows of tin soldiers ready for battle.
It was a strange world for me, San Francisco. People I didn’t know, pavement instead of grass, buildings in place of trees. My school took up most of a city block, it was 3 stories including a basement. I tired to make friends, but instead became a bully in pigtails and homemade dresses. I thought I fit in, blended. And then I got my school photos back. I was one of exactly two white kids in my class. Clearly, I was not blending like I had imagined. But, no matter, none of us seemed to blend. My brother was born and we we moved to Orinda.
Orinda: a quiet cul-de-sac of suburbia with a more dense homogenization of white people than I had ever seen. Brand names were like a second skin, luxury cars standard fare. We drove a Honda and I wore hand-me-downs. You can imagine how well received we were in that town. Somewhere along the lines my parents grew up and would hire babysitters to watch my brother and I when they went out. My dad still played darts, but not often. My step-mom became a stay-at-home and I’d watch Soaps with her after school while folding the laundry. Domestic Bliss. Or not. The house we rented gave nearly all of us nightmares. I couldn’t stand to be in the bathroom alone at night without a severe case of goosebumps; my 2 year old brother consistently had nightmares of the Cookie Monster chasing him; my step-mom would wake in the night with a suspicious, creepy feeling. Orinda was out to get us. Or maybe it was the house. When we moved out our landlord (casually!?) mentioned that the previous owners had a daughter who killed herself in that house. Oh creepyville. I was more glad that you could imagine that our next destination would be back home; to the secret safety net of Northern California.
I couldn’t wait. I had my outfit picked out for my first day back at school. Causal, comfy. No fucking brand names and no need to bully anyone. I was in the middle of 5th grade. We had come back to the quiet, sleepy town I called home. My dad returned to playing darts every Wednesday; my step-mom eventually went back to work, and my luxurious responsibility of raising myself returned. Life was good, familiar, and I welcomed it. My dad and I continued to share a special bond that would last until his death. I was his little girl, his constant companion during one of the roughest times in his life; and he provided the same protection to me. He loved me. He didn’t leave. He was strict, but I knew my limits. Sure, there were many things I missed out on; didn’t have. But I had my dad, and that was enough. And if I could have chosen some other situation to have grown up in, I’m not sure I would have.
Post Script: Here I am, many years after my father has died, living in the same place I was raised, and raising my own daughter in the wiley fashion I am accustomed to. We have a few more rules, but there's also a lot of freedom...a delicious unfolding of life as it should be: wild, free and full of love.
This picture is from about 1976, when I was 2, me and my dad. I still have the dress somewhere.