Early Memories from Dallas

Dallas, TX – 1981-90

My very first memory from childhood is watching my mother vomit. She was pregnant with my sister and ill with morning sickness. I remember standing in the bathroom and her saying calmly, “Just stand there for a minute sweetheart, mommy is feeling sick…” and then watching her wretch into the toilet. I had no fear or concern for what was happening; I was merely witness to the event. I remember understanding my mother’s words perfectly, but I could not formulate a response.

My sister and I were born 23 months apart. By my estimations this memory was formed when I was less than 18 months old, probably 15. I feel fortunate to recall such an early memory.

After my birth, my first trip to the hospital was to get stitches in my face. Someone at home had let me crawl across the kitchen table. I toppled face-first onto a metal napkin holder. It split my right nostril from my face. I still have the scar.

I was right as rain after a quick trip to the ER. According to my parents, the most upsetting part of the whole ordeal was when they put me in the Velcro papoose to sew me up. I didn’t cry because I was hurt; I cried because I was mad. That about sums up my life.

My dad was an athlete in high school and college and I grew up watching him lift weights. He had a large weight set and would do curls and military presses most evenings before dinner. I was very impressed by this as a child; my dad looked like a monster to me, and I couldn’t budge the weights he would lift with ease. It was awesome.

Since kids emulate what impresses them, I got into his weights one day while home with my mother. I lifted a five pound plate over my head and promptly dropped it on my big toe. The toenail was smashed clean off and the tip of my toe exploded. My mother was home alone without a car and had to have the neighbors drive us to the ER.

The only thing I remember about the experience is sitting on a bed in the ER and soaking my foot in iodine solution. It was green, and my mother told me it was Incredible Hulk juice. This was the perfect thing for me to hear. It must have made an impression because it’s the only part I remember clearly.

One evening my parents joined several other young couples for a night out. My sister and I were left with a babysitter with the kids of the other couples. There were at least ten kids and only one sitter. I suggested to the other kids that we start a pillow fight. I taught everyone how to pack the pillow into the bottom of the pillow case for maximum impact. We went berserk. I ate a pillow to the face that ricocheted my head off the corner of an end table.

Blood gushed and everyone screamed; my head was split wide open. My parents were called home early to take me to the ER; more stitches and another round on the papoose board. I still have the scar.

For a craft project in elementary school, I used my mother’s sewing sheers to cut a ninja mask out of cloth. I cut out the front and back of the mask and went into the kitchen to sew them together. I returned to my work station to find my infant brother playing with the scissors I left on the floor. He was sitting upright, holding the handles with each hand and chomping them repeatedly directly in front of his face.

I ran to save him from himself. Smiling and laughing, he slammed the scissors closed across the tip of my ring finger. He snipped it off by all but a thread.

By this time I was old enough to remember a trip to the ER, and mature enough not to require the papoose. It helped that the wound wasn’t on my head or face this time. I watched with intense interest as they sewed it back together. It looked awesome afterward – like Frankenstein’s monster. I still have the scar.

We moved frequently when I was young. I went to a different school and lived in a different house every year from kindergarten through the sixth grade. I never experienced any difficulty making friends, and didn’t consider what it would be like not to move. It was merely a given. I was eager to play in whatever circumstances I found myself.

My mom forced me to practice the piano daily by the age of five. I hated it. I wanted to play outside. I remember screaming and crying and telling her I wished I was dead. She was shocked by this and asked why I would say such a thing. If I was dead, I reasoned, I would be in Heaven and I wouldn’t have to practice the stupid piano.

Later as a teenager, I remembered feeling this way and thought it pointed to some deep self destructive tendency I had harbored since birth. Or perhaps it indicated that I was a profound and troubled thinker even as a kid – a perfectly melodramatic teenage interpretation. But as an adult I hear kids say shit like this all the time and I’m sure they don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

My dad and I threw a ball together in the yard most evenings. Some days we threw the football, others a baseball. On this evening we grabbed our gloves and the baseball. He threw a long one and I faded back to catch it. I overthrew it back to him by a mile. It flew over his head and smashed through the living room window. My dad used to lose his mind over this type of thing. But on this occasion he wasn’t mad; he even calmly explained that these things happen. I’ll always remember it for precisely that reason.

face

I raced down the ally on my bike, picking up speed as I went. From behind a fence, a woman pulled her car out of the driveway ten feet ahead of me. I skidded, my front wheel turned sideways and I flew over the handlebars directly onto my face. The woman witnessed the incident and felt responsible for cutting me off. She helped me up and drove me home. I was scuffed up but fine. My mom put vitamin E on my wound every day to keep it from scarring. I couldn’t smile for weeks without feeling like my whole face was going to crack.

One afternoon I found one of those big metal “T”s in our garage – the kind of thing you use to turn on the sprinklers. This one was thick and sturdy, not flimsy like they make them today. I had also that day discovered a giant pile of stone slabs beside our house. I knew exactly what to do.

Inspired by the Karate Kid movies, I set up little stations of stones, with two supports and one laying across the top. Using the metal T as a sledge hammer, I smashed the pile of stones to smithereens. It took me several hours, but I reduced the entire pile to rubble. It was a blast.

Come to find out, our landlord was preparing to re-tile the walkway between our garage and back yard. I had smashed hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars worth of patio tile. My parents were on the line for it. They were furious.

My best friend Bill and I would invent secret missions to keep ourselves entertained. We armed ourselves with tools from my dad’s tool box: I wielded a large Philips screwdriver and a hammer and Bill a hacksaw. We stalked through the bushes by the side of the house, looking for ninjas to engage in battle. We startled as we discovered a large, freshly dead orange tabby cat.

I determined it must be a foe, and threw my screwdriver at it with the flare of a ninja. Much to our surprise, the screwdriver made two full revolutions and impaled the dead cat all the way to the handle, making a solid thump sound as it stuck. We fled the scene. I was too afraid to retrieve the screwdriver.

I worried for weeks that my dad would wonder where his screwdriver went and find it stuck in a cat in the bushes. It didn’t occur to me that someone might think I killed it; I was more concerned with having to explain why it impaled the cat post mortem.

Eventually my dad did find the cat. He and my mother complained that the breeze blowing through their bedroom window smelled of sewage. He went to the side of the house under the window and found it in the bushes. But by this time the cat was in such a state of decomposition that the screwdriver had dislodged. I never heard anything more about it.

On another mission, Bill and I decided to make a magic potion. We gathered all the ingredients we considered proper to such a concoction – dirt and worms and the like. We decided our potion required a piece of wasp nest. Luckily I knew exactly where to find one.

We rushed to the bushed by the back fence. With Bill behind me, I peered between the bushes. On the fence I located our final ingredient. I reached out with a stick and poked it to see if I could pry it loose. Instantly a wasp darted out and stung me in the face, directly between the eyes. More followed, swarming after us. I ran screaming from the yard into the house and Bill jumped the fence and ran home. My face swelled up like the elephant man. I think I even got sick from the stings. We never did finish our potion.

The bike I rode during this time of life was a hand-me-down. It was a total piece of crap. All my friends rode awesome new BMX bikes; I was stuck with a yellow beach cruiser with a white banana seat. It was humiliating – especially because the movie RAD was fresh in everyone’s mind. My parents let me paint the bike red with spray paint, which I thought would help. But ultimately it was still stupid, and now red.

Someone at church gifted a bike to us, knowing I could use it. Their kid had outgrown it. It was a nice BMX bike, perfectly my size. I was thrilled.

The next day I took my old bike out to the side of the house. Since I had a new bike, I figured I wouldn’t need the old one anymore. I grabbed a heavy log from the neighbor’s yard and beat my old bike to smithereens. I beat the spokes out of the wheels, I beat the seat and handlebars inside out, I beat the frame into a pretzel.

What I did not know was that my mother had already sold the bike and collected the money for it. She was just waiting for the people to come pick it up. I cost her the money, plus the embarrassment of having to renege on the deal. She was furious. I was sorry.

I remember riding my bike through the neighborhood on a warm summer day. It rained regularly in Dallas and most afternoons a thunderstorm would roll through, leaving the grass wet and the streets dotted with puddles. I remember being thirsty and dismounting my bike, laying on my stomach in the street, and drinking out of a puddle in the road until my thirst was quenched.

I vividly remember seeing a rainbow oil slick on top of the water as well as floating cigarette butts. But I didn’t know to fear these things. Water was water. I don’t think I ever got sick from it. I did this daily for weeks until my dad caught me and gave me the third degree.

I remember a kid at school bringing a Penthouse magazine he had stolen from his dad. At this age we were more curious than horny. He would bring it into the bathroom and we’d huddle around trying to piece together what we knew about the female anatomy.

He sat next to me one day in class and I asked him if he had it. He pulled it out of his back pack and flipped it open. The girl sitting behind me shrieked and ran to the teacher. She ratted us both out. But since he was the one with the contraband, he paid the price. I felt responsible for getting him in trouble, but I suppose he was the one who took the risk.

It was a usual summer day in Dallas – the sun was high in the sky and it was probably a hundred and five degrees. It was so hot that the sun melted the tar in the cracks of the street. My friend Paul and I spent a good hour scraping up globs of wet tar and rolling them together into a basketball-sized sticky black tar baby.

As we worked, bits of tar cooled on our fingers and hands. By the time we returned to my house we were black up to the elbows. My mother screamed when we entered the house.

She forced us out onto the front patio where she tried to use the hose to wash our arms. But the cold water hardened the tar instantly. She tried to scrub it but it wouldn’t budge. She sent my friend home and spent the next hour rubbing my arms with fingernail polish remover.

It still didn’t come off. She got me clean enough to come in the house, but it was days before I was presentable again.

In the dead zone between my house and my neighbors’ stood a big gnarled tree. I climbed this tree every day, despite how often it injured me. After being taken by my grandmother to the circus, I was certain that I had the skills to walk a tightrope. I climbed into the tree, found two sturdy branches, and stretched a piece of plastic yellow rope between them. It hung loosely, even though I pulled it as tightly as I could.

I climbed to where I stood above the rope, and with full confidence committed to my first and second steps. I tumbled through the branches, skidded down the trunk and smashed into the dirt. Scraped and bruised I lay with the wind knocked out of me, wondering what had gone wrong.

After I collected myself I went inside to have my mother treat my wounds. She saw that I was injured and asked how it happened. I pointed to my tightrope out the window. She looked, and laughed, then gasped, then asked me very seriously if I had really tried to walk on it. I said yes, and in a very genuine moment she explained that my rope was not tight enough. It had to be very tight – tighter than I could pull it – in order for it to work. That’s why I had fallen. She praised my effort though, and I took her explanation as satisfactory.

On another occasion, I played with my cap gun by the same tree. I noticed a deep hollow knot in the trunk and had an idea. I took my entire package of caps, four or five rolls in all, and packed them into the hollow. I was eager to see what would happen if I hit them all at once. I found a fist-sized rock and hammered the pile of caps. Nothing happened. I tried again, nothing happened. I looked closely at the caps.

The problem seemed to be that I wasn’t hitting a single cap directly enough to start the chain reaction. I lowered my face eye-level to the hollow. Again I raised the rock. With all the precision I could muster I slammed to rock down, detonating the entire load of caps directly into my eye.

I ran around in circles in a panic; I blinked and rubbed my eye furiously but I couldn’t see out of it. I didn’t want to tell my parents because I didn’t want to get in trouble. I spent the rest of the afternoon outside. By the evening I could make out shapes and colors. I went inside and finished my night without mentioning what had happened. It was better the next day – good enough anyway.

Out of all the thing I had done up to this point, and all the things I would go on to do, one single incident traumatized me more than any other. So much so that it became the foundation for a phobia that lasted into my thirties.

I awoke one night with a start and sat up in bed. Bells and whistles screamed in my mind but I didn’t know what they indicated. The only thing that made sense to do was to run. As I stood up and took a step, I spewed a four-foot stream of vomit across the room. In a panic I ran into the hall. Again my entire body seized as I heaved onto the carpet. My parents ran from the living room and saw what was happening.

My mom scooped me up and ran me into the bathroom. The streams of vomit continued and my mother screamed at me to aim at the toilet. In a state of panic, I was unable to follow any commands. My mother grabbed my head from behind and forced me over the toilet. This only intensified my panic and I found myself fighting to for freedom while vomiting everywhere. With my dad’s help she held me forcefully over the toilet while I wretched and choked and gagged. I don’t think I hit the toilet a single time despite it all. I went back to bed shivering and crying.

My mother stayed up all night cleaning a gallon of vomit off the carpet. As for me, the incident burned into my memory as one of the most intense feelings of panic and helplessness I have ever experienced.

For the remainder of my life I have suffered from heartburn, chronic bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and other stomach discomforts. I know without a doubt that they are related to my irrational fear of vomiting, emetophobia I believe it’s called.

I have vomited several other times in my teens and into adulthood, and each time I am surprised by how easy it is. This childhood memory caused me more physical harm than any other experience I have had. It took much work to overcome it, but I have.

 

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2 thoughts on “Early Memories from Dallas

  1. Pingback: Conflicts in the Neighborhood | Matthew J. Summers

  2. Pingback: Autobiography | Matthew J. Summers

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