I was awakened this afternoon by a Facebook call from one of my cousins. I hadn’t heard his voice in several years, not since Mom passed away, five years ago this coming week. “Remember when I lived in that tent? How old was I? I can’t remember.” 

He said that his new wife was telling him that she used to live in a trailer, and he said, “I used to live in a tent.” She refused to believe that he was telling her the truth, so he called me to verify it. It was true. His father and stepmother made some really poor life decisions and my cousin and the wife’s son (my step-cousin?), had to pay the same consequences that the adults did. There’s little justice in the world for children and animals sometimes. I remember a song from music class in elementary school, “Bless the Beasts and the Children/ For in this world, they have no voice/ They have no choice.” Sadly, that was the case in this situation. I’ve marveled at this particular cousin’s success for years now. He’s an amazingly hard worker, very driven to provide well for himself and his family. He enjoys the finer things in life, probably because of things like living in a tent as a child. Or, later in his childhood, thinking that they had really arrived in life when they moved a trailer way up on a steep hillside and had to carry five-gallon buckets of water from the creek because the trailer had no running water. Nor did it have electricity. Each and every day, summer heat and winter freeze, those two boys lived in ways that no child should ever have to live.

While we were talking today, he also reminded me of a house where I lived that had no indoor bathroom and an outhouse way out from the house, on a little hill. His sister once locked me in there on a hot summer day; I’ve forgiven her, but I’ll never forget it. It’s startling sometimes when I think back to some of the things that happened in our childhood. So often in my life now, I look around at all that God has blessed me to have, to enjoy doing, and I think back to that childhood and can almost think it was a bad dream. Except – it wasn’t a bad dream; it was a frightening reality much of the time. The thing was, back then, we didn’t always realize how scary our reality was. When people around you “normalize” something, you don’t know any better, because you don’t necessarily see any better around you. 

Were our parents fit? Why didn’t they do better for us? The thing is, at least with my mom (I’m not speaking for his dad), I truly believe that she did the best she knew how. That’s not putting her down. She and her three siblings pulled up stakes and moved at least once every school year until she was in high school. Back and forth between Virginia and Michigan. Papaw couldn’t find work in Tazewell, so he found it in Detroit; Mamaw, despite the abuses suffered at the hands of my great-grandfather, Granddaddy Vance, throughout her life, but especially as a child, couldn’t break free from intense homesickness. So, Papaw Little would work two and three jobs at a time in Detroit, leaving Mamaw to deal with their four children on her own mostly, so when she said it was time to move back to Tazewell (which she inevitably would), they would have something to live on for a while when they got back there. And she was not really mentally equipped to do raise four children mostly alone in a positive way. It was a cycle – and not one that I cared to continue, which is why Russ and I opted not to have children. I loved my family, but I couldn’t justify bringing another generation into the madness that seemed to follow me my whole childhood and teenage years. 

School and writing saved my life. Well, God saved my life – school and writing were my safe havens. Had it not been for some amazingly awesome teachers who nurtured me in ways my family didn’t understand how to nurture, I honestly don’t believe I would be alive today. Susan Whittaker and Carol Hart, especially, did everything in their power to help me succeed in high school and get to college, where life became something that I never comprehended it could be. There were some tough years where I, too, had to work two jobs to survive and pay bills on time, but I had a strong work ethic, instilled in me by Mom and Papaw Little. I did whatever needed to be done to stand on my own. I learned that from Mom, who was so strong and stubbornly independent in my younger years. It meant that she was absent from my life sometimes when I needed her, but I always had Mamaw and Papaw. Mom once said to me, “I didn’t raise you. Your Mamaw and Papaw didn’t raise you. I reckon you pretty much raised yourself.” And yes, I think, sometimes, maybe I did. But it taught me how to survive. It taught me to appreciate what I had, but never to stop working for what I wanted. I sometimes look at my younger sister, who, to her credit, has had to do a lot of growing up and adjusting to reality herself in the five years that Mom has been gone, and am blown away by how differently we were raised. Sarah has had to do a lot of very difficult “adulting” in the past five years. Which is unfortunate – she should have been allowed to and expected to have done that as she was physically growing up, not when her world turned upside down due to losing her parents. 

I told my cousin today that I understand the reaction from his wife. I’ve told Russ some stories over the years that he had trouble wrapping his head around, too. Yes, there were good times, but there were a lot of challenges and obstacles and – like I said, bad decisions – that impacted us kids and not just the adults who made the decisions. But our generation has done better, I believe. We’re not perfect. I lose my cool with cats, so I certainly didn’t need human babies to deal with. I remember another cousin and I saying, as teenagers, “It’s getting better each generation. By the time we have grandkids, they should be really normal.” She has three kids now – I think they’re all pretty normal and amazing already; their kids will be unbelievably sane someday, I’ll bet.

So, to my cousins, one and all, I love you. To the cousin who called me today – I stand in utter awe and respect of where you are now, coming out of such horrible conditions as a child. We’ve done well. That’s worth a whole lot of something to those kids we’ve left behind now. Those miniature versions of ourselves who prayed for normal lives, or at least indoor bathrooms and adequate heating in the winter time.