When I was 10, I moved to Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. I was born in nearby Sheboygan, but hadn’t lived there for half my life. It was Spring Break, 1984, and I was in 5th grade. My sister and I were visiting my mother and her new husband, whom we didn’t know at all. It was an uneventful week spent visiting relatives, and we were supposed to go home on Sunday, back to my dad’s house in Northern Illinois – back to my normal life with my two step-brothers and half-sister. On Saturday, my mom got a phone call. It was my dad’s wife. My dad had disappeared and she didn’t know where he was, but she knew he wasn’t coming back, so she told my mom to keep us. With that phone call, my life was uprooted once again, and my sister and I left the home we had known for the previous five years – the longest solid stretch we had lived in one place – to live with people who may as well have been strangers.
It had come so unexpectedly. After receiving that fateful phone call, my mom sat us down and told us we weren’t going back home. She’d send my step-dad down to Illinois with us on Monday to pick up some of our things and then we’d be living back in Wisconsin. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. On Monday, when we got to our home in Illinois to pack some clothes, no one was there. I suppose my step-mom was at work and the boys were at school, and my half-sister was with a babysitter somewhere. Our house was always filled with noise – the noise of five rambunctious children running around, but this time it was eerily quiet, and it felt wrong – like something had died.
The house was a disaster, like it always was. At my dad’s, we lived in poverty, in filthy conditions. There were dirty clothes and junk piled throughout the house, probably a foot high in places. There wasn’t a clear path through the living room where the floor was visible. In the room I shared with my sister, our dirty clothes also covered the floor, and the dogs had crapped everywhere, so we had to grab what we could, stuff it into a couple black garbage bags, and go. I doubt we were there more than fifteen minutes, which in one way was OK. We were young, but aware enough to know that our living circumstances were horrible, and we were embarrassed for anyone to see the state of the house. On the other hand, we were there and gone so quickly. There were no goodbyes; there was no closure. Simply the absurd reality that we were again leaving everything we knew to go live with strangers. I lingered for a moment alone in the house and I sat with the silence – it was the silence of loss.
The emptiness I felt was overwhelming. I left with an ache in my heart, thinking of the stupidest things. I had told my little half-sister, who was still only two at the time, that I’d sneak her into the kitchen with me some night and let her drink some pancake syrup right from the bottle. It was something I did when I was a hungry and wanted something sweet. I never got the chance to share my little secret with her, and I felt a profound guilt that I couldn’t follow through on that promise. I lay awake in bed every night thinking about her and the life I’d been jerked from so suddenly.
My mom enrolled us in school, and we started a few days later. I was petrified by the size of my new school. There were 4 classrooms for every grade, and I got lost trying to find my way from my classroom to the office to buy lunch tickets. My graduating class had 121 people in it, which is small by many people’s standards. The school I had come from, though, was a tiny rural country school. It had only one classroom for every grade and was a long hallway of a building. No corners to turn, no way to get lost. Fear permeated my entire experience finishing 5th grade. My face burned with embarrassment as I was constantly stared at. The hand-me-down clothes that used to be my brothers’ were odd, my haircut was off. I even stood funny. I had unknowingly picked up a weird slouch that my father has. It wasn’t just a slouch in my shoulders. My whole back hunched, so both my shoulders and my hips sat further forward than my stomach or my chest.
You’d think that we’d be happier to live in an environment that wasn’t abject poverty, but we weren’t. I missed my brothers and my friends unbelievably. I felt completely out of place. My fear and anxiety didn’t go away – instead they grew. I was afraid to leave my family. I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to go to other kids’ houses for birthday parties or other social events. I was truly petrified at the idea of leaving home. I cried and cried, begging my mom not to make me go. I skipped school some during those last few months of 5th grade, because my parents went to work before we had to leave for school. I told my sister to go on ahead, and I stayed home because the thought of facing school and more strangers was just more than I could bear. The move had done something to me that I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t until years later.
After watching me struggle for a few weeks, my step-dad came to school with me in the morning to talk to my teacher. Outside the classroom, he told her I was having a hard time adjusting, hoping she could do something to encourage me to make friends with other kids. I had made him swear the night before that he would tell her in a way the other kids wouldn’t learn of – I was afraid of being singled out even more. My step-dad says he asked her to keep his request quiet, but she immediately walked into the classroom, shut the door, and said, “Class – Missy is having a hard time adjusting to her new school. I want each one of you to make friends with her.” I was mortified, and I slid down in my seat in a futile attempt to disappear into my desk. Of course, no one did anything different to try to make friends with the odd and quiet new kid.
I missed my family in Illinois, and I couldn’t explain that to anyone I was with in Wisconsin. It seemed my mom and her family all assumed I should simply be happy to be there. I don’t know if that was because whenever I did get to visit them, I was always sad to leave, or if they just didn’t know how to deal with my sadness so they pretended it didn’t exist. I’m not sure how much my mom’s family was aware of the level of poverty we lived in with my dad, but my step-dad certainly saw it when he took us home to get our clothes. My aunt had gotten a glimpse of it, too. She dropped us off at home after my mom’s wedding the prior year, and she brought some leftover food to leave with us. As soon as she set it on the table, the boys dug in and inhaled it – so there was some idea we were in bad shape, but no one wanted to accept what our circumstances were, so they ignored it. What could they do about it, anyway? When they later heard what it was like, our stories validated to them that we should be happier where we were, and no one knew how to address the fact that I was anxiety-ridden, afraid, horribly lonely, and more than a little broken.
My step-mom, who divorced my dad shortly thereafter, told me years later that my half-sister used to wander the house, in her diaper, with a picture of Karen and me. She cried endlessly after we were gone. When I let myself look at the image I carry in my mind of this scene, it still causes me to choke up and feel that deep loss all over again.
I tried to write letters back and forth with a friend or two, and I hid them in my clarinet case so no one else could read them. One of the friends I corresponded with was a boy. We were too young to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but we were close friends, and sort of thought of ourselves that way. At ten, we didn’t know what romance was, but in one letter he sent me he compared us to Romeo and Juliet, kept apart by our family circumstances. One night after I was in bed, I heard my mom recounting details of the letter to my step-dad and laughing about it. I was embarrassed, and felt so completely violated that my mom had been going through my things. I thought I’d hidden the letters cleverly, but she’d found them and was making light of them, and I just felt even lonelier. I pulled the blankets over my head and cried silently, wishing with all my being that I was back at home with my dad.
I also couldn’t understand why my dad left, and wanted desperately to hear from him. I didn’t, though, until four years later, and that brought a new and intense pain to my life. Living at my dad’s for a few solid years was the first time I felt any sense of permanence. I had reached out to him in my own way, whether it was obvious to anyone but me. His attention and approval was so important to me, that when he wouldn’t correspond with us at all, I naturally internalized some feeling that it was my fault he left – he had seen something in me when I opened up that he didn’t like, so he took off. My sister felt this, too, but her reaction was a little different. She thought that we had to be perfect living with my mom and her new husband, or they would send us away, too. As I got older, I realized I shouldn’t think of it as my fault, and my dad’s problems had little to do with me directly, but it didn’t stop me from losing any confidence that I had. It didn’t stop me from expecting other people not to like me, or not to like me enough.