Last night my husband and I had the joy of baby-sitting for our grandchildren. Although this is not a rare occurrence, the timing of this event made the evening especially profound.
It came on the heels of sharing the podium Thursday evening with Randy Kaye at the Ridgefield, Ct. Public Library, where we discussed “COPING WITH FAMILY TRAUMA.” Our focus was on stressing the need to break the codes of silence and shame and the need to persevere in order to move beyond whatever trauma is experienced in any family. Randye read from her soon to be released memoir, NO CASSEROLES FOR SCHIZOPHRENIA: Family Lessons on the Way Back to Hope, in which she talks about being the mother of a son who was diagnosed in his teens with paranoid schizophrenia. I read from my memoir, FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness, where I write about growing up with a mother who suffered from Major Depressive Disorder.
As I played with my granddaughter, Sophie, I was acutely aware of her playful, spontaneous spirit. She’s at that wonderful stage (at 3½) where her imagination is as beguiling as is her delightful, inquisitive little face. “Come play with me, Grandma,” she said, after her parents left. “We can feed my doll and give Millie the Monkey a bottle.” The most memorable moment came when she picked up her soft toy unicorn and asked if we could give her unicorn some ice cream. “Unicorns really like ice cream,” she said, knowing full well that she was playing “pretend” and that Grandma would go along for the ride. Then becoming a tad more playful, she looked at her unicorn rather intensely, her eyes filled with a special twinkle, and she stated with great authority: “They really like strawberry ice cream.”
She did not need to explain why that was so or ask whether or not I agreed, because she knew that she was making up that particular rule and that no matter what she said Grandma would accept it, because after all Grandma had no reason not to do so.
It was in the moments when we took turns feeding the plastic unicorn a scoop of plastic, make-believe ice cream that her happy magical imagination filled me with total joy and, I must admit, a longing for what I never had.
It was clear to me that the awareness she had of her little world – what’s in every room in her house, what the weather is, the names of all her friends and pre-school teachers, what her parents and brother do or say, and surely how much Grandma and Grandpa love her – differs from the awareness that was mine at her age.
Her mother – our oldest daughter – has the intelligence and the skill to nurture her in ways that make her feel safe and stimulated and allow her to be (at least whenever I see her) – totally charming and beguiling. There is an ever present consistency in her little world which was absent from my childhood, but which most assuredly supports the growth of her playful imagination.
I can’t really know how I appeared to others when I was her age, but I do know that though my mother was warm and loving when she was well, when she was not suffering from the demons of depression, there were also the frightening times when she was suffering. In those times, I played alone and had no reason to trust that the moments of my days would allow me to be carefree. I was too busy being vigilant, sensing that at any time disaster might be just around the corner.
That’s what children live with in homes where a parent or a sibling suffers from a debilitating illness (whether it be physical or emotional), especially if they don’t know the name of the illness or aren’t explained anything about what they are seeing, hearing or sensing.
During my formative years in the 1940s and 50s that was certainly true. Secrets about any illness were the norm and children were left alone with their fears, assuming that what happened in their family probably happened in all families. Remember: those were the days when play dates were often outside in the street and seldom occurred inside a friend’s house where one might have glimpsed ways of life other than what were experienced inside one’s own family.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so very grateful feeding Sophie’s unicorn.
Laughing freely, feeling secure about going to sleep at night were not luxuries afforded to me, and for those of you who may have lived through family traumas, such luxuries were, no doubt, absent from your lives, as well.
Yet, while anything can happen to any of us at any time, we can’t afford to allow the news of the week – the multitude of disasters around the globe – to deny ourselves the sheer pleasure of watching a child’s deliciously trusting and magnificently magical imagination. Even though such times may be too few and too fleeting, they are always precious.
I, therefore, encourage all of you who may or may not have had traumatic childhoods, but who have the privilege of being with children who reflect the safety of the world as they know it, to revel in their playfulness. As adults it serves us well to know that it is still possible to receive inspiration from children who are able to captivate our attention, offering us the opportunity to feel hopeful, knowing that UNICORNS REALLY DO LIKE STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM!