I grew up in a small apartment over my dad’s grocery store in an Italian immigrant neighborhood of Atlantic City called Ducktown. My bedroom would probably barely qualify as a walk-in closet for today’s homes. It had a radiator that hissed steam and the smell of damp clothes drying on it all winter. There was a small window that opened to a 2 ft. wide alley and then the solid wall of the building next door. For some reason, it had two doors, one to a hallway and one to the living room. I never understood that. And in all the years my family lived there, I don’t think I ever saw the door to the living room opened.
The room may not have been much, but for me it represented the safest, warmest place in the whole world to be. When we have grey afternoons like we did yesterday in Anchorage, the skies remind me of cold winter days at the shore with the wind blowing so cold off the ocean that you shivered even though the temps were in the 40s. On those nights, getting tucked into bed with my belly full, the sound of the radiator hissing, the wind blowing and mom and dad talking quietly in the living room during TV commercials, I felt so warm and safe it is hard to describe. (Yes, kids, there was a day before TIVO when you had to watch the show when it happened and couldn’t fast forward through the commercials)
I don’t think as adults we can ever really capture that again – those moments of total peace and contentment when your belly is full, your room is warm and the people who keep you safe are on the other side of the door.
I can’t imagine what it must be like for children who don’t have that in their childhood. Whether they are children of war or children of domestic violence and substance abuse, they will never know this deep sense of safety and well being. How we expect them to grow up and know how to create their own family, create their own safe spaces for their children without ever having known it themselves is a mystery to me. I’ve lived in Alaska and worked in social services long enough to have seen multiple generations of a family, each more dysfunctional than the last because no generation took the time to provide a sober, safe home for their children so their children had no idea how to do that for their kids.
Each night before I go to sleep, I turn off the reading lights above my bed. They are the same lights my mother and father hung over my bed when I was about three or four years old. I’ve read under them my whole life. When I was about 13, thanks to the days when docs prescribed uppers for kids who needed to lose weight, I read Gone With The Wind in one night under those lights. My mother was not thrilled when she opened the door the next day and I was still sitting in bed with the lights on reading the last few pages. Each night as I turn them off, a little part of me travels back to that tiny bedroom on Mississippi Ave. and I smile and snuggle under the covers. In my head, I hear the sound of the hissing radiator.
I wish every child in this world could have a safe space like that to grow up. The world would be the better for it.