In 1984, many of us remembered Sally Fields holding onto a coveted Oscar for her role in “Places in the Heart” and declaring, “You like me. You really like me!” In actuality, what she said was, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”
Like most of us, I’ve come to hold onto the first quote as the real one. For me it has accurately summed up my need for belonging and acceptance over the years, and explains why I felt so giddy last month after receiving my yearly t-shirt and hat from the Veteran’s Senior Center of Northern Ca.
I felt like some smilin’ 5-year-old, that day, who lost her first tooth and was eagerly awaiting a visit from the tooth fairy. And if the truth be told, I continue to feel that way.
You would think at this age that I’d be able to buy myself as many blue t-shirts and baseball caps as I wanted, and technically you’d be right. But there’s something that makes me cry with happiness when I think about what the shirt and cap mean. There’s something that’s so deep and primal about what those two items represent, that in one instance it overwhelms me with an unbridled joy and a feeling of unconditional acceptance and love. And in another instance, I travel back to my childhood, and am engulfed in a down-to-my-toes sorrow and a feeling of exclusion and dislike.
No matter how old, how rich or poor, how educated or uneducated we are; where we were born, or the color of our skin…we all have the need to belong and be accepted.
When we’re young, having friends is so important to our development and well-being. But maintaining friendships as we age sometimes becomes difficult. Our careers, family demands, and health restraints – all pull us in different directions – all pull us further away of what is truly important; truly valuable to our survival.
As a child, I keenly remembered being left out of play groups and study groups. According to a group of neighborhood kids, my family was poor and our father was crazy. So, it gave them a reason and justification to exclude me from playing kickball and hide and seek in the Cherry Street Park on those sultry, Adirondack nights as the lightening bugs dotted the sky.
“No newcomers,” Rosemary yelled as I rounded the corner from Orchard Street to Cherry, smiling with the anticipation of a naive 10-year-old who just finished her household chores and was ready to play. “No newcomers,” she yelled as I innocently looked behind me until the reality of her comment struck home.
Slowly my smile faded, ever-so-slowly my pace slackened. I was crushed – my spirit deflated – my self-esteem kicked in the stomach. But I knew then, as a 10-year-old that those kids weren’t going to get the best of me. So, I smiled even broader, straightened-out my young shoulders and walked right by them ignoring their jeers and taunts because I knew who I was – even as a 10-year-old – and I knew that I was better than their insults and abusive remarks, and I wanted nothing to do with them or their unkind ways. Or at least that’s what I told myself, as I walked around the block and went straight home to curl-up in my closet and sob myself to sleep, comforted only by the quiet and darkness of a long, summer night.
The fact remains: we were poor and our father was crazy. Killing guys on Pork Chop Hill during the Korean Conflict and leading men into a battle that took many of their young lives can do that to a person. There’s no doubt in my mind that my dad suffered from PTSD; no doubt in my mind that his self-imposed isolation and sitting for hours playing basketball with a small plastic, hand-held toy after he came home from the war were both signs of a mentally unstable young man; a man not able to appropriately parent four children and be a good husband to Mom. His demons were many and all went untold. So he’d thrash-out at my mother and beat-up on us kids and the more I’d watch shows like, “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave it to Beaver,” the more I thought something’s not right with this family, something’s not right in our home. But my mother would feed us, iron our clothes and try her best to keep smiling between my dad’s constant blows.
My mom would divorce him and eventually he died young – died alone and on vomit from an illness unknown, and I and my siblings went on with our young lives and turned into good people in spite of our poor start.
We had something more than money could buy – we had something more than fashionable clothing and all the newest toys – we had a mother who loved us and believed in us and taught us to be compassionate and fair. We had something that no one could give us or take from us; we had something undefined.
Our survival as a community, a nation, a world and a species, all depends upon our ability to make friends and play nicely together in the sand box that we call life. No matter who wins this election come November, may we all go forward and graciously let everyone play, because it’s necessary and it’s needed and it’s the right thing to do.
And in the meantime, I have a nifty new cap and a pretty blue shirt and I’m hoping that someday that everyone does, too. Have a great day, and I’ll catch ya the next time, looking at life from my shoes.