Families

Published on January 4th, 2023 | by Bridey Thelen-Heidel

18

We Owned the Night

Those who know me recognize my smile is too tight, not nearly enough teeth showing. I’m faking it because the woman taking the photo wants to believe we’re happy. My baby sister is too young to understand we are pretending, so she isn’t. The look in her eyes would become one I’d see too many nights—from under our bed where I taught her to hide until the monsters were finished smashing mirrors and breaking each other.

“Come on,” I’d whisper, searching the dark for her hand. “They’re asleep. Let’s go eat.” My sister would scurry out from under the bed, pink silky bunny blanket in hand, and we’d tiptoe over broken glass to the kitchen.

We owned the night—after the monsters passed out: hushed whispers, spreading cheap peanut butter on cheaper white bread that ripped. We giggled and danced in the moonlight streaming through the kitchen window. Just the two of us, building castles in the sky.

What happens to little kids when childhood hopscotches over us or runs faster than we do and stays just out of reach from being tagged?

I saw childhood from my window: kids riding ten speeds without a baby seat on the back, playing Hide ‘n Seek as a game not as a strategy to survive, and a dad carrying a little one on his shoulders while I carried the world on mine.

I watched childhood on television: girls giggling about boys and makeup and slumber parties, reminding me of the time a friend slept over but climbed out my bedroom window in the middle of the night because the monster screaming in the other room scared her.

I was jealous of her—not only for having a place to run away to but because she still felt like she could be scared. She was ten, and ten-year-olds are allowed to be scared—calling out to their parents to check under the bed and in the closet. And then insisting they leave the lights on and the door open.

I’d outgrown scared. No time for it.

I knew humiliation, though. Watching my friend run home in the dark, I wondered if she’d wait until Monday to tell the kids at school, or if she’d get a couple girls on a party line tomorrow to gossip about the ugly truth I’d exhausted myself hiding from them.

What childhood lessons are lost while we are studying to be adults? I spent my childhood learning the real tests of real life: How to push the stabbing metal pin through the thick cloth diaper without poking the baby’s skin? How to read a WIC coupon because you don’t want to be embarrassed when the grocery clerk corrects you in line? “You can’t have that cereal, honey. It’s not on the list. Where’s your mom to help you?” How to enroll ourselves—without transcripts—at our sixteenth school—and we’re only in eighth grade? How to take care of a baby who doesn’t know you’re her sister and calls you “Mama”—because that is who you are to her?

And the most frustrating test of all: How to parent the “grown-ups” who’ve made rebelling against you a game because “You’re so boring, Bridey. Lighten the fuck up!” They peel out of the driveway in the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am they bought instead of better groceries, hysterical they’ve left you to lie when their bosses call and ask why they haven’t shown up at work.

There were other adults who I think saw my lost childhood—neighbors, teachers, family friends, relatives—but dysfunction’s deceit is its ability to disguise itself as “fine” and “okay.” Concerned adults dismissed their own instincts and disregarded their worries because we—the ones waiting and wanting to be rescued—are conditioned to cover up the clues before anyone suspects.

And when they do, we move again.

Adults only saw what I let them see—what I was allowed to show them. This is why I don’t blame them for insulting me with their compliments: “You’re very mature for your age.” “I wish my kid was as grown up as you are.” “You’re so responsible.”

I envied the adjectives I used in my red velvet diary about why their compliments hurt me: innocent, unaware, ignorant. I prayed—to whom I wasn’t sure—to be as naïve as other girls my age: laughing at drunk parents making fools of themselves rather than counting the beers left in the fridge or weighing the box of wine in my hand to know when the night would end; knowing I preferred cocaine to meth because one kept the monsters awake all night, playing loud music and sewing my Barbies new outfits, while the other peeled their eyes open for days, beating each other and destroying our house.

I was eleven in this photo and just beginning to realize some people don’t want to be rescued, and some people can’t be saved. But I could save this baby—and myself.

In the decade that followed, my little sister would block most of our memories, and I don’t blame her. As her big sister, it was my job to remember for both of us: She deserved a witness, deserved to know none of it was her fault, deserved to feel she was loved and protected because I wanted to teach her how to love and protect herself.

Decades of harrowing nights and disappeared days burned an ulcer in my belly until they finally ended up on the page. Dysfunction, abuse, and poverty are arguably unoriginal topics, but I’m hoping other kids who watched childhood happen out their windows or on television will realize that when they hid under their beds and fought their monsters, they weren’t as alone as they felt. There was an army of other brave little ones waiting in the dark for glass to stop shattering, for sirens to quiet, and for the calm after the storm.
      
Because after the monsters passed out, we owned the night.

Cover photo by Zan on Unsplash.

Originally published at https://bridey-thelenheidel.com.

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About the Author

An award-winning English teacher and fierce youth advocate, Bridey Thelen-Heidel’s work has been written about in READ THIS, SAVE LIVES and CALIFORNIA EDUCATOR. Popular host for community events and speaking engagements, local news outlets have covered some of her story, which she’s written about in her memoir, BRIGHT EYES – currently looking for representation. She started her blog in June of this year and has had 5500 visitors to the site, reading blog posts about writing and the themes, characters, and settings within her memoir.



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