After Montessori kindergarten, I was homeschooled until college. Not for any religious or crazy reason like a belief in the Mother Dinosaur or something. My mom had a Master’s in Education and had taught at the University of Cincinnati, so she thought that schools were too focused on enforcing conformity. You know that The Simpsons episode where Lisa refuses to dissect a worm and Ms. Hoover reaches under her desk to press an “independent thought alarm”? That’s about how my mom viewed schools, and, with her experience, I guess she figured that she could do better.
I remember playing with a lot of learning toys, and we didn’t have a TV. My parents must have put a lot of their disposable income into educational materials. We had those plastic blocks to teach math, fish and pet birds (which I think were supposed to teach us about the life cycle but really taught us how funny it is to watch your parents try to catch birds), and books everywhere on every topic: biology, history, writing, reading,—everything. There was no escape from learning, no escape from the house besides our own imagination.
Maybe that’s why the field trips were the best part. Sometimes we would gather with other homeschoolers to take tours of factories and places that required a large group. Once, we went to the factory in Ada, Ohio where they make the NFL footballs. Heat and noise, people looking down all day. It seemed hard. Like an overinflated football. At least some of the workers seemed proud and showed off when we came around through. After each tour, we would have some time to play. We realized that on the first “five more minutes” we had about an hour. Then each cry cut the time in half until the final order to load up came.
Other field trips were just mom taking us to the Cincinnati zoo or the Children’s Museum. We could watch the monkeys for hours or skip them and go to the avian house, which my dad seemed to love. At the museum we could spend all the time at an exhibit that we wanted, until we understood it or were tired. Sometimes groups of school kids would briefly, frantically swarm around us like a cloud of anxious flies and then be gone. But I would be lost, exploring something new.
I remember once a teacher had come to pull back to their group a kid who was enraptured by the same exhibit I was looking at. My stomach dropped, and I wanted to say “He can stay with us!” but even I knew that wasn’t a possibility. I always felt sorry for school kids. They all had to do the same thing at the same time; it must have been difficult to explore their own interests even if they were out of the house.
I spent a lot of time as a homeschooled kid—you guessed it—at home. And until I was around the high-school age, I could finish my school work in only a few hours. That left lots of time for Legos while I waited for the school kids to get home. We had a house in the middle of the street so all the kids would migrate there.
Our neighbor, an older man named Rodger with a pristine, luscious lawn in which he took great pride, would look with disgust at our yard. You couldn’t call our yard a lawn because it was just mangy patches of grass, the dust in between strewn with toys from past battles. At some point the school kids we were playing with would all rush home for Power Rangers (which my brother and I never understood, since we didn’t have a TV) and then return to play outside where we lived in games of imagination.
As it got dark in the summer, the streetlight in front of our house would flicker on. Now the other kids’ parents would migrate to our house. Drawn to the light like bugs, and, ostensibly, by the responsibility of parenthood, they really just wanted to talk. We knew that we still had a few hours left to play even after the light came on. The parents would sit and chat on the porch smoking as we tried to catch fireflies or played freeze tag while the swarming of bugs around the streetlight grew larger. The “five more minutes” rule applied here too. Then everyone would go along slowly home, leaving us to our world of imagination.
If my mom ran out of cigarettes during the day, we would hop in the old Volvo and go to the drive through; to this day I love Snoopy Pops. My brother, Gabe, and I each got to choose an ice cream and my mom got smokes. Often, mom would sit at the end of the night having one last cigarette on the top porch step after everyone had drifted home, and I would sit with her like a grown up and talk. Maybe we would talk about neighbors, or she would teach me something. I would smell the smoke as we talked. Sharp, acrid love. And I cherished those talks so much that the slightest tang of cigarette in the air still brings me to a happy place. It does.
But it shouldn’t. One afternoon my grandmother appeared with a large suitcase. There are flashes that I remember very clearly, like a mental Polaroid. My grandmother driving my brother and I to the hospital. Click. Getting out of the car, and the sun being far too bright on the blacktop. Click. Standing in the door of a small hospital room. Click. My mom in the bed, the doctor at the foot of the bed, my dad sitting beside my mom, holding her hand and choking back tears. Click. Being told in the hallway that everything would be ok. Click. Grandma was going to watch us for a week.
“A whole new world”
That next week my dad went to work, came and checked on us, and lived at the hospital. A few days later he delivered something we had never dreamed of: a huge full color TV. Escape was something we hadn’t had, but there it was: a glowing window away from everything. We couldn’t really understand what was happening to our mom. But grandma was spoiling us and we had a TV, so things seemed ok. We were young enough that we did not question our good fortune.
That’s when we found our favorite show, our Power Rangers: Aladdin. The syndicated version of Aladdin ran between 1994-95 and Gabe and I were religious fans. It came on at two o’clock. If we were lucky we’d get Pinky and the Brain, Darkwing Duck, and Animaniacs before and after, but we never missed Aladdin. We never missed a chance to be in that world of sultans and adventure. We never missed a chance to escape.
After a week, the grandmas switched. Our grandma on my father’s side, the first to visit, was southern spoiling. That meant fresh biscuits with chicken’n’dumplin’s, home fried chicken, and a diet so high in candy that it’s a wonder we didn’t get diabetes right then. Her style was soft home comforts and lots of food. Switching grandmas was like going from Georgia to New York. Our grandmother from my moms side had a pack-a-day voice and dry martini humor. Mary Poppins left and Joe arrived. Joe took us places we weren’t allowed to go and bought me an enamel pin of a hand giving the finger. She took us trash-picking and to the flea market. Joe was out in the world. Their styles were different but with either grandma we were having fun.
Things changed a lot when mom came home. She was preceded by an extremely fluffy, green La-Z-Boy recliner that only she ever sat in. She got to watch whatever she wanted, though she let us have some time around Aladdin, and she almost never got up. Most of the time she slept, in fact, and my brother and I still had no idea what exactly was happening. Before my dad would come home from work, she would call him with very specific food orders and that was the only thing she could eat. I remember having a lot of bean burritos myself, and mom most often got a seven layer. Now she won’t go near them. Those things in your early life stick with you: cigarette smoke and Taco Bell.
Pretty soon we started going to a special type of doctor’s office where they hung a bag of fluid and let it drip into her arm. Eventually, they explained that this was chemotherapy and it was going to help our mom. The nurses were all nice to my brother and I. They would slip us candy in the waiting room, and, if there was an empty chemo room, they would let us go in and watch the violent cartoons we weren’t allowed to view at home. The doctors’ office became another place where we could go away from the world. We didn’t know what the chemicals were doing to her, we only knew that the nurses were so nice and the TV let us escape. So we didn’t know what we were doing when we would look up at our mom and ask with smiling faces, “Is it chemo day?!”