Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fear Through My Inner Child's Eye

I dream a lot about the back gate in the yard of the house I grew up in. It was wooden, painted white with a black latch that had to be pad locked because it opened onto an alley that ran behind our property. People who didn't live in our neighborhood would use it as a cut-through, kicking over trash cans, throwing rocks over our fence and taunting the dogs. Bored and up to no good, every one of them a threat to our safety. Best to batten down the hatches.

The alley behind the house on Wilkinson Street
On the other side of that door, our back yard was a vast space to a small child. An expanse of red brick pavers with jagged, jutting borders, slick with the black moss that grows under the shade of live oak trees met green grass that was not mowed as often as it should have been.

In the center, a koi pond, de rigueur of the 1980s, overgrown with lily pads just this side of dying. Before the fish were put in my older brother and I would try to swim in the murky water. That was a no-no.

There was also the fort that my brother built alongside my father and grandfather. A 20-foot high bonding project that likely led to more headaches than hours of playtime. I was always afraid to climb up, never trusting the architectural skills of the men in my family.

Because of my trepidation, I was afforded my own sanctuary in the yard: a playhouse with actual electricity. I would spend hours during hot summer days cooking fake foods for imaginary guests, running back and forth to the fresh water spigot at the pond for the water necessary for my feast. A little plug in fan stirred the stagnant air.

But even with the fluorescent light inside that little house and the high walls separating me from the rest of the world, I never dared go outside at night.

After the sun went down every shadow was suspect, a place for the boogie man to hide. Too many dark corners and places for danger to lurk. Behind bushes, up tree houses, around corners, peeking through the lattice that kept raccoons and opossums from creeping under the house.

Often, I dream that I'm in the back yard alone at night and someone is trying to come through the gate. I can hear the wood and metal latch rattling and my fear is palpable. My blood runs cold and I am unable to flee the impending danger, my feet rooted where I stand. I see myself in the body of a child, but my mind is grown, screaming, "run!"

I wake in a sweat.

Sometimes I dream that the gate is not secure and my dog is threatening to run away, which makes me incredibly nervous because she is not a dog that likes other people. They are scared of her breed: half German Shepherd, half Catahoula Cur with a bullet in one paw from her days on the streets. One blue eye, one brown. Genetics. She does not like strangers. Again, with the life experiences of an adult, I am petrified in the knowledge that I am about to face this problem with the uncertain feet of an eight-year-old.

I wake out of breath, panting.

Sometimes I dream that it's nighttime and someone has already come through the gate. My dog is not there to protect me. Once I break free from the panic that has rendered me immobile, my leaden feet can't seem to close the distance between me and the safety of the back porch.

I wake scared, heart pounding.

Each dream is always filled with a nauseating dread. I am uncomfortable. I am not safe. The yard is not safe. Something bad will happen to me here. Someone or something will hurt me.

I never make it to the porch, but when I escape the nightmare, I am acutely aware that the dreams are a mirror of the apprehension I felt about home life as a little girl.

There was so much space outside and inside the walls of our three-story century home. So many creaky floors and dark rooms at night, each with its own cobwebs clinging to the past. There was too much to break, too many things to upset, alarms to trip, toes to step on, sleep to disturb, loud noises to muffle. So many ghosts hiding.

The downstairs hall, side door (left) and entry hall (right)
From an early age, grown-up problems were mine to solve, and secrets were meant to be guarded with lies. What happened in our home was no one else's business, and it was a sin to even hint.

I used to worry that some bandit would break into our home, that someone would breach the walls and invade our space. I was afraid they would do it through the French doors downstairs, or maybe the glass-paneled kitchen door that wouldn't stay closed unless the deadbolt was engaged. Or maybe the creeper would climb up the twisting old oak tree to the ledge below the attic windows and smash his way inside. I was sure no one would hear the glass breaking. There seemed to be countless potential points of entry and my imagination found them all insecure.

Every time I have these nightmares, then and now, I wake up unnerved. Disturbed.

There never seemed to be any sanctuary from the pending doom that threatened to make its way into my home once the sun went down. Even in my youth when the world was meant to be exciting, a place to be explored, I was the "old soul" concerned about what was pacing the attic crawl spaces above my head. As the family informer it fell to me to patrol the borders.

I was afraid someone would bust through the gate, smash a window, creep out of the shadows and speak our secrets out loud, exposing us.

A mother struggling with inner demons, a father working night and day to hold us together, a big brother who delighted in big brother torments, typical trials of childhood. And me. The quiet one. Pensive even then.

Little did I know, most people already knew.

No comments:

Post a Comment