I am so grateful for this book celebrating the Children’s Defense Fund’s thirtieth anniversary. This gift of thirty-four extraordinary American writers sharing their stories of growing up in America paints a complex, richly detailed, and achingly real portrait of American childhood. Every reader will catch glimpses of his or her own childhood and see the childhoods of others with new eyes.
Tina McElroy Ansa remembers her nurturing black Georgia family and community as a world “made up of stories,” and listening at her mother’s side “as she whipped up batter for one of her light-as-air, sweet-as-mother’s- love desserts.” In a town on Chicago’s North Shore, Mary Morris learns early on how girls and women can get into “trouble,” while boys and men escape blame — and, since she is a girl, she makes an exit plan, just in case. Michael Patrick MacDonald sees his father’s face for the first time at his funeral and leaves the service with a renewed appreciation for the family he does have and the unspoken community of love and loyalty that surrounds him in his poor and desperate “white trash” South Boston neighborhood: “For once in my life I felt I should be proud of where I came from, who I was, and who I might become, and for a moment was ashamed for having ever felt otherwise.” Lois-Ann Yamanaka writes about trying not to panic when the autistic son she loves so fiercely sees balloons in the supermarket checkout line, knowing the moment is about to escalate into a .t of frustrated screaming and thrashing that will force her to drag him from the store while other customers stare in disgust: “In JohnJohn’s world, I can afford to buy him every balloon on every trip to the market. In JohnJohn’s world, he takes all of the shiny balloons home to our yard full of white ginger blossoms and lets all of them go . . . [a] moment of beauty, his silent freedom.” Anna Quindlen looks at the overscheduled lives of today’s children and mourns what’s been lost: “Pickup games. Hanging out. How boring it was. Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don’t believe you can write poetry or compose music or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.” Alan Cheuse writes about his especially fortunate circumstances growing up on the water: “I don’t know how it would have been, born into a town without a coastline . . . The ebb and flow of waters, the detritus, flotsam, treasures left behind on the sand, the marine life, fresh water and salt mingling in the tides, the sound of buoys on summer nights, bells, horns, the ships anchored within sight of our playlands: the hope this gives you as a child, there is almost no explaining.” And in another world, Julia Alvarez dreams of someday being able to turn her life story into a book another little girl might want to read — “a girl like me, no longer frightened by / the whisperings of terrified adults, / the cries of uncles being rounded up, / the sirens of the death squads racing by.” As singular as every one of these stories of childhood is, common threads run through them, linking experiences across race, class, and geography. The role of many memorable adults who stand up for children is striking. I hope readers will recognize people like them in their own lives: Alexs Pate’s mother, determined that her son will not be mistreated by teachers or led to believe he x FOREWORD is destined to be a “negative statistic,” on yet another determined march to the principal’s office in his defense; Anthony Grooms’s mother putting him and his sister to bed at Christmas to the sounds of Burl Ives and Nat King Cole; Robert Bausch’s father pretending to wake his six children up on Christmas morning by blaring Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller on the hi-.; Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s and Bich Minh Nguyen’s grandmothers, suspicious of the neighbors, the children’s friends, the toadstools in the front yard — any of the pieces of the outside world that might somehow bring their family harm. And John Edgar Wideman’s mother, sitting at her apartment window watching for the child out way too late, prepared to wait up as long as it takes to dream him home safely.
Reading these stories, we may wonder what our children will remember about us. Will we be remembered for doing everything we could to dream them home safely? Even ideal childhoods are marked with some degree of fear and uncertainty. Scary movies, bullies, illness, and death are timeless. But while generations throughout history have often looked back to the times before them as simpler and mooooore innocent, in many ways childhood today may be more dangerous than ever. Pervasive cultural, domestic, and community violence, child abuse and neglect, drugs, high rates of hunger and homelessness, and tenuous family and community supports ravage the lives and dreams of countless young people. Community breakdown has coincided with a culture saturated with violence- and sex-filled images, and too many parents seek to meet children’s needs with things rather than time. Too many children are left alone to sort out the values promoted relentlessly by television, movies, and video games. Safety nets for children and families are being eroded as politicians place millionaires’ desires before children’s needs. And year by year it seems as if adults’ hold on our children’s hands and values is becoming looser and looser, so that too many children sink in the quicksand of materialism and spiritual poverty.
There are sad stories and painful memories in this collection, but also a great deal of hope, as seen in children’s resilience, their small kindnesses to other children, the writers’ ability to look back through the lens of time at the parents and siblings and houses and neighborhoods they were given and understand what true gifts these things were. And with all their accumulated flaws, the adults in these essays sometimes appear at their best, too, in stories of parents who hold on to their children through minor crises and major catastrophes, refusing to let go. May each reader learn to do the same for every one of our children, until collectively and individually we are able to dream them all home safely.
—Marian Wright Edelman
Copyright © 2003 by the Children’s Defense Fund. Foreword copyright © 2003 by MarianWright Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.