We sometimes think of children as simple, uncomplicated beings, blank slates to be molded. I think children are every bit as complex as adults, but they lack the ability to communicate what they want. I was a curious child, a willful child, a child who wanted to be free. I wanted to have the compassion of my mother, and the friendship of other children; both were things I sorely lacked while growing up.
When I was in kindergarten in the one-room school, I had a classmate, a girl named Rhonda. She was a pretty girl with curly hair in a shade of light brown that no one in my family had. I liked her, and she liked me. We were friends. She may have been the first friend I had as a child. I was truly a lonely child. All of my siblings were at least ten years older than me. The one closest to me in age was a mean boy who constantly stole things from me; he hit me, and he lied to my mother about it. He could not be my friend, not ever.
The nearest neighbors were almost a mile away. Their children were all too old to be my playmates. I really had none, other than the animals. I played with Puggy the dog. I played with the cats and kittens. I tried and succeeded in making friends with the chickens and chicks, and the cows were all friends of mine on our small farm. I loved all of them, but I needed human companionship of someone my own age. It is a need of all children to be able to socialize with their peers. Not having playmates at those formative years kept me years behind my other classmates in terms of social development and maturity even well into my college years. I was shy and timid. I felt sad almost every day because I was so lonely for other children, someone like me.
One day after school that spring, Rhonda invited me to come to her house. I lied and said I could go. I remember how happy I was to be going to play with my friend at her house. I remember the tree lined roads and the smell of spring in the crisp air. I got in the car with Rhonda and her mother, but we did not get very far away when my mother came up behind their car with our old red truck. She repeatedly honked the horn, and Rhonda’s mother stopped her car. My mother roughly pulled me out of the car I was in, and she told Rhonda’s mother I did not have permission to visit.
When I got in the truck with my mother, I was very close to tears. “What were you thinking?” She demanded an answer. When I tried to explain, she cut me off, not once, but every time. I learned to just be quiet. She yelled, and told me I was a bad girl, and told me I couldn’t go anywhere without her permission. It wasn’t that she was wrong. It was that she had no compassion for me. I wanted to tell her again how much I wanted a playmate, as I had tried to do many times before, but she didn’t want to hear it. She couldn’t just take me in her arms and tell me that she loved me, which is what I needed so desperately from my mother. She berated me, made me feel unloved and small.
I never did get to go visit my friend Rhonda at her house. When I was older and knew how to drive, I realized how close my little friend had lived to me. Her house, as the crow flies, was just about a half mile from ours, though crossing the creek and traveling through some unfamiliar woods would have been a wet and rough trip that way. It was just about a mile from our school, but my mother never took me there. I asked. Her answer was always a very firm “no,” every time I asked. That always resulted in tears on my part.
The next fall, Rhonda was gone. She and her family had moved, and I did not know where she had gone. No other kids moved in the area to take her place, so from first grade until I left for town school at the beginning of my seventh grade year, I was the only child in my grade. I did become friends with Donna and Eldon, a brother and sister both somewhat older than me, who lived between the school and my grandparents’ house on Dudley Road, but I always missed having someone my own age to play with.
When I was at home, I had to manage to make my play time by myself. I learned to play jacks by myself and play a variety of things, but all were by myself. I played school and I ran in the woods. I climbed trees and thought about how I wanted my life to be. I longed to play board games with other kids, or to play baseball or other games. Those came for me only at recess. I can remember asking God for playmates. They never came.
Now I have friends, and although I can choose to be with them, more often than not, I choose being alone. I suppose having been forced to be alone made me self-reliant and resilient, and those are good things that have served me well in my life. Being able to be on one’s own cannot be overrated. I do think old habits are hard to break; not only is being alone something sad, but it is also rewarding in its own melancholy way. It’s the only way I know how to be.