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The Gift of the Stars

March 29, 2018 - Betsy Bethel
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” — Friedrich Nietzsche As a mother, I worry about how my every decision, every action, every reaction will affect my daughter. And then I worry about how this crazy world is shaping her. And then I wonder, do I worry enough? It makes me want go back about eight years and do like we used to: read Skippyjon Jones books and have tea parties and sing silly songs and play Go Fish and snuggle under soft blankets watching “Phineas and Ferb” and “Wild Kratts” and “The Backyardigans.” And then I meet people like Jeannette Walls, author of the memoir “The Glass Castle,” and I think: What the hell am I so worried about? Walls is a hugely successful journalist and author who grew up in horrific poverty with eccentric parents who put her and her three siblings in danger in a myriad of ways on a daily basis. Her father, Rex, was a paranoid genius and fiercely loyal family man who nonetheless couldn’t hold down a job, often drank the grocery money and could barely keep a roof over their heads — and when he did, it leaked so badly her brother slept under an inflatable raft. Their mother,?Rose Mary, was an intelligent, free-spirited artist who couldn’t be bothered with mundane domestic tasks or needy children. Jeannette writes matter-of-factly about unthinkable events, like nearly being raped at age 8 by an 11-year-old boy and fondled by her uncle as a young teen, crying when her dad tossed the family cat out the car window, being shot at like fish in a barrel by a BB-gun-wielding bully, and being pimped out by her own father when she was 13 so he could rob the drunken john. She escaped the man by showing him the grotesque scar on her abdomen that she received after catching herself on fire cooking hot dogs at age 3. Jeannette inherited the survival instincts of her parents. Like exercising a muscle, the more adversity she faced, the stronger she became. The key to overcoming her past, she said, is that through it all, she never doubted her parents loved her. Her father was always telling her how special and smart she was, that she was his favorite, that she had inner beauty. When he was on his death bed, he told her he she’s proof he must have done something right. The highlight of her childhood was the Christmas when she was 5 and the family had no money for presents. Rex took each kid separately into the desert and told them to pick out a favorite star. That was their Christmas present. Jeannette picked Venus, and her dad said even though it wasn’t a star, she could have it. He explained over dinner that when the sun began to burn out and everyone had to move to Venus to keep warm, they’d have to ask permission from her descendants first. “That is the thing I cling to, that is what I love about my father and mother. ... The gift of the stars to me, that says it all,” Jeannette told me. Rex and Rose Mary did other wonderful things for their kids,?Jeannette said. They taught them to read before they were 5. They recounted the Norse myths, how an engine works, how to shoot a gun and how to work high-level math. They taught them to sink or swim, literally. They inspired them to question everything. They taught them to be resourceful. After her book came out, Walls was invited to a high-society book club meeting in New York City. The wealthy members who were raised by nannies and packed off to boarding schools railed against her parents. But one woman adamantly defended them: “If my father had one time taken his kids out and discussed the stars with me or if my mother had one time in my life said don’t worry about what others think of you, be yourself, I would not be in therapy today.” Jeannette, who stitched her father’s hand after a drunken brawl, who ate sugar-coated margarine to survive, who used Magic Marker to color her skin in order to camouflage holes in her pants in high school, figures she’s the lucky one. And I figure, despite never giving my daughter the stars, it’s time for me to stop worrying.

 
 

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