My Childhood: Where Did it All Go Right?
I suffer from an early childhood malady that is more common than you've been led to believe. I call it Way Too Normal and Happy Upbringing Syndrome. Or, as you probably know it, WTNHUS. It's easier to say if you hold your nose closed really tight with your thumb and forefinger. Go ahead, I'll wait.
See, the problem is that I grew up in an average west- side Cleveland suburb, in an average, fairly functional, devout Catholic family, two parents, different sexes, five kids, no divorce, suicide, sexual abuse, drug addiction, or jail time. We didn't have a lot of money but we weren't poor. We got to do cool stuff because our dad was a sportswriter, but we weren't rich either.
We lived in a tree-laden five-miles-long-by-two-miles-wide village on Lake Erie that was like Andy Griffith's fictional Mayberry. Minus the Barneys, Gomers, and Floyds. We did have a few Aunt Bees. It was the mid-sixties, and we were close enough to Cleveland to have cool music, professional sports, and tons of movie theaters. The Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Barbra Streisand all made stops there. And we were far enough away from downtown to be able to read about local poverty and race riots like they were happening somewhere else.
Bay Village was such a soft, gentle community that the kids from the suburbs closer to Cleveland called it Gay Village. We could walk to the beach, ride bikes to our friends' houses, buy penny candy and lucky rabbits' feet from the five-and-dime. Every Fourth of July there were fireworks, a carnival, and a parade where we displayed the bikes we had decorated with red, white, and blue crepe paper in the spokes and pinwheels on the handlebars. My best friend across the street, Sally Greene, discovered that if you soaked the crepe paper in water it would color it, and suggested that we could make a killing if we put the colored water in jars and sold it-you know, colored-crepe-paper water. Oddly enough, no takers.
We picked elderberries by the railroad tracks, which permanently stained our moms' Formica countertops when we made them into pies. Four cups of sugar on those berries. (Count 'em, four.) We played Tag, Capture the Flag, Hide and Seek, Four Square, Red Light/Green Light, Hopscotch, Statues, Running Bases, and the ever-popular Whack the Lightning Bug (or fireflies, or whatever you call them where you live) with the Whiffle-Ball Bat. They were the only animals harmed in the writing of this book, by the way. Except when my cousin Art accidentally whacked me on the back in pursuit of a lightning-bug whacking record.
There were seven families on the end of the street (Midland Road, how average is that?), with a median of four kids per family. We ran in packs. Boys playing sports, girls singing the entire score from the movie Mary Poppins on the swing sets at Normandy School. (Well, me. I sang.)
We played for hours. Rules were in place. We had to be home when the streetlights came on. Or when Mom gave the whistle using her pinkie and forefinger that I have never been able to replicate.
Everyone had their share of accidents. When my brother and his cronies locked us girls out of our secret club in the garage and began to read our supersecret diaries, I put my fist through the garage door trying to get in. My dad went ballistic. I got a Band-Aid and was grounded, which at that time meant I couldn't go farther than our front steps. The girls brought me graham crackers.
Dicky Greene "accidentally" dropped a hammer from the top of a twenty-foot tree onto Johnny Madden's head. They were building a tree fort. (See, this was back when kids built their own tree houses; their parents didn't hire I. M. Pei to do it for them.)
Suzie Albertz with the long hair did a triple flip over the front of her handlebars as we careened down Huntington Hill. And lived! Cool!
Thor Johnson stuck his head through the glass window of our front storm door while chasing my brother, who was attempting to liberate the ants in his ant farm. This was way before PETA.
And throughout the years in a show of unity we all took turns getting stung by bees, stepping on broken glass, and stubbing our toes on uneven suburban sidewalks when we weren't skinning our knees while roller-skating (no helmets, no wrist guards-all you needed was a skate key and guts, baby).
For years we would Stay in Bay All Day. We went sledding in the winter and swimming all summer. We went to church on Sundays and had Dairy Queen every chance we got. It was all pretty midwestern-romantic. Ohio has all four seasons in a very big way. There were entire weeks we missed school because of snow. Not that we missed it exactly. And spring can't help but be luminous after those kinds of long winters. Summer was one long sun-scorched, barefoot blast, and there's nothing quite so spectacular as an Ohio autumn when the leaves are turning. No hallucinogens necessary.
There was a lot of laughter in our house. I remember nights when the five of us were all at the dining room table not doing our homework. Just laughing and laughing. Well, not always laughing. My sister Alice and I fought constantly, and one night she lured me into the basement and, on a dare, threw an entire chocolate-frosted pound cake at me that was intended for the school bake sale. Some pound cake-that mother knocked me right up against the cement-block wall. I had frosting in my ears for a week.
There was and probably still is just something damn lovable about unpretentious, wise-guy, hangdog Cleveland. If there was ever a place that is proud if its own, that cheers on its children, that takes great parochial offense at even the hint of a slight, Cleveland is that place. The town has some faults: it's got an enormous inferiority complex (the river caught on fire), and geographic racial segregation second only to South Africa.
But that place is always in my heart. If you're from Cleveland and you do something good, those people will love you forever. In fact, they'll love you even if you're just passing through. Tom Hanks spent one summer there in the seventies, watching the Indians while he was working at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, and he's considered a hometown boy.
Now, lest you think my life all too good to be true, my growing up was not without its very own "Movie of the Week" devastation. In 1971, when I was twelve, my mom had a brain aneurysm and died. Don't think that hasn't cost me a pretty penny in therapy over the years.
It's a bit rough getting a mortality wake-up call at that age. But it makes you realize that challenges, difficulties, and bad breaks are not the worst things that can happen to you. So later on, when you don't get that big part in the Porky's reunion movie, you still get that very real feeling of "Hell, at least I ain't dead!"
But what really irritates me are some people's two-bit analyses regarding showbiz folks and the drive for fame. I've been asked if my mother's death propelled me into the acting world, desperate for the love I lost.
I say Ha! When I was in the second grade at St. Raphael's, seven years before my mom died, I told Sister Delrina I could sing the entire Color Me Barbra album, and then proceeded to perform it, not only for my own class but for five others as well.
You want to blame someone for me being an attention-starved, "Look at me, look at me," messed-up, sociopathically needy showbiz person? The buck stops here, my friend. I'm healthy.
And I've got the childhood to prove it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Motherhood and Hollywood by Patricia Heaton. Copyright © 2002 by Patricia Heaton. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.