The Risks of Growing Up Swift
My family is a tough lot.
We’re a little rough around the edges.
My father is a big man with a heart of gold and a sometimes unquiet mind.
(We’ve lived with his bi-polar disorder for so many years now it kind of seems normal.)
My mother is an energetic woman with a penchant for telling very good stories (she’s made a living at this for almost 40 years as a journalist).Unfortunately, when I was growing up, many of her stories came from true tales she heard over the police radio at work. Gorey fatalities on Highway 18. Whole families up in flames in a house fire. That kind of thing. Guys who laid their bikes out and ended up paralyzed from the neck down.
(Occasionally I met them during an interview. I tell you there is nothing like being eight years old and introduced to a paralyzed man in a wheelchair. He is surrounded by his five small children and loving wife. Do I reach to shake a hand? Do I wave? It doesn’t matter. My mom sits down and writes the notes that will turn into the story. I go play with the other children. In a few days it will appear in the newspaper and people will cry. This may or may not have actually happened. Whatever the case, the memory is still there. Made up or real, I can still picture it in my head.)
I learned to fear motorcycles and narrow highways that did not have a barrier down the center line. There was this macabre quality to some edges of my childhood and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything.
It’s part of the reason that I like the babyheads. There’s definitely something wrong with me.
Some things have changed – Mom doesn’t sit and listen to the police radio anymore and I yell at her now when she tries to tell me sad stories. She and Papa live in a little 600 square foot cabin up in the middle of the woods, though neither of them are anywhere near retiring. Sometimes in the winter the driveway turns to ice and Papa has to run a shuttle with the Jeep to get you up and down. There is a fire circle just outside the front porch, which is the main entertainment at night.
Papa’s knee is failing these days so he walks with a stick and a limp and we’ve only recently been able to convince him to allow those evil doctors to install a new one.
Despite the setback, he still spends a fair amount of his time in the old shelter behind the A-frame splitting big logs for the wood stove – or pumping the well on which they depend for water. My mom can hold her own with an axe, too – believe it.
The cabin is home to two large dogs and two strong cats, which are low numbers compared to the usual animal occupancy we enjoyed in our youth. My mom can train a dog to jump rope or deliver Christmas presents or ride a bike (really) but she doesn’t spend her time doing that these days.
Instead, she usually tries to convince me to play board games with her, which I hate for justifiable reasons related to traumatizing Monopoly games in my youth. Mom was famous for stealing brazenly from the bank until she became so fed up with our inability to catch her that she confessed everything thereby negating any progress that had been made.
And Monopoly is a long fucking game.
Even after years of admonishing from me, she still believes that she was somehow justified: “But you guys made it so easy!!! I can’t believe no one ever caught me!”
“Mom. I was eight!”
The argument never seems to convince her of her wrongdoing. As a result, I’ve become good at spotting thieves and bad at playing board games.
When the sun sets we build a fire in the fire circle whether it’s 3 degrees or 33 degrees. Huddling in wool blankets on cracking, brittle plastic lawn chairs we smoke cigars or sip dark beers and spiked hot cocoa.
Someone tells an old family legend.
The height of the flames are verbally admired.
The sky is quiet and bright and my father’s fingers have been broken in at least 18 places.
Later I’ll lay in fetal position on the floor in front of the woodstove where I will acquire a dog companion. I’ll remember what it was like to fall asleep with my Doberman, Ebony, every night when I was in high school. I’ll doze off and remember growing up free and encouraged and loved and a little crazy.
Or maybe a lot crazy.
Either way, I lived. I made it. I survived to adulthood despite all the risks of growing up Swift.
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