I was a quiet kid in a quiet town, and all I wanted was a quiet existence, really. Would I have wanted something different if my parents hadn’t been who they were, then? Perhaps. I am not known as quiet, now, though I do need a sizable quantity of solitude. I am fearless and capable, bold and creative. It’s hard to believe how much I wanted to be unremarkable and to blend in, but that just wasn’t meant to be.
My hometown of Farmland, Indiana is a no-stoplight town, one mile long from end-to-end, and perhaps half a mile wide. Downtown consists of four beautiful blocks of Victorian storefronts, old-fashioned three-story brick confections with turrets and towers, and a few similarly old and fancy buildings on each side. Current census data indicates that the entire township weighs in at 1,212 occupants, 1,208 listed as “white non-Hispanic.” When I lived there, we all knew everyone else, and not only did we know them, but we knew who was related to whom, who had ever dated whom, and we knew long lists of successes and failures. It was not a good place to make a mistake, if you’d like to ever forget that mistake.
That’s the downside, though— I also felt the goodness of community support and care, even if it had to be borne alongside the weight of scrutiny and overinterest. It seemed then as it seems now, that people might be willing to take me in, given half an excuse, and I loved the feeling of safety in my small village.
My parents: how to describe them? Omer and Pat. My father’s contagious humor and laugh loosened people up and made them feel at home. He was tall and handsome and his younger pictures look so much like Lyle Lovett that I wonder if Lyle is my lost older brother, is dark shock of curls aiming up in the air and his angular face resembling my dad much more than I do. My father accepted the role of emcee of every town function, from the time that a microphone could be employed. He announced the floats at local parades, called the numbers for the cakewalks, read the winning raffle ticket numbers, and offered the sportscast at every Little League game, including mine. “That’s Denise Frame at the plate, folks, and this batter has requested that I allow her to bat in silence, and I will try, folks, I will try.” On quiet summer evenings I could hear my father’s voice booming across town from the baseball diamond’s loud speakers—I could hear his voice in the downstairs bathroom of the house on Plum Street. There was no escape. Not that I wanted to escape him, personally: my dad was impossible not to like.
And my mother was the perfect counterpart. Like Lucy and Desi, my parents were like an ongoing comedy team. He announced, and he teased people, including my mother. She did not hesitate to heckle, in response, to upstage him if she felt like it, which she often did. She was louder, bigger, funnier, and she was also more visibly capable of fury over injustice. My father served in the Lion’s Club, the American Legion, and the volunteer fire department. My mother ran ice cream socials, chili suppers, women’s auxiliary clubs of the same local organizations. She coached softball. They sold raffle tickets, served on committees, and they were simply everywhere and knew everyone. They were unpretentious and homey and looking for opportunities to be generous. They were loud, and just a bit bawdy, barely constraining their natural tendency to swear colorfully in every sentence. They hosted late night card games with shouting and laughing loud enough to wake us children: we would enter the bright kitchen light, rubbing our eyes to the cloud of cigarette smoke, the smell of strong drink and tears streaming from the corners of their eyes from laughter. My parents were local celebrities.
I grew up in a dream world, then, perhaps because my life seemed so un-dream-like. I lived the life of an escapist, hiding in my own skin. I tried to disappear, quietly, before people’s eyes.
And it might have worked, if it hadn’t been for my ornery parents and their general obnoxiousness. (I say this with deep affection and no small amount of admiration.) And if it hadn’t been for my head of very unruly hair, and my peculiar taste in clothing. And my excellent grades. And my constant reading. And my inability to soften the blunt truth about things. And my tendencies toward spiritual growth. I was an odd kid, made all the more odd by the parents I lived with. My parents lived entire lives as “black sheep,” even while doing good. In some ways, as the very opposite of a black sheep, I outwitted them, quietly and firmly. On the other hand, as a very serious child, I made a good “straight man” to their comedy, but I wanted out of the show, entirely.
In many ways, I became more “myself” the first time I left home for any length of time. There were no voices talking over me, no television in the background, no noise of expectation or reputation, not the same set of shouted swearing and back-slappings. I attended summer church camp, and I felt weightless, lighthearted, free. I knew I’d live the rest of my life that way, as soon as I could make my way “out.” People found me delightful, when unencumbered by memories of my childhood exploits and my parentage. I felt delightful, too, when I could stop reacting and adjusting to what people knew (or believed they knew) about me.
Last year I enrolled in a memoir course at a local school. After a few readings, one class member said she thought my stories “would make better fiction.” I blinked a few times and restated carefully, “Wait, it seems like you are saying it’s hard to believe these stories are my real experiences!” Yes, yes, she said, that’s it. The truth hit me later, that most people’s lives are populated with rather normal folk, most lives suffer a fair amount of boredom. But not mine, never. I grew up with characters right out of a John Irving novel, people uncowed by rules and expectations. My life would make good fiction. I wanted to argue that she should meet my parents if she wanted to know some candidates for larger-than-life tales. In many ways, I pale in comparison, or at least it seems so. I don’t give away my time and energy nearly so much. I feed myself, first, with writing and solitude, and sometimes there is little leftover for community involvement.
Reflecting from a distance of twenty years, I have new questions: when I made my way out, how much did I become like Omer and Pat? I share their social fearlessness, their confidence, their love to laugh with people. How much do I carry Farmland, Indiana with me? I long for community and I work to build it, to make connections between folks and to feel the goodness of being stuck together. How much am I a working class kid from the Midwest, wrangling with words until I think a factory worker could understand my big ideas? How much do I still buck against the norm of what people expect of me?
Lately I’m concerned for my children, remembering that parents can be so overwhelming. When my son was a toddler, he was the kind of guy who shut down when people looked directly at him, so I learned interpersonal stealth and cunning, to watch from the corner of my eye like a hunter working not to startle, or a photographer trying not to disturb her subject. It’s not easy to fade into the background, and it’s harder all the time: I still have unruly hair, peculiar taste in clothing, and I still have a hard time softening the blunt truth of things. I’m a know-it-all, and now I’m all these things with a strong dose of fearlessness. I’m glad for the training in stealth and cunning, but I know I’m prone to forget, and I hope somehow that these children find their own place to “be,” alongside me. I will make mistakes at this facet of parenting, perhaps every day. I hope I learn to apologize, to quiet myself and get out of their way, enough. Just enough.
My children don’t like it when they feel I am applauding too loudly, or when I heckle someone gently. They don’t like it when I am not a sweet mama, bending to their wills. And I balk against the weight of their expectations that I will try to “fit” better. It won’t be a quiet existence for them, either. “She’s not a tame mama,” my husband says to my children from time to time, claiming the words about Aslan’s still-wildness from C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Wildness and strength are good traits, even for non-fictional parents, and my hope is to be tame enough—just barely tame enough to give them plenty of room to grow alongside me, to find some Spirit-blown wildness and strength of their own.