As soon as I started reading it, I was reminded of my own childhood.Now, to be sure, I never lived in the kind of squalor that the Walls family did. (We always had indoor plumbing.) And my own nomadic childhood was confined to a much smaller geographic area. Nevertheless, by the time I was six, I was living in my fifth home. And home number six marked the beginning of a difficult and at times harrowing existence.
Jeannette is exactly one year younger than me, born two days before my first birthday. Like she and her siblings, my brother and I lived with our grandparents for a period of time. Hers lived in rural West Virginia, about 120 miles west of where mine lived in rural southwestern Virginia. My grandparents didn’t have contempt for us the way Jeannette’s did for her family, but they didn’t want us living there, and they definitely didn’t want our dog there. He turned vicious to the point of no longer being a pet while we stayed with them, likely due to my grandfather’s abuse. Eventually my parents gave him to someone to use as a guard dog. My mom took us to visit him once, but to him, we were intruders, no longer the kids he used to love.
Jeannette’s glass castle came in the period following her time with her grandparents, whereas my own glass castle was before we went to live with my grandparents. I’ve written about the year living in Luray, Virginia, in a log cabin with plywood walls. My father never had any grandiose plans, like Rex Walls, that I was aware of, but his jobs never lasted long, and the need to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors — or the law or something worse — accounted for our frequent need to “do the skedaddle,” as Rex put it to his kids.Like Jeannette, I always had a love for words. Her job with a local newspaper while in high school was the stuff of dreams for me. Unlike her, I sought my parents’ support for such dreams — and never got it — while she had learned early on how to fend for herself. Similar to Jeannette, however, I was the apple of my alcoholic daddy’s eye until I became a teenager and began to recognize and speak out against the stupid and irresponsible things my parents were doing, at which point he turned violent. While Jeannette took care of her siblings for several weeks while her mother was out of town, I took care of my brother almost every day, cooking dinner and putting him to bed while my parents stayed out till all hours at various — often separate — bars.
I dreamed of running away to a place where I could make a better life for myself. Often the place I dreamed of was New York City. But I lacked Jeannette’s guts to actually do it. I did, however, like Jeannette, make up stories to hide the reality of my life. I used to explain how we lost everything at our house in Luray because the house burned down. In reality, we left in the middle of the night with barely the clothes on our backs. Even my mother made up stories about our past. At one point, when she’d won a settlement from the VA for my dad that awarded him 100% disability and included a commissary card, she started telling people that my dad was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He would even receive mail addressed that way. In truth, he was medically separated from the Air Force as an airman after what I only ever heard described as a “nervous breakdown.” To this day, I don’t know anymore than that.
My father lived on much longer than did Jeannette’s, passing away at the age of 85 just a few days before I came to the part in the book where Rex took his last breath. Similar to Maureen, the youngest of her four siblings, my brother is mostly estranged from me. We speak only when there is a crisis, meaning we communicated quite a bit for about a week’s time, as our father was dying, and we probably won’t speak again until that time comes for our mother.
Rex Walls dreamed of striking it rich by finding gold, inventing something revolutionary, or building his glass castle. Frankly, I don’t know what my father dreamed of doing. If he shared his dreams with me, I’ve forgotten them. Maybe he never had any. But like Rex, my dad was always searching for something — if only greener pastures or a safe place to exist.
My parents’ final “skedaddle” was a cross-country move from Virginia to Colorado a few years ago, something they undertook with every intention of doing it in secret — from me, at least. It was only by accident that I found out a couple of weeks before they left. Much like Jeannette, I had done my best to help my parents make a good life for themselves as they got older and more vulnerable. And like Jeannette’s parents, my folks neither wanted nor accepted my help most of the time, and instead went their own way, in a direction I thought was foolhardy, unhealthy, and undesirable. But there was only so much I could do about it, so I finally just accepted it and did my best to make peace with it.
Sometimes it all sparks a melancholy laugh or two.