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Label-makers, all

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

In a large plastic tub labeled “Kids Stuff” in my guest room closet, that book is still there; the first one I read to my kids when they were babies. Bright, glossy cardboard pages, a single colorful picture and one word on each page: Apple, Ball, Cat, Flower. As a child I, too, had a picture book with soft, wrinkled cloth pages and concrete identifiers for common objects. Early on, we learn everything has a name.

In the mid-80s when my kids were young, home label makers became popular, and we loved to squeeze the plastic handle and watched in awe as the hand-held device spit out staccato-propelled narrow strips of alphabet-embossed blue plastic, backed with self-adhesive, to be affixed to everything in the house, including our dog. Adorned and categorized, everything could easily be organized, ordered, stored.

When I was a child, I, too, had a label.

I was a “Good Girl". Quiet and well behaved, obedient and eager to please, I knew the importance of following rules, meeting expectations, and doing what I was told. In school, I always raised my hand, did my homework, sat still and paid attention, and properly folded my hands on my desk. At home, I always said please and thank you, dutifully walked the dog, sat quietly at my snack table in front of the TV for dinner, and ignored the unlabeled, chaotically stored fears in my stomach.

For me, many things didn’t have a name that would easily stick; I was confused. Are Good people Bad? Are Happy people Sad? I wondered. Even the Magic 8 ball was stumped: “Try again later.”

Amidst making snow angels and candy apples, interspersed between childhood games of Mother May I? and Hopscotch, were rounds and rounds of Things I Could Count On, Things I Couldn’t, and years and years of untold childhood assaults that 7 decades later remain unlabeled.

My fitful sleep regulated by the comforting, rhythmic breathing of my snoring dad in my bed, his bewildering, incessant requests for Simon Says Do This and his restless finger soldiers on daring expeditions during his nightly drunken slumber. The symphonic sickening sound of my grandfather's sliding zipper signaling the beginning of another “show- don’t tell” time, while wagging a squishy, wrinkly toy he expected me to play with. Weekly visits from always inebriated Uncle Al, who every weekend emphatically stopped the Good Humor man, bought out the entire contents of the truck for all the kids on the block, then forcefully hugged me too close and released his slithering, slurping tongue as if searching for errant ear wax or missing teeth before seeking more scotch in the kitchen and grabbing my mother’s breasts as she was cooking his favorite dinner.

My stomach always hurt. After years of feeling too sick to go to school most days, in third grade, I tried to tell my mother, but I was Scared, and I didn't know where to begin. I started with my grandfather. “I don’t want him coming here anymore. I don’t like playing with him," I whispered.

“Don’t ever say things like that again," my mom scolded gently. He’s a Good Man.”

I grew up in a Nice Home. Had Great Parents. A Perfect Childhood. A Wonderful Family that loved me and took good care of me. The labels didn’t match.

As an adult with kids of my own, I couldn’t squeeze the trigger fast enough to pump out categories for many things that didn’t have a name and made me feel sick when I was a child: Things We Talk About and Things We Don't. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, issues like these, and many others, were not even whispered about. I stored untitled silence, secrets, and shame in dozens of inaccessible spaces and unlabeled places. And still do. Sometimes, we wait forever to tell our stories; sometimes we never tell at all.

Recently, after having had no contact for almost 60 years, six of my childhood friends gathered to reminisce. I had always imagined their childhood homes were just like the ones I saw on “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show” - perfect in every way. But our three-hour visit revealed that unbeknownst to me, each also grew up in an alcoholic home, and experienced similar types of abuse and trauma and never spoke about any of it.

Long before lessons on Good Touch/Bad Touch, Stop/Say No, and the Me Too movement, tucked between Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Swanson Turkey TV dinners, we were stuffed and silenced by the mantras of the 50s and 60s: silence is golden; don’t speak unless you’re spoken to; children should be seen, not heard; If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all; don’t air your dirty laundry - aphorisms for cross- stitch wall hangings and fodder for therapist’s offices.

On what would have been my parents’ 77th anniversary this October, a family member gushed, “Your mom and dad looked like movie stars! I loved them both so much! They were the Best!”

I remember the label-maker.

“They were Beautiful, and Funny,” I acknowledge quietly.

And then I put the label-maker away.

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