How was your childhood?

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved this recent special issue of New York magazine focused on childhood in New York.

Barbara Walters’ dad ran nightclubs?

Chevy Chase got stabbed in the back by a mugger?

Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris ...
Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matthew Broderick was robbed constantly?

The black and white photos are fantastic, and the memories, of New York and childhood, lovely.

I was born in Vancouver, and lived in London ages two to five, before moving to Toronto where I lived to the age of 30.

My childhood was a mixture of material comfort and emotional chaos. We lived, until my parents split up, in a large, beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. We had a huge backyard, a maid named Ada and I walked to school. But my parents were miserable and I used to hide behind the living room curtains as they shouted at one another. It was a relief when they divorced and my mother and I moved into an apartment in a downtown area much less charming.

I was at boarding school at eight, and summer camp all summer every year ages eight to 15. So I didn’t see that much of my parents. I was then an only child, so grew used to amusing myself with books, toys, art, sports.

I spent my school year awakened by bells: 6:55 wake-up; 7:05 walk around the block, regardless of weather; 7:25 breakfast. And so on. We wore plaid kilts and ties, in the Hunting Stewart tartan, and black oxfords and dark green knee socks. In summer, our camp uniform was yellow and blue, white for Sunday chapel. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by strangers — room-mates, cabin-mates, teachers, housemothers and counselors.

In retrospect, it was a distinctly odd way to grow up.

But it’s what I knew. I got a terrific education, made some wonderful friends at camp and developed my athletic skills. Camp was my happiest time and forever shaped my love of nature and outdoor adventure. I learned how to canoe, water-ski, swim, sail, ride horses. I collected badges and awards and prizes, at school and camp, for my talents, whether athletic or intellectual.

Every summer I would act in a musical, Flower Drum Song or Sound of Music or Hello Dolly!. I usually won the the lead, so knew from an early age I could win and hold an audience. I wrote songs and played them on my guitar, singing before the whole camp, an audience of 300 or so, strangely fearless.

I felt loved and safe at camp, while by Grade Nine I was always in some sort of trouble at school — my bed was messy, I talked too much in class, I sassed teachers and got into radio wars with room-mates. When my neatness scores (!) fell too low, I’d be confined to campus on weekends and had to memorize Bible  verses to atone. (“For God so loved the world…” John 3: 16, kids.)

We were only allowed to watch an hour or so of television on Sunday evenings, although we were taken to the ballet and the Royal Winter Fair to watch horse-jumping. Every Wednesday night, after filling out a permission slip, we could go out for dinner with a friend or relative — the lonely kids left behind were fed a comforting meal of fried chicken with cranberry sauce and corn.

Privacy was an unimaginable luxury when you always shared a room with four or six others. There was nowhere to shut a door and just be alone in silence, to exult or cry. I was sent to my room at school, as punishment, for laughing too loudly. We were constantly told to be “ladylike.” In both places, we ate our meals communally, at large tables, consuming whatever food was served to us whenever it was offered.

Many decades later, I’m still seeing the many ways this has shaped me, for better and for worse.

How was your childhood?

34 thoughts on “How was your childhood?

  1. Wow – that’s an incredible story and one that sounds so foreign to me. I couldn’t imagine not having my own privacy, ever. My alone time – my thinking time, my writing time, my zoning out time – is something I value very much. I’ve been that way for as far back as I can remember – sometimes it was hiding in my room from an abusive stepdad, other times it was hiding from the world, other times it was just finding peace and solace in music or writing. I’m interested to know the ways in which your childhood has shaped your adult years – for better or worse. Very interesting read. I enjoyed getting a peak into a world that’s so foreign from my own.

    1. I rarely discuss my childhood in much detail unless it’s with close friends because so few people can identify with it, which is isolating and makes me feel weird. Unless you were separated from your family very young (upper class Brits are, often), you would not be able to get what it’s like.

      Mostly, I rarely cry and am pretty self-sufficient.

      I suspect it will make a memoir at some point!

  2. Wow. Completely different from how I grew up. Almost seems like a myth because it’s so different from my childhood, although there are some parts I’m jealous of. I would have LOVED the quality of education you had, but the formal setting might have galled me a bit.

    I’ll have to put some thought into a real post of my own on this.

    1. Yeah, that’s the reaction I usually get. 🙂

      The private school education and single-sex school and camp probably shaped me more than anything else in my life — I saw (and was one) smart, talented, athletic, assertive women in all leadership roles. What a gift and confidence rocket-booster that was.

      1. I had a developmental disorder when I was younger, so I was a social and communicative mess for my early years. My sisters and I didn’t always get along. I grew up in a Jewish household with two rabbis for parents. We lived in three different cities until we moved to Columbus when I was 9, and I haven’t wanted to leave since then. I started getting into scaring people when I was 5 or 6, and turned seriously to writing when I was 10. I was bullied when I was 8, but I achieved some degree of closure over the years. Now I’m at Ohio State and I’m loving it and getting published.
        Was that under 300? I wasn’t counting.

  3. Aside from some traumatic episodes, I had the best childhood. In hindsight (and as a counselor) it’s hard not to focus on the traumas, but when I go back in my mind, it was pretty much ideal. I got to live in the country, on a ranch. I got a horse for my sixth birthday and got to take him to show and tell. I had thousands of acres at my disposal and did my best to build as many forts as I could on them. We had a creek and a pond and a four-wheeler! I was literally a free range child!

      1. It has definitely shaped my personality (introvert) and my love of nature and animals! I thrive on silence and solo time. I think my upbringing has also affected my choice to remain in Montana all of these years. Whenever I travel, I cannot wait to come home. I would say that it also instilled a drive in me to want more for myself. Thanks for making me think…albeit early Friday morning!!

      2. I would love to come and see your state. I drove through it very briefly one summer and it is so beautiful! I love being outdoors and in nature. I feel crazy if I am cooped up all the time indoors — and I write for a living. (oops.)

        I stare out every morning northwest up the Hudson River and have grown very very fond of our view. It’s really soothing to live somewhere beautiful — yet I’m in crazy midtown NYC within 45 minutes.

      3. You should make a point to come back to MT! When you do, let me know and I will take you floating or something! It must be wonderful to have the best of both worlds…a little rural/nature and then an amazing city less than an hour away. I do envy that a bit 🙂

      4. I feel lucky in this respect. I did 18 months in rural NH in 1988 and did NOT enjoy being 2 hrs’ drive from Boston — too far for a day trip and we were too broke anyway. My ideal life has a mix of both.

        Will def. be in touch if/when I get out there!

  4. I’m sure it was tough to grow up away from your parents, but the camps and extra curricular activities and education sound amazing. I grew up a Southern gal, except my mother spoke French with me (they used to be missionaries). I grew up in a strict Presbyterian setting where I would feel eternally guilty for sneaking a cookie. I once peeked at another student’s test in class but felt so horrible I purposely wrote the wrong answer. But other than memorizing books of the Bible (I wish I was exaggerating, Hebrews and Colossians still hum in my brain to this day), I was allowed plenty of free play time, was encouraged in all my interests including piano, horseback riding, writing, drama, and sports, and had a loving family. There’s some other twists such as growing up in the wake of my older brother’s death (which inspired my YA fantasy novel about children dying and going to a world of magic), plus some pretty rebellious and choked down teenage years, but I can’t complain. My childhood was charmed. Thanks for sharing!

    1. What an interesting mix — ma chere! 🙂

      My husband’s father was a Baptist minister, so he had a crazy-strict childhood in some respects, although not as tough as his older sisters’. I had a ton of freedom as an adolescent (living with my father) so Jose and I had very different experiences.

  5. Elaine

    Competitive, fiercely independent, overly sensitive and uptight first child (and only daughter) in a Latin family. Straight A’s all through elementary school, but I learned to chill out on the academic front when I got my first B, in my sixth-grade math class. My introversion may explain why I’ve always tended to shy away from team athletics. Gymnastics was my sport of choice, and one I was great at, though I was also a pretty good sprinter (also a loner sport). I didn’t travel by airplane until I was 14, going back to Puerto Rico for the first time since I was a baby, then at 16 for summer camp (for the first and only time) at Duke University. My parents weren’t travelers, they were “vacationers” who preferred to relax on a beach within a few hours’ drive from our home; that they had 3 kids during a time when plane tickets were expensive no doubt informed their vacation choices. My brothers and I fought during the early elementary school years—truth be told, I was bigger and stronger and beat the crap out of them—but my parents always insisted, often using corporal punishment, that we were family and needed to be nice to each other. My brothers and I are now extremely close, even though I haven’t lived anywhere near them since graduating from college. A fairly happy and uneventful suburban childhood, though I definitely longed for the city and fled the suburbs as soon as I could.

    1. The only daughter piece (being Latina) would be interesting. Jose had a much lax-er childhood (his sisters are 8 and 10 years older) than they did, and boy, were they pissed!

      I often wished for a brother; I now have two half-brothers, one I get along with and one I do not.

      1. Elaine

        I always wanted a big sis, which is definitely why I sought older females for friendships and mentoring. But I love my brothers and have an unusual situation there, as well: They’re identical twins, and they’re 15 months younger than me. So we’re almost the same age and had a lot of overlap in school. We’re all very different personalities but still very close and communicate very easily.

        A college friend once made the observation that the 3 of us were in careers that involved being a good listener (journalist, lawyer, bartender/restaurant manager). Our upbringing definitely affects how we communicate with other people, especially the listening part.

      2. So interesting!

        My half-brothers (10 and 23 years younger) are also out in the public eye internationally — one runs his own software company and the other travels the world working on peace and conflict issues. We all (which was neat) won national acclaim the same month (June 1998). We are all (imagine) highly driven. And none of us have (or likely ever will have) kids, which is sort of sad.

  6. Growing up in Canada, I can vouch that even in the poorer areas and in the public schools we received a good education. We also thrived in the outdoors which was all around us then. Being the oldest of six children, in a chaotic and violent household, art and reading were my sanctuaries and remain so to this day. I love being outside under a blue sky and hearing the chorus of birds here – and now I have my own desk, my own studio and a computer. I am so lucky.

  7. justaweirdthought

    Lovely! I think I can understand your plight in a boarding school. I too have lived and am living in a hostel(girls’) and yeah getting some privacy is a big luxury here. The rules and regulations in my school hostel were approximately as strict as they were in yours(from what you say) but in college we are given enough freedom. I totally agree with your opinion that life in a boarding school shapes us for better. All the different types of people we meet, teach us a hundred things about the world out there.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this!

  8. As a kid in the 1960s I always fancied that in some way my upbringing was different – my dad, a scientist/engineer who’d worked at the Westrex labs in London, used to draw electrical circuit problems on a blackboard for me to solve, aged about 4. But otherwise life was very typically Kiwi in many ways; meat & three-veg dinners, a grey lifestyle invoked by a combination of exchange controls and post-war conservatism which, everybody fancied, made New Zealand somehow provincial and backward. (My mum had a penfriend in Minneapolis, who used to send us AMAZING magazines, parcels and other stuff from the US – underscoring the point…)

    My only real problem was that was able to read and write (and solve electrical circuit problems) when I went to school, but unfortunately I chose to write with the wrong hand, which was made quite clear to me was a bad personality defect, particularly because it meant I always smudged what I was writing (with a fountain pen!), for which I was relentlessly punished. The school did manage to stop me writing legibly with my left hand, so that was something I suppose.

      1. My recollection of 1960s school is it was pretty barbaric. The place did change – by the 1990s it was right up with the rest of the world, over-zealously so in certain aspects (but that’s Kiwis for you).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s