I grew up in a house filled with love, but early on in my childhood, I learned not all kids experience the same unconditional love that I was given. In elementary school, I played with two friends in my neighborhood. We spent the night at each others’ houses and shared our hopes and dreams about our futures.
My future always seemed brighter in comparison.
Dawn was the youngest of three. Whenever I spent the night at her house we had to finish all of her Saturday morning chores before the fun could begin. We would dust, polish and vacuum an already dirt free, smudge free home. Her strict parents attended an evangelical church and spoke of the importance of living by God’s word. Dawn’s middle brother stood in direct contrast to his parents. He was rarely at home and a trouble-maker at school according to Dawn. He didn’t wear a short buzz cut like his dad’s, but preferred to keep his curly locks long and unruly. The pristine main living quarters contrasted her brother’s pigpen room which smelled like feces and looked like a wild animal had torn through its contents.
Dawn shared her bedroom with her oldest sister whose twin bed matched Dawn’s except not a single wrinkle appeared on her sister’s lace trimmed bedspread. Her sixteen year old sister hadn’t been home in over a year. Dawn talked about missing her whom she suspected had runaway to live with a boy. A boy her parents forbade her to date.
Elaine, my other close neighborhood friend, was funny and creative. Her father was equally as strict as Dawn’s and her mother never left a dirty cup or plate unwashed in the sink. Elaine’s house was kept meticulously clean. Like Dawn, Elaine was the youngest. Her four siblings’ portraits, two boys and two girls, hung along with hers on the living room wall in a long line. I only knew Elaine’s sisters who still lived at home. She rarely mentioned her two older brothers by name; their whereabouts was never discussed. I never felt comfortable asking about why her brothers didn’t live at home. Years later I heard rumors that the boys had been removed from the family and placed in foster homes.
In general, love felt absent from Dawn’s and Elaine’s homes. A black hole of darkness hung over their families, and within its vortex, painful family secrets spun ’round and ’round. Maybe love was there, buried under memories of lost children, and the broken families expressed a limited more conditional love through the adherence of strict rules and cleanliness.
My parents didn’t worry too much about keeping an exceptionally clean house; nor did they worry about whether we went to church or not. Instead my parents spent quality time with my sister and me. They established healthy family routines which included eating dinner together, attending school events, sharing bedtime stories, and so on. My mom and dad never wavered in their support of my hopes and dreams. And while I’ve lost track of Elaine and Dawn over the years, I look back on our childhood friendships with great fondness. What ultimately separated Dawn and Elaine’s destinies from my own were the families we were born into.
Unconditional love of a child makes all the difference in the world.