Day Trip

by Emily Rosenbaum

When I was about 8 years old, my father got tenure, a mysterious honor that I was convinced got its name because he had taught at his Massachusetts university for 10 years. He was awarded a semester’s sabbatical at a research institute near San Diego, so we packed up the little yellow Saab – the back filled with children and household goods, the front occupied by my father and his wife – and moved to temporary housing in Southern California for four months.

Other than a brief two-day trip to Santa Barbara in my 20s, my father’s sabbatical would be the last time I set foot in Southern California for two and a half decades.

Then, the spring before my 35th birthday, my husband’s company decided that we would be relocated to Los Angeles. I could not visit before the actual move, as we were conveniently located in London, and I try to avoid any unnecessary 11-hour flights with two small children.  My memories from my own childhood in California were vague, buried under the snow of subsequent New England winters. I had no idea what to expect.

Almost as soon as we arrived, my husband threw himself into a huge project at work, we began house-hunting in a city composed entirely of suburbs, and my agent sent me revision suggestions for my book. Oh, and did I mention I was three months pregnant? We were holed up in temporary housing, Zachary was adjusting to a new preschool, and I was completely mystified by the Freeway system. A month after we moved, we sorely needed some concentrated family time.

Fortunately, 45 minutes to the south of L.A., a short day-trip away, is the Land of the Giant Mouse. It was time for a trip to Disneyland.

We ambled through the front gates, and they both saw it at the same time. “Train!” Benjamin exclaimed, resolving the question of what to do first. I waddled with my family toward the Main Street Station, and I suddenly remembered: my father and stepmother took us here when I was a child. I visited this place with them back when we lived in Southern California. The flash contained no details, just the vague but certain impression that I definitely had trod these bricks with my parents.

This unexpected recognition took me off-guard, although lately I have come to realize that much of what I do as an adult harkens back to my parents’ lifestyle in the 1980s. I use rags for cleaning, just as my stepmother did. I love to buy produce direct from the farmer, which my parents also did whenever they could not grow it themselves. I run, a hobby my father picked up with a vengeance because all the other cool kids were doing it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my stepmother wore her baby when he was little, breastfed, and recycled.

In fact, there is really only one area of life in which I am starkly different from my stepmother: I don’t beat my kids.

The things my stepmother did to me behind closed doors are the stuff of fairy tales and made-for-TV-movies. And, yet, she took time out from abusing us to take us to Disneyland. As our children dragged my husband and me past an It’s a Small World that was depressingly boarded up for refurbishing, I wondered about that outing so many years before. Why would you spend all that money to provide a childhood fantasy to kids you would starve when you got home?

I suspect that she did not recognize a dichotomy between her behaviors. She did not realize that there was anything odd about a day in an amusement park with kids whom she also sadistically abused. It just never occurred to her, just as she did not understand that reusing and recycling are all well and good, but they do not cancel out throwing away someone’s childhood.

“I want a pink elephant,” Zach insisted as we got to the front of the line for Dumbo, but the pink ones were all taken. We had anticipated this problem, and my husband resignedly stepped aside to wait for the next turn with our 3 ½-year-old. As a child, I would never have dared make a fuss that I had not gotten exactly what I wanted. I was always too surprised to get anything at all and too frightened to set off my stepmother’s anger. Zach, however, never hesitates to make his preferences known.

The children were pretty well cooked by mid-morning, and it was time for a snack. Benjamin scarfed down the blueberries we had packed for him, but Zachary was too picky and excited for the blood-sugar boost he desperately needed. “You will not go on one more ride,” I finally told him, “until you eat that peach.” I ended up yelling at him while he whined that the peach was yucky. I could not help but wonder what people were thinking as they watched a large pregnant woman in her tent-like maternity dress fussing at her child.

Of course, it does not matter what outsiders make of a family. There were plenty of folks in our small New England town who thought my stepmother was a down-to-earth, hippie mama, doing right by the planet and her children. Our willingness to eat our veggies may have seemed a reflection of her prowess as a mother, but it was actually due to the fact that we were underfed.  We behaved well in public only because we were terrified of what would happen in private.  And, whatever her reasons for taking us to Disneyland, I can guarantee it had nothing to do with watching my face light up the first time I saw Goofy.

The photographs of my childhood are few, and those that exist are stark, featuring an underfed girl wearing a joyless face. Looking at these photos, I cannot imagine how everyone who met us did not figure out what was going on in our household. We wear the terror of broken spirits so visibly that it obscures our features. How different those pictures look from the one I took of 22-month-old Benjamin, wearing his “Fair Trade Rocks” T-shirt and kissing Minnie on the tip of her nose.

Eventually, Zachary ate his peach, and I apologized for losing my temper as we headed over to the Princess Show, an extravaganza that involved a great many twirling skirts and some serious audience participation during the maypole dance. Benjamin wanted to go down front, but Zachary is not the type to get up in front of a group. I escorted my younger son into the Princess Show Mosh Pit while my husband stayed in the seats with our eldest. Benjamin danced about on his sturdy toddler legs, ever the active learner, while Zach watched and asked questions from afar. Each was doing what felt safest to him.

There at the Royal Coronation with my not-quite-2-year-old, I was conscious of the people around us, and I enjoyed the conspicuousness of bringing two boys to a Princess Show. It is a point of pride that I am a hip enough mother to disregard gender stereotypes. I want to be the kind of mother who gets nods of approval from my imaginary peanut gallery. Chances are, however, that most people are probably not paying all that much attention.

I remember almost nothing of my first trip to Disneyland. I do not know whether we rode the train, which characters we met, what we were permitted to eat, what sort of a mood my stepmother was in that day, or how we appeared to the people around us.  But I do know that no one felt safe.

And that is all the difference.

Emily Rosenbaum is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. She blogs at http://wheelsonthebus.wordpress.com.

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