To help me write a series of stories for young readers, I approached some of my adult friends, seeking memories of their childhoods. I wanted to know what they recalled of family life, school, and their favorite books and games at the age of seven, which took us back to the 1950s.
Their most fascinating recollections turned out to be about their childhood spiritual experiences. I think most Sunday-school teachers of the fifties would have been amazed by the secret theology of the children in their charge.
Alana is a prize-winning writer who has worked in the film industry.
When I was seven, we had just moved to a village near London, into a really old stone house. It was the third time we had moved within England, but in this village, for the first time, the people all hated Americans, or Yanks, as we were called. Dad was stationed with the U.S. military. It was 1957.
Summers were pretty good there for my brother and me. There were fields of flowers, and we’d pick bluebells, wild daffodils, and irises. In the woods we’d pretend we were Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Every year a band of Gypsies would come around and put on a fair with donkey rides and a big swing. They drove old wagons with horses, and we weren’t allowed to talk to them.
For the first time in my life, I was aware of how dark the winters were. It was also the first time my mother worked and wasn’t there when we got home from school. Another first that winter was that my dad wouldn’t let my brother and me sleep together for warmth anymore; we were “too old” for that. There was no heater in the room, and it was a spooky old stone house with the fireplaces boarded up! There were leaves inside the chimneys, and I could hear the mice and rats. Snow covered the ground outside. It was all something out of a Dickens book — dark, cold, lonely.
I remember a lot of talk about hell in those days: “If you don’t believe in God, you are going to hell!” That’s how it was presented. People would talk about getting saved as a way not to go to hell — nothing about fulfilling yourself. We didn’t have a Bible, but we had a book of Bible stories. The stories were violent and vicious, like bad soap operas. I was always afraid of the devil, ghosts, and spirits. My mother said that Jesus is with you all the time. I was afraid I’d see God if I opened my eyes in the night in that cold, dark room.
Cindy is a painter and screenwriter.
When I was seven years old, it was 1955. I lived with my parents and three-year-old sister in a small town in downstate Illinois. Dad was a couple of years out of podiatry school in Chicago, and he was struggling to get his practice started. Mom was a genius at stretching money. She put together a comfortable place for all of us in this old commercial building.
Just outside our door was the town square, with the courthouse in the middle. The best store was the dime store, with glass-partitioned tabletops at my eye level. Treasures were piled on them: salt shakers, clothespins, wax fruit, barrettes, coin purses, hand mirrors, scarves, and bud vases. At seven, just looking, without buying, was enough for me.
Some part of me could travel through the air at night. A tiny, doll-sized chair would come for me. I’d get into the chair and go places, while my body stayed in the bed.
I started having a recurring dream: I would come upon a dark wall dimly illuminated by a yellowish bulb that buzzed and flickered, as if on a weak electrical current. The dream gave me a dizzy, sickening feeling. It was about life, all life, operating on low power, low vitality — something wrong and evil.
One time I overheard some adults discussing an operation a friend of theirs was going to have soon. I screamed at them, “No! No! Don’t let them cut her open! They’ll let out all the light!”
There was a hillside at the back of my grandparents’ property. One spring Sunday, during a visit, I plopped down alone among the green sprouting plants and watched clouds, the curve of the hill against my back. I was a giant lying across a huge portion of the earth, pressed snugly against the spinning globe — a natural extension of the plants and soil. I made up a song about how Mother Nature and I had some sort of benevolent dominion over the planet. For the first time in my memory, I experienced love for the world, and I knew that I was being cared for by a higher power.
James is a television reporter and a freelance writer.
I was seven in the summer of 1953 and was helping my dad complete the construction of our house in Lima, Ohio. I liked seeing how a vacant lot could be filled with something. I especially enjoyed seeing how the walls and the roof went up and filled empty space. Once something is enclosed, what goes on inside is concealed, a mystery, and I was always curious about what went on inside houses.
My daily routine in summer included slipping onto a city bus and exploring downtown Lima. Old hotels, pool halls, drugstores — all had beckoning doors and mysteries inside. I’d give the hotel clerks my full name and address and tell them I liked old buildings, so “could I please browse around and see the rooms and furniture?” Usually they’d give me a tour. But sometimes they’d fulfill my fondest wish and turn me loose to wander.
It was as if I were plugged into something much larger than myself. At seven, I had to know what that “something bigger” was. I was moving through a world of energies, of things I couldn’t see, but I knew they were there. The buildings, the physical structures that filled spaces, were the best things I knew of to help me understand the larger universe. The more I poked around, the more I felt I was beginning to understand how things fit together. That’s what I was seeking.
As an only child, I really had no one to talk to except my imaginary friends. I could create conversations anytime. My mind was always parked somewhere separate from my body. I was always trying to jump to another side of the universe, to see back to my physical self. I never quite achieved it, but I have tried all my life to move through space in my consciousness.
I liked the feeling of power over the physical world I got from rearranging the furniture in my parents’ house. With objects I could hold in my hands, push against, and move, I could make reality change. You don’t have very much power as a child, so this was my godlike act.
I remember getting hold of some grown-up book about how puny our view of God is, and about how people live very limited lives. Well, the author didn’t have to tell me that. Whenever I took my walks through the neighborhood, I could see the lives of the families who lived there, and sometimes I could hear conversations through the windows; it was so obvious that they were living below what I now know as potential.
Everything seemed connected. Even getting a cold and missing school was a significant experience. Everything mattered. It was all whole and mysterious — a great detective story.
Joanna is a writer.
It was 1957, the year of the fin on cars. We lived in a cute little house in a nice neighborhood in a small city in west Texas. All the families in the neighborhood knew each other. It was the typical, supposedly ideal, lifestyle.
We kids would play Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In my imagination I was beautiful and powerful; I was Dale Evans. We could run free and create fantasies. The world was safe. But Mom would read the horror stories in the news from L.A. or New York and keep our doors locked.
I was a very compliant child, a pleaser. I tried to keep everybody happy — my parents, my teacher, the other kids. I was trying to be the perfect child that my mother expected me to be. But I really liked being alone. I could occupy myself by drawing, or writing, or simply thinking, taking a break from the pressure to perform.
The church I was raised in was controlling, legalistic, demanding — lots of dos and don’ts. I questioned a lot of it. I saw God in creation all around me. I can remember sitting in the pews at church. We had to be perfectly quiet; if we weren’t, Mom would pinch the hide off us. Church wasn’t a pleasant experience, but my own internal drive and need and belief were separate from that. I knew that God was something beyond that church experience, something beyond the rules.
I remember seeing an animated film that really scared me; I even remember the music. I started having these nightmares. I would wake up and open my eyes, but I could still see these creatures from the dreams — flowing images, almost ghostly, very fluid. They would dance around my room, distorted like visions in funhouse mirrors, changing in shape and size as they moved. I could close my eyes, open my eyes, and I still couldn’t get rid of them. I would try to find my voice to call out, until finally I was barely able to squeak, “Momma!” She would come and take me into her bed.
Even huddled up with her, I still saw the dancing creatures. I guess I was having a battle between my reason and my imagination: they were there, so that was reality.
Carol is a textbook author and a researcher in the field of brain/mind study.
In 1951, when I was seven, Dad was a professor at a denominational religious university and also served as a dorm director. We were given an apartment in a boys’ dormitory and all of our meals. So I had about two hundred brothers in the dorm and a family all over campus.
The school was big and beautiful. It sat on a green hill and you could see for miles. When it snowed, I’d sled down the hill with my dad. We had a cemetery that was just wonderful. I used to get a group of little kids together, and we’d go and see how close we could get to the graves before we got too scared and ran back to “safety.”
One night when I was in bed, I felt a strange energy. It made me want to get up and move my body, but my mother was ironing in the next room and could see me through the doorway, so I had to be still. The feeling of energy got stronger, and I noticed that its source was not in me at all. It was coming from my window, a few feet away from me. I didn’t see a shape, only I experienced this energy. If I paid attention to it, it seemed to go mostly across my chest and down my arms, maybe a little bit into my solar plexus. It was wonderful.
I told my mother about the “something in the window.” She listened and was very kind.
I felt it move from the window to the foot of my bed, its intensity increasing. Gradually, it seemed to spread all through the room. By the time it got up into the bed, I wanted to dance and sing and be joyous. I kept telling my mother, “I just want to dance!”
It got even stronger. It wouldn’t quit. Finally it seemed to come right inside me. I was unable to stay down. I sat up. And Mother said, “Maybe Christ wants to come into your heart. You can let Him do this.”
Well, that gave some kind of concreteness to whatever was going on. I made a conscious decision to throw myself open. And then it was just ecstasy! Finally, the energy peaked, and then began to recede gradually.
I knew something very significant had happened. I felt filled up with what I now think was love — and it was everything. The meaning given to me by my mother was based on Christian ideas of salvation. I accepted that then.
Oddly enough, that experience eventually made it impossible for me to embrace traditional Christianity, which holds that you are, at some point, out of grace, and that you must repent and believe in order to receive grace. My own experience was going from grace to more grace. I felt only the love. All the other — the sin, the penitence, the being out of grace — was something my mother tacked on. That could never take root in me. The experience I’d had was so much more real and marvelous than anything I was supposed to believe.