When I was four my parents had a professional photographer come to our house and take some photos of me. I had long blond hair and was wearing a lemon twinset my mother had knitted for me. I also wore a small heart-shaped brooch an aunt had given me with my name on it in small gold letters. I smiled the smile of a well loved, innocent child.
When I was a little girl I believed the song that said Jesus wanted me to be a sunbeam, and I thought I could be a sunbeam; a little light burning in the dark, a candle in the night. I used to love to sing and I would sing aloud whenever I was alone. I remember sitting in the bath singing, and I was happy and content. I was a good girl and I was loved, and I thought that I could be a sunbeam the way Jesus wanted me to be. When I sang I felt like I was being a sunbeam. A happy little ray of light, bright and warm and gold and sparkling. A small ray of joy. I felt that all was well in the world. I was surrounded by people who loved me. I tried to be good. I was accepted, and maybe even, a wee bit special!
I was the youngest of six children. Although my father was proud of his brood of boys, my parents said they had always wanted a girl and they kept trying for a daughter. I was their last attempt. To my father’s delight, I was born on his birthday. When I was about eighteen a boyfriend of mine asked my father what I had been like when I was a small child of two or three. My father said (to my surprise) “she was a joy and a delight.” And I knew that it was true – I had known a sense of that, that I had been a delight, that I had been loved, special.
At some point I lost that sense of approval, that sense that I was indeed special. I think it wasn’t too long after the photographs were taken, and before I turned five. We had family dinners together around a big table and we were expected to behave well and to mind our manners. On one occasion I was growled at by my father – I think it was for not keeping my elbows at my side as I held my knife and fork. Whatever I was doing to misbehave I kept doing on that occasion, and my father began to raise his voice as he became increasingly angry with me. My eldest brother tried to intervene on my behalf and reason with my father but he was already angry by then. He hated being interrupted, was incensed at being spoken to in such a way by his son, and he was beyond being reasoned with. My attacked my brother, punched and beat him.
As an adult I have no idea what was happening behind the scenes in my father’s world: bad days at work, a wife and six children to feed on a single income, financial pressures, his sons becoming older and challenging his authority, possibly a wife who didn’t want to have sex with him for fear of becoming pregnant again. I’ll never really know or understand what led him to that course of action – but I was left with a feeling – that I was to blame. My brother had tried to defend me and he had worn both my father’s wrath and incurred physical pain as a result. So at a young age I learned about guilt and shame – I learnt to carry these things with me like the heavy rocks they are. I couldn’t articulate the heaviness I carried but I knew it was there. And I lost that sense of approval, of favour, the sense of being special.
At the age of ten I was sexually abused over a period of time by a casual church friend of my parents. They never knew. It took me years to tell my brothers but I never told my parents. The experience added to my sense of guilt and shame and added weight to the psychological rocks I carried. Over time the rocks became boulders which I dragged behind me. Perhaps I dragged them in a sack called ‘mental health’.
Counselling has helped me see this story in a different light. The little flame I knew as a child certainly dimmed at times but never went out. My own shaft of light, my sunbeam, has been weak at times, barely visible, but a even a small lick of light is enough to dispel a little of the darkness.
I choose to cherish the flickering flame, the sunbeam, the uncut stone which still reflects the occasional prism of light. And I choose to remember and cherish the little girl who loved to sing – a wee ray of joy, a little sunbeam.