A Scene From My Childhood: Before the Divorce

I’ve gotten in some very kind emails asking about my childhood. So I thought I’d share the below. It’s … well, what it is.

My Childhood: The Play

Act One: Before The Divorce


(The curtain rises on the SHORE dining room. The year is 1963: the time of the culture jam between “I like Ike” and “I like major hallucinogens.'” It’s dinner time. Sitting at the dining table are DAD SHORE, wearing a business suit; his almost mesmerizingly handsome eight-year-old son, JOHN; and JOHN’S eleven-year-old sister, BUTTHEAD. MOM SHORE — dark hair, beautiful, the very picture of a 50’s housewife — comes in from the kitchen and takes her seat.)

MOM: So, honey, how was your day at work today?

JOHN (making a joke; his mother, of course, was talking to her husband): Oh, pretty good. You know. Reading. Writing. Rithmetic. Recess. Same old grind. Thanks for asking. (Both of his parents stare at JOHN in the way they might an exceedingly boring television program.)

MOM (to DAD): So, anyway, hon, did everything go all right today?

DAD: What? Whattaya’ want from me? Yes. Everything went fine, okay? Perfect. Wonderful. Couldn’t be better. Now do you mind if I eat my dinner in peace? Besides, I can’t talk; I’ve gotta save my strength to cut through this pork chop.

BUTTHEAD: Here! Look what I do! (With both hands she grabs the piece of meat off her plate and begins furiously gnawing on it.)

MOM (after silently staring at BUTTHEAD a few moments): I had a pretty good day today. I . . .

DAD: Get your elbow off the table, son. You’ll never go to college and get a good job if you don’t learn not to eat like an animal. Jesus.

JOHN: Unless I major in zoology. Then I could probably get a degree just for eating like an animal. Now, eating like an amphibian would really be something. Have you ever seen those frog tongues? How’d ya’ like to have one of those? Wouldn’t it be a drag to be a frog, and, like, forget how to curl up your twenty-foot long tongue so that you can store it in your head like all the other frogs? Like you just forgot how to wind the thing up? So then you’re just sitting there, surrounded by all this tongue, and then, when you see a fly go by, you have to hurry real quick and try to gather your tongue up in a ball, so you can throw it at the fly. Except you really don’t have any hands, since you’re a frog and all, so you —

DAD: Will you shut up! I swear, it’s like trying to eat next to Sid Caesar. Except Sid Caesar’s actually funny.

JOHN: Well, sure. With a name like Sid Caesar, how could he not be funny? Think how funny I’d be if you’d named me Hugh Hercules. Or Throckmorton Thor. Even Vince Viking would have been funny.

DAD: Shut up. Do you hear me? Not one more word out of your mouth.

JOHN (chuckling to himself): Barney Batman.

DAD: That’s it. You’re grounded.

BUTTHEAD: Yeah! You’re grounded!

JOHN: What? What are you grounding me for? Barney Batman is funny! I thought you wanted funny!

DAD: What is the matter with you? Do you not hear me? Am I not speaking English. Shut! Up! Do not say one more goddamned word!

MOM: Now, dear. Remember what the doctor said about your heart.

DAD: Livin’ with this goddamned kid, I’ll be lucky if I live till I’m fifty.

BUTTHEAD: Yeah. You’ll be lucky if you live till you’re twenty-five.

JOHN: He’s thirty-seven now, you moron.

MOM: Now, now, children. No arguing at the table. Let’s just all sit down here and have a nice, quiet dinner, shall we? Your father works hard every day, and we should all just . . . (She rolls her eyes skywards.) What’s that? Yes? Yes? (Long pause.) Come in, Mars. Yes, my leaders. This is Rhapsa One, Keeper of the Earthen Flame. I hear you. (She closes her eyes. When she opens them, she speaks as if in a trance.) Oh, children of mine. Oh, my husband. I have the most splendid news. The Overseers from the basin of the Helix Sea on Mars have just informed me that I am soon to begin the Purification of the Final Incarnation. Oh, how I have yearned for this day, when I would be declared worthy of taking the seventh step to full cosmic deliverance. Finally, blessed Nirvana will be mine. Oh, my beloveds, isn’t it miraculous?

(Her family stares fixedly at her.)

JOHN: Yeah, mom. That’s really great.

DAD: Well, that’s it. I’m gone. I got a kid who can’t shut up, and a wife who talks to Martians. I’m outta here. (He leaves the room, returning almost instantly with two suitcases.) Good-bye, kids. I’ll call or something as soon as I get a phone in my new place. Try not to end up in jail.

BUTTHEAD: But what about me, Daddy? How can you leave me?

DAD (kissing her): I love you most of all, Butthead. I’m really going to miss you. I am. (Waving.) Good-bye.

(Both children dash from their seats to wrap their arms tightly about their father.)

CHILDREN: Don’t go! Don’t go! Please don’t go, Daddy! Don’t leave us alone with her! She’s insane!

DAD: Let go of me. I’m sure she’ll be much more normal when I’m gone. (He breaks away.) Good-bye. I love you both. We’ll go to the zoo on Sundays! Won’t that be fun!

(DAD exits; we hear the front door of the house slam shut. JOHN and BUTTHEAD slide helplessly to the floor. They slowly draw closer together, until they sit huddled in each others arms.)

MOM (Eyes close, head tilted skyward): Hello? Yes? Yes, masters, I hear you. May the light fill you, oh inspired ones. Speak to me. As ever, I am yours to do with as you wish. ”


(Fade to black.)

(If you liked this at all, there’s a chance you won’t entirely hate The Bird and the Glass.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • holy shit john.

  • peet

    I am never complaining about my childhood again.

  • Dave Bowling

    I agree with you … never another complaint from my lips about my childhood.

  • melanie

    John, hoping you will post the continuation of this soon!

  • A’isha

    Yeah, what Erika said. Holy Shit, John!! If I didn’t believe this is a pretty accurate description of your childhood I’d laugh. But I don’t. Instead I sit with my jaw dropped looking like a total moron.

  • Don Rappe

    Oh, and of course you may have inherited the surrealist gift from your mother.

  • Rebecca

    I identify heavily with this, John, and I’m sorry you experienced it. You and your sister deserved better. *big hugs*

  • When I save up enough change in the jar, I have to hire you to ghostwrite my biography. You have an uncanny ability to put us (the reader) into the room simply with dialog. That’s so cool. Of course the room you dropped us into… not so cool.

  • was it Mars or heaven she was talking to? I’m wondering if you are going to tell us it was actually heaven and Jesus and that many thousands, maybe millions talk and act very similarly all the time. and the question is — should they/we?

  • marymary

    my childhood was crap too. martians would have lightened the mood. and don’t call your sista butthead :o)

  • Oh my goodness! I’m sorry it was like this for you, John. And I’m glad you made it out alive and are now thriving!!

    My childhood was bad, too. No one spoke to Martians but there was certainly craziness afoot. And abuse.

    Glad we both made it! (not to mention the others here who have survived similar cruelties)


  • littlefairy

    Oh, my GOD, I am not even halfway through yet but I had to stop and tell you that I BURST OUT laughing midway through your mom’s soliloquy! OK back to reading about dreamy childhood while humming, “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats to that I can hardly speak!”

  • littlefairy

    Finished it. Big sigh. First, I love the line about living between I like Ike and I like hallucinogenics. Second, it reminds me more of my marriage (and my children’s childhood) than it does mine, but mine had its own insanity, belieeeeeeeve me. Don’tcha just love how a supposedly-rational adult can abandon children and either not acknowledge that this is what is happening (“I’m not abandoning you–this is MY experience, not YOURS!”) or else not give a crap (“I am abandoning you–this is MY experience, not YOURS!”). When my children and I moved away from where we lived because my husband had been told “Quit or be fired!” and we had no money to live on so we moved to be close to my parents, the day we were moving, my husband came over to help pack the truck (yes, seriously)–taking just a few hours away from his girlfriend with whom he’d been living–at the window of the car, he told the children, “See you in a few days–I will be coming “home” in a few days, too!” That was January. In late March, he came for a visit. The hell we experienced in between then was MY fault, of course, as was the children’s devastation and pain.

    SHIT. That’s about all anyone can say: SHIT. Or better yet, as erika said, “HOLY SHIT.”

  • Yikes. That’s … so awful. I’m sorry you and your kids had to go through that.

  • It’s painful to think of you suffering what you did, Jeanine. I’m sorry that happened to you.

  • The idea of calling her “Butthead” was that that’s how a kid would think of the name of his sister … . But you knew that.

  • No, it was … well, Venusians, actually. And no, I’m not kidding.

  • Thanks, Ric. I always so appreciate your warm and thoughtful comments. (People: Ric’s the guy who took the shot for me that I used to illustrate “Is Hell Real? What Are We, Six?,” which is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2011/05/24/is-hell-real-what-are-we-six/ )

  • Thank you, Rebecca!

  • Robyn

    Oh, wow! So THAT’S who you are! That kid I grew up across the street from! I KNEW you looked familiar!

  • There’s probably some real truth to that.

  • Well, I don’t think you could ever look moronic at all, A’isha, much less totally so. But I appreciate what you’re saying here. Thank you.

  • Perhaps I will! Thanks for that encouragement, Melanie.

  • Everyone SHOULD complain about their childhood. Otherwise, what good were they?

  • Best response ever.

  • Hellavalla shot.

  • Ric, as I think you know, I take choosing the right images for my posts as seriously as I do the text itself. Having one TOTALLY TAILOR-MADE for me–and especially one that so perfectly fit the post—was just a major treat for me. Thank you so much for it!

  • bs

    As another poster responded, this reminds me, too, of my own divorce and your sister and yourself as the children are my children, not myself and my sister.

    It hurt most, I think, because I could read the pain of the children in spite of the dysfunction the parents carried into the home. This hurt me most because I identify you and your sister as my children in my situation and it pains me greatly that they hurt through my divorce.

    So, kinda like when you get punched in the face for something you deserve (or at least are responsible for) but still vocally retaliate: F*ck you, John. And. Thanks. I, unfortunately, needed that.

  • Wow. What a powerful thing to write. Thank you, bs.

  • I dont’ know how you can write about your childhood without wanting to go beat the crap out of someone – ANYONE – just for having had to go through all that pain. Geez, *I* want to go beat the crap out of someone just reading it.

    Its a good thing God’s compassion and mercy are great, because there are some of us who have gone through so much awfulness that existence would be impossible without Him.

  • textjunkie

    Y’know what struck me as weird–I remember all the stuff you’ve written about your mom and dad, I remember your writing about the nightmare of the psychiatric hospital, but I never remember you writing about a *sister*. Especially after you and Cat going out to stay with your dad and take care of him, I missed anything about a sibling. What happened to her? Between the towering insanity of your parents and your irrepressible wackiness, she’s something of a shadowy figure.

  • DomainDiva

    That one discourse sounded like every night at my house. I only wish my step dad HAD walked out now THAT would have been too wonderful!

    You made it out in one piece, despite trying Gods patience the way you do, as did I and countless thousand of others who have endured the all-too-all-American-insane-childhood. My moms claim to fame was that she was a seer. She was actually just drunk most of the time.

    We love you.