Cabinet of Childhood Curiosity

I recently submitted a proposal and was accepted into a curated group exhibit for Women’s History Month at the Howland Cultural Center, here in Beacon, NY. The topic was enticing: Girlhood. Oh boy, was this ever custom-meant for me and my kind of personal art! One foot is always in my girlhood.

Girlhood overview

Looking back all these years, I assume that I asked questions from the time I learned to talk—what child is not curious? My nuclear family really was perfect, so I know when the answers stopped coming. My father simply disappeared from my life, in 1957, and my big question was Where’s Daddy? What I remember first was being in our linoleum-floored kitchen with my grandparents and asking Why is Mommy crying?  I have no memory of having his death (electrocution on the job as utility pole lineman) explained to me, or going to a funeral, or ever being comfortable asking questions or talking about any of it with my mother. Not until lately.

With the recent escalation of a nuclear pissing contest between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, I found myself having a bit of PTSD. Childhood fears are being resurrected from the Cold War. I grew up in the era of “Duck and Cover,” and here we are again. Of course, ducking and covering was a joke, but the threat itself was very real, and still is. The idea that we could simply hide under our desks to avoid the blast—who knew how ludicrous that was back then? Answer: A lot of people in high governmental positions. But that’s the propaganda pablum they fed us. And I was very frightened, especially when Nikita Krushchev thundered on our black-and-white television sets: WE WILL BURY YOU!

GH 2

Old electrical manuals and my civil defense booklets from the 1960s, a charm bracelet with the ten commandments, glitter, some toys, and my childhood art

Where did I find solace and a sense of safety? That is what makes up this installation. Sifting through a lifetime of personal archival material, as well as trinkets I’ve collected for my assemblage art (that connected me nostalgically to my childhood), I address my unanswered questions, my fears, and how I navigated my girlhood—steeped in family love, but also loss.

GH 3

More vestiges of growing up in the 1950s & 60s along with a very early book of poems

GH 4

Prayers weren’t working for me, so I switched to Mighty Mouse. “Here I come to save the day!” Gauges and gee-gaws. My childhood bank. A buddhist prayer flag with my questions.

At the center of the installation is my first assemblage art done in 1996. That was when I began to seriously address my past and how I became who I am today. No longer afraid to ask questions. Now I also write poetry to make peace with what I may never find out.

Insulating Materials



I ask now what you remember.

For me:

Air raid sirens pierce arithmetic lessons as we

practice for nuclear war.

My classmates and I scramble

under wooden desks:

girls’ plaid skirts tenting pale knees scabbed at recess and

even the boys are quiet.

Spitballs at a cease fire.


You say you don’t remember much.

A hint:

Did you ask me what I learned in school that day and did

I already know not to

disturb you with my fears?

I almost forgot:

Got a hundred per cent on a spelling test and

Mike Clark ate a red crayon.

And I can’t sleep at night.


Copyright Sharon Watts 2018

8 thoughts on “Cabinet of Childhood Curiosity

  1. Excellent exhibit. I admit I am jealous of the old cabinet wall where shelves can be raised or lowered in high style. Your collection is charming and nostalgic, evocative.

    The poetry reminds me of being a child, but now I see it with my adult eyes, as you do. I know your mom must have struggled to balance her own grief with the work of preserving your childhood and allowing you to understand as best you could.

  2. I’m sorry for your shocking tragic loss of your dad.

    The wooden desk solution lol! I’m from the generation born in the 60s (AKA Generation X. Or if a fan of The Voidoids & lyrics “the Blank Generation… and I can take it or leave it each time…”); so I only caught the tail end of those ‘duck & cover’ years in school.

    I went to a newer more progressive school in Kindergarten & First grade (new modern building & young teachers & newest teaching methods for young children).

    Then they changed the district borders & I was sent farther away (?) to a really old school w/ wooden desks w/ holes for inkwells & about fifty years of dip pen graffiti on them. (Sharp metal pen nibs on wooden desks were apparently the forerunner to key graffiti on the plastic covered maps on the trains).

    Our homeroom & English (?) teacher was in her 60s & had begun teaching there in the early 1920s. She did everything the same as was done in the 20s; desks in straight rows rather than in circles or facing each other; raising ones hand in total silence to ask to use the bathroom. Hence nobody did. And later they made a rule where you had to wait for the breaks between classes after an hour to use the bathroom (as different teachers taught different subjects).

    So it was only in her class for my 2nd grade year that we had to watch a duck & cover film and were told to hide under our desks. But without a drill. We only had regular fire drills. (Where we were made to line up boy/girl in separate lines. Now they would need a third or even fourth or fifth lines!).

    My mother was brought to the States as a DP via the Red Cross due to being made homeless by the allied (US & UK) bombings of Berlin. (1948 Displaced Persons Act for Germans & Europeans made homeless by the war). Guess what doesn’t save you even in a non-nuclear bombing America? A wooden desk. Or any desk. Lol.

    My mother & grandmother had PTSD from the war & bombings – so when there was a thunderstorm (those *really* loud ones in NYC/NYS/New England area that rarely seem to happen here anymore) they would make us all hide in the cellar w/ pillows & blankets etc. until it was over. I thought everyone in America did that until I was an older child. Lol.

    After a few years of this – when I was around five – a massive tree fell on our roof & smashed clear through. Hence the cellar solution in storms continued. Eventually after my grandmother passed we spent storms in the top of the house like *normal* Americans (AKA Americans who have never experienced a war).

    My mother’s PTSD w/ food continued though. After starving during the war & then Russian Zone of Berlin (which obviously they escaped later) – which unlike the ‘Western Zone’ of Berlin (allied occupied Berlin) did not get the American food drops – she always had a freezer & fridge & cabinets overstuffed w/ food. More than anyone could eat – so it would expire. (Polite word). From age 14 on I learned to clear out the old food when she was on holiday; or later when I looked after her – when she went to Church w/ my sister. A huge tin of imported herring that was never opened eventually exploded in the cellar! Lol – speaking of “bombs”. Maybe Trump & Dear Leader should save giant tins of herring past their expiry dates.

    • Wow, Zoe, thanks for your family story. It’s a wonder kids survive childhood! Let’s just take the dangerous toys away from the dangerous “men” idiots who (think they) run the world.

  3. Many of the word images you created in the poem evoked strong memories – scrabbling under desks, spitballs, plaid skirts, We definitely grew up in approximately the same era.

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