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Columnist learns she was more Goldfinger than Goldilocks as child

For years, columnist Tammy Swift had viewed herself as the innocent and golden-haired mascot of the Family Swift. That is, until she discovered an old letter that suggested otherwise ...

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Tammy Swift, Forum columnist.
The Forum
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There’s a very funny episode of “30 Rock” in which Liz Lemon reminisces about her earlier life as a high school nerd. According to her recollections, she was an outcast, ruthlessly bullied by all the other kids in class.

Then she meets her old schoolmates at a reunion. They regale her with stories of how Mizz Lemon was actually the rare breed of nerdly bully — one who lashed out at others with reputation-shattering nicknames and devastating put-downs.

Amid the nostalgia of remembrance, Tina Fey’s character had unwittingly projected her inner Scut Farkus — rewriting the memories so she was the victim, not the victimizer.

I can so relate to this, especially after catching a glimpse of a few childhood mementoes.

For much of my 56 years, I’d envisioned myself to basically be the helpless, golden-haired baby of the Swift clan. Photos from that time show me as an adorable, curly haired moppet, shyly folding myself into the floor-length living room drapes as my older sisters stood front and center, showcasing clarinet solos, 4-H bread-making demonstrations and gypsy dances for mom’s camera.

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A Christmas many decades ago. I'm the one in the center, who looks happy to just hold an unwrapped present. To my left is my sister Bertha, and to my right is sister Mabel.

Family lore reinforced this belief. Mom repeatedly talked about what a good, quiet, little girl I was, content to spend hours on the couch while drawing little storybooks and always obediently following my big sisters’ lead, like the runtiest baby chick.

However, all of this good PR fell to the wayside when my Dad’s sister, Aunt Ethel, sent an old letter from my mother to my sister, Bertha, as a keepsake.

The letter was a fascinating time capsule of 1969. It contained four pages of lined paper, densely covered with my mother’s busy scrawl and filled with news about life as a farm wife and young mom.

It was hard to imagine that she even had time to write a letter this long, knowing how her days back then were filled with gardening, cleaning, baking bread, running errands for dad, feeding hired men and raising busy little girls.

But in the days before Facebook and cable TV, Mom's correspondence revealed she had time to participate in her neighborhood Homemakers’ Club, attend the Ice Capades at the newly built Bismarck Civic Center and discuss with my Dad the possibilities of going on a driving trip through Mexico (which apparently never did pan out).

In between accounts of putting up pickles and helping my oldest sister get through loads of third-grade homework, she relayed how Bertha and I loved dressing up our housecat, Puff, in doll clothes. (I remember Puff as our first, and only, housecat, who was relegated to the heated shop after she ate one of my mom’s houseplants and vomited neon-green and white foam all over the living room carpet.)

The thought of us two little girls tenderly dressing our black-and-white kitty in frilly dolly clothes warmed my heart.

That is, until I read the next marrow-curdling line.

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“Tonight I heard Tammy say to (Puff), when she wasn’t doing just what Tammy wanted, ‘You better lay down or I’ll put your bonnet on and choke you.’”

Sweet fancy Moses.

Such threats and viciousness from a 4-year-old who looked like Shirley Temple? Such violence from a wee tadpole raised on farm TV? Certainly, I hadn't heard these words from my parents, who never argued in front of us. (Although, truth be told, my dad did hurl some pretty colorful language at uncooperative machinery or a stubborn furnace.)

Perhaps "Captain Kangaroo" had run a few "uncensored and uncut" episodes, in which Mr. Green Jeans revealed himself to be a homicidal maniac?

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Here is a Midwestern farm girl's idea of gypsy apparel. I'm relieved to see that I've dressed up my stuffed bunny here instead of our long-suffering cat, Puff.

These all seemed like reasonable alternatives when compared to the possibility that I could have simply been a burgeoning bad seed, a preschool psychopath.

Then I remembered yet another relic that offered a frightening glimpse into my tiny, black soul. In my baby book, my mother had proudly reported that I was extremely verbal by age 2 and was speaking in full, colorful sentences. My first sentence?

“You big, mean, stupid, dumb, good-for-nothing dumbypants."

Holy "Children of the Corn," Batman.

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Forget all comparisons to Shirley Temple in "Bright Eyes."

Looks more like Mom was raising Joe Pesci in "Wise Guys."

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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