This is the first in a patron-only blog series I am calling Life Symbolic, wherein I consider, for analysis, my own hobbies, interests, and preferences to investigate ways that my unconscious manifests in concrete areas of personal experience. It is my hope that you will follow my lead, and together, we can audit the symbols of our lives, to deepen understanding, find validation for our experience, and lead healthier lives going forward.
With that said, I would like to explain how I am the little red caboose.
It’s a Little Golden Book Classic written by Marian Potter and illustrated by Tibor Gergely. An inexpensive title, it was my favorite story book during my earliest childhood.
“The little red caboose always came last. First came the big black engine, puffing and chuffing. Then came the boxcars, then the oil cars, then the coal cars, then the flat cars. Sometimes they were switched around in different ways. But the little red caboose always came last.”Marian Potter, The Little Red Caboose
Upon re-reading the title as an adult, I am not at all surprised with my early childhood preferences. I am the baby of the family. I’ve one older brother; there are five and a half years between us. Like the little red caboose, I always came last, physically, as well as emotionally. Everyone in my family struggled with emotional dysregulation, and I was trained early on to deny or repress my feelings because my folks were already extremely overwhelmed with the tumult of my brother’s and their own.
“Boys and girls waved at the big black engine. They listened to the boxcars and the oil cars and the coal cars and the flat cars go clickety clack. But by the time the little red caboose came along, the boys and girls were turning away. Because the little red caboose always came last.”Marian Potter, The Little Red Caboose
Like the little caboose, I felt insignificant and unimportant, all throughout my childhood. Because my brother’s psychological struggles manifested in such a grand way, my covert struggles with compulsiveness and disordered eating were far less of a concern to my emotionally taxed parents.
“I wish I were a flat car or a coal car or an oil car or a boxcar, so boys and girls would wave at me. How I wish I were a big black engine, puffing and chuffing way up at the front of the train! But I’m just the little old red caboose. Nobody cares for me.”Marian Potter, The LIttle Red Caboose
I’d no idea, at such an early age, why I loved this tale so well. Only now, years later, can I perceive how well I identified with this little character. A concrete similarity occurred daily. Mom would always serve my dinner plate last. She prioritized my father and brother above me. I grew terribly resentful over the years, as she religiously laid out the portions in descending order because it represented an unspoken truth of our family dynamics.
As the story reaches its climax, the train ascends a steep mountain, but it struggles to bear its weight up the incline. In fact, the train begins to slip backwards down the slope, until the little red caboose “slammed his brakes…held tight to the tracks…And kept that train from sliding down the mountain!” With the help of two big black engines, the little caboose pushes the train up and over the mound. “We couldn’t have done it,” they say “if it had not been for the little red caboose.”
In the end, the children “save their biggest waves for the little red caboose. Because the little red caboose saved the train.”
Like the little caboose, I have often felt responsible for bearing the weight of my family of origin’s emotional upheaval. Mom and dad both confided their problems to me, as though I were their respective therapists, and this occurred before I reached the age of sixteen. Unseen, and unheard, I became the force that pushed the stalling train over life’s rocky terrain.
Only now, do I see all.
As a preschooler, I appreciated the dilemma of the unappreciated caboose. Now, I appreciate his victory, as I seek to claim it as my own.
If you would like to read this classic for yourself, or purchase it for a child you know and love, order from me, and a portion of the proceeds will help me maintain this site, as well as develop more and better content across all platforms!