Descending

The gypsy spirit kicked in and we moved to Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock is in the Texas Panhandle and its claim to fame is Texas Tech University. One should be aware that tumbleweeds are something not to get en-tangled which is Lubbock’s other claim to fame. Toni, the dog was pregnant again, but not due to any failure on my part. Mother fretted about the dog all the way to Lubbock. Toni sat next to the window so the air from the open window would blow on her. Mother kept wetting a wash cloth and draping it over Toni’s head. That pretty much pissed me off, headed for deep West Texas, I was just as hot in that backseat as the pregnant dog.

Shortly after arriving in Lubbock, Toni had her puppies. While she was in labor, she never laid down. She paced in circles and literally dropped the puppies on their heads. Lee docked their tails, and I had to hold them for that operation. Ron and I each got a puppy. We named them Toddy and Frisky. Being dropped on their heads at birth, or our lack of ability to train them created two of the wildest puppies in history. On several occasions, they ripped the wash completely off the clothes lines. They demolished our Christmas tree. I believe whoever kidnapped my rabbits when I was six-years-old took Toddy and Frisky. It wasn’t long until the pups disappeared.

Lee was dating Kalah (Kay) Coward, and they decided to marry. Mother threw what is termed a “hissy fit” and refused to go to the wedding. I think it was because Kay was only 21-years-old, and Lee was going to be her third husband. Kay was a treasure, and I know Mother eventually loved her. Kay was barely eight years older than I was. She was insecure, timid, without a mean bone in her body and warmly innocent in her ways. Kay was so like a sister to me that never once did I not consider her a real sister. Margaret was gone, and Billy was busy hustling and corralling Tom Bowman. Kay and I formed an enduring bond. As flawed as our family was, we had something she had never experience before – complete loyalty to one another. She and Lee spent a lot of time with us. I adored her. I was one of the first people in her life that loved her without judgment. She responded in always trying to be the hero I thought she was.

She had a strange, creepy family who lived in a house on the edge of Lubbock. We would go to their house during tornado alerts, because they had a cellar. Her father owned a printing shop and was purported to be an ordained minister. The main part of the home housed the printing presses. Their living quarters were in cubby holes and a cramped, upstairs area. It was Gothic and seemed evil to me. After meeting her distant, unfriendly and repressed family, I understood her desperation to leave home. In the 1950s, marriage was usually the only way for a girl to leave home. They had Missy, and I suspect having a grandchild nearby went a long way with Mother in getting over her original objection. Missy was a blue-eyed, blond angel, and I had a new baby doll.

Mother was hired by the Lubbock Avalanche Journal Newspaper as a switchboard operator. I was expected to carry most of the housework and to have dinner on the table when she walked in the door. Losing her scholarship, Billy returned home, and I had to share my room. She was heads and shoulders above Oscar to my Felix. She never once re-hung or put an article of clothing up; it was tossed on her bed. In the winter, having so many layers on her bed, she didn’t require a blanket. She refused to sleep on clean sheets. When I put fresh linens on my bed, I had to take my slept-on sheets and put them on her bed in order for her sheets to get washed. Unbelievable! I don’t remember anyone ever telling her that her actions were unacceptable.

I went to O.L. Slaton Junior High School. I joined the marching band and attempted to learn to play the clarinet. That was another musical fiasco. Strike three, I was out of the music game forever. I began to listen to classical and jazz music which was broadcast from Texas Tech University. I discovered June Christy, Etta James and Dave Brubeck.

Elvis was a national rage, and I went to see his first movie, Love Me Tender. He had a climatic, death scene and his acting was terrible. I laughed aloud and a row of sobbing, teenage girls turned on me. I thought I was going to have to fight my 14-year-old way out of a movie. I realized, I was a musical snob.

In the 9th grade, I had a sweet friend who had taken piano lessons all her life. She was an only child, a concept I had never really considered before. I often sat in while she had her music lesson. Much to my amazement, she was taught music theory and used a metronome. This was vastly different from the limited piano lessons I had been forced to take back in Pine Bluff.

In 1958, because of the proximity of Texas Tech, Lubbock got a hip coffeehouse. It was called the Purple Onion and was a beatnik joint. Beatniks were the fore-runner to hippies. They wore black, turtleneck sweaters, berets and dark glasses. The artists performed poetry and banged out bongo drum solos. It seemed dangerous fun – thus to be either condemned or imitated. For once, Daddy didn’t condemn and took me to the beatnik hang-out. More than likely, he went out of curiosity and to try the coffee.

Daddy’s love of history came to fore in West Texas The 1800s should have been Daddy’s era. He loved the frontier legends and would have preferred to have been a bank robber or a Pony Express rider. On a Saturday, he took me and a couple of my school friends to the bat caves at Carlsbad Caverns.

Daddy, Ron and I toured every town that Billy the Kid was known to ever lived or visit. William Bonny or “Billy the Kid,” as he is commonly known was an outlaw who was shot by the age of 21 after raising havoc in the New Mexico Territory. As a teenager, he lived in a violent dog-eat-dog world where knowing how to use a gun was the difference between life and death. We went to the New Mexico Badlands. In northwest New Mexico, there is a remote, wilderness area which is dotted with colorful, eroded rock formations. The Badlands are little known and are hidden away in the high desert not far from the Four Corners area.

My school year ended. The events of that summer began the final, all-consuming slide for Daddy. Billy finally married Tom Bowman, a successful business man. We moved to a house more befitting for Tom’s in-laws. When he left his wife and two children, Tom didn’t realize Billy was a lesbian. The new marriage went south, pretty fast. One summer day, Billy, Tom’s 17-year-old son and I were at the sub-division, swimming pool when suddenly Daddy appeared. On a brilliantly, hot day at a swimming pool, we heard Tom had been shot. While at his former home to sign legal papers, his ex-wife shot him.

His ex-wife’s attorney immediately checked her into a mental facility and started claiming self-defense. In trying to reconstruct this tragedy the police said he had been sitting in an armchair, lighting his pipe. The first shot hit his cupped hands. The next two shots were to his chest. Tom had sat still and allowed, maybe even willed, being shot by an irate ex-wife. The television news crew was at the scene, and the story ran for days. At Tom’s funeral, hysterical, Billy dramatically fell across the casket. The gnashing of her teeth was short-lived once she received Tom’s insurance money. In 1959, $150,000 was huge money. Our family could no longer pretend that Billy was straight. There was no discussion, maybe not even acceptance, but the 800 pound gorilla could no longer be locked in the closet.

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Trekking Back to Texas

We moved to Wichita Falls, Texas. How we landed there is an absolute mystery to me. In Wichita Falls, I began to see there were different types of homes, neighbors and family functions. A whole other world, one where people had lived in one house from the day they were born and used china that matched. We had lived in post housing for the previous six years, and most families had been similar to ours.

I started 7th grade at Reagan Junior High School. I doubt I lasted a week before I declared that under no circumstances would I return to that hell hole. My total system was in shock. I was a baby and had been thrown in with wolves. The school was primarily populated with Mexican children and their culture was alien to me. The school searched them daily for cigarettes, lighters, firecrackers, knives or any weapons. My sensibilities went into overload. Mother learned from a neighbor that although Reagan was closer to our house, we lived in the Zundelowitz Junior High School district.

Zundy was the happiest time of my school years. I had home room, a different teacher for every subject, and people who actually put a value on me. I joined the Future Teachers Club, went to ball games and had my own circle of friends. In English class, I was required to submit an essay. Later in the year, the school presented me with a bound copy of my essay which had been submitted to a national contest. Along with other students, nationally, I had won the essay competition. Again, I am surprised. Why in the hell do I not know when I am in competition. I still have that  little book.

During the 1950s, the Ducktail was a haircut style, popular initially for males. The actual name was the Duck’s Ass, but propriety called for the name Ducktail to be used in mixed company. The Ducktail hair style contributed to the term “greasers.” To accomplish this look, lots of grease was required to hold the hair in place. Still the era of hair creams, it only took a little extra cream to hold it in place. “A little dab will do ya!” Guys combed their hair through out the day with greasy combs. By 1957, it was a fad with girls, and I got a stylish hair cut for the first time.

Mother explained “the curse” to me. I was at least not surprised at something for once, but then my original explanation had been Toni. This was the year, Mother let me paint my room black. I got a used, Hi-Fi record player, and my musical taste expanded to Johnny Mathis and Peggy Lee. I felt Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Bobby Darren required something I wasn’t willing to participate in – screaming when they walked on stage.

Billy attended Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas which is outside of Lubbock. She was in school on a basketball scholarship. Lee had moved to Lubbock, I am sure that this is part of how she got there. She dyed her hair red and had a statuesque body. Wearing a dress, she had a modicum of attractiveness. She was dating Tom Bowman, a married, older gentleman who bought her a yellow, MG A Roadster automobile.

She came to Wichita Falls frequently because I did most of her classwork for her to retain her scholarship. During her senior year in high school, I did almost all of her homework. Having a room alone for the first time, I was more than willing to do anything to keep her from moving home.

For the first time I can recall, Mother had a close, female friend with whom she visited and gossiped. Mom had never needed a girlfriend, but I think this one had a tainted past. Mother could instruct her in the wiles of a Southern lady. Her friend had been divorced and had a daughter a year young than I.

When I was invited to a prom, Mother borrowed a white, strapless formal with a full, ballerina-length skirt from her friend’s daughter. On the big night my date arrived to pick me up. When we got into the car, he introduced me to the couple we were double dating with. Much to my surprise, the beautiful brunette in the back seat had on an identical dress in pink. Initially taken back, I decided that I would just tell everyone I was her little sister. She went on to win the Miss Wichita Falls competition.

Needing a musical outlet, Mother decided we were religious again. The First Baptist Church had numerous, youth activities, and I spent most of my free time there. As an infant I had been christened Methodist. It was determined I now required a baptism. I was not included in any of the decision process. I felt it hypocritical to be arbitrarily baptized, and I was not pleased. During the baptism, there was too much chlorine in the water. The preacher failed to keep my nose closed. Inhaling water, I surfaced struggling and sputtering. I surmised he was trying to drown me for being a hypocrite. I was offended that the Baptist church did not deem me acceptable unless they performed the ceremony. I believe the natural order of things is to have an epiphany and then be baptized. I was baptized, and then I had an epiphany.

I was taught from the Old Testament about hell, fire, brimstone and retribution. It was a vengeful God who had sent Moses wandering the desert for 40 years, turned people into a pillar of salt, created a rain for 40 days and 40 nights, set Noah, his family and animals adrift, created plagues and required the slaughter of a first born. The New Testament’s lesson was that unless one completely accepted all its tenets, you absolutely would not go to heaven.

I needed explanations for Mohammad, Buddha, Hindus, any group declaring theirs was the way and the light and even an explanation for the big bang theory. I felt there was a supreme being. I believed angels or spiritual guides were possible. I favored reincarnation for it would certainly be an impossible and daunting task to obtain a higher level in one life time. I felt both heaven and hell existed on earth. With my usual irreverent sense of humor, my explanation is that when one dies the soul goes to a holding garage in Buffalo until it is time to return and have another stab at getting it right. I had just been baptized as an agnostic. I learned later that my personal hero, Einstein, was an agnostic.

During the summer, I went to church camp. Like all kids, we had a great time, bunking in cabins and running people’s underwear up the flag pole. We attended the services in an open, wooden tabernacle with barely a roof and no sides. I sat pretty far back, and the sermon was on Noah and the Ark. As the sermon began the skies darkened, the thunder rumbled, the air temperature dropped and the rain began. With this direct sign from God, the children streamed in troves down to the front altar to confess their need to be redeemed. Perhaps 50 kids were saved. This included a boy named Mike, whose father was a preacher. Mike hide his liquor bottle in our bushes most of the year. I was some what surprised at this mass reaction from the crowd.

I strongly felt that the clever, young evangelist had checked the weather forecast prior to the sermon. He used it to his advantage in his sermon. Lord, I was a complicated child and so tired of surprises. When camp was over, Mike promptly returned to hiding his liquor bottle in our bushes. Religion became a non-issue, again until we moved to Houston.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 2:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Six-to-Twelve-Years–Old

Daddy got a government job at Red River Arsenal. For the first time in his life he had a viable career. Red River was an ammunitions storage facility with tank repair facilities. I have no idea what he actually did there, not what mother purported which was allegedly top-secret. We were assigned a house in the housing facility in Hooks which is not far from Texarkana. Hooks is what Texans call a red, white and blue city – red necks, white T-shirts and blue northerners. When the Polar Express collides with northeast Texas, it leaves a trail of icy devastation across the flatlands and valleys.

Memories from Hooks still bubble up for me. I remember Billy getting in trouble for playing football, shirtless. She was 12-years-old, but not yet developed. She felt compelled to look and act like one of the boys. She was always tall and lanky with limp, stringy hair. Mother always referred to her hair as “cat smellers.” She made guns from scraps of wood and a clothes pin attached as the firing pin. She cut rubber inner-tubes into strips. Next, across the wooden barrel, she would stretch the rubber strips which were locked on by the clothes pin. You can be positive, we were her favorite targets.

Margaret brought Vana, her first child, home for a visit. Holding Vana up so we could see her, Ron and I would gawk from the doorway because Margaret considered us germ magnets. I found Margaret’s tulle formal from high school and made a bridal gown for my doll. When I showed her my beautiful doll dress, she exploded. I couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of her fury. I figured if the dress had been so important, she wouldn’t have left it behind. I was a rather bottom line child which set me up for my ever-present “get over yourself” attitude. It has actually served me pretty well, so I should thank Margaret.

We drove to Texarkana to attend church. I think Mother had the hots for the preacher more than religion. After what seemed interminable sermons, I was always desperate to potty. After the service when the preacher came by, Mother would preen and sashay. I would stand on one foot wiggling and willing myself to not wet my panties. I had very little patience with my Southern belle mother’s need to constantly flirt.

For a church pageant, a couple who had been missionaries in China dressed me in a soft, yellow, silk kimono. It was my first real taste of luxury. I absolutely despised Vacation Bible school. Maybe because I was so petite, they treated me like a three-year-old. I hated marching around in little chain-gang groups. Daily, they served orange Kool-Aid with stale, dry cookies, both of which I abhorred.

I started grade school, and I recall getting new dresses, all of which needed to be hemmed. I also remember wearing the same dresses in the 4th grade with the hem obviously re-let out. Since we moved frequently, and I would go to a different school maybe no one would know the difference. I was so tiny, I could wear the same clothes for four years.

I had a defining moment in Hooks. I was in the 1st grade and there was a school pageant. Each class had a princess and a prince, and we lined up from 1st through the 6th grades. Much to my amazement, I was the 1st grade princess. In a long, ruffled, organdy dress on the arm of my escort, we led the royalty up to the stage. How that happened and how I got the dress is long gone. The highlight of the evening was a raffle, which I won. Unfortunately for me, the prize was a pair of rabbits. I had to cry to get Mother to let me take the rabbits home. The rabbits did not last long because whoever kidnaps rabbits from six-year-olds got to our house quickly. What my folks gave with one hand, they took away with the other. I remember the organdy dress. I remember the rabbit’s disappearance more.

Lee’s wife, Jean, was from Texarkana. She had two Pomeranian dogs which she was insane about. Lee was in his early 20s and cocky as all get out. He would take Ron and me to their apartment on Saturday. He made a big deal out of being a big brother. Actually, I am sure it was to irritate Jean. She didn’t care for kids and wouldn’t let us touch anything.

During this time, Lee bought a new, baby-blue Ford sedan. He drove over a gravel road with me standing in the back floorboard. Looking over his shoulder, I watched as the speedometer inched up until we were flying over a 100 miles an hour. When we got home, I was happy about being the fastest kid in the world. Mother was not happy.

I knew that President Truman had ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan when I was an infant. I vaguely knew the details of the actual event, and I was aware that thousands of people had perished. Conceivably, millions were suffering the aftermath of radiation sickness as it was referred to in 1950. I could not begin to put this troubling information in perspective. My innate curiosity couldn’t grapple with an event of such enormity.

Looking at a globe and running my finger around the top quadrant as I spun it, I would look for Japan. It was an island next to two of the world’s largest countries, China and Russia. How could such a tiny country cause so much havoc that our President would drop the “biggest bomb in the history of mankind” on it? Did the Japanese have any warning? If it was such a ferocious bomb, how did the plane carrying that amazing cargo manage to get away safely? If the bombs had leveled the cities, where were the hospitals for all these people? At-six-years-old being aware and understanding were contrary concepts.

My teacher announced that the federal government had mandated all schools were to conduct bomb drills. Being familiar with fire drills, I was anticipating getting to go outside to the playground. She explained that when the siren sounded, we would be required to sit underneath our desks. We were to pull our legs up, wrap our arms around our legs and put our heads down.

Disappointed that we wouldn’t be going out, I did as instructed when the siren’s blast began. I slid down the smooth seat and eased onto the floor. I wrapped my tiny arms around my bony knees and waited. Surprisingly calm, I heard another child weeping, and I began to look around at my classmates. Some had their eyes tightly shut, others had eyes that were wide-with-fear, and one little boy was sitting at attention with a stoic expression.

With extreme clarity, it occurred to me that if a bomb should fall on us like the one that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would be pointless to sit under a desk. Why would anyone bomb a Texas elementary school when Washington, D.C. would be a more likely target? Who in the government was under the impression that sitting underneath a desk was an effective deterrent to an atomic bomb? For certain, I had far more questions than I had fear. I may have been an old-six-year old.

In 1954, we moved to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas. I have many memories of playing outside until after dark, climbing trees, roaming in the woods and fine tuning my attitude. Ron was forced to play house with me for endless hours. We lived in post housing, adjacent to the arsenal, which was a closed to the public facility. The arsenal produced a wide array of munitions and chemical/biological defense systems. On the arsenal proper, there was the upper rank military houses, the officer’s club with a swimming pool, a golf course and a movie. The Army sent a bus to the housing area for movie pick-up, and we went to the movies for 25 cents. On the post there were massive, concrete, ammunitions dumps which were covered in tons of dirt with grass growing over them. During tornado alerts, we would stay in an empty one. The bunkers were dark, damp and dank, but everybody brought food and blankets to sit on. We played cards and visited with the other families. It didn’t take long for a “sing” to start.

Daddy was sent to trade schools by the Army. The summer he went to school in New York, Mother went with him. The highlight of the trip for her was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. She bought a demitasse cup set with saucers shaped like leaves, which I have. I doubt if they were ever used or brought out of the china cabinet. She purchased a silver-on-glass tea service which Ron has now. We were still afloat on a ship name Grand Illusions, because we were now accumulating materials things used by society. We were going to be prepared when our time to be rich and famous sailed by. I was fully aware that Aunt Sadie’s last salvo had sunk the original ship which never got to float, even if the rest of my family still aspired to the myth of our ship coming in.

Mother parlayed her musical ability into being the music teacher at the elementary school. Since she couldn’t read music, I am not sure how she pulled that off. Being into big productions with grade school children, she insisted I take tap dancing. I had two left feet. For one program, we picked hundreds of flowers and stapled them on the backdrop of the stage. By the time the program started, the roses were dismal, droopy and forlorn. She wrote a blues song, I’ve Got the Helicopter Blues. I am sorry that I don’t remember the words, I think having the blues for helicopters was a first.

I distinctly recall being in a Christmas program. My “get over yourself” personality surfaced during my solo. For all the musical ability in my family, I can not carry a tune. The humorist, Fred Allen, once said, “The first time I sang in the church choir; two hundred people changed their religion.”

I can see myself on the stage wearing an iridescent taffeta, navy jumper with an organza blouse which was a hand-me-down. Mother had chopped my hair off like an extra from Annie. Looking out into the audience and seeing Major Lane I thought, “I wonder if he knows I can not carry a goddamn tune?” That was my last musical performance. I remember the song. It was Winter Wonderland, and I still can’t sing it. From that minute on Mother quit pushing me to be the star, and that lot fell to Billy.

I wasn’t saddled with attending church during this period as Mother was now a music teacher. She didn’t have to rely on being in the choir. They bought a used piano, and now she could teach piano lessons. She required me to learn to play the piano, and I did learn the AGBDF (all good birds do fly) theory of music. I really don’t recall the lessons, I recall practicing. While she cooked, I practiced in the next room. When I made a mistake, she would fly into the living room ranting and raving about my inability to play as taught. I didn’t last long as a piano student, she dumped me. I did have a wonderful discovery, there was music other than hymns and country-western as it was called in those days. I discovered Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven. Classical music has been my preference since then.

Lee and Jean divorced. He left Texarkana and his first son, Michael behind. He brought his dog, Toni, home to us. She was a pedigreed, black Cocker Spaniel. Since she was Lee’s, we were allowed to have a dog in the house. She was beyond spoiled, and even Daddy would buy her a serving of ice cream in a Dixie cup. Toni got to be rather hefty. When we would pack for a trip, she would put her rump against the door hoping we couldn’t get out.

Toni came into heat. We were told not to let the dog out, but no one bothered to explain why to me. Unfortunately, on a Sunday morning, I was up, and the dog wanted to go outside. Naturally, I opened the door. In a short time, Mother drug me out to the back porch where I was required to watch the damage I had done. Toni’s suitor had wasted no time in mounting her.

On trips Daddy made sure we saw every historical attraction. He never passed a historical marker on any highway without stopping to see it. At every historical marker in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, we stopped to pay homage. We drove to Nashville to see Margaret, Van and Vana. The trip’s highlight for me was getting to go to the Parthenon replica in Nashville.

In the 1950s, most automobiles didn’t have air conditioners so the Ol’ Man always traveled at night. Early one morning in eastern Tennessee, we were traveling up a narrow, mountain highway. Everyone was asleep. Awake, I was looking over Daddy’s shoulder. Considering he had to be tired, I was worried. The rising, morning sun was shining directly into his eyes. The mountain jutted up through the haze covering the valley below. The haze clung to the highway. I looked out, and in a clearing I saw the drop from the mountain. There were no guard rails. I was terrified! When the family awakened, Daddy had parked at one of the panoramic vistas. We were surrounded by the glory of the Smoky Mountains. Looking through the telescopes, we swore we could see seven states from there.

We toured Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and crossed over into Indiana, one time just for the hell of it. The Ol’ Man had gypsy in his soul. Years later while living in Germany, I would see the gypsy caravans and automatically thought of him.

I loved traveling in the South in the spring. Mimosa trees grew heavily along the highways. There were massive wild azaleas and wild honeysuckle. Their sweet, heady aroma would waft into the car windows as we drove down the highway. When the dogwoods were in bloom, Mother would tell us the legend of the dogwood tree. Legend has it that at the time of the crucifixion, the dogwood was distressed to be the timber for the crucifixion cross. Since then the dogwood has been a small tree with petals showing a crown of thorns.

Growing across the South, there is a prolific, ivy-like plant called kudzu. The small white flowers have a subtle, sweet fragrance. The shapes created by kudzu vines growing over trees and bushes were delightful. We would drive by green, fantasy lands where the lush, sculptured intricacies of kudzu vine-covered abandoned barns, cars and fences were enchanting.

We often went to Mississippi for Mother to visit her family. Daddy, Ron and I would do all the tourist things at the beach. Never did he think to go visit with a relative or a former friend. It was almost as if he had never lived his first 38 years on the Gulf Coast. I have a black and white photograph of Ron and me standing on a boat in the Gulfport harbor with the wind plastering my dress to my body.

When we took trips to Mississippi, if at all possible Mother would dump us at Jackie’s house. Jackie was the only daughter of Aunt Lonnie who was an RN. Although Jackie and I were 1st cousins, she was seven or eight years younger than Mother. They lived in Pass Christian, a half block from the beach. Aunt Lonnie owned the house, but she lived upstairs in a small apartment,. She turned the remainder of the house over to Jackie and her husband, Emmet. Four of their six children had been born. The kids wrecked the house, tore the screens off the floor-to-ceiling windows and a continuous fight was always in progress.

When my parents would arrive, Jackie would make drip coffee. The chipped, enamel pot had a mahogany-stained, cloth bag which held the coffee grounds. It looked dirty, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting coffee at her house. Jackie was short, squat and homely. Her bulldog features were close-set, and she had a pinched expression. Jackie screamed and cursed incessantly. Instantly, she could go into a rage. She was the meanest woman I had ever met. Emmet would take all the kids down to the beach, build a campfire and boil seafood. He did his best to keep us out of her line of fire.

My senses went into overload every time I had to stay behind in Pass Christian. Feeling sorry for me, Aunt Lonnie would take me upstairs to her apartment when she came home from her shift. In the late 1940s, Howard Hughes was a famous airplane designer and a prominent movie producer. For the movie The Outlaw with Jane Russell, Hughes invented a one-of-a-kind bra to up-lift the contour of the bosom. Aunt Lonnie was stout with rather large breasts which were uplifted high by her Hughes-like bra. In her uniform, she looked like a chalky-white ship’s prow. Her unfeminine, stern features belied the softness she always had for me. Thankful to leave the battle royal behind, I was thrilled she wouldn’t allow her grandchildren access to her living quarters.

Some summers, Mother would let me spend time with Aunt Clyde on their farm. Uncle Arthur was considerably older than Clyde, and they didn’t have any children. She weighed around 200 pounds, and Uncle Arthur was as skinny as a bed rail. They looked like Jack Sprat and his wife. Mother’s fastidious attention to her skin care always made me aware of my aunts’ complexion. Aunt Clyde had ruddy, coarse complexion with large pores. She wore frumpy, cotton dresses. Mother would say, “She looks like a toad sack tied in the middle.” True to the stereotype of fat people, Clyde was always jolly.

Clyde was a wonderful cook and made fresh lemon cake with real butter. Mother’s cakes always fell and in all likelihood she never bought real butter. The farm had huge, pecan trees that were so weighed down with nuts, I could hear the limbs cracking during the night. In the morning, she would send me to the hen-house to gather eggs. Every time I went to the farm, they would name a new-born calf after me. I would go with Arthur and his bachelor brother to milk the cows. I wouldn’t drink the fresh milk. They would have to go to town to buy milk for me. Aunt Clyde couldn’t drive and Uncle Arthur, who was almost blind, drove. When we would come up on a stop sign, she would shriek, “Stop sign.” He was all but deaf, too. One year, I wrote Aunt Clyde a letter begging her to let me live with them. I waited for an answer, and years later it occurred to me that Mother had never mailed my desperate letter.

Occasionally, Mother would let us go to Vancleave with her. We would visit with Aunt Clara and Sook. Sook was 19 years older than I, but she became my favorite cousin as an adult. Eventually, someone would suggest we go down to Toby’s house to drink coffee. Toby and Sook were siblings. They lived a mile apart, but it may as well have been an ocean.

Toby was a drunk. He and Nell had six children with the oldest about Ron’s age. Their house was literally a shack. There was a kitchen, living room and one bedroom for eight people. There was no need for doors, the kids climbed in and out of the windows like Jackie’s kids. Once, the adults were discussing a rape trial. A Black man had allegedly raped a white woman. I should have been outside playing with the other children. Hearing the men’s obvious prejudices, I asked Mother what would happen if a white man raped a Black woman. She bent over and whispered in my ear, “Hush, we don’t know who here is in the KKK.”

I adored Aunt Swint! She lived one block from the beach. and she was another wonderful cook. She would tell me to come help her to shell a mess of peas. She would cook the peas with bacon fat. Along with fresh squash and corn bread, we would feast. I once asked, “Aunt Swint, exactly how much is a mess?” Without thinking, she replied, “It is just enough for supper.”

Half of her little and ring fingers were missing. As a kid she had put her hand on a log while Uncle Joe was chopping wood. He told her to move it – she didn’t, and he caught it on the next swing of the axe. She had short-clipped, natural curly hair which she tousled dried with her fingers after shampooing. She was plain-spoken and dressed for comfort. When talking about a dress she would say, she was going to wear the “flower-dy or stripe-dy” one. Her wooden floors were invariably gritty, and I hated going barefoot at her house. Living that near the beach, everything is gritty.

She was matter-of-fact, but always spoke to me as if I were an equal. She never had children. As a young woman, she married a man who moved her to Chicago. When she found out she was pregnant, he forced her to have an abortion. In terrible shape from the botched abortion, she called home. Granddaddy and Aunt Lonnie went to Chicago to rescue her. Straight forward and always kind, Aunt Swint was a rock.

We toured Civil War battlefields and spent a lot of time learning about flanks, war strategies and the aftermath of war. Dad read every sign, brochure and monument. The Vicksburg Civil War Battlefield is located atop the high bluffs adjacent to the Mississippi River. The dense, wooded forests growing near the river supplied the materials needed for construction of fortifications along the siege lines. This major river was crucial for the shipment of war supplies and materials. At the Battle of Vicksburg, when the Confederate States Army fell, the North gained control of the Mississippi River.

During the 4th grade, I had a case of rheumatic fever. Mother and Daddy both worked. I went to school sporadically, but mainly my school work was brought home to me. I was home schooled, but I taught myself. I read everything in the house including Mother’s romance novels. Alone all day without television and responsible for myself, I probably did better than I realized. For a year we went to a neighbor’s house to watch I Love Lucy, until we finally got a set of our own.

I remember my 6th grade graduation. I was the class salutatorian and had to give a speech. Perhaps, my being self- taught wasn’t necessarily bad. I had never even heard the terms, valedictorian nor salutatorian. Having earned an honor came as an absolute shock, I was pretty much just doing my own self sufficient thing.

As I was frequently ill and stayed alone, I read a lot. Unnoticed by the family, I became part of the fixtures. My observation and self-reflection skills became greatly honed during this time. I began to question if there was more to life than what I was seeing. Perhaps they didn’t care what I overheard, but I really absorbed at this stage. I played with Ron, managed to avoid Billy and kept my own deliberations.

On a night trip to Mississippi, I developed an ear ache. I huddled under an old, dusty blanket in the back seat. When we arrived in Van-cleave, Mother went to bed. Aunt Clara, who was a nurse, got up from her bed to take care of me. My ear abscessed and painfully burst while we were on the road. Aunt Clara wrapped me in a homemade quilt, and Uncle Paul sat in front of the fireplace rocking me for hours.

Margaret was home often. Only eight years older than Vana, I was expected to play with her. She fell off a step, chipped her tooth and I was chastised for not watching her. She was cherub cute. There was a television jingle about Ipana toothpaste. I would sing it to her, substituting Vana for Ipana. She sneaked a nickel-bottle of Coke, and she hid behind the door frame to drink it. Thinking she was hidden, I watched the Coke Cola bottle jutting out and slowly being drained. She said her first sentence. She was freshly bathed and shampooed when I asked her what she was doing. She told me, “Brushing me hair.”

Ron and I were almost the same size, and people still thought we were twins. Mother didn’t bother to have separate, birthday parties for us. Our birthdays are three weeks apart, and we had our birthdays together for several years. We had chicken pox, mumps and pink eye together, too.

One evening, Mother insisted that Daddy spank me because I had ignored her command to take a shower. As he removed his belt, he told me, “Go to the bedroom.” Shutting the door, he demanded, “Cry and cry loud.” I was screeching like a night owl. Calmly, he beat the foot board of my bed. Normally, Mother was pleased to knock the daylights out of one us of her own volition.

Billy bullied still, but she was often gone to the movies or in a ball game therefore I had some respite. She was tall, lean and lanky and was called “Tex” as we had moved to Pine Bluff from Texas. She was in the high school play, where the die was cast for her to dog fame. She played a role in which she carried a cooked, pork chop and played the bass fiddle. In the play, she used a bass fiddle which belonged to Daddy. Of course, she demolished it. He was on such a tear, I figured for sure this time he was going to wipe her out.

Daddy played the saw which can be a musical instrument. The saw is bent over the knee, and the straight side is lightly stroked with a violin bow. Depending on how much arc and tension is on the blade, different tones are created through vibration. Obviously, it never caught on. When you don’t have any talent, you need a gimmick. I have often thought that the Ol’ Man played the bass fiddle by virtue of only having to know a couple of chords. It could more or less be slapped in time with the music, and one could hide behind it. He never performed again after Billy demolished the bass fiddle. I often wondered if Billy’s quest for fame was more to show him than it was to be Mother’s surrogate.

Daddy was a huge fan of television westerns and of the broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow initially came to prominence with a series of radio newsbroadcasts during World War II which were followed by millions of listeners. His radio show was moved to television and named See It Now. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to know that communist had infiltrated the United States government at its highest levels. During the McCarthy hearings, Murrow was openly critical of McCarthy. I recall seeing McCarthy rant and rave on televised interviews. Daddy always called him a “son of a bitch” because to his way of thinking anyone who was against Edward R. Murrow had to be the communist. Dad’s frequent rants were my political initiation.

Billy graduated from high school and I graduated from the 6th grade in 1956. At that moment our lives, especially Daddy’s, changed for-ever. Daddy’s security clearance was revoked and after having an actual career for six years, he was out in the cold.

Daddy in Living Color

I don’t know how long Dad managed to keep the position with the trade school as a watch maker. Apparently something worked, we moved to a better house and neighborhood on Olive Street. I haven’t discussed Daddy in detail, I guess an up period would be as good a place as any to start.

Daddy had become an adult for the first time in his life. I can’t rate him as a father before my birth. I didn’t have to endure his unrestrained immaturity as the older children had. Mother had begun to grow up and take more of the responsibility for us. Quite attractive at 37 or 38, she was no longer a raving beauty. She had wavy, brown hair, a lovely complexion and a good figure for a mother of five. “Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lay down,” she told me constantly. She adhered to her theory through out her life. It was the Southern belle’s solution to avoid varicose veins. She laid down when ever possible or kept her feet propped up. We always knew where we could find her, and we spent many pleasant afternoons lying in bed with Mother. She was quick to tell us who was the beauty in the house. I didn’t have to contend with her vanity. Perhaps in my independence, I didn’t need her approval as my sisters did. I am sure I wanted Daddy’s respect which in his strange fashion, I got.

Lee was the fair-haired child who could do no wrong. Coming home from overseas, almost a man, our world revolved around him. He enrolled in a junior college on his G. I. Bill benefits. Margaret was the steadfast, dependable one. I was never sure if she had any connection with Dad as a person, or just responded to his incredible love for Mother and his five children. He could be ill-tempered, but adored Mother. Fueled by an over-bearing mother and being an only child, he had fanatical loyalty to his children. He believed the most we had was each other. Billy’s hostility towards Daddy was driven by Mother’s incessant harping about him. Because of her despotic loathing of him, he never gave Billy one moment of his time. I suspect, she made him cross, which was the family euphemism for “the Ol’ Man is on a tear.”

Ron was babied beyond words, especially by Margaret and Daddy. I think Ron’s lack of guile, his inherent goodness and sweetness made him an irresistible baby. What ever he wanted he got, but he wasn’t obnoxious with it. It was just to keep him happy, and I expect quiet. I can remember them putting a nipple on a Grapette soda bottle, and of Ron sitting on the porch step and drinking a soda with a nipple.

Dad died ten days before my 26th birthday, but I don’t feel the memories of my short relationship with him is skewed. I think I came closer to seeing him as he was meant to be, than anyone. Daddy was, what is presently termed, an occasional drunk. This is an alcoholic who doesn’t have to drink, daily.  When they do drink, they drink specifically to get drunk. He was never a social drinker; he drank to get drunk, period. I now understand, he dealt with depression and self-medicated with alcohol. In the midst of all the turmoil and an unemotional mother who had sullied him, Daddy had above normal intelligence. He wasn’t a savant or a genius by any sense of the imagination. Having an acute sense of numbers and logic, he would do algebra problems in his head.

Daddy had very little patience with stupidity. Despite his Southern background, he was a pretty liberal and progressive thinker. For someone who was seasoned in a South that still did Rebel yells and flew the Confederate flag, he never instilled prejudice in either Ron or me. He always had patience in explanations to me as I think down deep, he took some responsibility for my being on earth. Patience stopped there. If I was sitting in a room with four other, empty chairs, upon walking in Dad would automatically say, “Get up and give me that chair.”

He had curious, yet endearing habits, and he was a creature of habit in all of his life. At meal times, he insisted on having a linen cloth on the table, which I am sure was another requirement from Price. Coming from a home requiring proper manners, he ate with his left hand in his pocket in lieu of putting it is his lap. Oddly, I insist on having pockets in most of my clothes. Additionally, he was extremely superstitious. He wouldn’t put a hat on the bed. If a black cat crossed his path, he turned around. Failing that he would run over it.

He hated for anyone to touch his fountain pen, watches or cuff links. He was always selfish with his personal possessions. Certainly with five kids, we ruined many a thing for him. He was extremely particular about his shirts being freshly starched and he wore short sleeve shirts on rare occasions.

Dad was cold natured and shivered easily. Mother always insisted the house be kept excessively cold for her to sleep. Getting up in the morning, he would make coffee and light the oven. Shivering, he sat in front of the stove with the door cocked open for warmth. Faithfully, he served coffee in bed to Mother. He would serve me a cup of hot tea in bed. Probably, I was the only child ever afforded that little gift.

Lee and I inherited Daddy’s blue eyes. Lee’s eyes were a slightly lighter blue, whereas mine are a darker blue than Dad’s. Although several of the grandchildren are blue-eyed, Rob’s eyes are the exact same shade as Daddy’s were. He always wore a mustache, and I only saw him without it once. He slipped while trimming his mustache and had to wait for it to grow back. His hair was dark blond, and he wore it combed straight back with a dab of Brylcreem to keep it in place. Radio advertisements and later TV made this little Brylcreem jingle famous: “Bryl-creem, a little dab’ll do ya, Use more, only if you dare, But watch out, The gals will all pursue ya,– they’ll love to put their fingers through your hair.

We were always together with Daddy, and people often thought Ronald and I were twins. Dad loved trains, and we would go to the depot spending hours watching the trains with their sleeping cars and caboose. Granddaddy worked for the railroad, and Daddy spent time at the rail yards when he was a child. Margaret told me that as a young teenage, he would get friends to drive him a good distance from town. Once he was dropped off, he would hop a freight train and ride with hobo companions back to Pensacola. When I was about five-years-old, we were at the train station, and the diesel engine whistled in loud, short blasts. I jumped at least a foot high, wetting my panties. Instantly, he was mad.

At the depot, I would hear the overhead speakers announcing, “Now leaving on Track 5 for Dallas, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and San Francisco.” Passenger trains were the primary mode for transportation, especially for long trips in the 1950s. In the late 1800s, when steam engines were used, many small settlements were clustered along the rail lines. Water and wood were stored at these stops for the steam engines to replenish their fuel. Steam engines needed refueling often, and these locations were spaced out every few miles or so. Many of these tiny, Texas towns exist today.

Dad was a huge history and travel buff. From the time I was six-years-old, I trekked many places with him. We loved watching for Burma Shave signs along the highway. The Burma Shave Company placed five or six, small, wooden signs along the edge of highways, spaced so they could be read consecutively by motorists driving by. Once spotted, we would read out loud: “It gave McDonald that needed charm. Hello Hollywood. Good-by farm. Burma-Shave.” Burma Shave had hundreds of sayings on tiny billboards along America’s highways for 40 years.

As we moved up in status, we began to attend church. My parents clashed on many a Saturday night. On Sunday mornings, we went to church, primarily for Mother to sing in the choir. The reason, I digress at this point, is another of Daddy’s peculiar habits. While dressing for church, he always combed my and Ron’s hair. He held us by our chin and then slicked our hair down with water. Instead of holding our hands, he walked with his hands on the back of our little necks. “Was it for better control or to keep us from escaping?”, I asked, but Mother had no recollection of him doing that.

His hair-trigger temper was famous, but Mother’s ever-present irritability was just as explosive. Even in exasperation, he never struck out at us. He managed a couple of times to have Mother in his line of fire, but never any of the children. I never saw him hit her, but once while drunk, he bit her finger. I do recall seeing blood drip and splatter on the floor. I have often wondered if she put her hand in his face and was part of the problem.

Years later while repairing a lamp, he lost his temper. In a fit of rage, he took a hammer and began beating the television set. Stunned, I watched as he, systematically, beat the metal cabinet. Numerous dents covered the top and sides, but the glass screen was untouched.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wanted or Planned?

On December 1st, Mother turned 18 and on December 10, 1928, LaBaron Caraway Graham, Jr. (Lee) was born. Lee was the closest thing to nobility that had ever occurred to Price. She had a son who detested her and an egoistic daughter-in-law. Uncaring, she had no love for either of them. She quickly and easily replaced them once her noble grandson arrived. On April 2, 1933, Margaret Price was born. She was callously relegated to Cinderella chore maid to prevent Price’s grand plans for Lee from being interrupted. Being named after both her grandmothers held a slim-to-no advantage for my sister. Billy Ann was born on January 27, 1938. She was sent to the hinterland with Margaret.

In a span of a few short years, the family dealt with the Great Depression, a hurricane, losing their homestead and the death of Steede and Price. My parents left Pensacola and moved to Moss Point. Daddy got a job at the ship yards. It was probably the first time he ever actually toiled in a structured environment. He had pretty much bounced around as long as he had his parents there to provide for him and his family. He fancied himself the next Hank Williams. He tried his hand at being an amateur performer with no experience and limited talent. He formed a country swing band named “Kay Graham and the Night Herders.” Mother with her natural, but mediocre talent encouraged his musical ambitions. He also indulged his needs: drinking, drugs, carousing and whoring. Daddy was wild, unrestrained and had a hostile bent.

In Moss Point, my parents were encumbered with the full responsibility of being parents for the time. I suspect that I was the first baby that Daddy ever wanted. Wanted is quite misleading, planned is a better word. I have a hunch the three older kids were the result of intercourse. I can’t envision Dad, immature and selfish, having any joy in fatherhood other than to show his virility. Returning to Mississippi without his parents to provide for them, he needed to keep Mother in line. The rule of the day was to keep wives barefoot and pregnant.

Mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, and she announced it to Daddy, he told her, “I know already, and the baby is due on March 12th.” She called him a “son of a bitch.”

Dad had to consistently show up to a despised job, take orders from a supervisor and perform menial tasks. For sure, he had never worked before with his hands. Having burned every bridge, he had to start making his own opportunities as he no longer had a free ride. Moss Point was too small to be notoriously erratic. Mother, in all likelihood, fared better than he had at this point. After living in Florida for years, she was near her sizable family. She had all of her sisters to visit and Margaret to babysit for me.

Being the first child born in the post, Price Graham era, I have always been glad this was the period of time in which I was born, probably for the strangest of reasons. When I was born, Albert Einstein was still alive. I have always felt that he was the one human who had the greatest impact on mankind and the growth of the last century. Historically, I was around during his lifetime.

The 1940s were the heyday for movies which were the primary form of entertainment away from the home. During a gangster movie, a character actor uttered, “Oh, yeah, so’s your ol’ man.” Lee kept using this expression until it caught on with the kids. Collectively, we all referred to Daddy as the Ol’ Man when speaking of him. In person, we still called him Daddy.

During World War II, all manufacturing enterprises, however small, had their production geared towards supplying the war effort. The civilian population were expected to make do with prewar goods or make the best they could with what was available. People routinely took their watches, shoes and clothes to be repaired. After the war, the average cost of a wrist watch was relatively high compared to an average salary. When I was slightly over one-year-old, Daddy announced he had a job as a watch maker in Dallas, Texas. He had started tinkering with watch repair. Dad decided he could make a living as a watchmaker.

Establishing a beachhead, Daddy and Lee went ahead to Dallas. Mother, Margaret, Billy and I moved to Dallas by train. Mother went to work in a drug store and then discovered she was pregnant. On February 21, 1946, a wonderfully innocent baby, Ronald Bowman Graham arrived. I was 23-months-old, and I had a new baby doll which I chose not to ignore as I had been.

Margaret was 13-years-old, and she kept us little ones when Mother went to her part-time job in the afternoon. Billy roamed the streets and spent every possible moment in the movies. Lee was 17-years-old and extremely upset with his folks for still having babies. He joined the Navy.

As a two-and-half-year-old, I walked daily with Mother to take Billy to school. Late one morning, I announced to Mother, “I am going to school.” She abstractly replied, “All right.” Shortly, the cold realization hit her that I had actually left the house. Alone and unafraid, I crossed several streets as if I owned them. Spotting the family dog running along the wooded creek bank, the Dallas Fire Department found me. Playing in the creek bed, I was startled when a fireman picked me up. This was my first act of independence.

Shortly after Ron was born, we moved to Texarkana, Texas. Dad had finagled watch-making, in which he had no formal education, into a job as a trade school instructor. This may have been one of his rare circumstances in being at the right place at the right time. Daddy, Margaret, Ron and I rode a train to Texarkana, Texas.

We moved into a humble duplex with the other side occupied by the daughter of the owner. Our semi-invalid landlady was greatly doted on by her daughter, who called her Mother Dear. The house was a small, white clapboard, and we had to share the bathroom with the adjoining family. The rent probably wasn’t $75.00 dollars a month. Margaret set up housekeeping for Daddy, Ron and me. Mother remained in Dallas to work, until she and Bill moved six weeks later. I use to wonder why we always moved by train before I realized – we didn’t have a car.

While living in this modest duplex, I remember going with Billy to pick up Coke bottles. Pulling a rusty, red wagon filled with several stacks of comic books, she collected bottles. Going to a neighborhood store, she returned the Coke bottles for the two-cent deposit. Additionally, she had a going concern in buying and trading comic books. This is one of my few memories of her being normal.

My first recollection of Lee was in December 1947. I was still a three-year-old, and he had just turned nineteen. I was standing behind Mother’s gathered skirt on the front porch. Out of a taxi, popped a sailor with a duffel bag. Peeking around her legs, I saw Mother crying tears of joy. Lee was home from Guam, and his tour in the Navy. My next memory is of Lee taking Ron, Billy and me to the drug store at night. When we came home, Santa Claus had been to the house. It was Christmas Eve, 1947. I later realized, Lee had set us up. Maybe he had been too excited to wait. As I grew older, I knew it was because he didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn with a three-year-old sister and a baby brother. Together again, our family settled into an almost, normal life.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 12:40 am  Comments (3)  
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