My baby book lists some illnesses and I have an impression of my mom being anxious about her first and probably only baby. I had bronchitis and rashes and was hospitalized more than once. I am shocked that I was kept at the hospital over a rash though this was early in the vaccination era and infectious disease may have been in the doctor's mind. I was just under two and inconsolable when Mom left me there after every visit. I tried to escape more than once from the white-barred crib.
When I was four we moved into a trailer on my grandparents' farm in Montrose, Iowa. I loved living there and being close to Grandma and Grandpa. I loved animals. For awhile I even had a pony I named Cinderella but when my fear of heights made me afraid to ride her they sold her. I was really sad and I also suffered the loss of a sick lamb I had been trying to comfort for days before it died. I cried and cried and was told that baby Jesus needed a lamb. This was supposed to make me feel better but it only made me mad at baby Jesus and then guilty for being mad.
Grandma spent a lot of time with me and taught me how to tie my shoes and count to 100. I loved to watch her make pies and she would put the leftover scraps together into a little pie plate with some cinnamon and a dribble of water and bake it just for me.
I can't remember exactly when but at some point in the winter or spring of 1964 Mom started dating. One night this man, Homer Cook, came to Grandma's house and had a talk with me. He seemed very nice and he told me he wanted to marry my mom and take care of us. He would be a father to me, he said. I couldn't remember my real father--he had stopped visiting me around the age of 2 but I don't remember being sad about it. It wasn't like my hospital separation from my mother so I suspect he was not very close to me before his visits stopped. I didn't remember his parents either though I met them again as an adult and have enjoyed reading journal entries from Grandma McPherson. She was a sleepwalker like me and it was good to know where I got the tendency.
Soon my mom was married to Homer and we were moving our little 8x40 trailer to West Point Illinois.
My whole world was turned upside down. My extended family practically disappeared while we lived with Homer. We rarely visited them and our trailer was too small for them to visit us. I did make friends--one best friend named Debbie from across the highway that ran through the small town. I started kindergarten. I loved my teacher, Miss Hubbard. I was the only child for the first half of the year who could count to 100.
Homer? I remember yelling and drinking and fishing and he mainly referred to me as "your brat." When Mom was really mad he was sent to sleep in my room and I slept in her bed. He glowered at me during those periods and I felt like I was waging a war with him for my mom.
We didn't live that far from my family but as I said, we didn't visit. I don't know that Homer forbid it but I wouldn't be surprised.
Mom left him for half a year, living in Carthage, Warsaw and Keokuk. We were there when my Great-grandpa died on Christmas Day, 1965.
I thought we were doing fine alone but Homer sweet talked her into coming back. I was in the middle of first grade. That was the worst stretch; he raged at her and even choked my chihuahua, only stopping when we screamed. Their last fight ended with Mom going out to start the car and leave for good. It wouldn't start--he'd removed her spark plugs.
We took our dog and hitch-hiked to Keokuk. We moved our trailer to Shady Acres Trailer Court, outside of town. I was happy living there, running all through the woods and playing with the kids. I was active and happy and relieved to have left Homer behind. At some point, when I was 8 or 9, Mom traded in our little trailer on a larger one where I had the front bedroom.
When I was ten I met my father at a 4-H meeting I attended with my babysitter and her siblings. There were a lot of parents and children there and I was sitting on a bench in a hallway, waiting to go home. A man sat down beside me, too close it seemed to me. I remember leaning away and looking up at him, puzzled, trying to figure him out.
He said, "Do you know who I am?"
"No," I answered, wondering if I was supposed to.
"I am your father." (That scene in Star Wars really resonated...)
I didn't know what to say and in fact I'm not sure what I said, only that he talked at me and I tried to respond in some way, confused and anxious. He was there with his stepchildren. I knew about them because one of them--Crystal--used to stand behind me deliberately in the lunch line so she could torment me by saying she lived with my father and that he was going to take me away from my mom. I began to have stomach aches from the anxiety and finally told my mom. I bet she raised holy hell with him at that point because Crystal began to avoid me after that.
I saw him again at a cook out at his home, seeing him in place with his wife and stepchildren--the family he chose to spend time with. He tried to talk to me there and I responded but I know I was deeply ambivalent. I could have used some therapy and maybe family counseling sessions but that wasn't a common thing back then. Seeing him didn't bring about any kind of regular contact but I did get invited to Thanksgiving at his parents' home and got to spend time with my sister Bea--my first memories of her despite visits when I was very young. I remember wondering, though, why these people who seemed so welcoming had not called me or sent birthday cards all those years.
1968 was of course a pivotal year in politics and my family was very aware. We all loved Robert Kennedy (and I recalled them watching President Kennedy's funeral too) so were devastated when he was assassinated. I don't remember most of them reacting as strongly to the assassination of Martin Luther King but I was certainly aware. We watched the news every night so while I didn't have an adult's understanding I paid some attention and was upset when Nixon won the election. If Bobby had lived I have no doubt he would have won. And now we also know, in hindsight, that Nixon interfered in the peace talks that could have ended the war.
1968 was also the year that Aunt Gin met Uncle Clyde, a black man, and as they began to date I discovered my family's racism. Watching them argue over Christmas dinner attendance and "mixed marriage" shocked and dismayed me. After being exposed to segregation in the South my mom made it a point to teach me not to judge people by their skin color. Yet here she was, anxious to talk her sister out of dating and maybe marrying Uncle Clyde. The more I got to know him, the more I loved him. I was firmly on his team since we were all expected to take sides.