Almost a Child of the 50's
“They’d arrest me these days,” he says, “but you were so happy.”
My Mom died of Alzheimer’s disease, and my Dad followed her out of this world fairly quickly. As she progressed through the stages of the disease, we (my father, brother and I) became her auxiliary memory. First, Dad helped her keep appointments with the various organizations where she volunteered and with friends. As the disease progressed and she lost more of herself, we helped her remember who she was, and helped her forget who she would be at the end of the disease.
My Dad, my brother and I told her stories about our lives together. This is just the beginning of one of our stories – my own – and a few of my memories of family and home.
I was born in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia in 1959, on the cusp of a transitional era in United States history. Like many of my generation, I straddle two eras and possess the confusion of belief and stasis of action that can result when you come of age in a country redefining itself after significant moral, economic, political, and social shifts.
My mom and dad are children of The Great Depression. They were not confused in belief or action. Dad worked and provided for his family, as he thought he should. Mom, while not confused, was frustrated by societal expectations. She believed in the power of her mind and wanted to use it beyond the limited domain of women of that age. She became a teacher – a very good teacher – but she wanted more.
My brother, who is four years older than I, was adored for his precocious brilliance. He learned that if he left the edge of toilet paper (still on the roll) in the water of the toilet bowl, the roll would spin wildly when he flushed. He also had a long relationship with an imaginary playmate. As little sisters do, I annoyed him, but he still loved me, as only a big brother can. I have heard many times through the years how when Mom and Dad brought me home from the hospital, he offered me his cap pistol, one of those wonderful cheap faux six-shooters boys desired in the 1950s. “Hey, baby, want a gun?”
I don’t remember the house we occupied when I was first born. We moved out of it when I was still an infant. My first memory of a house is the one we moved into next -- the house that Mom loved most.
My first memory in “her house” is at about 1 year of age. I am watching my brother, Jerry, and Mom clean the supper dishes – she washes, while he dries. Mom hands him a plate, and I see that it is my plate, my piggy plate. (The plate had a friendly, smiling pig face on it – not entirely dissimilar to the Piggly Wiggly logo.) A wave of possessiveness overtakes me, and I rush out of my seat at the table and grab the towel Jerry is using to dry the plate, because I am too short to reach the plate. He is not expecting the tug on the towel and drops my plate. It shatters and he tells me, “That was stupid.” It’s a phrase I would hear often enough from him.
Although we moved from that house when I was 3, I still recall its floor plan. My Dad did not believe me when I told him that I remembered the Ft. Oglethorpe house. He said I was too young when we lived there. However, after describing the house in some detail, he believed me. I described many aspects that are not in any of our pictures. In addition to the floor plan, I have ten other, very vivid memories of life in that house.
First is drying off after a bath. Dad would pick me up in a towel and gently rock me back and forth. I thought he was saying, “shake the doggy,” and I would bark at him, “Rrrff, rrrff.” I learned later that he was saying, “shake the baby.” He probably wondered about the barking.
Second is vacuuming. Mom had a round, coral canister vacuum that scuttled along the floor behind her like a loud, angry crab. I hated the noise of that rolling monster and, whenever she vacuumed, ran screaming and jumped onto beds so that I would not occupy the same plane as the vacuum. At some point, I came to an agreement with vacuum cleaners. I still don’t like the noise, but I can remain in the vicinity of and even use one.
Third is “drawer steps.” I was a climber and learned to pull out drawers in a staggered pattern to make steps. I was quite capable of climbing onto the kitchen counters and the top of Mom and Dad’s dresser using “drawer steps.” I remember spilling Mom’s perfume and not realizing that I had done a bad thing. Mom made sure that knew that particular action was unacceptable. Mom also told me that I ate rat poison during one of my adventures in the kitchen and had to be rushed to the doctor. She thought that she had stored it out my reach in the kitchen – and most people think only boys get into that kind of trouble.
Fourth is blanket runs. The house had hardwood floors throughout, and Mom kept them polished perfectly. Jerry used to run through the house, pulling me on a blanket behind him. On our last blanket run, he misjudged a turn into the living room from the hallway and rammed my face into the door facing. Although the accident did not knock out any teeth, my front two were permanently damaged. I lost my two front teeth earlier than my classmates. That was the only time I recall being cool. Losing your front teeth is a milestone, and the first kid to do so is always, until some other kid loses his or her front teeth, the coolest.
Fifth is Eleanor Elephant. Aunt Eleanor (Dad’s brother Sammy’s wife, i.e., aunt by marriage) gave me a stuffed elephant toy. I named it after her, and I loved Eleanor Elephant. It was the first stuffed toy that Mom made me throw away when it got too worn. I still miss Eleanor (the stuffed elephant, that is, Aunt Eleanor is still around) – and the blue bunny (he’s another story, in another house.)
Sixth is the swing set in the backyard. We had one of the standard tubular metal swing sets with a couple of swings and a slide. I learned to go down the slide head first – my preferred method of sliding. I did not like the swings. I would lie on my stomach in the saddle and rock back and forth with my feet or knees always on the ground. “That’s stupid.”
Seventh is bunk beds. Apparently, when I was still in a crib, one morning I rocked it up under the door knob. No one could get into the bedroom to get me out of the crib. As the story goes, I just laughed and kept rocking, even when they called my name looking in the window from the yard. Dad had to remove the window to get me out. After the rocking incident, Mom and Dad put me in a “youth bed,” one of a bunk bed set which was left unstacked for a short time. Mom has told me that I did not stay in my bed at night. Even if she left me asleep in my bed, she would find me sleeping somewhere else in the house in the mornings. Seems the mud room/wash room adjoining the garage was my favored location. However, after the crib incident, Mom and Dad decided the sleep walking was safer than the crib.
Later, the bunk beds were stacked, and Jerry occupied the upper bunk. He removed the ladder from the top bunk each day to prevent me from climbing. One day, I managed to maneuver the ladder upright against the end of the beds, no small feat for a toddler. The end of the beds faced out the door into the hallway. As I started climbing, my weight caused the ladder to fall backwards, with me still on it. I and the ladder landed in the hallway outside the bedroom. I suppose my being under the ladder when it landed stifled any noise from the fall. I was scared and startled but did not cry. Somehow, I got the ladder back into the bedroom before anyone checked on me. That’s when I noticed the hooks on the end of the ladder and figured out what they were for. “That’s stupid.” He would have said it had he been there. You know he would.
Eighth is Mighty Mouse. I loved Mighty Mouse back then. When I see the show now, I don’t know why I liked it so much, but I did. I knew the theme song – “Here I come to save the day . . .” and sang it loudly and ran like I was flying whenever the show came on. The comedy sketch by Andy Kaufman, where he sings that one line, is a favorite.
Ninth – Potty Training. All I remember about potty training was the day I was finally fully trained. I did not quite make it to the bathroom in time, and left a trail behind me on my way. Mom looked at the trail, then at me and said, “It’s your mess, you clean it up.” As a certain horror settled in, I grabbed lots of toilet paper and cleaned up the mess. Potty training complete. I never again lost track of those important functions.
Tenth – Mr. Squiggly. Mr. Squiggly, or whatever the hell the toy was named, was a sprinkler head (literally) that when attached to the hose, used water pressure to cause the hose to dance like a mad cobra spewing water instead of venom. I guess we did not have enough water pressure, so our Mr. Squiggly just kind of lay on the ground drowning in a massive puddle. Dad solved this problem by hanging Mr. Squiggly over the t-post of the clothesline. Of course, having an outdoor shower rather than a squirming Mr. Squiggly was not as much fun. I seemed to have made my own fun with Mr. Squiggly in a rather odd, but imaginative way. There was a picture of me at about 2 years of age standing under Mr. Squiggly in a wheelbarrow – not the shallow kind, but a deep, v-shaped one. I am wearing not only a cute little orange tank swimsuit, but also my Dad’s WWII Army helmet. The first time my husband saw the picture, he commented, “That’s the best picture I’ve ever seen of you. It explains a lot.” When I asked if I could have the picture for my husband, Mom decided to have it enlarged and restored for him. She was already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and forgot where she took it. None of us has seen it since.
Mom and Dad both talk about incidents in this house I don’t recall. For instance, the bathroom had a coil heater in the wall. Mom told how I backed into it after a bath and burned my butt. Although I don’t remember the burns, I do remember the heater. My brother looks very solemn when he tells me, “It was bad. You looked like you had been branded.” I guess I could ask my husband to look for coil-like scars on my rump, but he would, most likely, get sidetracked.
One of my Dad’s favorite memories concerns homemade wine. Dad worked in the poultry industry and drove to farms to help them raise chickens for sale. When I was about 2, one of Dad’s customers gave him some homemade wine. Mom went to a garden club meeting and left me in Dad’s care. He gave me a juice glass of wine, which at 2, was a bit more than plenty. According to Dad, I was a happy little wino. He laughs, sadly, when he tells how I would toddle along, plop on my butt, and giggle. When Mom came home, she found Dad snoozing on the sofa (also the result of wine consumption) and me, drunk, with a wet diaper toddling about, falling, and giggling. Dad apologizes to me every time he tells me this story now. “They’d arrest me these days,” he says, “but you were so happy.” I tell him it doesn’t matter. I guess I turned out okay – not too many dead brain cells, but come to think of it, this did occur before school and IQ tests. Hmmm. Jerry never got drunk before his IQ tests – maybe I would have been just as smart, but probably not. We are more than a few brain cells and IQ points apart. At least when I imbibe too much, I am a happier drunk than my brother. I still plop on my butt and giggle, but I sure as hell avoid heaters.