Mom loved reading, so love of books came naturally to me and Diann. If nothing else was available, I read the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast. We had a collection of Little Golden Books, and many came from Grandma Flavel and Aunt Amy, who was happily married and with a son and daughter of her own. We didn’t have kindergarten, but I read before entering first grade. Mom said she would be working at the kitchen sink and see me going by outside the window with my face in a book—walking around the house.
Reading saved me; the worlds found in books were my escape when the real world turned too difficult and frightening. Or merely for adventure. In those days (1940s and 50s) only boys had adventures and I wanted desperately to be a boy so I could have them, too.
I don’t recall Aunt Amy’s oldest boy, Bob, but I received plenty hand-me-downs from her daughter, Norma. I barely recall her husband, “Unca Charlie,” who I was told I loved, as he died when I was little. He and Dad went fishing a lot at “the lakes” as many called Portage Lakes where we lived. “You going fishing at the lakes this weekend?” All summer long you could hear the sound of motorboats speeding up and down Turkeyfoot Lake—about two miles to the end of Pillar Avenue, across the highway, and down the hill from our house.
Aunt Amy was a trip. After Charlie died and her kids grew up and moved away we saw quite a lot of her. She had a house at the bottom of a steep road and practically on the lake. I used to have nightmares about getting stuck in a car that ran away on that downhill road. As I got older, maybe nine or so, I would walk to the end of Pillar Avenue and meet her because she was afraid of a beagle dog that would run out beyond its yard and bark. I eventually learned the name of that dog, and commanding him with it would stop him in his tracks. He was more bark than bite, thank goodness.
Amy loved to laugh. We had a Little Golden Record about the secret laughing place she loved to play for its funny laugh. She made funny sounds with her lips in her arm, making me and Diann crack up.
She visited us every time a storm was expected. Mom said this was because when she was a small child she had been outside when Grandma was doing the wash during a storm. Thunder and lightning struck just when Amy was splashed with a pot of boiling water. Consequently, Mom always made sure Diann and I had a great time during storms. We both grew up loving a fierce rainstorm. We had some humdinger storms in Ohio. Great, black and blue thunderclouds with driving rains. Fantastic.
I recall Mom bending over the wood and metal scrubbing board in the furnace room that ran between the kitchen and the garage—rubbing up and down, up and down, scrubbing that laundry clean. Next I followed her outside while she hung the clothes in the backyard on a cotton line with wooden clothespins, one pin to corners of two overlapped edges of clothing. She said there was nothing like the smell of clothing fresh dried in the wind and sun. I remember holding clothing up to my face and that smell. When I was old enough, she taught me the correct way to hang clothes so as not to get wrinkles in the wrong places and use the least number of pins.
This was before she received a washer, and sometime later, a dryer.
Mom was a wonderful cook. She made our birthday cakes, and what cakes they were: one chocolate layer, one strawberry, and one vanilla. In between each layer she lathered fudge frosting, and on the sides and top swirled high melt-in-your mouth crispy-on-the-outside seven-minute white frosting. I have never eaten a cake like that since.
Like many children, I became attached to animals of every kind. We had a succession of cats, mainly to keep down the mice. Our house was on a hill—our backyard stretched up to my favorite climbing tree, beyond a wire fence to a wide and deep field that eventually led to what we kids called Meyers Woods. This field was a great spawning ground for mice, rats, and other similar critters.
I don’t remember black Mike the First, though Diann said he would jump out from behind furniture and walls and knock her down, making her laugh. Black Mike the Second would sit on the wood highchair in the kitchen, shake paws and beg for popcorn. After Mike the First passed on we got Tiger, a huge ginger male with wide furry cheeks that followed us kids everywhere. He took no guff from dogs, either. Even the big dogs learned to give him space. Mom said she recalled seeing us kids walking in a line down the street trailed by a couple dogs with Tiger bringing up the rear. We lost him to a poisoned rat and buried the fellow with ceremony in our pet cemetery in the field out back with the other critters we found dead around the neighborhood, including birds. I wish I still had a photo of Tiger, but it was lost with other photos in a flooded basement when I was in college. Tiger was a difficult one to lose.
I got my first puppy, Tinker, when I was a tot. But Tinker turned out to be a big lug when he grew up. So big he knocked me over so Dad got rid of him. I hate to think how, considering the way Dad got rid of most animals. An early project of Dad’s was raising rabbits in hutches in the backyard. I don’t know if the group of rabbits came first or my white rabbit, Peter, came first at Easter. Naturally, I became attached to Peter, the pink-eyed, white rabbit. Perhaps it’s in my imagination that he followed me around. I do recall that Diann and I went to visit our cousins, Sally and Nancy, and when we returned, Peter was gone. All the rabbits were gone. I believe that Mom convinced Dad that having animals for sale around little girls like us was not a good idea since Diann and I could get attached to them. I doubt the rabbits were a good investment anyway.
I was told Peter went to live with our neighbors, but I knew the truth. I knew Dad had got rid of that rabbit with the others. That Peter was likely dead. I think I must have been four or five. What I am saying is don’t tell this kind of story to your kids. Tell them the truth because they instinctively know the truth. I was all that much angrier because I was being told a story instead of the truth.
As adults we tend to forget how attached children get to animals and things. We forget what a different world they live in, how very special and boundless that world is. Everything is of paramount importance. If you love, it is with all your being. Imagination and the mind is as strong as reality. Imagination helps you deal with the world. I recall a painting a young girl did of giant toes on a piece of white paper. “This is me walking in wet grass.”
Kids need the truth to balance their imaginations. They need to be able to depend on adults for that balance, so their world doesn’t topple over. I’m not saying you can’t play and imagine with your kids. But they need to know where the boundaries of imagination and truth are. Parents must provide a safe, dependable island from where children can go out and explore their world and return.
Dad was big and strong. He would grab your arm and yank to give you a swat and raise a bruise for days. He not only yelled at us or swatted our behinds for the smallest infraction, he began cutting down Mom in various ways, making remarks about what she did or things she said.
My world and my sister’s world became one of constant anxiety. Except when he was out of the house . . . gone.