For the Love of Nonnie

I’ve gone delinquent, if not rogue, on my writing responsibilities; thus, this entry is quite overdue. Besides leaving our mountain for a solo road trip, I’d already stepped away from the novel I’m writing…it and the characters decided to take off in a very different direction than I’d originally planned. It happens. It’s interesting (although very inconvenient) but is a phenomenon not suited for this blog. Why did I even bring it up? Because if I didn’t stray from the subject matter, you might think I was an imposter.

Speaking of the subject matter, for this entry, it is my dear, late sister Rhonda (AKA, “Nonnie” to my brother Rick and me because we couldn’t quite say that complicated other-two-syllable word when we were little squirts, and “Sister” to my other sister Sandi because, well, Rhonda was her world – and I apparently never quite made the “sister” cut; more on that later). 

My last blog was about birthdays, and I wrote it on Sandi’s birthday (I might have mentioned that she’s very old). Since then and during my break, we faced yet another of Nonnie’s birthdays without her; she would have been 66 on October 8th. What I’d give to harass her about being the most ancient of our brood, but she never made it to 54, thanks to a form of cancer with a name so long I’m sure it would damage my keyboard. If she was here, she’d point out that since she left us at 53, that technically means I’m older than her, even though I’m the baby. 

Preposterous. And the fact that I turned 60 between the last blog and this one is hardly worth mentioning.

Anyway, as always, I conferred with my siblings about this business of Nonnie’s birthday by asking what their favorite memory or memories were. Usually, I take their feedback and weave it into the storytelling. This time, I’m sharing the conversation straight from Facebook Messenger:

ME: 

[What are your favorite memory or memories of Nonnie?]

SANDI: 

[All of them]

[Anything that made her laugh]

[When we slept together and I felt protected because I held onto her night gown]

[Learned to drive ❤️]

[Together]

[Playing football and having her block for me]

[Hearing her say “little Mom” and “little Cricket”] 

(Cricket was Sandi’s nickname…I can imagine all kinds of reasons for that, but I won’t elaborate because she’d beat me up.)

ME:

[Sigh. So sweet! You two had such a special relationship.] 

(My code for, I wish I’d been a “sister” too, and why was she your favorite sister? What am I, chopped liver? She obviously didn’t catch my drift because she continued with her very sweet thoughts about her sister, her other sister notwithstanding.)

SANDI:

[Watching her at the zoo because she loved it so much]

[Going to the Balloon Festival with them in Albuquerque]

Enter Rick.

RICK:

[On a long meeting right now…will jump in when I escape.] 

(That’s code for he was out messing around on the beach where he “works” in Florida, and he probably got a phone signal when he stopped at some beach bar for another beer, so he tossed us a bone. Oh, and notice that he uses punctuation; someday, we will introduce the concept of using periods and such frivolity with our older but not necessarily wiser sister.)

SANDI:

[👍]

ME:

(Emphatic eye roll…but what I typed was:)

[Thanks!]  

(He would expect nothing but a disingenuous response from me; we are very much alike.)

TIME GAP

RICK (probably several beers later and after de-sanding his feet):

[When we were in elementary school, she was a great protector. Every time I ran my mouth too much around the big kids…I know it’s hard to imagine, but it happened, she would never let them hurt me.

When we were older it was always fun to mess with her when we played board games because she always took the rules so seriously. As adults, it was seeing her scorn and hearing her say “potty mouth!”

Mostly it’s just the way she loved us so unquestioningly. She just did and you felt it all the way through.

Damn, I miss her.]

ME:

[She hugged you, and you just felt it permeate you. And I loved her Scooby Doo giggle…]

RICK:

[Yup.]

SANDI:

[👍]

(…Because that’s easier than writing actual words…it’s kind of like not using periods.)

It is clear, Nonnie was our protector. If you follow this blog, then it’s probably self-evident that our mom had her hands full, mitigating our dad’s actions (or inactions). She worked so we could eat, even though Dad managed to burn through much of her salary. During all this, Nonnie was like a second Mom to us. 

She was undoubtedly the head of the kid quartet, although she wasn’t outspoken, didn’t sport a lot of charisma, and didn’t smile nearly as much as we would have liked. When she did smile? It lit up the room. When she giggled, well, as I mentioned earlier: think Scooby Doo. 

It was delightful. And as you might have gathered, when she hugged, she hugged.  I can still feel it; I can still smell her hair. I can still feel her love; in fact, it’s running down my face right now. It hurts in a way I could never articulate, but it feels as beautiful.

She was arguably the first to have her childhood stolen at our father’s hands, and most certainly endured it for the longest if you knew the more intimate histories of his “pairings” with his own offspring, which I will never share in this forum. Maybe that’s why she took on the role of protector. Because it was something she could do, something she controlled to the best of her ability.  

All we know is that she was possibly the hardest working, most steel-hearted, hard-loving, and devoted human we’ve ever known. Unfortunately for some still-living humans, she was only too happy to share – or enforce – her steadfast nature on anyone around whom she felt might be deserving. If she liked you, your life was better. If she didn’t like you, well, you’d remember her as well. Instead of Scooby Doo, think of the most stubborn stereotype of a mule, and you’ve got it. Rick mentioned “Potty Mouth” in his memories. Get a load of this. While Nonnie could, and did, drink men twice her size under the table (and did so repeatedly during her stint in the Navy), she was shockingly chaste and was appalled and disgusted by swearing (kind of hysterical if you’ve spent more than five minutes with yours truly or my brother). She whipped out her worst label, “Potty Mouth,” with the speed of a gunslinger to squelch swearing by anyone but her husband (he must have had a prenup on that one). She was even known to get up at restaurants where rude patrons might be cursing a bit too loudly, to brand them with the ultimate shame name, Potty Mouth, of course, as she tuned them up on their abhorrible manners. Damn skippy, Nonnie…you nailed their sorry asses right there in front of God and everyone! Shit, that was good stuff! 

And yes, I can hear you from here, wherever you are. I am, and always will be, a Potty Mouth. What’s that I hear? A Scooby Doo giggle!

Nonnie’s favorite color was purple. She loved elephants. She loved anything peanut butter; she even ate peanut butter and bologna sandwiches as we stood by and gagged. She loved liver and onions. She loved the annual Albuquerque balloon festival, which fell on her birthday every year. She loved John Wayne with such a passion that her home looked like a Duke museum: she understood that he was the original stud. She loved her husband and her son, she loved us, she loved our mom so much I’m surprised it didn’t squish the dear tiny soul. She even loved our dad, who scarred her so deeply that I still hold him at fault, to a degree, for her early demise. She just loved; she was love.

I guess you expect to outlive your parents. You pray your children will outlive you, and you know it could go either way with your spouse. These are things inside of you, whether you consciously think about them or not. But for me, I guess I thought my siblings would always be there. They were already around when I got here, and I never imagined life without them.  

Her death was devastating to us, the remaining three. We are supposed to be a quartet, not a trio; it’s not the same, not squared off without her.

But even now, we still feel her love and her protection. I don’t know how she does that, but I am eternally grateful. 

Happy 66th Birthday, Nonnie! I love you and miss you…and you are STILL older than me!

Our Bankrupt Birthday Memory Bank

Today is my sister’s birthday. She’s old. 

She’s REALLY old. I suppose if she wants to read this, she’ll need a magnifying glass to see it and someone to poke her every few minutes lest she nods off. They just don’t make strong enough Geritol for someone as old as her. She’s so old she…oh, sorry. Got a little carried away there.

Anyway, since it’s her birthday (did I mention she’s old?), and it was time to whip out a blog entry, I had the brilliant idea that I should dedicate it to our birthdays as kids. 

I had just initiated one of our delightful Messenger group chats on the subject to see what they could share when it occurred to me that I didn’t remember any of my birthdays as a kid off the top of my head. Not one.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my brother and I both have large swathes of nothingness in our childhood memory landscapes. If you’ve followed this blog, that probably doesn’t come as a big surprise, and I’m sure Freud would have a field day with all the reasons why that’s true. But really? 

No memory of birthdays?  

So, the conversation commenced…and these usually go on for some time and are quite hilarious as we remaining three of four remember, laugh, learn, and cringe. But today’s chat was really short because guess what? At first, none of us remembered anything! 

Group think, maybe? Trauma-based delayed hypnosis (OK, I made that up)? A childhood of crappy birthdays not worth remembering, perhaps? Who knows. 

The conversation lulled.

Then I remembered a little thing and a bigger thing…and my brother remembered a couple of things. 

And my sister remembered something; her memory was nicest, so I’ll share it first!

Sandi remembers that our neighbor Anna (this was when we lived in Bonner Springs, Kansas before I even started school) threw a party for her, and she got a little stuffed animal. 

I loved Anna…she also babysat me while everyone else was at school and had a baby duck that followed me around. And she had a Cinderella coloring book just for me. And apparently, I found out from my elder siblings during one of these blog discussions, she also slept with my father. Hopefully, not on anyone’s birthday!  

Anyway, Sandi kicked off the memory chain. My brother, Rick, remembered that when he turned five, his picture was in the newspaper holding a birthday cake he’d won. I hope it was on the front page since he doesn’t remember a single other thing about that or any other birthday until his 17th. That’s when our loving Pops told him to join the “Army,” or he’d send him to a reform school as a ward of the state (a version of this came up in a previous blog), and that he was “done” with him. I remember that day because it was not quite a “discussion,” and things got a little physical on my dad’s part as I recall. And mom and I cried a lot. However, all things considered, I’m pretty sure Rick would chalk it up as the best gift he’d ever gotten from Dad. He got to leave! Happy freakin’ birthday (and that is said with genuine mirth, not sarcasm), Brother! 

If I’d remembered that was an option, I might have asked for the same for my 17th birthday.

I recalled a card I got on my seventh birthday; it had a fishing pole with a cartoon fish on the hook announcing that I was seven years old in nice colorful letters. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of creepy. Maybe that’s why I remember it, although I don’t recall anything else about the day. Who knows, but that’s a pretty paltry memory bank for a childhood of birth celebrations.

Then I suddenly remembered my 16th and can’t believe I’d spaced it initially. Our dog, “Puppy” (you might recall that original and catchy name from a previous entry), died the first morning of my 16th year. That was shattering because we’d had her since I was pretty little, through many moves, and she and I were the only “kids” left by then… in the same house where Rick was off to the Navy (his last act of defiance, I suspect, since Dad told him to join the Army), but he was gone when Puppy died. I was devastated but went to school anyway. My gift was waiting when I got home, you might say. She was still in the back yard, and Dad told me to take her to the Humane Society to have them do what they do with dead animals. I had to roll her up in a blanket and put her in the trunk. It was the first time I’d touched anything dead, and can still remember how stiff she was. Yeah, that sucked. I’m not singing the blues (or “Happy Birthday to Me”) here, just telling the story as it applies to the subject. That’s the one I remember! Woo hoo! 

I don’t remember anything else about the day, but that’s probably good since you might be ready to eat your phone or computer at this point just to escape these stories! In the end analysis, I kind of wish I’d gotten an offer to join the “Army” if I’d refused to dispose of our sweet dog. But that was not in the cards, although maybe it was somehow psychologically tied to my random trip to the Air Force recruiter several years later, resulting in a 30-year career?

Yes!  So, my brother and I did get awesome presents in a round-about-way from the Man himself: military careers, which probably kept us both out of jail and gave us new lives and steady paychecks. Thanks, Dad!

But wait! We did remember some good stuff…just not individual or year specific. We remembered that Mom always let us pick our birthday meal and cake (money allowing). Our late sister, Rhonda, always asked for liver and onions (calm down out there and have the decency to gag quietly…she’s passed away, after all). Sandi’s was fried chicken, every single year. Rick drove the meatloaf train and requested peach cobbler for dessert (pardon me while I drool…Mom’s peach cobbler rocked!). I hang my head because I have no clue what I asked for, and I think that might be because all I really wanted was the cake. Well, mostly, I wanted the frosting. All of it.  

And we always got the traditional spankings, which in a family of six, could be time-consuming if not terrifying, since every family member spanked you for each year of your life. 

As the youngest, I lucked out because I had the fewest years and the others moved out before I was really racking up potential swats.

In closing, Happy Birthday, Sandi! I hope you have someone to read this to you since you will never be able to hold it far enough away to see the words. And I hope they don’t put all those candles on your cake because it will catch your old-lady chin-hair on fire. And don’t let them spank you because with the size of your family and your exorbitant number of years, you’ll still be getting spanked this time next year when you turn 103.

Beware of Wild Donkeys in the Septic: The Danger is Real

On this blog journey, I’ve focused mainly on Dad’s influence on our family, and I figure there will be lots more along that vein since the gist is “disfunction with a twist.” 

However, this blog is called “Somewhere Along the Way;” the way was long, and there were many other factors in our childhood that were as prominent, if not more so than dear old Dad. I discovered the most important factor this week when I had a virtual discussion with my siblings while preparing for this installment.

Sidebar: This will be a little incomplete because, as I’ve mentioned before, Rhonda (AKA Nonnie & “Sister”), our eldest, died of cancer in 2008. It was a bitter loss because we were so close. As this blog is devoted to the fun times, I’ll hear her contagious giggle throughout and try to weave her spirit into the stories. Although to be fair, she’d argue with us on every point because, inexplicably, her recollection of our childhood was always about 20-180 degrees off from the rest of us. Hear that up there, Nonnie? I promise we’ve got our stories straight!

So, when I asked my sibs what they remembered as far as the good times, our ensuing Messenger discussion was not only fun but pretty revealing.

I have a fond memory of when we moved into a house in Leavenworth, KS (same house mentioned in the “flagpole” blog). Using the boxes and packing materials as props, we created and performed plays for each other. The four of us played for hours. Might sound a little hokey, but as it stands out among hundreds of lost memories, it has significance to me. Make-believe is powerful and holds much grace. Besides, I’m sure Sandi was the director, i.e. boss of everyone (which is her thing), and Rick probably got all the boy roles, which explains why he still sees himself as the center of the universe. As sibling in charge, Rhonda just wanted us all in one place. And finally, even as a preschooler, I was way more interested in alternate realities; my early stage career must have scratched that itch. Sadly, there were no Oscar nominations, but make no mistake, there was magic, just for a while, in our little front room.

That was also the house where we learned to turn off the lights and hide from bill collectors (that was back when they actually came to your doorstep). You might wonder why I’d mention this in a blog devoted to kid fun? Because that sh*t was fun! It was so scary that we’d undoubtedly giggle as we dove behind chairs and held our breath till the knocking stopped. Ignorance was not only bliss; it was downright delightful.

That was also around the same era when my brother flicked the lid off a tin can, and I somehow intercepted it with my eye. Wait. That wasn’t fun. So, anyway…

A big-ticket item around that same time frame was our first and only real family vacation from Kansas to Colorado to see “real mountains.” I was not in school yet, but I remember it well. There were roadside outhouses a-plenty (see a former blog as to how that phenomenon traumatized me with a fear of falling in), hills that led to mountains which were incomprehensible to we Kansas kids, and legions of bologna sandwiches. We loved every minute. There were things even more memorable than the big ol’ We’re-Not-in-Kansas-Anymore Rocky Mountains. Things like my brother getting locked in a gas station restroom (I’m pretty sure we girls would have left him there had it been our choice). And later, he hammed it up by coming out of a campground outhouse with a toilet seat wrapped around his neck. We laughed outrageously at that one, and there is a black and white photo somewhere capturing the moment. Now all I can imagine is wanting to douse him in Clorox. I mean, really. A public toilet seat? AROUND HIS NECK? Kind of makes me wonder how he later ended up contracting cancer and COVID-19 (yes, those things happened, and fortunately he’s still here to tell the stories); that early experience should have made him immune to anything. We also have a black and white pic of our sweet Nonnie sitting in an outhouse doing her business as Sandi (the evilest – yes, that’s a word – Seley child by far) held the door open for someone unnamed to take the shot. No mercy when you have four kids with camera access for the first time in their lives! Just noticed the overt bathroom theme…that would probably mean something to Freud, but let’s find more fun!

After we moved to New Mexico, we discovered a kind of freedom we’d never known before. I think we lived in three homes over the course of a couple of years, two of which were trailers, one was a fall-apart adobe home (yep, that’s the place I learned to tell time on the backwards bar clock, remember?), all of which were on the Navajo reservation. We were still in the clutches of our in-home Darth Vader, but when he was gone, as long as our chores were accomplished, we were OUT OF THERE! 

We ran, jumped, hiked, dodged rattlesnakes (no kidding), rode bikes, climbed shear rock faces (as Sandi recalls we sometimes carried our probably-terrified cocker spaniel, Puppy, right up the cliffs), caught lizards, and often made it home seconds before our parents returned from work.

Then there were the incidents of Sandi nearly drowning in a freezing mudhole, a donkey getting stuck in our septic tank, and our questionable stint as cowgirls and cowboy during our one summer with horses no one else wanted.

Allow me to elaborate: 1) Sandi tried (“tried” is the keyword here) to jump a “puddle,” which, as she sunk in, was discovered to be a cold, deep mudhole. She remembers freezing as she waited for help; Rick recalls the incident as “hilarious.” 2) Dad, being about as adept at home improvements as Tim the Toolman Taylor, decided to do some work on the septic (AKA, cesspool) behind our rented trailer. As the story goes, he had someone put a couple of old VW van frames in the hole to keep it from caving in on itself, then loosely covered it with dirt. No one counted on the entrance of the wild donkey which appeared out of the desert and promptly fell in the hole (yes, you read that correctly). My brother says the donkey screamed like a little girl (as a guy with three sisters, he was familiar with the sound). After being led out with a rope, it ran off, so we assume its trauma was mostly emotional. 3) Same trailer, different day, Dad decided to become a horse owner with no experience, no training, and no saddles. But he had four kids to figure it out, so that made sense, right? I remember riding “Jughead” bareback with no clue how to ride. The other horse liked to run, and Jughead only understood hardcore trotting. 

We had no idea that when they decided it was time to go home, they’d go home – at the speed of their choice – and we just hung on for dear life. Pretty sure I jarred some teeth out, lost a chunk of my tongue, and had to change my underwear after a particularly tough “ride” home one day. Thank God Dad realized we actually had to spend time and money on those beasts. Thus, he re-homed them; otherwise, we all might have ended up in traction at some point. Fun stuff!

We did so much, we four, and almost always together. What I learned this week as I chatted with my sibs and jotted things down was this: my most meaningful and endearing childhood memories were those with just the four of us. 

That was our safe place, and it was good. 

Oh…and I learned that when your brother opens a can, duck! And always lock the bathroom door because you never know who’s outside with a camera. And when doing home maintenance, for God’s sake, keep your eyes peeled for wild donkeys!

Jumping Jacks, Prunes, and Powdered Eggs: Breakfast of Champions.

This day and age, it’s perfectly normal for parents to focus on and even obsess over their children’s nutrition and fitness. Somewhere between general health awareness and the swooping blades of helicopter parenting, it has become a thing.

In the sixties and seventies, it wasn’t so much a thing. Parents fed their children because failure to do so resulted in a lot of noise and poor behavior. They also expected their children to get their butts OUTSIDE to play or braced themselves for in-home destruction during inclement weather in keeping with kids’ natural activity levels as a means of “fitness.”

In this sense, I guess Dad was ahead of his time. First, I must say, even when we were very broke, we never went hungry. Ever…even if our fare was bread and cream gravy (which rocked, by the way), Mom always ensured we ate. 

Dad, however, in the dips and curves of his massive mood swings, managed to touch about every area of our lives (some more intimate than others, as you now know); food and fitness were no exceptions. 

Unlike the earlier referenced helicopter parents of the 2000s, however, Dad’s on-again, off-again infatuation with our food intake and/or fitness levels had zero to do with health and everything to do with his need to dominate and ensure we fell in line. Even if it hurt, even if it made us want to throw up, both of which were natural phenomena for us when he would suddenly become Jack LaLanne (for you spring chickens, replace that name with any male Fitness guru you follow on YouTube or whatever media you use that I’ve never heard of), or Julia (Julio?) Child (again, young ‘uns, choose your favorite Food Network chef).

These things always happened when he wasn’t working due to his issues with being a responsible adult. Thus, he compensated by overcompensating on the home front. I assure you, to a kid, we would have preferred he just got a job like the other dads.

I personally remember the fitness spinning to life when we lived on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico when I was somewhere around the 3rd or 4th grade. My sister specifically remembers that he made us a massive mandatory breakfast on Memorial Day, then dragged us on an 8-mile hike. I don’t remember the breakfast (that one, anyway), but I definitely remember the “family hikes” among the desert mesas. Erase that lovely Sound of Music family-up-the-mountain hike scene; this was not a candidate for a Family Weekly feature story. We had to be nearly in rank and file as we moved out into the desert. If we lost our minds and acted like children by running ahead or falling behind to look at a lizard or something, we were immediately chastised for “not wanting to be part of the family” (by the guy who would hole up in his bedroom for days on end, go figure). My brother remembers a few other things about one hike in particular, which is not shareable. Dad would have been thrown off the parenting helicopter by enraged socially conscious moms and dads, and rightfully so.

So, let’s stick with fitness before we bound into the serious Olympic breakfast spells. In New Mexico, he became entranced with running in place and jumping jacks, in addition to military-style hikes. No kidding, he’d make us line up and run in place, time us and, with his apparently calibrated eyes, ensure our knees were high enough as we huffed and puffed, praying for an end, fantasizing about being in some other home, or even the Bates Motel, for that matter. I’m sure Norman didn’t have to do counted jumping jacks or timed runs.  

Flip ahead in the 70’s calendar till we land squarely in our first home in Boise, Idaho, the sixth grade for me, which put the others in junior high and high school. Here we wound up on Welfare since Dad was on another stay-at-home-and-hide binge.

Because this was before food stamps, we had to go to a big warehouse and get “commodities,” i.e., generic food provided by the government. Good stuff…it included the only “canned bologna” I’ve seen before or since, thank God. If you didn’t slice it very thin, it was pretty vile. But I digress (what a surprise!). Of course, Dad wouldn’t set foot in the commodity warehouse because that’s where poor people went, so Mom would have to find time around her work schedule to go with one or all of us kids. Other than the gross bologna and weird not-cheese (this stuff made Velveeta seem gourmet), the food really wasn’t bad because it consisted of basic staples…bread, rice, dry beans, flour, sugar, butter, hot cereal, canned chicken, powdered eggs (blech!), etc. Oh, and prunes; oh boy. We tolerated the powdered milk because we were basically nice kids (and we would have been issued capital punishment on the spot if we complained).

What we were less grateful for was the fact Dad read somewhere that breakfast was not only the most important meal of the day but apparently must be multi-course and in battalion-sized quantity. Or maybe he made that part up. Either way, our commodity haul ensured he could thus provide for us, by force, if necessary.

Ready for this? And I assure you, I checked with my older sibs for accuracy because my memories of these epic before-school smorgasbords were so absurd, I needed to fact-check. Our memories (and gag-reflex responses) were intact and identical.  

We started out with stewed prunes (as soon as your nausea passes, you can keep reading). Then, we had to eat a brimming (and I mean brimming) bowl of whole wheat hot cereal.  Then, in he came with the scrambled previously powdered eggs and pancakes and toast. If there was any bacon to be had, that would come in with the last course too.

Stop rolling your eyes! I’m serious here!

Of course, we had to eat every bite and wash it down with the tastily hydrated powdered milk and, as my sister reminded me, whatever delightful juice facsimile we had from the warehouse. Almost all the products from there were in white packages with black print, so flavors are hard to recall since the flavor was mostly sugar. If we didn’t eat every bite – what am I saying?! – we ate every bite because there was zero tolerance for disobedience.   

Please understand, I am not complaining about being provided for. Nor am I complaining about the blessing of Welfare, without which, we might have gone hungry. I am not complaining about an overabundance of food (okay, maybe a little bit, because it really didn’t need to be 4000 calories all at once!). But in fairness, I was absolutely complaining about that nasty-ass bologna; as a card-carrying LOVER of Oscar Meyer baloney, I have to draw the line with that canned stuff, free or not.  

Actually, come to think of it, other than that, I’m not complaining at all. As always, I’m telling you a story of not-uncommon dysfunction, of four kids who somehow did well in school during periodic food comas. Four kids who, for intermittent times in their childhoods, probably could have succeeded in Marine boot camp although they wouldn’t have understood the first thing about playing on a real sports team. 

I guess it was a mixed blessing; if Dad had been consistent with our home “fitness,” we might have become true Olympians. However, if the mega-meals had been the norm, we would have all been candidates for Biggest Loser before we even graduated high school. But as it was just a random thing, we didn’t end up being morbidly obese. 

Wait! There’s the silver lining! I knew if I typed long enough, I’d find it!

And that concludes the ill-advised Ron Seley parental approach to nutrition and fitness.

What did I learn? If I was going to run, I should actually move forward; it’s much better on the shins, not nearly as boring as running in place, and I wouldn’t have someone yelling at me to “get those knees up!” And learned not to do jumping jacks, mostly because I just really hate jumping jacks. I also learned to get a job and keep it, so I wouldn’t have to eat canned bologna, powdered eggs, and plastic cheese.

The end.

Hanging a Right on Memory Lane

This blog has been a collection of mini trips down memory lane, which, until now, were figurative.

However, the trip became literal as I recently found myself running down that same lane (OK, I can’t with a clear conscience call that thing I do for miles on end a “run,” it’s actually a slog: slow jog). I had to go to Boise, Idaho, for a quick overnight trip, and the morning of my departure, I went on a jog, oops, I mean slog. Anyway, I went right through one of the dozens of multi-state neighborhoods we lived in when I was a kid. In fact, we lived on 20th Street in North Boise longer than anywhere else: four years. We moved in when I was in the sixth grade and fled (we rarely just moved) after my sophomore year. That was a very long time for us.

I went up 20th Street as part of my 4.5-mile trek and on the first pass, my natural guard when right up; I didn’t dwell on anything other than the changes in the neighborhood. But as I wound through subsequent streets, I considered it might be OK to just let the ol’ doors open and see what fell in. After a couple more miles or so, I retraced my steps, and as I approached “the street,” the doors creaked open.

My first sensation as I got within a couple of blocks was an echo of anxiety and dread. That’s because when I used to get to that point on my way home from school or wherever else I’d been, I’d wonder what I’d come home to. I was old enough, even in the sixth grade, to understand things would never be “OK” or normal. I understood the condition of our home life was about as stable as nitroglycerin. The catalyst to change was Dad’s mood. It wasn’t pitiable; it was simply a fact of life. I think we all developed a sense for it. I always knew as soon as I came around the corner; believe it or not, you could feel it. Right from the street.

And then I remembered stuff.

I remembered when my best friend Kris and I decided in the 6th grade that we definitely weren’t cool enough (a true assessment), so we should try smoking (a bad remedy). We agreed never to inhale, and we’d sneak off on “walks” when she spent the night, puffing on the nasty “Kools” in the darkness just to see if we felt any kooler. When Dad caught me, he told me to sit down and smoke with him. He said I had to inhale and, if I made it through a set number of cigarettes without getting sick, he would personally support my habit. Guess what? I did it. I inhaled, and I didn’t get sick. True to his word (kind of a miracle in and of itself), he bought my smokes. I continued to inhale, and it took me years to kick the habit. Pretty sure that wasn’t his intent, but the results cost him money he could ill afford. Yay, me! Small victories…

I remembered that was the house where I’d wake up with him sitting on the edge of my bed. We’ll leave it at that, but since he started darkening my doorstep at a much older age than he had with my siblings, I had the awareness to stop his shenanigans because I was old enough to know it was wrong and big enough to stop him. Geez, I wonder why I had insomnia for most of my life? Freud! Where were you when I needed you?

I remembered that house was the scene of the infamous dinner of pork and beans and peaches, which I told you about in a previous entry…as well as the hallowed place where he hit on my boyfriend (yes, you read that right). If you missed those gems, go here! https://tammyseleyelliott.com/2020/04/10/seley-household-20th-century-covid-19-training-ground/

I remembered him grounding me for a whole summer because I got a “C” on my report card. No kidding. I guess that would have made sense if he was a consistently strict parent. But that was also the house where he fixed my broken pot pipe, probably to curry favor for you-know-what, or so I’d think he was cool. And it was also the house where he introduced me to his very young girlfriend and made me hang around with her. She was closer to my age than his. Not real sure of his motivation there, but the guilt I felt on behalf of my mother was extreme. I’m sure she knew, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her, and of course, he made it seem like “our little secret” and made a big deal out of it. It was a big deal, alright, I realized as I trotted past the house again, but not in the way he thought. It made me hate me more than I hated him. It’s probably no mystery why his strict parenting didn’t exactly have the desired result; it, like everything else, was subject to his discretion. I sped up my slog (although still not exactly Olympic stuff) and conjured a better memory.

I remembered this was also the house where Mom and I had the nerve to “walk on the floor!” If you missed that little ditty, you might want to catch up! It was lots funnier than this stuff:  https://tammyseleyelliott.com/2020/05/09/laughter-our-snake-oil/

Looking around at the sunny day, I remembered coming home on similar beautiful days, many times, to closed curtains. That was always a bad sign, but not as bad as the times he also had blankets over the windows from the inside. Good thing…a little light might have gotten in!

Thinking that outside the house was often better than the inside, I remembered the backyard was lined with lilac trees in different colors. It was the first house we ever lived in with flowers and I’ll never forget the beautiful smell. Ever. 

They are still my favorite today.

I remembered John and Exie, the wonderful old couple from Tennessee who rented to us and lived across the street, becoming very much like grandparents to me. I don’t think they knew what was going on in our house; the grandpa guy was as big as a house and a years-long prison guard. He would have made quick work of Dad.  Dang it.  A missed opportunity.

I remembered Dad told me to mow the lawn in front of that house but didn’t show me how. I was about twelve, and I couldn’t get the stupid lawnmower to start. I got so frustrated because I knew there’d be hell to pay if I didn’t get that lawn mown, so I started crying right there in the yard. Big “grandpa” John, who never came over, appeared out of nowhere (not a small trick for a mountain of a man) and showed me how to start it, not leaving till I had it under control. I’m really glad I remember that. It was a sad day when he died.

Get a load of this! I remembered coming home one day, and Dad had some superficial cuts and bruises, and his arm was in a makeshift sling. He told me that the “bad men” he’d been affiliated with in the past had come to get him. He said he’d kicked their asses and sent them on their way. I have no clue what the takeaway was supposed to be on that one. Still don’t, other than I’m one hundred and twenty-two percent certain no one visited our house that day and that he didn’t believe his own story any more than I did.

I remembered that while we lived on 20th Street, Dad was so incensed that his only male child was becoming a man that he made his life hell. My brother had the nerve to try to be independent, get a girlfriend, and act normal. Dad forced him to leave or join the military before he even finished high school. I believe my brother’s choice saved his life. Navy “1,” Dad, “0!” Yay, Navy (as a 30-year Air Force vet, it hurt to type that)!

Although I’d gotten blocks past that house, I remembered we lived there the day of my sister’s wedding; a day Dad was supposed to walk a daughter down the aisle for the first time. He never knew that at 13, I watched as he staged a fall – not a real fall at all – then he faked injuries so he wouldn’t have to go to the wedding. My brother (yes, the guy Dad didn’t want to be a man) stood in for him and gave my sister away. While my sister, for reasons I now understand, was fine with the outcome, I hurt for her and was so disgusted with him, I sort of wanted to help him with a real fall.  Put your phone downno crime here!  I said I wanted to. Joke was on him. He’s long gone, and she’s been happily married for almost 50 years!

Ironically, that run/slog seemed to fly by. Memory lane must have a tailwind. There were lots more stories; a lot can happen in four years. But this is a blog, not a novella.  

What did I learn? If I were a faster runner, I’d write shorter blogs.  

Life is a Highway (with no pee-stops)

There are upsides to being reared by an unstable, often brilliant, funny, dark, incestuous, egomaniac. 

OK, strike the “i” word, but the rest stands true. Imagine being a little kid and having a dad who would say, “We’re going for a ride!”– and the translation of said statement could mean a Sunday drive, OR a multiday journey to parts unknown; money, school attendance, and potty stops not included!

Nope, not kidding. I was there, so I know. While I can’t remember many geographical specifics because most of these adventures happened when I was really small, I can remember other stuff, like all four of us kids being crammed into the back seat. Yes, it was very crowded, but besides the fact that complaining was strictly prohibited, even in matters of life or death, it was all we knew. And sometimes the alternative to these gallivants was going to school, so, I, for one, was in!

The other kids were older, so I’m sure they weren’t as enthusiastic about these jaunts since we were packed like sardines into whatever given heap we called the family car at the time. After all, we had to be touching each other from shoulders to feet for hours on end. I know that was preferable to being touched by the guy driving the car, but that’s an element of this blog that will continue to be alluded to, yet never allowed out to play.

Most of our “drives” were actually cover for the fact Dad was an on-again, off-again, traveling salesman. I’m guessing he only brought us along when he didn’t have a prospect for a little between-the-sheets extra-curricular activity on the route; I can fully understand how his wife and kids could have been an impediment in that area. However, when summoned, we piled in and often drove miles, if not days, so he could follow a “lead” in hopes of selling a set of encyclopedias. [For our younger readers out there, “encyclopedias” were the book equivalent of Google; took up lots more space, were heavier, and way more expensive, not to mention you had to actually apply yourself and put in some effort during your “search.”] 

The less exciting element of the trips was the four-pack-a-day smoker behind the wheel who didn’t believe in pee-stops, wife and four children notwithstanding. 

Here’s how it went: as we left town, we were in somewhat good spirits, and those spirits lowered as the amount of smoke in the car increased. God forbid we should complain or want to roll down a window, verboten! Even as a young ‘un, I remember knowing when the smoke filled the car enough to get down to my face level, I would start to get queasy. I also knew there’d be hell to pay if I complained. So, I guess during the drives, we were a four-pack-a-day family.

Dad’s solution to the pee issue was (are you ready for this?) a three-pound aluminum coffee can, fortunately, with the lid. And no stops meant no stops, therefore, dig this: we had to find room among the other six legs in the back seat floor to cop squats (in the girls’ cases) and pee right there in the car at sixty-miles-per hour. I’m sure it was easier for my brother, stupid boy; just doesn’t seem fair, does it? But for all, spillage was also verboten; thus, we were excellent aims.

I remember the time my late sister was doing her thing there on the floor of the car, and Dad, being the sensitive and thoughtful soul he was, passed a semi truck…the driver must have gotten a quick glimpse, because he blew his air horn so loud she probably squeezed out an extra pint or two. (Of course, I only share this because she is not here to read it; I’d rather still have her here, but just the thought of her frowning and smacking me across the head makes it worth it.) My other sister remembers the pee-can doubled as a puke-can. We were often in the car for hours – including the time he was in the “lead’s” home selling his wares – and my sisters frequently got sick (geez, I hope you weren’t, like, eating while reading this…). My brother says the sales trips were the best kind because we had a chance of actually going to a drive-thru or restaurant. Otherwise, our fare was white bread and a pack of baloney. If we were lucky enough to stop, we ate our plain sandwiches at picnic tables within a stone’s throw of outhouses (rest area sanitation, back in the day). No one can say the Seley clan didn’t know how to have a good time!

On a side note, I was terrified of outhouses because I was afraid I’d fall in. Dad told me I’d better not, because it would be easier to “make” another kid than to clean me up! Those loving words still make me a little misty.

So, there you have it. 

Between the many moves and the “drives” in between, we were like modern-day gypsies. I sometimes wonder if Dad wrote that song, “Life is a Highway,” because he had no trouble riding it all night long, as long as we had a pee-can.

Laughter: Our Snake Oil

In the spirit of fairness, I need to point out that our homes were not houses of horrors, although horrible things did happen in most of those homes.  Ah! You say…the disfunction did make her crazy!

Maybe so, but my real point is that even in the most unsuspecting places, there is good, and more importantly, there is fun.  My dad could be cruel, indecently inappropriate, and controlling, yes!  But, gosh, let’s give him a momentary reprieve because he was also quite funny when times were good, and the tide was with us.

We’ll ignore the fact that he completely controlled the tide (flexibility is important, after all) and consider how humor is a tremendous survival skill that helped my siblings and me become relatively successful and very adaptable humans.

One of my early memories from somewhere in Kansas involved the four of us young ‘uns collectively taking an enormous risk to tap his humor.  I wasn’t even in school yet; thus the others were all still in grade school, which might account for the very poorly advised plan, what with underdeveloped brains, and whatnot.  We were all in trouble (which sounds like a big deal, but was more likely something as egregious as someone not making their bed properly or all of us being inconsiderate enough to act like children and do something crazy like laugh too loud…I think you get my point…).  Rather than doling out on-the-spot spankings, either individually or in group formation, Dad would set a time for us to “appear” to accept our punishment.  As a veteran, I have to give a nod to his grasp of psychological warfare; the anticipation was way worse than the actual butt-whacking.

In any case, on this occasion, someone devised a strategy for us all to hold pillows over our rears as we somberly marched down the stairs in order of age (an excellent plan for me; as the youngest, I would be last to the slaughter) as we reported in for our spankings. The hope was for an unprecedented softening of the ogre, that he’d laugh uproariously, and all would be forgiven.  Cray-cray, right?  How opportune that he was, after all, cray-cray, and it worked!  It worked as never before (or after, I might add). It was a perfect storm in reverse. He laughed heartily, probably accrediting our wit to his genes, and there were no spankings that day. Our victory cry was fiercer than our wails would have been. I think I remember it among so many blocked memories because of our success, and because it was never to work again.  And because it was funny. The Seley kids’ first and last stand. It was epic.

And then there was the time when we lived on a reservation in New Mexico and my brother was out hurdling sage bushes (yes, he did it for hours, but that’s not the funny part) and somehow flew face-first into a large cactus patch.  Ouch. We rarely went to the doctor for anything, so Mom went at it with the tweezers and proceeded to pull a bunch of needles out from all over…and I mean, all over. We could hear it all from the next room. How can three sisters not find humor in that?  Not at the time, of course (at least where we could be heard), we ain’t that cruel, but I’m sure there were many subsequent jokes, and even he laughed about it later, because that’s how we coped.

We played when we could, laughed at every single opportunity, sometimes just for the sake of feeling it all lift away.

Fast forward through a rollercoaster of moves to my teenage years when I was the last kid at home, now in Idaho. The other three had escaped things I hadn’t even known they’d endured, and I was just navigating through my remaining time.  On this day, Dad was prone on the couch, taking in some football (which he could apparently watch while sleeping because if you had the gall to change the channel or turn it off, he’d awake in mid-snore to tune you up). Mom and I returned from the local laundromat and upon entering the living room, we saw him “watching” the game, mouth agape, drool, snores, and all.

As we crept in with our full laundry baskets, the floorboards inevitably creaked, and he loudly proclaimed (eyes still closed), “Quit walking on the floor!”  Mom and I looked at each other, asking the same question with our eyes: Where then, are we supposed to walk? The ceiling, perhaps? And then we did the unforgivable: we dissolved in laughter.  Unlike with the pillow incident, he was none too pleased, all was not forgiven (although no alternative trek besides the floor was offered for us to bring in his clean skivvies).  I remember this because, well, it was damn funny, but mostly because my normally very meek and accommodating mother was actually in cahoots with me, and she boldly giggled through it all without regret.  I suspect there were repercussions for her later, but I saw it as the beginning of an unprecedented and wonderful alliance that lasted until her dying day.  Yay for smartass humor!

We often laughed a lot when it was just us kids at home, or out of earshot when he was home.  We laughed with him when he was “up,” as we called it, because when things were good, they really were good.  And it was such respite from the dark times, it made the good times that much brighter. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it was a tightrope.  Depending on which Dad we had on any given day (same man, mind you) his humor could be so lewd and inappropriate we either didn’t understand or laughed because when he laughed, we all laughed.  That’s just how it was.  I also never would have joked about my brother getting cactus needles yanked out of his junk if I’d known he ran and hurdled sagebrush for hours as his way of escaping what he’d been privately subjected to by our father since he was a small child. He was running because he could.

But I didn’t know that then.  My brother was and is one of the funniest people I know. He makes me laugh until I cry.  I just didn’t know that back then, he and my sisters laughed so they wouldn’t cry.

Laughter is the best homeopathic medicine for short and long-term ailments.  It is, at least, when butt pillows are deemed funny.  And it is, for sure, when for one brief, shining moment, your mama becomes a giggling rebel.  That was sweet

And for the record, when transporting laundry across the house, to this day, I audaciously march across the floor.  And laugh the whole way! Touché!

Seley Household: 20th Century COVID-19 Training Ground

As we all settle into our new normal of “social distancing,” however temporary it may be, I can’t help but think of how this was the norm during our childhood. Allow me to explain (as if there were any doubt at all that I wouldn’t pick up this thread and ramble for a good 800 words or so!).

If you follow this blog, it won’t surprise you that our dad was much a self and family isolator. He often took his self-isolation to extremes by not leaving his bedroom or closing all the curtains in the house to shut out light and people for days or weeks at a time. Sometimes it included blankets over the curtains, which was a bummer in the winter because we kind of favored the blankets in our beds. Overkill on the isolation thing, you say? Well, maybe. But dang! He would have been Corona-virus-free for sure! Let’s take a look at social distancing, Seley-style.

Ours was not the house all the kids came to, ever.  That sounds kind of sad, but it wasn’t a big deal because our parents never had friends over either, so it just seemed normal. In fairness, Dad did have a charming and funny side to his personality, which was delightful but unpredictable. His Mr. Hyde-side was completely antisocial and could surface as quickly as it took for us to go to school and return. It was too risky to bring someone home even with a rare advance permission. So, for most of our childhoods, we were well-insulated. Today that would be ideal! No people, no germs!

As I’ve pointed out to a ridiculous degree throughout previous blog entries, I was exempt, for whatever reason, from the worst of Dad’s indiscretions with his own children (producing a nice package of gratitude buried in a lot of guilt). But as the youngest, I think I had some unique experiences; I suppose it’s typical for the rules to loosen with the last kid. I made my first friend, Kris, in the sixth grade, and we quickly became BFF’s. It was wonderful. Fortunately (and I should have capitalized that), she never noticed anything strange about the old man, and he was very fond of and entirely appropriate toward her. Maybe she was sprinkled with my immunity-from-him fairy dust? I don’t know. But in years to come, after my sibs all moved out, I became more social, and sometimes my two worlds were allowed to overlap. Although there were definite windows of time (closed curtain times) when I wouldn’t have dreamed of having anyone over, there were exceptions. They didn’t always go well.

I’ll ease you in with a reasonably harmless Lesson #1 on the value of isolation/distancing in our house, once I was the only kid left. It came at about the age of fifteen when one of the coolest girls I knew was coming to our house for a sleepover. This was a huge deal because I was kind of a shy nobody; I was nervous and excited. So, over she came and when it was time for dinner, honestly, what was going to be on the table was the least of my worries because my parents were great cooks. Silly me. 

When we sat at the table, Mom looked embarrassed, and Dad was just as charming as could be. Charming, indeed, as he dished up the cold pork and beans from the can with a side of canned store peaches. That was dinner. Allow me to elaborate. We had lots of other options, humble, perhaps, but stuff for real meals. While over the years, our fare during lean times might have been bread with gravy, bacon and beans, or potato soup (all delicious) because there wasn’t much else, we had never, I mean never, had cold food straight from the can. 

This wasn’t a case of me being a spoiled, entitled kid, it was a case of me, a shy kid at a critical social moment, being caught off guard by a mean person with an ax to grind for reasons I still don’t know. Mom was as mortified as me, but of course, held her tongue. My friend was a little surprised but very gracious. I kind of wanted to die.

 I obviously didn’t die.

But I also never invited that girl again, which was easy, because I’m sure she couldn’t get out of there fast enough the first time. Sheesh! If I’d only known the value of driving people away decades in the future, I suppose I’d have been grateful for my COVID-19 prep training. If they don’t come over, they can’t bring in them germs!

Seley Isolation/Distancing Lesson #2 was when I had a second BFF who shall remain nameless. We were in junior high and utterly inseparable. And while her family life was far from perfect (I discovered we didn’t corner the market on dysfunction; my dad was too handsy, among other things, but her dad got drunk and beat her), she was very ill-prepared for what my fabulous father had in mind for her. This gets tricky. To keep it short and not get too icky, he couldn’t “have” me (a subject for a future blog, I’m sure), so he thought she would do fine. And he wanted me to ask her

For reasons I hope are clear, I’ll vague-out here…I have my blog-blabbing limits, after all. But, no, his wishes did not come true. While she was very sympathetic toward me about the weirdness of it all, she obviously stayed clear of him after that, and things were never quite the same. If we’d had a pandemic right then, by golly, I would have been saved from getting too close to her. But at the time, it sucked.

Lesson #3 came when Daddy-o hit on the very first boyfriend whom I brought home (you can read that again, but you did read what you thought you read). Imagine my surprise. I guess the upside is that the cute boy came out years later and was very openly and happily gay; maybe he would have thanked my dad for helping him discover his sexuality? I don’t know. I’m happy for him. And, more importantly, I learned not to bring boys over for a long time and later, when I did, they were strictly supervised. I ensured they stayed at least 10 feet away from Dad. I instituted social distancing decades before COVID-19! My genius even astounds me sometimes!    

While I would gladly deal with my late bizarre father again right now if it meant eradicating the insidious COVID-19 from the planet, truth and perspective are important. Because of him, I was predisposed to living by our current safety guidelines way before I even knew how to spell “pandemic.” 

Finally, after all these years, I can say, “Thanks, Dad!”  

And boy, was that weird.

The Unholy Trinity of Chocolate Kisses, Training Bras, and Robert Goulet

What I remember about the place on Beech Street in Coffeyville, Kansas, was that it had two bedrooms for six people and, as a kindergartner, that seemed plenty big to me. 

We’d already moved all over the state during my short life but had landed back in Coffeyville (our hometown) for reasons I’ll never know. Although we’d lived in many homes before and after Beech Street, it was a memorable place.  

What I remember about that house was that we four kids shared a room, and I slept in a rollaway bed with my late sister who was six years older than me. There might or might not have been another bed; I just know my other sister and brother slept somewhere in there. I also remember sneakily eating chocolate kisses (a very rare commodity, so it must have been Christmas or something) and my mama suddenly appearing, insisting that I give her some sugar (if you are from certain parts of the country, you’ll know that means a kiss, not an actual sugar hand-off). I panicked, but she wouldn’t relent, and the minute I offered the tightest lipped, fastest kiss in history, she asked, oh-so-innocently, “Do I smell chocolate?” I was so busted. I also remember I was madly in love with the singer Robert Goulet (my first love), and instead of doing our assigned chores in our parents’ absence one day, my siblings all pretended to be Robert Goulet as I chased them around the tiny apartment in the throes of passion. I was busted, once again, as Dad came home unannounced at the most inopportune time. As he walked in, I was alone at the top of the entry stairs, arms in the air, screeching, “Robert Goulet!” Of course, we all got spankings, but I’ll never forget that moment of truth, which felt suspiciously like when, as an adult, you see police lights in the rearview mirror of your car. It sucks.

What my sister remembers about living on Beech Street is talking to the kids who lived below us on the ground floor through a hole in our closet floor. And speaking of floors, my brother remembers sleeping on the floor a lot in that house. 

But they both remember dad telling Mom he needed some “time to think” as he went away on a weekend trip with an 18-year-old girl he worked with, leaving Mom shattered. My brother remembers Dad returning with red patches on his elbows from when he was “thinking” in his motel room while he was away. My sister remembers that Dad was particularly out of control sexually in that house on Beech Street. And she also remembers something about him buying her first bras because he didn’t want her to be embarrassed in gym class as a girl who didn’t need a bra yet; she was confused because she wasn’t embarrassed about it to begin with. Obviously, someone had boobs on the brain, and it wasn’t her! And we all remember dad moving away to New Mexico with that teenager. Still, I didn’t feel the intense relief they did because, as I’ve made abundantly clear in previous blogs, his abuses were focused on my siblings while I was apparently eating chocolate and fantasizing about Robert Goulet. My sister remembers that he told our mom something ridiculous – or sick – or ridiculously sick – about the fact that he was a sex addict and that she and our late sister were getting “too old,” so he had to go. I don’t even want to spend a second analyzing that one. My brother remembers we were very, very poor after the old man left, having only Mom’s income, but he “embraced the poverty” as he collected pop bottles to help with money during the “glorious summer of hope” without Dad.  

And alas, we all remember moving from Kansas to New Mexico in an old VW Volkswagen with broken windows that our uncle helped Mom buy. I don’t know if Dad ditched the 18-year-old, if she ditched him, or if he just actually missed his family. I only know that he beckoned, and we went because that’s how it was. Not exactly the Brady Bunch, but apparently, we were a family package through thick and thin.  

So, that’s how I learned to be a better chocolate thief and to be more subtle, or at least timelier, with my romantic passions for Robert Goulet. And that’s why my sister probably packed bras she didn’t need when we moved. 

And why my brother learned that being super poor was better than a whole bunch of other things a kid shouldn’t know about. And that’s how we ended up on a Navajo reservation where I eventually thought I’d be eaten by werewolves.  

If that last line confuses you, refer to previous blog entry, Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies, Oh My! 

(http://tammyseleyelliott.com/2019/12/03/vampires-werewolves-and-zombies-oh-my/)

Otherwise, we’ll see you next time as we have an intense storytelling session involving a meal of pork and beans and peaches. For reals. 

You won’t want to miss it.

Our Father Which Art in his Recliner

Our Dad liked to hold court with his hatchlings sitting on the floor around his feet.  For the record, these were not wholesome Paw Walton kind of moments. I think you’ll agree.

Believe it or not, sometimes he would sing to us and while that sounds very cozy and “Sound of Music,” it was more awkward than anything else.  His voice wasn’t bad, but his attitude was so expectant and “cool cat,” we just sat with plastered smiles, wishing it would end.  But his mini-concerts were the most benign examples of those pow-wows.  When you get a load of the two most memorable sessions from my childhood catalog, you’ll see that at times we probably wanted him to break into a tune, any tune.

I was somewhere between four and six years old when one of these little meetings was his forum to inform us that he was God.  I don’t mean like something your drill instructor would say, “I’m your Mother, I’m your Father, I’m God for all practical purposes,” you know, a great movie line, scary stuff to troops, but audiences and G.I.s don’t think the hard-nosed sergeant means it literally.  Dad, however, presented it as a statement of fact and not in a kind, loving, biblical sense either.  Even as a very small child, I sensed the underlying threat and something I later qualified as egotism.  Sadly, I was so little, I was a bit in awe and was instantly “god-fearing.”  I recently checked with my two remaining siblings and discovered they were old enough at the time to know he was full of crap, and also old enough to have known to absolutely not suggest that idea to him.  They likely just smiled and nodded as I sat gaping at our own domestic deity. 

Before you whip out your DSM (diagnostic manual for mental disorders) and declare him a poor sick man, please know that none of us believe that he believed what he said.  A lifetime of examples boiled down to our conviction that he was not delusional but was a first-rate narcissist.  He was also a shameless opportunist with his children in the emotional sense and in countless physical instances with the other three kids.  Oops…did it again, dragged you down a rabbit hole!  Let’s move on to the slightly more disturbing second memory and, yes, I said more disturbing.  To me, anyway.

I was in the sixth grade when he called us together to congregate on his bedroom floor. After we were all in our places with big smiling faces, he announced with sad and saintly deportment that he was going to commit suicide.  Boy, we really could have used a couple of rounds of “Sound of Music” that afternoon – even a rousing rendition of “My Favorite Things” would have been bitchin’.  But, instead, we watched him (I say watched as opposed to listened because it was a performance deluxe) calmly explain to his offspring we’d be better off without him, and that we’d be happy as clams with his survivor’s benefits (which I now realize were few to none).  I remember our mom sitting dutifully next to him, exhausted and crying.  For me, that was the hardest part.  She just didn’t know how to counter this strange man whom she loved and served with a loyalty that only a woman of her generation and background could. 

The scene could be considered a cry for help, could be seen as the ramblings of a crazy dude.  But I guess you’d have to be there to see, to feel, the cool calculation.  The composure.  The this-ain’t-rightness of the whole thing.  And here’s the worst part: I think deep down, my siblings just wanted him to do it so he could never lay a hand on them again to siphon away what was left of their innocence.  And me, being the naïve sucker that I was, took the bait and pondered that maybe it would be cool to have money instead of him.  I was old enough to acknowledge we were not among the privileged and I understood the only reason we were on Welfare from time to time and always broke was because he quit working as his mood dictated. Mom worked as long as I can remember, but her wages were barely enough with four kids and a husband to house and feed.

Alas, because he was unreliable in all things, he randomly changed his course of action within a few days of his grave announcement, after we had all walked around on eggshells wondering when “it” was going to happen.  That was a weird time, I’m telling you.  This was pre-suicide hotline; it was when families kept their dirty little secrets. I hope I speak accurately when I say we all felt a degree of guilt that we were not relieved when he didn’t follow through, when he had the nerve to stay alive.  Hard to blame kids when he, a natural salesman, made such a compelling pitch for his own demise.  For years I felt secret guilt at my own disappointment over his survival. It was dark and it was confusing.

But then I realized what a cruel thing he’d done to us, that I was actually not the most awful and selfish human alive.  It’s pretty pathetic that what he really wanted was for us to beg him not to do it. But we didn’t beg him not to do it and if he had gone through with it, we would have cried because Mom cried, and we would have been sad because we really did love him. But deep in our souls, we might also have been singing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.” 

Basically, he transferred his demons to us, or tried to, and I suppose in some senses it worked.  But in the long run, not so much. 

Crazy? You betcha! Severely mentally ill? We think not.  Certainly not mentally well, but he was always able to make choices and did so with brilliant and manipulative forethought. To quote my older, although not necessarily wiser brother (I put that in there just to see if he actually reads these things, and because it’s true), our father was the perfect storm between cowardice and selfishness.  And we were just the poor schmucks caught in the storm.

The good news, and this is important, is while we all had to acclimate to the real world, we turned out fine.  It took longer for a couple of us to figure things out, but we emerged from that very long weather phenomenon known as “Dad,” fully armed to face any storm life had to offer.  We are smart, adaptable, reasonably successful, and at least one of us is pretty damn attractive and was also Mom’s favorite.  And with that line, I’ll hit “publish” and wait to see if either of them reads their kid sister’s blog.  Ready, set…go!