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!

And Then There’s the One about The Lord’s Prayer and the Killer Table Saw

When I was a kid, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance.  Not so strange, right?  Except where I went to school in the second grade, we followed it with the Lord’s Prayer.  I honestly thought it was all one spiel.

Imagine, if you will, a shorter, rounder version of me randomly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at home (for no particular reason, I’m sure).  I linked the pledge and the prayer with no fore- or afterthought; “…with liberty and justice for all. Our Father, which art in heaven…”

You don’t need to imagine what happened next, because I’m fixin’ to tell you, and here it is. My Dad, a man with zero social conscience (you’ll have to trust me on this one, I could fill pages with supporting evidence), a rebel without a cause, a sometimes-employed ad salesman, instantly transformed into a man so incensed by the mixture of church and state that he began a great debate with my school. But let me be clear, he did this by sending written notes through me (arguably the shyest child on the planet) to my school administrators.  How’s that for backbone?  He demanded they stop the practice which violated my constitutional rights – he was incorrect, by the way, as it is not specifically addressed in the Constitution, it is instead a philosophic and jurisprudential concept – but even that isn’t as important as the fact that I didn’t care about this supposed violation of my rights as much as I cared about the unbelievable position I was in as a terrified new kid forced to fight my dad’s battles.  I think that even as a little girl I understood it had nothing to do with the man’s core beliefs and I like to think that if it had, I would have sensed it and been a little less humiliated, and that, of course, if he really believed it all, he would have wielded his own sword and not handed it to an unwitting, stupefied kid.  I think I knew it had less to do with principles than audacity as he had few of the former and lots of the latter.  What?  Oh, the story, the story.  Sorry.  So, here’s what happened next.

The compromise between him and the school was that every morning, I had to step outside the classroom (which in that particular school was OUTSIDE) while the rest of the class droned out the pledge-prayer, probably not getting the meaning of either any more than I had, but they and I “got” the fact that I had been singled out.  And not in a good way.  I realized much later that if Dad truly believed his assertions, that this “solution” did not solve anything and that it created a very real problem for his bashful daughter, but that somehow never factored into his short-lived need to make the world a better place.  He never followed up, never sought to see if my later schools did the same thing, never asked me how I felt about it.

Of course, I survived the incident which, in the big scheme of things of Seley-life under a microscope, was really very, very minor.  But wait!  There’s more!  Of course, there is.  He was nothing if not predictable.

Fast forward to me in seventh grade (another town, another state, of course) and I had signed up for wood shop.  I had already started class and was getting into it when Dad slithered from beneath the rock he’d frequented more and more over the years, long enough to suggest that it was grossly irresponsible of the school to put me at the helm of potentially life threatening wood-working equipment; I guess I missed out on the news reports of hundreds of children being maimed and killed in the time-honored junior high wood shops of America.  Anyway, yes, you guessed it, with me as a deeply humiliated carrier of his ranting notes, he challenged the practice, insisting that they guarantee my safety or a fat check to cover the medical bills if they failed to do so (he had his priorities, after all).  If they didn’t agree, I was to be transferred immediately from the class.  I’ll never forget the look in the eyes of my very respected, very experienced shop teacher, Mr. Staack, as he signed off on my transfer and I fought back tears of embarrassment.  I later realized that, as before, if my father was genuinely concerned about the school policy, my removal from the class would have only been the beginning.  But, as before, it was the end.  I was ashamed, didn’t understand the fight, and Dad could beat his chest in victory from the safety of home.

In retrospect, considering the scope of his other actions, these incidents were so small, they hardly mattered.  I wasn’t hurt, I was safe (as always) from his most vile behaviors, and no one really cared but me.  And, I assure you, I got over it.  But as I looked over my list of much crazier ideas to share in this blog, these events stood out because I suddenly asked myself why he did this stuff.  And the answer was swiftHe did it because he could.  It was low hanging fruit for a control freak whose self-interest trumped all else, and these things must have popped up when he was feeling otherwise impotent. 

He did it because he could.  And that’s why I’m telling this story.  Because I can.  And now I have. Neener, neener, neener!  Immature, perhaps, but soooo gratifying!

If you’ll excuse me, now I’m going to go recite the good ol’ Pledge of Allegiance and tack on the dang Lord’s Prayer.  And I’m going to do it as I use a table saw — unsupervised!  Why?  Because I can!

Dad, Mommy Dearest, and The Great Santini

Once upon a time, on the Navaho reservation outside of Gallup New Mexico, we lived in an old adobe house with a leaky roof. It was there that I learned that when it rained inside, the natural response is to place a pan or bowl on the floor to catch the water. I also became accustomed to the strangely comforting percussion sounds of the house-wide dripping.

It was our first exposure to living in a desert, having just moved from Kansas, and for kids whose parents worked all day, it was paradise. After our chores, we were free to roam the desert, and we learned all about rattlesnake avoidance, horned toads, and rock climbing. This was in the era before bike helmets, child vitamins, or electronic kid tracking; helicopter parents of today would wonder how we survived.

If you’ve read my previous blogs, it won’t surprise you that, in many respects, we were probably safer outside than beneath the leaky roof. The gaudy plaid-suited salesman who doubled as man of the house ensured that the great outdoors, dangerous rock crevices and poisonous snakes aside, was often a better bet. Besides his bad fashion sense, sometimes he just wasn’t very nice.

The little adobe house was the first place I remember Dad throwing his notorious fits, Great Santini style. It was all our fault, you know, for stuff like not getting the dishes clean enough. Poorly made beds were also grave offenses. Of course. Right?  Right. At least according to Dad, Mommy Dearest, and the Great Santini.

The kitchen indiscretions resulted in dramatic rants as every dish, glass, and pan in the house was yanked out (unless it was catching rainwater). Next, the poor suckers who were on dish duty had to wash, dry, and put everything away for inspection. Often, none of us kids could see the offending speck on the plate or saucer, but as you might have guessed, there was no appeal process. The bedroom delinquencies resulted in his tearing our rooms apart, bedding was ripped off, clothes thrown onto the floor – you get the picture. Then, like the kitchen, it had to be reassembled to his satisfaction. No biggie, it was just an occasional Seley family activity, kind of like doing a puzzle, only not as fun.

I remember little else from that house other than catching tons of tadpoles from the huge puddles when it rained, my siblings and I pretending we were the Monkeys (the band, not the primates) and performing on the little back porch, and my mom crying sometimes for reasons we didn’t understand. As always, I wasn’t privy to the thing that made my siblings cry, but they also weren’t privy to the funniest and most time-enduring thing that happened to me in that house.

Dad realized that at the age of seven-ish, I had no idea how to tell time and he harassed me for not being able to do this mysterious thing. Maybe he figured out it had something to do with our changing schools so much that I missed the magic tell-time lesson and felt badly. Regardless of his motivations, he took it upon himself to teach me right then and there. Unfortunately, the only wall clock we had was a funny bar clock. I’m not sure what was funnier about it, the fact that my parents didn’t drink much, let alone have a bar, or the fact that the numbers were backwards on the clock face, which was on a backdrop of a drunk leaning on a lamppost. Let me repeat, the numbers were backwards; they went counterclockwise (no pun intended). Yes, he taught me on that clock. It was just him and me; him impatient, and me anxious and terrified of some possible Santini action if I didn’t catch on. But, alas, it worked; I learned. I learned to tell time backwards.

 To this day, when I glance at a clock, I sometimes see nine o’clock instead of three o’clock, etc.

These are the things I learned from living in the leaky adobe house:

  • Unless you’re into water-percussion, live under a good roof.
  • Use a dishwasher, so you can remain blameless.
  • Never let a crazy man in a loud plaid suit inspect your bedroom.
  • And for the love of God, only use digital clocks (unless you want to show up six hours early or late because of a random childhood encounter with a backwards bar clock). 

Bad Santa Goes AWOL

Christmas in the Seley house.  If you’ve read previous blogs, you might expect something less than “White Christmas;” not so “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Maybe something more like “Bad Santa.”

But, ironically, not so.  Maybe “A Christmas Story” would be the best comparison; you know, quirky and kind of funny-weird, but not bad. The things that happened as a matter of abnormalcy (I made that word up and am sticking with it!) and with scary frequency in our lives, seemed to evaporate at Christmas.  Mom would have made most days better if she could have, but Dad, who seemed to have made it his life’s work to screw up the lives of his offspring, became Father Christmas at Christmastime.  How can I find fault with that?

I did take little-kid-exception to the year he sat us all at his feet (he liked this forum) and announced that for Christmas that year we would all only get one gift; my sisters would get a car to share, my brother, a motorcycle, and me, a pony!  I suppose the reason I’m the only one who remembers this is because I was the only one who believed him! Of course, I believed him!  He was Dad!

My siblings were teenagers by then and probably blew it off as another pile of you-know-what; of course, they knew things about him, pretty awful stuff, that I did not. Thus, in my silly naivete, I was crushed when Christmas came without the car, motorcycle, or pony.  Of course, the facts that we lived in a trailer, had one car, and barely enough money to get by, were just not on my radar.  I was pretty bummed.  Yes, I know, this is a first-world problem.  No one starved, everyone lived.  And I pouted.

In case I haven’t gathered enough sympathy points yet, that was the same trailer, if not the same Christmas, when he let me know, rather rudely, on Christmas Day, that there was no Santa. I might have recovered, maybe, if about ten minutes after the stunning, smirky news (“What? You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?” You get one guess as to my shocked, tearful answer), I was moping around and suddenly realized if there was no Santa, then what about the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and…well, you get the picture.  That Christmas sucked!  But again, not “Lifetime Movie” worthy, even by a stretch. Stuff happens, and sometimes it happens on Christmas.

The truth is (and my siblings agree) that our Christmases were good.  No idea where the money came from, but they always came through with something to make us feel special and loved.  The food and goodies, all homemade, were amazing, and I think we all try to mimic the same menus in our homes today. It may have been humble by other folks’ standards, but that hardly mattered when Mom and Dad managed to make four kids love Christmas almost every year. 

Ironically, the one year that they almost didn’t pull it off might be our best Christmas story ever.  At that time, we all lived in a one-bedroom motel efficiency (yes, you did your math right, six people, one-bedroom motel unit).  We had a little tree and little else, including no working car.  This was in Meridian, Idaho; I was in the fifth grade and my siblings were in junior high and high school.  As we sat around the tiny television on Christmas Eve, we heard sleigh bells (stick with me here…we really did!) right outside our room.  We opened the door to find a couple from a local church ringing the bells.  They had gifts, goodies…and an old, but working car.  No, I’m not sh-tting you.  I remember we had to keep the windows of that car open because exhaust came through the vents…but it worked.  True story. Christmas saved by the kindness of others.  I can only imagine my parents’ relief! Magical stuff…not only Lifetime Network, but Hallmark worthy!

These things do a lot to explain that I am something of a Christmastime freak.  My husband swears he had to sign a clause (no pun intended) stating that he was, indeed, marrying an elf.  I’m OK with that.  I don’t think I realized the true reason for my excitement, hopes, and over-the-top decorating, until I was coming up with this blog.  In a roller coaster childhood with a lot of darkness and blind curves, there was one time of year that I could almost always count on for the good guys to win. And depending on what you believe, Christmas is a reminder that we all can win.

Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it.  Happy-your-holiday, if you don’t.  Regardless of what this time of year means to you, I wish you peace, and if only for a moment, a little magic.

Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies, Oh My!

My introduction to insomnia happened when I was ten. I had the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Cecilia,” playing in my head all night. In my head. All night.  I still feel anxious when I hear that song; it was one of the longest nights of my life. And unfortunately, that night turned into about a year-long debacle.

So, why would a song by one of the greatest singer-song-writer pairs ever throw a little girl into a year of fear and no sleep? 

As it turns out, it wasn’t the song, it was the timing. You see, my older sisters had just gotten their drivers’ licenses, along with permission to haul their younger siblings to the local drive-in movie, sans parents. No parents meant no censorship, and teenaged deciders meant scary movies. Lots of them. I’m not sure if that was the summer of vampires, werewolves, and zombies, but I swear those were the only movies we saw.

We took hot-dogs from home, wrapped in foil, mustard on the buns. I was always stuck in the back seat with my brother, who, to me, always had funky breath anyway, and when he ate mustard? Well, he had funky mustard breath.

So, starting with that first night, probably after hearing “Cecilia” on the radio, it stuck in my head – and believe me, she was breaking my heart, shaking my confidence daily. That night, lying awake, I could smell putrid mustard breath as werewolves lurked just outside my window, vampires salivating in every shadow. It didn’t help that we lived on a Navajo Indian reservation in Gallup, New Mexico. I’d heard legends of the Native American versions of werewolves and just knew that increased my odds of being mauled right there in my tiny bed.

This was one of only two times in my many childhood dwellings that I had my own room. We lived in a single-wide trailer with two itty-bitty rooms, assigned to my brother and me, and an elevated room over us, where my sisters slept together. Yep, it just figured that the year I would have sold my soul to bunk with any of my siblings, I was stuck there, alone with my terror. Well, not totally alone; I had two guppies named Liver and Onions, but they weren’t concerned about monsters.

Nightly, I’d creep into my siblings’ rooms, waking them with trembling whispers.

 “What now?” They’d respond, annoyed, sleepy.

“I’m scared.” I don’t even know why they continued the conversation. It never changed, nor did the results.

What are you scared of?” They’d ask, never even opening their eyes.

Everything!” I’d say emphatically, desperate for someone to let me stay. I’m not sure why I thought I’d be any safer in their beds. I’m pretty sure, in retrospect, that a werewolf or vampire would have preferred a multi-kid-smorgasbord to a one-child snack.

They’d say whatever it took to get rid of me. And thus, I’d go back to my hobbit hole of horror, just as scared…and defeated. And alone.

Needless to say, I was never visited by any of the creatures I feared. I was never visited at all. 

As eluded to in previous blog entries (with not-so-shadowy foreshadowing), my siblings were visited by a monster before and after my “year of fear.” But their monster lived right there in our home. He lived in all our other houses too. But he wasn’t as easily sent away as I was. And, unlike my monsters, he was very real.

Once again, I was the lucky one.

Disclaimer: I love Simon and Garfunkel and all their other songs. And in the spirit of inclusion and diversity, I have no prejudices against werewolves (werepeople?), vampires, or zombies.

 OK, that’s not true. I’d run over a house to get to a zombie…but that’s a whole ‘nuther blog entry. 

New Sheriff vs. Baby: Light Switch Brawl

My first post in this series was about my first memory, at about a year old, of my dad’s return from prison, where he’d been for my whole short life. Most kids feel special when singled out by a parent, but since my dad knew how long he’d been out of the “pen” by subtracting one year from my age, my existence always seemed inexorably linked to his being an ex-convict. So special! Kind of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy all over. 

A memory from that early time that I don’t have, became family legend; it involved my dad and me. It was shortly after his return, and we kept the whole house up when he made it clear there was a new sheriff in town, and I was breaking the law. Of course, I was a one-year-old and didn’t even know what the hell a sheriff was, didn’t know why this stranger thought he was in charge, and certainly had no idea why he lorded over light switches! 

As my story began in Coffeyville, Kansas, thus did the great light switch brawl. As the legend goes, the new dad/sheriff-guy turned off the light when I was put to bed. As the legend continues, I stood up in my crib/playpen thing and was just able to reach the switch, which I promptly flipped back on. Of course, I did; why wouldn’t I? Now I don’t know if my mom let me sleep with the light on before his return, if I just wasn’t sleepy, or if I was showing impressively early signs of rebellion. Still, it must have been quite an ordeal as I’ve heard the story repeatedly in the years since. And on it went; he turned the light back off. I turned the light back on. He would not be challenged, therefore, over my mother’s protests, he spanked me. I cried. Satisfied that I got the message, he turned the light off and left the room.

I turned the light on. 

Rinse and repeat. 

Apparently, they all thought he was going to spank me to death, and everyone was crying, including my mom (excluding the new sheriff, of course). Obviously, I survived.

Over the years, I concocted my own memory of the thing. I know it’s fake because I can see myself, diaper butt and all, standing and straining to push the switch up. And because it’s my version of the story, Dad thinks it’s cute, doesn’t spank me, and I win. I really do like my version best…but there’s that whole truth thing that gets in the way every time I try to tell it. Dang it.

I guess what makes it so ironic is that in later years, I rarely defied him. Also, funny, but not in the hee-hee sense, is that while our light switch skirmish was the first sign that the Dad’s-home-honeymoon period was over, it was the mildest of the family adjustments. While he came to my room to dominate the lighting, he had other plans for my three siblings, who weren’t much older than me; light switches and spankings were not factors. Their encounters were much more private; no funny family stories for them. I have so often wished I could have adjusted their truth, the way I have mine.

Yep. I guess light switch wars made me the lucky one. And for the record…I am now the light switch queen. I flip switches willy-nilly at all hours. And because those days are over, I don’t worry about what’s going on when the switch is down.

The Flagpole House

We lived in so many places as I grew up, it’s a little hard to keep track. While making notes for this blog, it suddenly seemed as if I had blocked out a few years between kindergarten and the fourth grade; that would include a few towns and schools. To be honest, big blank spots in my past is nothing new. While I did live in the sixties, I don’t have the excuse many others have for mild altering recreation…having been born in 1960, it was the first decade of my life, after all. Probably the strongest thing I took was cough syrup, and I never wore a single tie-died skirt or joined a commune. Oh…did it again, huh? I digressed.

 Anyway, while the reasons I have so many black holes in my past may be up for discussion (and will most certainly be a topic for future blogs), that multi-year gap concerned me. After initiating a group FB-Messenger conversation with my remaining siblings, my sister and brother quickly cleared up my gap. The discussion ensued with a trip down memory lane (all via Messenger); while it was fun for us, the contents would likely mortify your average eavesdropper. You know, stuff like “Oh yeah, that’s where I walked in on Dad with (fill in the woman’s name).” And, “with” with our dad did NOT mean playing checkers. Another line: “I think (fill in a town) is about the time he started (fill-in-the-blank-ing) me…” Again, not checkers.

But the coolest part of that conversation is that although I am the youngest, I remembered something my brother had forgotten but loved. I remembered a schoolyard and a flagpole, although I wasn’t even in school yet. I remembered my siblings taking me (probably dragging me) the few blocks to their school, where there was flagpole at the top of, what, according to my four-year-old memory, was a massive hill. Because we only went when school wasn’t in session, the flag was down, so the lanyard swung free. Thus, my siblings would use it to swing out over the hill, drop and roll down. Now that I’m a mom, this terrifies me almost as much as it scared me then. I’m pretty sure I peed my pants as I mimicked them so they wouldn’t call me a sissy – not that either occurrence was that unusual. You know, me peeing my pants, or being called a sissy by my older sisters and brother. In any case, my brother was delighted with the memory, and I quote him, “I LOVED that flagpole!” That made the whole conversation worthwhile. 

Later, the gray cleared a little in my mind, and I remembered that the house by the flagpole school was also the house where I first walked in on my dad not-playing-checkers with a woman. It wasn’t particularly X-rated; they were on the couch and had their clothes on, but even at four, I knew it probably wasn’t something I should tell my mother who was, of course, at work.

I also remembered that as the first house we were all told to hide behind the furniture, as the lights were doused when certain people were at the door. As a little kid, I thought it was kind of fun…but once I was an adult and learned what “bill collectors” were, I surmised it was less fun for everyone older than me, especially Mom. 

Lots of memories for that house in Leavenworth, Kansas, on Ottawa street, especially since we probably didn’t even live there a year. It was just a stop, somewhere along the way.

My Earliest Memory

My earliest memory is of crawling. Just me on my hands and knees, on what could only have been linoleum (get up close and personal with linoleum, you’ll know what I mean). It’s kind of like in the movies with that tunnel vision lens-thing going on. I can see the world from the height of a crawling infant; the same view, I suppose, is shared by cats and small dogs. But I digress.

While I know now there had to be a world more than a foot above my head, in my memory, I have no concept of this. There is just the world I see, the coldness of the floor, the voices, and my intent.

The voices must have been those of my parents, although too young to understand words, oddly, I can remember that I could assign meaning to the sounds. Yeah, I know that sounds pretty new-age-y, woo-woo. But in one’s memory, assessments like that are immaterial. After all, in your mind, you are there

I am a baby. Again, I can’t talk yet, let alone understand what is being said. But I know my mom’s voice, of course, and the other voice is new and different. It is a man’s voice, and although I won’t get the whole male/female, Mars/Venus business at least until I can, you know, feed myself, tie my shoes and maybe even whistle, I know there is something very different here. I don’t understand people’s energy yet (obviously), but somehow, I know in my baby heart that the energy has changed in our house.

This new voice — it has legs. They are all I can see from my vantage point, but I know the legs belong to the new voice. So, I crawl beneath the voice, between ankles and feet, until I come out the other side. And even at that young age, I meant to be cute and was delighted when I heard laughter…which told me it had worked. They laughed; I kept crawling and, I guess I thought this would all be good — this thing with the new voice — laughing along with my mom, and all. 

I asked my mother, years later, about this recollection I’d had over and over; it was so real I didn’t believe it was a dream.

She remembered it, too; I had been a year old, and I was, indeed, crawling beneath my father’s stance. We had been in the kitchen of our tiny home. It was the home my mom, my three older siblings and I had lived in for the past months. I still don’t know how she kept a roof over our heads, although I’m sure our grandma and aunts helped make sure we ate. But at the end of the day, it had all been on Mama. And that was because from the time I was a week old, my dad, the guy with the legs, was in prison.

Mom told me that she was sure my earliest memory was of the day he came home.