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.

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!