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.  

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!