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!

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!