Feigning sleep

First memories, very first memories, fragile like a whistle in a wind.  In the Paxton place I slept upstairs in a room above the folks’ bed, alone the first few years of my life.  I remember my father disappearing down the steps after leaving me there crying.

Interior picture of Paxton

But I was a difficult child, I was told, always into everything, never sitting still, or perhaps I was one-year-old and being weened, the age when Mom weened each one of us.  My youngest brother wailed all night, sobbed pitifully.  Stories were told about my older brother bawling about horseys while imitating one. Sobbing and neighing merging.

I was born before my dad returned from the service, but no memory indicates a fear of him at this young age.  A longing, yes, but no fear.  Perhaps that too became reshaped and submerged.

A storm, a possible tornado, something forced my father one night to ascend into the cubicle that was my bedroom.  I feigned sleep when I heard him come up the stairs, and became limp  and kept my eyes shut when he picked me up, and remained so as we descended, my body wrapped by my father’s arms.  I remember bustle and hurried shouts from my mother as we left the front porch door and scurried around to the cellar. And I remember warmth, the smell of tobacco and the heady smell of the farm that emanated from his shirt.

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Empathy

One Saturday afternoon I drove from Omaha, Nebraska,  to Council Bluffs, Iowa,  to pick up my aunt Bobby and take her to visit her husband, my mother’s brother, in a nursing home on the Bluffs’ east side.   I had geared myself for a visit.  I dislike very much the walk towards the glass doors of a nursing home and the inordinate strength it seems to take to open them. There the desolate furnishings in the waiting room reinforced my lack of willingness to engage with those sitting in vinyl chairs around the perimeter, at tables playing solitaire, or in corners watching television.  I’m sure that after they have endured years and months of being ignored, as old ones usually are, their attitudes towards visitors like me are ones of indifference.

It’s not the residents themselves that bother me, or the sickening mix of medication, Pine-Sol and bleach that arches the nostrils as soon as the door opens; but the warehousing of people, what it says about this stage of life, what it demands of a couple who have been married so many years–separate and then fade into death, what it will say about my own latter years, the lack of a spouse who might have or might not have visited, children, who like me, reluctant to come, drive by without stopping.  It takes courage and a certain faith in something beyond.

On one of the many weekends as my parents aged that I spent in Manilla, Iowa, visiting the folks, my father at this time a resident of Manilla Manor, I took my mother somewhere.   I don’t remember exactly where or why.  Maybe it was to  Elkhorn to visit Aunt Beulah, my father’s sister, who was beginning to lose her sight, as were my father and mother.  My father’s lazy eye growing stronger as his other eye lost vision; my mother’s ever-present use of eye drops to treat glaucoma.  I’m not looking forward to my cataracts being removed next year, for when Mom’s were, the anesthesia had worn off by the time the doctor began cleaving.

As we headed back through Harlen on Hwy. 44, my mother asked me to stop at the nursing home so she could visit a friend.  We parked on the south side and entered the main door.  No one to greet us, as if there should have been.   Mom knew where she wanted to go, heading straight down the hallways, excited about seeing an old friend.  After a little jog, clear down one long beige corridor, turn right, then down another beige corridor.  Finally to a room on the left. But the bedcovers were snapped tight, the chairs empty, no television running, her friend, absent.  We tracked down a caretaker who said Mom’s friend was visiting family.  On the way back through the long corridors, we saw a small women dressed in shades of gray and brown, thin but not skeletal, wiry, her hands frantically wheeling her wheelchair, aiming for mother.  She grabbed my mother’s hand and pulled Mom towards her, begging, “Tell me who I am.  Tell me who I am. Please tell me who I am.”  Mom tried to extricate herself from the woman’s grip by caressing her hands to calm her.  The woman’s wheelchair erratic as the woman pulled my mom closer to her.  I remember the woman’s brown loafers and white ankle socks as she scurried her feet along the floor, the rests for the feet bumping into mother’s legs.  We were by a lounge, so Mom maneuvered the woman and herself there, while I tried to rescue my mother from the woman’s grasp; but no one came to our aid.  All the while, the woman frantically begged for her name.

That incident unnerved me.  My fear of having only senses but no knowledge of my history, for as I age, memory is my only comfort.  For now at least, I know I have a past, I had dreams, and squandered some, if not most.

From the little of what I overheard about Roy and Bobby, their married life was not always pleasant; the family life, as are most, fraught with those struggling to extricate with those who control.  From what I suspect, Roy demanded and Bobby responded passively.  But in gatherings of relatives there was little evidence of discord.  At the end of their lives, Bobby could not take care of Roy anymore in their home.  As is often with those with ill spouses, she desired a little peace, time enough to sleep until she woke up, not to be in the kitchen preparing a meal, not be at demand, for she too needed care.

It was in the spring of my junior year of high school, when I had enough sense to count backwards and realize that my mother was one month pregnant with me when the folks married.  I know my ignorance sounds improbable; but I never even considered that my mother and father had to get married, and I never doubted the love they had for each other.  I only remember one argument, if three days of silence can be called an argument.  Recently, however, my older sister told me that she came across a note Mom had hidden under the oil tablecloth, one that indicated that Mom was upset with Dad.  If disagreements were more than those sporadic, like many couples I know, I never felt as if my world was falling apart because of the way they treated each other, as I’m sure my children did during my divorcing their father.

Improbable or not, I never knew that my mother was pregnant with my little brother, who is fifteen years younger than I, until a classmate told me that she heard my mother was going to have a baby.  I remember saying, “She is?”  I’m absolutely sure that my classmate thought I had the brains of a gnat.  My youngest brother, the youngest of five children, was born a month later.

I suppose it was in the spring of my junior year, for I didn’t have on a coat, and the house was warm.  For some reason, as there usually is between mothers and teenage daughters, Mom and I were having some difficulties.  I don’t remember what for.  Stuck on that farm with my dad refusing to teach me to drive, and being someone who struggled to fit in a new school, not driving meant I was at the mercy of my parents.  When I stepped inside the kitchen after walking up the lane from the bus, Mom was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, at times a daily task for her considering how much mud can be tracked in on a farm.  Cleaning staved off memories for her, I believe, for she often said it kept her from thinking.  When I confronted her about her and Dad having to get married, she never rose up off her knees.  But when she raised her head to look at me and sat back on her heels, the rag in her hand, ready to rinse and ring it out in the wash water and scrub another patch, she was crying.  All she said was, “Wait until your dad gets home.”  A good threat then.

After Aunt Bobby’s and my visit to see Uncle Roy, Aunt Bobby and I sat in her living room and drank coffee.  We talked about cousins, about Larry who is one month older than I, Bobby and Mom pregnant at the same time.  Both Roy and my dad were in the service.  Dad never left the states because of his lazy eye; Roy served in Italy for sure, and most likely other places. When Bobby went into labor, various Bargenquast women would take turns sitting with her.  Labor then was not like it is now with classes on relaxation and the drugs for pain.  Not even oxygen.  But when mother’s turn came to sit, my mom cried so much during Bobby’s contractions that Bobby had to comfort my mother.

When Bobby told me that, I thought about all the times I saw my mother’s tears as she read letters, as she listened to sad tales, even mine.  And I thought about what it meant to be a pregnant woman in 1943 and have to get married, the feeling of being imperfect, the fear of being ostracized.  I thought about my mother having lost her first husband and having a child age 11 when I was born and giving birth to me in a nursing home without my father around.

 

Soap

Not much I remember about my kindergarten year at Jefferson, or even if I attended an entire year, or a year and six months or so.  When tenant farmers move, they move the first of March: enough time to settle in before plowing the fields, harrowing, seeding; enough time to cut potatoes into sections, each with an eye, and tramp them eye down in holes a foot apart, in rows two to three feet apart; enough time to prepare a brooder house for chicks, to settle in heifers to calf or to gather the ones born too early in the season and move them into heated pens at the new place.  We moved to the Beh place either the spring of my kindergarten year or the spring of my first grade.  My oldest brother was born when I was five, and I turned six in the spring of kindergarten.  More than likely I did not finish kindergarten at Jefferson.

I do remember being betrayed. Of course, the betrayal had more to do with my actions than the teacher’s.  If we were lucky students then, a teacher in a country school might have four years of college in a normal school.  Most likely, two was enough for a woman to gain a certificate for teaching.  Sometimes, the only qualification that a teacher had was that she graduated from high school.  My older sister, when she returned from Washington, D.C., was asked to teach in a country school when the teacher fell ill.  Not pregnant, but ill, for pregnant teachers were thought to expose young children to the harshness of existence.  That prescription did not leave education until the late 1970s.

In a box of pictures, I have a black and white of Jefferson’s country school teacher and me sitting on a blanket in our front lawn.  Behind her is a decorative woven-wire fence, crunched in places, to her right, my left, a lilac bush, a mainstay of rural lawns.   She faced the camera while I sat beside her.  Probably the photo was taken in August or early September, right after school started.  If Mom prepared for her visit, as she did for anyone else’s, everything had to be clean and there must be lunch, more than likely sandwiches and lemonade.  I’m sure we sat outside because the interior of our home spoke poverty. I don’t remember her visit, except what it appears to be in that picture.

Life on any farm is hard, labor intensive. Sweating becomes something that one does in spite of oneself. Salt pills are taken to keep in moisture when out in the field or gardening. On a farm, livestock don’t behave as they should, especially if one is loading them onto trucks for slaughter.  Fruit jars don’t seal, meals are burnt, milk spilt.  As an result, an occasionally swear word seeps out or is spit out of the corner of a mouth by either parent. My mother and father never used words that demeaned a person’s background or suggested sex in any way, but an occasionally swear word that invoked the name of God would ride on the summer air or hiss in the steam of a wood stove. My mother often swore in low German, never explaining to us the jest of what she said.  If Dad understood, he went on about his business, perhaps grinning a little.

One morning at school, I said the word damn. I suppose it was in imitation of a parent, for no television back then; only the radio–the words vibrating there conformed to Rockwell’s paintings. Almost immediately I was singled out, embarrassed, maybe duly, taken into the coat room where the teacher, the one who had visited our farm house that autumn, on a day during which canning was set aside while tomatoes ripened in wire baskets, in a house with fresh, stretched, and starched lace curtains, my parents’ iron bed in the same room as the dining table and the player piano, to find out who I was, and who sipped my mother’s lemonade and probably ate cheese and baloney sandwiches on Mom’s homemade white bread, washed my mouth out with pink soap.

Jefferson Township

Jefferson, the little country school about a mile north and a little east of the Paxton place, the one where I spent kindergarten, is no more; but I can still see its iconic structure, black trim with white wooden siding, shaded by huge elms and pines on two sides, a ways back from the roads on the south and the west.  Beautiful white steps, three, it seemed to me, and a playground to the east, the side that if I could move in time I would gaze at the house on the hill that we lived in during part of my sophomore and junior year, the Botna place.  I don’t know to whom we paid rent for that place.  If it existed now as it did then, it would have to be condemned by county officials, I’m sure.

The entryway was a strange geometric space. The opening to the main room where we were taught and where Christmas pageants was at a diagonal, the door only shut during blizzards and cold winds.  There was no door that set off the coat room from the rest of the school.   We would walk directly in the coat room, take off our five-buckle overshoes, if we had them on, which was always advisable, set them with their heels against the wall under the coat rack, and then hang up our coats on the pegs. A small pedestal sink with pink soap in a cradle by the faucet was on the far side of the coatroom, next to another opening that led into the one-room classroom.

At Jefferson there was only one Christmas pageant of which I was a part as were all of the other students.  Every year the students put on a Christmas show for our parents and siblings, friends, and neighbors: acting and singing, carols, games, deserts after. I  don’t think it was that Christmas pageant in which I first acted but it could have been, but I do have memories of singing “Silent Night” for every Christmas pageant except the sixth-grade one at Greeley.  The parents snuck in gifts to put under the tree as if Santa Claus magically appeared and disappeared with a nod.  That one Christmas  the only thing that I remember was this toy, a pull toy of a wooden black dog with some white spots, not a dalmatian, more like a dachshund.  It was about a foot long, its body a slinky, a string on its nose that I held onto as I pulled it around the room.  I delighted in its clackling legs.  I was my mom and dad’s first born.  My oldest sister was my mother’s from her first husband, a husband who died from tuberculosis. Betty was not at the party, as far as I can remember.

Years later in Sioux Falls, soon after leaving my second husband, after an afternoon of garage sailing, I stopped at this one house south of McKennan Park.  My children weren’t with me, thank god.  I parked on the east side of the street and walked across into an older garage with a cracked cement floor.  Some of the items for sale were vintage toys: a metal top, the more you pumped it, the faster it would go; a slinky dog like the one I received at Christmas; old play trucks and cars.  There in the middle of that garage as I stood in front of the black slinky toy dog displayed on a chest-high table, I experienced a completely disorientating anxiety attack, one that resulted in my not remembering who or where I was.  All I knew is that I had to leave.  I stared out the opening and recognized my car, but instead of walking towards it, I backed out of the garage; then turned around and ran to my car.  Once inside I locked the door.  The separation and the impending divorce were harrowing, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the anxiety attack.  Something had happened to me as a child and the toy that I had, something that only exists in the far reaches of my memory, unable to be touched or witnessed again.

Scar

On the Botna place, we didn’t have a phone, not one at the Paxton place either.  At the Beh place, three rings and a short on a party line. Seven on that party line, I’m pretty sure.  With a hand over the mouthpiece, one could eavesdrop on conversations of the other six.   Mom listened in, not often but enough to know superficially what went on within a mile.  The wall oak telephone at the Beh place was on the south wall of the kitchen above the old trunk Mom bought at an auction, one that served as a place to store wood; at one time, a lamb, often runt pigs. The operator for all the lines was in Irwin.  The telephone operator’s place was on Main Street in Irwin, right down at the bottom of the hill on the west side, next to a confectionery store or a bar, not sure.  If we were in town during the day, I would sometimes go into her place and watch her insert one cord in one line and flip a switch and ring so that two could talk. I found the contraption amazing.  Not always busy, she was; so in between times, she would swivel around on the oak stool and visit with me. An emergency would wake her up in the middle of the night, so one had to be sure before bothering her.

Mother could call others on our party line without having to connect with the operator–two shorts, three shorts and a long, whatever. We kids only talked on the phone when given permission. Dad seldom did. Crank the handle once for the operator, or crank it for the code to connect to the Walkers, the Nordbys.  A phone call was rare and often unwelcomed. No news is good news, not like today when the latest emotional tidbits are keystrokes.  No one sat on a chair and jawed the afternoon away, for one had to stand up to talk into the mouthpiece.  One could sit down and listen, for the ear piece was almost always long enough to sit on a chair, but if rubbering –listening in–that seal between the palm and the mouthpiece had to be as tight as a drum. One also had to be careful how one lifted the ear piece off its cradle, for if there was a lull in the conversation at that moment, that tiny little click was audible.  Mom was good at both ends, but she just hated it when one of us slammed the door or started talking before checking what was happening in the kitchen.  Then she would wave as if shooing away flies, and make this god-awful grimace.

Mom didn’t listen often, but the skills  I observed became useful during my listening-in escapades to teenagers’ and ex-husbands’ conversations.

Being without a phone late at night babysitting a little brother while the folks went to town and when that little brother would not stop crying for whatever reason caused me nothing but alarm and panic.  My sister didn’t know what to do either, that is if I asked her.  And it was late, like close to midnight late.  The road that passed by our house, as were most all of the rural roads then, were often nothing more dirt ruts caused by tractors and implements, wagons and horses.  The nearest place that had a phone was the farmstead to the east and south; and I could see from the house that the lights were on.  I couldn’t go down to Grandma’s for that was over a mile away and it was pitch dark outside, a sliver of a moon and that sliver draped by clouds.  We had this old wreck of a thing called a bicycle that once in a while one of us rode around the farmstead but never on the roads–too full of ruts to negotiate.  I pulled it out of the bushes to the west of the house and headed east. Halfway there, the pedal broke off and my foot slipped off, the metal gouging a gash into my left leg right on the shin, a gash long enough that the white scar still throbs today at times.

I don’t remember if I made it to the neighbors or if I turned around and walked the bike back up the hill, but it was hell to pay when the folks returned home. I think I called, for it seemed to me that they were more upset that the neighbors knew they were in town at the tavern than the fact that my leg was cut.  No doctor, no stitches; bandages. Years later, after fishing with my soon-to-be second ex, I stepped off the boat onto the dock too soon and the sharp edge of the boat opened up that scar again.

A will of his own

On the farmstead east of the Botna place lived a teenager younger than I, but almost the same age as my sister.  We all went to the same school, but his presence was of someone who, when one glanced, drifted into corners,  a foot braced against the wall, arms crossed or on the last row in bleachers, in various postures of invisibility.  If in grade school, out near the fence line, anywhere out of the way of ambush.  More than likely he feared more than any of us ever would discover or care to know.  Much of what I can remember was that he was strange and quiet, a scrawny kid, someone today who would be riding skateboards down back alleys, wearing a leather jacket with holes.  How much this young boy’s family had or how his parents treated him, I don’t know.

Teenage life in rural Iowa, as far as my experience taught me, was not something that we young ones relished.  Most of us feared most everything then, those of us who were poor at least.  It wasn’t the war before, or the Korean War, the rumbles of war in Asia, the cold war so much, unless a relative was drafted; it was all that accompanied the tentativeness of existence. If we had parents who loved us, poverty stressed them, for their silences carved holes in the heart at night.  When the father wept, he wept alone and so did the mother.  From an early age children were taught not to weep. If they were sick, to go to bed.

“Quit that bawling” was often heard in these rural households. “You have nothing to cry about,” another. “Who do you think you are,” often. “You’ll get what you deserve,” said more than once but remembered often. “Stop your sniveling,” if caught crying alone.  If a child cried, their tears were slapped out of them.  “Sit down and shut up,” more times than I could count.  Life at home was difficult for us poor.  At home one craved the quiet times and the times when company came, when one didn’t have to think or do, other than peel potatoes, stir gravy, pour coffee, clear off the table, wash dishes and rinse them with teakettles full of scalding water.  School, for a poor child, horrible. I had my share of those times, but others had it much worse.  Company meant that we were ignored, left to play alone, with the other children of course.

Living in the house south of Botna, was extremely demoralizing.  Except for my youngest brother, someone who was fast becoming someone to enjoy, life was pretty stressful, not like it would be for me when we moved to the O’Boyle place.

There during my junior year, my mother threw a book up the stairs on the changes a girl goes through.  I caught it, but never read it, never knew much of anything about sexuality until I went to college.  I do remember that my sister and I fought a lot.  I pulled a lot of hair, threw blows that landed.  I see the scrambles, the fights in corners, but I don’t know what for, except jealousy on my part.  Perhaps it was nothing more than being thrust out of one house that barely housed us into one that a puff of wind could blow down–no closets, two extremely small bedrooms upstairs, one for my brothers, and the other for my sister and me.  It was at this time that I began to associate with those I felt were poorer than I, and being embarrassed for them, and for me.

Me September 1959

Lamps to read by upstairs, not on your life: one bulb in the center of the room turned on early in the morning, shut off when one left the room and finally clicked off by the last one to crawl into bed at night. I couldn’t even escape being tormented by my older sister when she and her husband returned. She consonantly poked me in the back as a reminder for me to sit up straight.  During that time, my dislike for her husband grew.

Perhaps if Mother and I could ever talk about sex, my life would have been different.  One would think that being on a farm I would know what happened between males and females.  I do have memories of being very young and having my hand forced to the crotch of an old man in overalls.  I do remember fearing being alone with my dad’s brother, and a nightmarish one of a kitchen table squeezing me against a wall in his house–the oilcloth had red and yellow flowers all over it–and other nasty occurrences that I never told anyone until well into my adulthood.

My sister first saw the neighbor boy in the tree outside our window one warm fall night while we were getting ready for bed.  Not that we girls ever considered being naked in front of each other, we were in various stages of getting ready for bed, turning our backs while pulling on a nightgown or something.  Maybe we were putting curlers in our hair, a nightly task then.  It wasn’t that she screamed, but certainly Mom and Dad found out that someone was in a tree. Dad went outside, and in a calm voice, told him to get down out of that tree and go home.  Dad warned him that he’d better not catch him up here again.