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.
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.