Category Archives: Childhood Memories/Terrors

Dream the impossible dream? I can’t even dream a possible one.

 

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The first question in all these self-help books I’ve been reading is, “What’s your dream life?”  My dream life?   I can have a dream?  They may as well be asking me what time I want to leave for a trip to the moon.  It’s impossible.

Growing up in a poor household with a ton of hungry kids, I learned early that dreams were for schmucks.  My parents’ mantra was, “No sense in even trying because [fill in the blank] will never work anyway.”

When I was in junior high, I came up with the brilliant idea to audition for the cheerleader squad. This was back in the day where the student body voted, so it was basically a popularity contest.  Everyone already knew who the cheerleaders were going to be, but some small Dream Spark inside me determined I should give the impossible a try.  Since I’d successfully been a wallflower for the first fourteen years of my life, I did not make the squad and I cried my eyes out.

The next year when it was time to tryout, and with my Dream Spark barely an ember, I signed up  again.  As I jumped around our yard attempting to get my distinctly uncoordinated body to remain upright, Mom came outside.  Twisting a worn out dishcloth between her hands, she lowered herself onto a rusted swing.   “Please don’t try out again,” she whimpered.  “I can’t handle the rejection.”  Whereupon she buried her face in the towel and cried her eyes out.

That flood of tears extinguished my Dream Ember and I’ve never dreamed an impossible dream again, let alone a possible one.

Unicorn

But now these damn self-help books keep throwing matches at my Dream Ember to try to revive it.  I read a quote in one that said, “Create a vision that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.”  What? The?  That’s a made up thing, right?  Like princes on white horses, and dragons and unicorns?

I took the book to my therapist appointment and, stabbing my finger at the quote, demanded she confirm that it was a fairy tale.  She looked at me like I had two heads (something, I’m pretty sure they are taught in therapist’s school not to do) and said, “I jump out of bed every morning!”

I walked out of that appointment a muddled mess.  When I got to my car I paused to look around and wondered, WaitAre all these people walking around magically thinking up dreams, and goals, and aspirations too?

I’m available Wednesday for a trip to the moon.  Anyone want to come along?

 

Bailing Twine and Bubble Gum

Dad proudly announced at every opportunity, “Everything on this farm is held together with baling twine and bubble gum.”  I’m not sure if its a trait of all farmers or just Dad but he was a “good enough” kind of guy and that’s the way I learned things.

Getting the broken item fixed quickly (before Mom’s temper exploded) was Goal One. There wasn’t a second goal.  After the fix, any tool he used was left where it lay or if he was outside, tossed through the door of the ramshackle shed.

It came as a great shock to me when I moved in with Husband and he pointed out that the job was not complete until everything was put back where it came from.  Fast forward twenty years and although I’m not as meticulous as Husband, I’ve come to expect a certain standard of repair and order.

Yesterday I went to the hardware store to buy a five-foot closet rod.  When the salesclerk was unable to find what I wanted, he said, “Well…this will probably work.”  It was a hundred degrees outside and I really, really did not want to go to the big box store so I picked up the “good enough” and headed to the cash register.

A picture of my childhood bedroom flashed before my eyes.  Closet with no door, an unfinished plywood floor and  a rod that collapsed if more than three hanging items were attempted.

I did an about-face and returned the good-enough item and, after wandering the store for twenty minutes, found the exact thing I needed.

I could finish by saying Dad would be proud of me – but that would not true.  He’d be prouder to have walked into my closet and seen a pair of old shoes attached to the wall with twelve rusty nails supporting the handle of an old broom.

 

 

Wrasser. Fraser.

Are these curse words for any other families?  My Dad uttered it daily, when he couldn’t find a tool, or his shoes, or anything to eat.

That’s how I feel right now.  I can’t find a story to write.

Twelve more days of this torture I signed up for.

A high school friend wrote on the first day of my experiment, “Don’t let me down!”  Ugh. The guilt.  But it’s working because I know I could never sleep tonight if I didn’t get something posted.  Thank you, Jane.

Wrasser.  Fraser.

Standing Room Only

When I was a kid, television watching was a full contact sport.

Our black and white TV was a giant metal box that dominated our living room.  It was 50’s brown and sat on a black wire stand that allowed it to be twirled swiveled for better viewing.

In our tiny house, there were many, MANY more kids than there were seats to hold them.

Dad got priority with the wooden backed rocker as he suffered his whole life from a bad back.    He sat on his throne and ate bitter sharp cheddar cheese on saltines, or maybe an apple that he’d peel in one long strip.  On really hot summer evenings he’d have half a cantaloupe with a scoop of ice cream in the middle.  His snacks were ignored — until the ice cream came out.

Mom, relegated to doing five thousand loads of wash a day, came in and out but she had a reserved place on the couch.  Anyone sitting there must immediately vacate the position.

That left two seats on the couch and one other chair…for seven kids.  It was full-contact musical chairs, until someone invented “Saved for me.”  Don’t ask me why this worked on a bunch of wild animals, but it did.  We stood up, put our hands on the chair and shouted the magic words.

And then one day, my older sister calmly walked over to a saved chair and said, “Changes. Saved for me. No changes.”

Kapow!  That was a game changer.  Now when a kid stood up – to maybe go try for a scoop of Dad’s ice cream – the entire room held its breath.  Would the idiot leave with only saying “Saved for me”?  Sometimes they would.

I can still remember the feeling of satisfaction of being the one to claim a chair with the statement, “Changes. Save for me. No changes.”   Perhaps I can remember the feeling so well because, we still use it to this day.

 

 

 

“Have you ever stolen anything?” the officer asked me.

Yesterday I had window washers at the house.  Within minutes the workers asked me to lock up Orlee The Giant Puppy as every time they got a window clean, she stuck her nose on it.  “Every time!” they said.

Without her attorney/my husband here to represent her, she was sent to jail.

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I feel her pain. My first real job was in an office of ten people. One day, someone stole the cash box. Guess who was responsible for the cash box? That’s right. Me.

The boss was very diplomatic and declared that everyone (except him of course) would take a lie detector test. Being the prime suspect, I was first.

I arrived at the police department and was escorted, by two burly officers, to a dark basement room. They attached several wires to me, which because of my profuse sweating, took several tries to get the pads to stay attached to my skin.  The younger officer with the lie detector was set up almost out of eyesight but not quite.

“Is your name Teresa?” the older officer sitting in front of me asked.

“Y-y-yes?” I listened to the needle scratch across the paper.

“Do you drive a 1965 Chevy Impala?”

“I? Yes?  It’s not mine though. I mean I don’t own it. I mean…” The scratching noise intensified.

“Please keep your answers to yes or no.” The young officer made a mark on the paper.

“Have you ever stolen anything?” Older officer asked.

“Have I ever…” Of course I’ve stolen some thing. As a kid I took change off dad’s dresser to buy ice cream from the truck. Did that count? I once stole a candy bar that Mom wouldn’t let me have, but she made me take it back and apologize. Did that count? “Well…I…sorta…”

“Yes or no answer please.”

“Yes.” No violent scratching from the needle.

The electrodes attached to my fingers slipped off from copious amounts of sweat. Old officer reattached them and moved in for the kill.

“Do you live in Topeka, Kansas?”

“Yes.” The needle was silent.

“Do you have a pet?”

“No.”

“Are you wearing a blue shirt?”

“Yes.”

“Are you wearing green shoes?”

“No.”

Old officer leaned in closer. “Did you steal the money?”

I heard the needle jump across the page.

“DID YOU STEAL THE MONEY?” he shouted.

“NO!” I shouted back.

He smiled and removed the sweat soaked electrodes from me. “I knew she didn’t take it before she sat down,” old one said to young one.

Robber #1Seven of us were proven innocent and two were inconclusive.

The boss refilled the cash box but filled it with blacklight powder dusted money.

I asked to be removed from cash box duty.

A Table the Size of a Plymouth and Other Stories of Home

The rooms in the house I grew up in were used and they were used hard.  That’s what happens when you cram eight kids and two adults in a two bedroom, one-bathroom house.  The single-story home was built by Grandpa and his three brothers-in-law, none of which had ever hammered a nail.  Completed in time for Grandma to birth Dad in the front bedroom it, along with every other room in the house, was worn out before I was born.

The cracked-down-the-middle concrete front porch, sagged toward the dirt road that passed in front of our house.  Every time a car drove by, layers of dust billowed our way.

I spent warm days swaying to and fro on the paint-peeled porch swing and counting the number of dusty licks it took to get to the middle of a Tootsie Pop.  Due to a severe case of motion sickness on my part, only a limited amount of to and fro-ness was allowed.  If a brother or sister wanted the swing to themselves they only needed to give the swing a big push and off I’d go, to tattle to Mom about the unfairness of it all.

I'm Telling Mom!

I’m Telling Mom!

The house was built with two front doors within six feet of each other. One entered the living room and one the dining room. Mom declared the living room door should be nailed shut and tugged a bedraggled brown sofa in front of it on the INside.  Not the OUTside because only poor white trash did that.  Never mind the grimy white chickens roaming through our front yard.

Once a year or so, when Evil Grandmother Nellie came to visit, Mom assigned a kid the task of removing all the books and dusting the shelves of the two bookcases on either side of the fireplace.  The last time my sister did it, she found a snake living behind a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.  My snake story involves stealing big brothers velvety soft sheepskin coat, stuffing eggs in the pockets, spotting a snake and then face planting on the concrete floor attempting to escape.  Turns out sheepskin and cracked eggs don’t go together so well.

For many years the fireplace chimney tilted drunkenly away from the siding.  One summer Mom rescued a pregnant cat from “town” because the twenty-two barn cats roaming around weren’t enough.  The kitty climbed up, and then down, between the two-by-fours and gave birth to a large litter.   Unable to get back out she wailed for hours, until Dad ripped enough exterior boards off to yank out rescue her and her kittens.  The next day, she dragged them all back in again. Immediately upon depositing the last kitten, the cat began her mournful cry.

Which caused Mom to begin her mournful cry. “Lewie, do something!”

His “something” involved pulling down the entire chimney.  The cat and her kittens moved on, but the hole in the side of our house stayed.

A table the size of a Plymouth, proudly purchased on long-term credit from the furniture store in town, dominated the dining room.  Instead of holding meals, this landing strip held clothing.  Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothing.  In the wee hours of the morning, Mom gathered up the dirty clothes, kept on the floor of our rooms, and when washed and dried, deposited them on the tabletop.

Get in here!

Get in here!

The rules required me to pick out my clothes, fold them and return them to the dresser in my room.  That never happened.  Once in a while, when evil Grandmother Nellie headed our way, Mom screamed and merrily said, “Clothes Folding Party!”

We kids sat in a semi-circle around the massive table.  Mom held up a ragged pair of cut-off jeans.  “Mine,” I’d shout.  And the shorts would sail my way.  By the end of it, my entire wardrobe sat by my side in a teetering tower.  Trying to save myself an extra trip (ten steps down the hall) I’d balance the tower in my arms. At least until a little brother did a run-by shove and then,

I'm Telling Mom!

I’m Telling Mom!

after I tattled to Mom about the unfairness of it all, I’d haul the pile of clothes to the back bedroom where I would stuff them into the two bottom dresser drawers assigned to me.

The cramped kitchen with its chipped and worn brown linoleum floor was built around an electric stove large enough to feed three families – if both ovens and the burners had ever all worked at once – and it ran almost non-stop.  Walking through the doorway I always wished some mouth-watering aroma would engulf me, but Mom was a terrible cook.  A pot large enough to bathe a small child in, sat on the biggest burner and just about every meal came from it.  Boxes and boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, industrial sized packages of spaghetti and something we called goulash that involved pasta shells and ketchup. An entire childhood of bland food including my favorite, a mayonnaise sandwich, which was served to us when every other item of food in the house had been consumed and there were still two days until payday.

Shoved up against one wall was a formica table designed to serve two comfortably.  We managed five at a time, with meals eaten in shifts or not at all.  The rickety table sported a set of rusted chrome legs that – due to the frequency of shifting the table right or left every meal, required reattaching a few times each month.

Tired of seeing dirty dishes stacked to the ceiling, Evil Grandmother Nellie purchased a dishwasher for us.  Dad never hooked it up permanently so this elephant-sized appliance sat in the middle of the room.  For a few months we took the trouble to attach the hose to the kitchen faucet and run the thing, but after a while, the top became a new surface to stack dirty dishes.

In one corner of the kitchen, by the back door, there was a line of crooked nails.  Installed to handle Dad’s farm coats the kids eventually commandeered them.  Overwhelmed by the number of sweatshirts, jackets and egg-stained sheepskin coats, the poor nails gave up and the coat rack became the coat carpet.

People often ask about our sleeping arrangements with all those kids and only two bedrooms.  I imagine there was a lot of shifting as new members of the family were added but I don’t really remember.  I do know I shared a bed with my sister and in the corner of our room was a crib where one brother slept until he went to kindergarten.  Several brothers slept in the front bedroom and Mom and Dad slept in the living room on … this is where the story peters out.  On a sofa?  On the floor?  Where did Mom and Dad go at night?

Home Sick From School – Part Two

…Click here for where we left off last week

“We were robbed,” I wail into the yellow telephone receiver.

“Did they?” Mom gasps …”Take the TV?”

I say I don’t know and she tells me she’ll call the sheriff and will be home right away.

I tiptoe through the house; terrified the men will return for their knife. I scurry to my parent’s closet and burrow into the dark. I knock over a pair of rhinestone-encrusted stiletto heels that have never seen the light of day. The heavy shoes make a deafening crash when they hit the floor. I push myself farther into the corner, making a curtain of Mom’s old sorority party dresses.

I hold my breath and wait. I don’t hear any footsteps in the house.

Angry barks from the two stray dogs that were dumped off that we adopted filter through to my hiding place. I slip out of the closet and dart to a corner of the living room to peer through the window. I see a sheriff’s car in the driveway.Police Car

I run to the front door. My shaking hand grabs the cool metal knob of the big oak door and I yank. It won’t budge. I slide the thick bolt out of its lock and run out to the porch.

The deputy shouts from his car, “Do the dogs bite?”

I’m teenager enough to say, “Obviously not, right?”

A Barney Fife-looking guy exits the patrol car and approaches the front door cautiously. “Are you sure…” his voice cracks and he tries again. “Are you sure they’re all gone?”

“I…I think so. I d-d-don’t know.”

GunHe draws his weapon and kicks at the already open front door. He crosses the threshold and comes to a standstill.

“Oh my god,” he says. “They trashed the place.”

I look around the room and wonder what he’s talking about.

And then I see the room through his eyes. Our massive dining room table is piled high with clothes. So many that they’ve spilled over onto the floor in a yard-wide radius. When Mom does laundry we are supposed to pick out our clothes and put them away, but it rarely happens, so we just live off the clothes in the pile.

With his gun drawn, the deputy jumps around corners while I cower in the corner.

Mom, Dad and the sheriff all arrive simultaneously.

"Shoot first, ask questions later."

“Shoot first, ask questions later.”

The sheriff’s cheap aftershave enters the room before him and my stomach rolls. I run to the bathroom and vomit.

When I return, the sheriff hikes his pants up over a massive beer belly and commands, “Ya know how to shoot a gun right?”

“I’ve never even touched one,” I say.

He looks with disproval at Dad. “Ya need to teach this little girl how to shoot.” He fixes his flinty eyes on me. “Then, next time someone knocks on your door and ya don’t’ know who they are, ya shoot ’em. If they fall outside the house, ya drag ’em in.”

“B…B…But…” I whisper. “I couldn’t ever shoot anyone.”

He sighs. “The least ya coulda done is shout out your brother’s names. That woulda scared ’em for sure.”

“But what if it didn’t?” I ask. “Then wouldn’t they know for sure I was home alone?”

He dismisses me with a wave of his hand and turns to Dad to continue his lecture on teaching everyone in the house how to shoot.

Mom is over in the corner giving the deputy a list of missing items. “Two portable televisions, the stereo, a shotgun, a trombone…”

My older brother comes home from school and tries to interest the deputy in taking plaster casts of the tire tracks in the driveway, like he’s seen happen on Colombo. The deputy gets excited until the sheriff says that doesn’t happen in real life.

I wander into the kitchen and take the opportunity to steal from Dad’s secret stash of food. I pour myself a Coca-Cola from the two-liter bottle and nibble around the edge of a buttery Ritz cracker.

Eventually the house settles in for the night. I’m walking back upstairs to go to bed when I hear one of my brothers say, “I’ll bet they’ll come back for that knife.”

Robber #1Robber #2