As I wander through myself, I’ve been trying to think of a mechanism to help me navigate my almost seven decades. Going through the years just doesn’t feel right to me. When exploring memories, both those of which we are aware, and those which have yet to be recalled, reducing the search to the simple mathematics of successive years doesn’t work for me. What came to mind is a methodology that seems more organic, an approach that is holistic rather than segmented. Lots of my recall is visceral, enured with smells and textures, sounds and touches. All those sensory triggers are important to memory. As with the books, the art and the films which are so integral to my views of the world, I wasn’t surprised to find myself visualizing one of my favorite movie scenes as an entry point for proceeding in my fantastic journey, the title of my last post. I remembered the 1945 Academy Award Winner for best picture, “Spellbound,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a mystery which focuses on a doctor who has amnesia and who may or may not have committed murder. With the help of a psychoanalyst, the doctor finds his memory in a beautiful montage, designed by Salvador Dali, illustrating the remembering by showing a series of doors, one opening after another in a gorgeous memorable visual effect. I’ve never forgotten it and as I mused today, it seems that a good way to explore my past is by walking through the places I’ve lived and peeking behind the doors to see what might be there.
I don’t remember anything about my first eight months, living with my family in my grandparents’ house in Chicago. We moved to Sioux City, Iowa after that where we lived first in a house on 16th Street. I don’t know the address but I think it was a duplex.
My father was going to work with his sister’s husband, selling farm implements and water conditioners. As a person who only made it through 10th grade before quitting school and working to help his family, in Chicago he bounced from one job to another. In retrospect the Iowa job seemed like a poor fit for him to me. Probably desperation-driven. My mother didn’t like dad’s family and they didn’t like her. His older sister Sylvia was a dominant personality who pushed my mom around. I think dad’s family resented the fact that she stole my dad away from home when he was still so young and so necessary to their well-being. This job with his brother-in-law required dad to travel, leaving mom at home with us kids and dad’s disliked big sister. In any case, we were in Iowa.
I have several memories of that first house. I am on the linoleum floor watching my mom clean up after the dog who was in heat and dripping blood on the floor. Mom put one of my diapers on her. I can see Trixie, the blond cocker spaniel waddling around at my eye level. I can also see the sunlight shining through the windows, reflecting on the little motes of dust floating through the air. I was small, looking up. I am also in a crib in that house. My brother and sister, eight and five years older than me, are moving from one end of my crib to the other. They call me pootchky nootchky. I don’t know why. They’re encouraging me to follow them and I stand in my crib, sidestepping, hand over hand on the railing, trying to reach them. Of course by the time, I catch them at one end they are already on the other side. They say, come on pootchky, let’s go, pootchky. They laugh. I keep trying but things never work out.
They laugh at me and say I stink because I’m still wearing a diaper which is wet. I’m embarrassed because I think I know I’m supposed to be dry but I can’t do that yet. Surprisingly I’m not mad at them. I’m only confused and frustrated with myself.
We are now in the house where we live longest in Sioux City. This house is the only house my parents ever owned, 101 East 23rd Street. Mom has had my younger sister so there are four kids instead of three. The house is big. Dad is traveling and mom has trouble managing all four of us so sometimes a woman named Mrs Wailey comes to help her clean. We have bats that occasionally slip into the house from the attic. One time, we see a bat upstairs, hanging from one of mom’s sheer curtains. My mom always loved sheers as she called them. Mom gets a broom and swats at the bat. Another one is squeezing its head out from under the door to the attic. She swats at that one too and swears because my dad is gone. In the house at 101 East 23rd Street, there is plenty of room to play. We have a breakfast nook. I liked the feel of that spot, cozy and tucked in. You can play under the dining room table.
I hide behind the couch a lot, exploring myself. My parents laugh at me. I’m always red and sweaty. The couch is a kind of vomit green with silver threads in it. I don’t like the color but it appears in my parents’ color scheme all the time. Maybe it’s the cheapest fabric. I play outside a lot. The Brewers live next door and I’m friends with their son named Reggie. Then there are the Larimers who live across the street. Robin is my age and his siblings are Charlie and Janie. Their dad is a doctor and they’re rich. I’m in love with Robin who is blond and looks like Jay North, the kid who played Dennis the Menace on television.
When we are five we go to Hunt School and Miss Wyffels is our teacher. I love school and the smell of school supplies. I like my rug and my milk at naptime. I like being outside. I’m big for my age and the kids call me names. I decide that I’m never going to do that to anyone. Dad calls all of us awful nicknames, too. Mom tells him to stop but he doesn’t. Looking back, I think it’s because he’s still the little kid whose dad died when he was eight. He calls me tubby and Chief Blackfoot because I get so filthy playing outside. I like bugs and flowers. I am always carrying a jar stuffed with twigs and leaves and putting lightning bugs and caterpillars in them. I have a favorite caterpillar.
My brother has a fish tank and he lets me feed his fish. I make a mistake and pour too much food in the tank and the water turns all brown. I’m terrified that I’ve killed them all. He also has a parakeet that’s blue and is named Little Man. He can do tricks like pulling a small plastic car with a harness across the table. He also has a weighted bird toy which he pokes with his beak and it bobs up and back. My brother breeds white mice in the basement. When the babies come they are all pink, squirmy and their eyes are closed. We have our dog, King, the collie. I love all the animals.
I am also afraid. When I am four and my little sister is two, mom has to go to the hospital for surgery. My grandparents come and stay with us. My grandmother pulls my hair really tightly and makes pigtails which stick out of the sides of my head. I miss my mother. My brother says he’s going to take me to see her in the hospital. I pick a handful of pansies to bring to her. We walk for what feels like forever. I’m broiling with heat and my pansies are wilted. We enter the hospital where my brother keeps pushing me behind curtains to hide me until the grownups are gone. Then we are in mom’s room. She’s glad to see us and doesn’t seem surprised that I’m there. At that time, I didn’t know she was medicated. She pulls up her gown and says, “do you want to see my scar?” She has a bloody vertical line on her stomach. I can still see it. After she comes home, I’m always worried that she’ll be gone again. Every day when I go to school I ask her two questions: Will Miss Wyffels be in school today and will you be home when I get home? She always says yes. One day I got to school and there was a substitute teacher. I was frightened, enraged and then catatonic. I was taken to the hallway and my older sister was brought down to talk to me. She said I was silent with my eyes big and round like saucers. I survived it. But I learned that grownups lied. I never forgot that either. There are so many memories from those years from ages three to seven.
I sat on the floor playing with pots and pans. Mom watched Guiding Light and then As The World Turns on television. I carried that habit throughout my adult life. I found those shows comforting. Mom baked almost every day. I can see the floured surface and her rolling pin with red handles. The dough grew and shrank as I watched her handle it. Sometimes I would take a glass and push it into the dough to make round cookies. Peeling away the extra dough was fun. She made sugar cookies and jam thumbprint ones. I liked making the thumbprint.
For awhile my two cousins came to live with us. Six kids was a lot. Mom wasn’t around to catch all the action going on in the big house. My cousins were closest in age to me and my younger sister. My brother, who had a nasty streak, devised a dreadful game for us to play. I was a lot bigger than my cousin. He would hold my arms behind my back and tell her to hit my chest as hard as she could. I don’t remember feeling a thing. But then it was her turn. He held her arms and I pummeled her chest. She had very pale skin and I made big red marks on her. I was haunted by that dreadful experience my whole life. She and her brother moved back to Chicago after about six months. A sadly failed experiment.
There are more memories from those days. I remember the cloak room next to my room at Hunt School. I wore black galoshes with these big clasps. I wished I had shiny red rubber boots instead. I remember seeing my blond corkscrew-haired friend Connie run away after leaving me a May basket on my porch. I remember going to the circus with other people including a boy named Phillip. I started to itch and my mom to me to the drugstore and pulled my pants down to show the pharmacist. Chiggers, he said. I was mortified.
I remember having chickenpox and measles. I was supposed to take St. Joseph baby aspirin for children, the little orange pills. I told my mom I couldn’t swallow them if anyone was watching me. She was so naive she left the room. I promptly dumped the pills into the floor vent behind the couch, an inkling of my apparently genetic negative attitude toward medicine and doctors. When my clean-obsessed grandmother came to visit, she pulled the couch away from the walk to vacuum, saw the vent and emerged with a handful of pills. Oops.
I remember when we drove back to Chicago to visit our extended family. We bounced along the road with no seatbelts and we kids pretended we were police cars and made siren sounds as we drove behind the big trucks. The drivers smiled at us and pulled their horn cords as we went by. Car rides, long and short, are part of the memory bank. All six of us in the car, along with the dog, driving through the countryside for entertainment and winding up at a Dairy Queen. We ate our cones while King got to lick a dilly bar. My brother was bar mitzvahed in Sioux City. I wasn’t well-monitored at the party after the event. I got into the little cups of wine and vomited. Red everywhere. Not a common occurrence since then. I felt awful. I also remember a recurring night terror when I was pressed against the wall and felt like a big oozy bug was going to squish me. I don’t know if that had anything to do with the wine episode.
I went to see the film The Giant Claw with my siblings and I still remember the terror of the last scene in the movie. I remember the flood when my dad carried me in an abrasive blanket to Mrs. Monroe’s house at the highest point on the hill. And our car floated away and wound up in the yard across the street. I remember when my sister was supposed to bring me home from school but she left me. I waited there for a long time and then somehow managed to find my way home. My family was fanned out, looking for me. I guess I always had a decent sense of direction. I remember we had neighbors who had a collie – in the summer they shaved his body except for his head and the tip of his tail, making him look just like a lion. I remember when we were all playing outside and Janie Larimer caught her fingernail on something and it pulled away, hanging from her finger by a thread. I smashed her nail back down and walked her over to her parents’ house. I remember tasting orange soda for the first time and being afraid of the bubbles. A neighborhood kid threatened me with a rubber knife and my brother chased him away. My brother also laid me on my back on rocking chair legs and shoved me down a hill. Lots of my back skin peeled off and my parents were furious. My pajamas got stuck to my back.
Now I’m at the train station with mom as we’re going to Chicago again. I can smell the fumes that are associated with train fuel and the steps up into the cars which seemed tall as the sky. I become a little girl for a fleeting moment every time I board a train. I remember the dolls I shared with my little sister. I remember my older sister making us play “school.” She was the teacher and was always mean and rigid. Not like my real teacher. It wasn’t much fun.
I remember the rare occasions when we ate at a restaurant, usually the Green Gables where they made the most delicious club sandwiches. I remember getting a little white bag filled with Michigan sour cherries candy at S.S. Kresge’s downtown. I remember the hollyhocks on the corner of my block. I remember being scared when we were moving back to Chicago. I asked my parents if there was milk in Chicago. I loved my warm milk which eventually I gave up because of merciless teasing by my older siblings. I asked my dad how people got to be the first car on the road. I remember saying goodby to the Larimers. I gave Robin my small fish bowl because it couldn’t go in the car. King had to go too. Robin gave me my choice of toy from their big playroom. I took a bronze horse figure which was missing one leg. I stared out the back window of the car and we waved and waved until they disappeared. My, my, my. If I sit here long enough, there’s no telling how many more layers I can peel back. All from walking around in these structures that pop up in my head. I’m only at age seven. For now, this is enough. Next up, Chicago and elementary school.