Because my eyesight is diminishing so fast, I will take the easy way out and of the requests/suggestions for a blog post before I go completely blind I will cut and paste (and comment) on an excerpt from my Autobiography.
I began writing my autobiography shortly after my mother died in 1993, as a catharsis really, a way to heal and come to grips with my childhood and all that baggage most of us who have not had great childhoods carry around with us. Now, 23 years later, there is a lot I would change in this book. (for one thing I would finish it) But perspectives change over the years and you see things so much more clearly if you allow yourself to be honest with yourself. Every life is a story. Mine may be different, but no more important than any other human being’s.
[EXCERPT FROM AUTOBIOGRAPHY]
My first memory of being alive is sitting in a playpen outside
our house in Oklahoma City. My mother was stooping over her
garden, her dark brown hair tied up in a bright blue kerchief. I
was playing with my favorite squeeze toy–a small pale yellow
rubber duck; turning it, manipulating it, tasting it. I remember
my shoes–white sturdy Buster Browns; scuffed on the toes and tied
with a double knot, for I was prone to remove them at any
opportunity. I was staring at them as I rhythmically raised my
foot and vigorously slammed it down on the un-padded bottom of the
playpen. I was fascinated by the noise, as it reverberated off the
side of the house and the bottom of the playpen shook and vibrated
with each kick.
I glanced up at my mother. She was humming, absent-mindedly;
some sweet innocuous tune–possibly a hymn; and just behind her I
could see a woman crossing the street, a small blonde child perched
on her hip. She stopped and spoke to my mother for a moment. My
mother wiped the dirt from her hands onto her jeans, leaving long
red streaks from the Oklahoma clay down the front of them. She
pointed over to me. The woman brought the child over and sat her
down in my playpen. I began to cry at first, afraid of this new
person, but then the little girl picked up a toy from the floor of
the playpen and began to quietly examine it. I picked up my own
again and resumed my thump-thump-thumping on the bottom of the
playpen. The little girl began to hum. No tune this time as my
mother had been doing; but one note, deep and continuous except for
a short pause occasionally as she caught her breath.
We did not speak, because except for a few simple words like
“Mama” and “Daddy”, neither of us knew how to talk yet. Instead
we played, side by side, the afternoon sun warm and soft on us, and
our mothers gossiped as my mother tended her garden. I know that
I shouldn’t remember that far back, for surely I could not have
been more than two, but I do, and the memory is bright and vibrant
and when I think of it I can smell the flowers and feel the
sunshine on my face.
The little girl in the playpen was Jeannie Rogers. We called
her Jeannie-Rogers, just like that, first and last name, kind of
smooshed together. She was a pretty little girl with blonde hair
and big blue eyes. Her skin was fair and clear, in sharp contrast
to my own red hair, brown eyes and freckled face. She became my
best friend all through childhood. We were considered the
“oddballs” of all the kids on our block, the perfect targets for
extensive teasing and cruel pranks. They now call it being a nerd.
Neither of us was very athletic; I was pretty klutzy and accident-
prone. We were both besieged by a plethora of childhood phobias-
–Jeannie was afraid of all animals, she said– because a squirrel
ran up her back once. I lived in mortal fear of bugs. This alone
was grounds for automatic banishment from normal kid-dom, add to
that Jeannie’s humming and my red hair and chubby-ness and we
couldn’t win. We were excluded from a lot of the group activities
that occurred daily on our street—hide and seek, tag, red rover
and dodge ball; but after awhile we didn’t care; we made our own
fun, and had a sort of pact which included a mutual animosity for
all those kids on the block that spurned us.
Our neighborhood was chock-full of children; at least two in
each house. This was most likely because we lived on the same
street where the elementary school was located. It was a
developing middle class urban area between Oklahoma City and Moore.
The houses were small, 2 or three bedrooms and no more that a
thousand square feet of living space inside. Most of them were
half brick/half painted siding or totally brick. When we lived
there it still felt like we were partly living in the country,
because there were still farmers and ranchers within walking
distance of our house. There were lots of empty lots around to use
for ball games and fort building. Today the area is still
thriving, the houses bought by the same type of people my parents
were 30 years ago—first time home owners trying to own a piece
of the American dream. All the country is gone, though; the
surrounding area has been filled up with fast food restaurants and
I never saw a school bus till after I left elementary school,
the population of kids in the surrounding neighborhood was enough
to fill the school. We were all roughly the same ages. That is,
for one child in one house, there was a counterpart in another
house down the way. For me, this was Jeannie Rogers.
She always hummed like that. Like she did in the playpen. One
long monotonal note, almost a growl; a sort of guttural humming.
Always when she was concentrating intensely on something. I didn’t
mind the noise. In fact, I spent so much time with her, that I
suppose after a while I just didn’t even hear it anymore; but the
other kids did, and they would tease her about it all the time.
She would be intently drawing a picture, or writing, and sure
enough, it would start: hmmmmmmmmmm…gasp…hmmmmmmmmmm. The
other kids would yell, “JEANNIE! Your motor’s running!” She would
cringe and stop.
I could see the teasing hurt her, so I began to listen for the
humming when we were together and I’d nudge her before the kids had
a chance to yell. She’d look over at me and smile.
Eventually she learned to control it, or maybe she outgrew it,
but anyway it stopped.
I almost always played at Jeannie’s house, my own house was
full with just my siblings and myself, and my father didn’t like
us contributing to the already ear-splitting din by bringing other
kids over to add to the noise after he got home from work.
Besides, he liked to spread out on the floor in front of the T.V.
in his boxer shorts and T-shirt and my mom wouldn’t let him do that
if there was company in the house.
I think Jeannie’s parents preferred us playing at her house,
anyway. My dad and Mr. Rogers didn’t get along. There’s a story
that’s oft repeated in our house of the time Jeannie and I were
arguing about something (I might have hit her, although I don’t
really recall the incident that well) and Mr. Rogers took it upon
himself to protect his young’un and came stomping over to tell my
dad a thing or two. It has to be explained here that Mr. Rogers
was a tall and lanky—truly a “Mr. Rogers” kind of fella (He
reminded me personally of Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo).
My father, however, was a large burly rough looking take-no-crap-
offa-nobody guy. I used to think his hands were big enough to
crush somebody’s head in one if he had a mind to, especially when
they came flying over the front seat of the car aimed at the pack
of unruly children ducking in the back seat. Anyhow, Mr. Rogers,
puffed up and ready to kick some butt, confronted my dad in our
back yard where my father sat (apprised by me that a recent fight
with Jeannie had escalated to the point that parents were now
involved), calmly sharpening a machete. My father, it is said,
merely looked up calmly as Mr. Rogers approached, machete gleaming
in the sun and said “Can I help you Bill?” whereas Mr. Rogers,
deflated totally at the sight of my father and the knife, backed
out of the yard saying “No Mr. Burns, can’t say you can.” till he
was safely back in his own yard. This incident didn’t change
anything between Jeannie and I. We made up, and continued to play
together long after, the incident totally forgotten between us; but
not our parents.
I always thought Jeannie’s parents were a little over-
protective, but this too may have been just because mine were
sometimes so grossly neglectful. On the fourth of July, for
example, Jeannie’s dad always brought out an old galvanized steel
bucket filled with water and a large pair of pliers when his girls
lit off firecrackers. When they encountered a “dud” they had to
wait an inordinate amount of time after the thing had failed to go
ka-boom, and then gingerly pick up the offensive firecracker with
the pliers, hold it arms length away, walk over and place it
carefully into the bucket of water, like some junior bomb-squad or
something. The unbelievable thing was, they were only allowed to
light off lady-fingers!
MY family on the other hand, (and in particular, my brothers)
were notorious for dangerous and destructive acts of firework-
sabotage in the neighborhood. My brothers were Black-Cat
demolition experts. They blew up anything that could be even
remotely construed as exciting or interesting if it went BOOM.
They had Roman Candle and pop-bottle rocket wars; aiming the things
at any unsuspecting kid unlucky enough to cross their path. My
brother Paul would light and squeeze lady-fingers between his
fingers. When I asked him what they felt like when they went off,
he said calmly “like a red ant sting.” (My bug-fear kept me from
trying it out, myself) Paul would go out the next morning and
painstakingly gather up all the duds and empty them of their unused
gunpowder, he’d then light the little piles and quickly stomp on
it so it would blow up under the heel of his shoe.
So we would sit and with smirks on our faces watch the goings-
on at the Roger’s House with great amusement. Even today on the
fourth of July when we have a dud, someone will say “Get a bucket!”
and we’ll all bust out laughing.
But Jeannie was my best friend. We had our own games and
activities geared to our “weird kid” mentality. We liked to write
stories. We both were “early readers”… I began at three,
practically as soon as I could turn the pages of a book by myself.
Mrs. Scarberry, a fat, jolly-looking woman who lived right next
door to us had a brand new set of World Book encyclopedias that I
found fascinating. We had a Colliers, but the pictures were better
in the World Book, and it was put together nicer, I thought.
Besides, Mrs. Scarberry was always cooking something…most often
this was cookies, and if I stayed long enough, I usually got the
opportunity to sample a few. I spent many afternoons sitting cross-
legged on her living room rug, some massive volume spread across
my lap, totally engrossed. I would occasionally get up, my finger
carefully marking a big tough word that Nadine (Mrs. Scarberry)
would explain to me. Eventually she got sick of my interruptions
to her kitchen activities, I suppose, and taught me how to use the
dictionary. Then it was katie-bar-the door! I read anything I laid
my hands on, stopping frequently to look up words I didn’t know.
So Jeannie, who shared my love of books and words would sit with
me for hours and make up stories, write them down, and later we’d
reread, edit and modify them depending on our mood that day.
Sometimes we wrote about our dolls, usually the exploits and
escapades of Barbie and Ken. I do not believe Mattel would have
approved of most of our story-lines about their most infamous
couple, even at a young age we both were aware of the difference
between men and women and had the rudiments of sexual activity down
from exposure to various stray cat and dogs in the neighborhood.
Even though Barbie and Ken were far from being anatomically
correct, their love affair was a lot more torrid than the
We also wrote about the kids in the
neighborhood. Anyone who had teased us that week were usually
targeted to be killed in a most hideous and painful manner;
sometimes their parents and siblings with them, if we were so
inclined. Occasionally the parents would be spared, only to thank
us for saving the world (and themselves) by ridding it of their
obviously evil, ill-conceived offspring. My particular favorites,
though, were the stories we wrote about a tiny family that lived
in Jeannie’s bottom drawer. We even cleared out the drawer and
filled it with an elaborate array of dollhouse furniture and
“finds” —pretty rocks from the creek, bottle caps, empty spools,
baseball cards. We then acted out the stories before-hand in hours
of “just pretend” brain-storming, and then we wrote them down. The
stories became quite adventurous as we had the family invade other
rooms of the house; wrecking havoc in the kitchen, or in Jeannie’s
sister Myra’s room. Myra was a natural target for our little
family’s adventures–she being a sort of self-appointed leader of
the teasing brigade that terrorized Jeannie and I. Usually our
little family would sabotage her room in some way to cause
embarrassment or minor harm to Myra and her snotty friends. In
actuality this never occurred except in our imaginations as her
mother never let us have free rein of the house. Jeannie’s Mom was
a slightly overweight, kind-faced, jovial woman; who reminded me
of the television Maid Hazel, only with dark hair. She adored her
two daughters, and doted on them. I adored her. She was so
domesticated and sweet; and always had time to stop what she was
doing and listen to our tall tales. I had an awful habit of saying
“Guess what?” before anything I was about to say, and she broke me
of it by replying “Turkey’s Trot.” anytime I started out that way.
Later, she would be Jeannie and I’s Blue bird troop leader, and
she taught us to cook, (“The Number One Direction of every recipe
is WASH YOUR HANDS!”) and do crafts and all sorts of fun things
with us. She always had an idea of something we could do when we
would come in and say pitifully, “We’re BORED!”
She was a neat-nut, her house was spotless and she was always
in a state of perpetual motion trying to keep it that way. I loved
the way Jeannie’s house smelled…like washing powder and fresh
air. My own mother wasn’t the housekeeper Jeannie’s mom was by a
long shot. My mother married my father when she was barely 15.
By the time she was 24 she had already given birth to all five of
us kids. Neither she nor my dad were adequately equipped to keep
pace with our reign of destruction at our house. But it wasn’t
just that we were so unmanageable, it was that she was grossly
unprepared, and my father just expected her to know these things
innately, after all, in his view it was just part of being a woman.
I grew up knowing that the chores of women and men were clearly
designated. Men were revered. Women waited on the men and their
main job was to take care of them, to ease their burden. Later
this idea would screw me up totally as the world changed and I was
suddenly expected to think independently. I wanted to be
independent, but there was always this Donna Reed character
screaming to get out. He didn’t have the capacity to teach his
child bride what he thought she should already know.
Anyway, Jeannie and I would “just pretend” all morning and once
the story we were working on extended past the reality of her
bedroom, we would lay back on the carpet, hands behind our heads
and spend the rest of the afternoon in “what ifs” with Jeannie
playing stenographer for our musings.
At night as I lay in my own bed I would think about our tiny
family’s adventures and happily drift off to sleep. I truly wished
sometimes that I lived in her bottom drawer.
I am pretty much certain I have explained in previous posts my idea of “Pieces of my Childhood”. Perhaps a brief reiteration is called for, however.
If you live in the same town you grew up in, and also if you live enough years, you will see the town you live in change, and things of your youth will disappear. Some are as simple as a food or candy.(Anyone seen Kraft Fudgies or Post Fortified Oat Flakes the last 10 years?) Others large buildings and landmarks. (The Biltmore Hotel, Elmwood Swimming Park, Springlake Amusement Park) When one of these disappears forever I generally just say aloud: A piece of my childhood died today. Sometimes if it was especially significant I will call my sister to let her know that something from our childhood is no more. This happened a couple years back with the Redskin Theatre. This was the theatre my sister and I sat in all day watching movies over and over and over. They literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot. It was a sad day.
So recently, in Oklahoma City’s revamp of our downtown area (which I approve of for the most part, we have made significant progress in bringing our downtown area back to life.) a piece of my childhood was torn down.
I had a very wayward youth, from the age of 13 or thereabouts I was on the wrong track for 5 years, a hippy runaway homeless street person. The government called me “In Need of Supervision”. Kind of a catch-all phrase for juvenile delinquent I guess. At 16 it caught up with me and I was sent to Tecumseh Girls Town, a “Maximum Security Reformatory” for girls. I never had a clue why I was sent there, I hadn’t committed any crime, and in truth, even the folks who ran the place were confused on what sent me there. But I was there, so I made the most of it. I had never finished school of course, being a street person, and they said I could go at my own pace, so I finished 8th to the 12th grade in one year. Since school was done, I decided to enroll in some of the other elective classes they had, and chose “Creative Writing” given by a sweet woman named Patti Bivens. (I have looked for her on the interwebbies but not found her, if you do know her, point her my way.) I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories. Patti encouraged me and told me I had a lot of talent for writing. Her encouragement would lead to a lifelong love of writing.
Sometime during the summer of that year there was a Poetry Festival in downtown Oklahoma City, and Ms. Bivens got permission to take two of her pupils to attend. I was chosen as one of them. Off campus trips for girls in reform school was rare and I felt blessed and privileged to be chosen.
It was held at what was called at the time the “Mummer’s Theatre”. A very rare and very unique building (later called “The Stage Center”. ) built in the Exoskeleton Architecture style that had come into vogue in the 70’s, it was either loved or hated, depending on who you spoke to.
I loved it. Each stage on the interior was in one of the various modules. Seating was in the round, so the stage itself was in the center of the audience.
The festival was very open, and people took the stage to read their poetry. I was surprised when Patti escorted me center stage, my little folder of poems I had written under my arm. I read one which was generally about the idea of being classified in various ways by the Government. I lost this poem, but have been aware all of my life that it was published in the pamphlet or brochure/playbill that they handed out that evening. It is a regret that I do not have that brochure, and I have searched for it online at various times.
It was special to me because I got a standing ovation. It is the only standing ovation I have ever received. This was also such an affirmation of my worth as a human being, and also that perhaps I did have some talent in writing. Young wayward kids need that. I did.
Every year of my life if I drove past this building I would be reminded of that moment. And now it is gone. They tore it down 2 years ago. A piece of my childhood died.