The Resilient Major Anton Andreae

I am going to tell you a story about the man who was the first person in our family history to step foot on United States soil. His name is Major Anton Andreae and his story changed the way I look at myself and my very resilient family.

I remember as a child, being fascinated with an old picture album that Mom has of some of my ancient relatives. I was fascinated because these relatives looked rich. The photos were professionally made in a studio back when photos were only made in a studio. My relatives, in these photos, were wearing elegant clothes and exquisite jewelry.  They sat in chairs covered in real fur. This was impressive to me because my parents never had that kind of wealth. My relatives were all loggers or farmers. Even in their Sunday best, they looked nothing like the people in these photos. Who were these people, and most importantly, what happened to all that money?

A few years ago Mom dug up an old obituary of My Great Great Great Grandfather, Major Anton Andreae. For simplicity in this story, I will just call him Great-granddad. She sent me a copy of the obituary and the story in it made a huge impression on me. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of who those rich people were in that old photo album. That obituary also explained how my Great-granddad’s family became the loggers and farmers that I know to be my family and most importantly, it told what happened to all that money!

My Great-granddad Anton Andreae was born in Frankfurt on the Main in Germany, an important city centre, world renown for commerce, culture,  and education. In this bustling trade center, Anton’s family was wealthy and prominent. Anton’s father, my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, was a rich merchant in the East India trade industry which included some of the wealthiest people in the world.

Anton Andreae was given one of the finest educations in the world in a school in Switzerland, the same school where Napoleon the third got his education. At school Anton learned to speak both French, and English and later in his life learned to speak Hungarian and Polish. In total he became fluent in five languages.

After his extensive education, Anton joined that military and became a Major in the army. Frankfort on the main was under the subjugation of Austria at the time. Hungary was also under subjugation of the Austrians and Anton was sent to fight with the Hussars in Hungary for Austria. Unfortunately,  the Hungarian revolution broke out when Major Anton Andreae was fighting in Hungary and the Hussar regiment that Major Anton Andreae belonged to, broke rank and joined forces with the rebels.

My Great-granddad was forced by the rebels to fight his own country. He was finally able to escape and fled to Turkey as a fugitive. The obituary does not tell how he managed to escape, but now because of his ties with the rebels, Major Anton Andreae was no longer safe in either Hungary or his own country of Germany. My Great-granddad then fled Turkey where he hid for a short time until he found a way to Constantinople and from there gained passage to America, landing in New York. He traveled almost immediately to Wisconsin where he settled down. Upon arriving in New York, Anton Andreae was still quite young and still had considerable wealth. I imagine that he retained his wealth through family ties. The obituary speaks of a brother living in New York who was in the silk industry.

Anton left New York almost immediately to make a life for himself as a businessman and family man in Wisconsin. I like to think that Great Great Great Grandma was already there waiting for him. He began his career in Wisconsin as a prominent businessman, however, each and every business that he started ended in failure of some sort. During his career in business, his company was burned to the ground six different times. He started in a brewing business, then went into the grocery business, had a flour and feed store, a clothing store, a whole sale liquor establishment and finally a saloon which also folded. Finally, Anton Andreae managed to get hold of 160 acres of land under the homestead act which he cultivated shortly before his death.

Now I finally know what happened to all that money! My family went from riches to rags in the one short lifetime of Major Anton Andreae.

But, I also took away something completely unexpected from this story. The obituary describes my Great Granddad, Major Anton Andreae as, having many genial qualities, as being well esteemed in his community, and having many friends who spoke highly of him.  He may have died a poor man but, he was no scoundrel. He did not give up even when the going got tough.

The obituary says that Great-granddad had “eight or nine children”. Those eight or nine children had children and those children had children who became the farmers and the loggers that I know to be my relatives today.  My relatives all have those same genial characteristics that Great-granddad had. Most importantly, my family is made up of people who know how to pick up the pieces when their luck is down and keep moving forward. They are resilient. I, for one, choose resilience over money any day.

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The Missing Toilet Paper

I have no idea what these two are going on about, something about crops and machinery, both taking turns chuckling their belly laughs. I hitched a ride along with Dad today, needing to get away from the house for a while. Old Soibert laughs with his belly, a perfectly symmetrical half-moon that starts at his neck, protruding beneath his farmer’s overalls which are cinched over his shoulders and held on by metal latch clasps fastened at the front. Dad also laughs with his belly, but his belly is more of a fat capital “D’ shape that starts at his chest. Dad prefers fat suspenders to farm overalls, his belly protruding and stretching the suspenders to each side of its girth. Both men are strong from working hard. I have never touched old Soibert’s belly but I imagine it is the same solid hard that Dad’s belly is, not the cushy flabby kind that you would get from an office job.

“What did happen to that toilet paper?” Soibert suddenly turns on me, still laughing his belly laugh. Dad suddenly turns curious. Old Soibert is a lot like Dad, nothing escaping either of them. I have been over at Soibert’s house and seen where he likes to sit in a big lazy-boy chair that faces a window looking straight at our house, the nearest neighbor within sight of his house, keeps a pair of binoculars handy on the window sill where he can grab them if anything interesting happens. He prefers the comings and goings at our place to the evening news.

I know exactly what Soibert is talking about. I thought for sure I had escaped that particular dilemma, believing for certain I had erased all evidence of that damn toilet paper fiasco. I stammer and turn red like I always do, giving away how guilty I am. They both look at me for a while, Soibert with a big ass grin on his face, Dad wondering what the hell was going on, both waiting for an explanation. After I scratched around in the dirt with one foot, looking at the ground for what seemed like 20 minutes but was probably only twenty seconds which is still a really long time,  the two of them looking at me, making me feel even more like a freak than I felt already, Soibert finally explained what happened, since it clearly wasn’t going to come out of me. “She used a whole roll of toilet paper when she was over babysitting the kids last week. She must really like toilet paper.

Again they both looked at me, thinking that now I would fess up. But how the hell could I explain that missing roll of toilet paper and how did one missing roll of toilet paper get to be everybody’s business anyway? It is just a roll of toilet paper. Do they count the stuff after I leave? The kids I babysat, the ones  Soibert is talking about, are his two little grandchildren that live next door to him.  The kids are too young to even think about toilet paper which means that Soibert’s son or his son’s wife, the kid’s parents, figured out the toilet paper was missing and blabbed about it to old Soibert. I wonder how much of Dorchester talked about the missing roll of toilet paper.

I thought about what I might say but it all sounded too corny and embarrassing and nothing I said could make a damn bit of difference. I wasn’t going to tell them about how I dropped the toilet paper in the toilet by accident. I could just hear the questions then: How do you drop a whole roll of toilet paper in the toilet? Don’t you sit down on the toilet? But what happened to the toilet paper after you dropped it in the toilet? It wasn’t in the trash can. Where did you put it? You couldn’t have flushed it down the toilet. It would have clogged the toilet up. What did you do with it? There was no way I was going to tell them the answer to any of these questions.

Eventually, Soibert and Dad laid off me, seeing how nothing was going to come out of me. I was safe for the moment. I kept to myself the explanation about how I got my period that day I was babysitting Soibert’s grandchildren, about how my period was too new for me to know when I could expect it to come knocking on my door, about how I did not have any sanitary napkins, about how I was trying to make a sanitary napkin out of toilet paper when the roll of toilet paper fell into the bloody toilet, about how I was not going to leave a blood stained roll of toilet paper in the trash can, so that now instead of talking about a mysteriously missing roll of toilet paper, we would be talking about a roll of soggy and bloody roll of toilet paper left in the trash can, and how I carefully took chunks of that bloody toilet paper, just enough at a time so that the toilet wouldn’t clog up the toilet, knowing that if I clogged the toilet, I would forever more be known as the idiot who clogged the toilet with bloody toilet paper, about how small chunk by small chunk I flushed the toilet paper down the toilet, about how I even tore up the cardboard tube in the center of the toilet paper and flushed that down the toilet, so there would be no evidence left, hoping beyond hope that no one would notice one stupid missing roll of toilet paper. I kept that all to myself.

“Not going to tell us anything about the toilet paper, are you?” Soibert was not quite done working me for details. I looked up from the ground I had been staring into, trying to come up of an answer that could get me off the hook.

“Nope.” It was all I had.

 

 

The Flat Tire

Jim was the first to point it out and we all ran over to the picture window to see what would happen next, each of us peering out the window, hoping for any kind of excitement. Nothing much happened in our neck of the woods. A fancy sports car with a flat tire on the highway that ran smack dab in front of our house was big news. This was enough to get all of our attention and we rarely agreed on anything.

The driver got out of his fancy red sports car, walking around to the side of the car facing us as we pressed our noses up against the window, watching for details. “He’s not from around here,” Paul stated the obvious. Most everyone in Dorchester lived on a farm or worked in the farming industry, hauling milk, fixing farm machinery, storing grain, packaging meat, or making cheese. There were a couple of factories; one that made pizzas and one the made fancy wood windows and of course there were a few teachers, insurance agents and a lawyer of two, but mostly everyone was blue-collar and even the lawyers knew better than to flaunt their meager earnings with the purchase of a fancy car for fear of being ostracized for charging too much. Besides, a nice coat of paint on a new car never lasted long between the salt poured on the roads in the winter and the gravel roads spitting chunks of gravel in the summers. Mostly, everyone bought an affordable used car, a Ford or Chevy, never a foreign model car, no one knowing how to fix those things when the broke down.

“Bet he’s from Illinois, maybe Chicago, “Jim always needing to one up Paul, intoned. There were two types of drivers got noticed on the road according to the gospel that ran in our house. One type was the farmers. You could tell them easily because they were the ones that drove slower than molasses in January, looking over their shoulder, peering into the fields that they passed, looking to see who had planted which crop when, always second guessing whether they were planting at the right time to out-guess the cold and the rains. Highway 13 was just two lanes of traffic and waiting for a clear pass around the slow driving farmers was next to impossible. The other type of driver was the tourists from Illinois. You could tell them because they were always speeding, rushing to somewhere, rushing to anywhere they were not. Dad could frequently be heard grumbling about those “damn Illinois drivers, trying to kill everyone on the road,” as they managed to speed past everyone, narrowly sliding past cars, causing Dad to have to put on the brakes to prevent causing a front end collision with oncoming traffic.

Highway 13, with its ever-present traffic was a constant reminder that things did happen somewhere, somewhere other than where we lived just outside the small town of Dorchester.  While my life stalled, the real world drove past our house every day on the highway that ran north and south in front of our house, me waiting not so patiently to grow up and take off along that same road to somewhere that was anywhere but the north woods of Wisconsin. My brothers and sister were no different from me, each of us dreaming for the day we could leave.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy examined the flat tire. “Look he’s got on a fancy suit.” Chris laughed. “How’s he think he’s going to change a tire in that?” I liked the fancy suit. It was a pin-striped, dark-grey and he wore it with a white shirt. No one wore a fancy suit around Dorchester except to weddings and funerals and they did not look like this guy looked in this suit. I remembered the prom I went to with my boyfriend, Kenny. He looked like a scarecrow in that suit of his with the sleeves being at least an inch higher that his wrists and the pants being even shorter. He pulled at his collar like there was hay stuck in there, itching away at him.

“Look he’s going back in his car,” Paul again stating the obvious. We watched as he got back in the car and  rummaged around in his glove compartment. “He’s looking for the directions,” Jim burst out laughing. “The idiot doesn’t know how to fix a flat.” It was rewarding to know that we country-bumpkins from Wisconsin had something on the fancy people in their fancy cars who squeezed you off the roads trying to get anywhere but here, even if we also wanted to be anywhere but from here. It was why we pointed them out on the highway in the first place. We pointed and laughed at them for being too fast, speeding through life and at the same time wishing we had a little of what they had, hoping that one day we could drive the fancy car, like the ones speeding past Dorchester, except if we ever did get a car like that, we would stop and show it off for a bit before speeding away again.

Showing off was not something that was ever done in Dorchester. We were not raised to be show offs. Maybe it was something about the harsh winters that made things this way. If you ended up stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the night, stuck in a snow-bank in sub-zero weather, you wanted to be able to go to the house down the road for help. No one needed enemies at a time like that. Maybe it was our German roots that made us this way. I never learned very much about those roots. I never even considered my German roots much, even though my Grandparent’s first language was German. Who wanted to be German once the atrocities of Hitler were taught to you in school?  I could not imagine being a German immigrant and living through World War II as my grandparents did. They could see what happened to the Japanese immigrants during that time. It was better to learn to lay low, speak English, and blend in, not making waves. But the war was now long past and not part of our history and we were ready move out and move up in the world; at least I was.

Dad unknowingly aided and abetted my desire to leave Dorchester and shored up my belief that there was more out there than there was here. He liked to give us a peek of things outside Dorchester, while also letting us know that home was the best place to be. He met a pilot at the tiny airport north of where we lived, an airport with a run-way only big enough for little six-seater airplanes, the pilot willing to take us up in one of those planes. Dad wanted us to see how amazing our little piece of the world looked from up in that little plane as it circled our small neck of the woods. My quest to leave Dorchester just got stronger, seeing our  toy-sized house nestled in a little patchwork of farm fields and thatched woods made it look so much smaller and the outside world that much closer to obtainable.

Dad also took us all to see Chicago, our big trip to see the city and what city life was like. He was careful to take us only to the absolute worst part of the city to see the dirty soot covered high-rise tenements, explaining to us, “That’s what city life is like. You have to live all crowded together in these cubicle apartments where it’s so hot you can’t breathe in the summer. The air is all polluted too. There’s nothing good about the city.” I wasn’t buying into it though. I knew there was more to the city. Even this grimy part of the city with all the people and cars and congestion looked promising. I dreamed of being Mary Tyler Moore and making it on my own one day. I could see myself in the middle of some gleaming city twirling around as I tossed my hat toward the sky in sheer joy of finally making it, having a cute little one-room apartment with a huge walk-in closet full of fancy city clothes and high-heeled shoes.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy opened his trunk, reading along in his instruction booklet as he figured out where and how to get the tire out of the trunk. “It’s going to take him forever to fix that tire. Do you believe he has never changed a stupid tire in his life!” We were full of ourselves watching this guy work so hard at the simplest thing. “Somebody should go help him.” Chris always wanted to make things better.” Jim objected, “Let him suffer for a while. Let’s see how long it takes him.” The guy in the fancy suit got the tire out and was trying to figure out how the jack went together.” Go help him,” I said. It was getting boring watching him fiddle between the instructions and the jack parts.

I also felt stupid because I did not know how to change a tire. We had a strict line between what boys did and what girls did in our house. Girls were in charge of cleaning and stayed out of the garage which was for the boys. It drove me crazy that I was stuck in the house and never learned about cars and how to fix them. I knew I could do anything my brothers did and I was certain that anything that they did I could do better. But the garage was not allowed. I would love to be able to go out there to fix that tire and learn a little more about this guy from Chicago. I wanted details.

“I know. Why don’t we let Cork go fix the tire,” Jim finally resolved. “It will be embarrassing for that guy to have a little kid change his tire. Cork was the baby of the family and was just nine years old. This seemed a fine plan to all of us and we watched as Cork, head held high, went out there to fix the guy’s tire. I am not sure what Cork said to the guy, but he handed over the jack parts to Cork and in ten minutes the tire was changed. Cork loaded the old tire in the guy’s fancy red sports car with the jack parts and headed back to the house with a big happy grin on his face. In that moment we all felt a lot better about being hicks from the north-woods of Wisconsin.

Driving lessons

I had been labeled at an early age as a bad driver.

I was seven years old the first time I drove anything. My older brother wanted me to drive the lawn-mower tractor so that he could ride along on the wagon in back along with the rest of the cousins. He ordered me to get into the driver’s seat and grab the handles. At that time I still felt that I could do anything that my older brother could do, so I was excited to drive for the first time. I climbed up to the seat and took hold the handles the best that I could. The tractor had the type of handles that came out like a large V. I grabbed the ends of that V with purpose, but it took the entire length of my arms stretched straight out to reach each handle. I had to lean my body entirely forward, standing off the seat to just get the grip. Then my brother started the engine and those handles started to rumble in my hands vibrating and jumping as the motor spurted. I had a full load of my cousins on a trailer hitched to the back of the tractor. Then my brother put the gear into forward, yelling that I needed to steer as he ran to join the cousins on the wagon.

I just hung on to those handles not knowing what to do next. I did not have a clue how I might steer that tractor. The rumbling handles made my hands numb and turning in any direction, stretched out the way I was, seemed impossible so I just I hung on as I watched the tractor move across the stretch of green lawn. When I saw the metal poles of the swing-set come rearing into view, I heard my brother yelling at me from behind, “Your need to STEER!”. I pulled at the handles with my numb little hands but there was no budging. Just before contact with the metal pole of the swing-set, I jumped off the tractor and ran. Hearing the screams of my cousins on the trailer, I turned around and watched as the tractor crawled in jerks up the pole of the swing set, the back wheels grinding into the ground as the front wheels inched up the pole until the pole bent and collapsed, the tractor falling to the ground finding new purchase on the pole, chomping away at it like a hungry animal. My cousins all flew off the trailer, scrambling in different directions, screaming. All I could do was watch as the swing-set was turned into a mangled mess of twisted poles.

There was also the time that my cousin Debbie came over on her moped. I must have been about twelve years old at the time and I was having some friends over for a sleepover. We found the alcohol stash my parents had and decided to give it a try. I was a little tipsy by the time Debbie decided it would be fun for us to take turns driving her moped. I was the first to give it a try. This time I was ready for the vibrating handles and I knew enough to steer. Debbie explained to me how to rev it up and give it some gas to make it go and how to lay off the gas to slow it down. I took a couple spins around the yard and realized that I had forgotten to ask her how to stop the thing. In my inebriated state the only thing that I could think to do, under these circumstances, was to run the bike into the house. I broke a bone in my foot and caused enough damage to the bike that it would not start after that.

By the time I was sixteen and wanted to get my license, the stories of my inability to drive were legend.  I took the Driver’s Ed course in high school, sliding behind the wheel in a car meant for students, a car that had an extra brake on the passenger side so that the instructor could stop the car if the student went careening off course. I fully expected that the teacher would need that brake when it came my turn to drive.

Mom tried going out driving with me on a few occasions before I went to take the driving test to get my license. She sat in the passenger side placing her feet up against the dash to brace herself for the inevitable crash, hanging on to the cushioned door handle so tightly her knuckles turned white. Each time I turned a corner or took off from a stop-sign a little squeal would erupt from her mouth. Mom was not the best driver herself and was probably not the best choice for a teacher but it was all that I had. The words I remember her saying while I drove: Watch out! Where are you going! How fast are you going! Slow down! Are you watching the road! Oh Crap! I think we are done! I hate doing this!

My Dad’s answer to driving lessons was to let me drive the car by myself in our driveway. He insisted that I needed to spend eight hours driving in the driveway before I could go take the driving test. We did have a long driveway with a loop at the end but there is only so many manuevers a person can do in a driveway. To this day I can drive backwards better than anyone I know.

By the time I took my first driving test I was a nervous wreck. I was happy to put my hands on the steering wheel to keep them from shaking. It was hard to hear the instructions of the man giving me the test over the beating of my heart.  I made several errors including driving on the wrong side of the road after botching up a Y turn. I had to wait six months to try again, that being how often the instructor came to our neck of the woods. I passed on the second try, but just barely.

After finally getting my license, I could drive by myself but the extra car that my parents had for the kids to drive was an old Rambler that was a stick shift. I had never learned to drive a stick. After complaining long enough about wanting to drive that car, Dad finally gave in and decided to teach me. We were sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window at the Rambler sitting in the driveway. He waved his hand in the direction of the car. “There’s nothing to it. It’s like a letter H” he said explaining which gear is in which position and how to ease on and off the gas when going from one gear to the next. “Go give it a try it if you want.”

I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and went out to the Rambler, sliding into the driver’s seat, checking out and memorizing the position of first second and third gears. I managed to move the car in fits and false starts to the end of the drive way and then I got it to cough and sputter down Highway 13 to the gravel road that turned past my Grandparents’ house. Getting it out of the driveway was the hardest but once I had it on the dirt road and  going things went well. But I got stuck again at the first stop-sign with someone coming up behind me. I was blocking traffic. My panic at causing someone to wait for me to figure this out caused me to make things even worse. I just kept killing the car each time I went into first. Eventually, the man behind me got out of his car,  got in the passenger seat beside me and proceeded to teach me how to drive a stick shift. It was easy once I was shown how to do it.

I came home gloating about how I learned to drive a stick. I never told Dad or any of my family about the man who had to stop and show me how. It was better that I figured it out on my own without help. It was one victory that I had, proving that I was not a bad driver. The problem was that I knew I needed help so in my heart I knew I had not really made the victory.

It was Mohan, my best friend that last two years of high school who finally taught me how to drive a car. We were skipping school and I was driving the Rambler with Mohan in the passenger seat. Mohan came from a family with five kids, all of them girls. Her Dad always wanted a boy and Mohan decided to be that boy for him. Her Dad sold cars and Mohan knew cars and how to fix them. Her name was Cindy Mohan but she gave up the use of her first name because it was too girly. She had shoulder length blond hair that she parted just off the center, always wearing it in a ponytail low on her head, always wearing the same uniform, a jean jacket with a tee-shirt and jeans.

As we were driving the twenty miles from school to the nearest Shopko, she noticed that I was driving all over the road. “I know,” I acknowledged. “I am a lousy driver.” I will never forget what she said in response: “No you’re not. You just need some confidence. You need a little practice. We need to take a road-trip this weekend and you will drive.” For her that was all that was to it.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard but I knew that she was right. I could learn to drive. Just because I did not know how to drive did not mean that I “always”  had to be a bad driver. All I needed was practice. We did take that road-trip, driving to her Aunt’s house in Milwaukee, a five-hour drive each way and I drove most of the time, arriving home at the end of the weekend a competent driver.

The Smelt Fry

I wanted desperately to go to the smelt fry in town, but Denny was having none of it. Living out in farming country in the Northern half of Wisconsin, there were few things that ever really happened, the smelt fry being one of them. Smelt are tiny fish, that look like salmon, but rarely reach seven inches long. After being spotted in streams by flashlight late at night, the swarming schools are swooped up in nets. The oily little fish are brought into town, floured and battered whole, then dipped in a deep fry and heaped on a paper plates to be passed out to a waiting line of people who each paid their five dollars at the door, each taking a seat where-ever they can squish in, sitting side by side along room-long folding tables with rows of folding chairs, all lined up in the fireman’s hall. Many of my family would be there, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and a few cousins.

I had sewn a new skirt from remnants I got when I was still working at the Ben Franklin store in a neighboring town before I had Kelly, quitting that job when I went into labor, becoming a stay at home mom. I had saved the remnants to make something for myself that wasn’t a pregnancy muumuu. Kelly was now two months old and my waistline was back to 24 inches and I made a skirt that cinched my tiny waist into 23 inches. The full skirt was light blue, matching my faded blue eyes and had a white ruffle sewn in the bottom. I wore the skirt with a matching white lace vest that fit tight on my tiny hour-glass frame showing off my best curves, which were now plentiful from breast-feeding. My body felt back to its old self again after the long months of pregnancy then recuperation from a cesarean birth, I was ready to show it off a bit.

Maybe Denny sensed the joy I felt in that new skirt and my recently returned figure and felt threatened by that, thinking perhaps I would be swept away by some handsome farm hand with a redneck tan. Or maybe he just hated to see me having fun; because he dug in his heals and flat-out said he was not going. There was no more talking about it. The subject was closed.

I had been stuck out in that old farmhouse we lived in, with nothing but the fields and the garden for company for two months. My only trips into town were to get the groceries and to take the diapers and dirty clothes to the laundromat for washing. It was true that I wanted to show off my returned figure, that I wanted something back from my old self, a girl I still remembered as independent of being a mother and a wife. I loved my new baby daughter beyond a love that I could have ever imagined having, but I was still a young woman, only twenty-one years old, wanting more than diaper changing and grocery shopping.

Maybe if my life as a new wife had some fun and laughter in it, I would have felt differently that evening. Denny turned out to be a solitary husband, coming home from work each day from the factory, not offering up a word, taking up joint, blurring his vision behind red eyes, picking up his guitar, or disappearing into the bathroom for an hour or more at a time, with the door locked, or sitting in front of the TV watching the news, anything to tune me out it seemed. If I tried to pick a conversation with him, he turned his back on me, making it clear that he felt trapped into marrying me, that he only married me because he had to, because of the pregnancy. He was doing his bit working at the factory, paying the rent, paying for the groceries.

Denny also decided that I was responsible for “the kid,” as he put it. I was the one who wanted to have her, he told me. I could not understand, though, after having her, after seeing her as a real live perfectly formed creature, with little fingers and little toes, a person who looked to you for comfort, who relied on you for everything to stay alive, who showed her gratitude with those eyes peering back at you, by nuzzling in and curling up against you, by wrapping those tiny little fingers around your one big finger, how could he not fall in love the way I fell in love. But he didn’t. Kelly might as well have been a hamster in a cage that needed feeding or a cow that need milking. She only represented a mouth to feed, a diaper to be changed, a chore that needed doing. Not that Denny did those things for her. I did all of that. He explained to me that he was the wrong sex to be doing that type of thing. Men did not change diapers. That was all that was to it. Men just did not have the stuff it took to feed or care for babies.

It was a Sunday and I had spent the whole day taking care of Kelly while Denny sat around the house finding ways to ignore the fact of our existence. He knew that I wanted to go to that smelt fry. I told him about it earlier that week and let him know my family would be there, expecting me to show up. I came out to the kitchen to let him know it was time to get ready to go. I had already gotten dressed up, had my blue skirt on and my make-up and hair done. He just said he wasn’t going, said it like he was choosing chocolate ice-cream instead of vanilla. He turned to walk into the next room and picked up his guitar, closing me out the same as shutting a door in my face.

Denny’s guitar woke up Kelly who had been sleeping in the basinet not more than a foot away from where he sat hang-dogged over his guitar. I stood just inside the door watching from the kitchen, waiting to see if he would pick her up. I decided not to run to her like I usually would. Surely if I stayed put, he would see her there, right in front of him, her little crying snivels. How could he not do something for those cries? But he didn’t. He did not halter his playing on the guitar, not even a twitch came to his bony shoulder that stared blankly back at me, even while Kelly’s cries turned from sputters to full-out wails for help, he just kept on playing his guitar, head down, absolutely no reaction, nothing.

What little spunk I had in me would be worn out of me in the two years we remained married, my resolve quietly disolving like a setting sun, but there was still some of me left this early on in our marriage. I looked at this situation just long enough for the steam to build up in me. I exploded into the room with an energy that took over my usual easy-going nature, took over the place in me that could never say no, took over my shy quietness. Through clenched teeth I hissed loud enough to be heard over Kelly’s wailing, in a way that allowed no retort: “I am going to the smelt fry. You can stay home as long as that’s what you want and, as long as you’re staying here, you might as well take care of your daughter. If you hadn’t noticed, she is awake and needs to be changed and given a bottle. The bottle’s in the fridge, just warm it up, make sure it’s not too hot. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure this out. You can do it!” With that I left before the dust could settle.

I went to the smelt fry, but the entire time I was gone, I worried Denny was home doing nothing, just letting Kelly cry. After greeting all my relatives and making excuses for Denny not being with me, I went home early. Kelly was fed and diapered and asleep. He managed to do what needed to be done.  I knew though, I could not just leave her with him. She needed someone who loved her.  I would be the one Kelly would turn to in life, I would need to be there. I knew also, that I was trapped in this marriage, I was trapped the same way Denny felt trapped, like a skunk in a cage.

The Race

The quest to figure out what was wrong with me started before I can even remember. It seems to have been with me since I was born. I look back now for details about where it might have gained root or where it had taken off on a life of its own. I can’t recall a time when it was not there.

From my earliest recall, I thought that there was some secret I was not getting about how life worked and constantly monitored myself against others to see where I came up wanting. It felt like self sabotage, as if there was this part of me, deep inside me where a war pitted against my success. On the playground I would choke when the ball was thrown in my direction, being all fumbled fingers. I would never get all my answers right on a test, mixing the letters on my spelling, freezing when it came to math, fumbling the answer in the same sure-footed way I would fumble the ball. I honestly considered whether other kids got some special pencil in school that helped them ease the correct answer onto their papers. I froze when called on in class, getting all blank eyed, the edges of my vision going all swimmy, the teacher’s voice coming at me down a long tunnel. As the rest of the kids looked on, I would feel my cheeks flush, willing words to come to my lips, but none would.

In fourth grade, some girls in my class wanted me to try out for a spot on their relay team. There were no formal tryouts like they have now. In my tiny town, kids just signed themselves up for what they wanted to do each year. There needed to be four girls on a relay team and three of the girls in my class were looking for number four.  I knew that I could run like the wind. I could anyway if I were not in a race, if it were not a test, if it were not something I had to win against someone else. If it were about winning, I would lose. I could not seem to stop it from happening as sure as I would fumble a ball, I would fumble a race.

The three girls on the team were looking at either me or my cousin Debbie as the last team member. This was familiar territory. I had been pitted against Debbie my whole life and had come up short. I am not sure how many times I heard my mother ask me, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie?” She would intermingle that with things like: “Debbie get A’s in school,” or “Debbie knows how to help out around the house without complaining,” or “I bet Debbie’s mother doesn’t have to drag her out of bed in the morning to get to school!”

After a time, it no longer became necessary for Mom to invoke Debbie’s name.  Even though Debbie was my best friend from birth until we separated ways in 7th grade, I grew to resent her more and more each year, Debbie becoming my standard for normal while I became my standard for everything that was not. Just seeing her became a reminder of that.

I lived right next door to my Grandmother’s house and yet Debbie who lived almost two miles away was the favored Grandchild. Grandma kept a box of toys with the nicest dolls in it for Debbie that I was not allowed to touch when I was at her house. The box was kept upstairs in the bedroom that Debbie used when she stayed the night.  There was no box of toys for me at Grandma’s house.

In addition to the special toy box Debbie had at Grandma’s house, she had a whole toy room to herself at her house. The toy room was in the attic with a window at one end overlooking the farmyard. The slanted beams in the ceiling made the place especially cozy with a soft light pouring in from that window. Debbie had ovens that made real cakes and a little table where you could have tea parties with all the tea dishes and even a place to set them in a dish drainer to make-believe they were drying after you make believed washed them. There were boxes or games stacked up against one wall.

No toy lasted in my house for very long. Games would get scattered around and there would be too many missing pieces to actually play any of them after the first week of Christmas had passed. My sister had cut the hair off all the few dolls I had while I was away at school in kindergarten. Things did not last at our house. I certainly did not have a whole playroom to myself.

I was six months older than Debbie but, due to our very different genetics, she always had at least three inches on me in height and it was me who got to wear all her last years clothes. I hated going to her house each August, just before school started, to go through all her hand-me-downs, sifting and sorting among the dresses that Debbie had picked out the year before, the dresses she liked for herself, the ones she wore new to school last year. Debbie got to go on a shopping trip to the city each year. I got to go to Debbie’s. I never wanted Debbie’s old dresses, all frilly with ruffles and lace. I was more of a tomboy to her curls. But I didn’t dare turn down a free wardrobe for school. I knew all too well that money did not grow on trees. Mom talked on and on about these hand-me-downs. On the way to Debbie’s house each year mom would want me to agree with her how lucky I was to get those clothes. I would always agree.

Each year as I tried on dress after dress that Debbie handed down to me, Debbie would tell me how glad she was to get rid of her old clothes and get new ones, feeling bad for me having to wear these old things. Each dress I would try on and have to go out to the kitchen to show my mom who was sitting over coffee with my aunt, how pretty the dress looked on me. They would say things like, “Oh now look how nice that one fits on you! Don’t you like that one?” I always said yes, and put on my brightest face. At least I did until one year Debbie pulled the cork on the whole scam, letting out of her mouth those fateful words, “No she doesn’t! Peggy does not like my old dresses!”

I don’t know if she thought she was trying to help me or if she was finally just stating some fact that needed to be known. But for me it was like a house made of cards crumbling around me. I felt the shame of it all coming in slashes of red across my face like big hard slaps. Maybe it was the shame of having to wear these dresses each year that really never fit me, were not me, the way I felt in those dresses bringing on the teasing from the other kids, the other kids smelling my shame. Maybe it was the shame of letting mom down that I felt just then, having played into this game each year for years about loving to come to Debbie’s for her hand-me-downs, it being our one time together each year, just the two of us, having heard myself just that same evening on the way over here, to Debbie’s house, tell my mother how happy I was to get these clothes, it being what she wanted to hear. Or maybe it was that I knew mom was just as embarrassed as I was,  having to rely on hand-me-downs, convincing herself and my Aunt how much I liked these clothes, making it all less demoralizing.

Mom drove me home in the quiet car that year Debbie let on how I really felt, Mom’s words hanging in the air between us, “I always thought you liked those clothes.” We never went back to Debbie’s for hand-me-downs again.

At a party with all the relatives at grandma’s house, two of my older cousins put Debbie and me together and judged us for which one of us was cuter. They looked at our hair and our eyes and the shape of our faces and noted how much taller Debbie was than me. Debbie wore a lacy party dress and had her short blond hair done up in cute little ringlets around her square face. I had on my usual mismatched tomboy attire and my thin hair was left wild and stringy against my triangular face. Debbie was selected as hands down cuter. The thing was, I wanted to be found cuter. I wanted at least that.

We all went out on the big grassy playground the size of a football field, just a big stretch of green.  Debbie and I squared off at one end of the playground and took our marks. I knew before going into it, that if I saw that I was winning against Debbie, my inner critic, that little devil that resided inside my head, that place where I was everything that was wrong and Debbie was everything that was right, would stop it all and I would just choke. I would choke. Whatever that thing inside of me was, it would take over and cause me to lose.

As we stood together that day, Debbie and I, me six months older than her and her three inches taller than me, on that starting line, I wanted nothing more than to beat her. I wanted so badly to be better at just one thing. I was small and lithe next to her tall and lanky. I knew in my heart that I could run faster than she could. I had seen her long lanky legs doing that loping run she had my whole life. My little legs could spin like the road runner cartoon if I really let them.

I needed to shut out that nasty part of me that just refused to let me succeed.  I determined to do it. On the starting line, Debbie by my side, I shut my eyes tight and listened for the go to be called and when it did I took off running. I never dared to open my eyes, knowing that if I saw myself inching ahead of Debbie, my spinning legs would just go all rubbery. With my eyes open, I would only be able to see Debbie taking the lead. With my eyes shut, I could just focus on the pounding of my feet against the green grass field and the taking in of my breath. I ran my heart out until I heard someone shouting for me to stop.

I looked back to see my classmates at the other end of the field. I was way off kilter. I could not run a straight line with my eyes shut. The girls all saw that I was running blind. They never pressed me on it. Maybe it was because they were the nice girls in class, not the ones who would spite someone just for sport. Maybe it was that in Northern Wisconsin in that part of farming country, no one was without their problems, everyone did their strange things, it being in the days of spare the rod and spoil the child, the days when children are to be seen and not heard. We all had our harsh realities and no one was immune.

The thing is they told me I ran faster than Debbie but they needed me to run a straight line. “Just do it with your eyes open,” someone said. Debbie and I were set up to race a second time. The thing is I could not open my eyes this time either. It would have hurt too much to lose now, after I had managed to outrun her, even if it was in a crooked line. I tried to self correct by veering in the other direction but I still ran off kilter. In the end, they chose Debbie as the last relay partner. I was OK with that. I had my small victory. I could run faster than Debbie. I would not be able to run the relay with my eyes closed anyway.

Mother Protector

I’m still not able to take in the immensity of the relief I feel to have her here in my house, safe and alive. In the darkened bathroom, my twenty-four year old daughter sits in the bathtub filled with hot water. I can see her beautiful golden hair flowing over the edge of the basin. There’s not a bone broken or a scratch on her body. Her spirit is a bit shaken and there are a few bruises. That’s all.

I wonder if I somehow caused that car accident with all that constant worry I have over her. I have worried more about car accidents that anything else in her life. I remember the nights when she first learned to drive, waiting to hear the door open, to know she had arrived home safe. I’m going to stop right now. No more thinking about car accidents. Never.

That car was so demolished, that little green Honda hitting that huge semi. It is amazing she walked away from that. Maybe my meditations of her, surrounding her in a zone off safety, protected her. I really am crazy. Here I am almost killing her off with my worry and now saving her at the very last second. How do children survive their parents anyway?

I can’t help but wonder how I can make her a survivor, no matter what happens. I want to be God or something, being able to save her with my positive thoughts.

But there is nothing left to do.

OK, stop. Just enjoy the fact that she is here and alive.

They never told me this would be so hard.

 

Death

I haven’t checked back with my mother since Dad died. I wonder now and then how she is doing. It’s been over a month now.

Dad was cremated. There was no body at the funeral. The thought of his cremation has flashed though my mind; the big fiery pyre with Dad on top, the tribe crowded around the edges of the fire, as I look close up and see those big bushy eyebrows sizzling up in the flames.

I don’t feel that he is gone though, really gone, not the way my mom would miss his presence. It’s not like we had a close relationship. We didn’t talk on the phone. He didn’t check up on me to see how I was. There were no Sunday dinners I was required to attend. We had a connection though. It was just never stated in a way that I could touch it.

After the funeral we flipped Mom’s mattress for her. She wanted to sleep on Dad’s side of the bed, the side closest to the bathroom. But there was a big hollow in the mattress, worn in from the years he laid on that side of the bed. Her much smaller shape fell into that hollow like into a hammock.

It was that day, after the funeral, when Daryl found her grandfather’s rack of suspenders in the closet. Mom passed them out to the grandchildren, who snatched them up, wanting to grab onto their favorite piece of him. They had each had their many turns, sitting on his lap, leaning into his round belly, grabbing hold of those suspenders. Now they put the suspenders over their dress clothes from the funeral, red Santa suspenders over little girls’ dresses, Harley Davidson suspenders over dress slacks and a crisp white shirt. Little ones running around pulling suspenders like sling shots, their mother’s racing after them to avert the potential damages. After much arguing and fussing, the suspenders got divided between the grandchildren and were carefully tucked away into suitcases to be taken home.

It’s been over a month now. I imagine Mom shuffling through draws and closets, looking for clues about who he was, making mental notes on their life together, her in the silence of his absence.

I haven’t called her yet. I don’t want to hear that silence.

Trust Severed

We were already three hours late for the wedding; at least that’s what I had told them. I was standing up in my sister’s wedding that day and if they had it their way, I would get there three hours after the wedding started. We had driven all the way from Oklahoma to attend the wedding in northern Wisconsin but my husband’s mother lived in Madison which was on the way and we could never, I mean never, just pass Madison without stopping in.

When we moved away from Madison to Oklahoma, when Tim got into a master’s program there, it took a full month of saying goodbye to his mother. We had to have a special party at her house, which turned into many dinners saying good-bye, because we would not be able to see her all the time after we moved. Each of these dinners focused on how much she was going to miss us meaning miss Tim. She came up with a series of excuses why Tim had to come over to help her with this or that. The goodbyes were endless. Finally we were set to leave, but we had to postpone because Tim’s mom had to go out-of-town, and if we left as we had scheduled, she would not be able to see us off. Finally, it got to the point that if we did not leave, Tim would miss his first day of classes. Even so I felt like I could not breathe on that first day out-of-town, imagining that we would have to turn around for some reason having to do with Tim’s mom.

Tim said early in our relationship that it was just easier to just do as his mother told him. Over the years we spent together, I saw how she manipulated Tim and his brother to do her bidding. She was very free and easy with her love, affection and money as long as you towed the line and complied. I had lived on my own for several years before hooking up with Tim, and the idea of having a mother to cow toe around was foreign to me. I adored Tim’s mom at first, she being so overwhelmingly engaging, well-educated, cute and petit, she was downright charming. I soon found out that, like Tim, I was expected to follow the family rules which meant I was to show up at all the family events, put on a bright and happy face and do what I was told. The first time I got out of line, Tim’s mom gave me the silent treatment which lasted a full year. During that year I was still required to show up and put on a happy face. I was in love and wanted to make things right with Tim’s mom, so I complied.

By the time we left for Oklahoma, I was on speaking terms with Tim’s mom and for several years we returned to Wisconsin each Christmas to visit our respective families. Invariably, we would stop to see Tim’s mom before heading further up north to see my parents and invariably we would be hours late to see my parents. We could not leave late the night before, because that would be too hard a drive so late at night. Never mind that we had driven the 18 hour drive from Oklahoma straight through with Tim and I taking turns at the wheel. Never mind that we had already stayed for days with Tim’s mom. It would be agreed that we would leave early in the morning so that we could get to my parents for Christmas lunch. But in the morning we could not possibly leave without a large breakfast, a breakfast that lasted until noon making us arrive at my parents for dinner instead of lunch, my family having to tell the kids to wait to open presents until we finally arrived.

Of course that was not the end of the story. Tim’s Mom would then talk Tim into a cross-country skiing trip after Christmas so we could spend just a little more time together. On a couple of occasions we made the mistake of also trying to get together with friends for some cross-country skiing. Tim’s mom would find a way for us to have to linger on with her, while our friends waited hours at a restaurant for us to show up. The first time it happened I called my friends over and over explaining the problem so they were not in the dark. The second time I told Tim he had to make the calls. He never did. There would not be a third time skiing with friends.

So now I was faced with the prospect of getting to my sister’s wedding on time. I was standing up and this was extremely important to me. I knew from experience that we would have to stop at Tim’s mom’s house on the way up and knew there was no way out of there on time. I decided the only solution was to lie. It was the only lie I ever told during my marriage but it had to be done. I told Tim and his mother that it was a morning wedding. I told Tim and his mother that the wedding started four hours earlier than it did. Of course they decided the best solution was to wake up really early in the morning to get there on time. I set the alarm for the proper time, according to my lie and got up. I got ready and packed the car. I got the kids ready to go. Then I waited. As I suspected we had to have the big breakfast. I could see that both Tim and his mom were looking at me, waiting for me to become hysterical in the manner I usually did about leaving on time. They could not say anything though, because that would announce the fact that we were dangerously late for a wedding, a wedding that I was standing up in. We continued the charade until we finally left.

We left on the three-hour drive north to my sister’s wedding when the wedding was supposed to have started, according to the lie I had told them. Not a word was said by either Tim or his mother about how we could possibly make it on time for a wedding that was starting already.

I made it to the wedding on time because of the four-hour lie. My family was extremely relieved to see me, but was prepared to go ahead without me. Tim never said a word about it. We did not discuss it on the three-hour drive north and never said a word about it after getting to the wedding on time.

My New Car

When my daughter Daryl was six, her Dad finally came home from Japan to visit her. Daryl never gave up on her Dad. During the entire two years he was away, even though there was rarely even a card from him, she kept a tee-shirt of his in her room. As if to recreate him from his scent she would hold that old shirt up to her face and inhale, his smell the only thing she had left.

When Tim showed up at my door, I offered for him to stay with us and before the week was out I offered him not only my apartment, but my car and my bed. My daughter was not the only one starved for his scent. I found it to be delicious that he was back. Our family fell quickly into step as in the old days. Daryl was so thrilled to have her Dad back. Tim and I spent the week, cooking together, going out together to a concert, meeting all my friends from work, and in the evening after a full day, plopping down into each other’s arms and making love. It all seemed perfect. I walked around with that glow on my face that you can only get from a new relationship.

My first husband was emotionally abusive and left no doubt about my decision to get a divorce. When I started to pray that he would get into a car accident and die so that I could have a peaceful night, it was time to call it quits. After that divorce I never looked back.

Tim was my second husband and my second divorce.  The thing about Tim is that even in divorce he was a nice guy and I loved him. We just had very different ideas about what it meant to be married. I believed strongly in fidelity and he did not. I did not like the idea of sharing him and he thought as long as we loved each other, what was the difference. I even tried the infidelity thing on for size, while we were married, to see if I could manage it. I decided to bed this very attractive man who had been pursuing me for some time. It turned things even messier and I became even more confused and had to call it quits. In order to sort out the chaos, I left both the affair and my husband.

That did not keep me from believing that Tim would come around and see it my way. I imagined that he still needed to sow his wild oats and he would come around to seeing that I was the best thing since the discovery of sugar and come back to me. So when he returned to the States to visit Daryl, taking up his old space in bed beside me, I imagined that all my dreams were coming true and we would be back to our old selves, madly in love with each other once again, but this time it would be just the two of us, Tim finally forgetting all those other women.

It did not help that before Tim showed up on my doorstep I was in a very low spot, feeling like a twice failure for having two divorces under my belt, not having found another person I thought could possibly replace what Tim and I had, being overly stressed by the tension of being a single parent and having to do it all by myself. To add to the trouble, when I divorced, I chose to move to Arizona where I did not know a single person and had no family or emotional support besides my colleagues from the office who were all delightfully single and child free and had no idea what I was dealing with.

Just before Tim left to go back to Japan, where he had a temporary position at a University, he totaled my car. He ran into the car in front of him while trying to find an address, not knowing where he was headed. Daryl was in the car and they both had on seatbelts. Fortunately, no one was hurt except the car, it being towed away for salvage. We went to the used car dealer and I picked the best car that I could get for the $10,000 Tim was willing to spend and drove away in a used Nissan.

I took Tim to the airport the next day. He insisted we stop at a shop on the way to the airport and I spied on him from around the shelves as he picked out some jewelry I imagined was for me. When he never turned it over to me on the way to the airport, I asked him about the jewelry. “Oh, that, it’s for Gwen,” he said casually, slapping me in the face with the casualness of it, sending my whole life up in flames. The fact that we had shared a bed for the last week, had cooked together, had fun together, going shopping together, going to a concert together, acting like lovers act, was nothing.

The only thing that had changed during our week together, in comparison to the days when we were married, was that now I was the other women. Gwen was his woman. Gwen got the jewelry.