Thursday, January 24, 2008

24 JANUARY 1963

(Tiny Chatty Brother in exactly the clothes he wore when I got him Christmas 1963)

On this date 45 years ago, I went to school as usual. I was eight years old, in third grade, Miz Davis's class, at Bonham Elementary, Midland, Texas. I walked to school because my family had only one car and that was with Daddy, who was currently getting new training for his job in Irving, Texas, over 300 miles away. He was due to be gone another month.

But school was within walking distance, as long as the weather was not too cold to aggravate my asthma. We lived in Sunset Trailer Park, an oval dirt road with lots of big trees and trailers spaced around the ring, a playground in the middle. Each yard had a wooden fence, a rarity in trailer parks. We'd manage to snag a space at the corner, an extra-large yard backed onto a vacant lot.

On our left side was a young couple named John and Linda. John worked as a DJ at a radio station, and Linda stayed home with their 2-year-old, Little Johnny. She had bleach-blond hair piled up high on her head, and she visited Mama a lot. We were supposed to play with Little Johnny, but he was not much fun.

Their trailer only had one bedroom, but their furniture was a lot nicer than hours. John's hobby was drag racing, and there was a real red race car parked in front of the trailer, just big enough for one person. We were not supposed to ever even touch it.

President Kennedy had been assassinated in November. It seemed like grown-ups were still in shock from it. My parents had voted for Nixon, but after President Kennedy was killed, Mama said I was not to tell anyone they had been Nixon supporters.

Right before Christmas, Mama had told me and my toddler brother Bill that she was pregnant again. I was really happy about it: Maybe this time I'd get a sister. I needed a sister bad. I begged Mama to let me pick out the names for the new baby. Laughing, she asked me what I'd choose. I knew already: Timmy if it was a boy, Penelope if it was a girl. She said it was up to her and Daddy to name the baby, and it wouldn't be those names, but she wouldn't say what they would be.

I began doing two things every night right before I went to sleep. First, I did magic using an old broken watch of Daddy's, running the hour hand backwards for an entire day's sweep while saying special words that I'd read in books. Then I would pray to Jesus to bring me a baby sister. I figured one of the two would work.

Mama was in a bad mood most of the time, even at Christmas. I thought maybe it was from President Kennedy dying. She didn't go out much. She ate a lot of crackers and tomato juice. She was fighting with my teenage brother all the time.

For Christmas I got a Chatty Baby and a Tiny Chatty Brother, with matching flaxen hair. I had asked for a chemistry set. I named the dolls Penelope and Timmy. I played with them a couple of times, then returned to my reading. That year I was memorizing poems from a book Mama had used in high school, "Flanders Fields", "Gunga Din", "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and, especially, "The Highwayman". I read "The Highwayman" every day.

Daddy went off to Irving right after the New Year and had not been back yet. Fortunately, a block away (across Midkiff Road) was a grocery store, so Mama could walk with me and Bill there and get us food. She only had one dress that fit her any more, and she always wore that when she went out. Otherwise, she wore her housecoat all the time.

When we first moved to Midland, I spent a day playing with a child next door named Robin that I thought was a girl. He wore boy blue jeans and had short hair. He was as imaginative as me, and cheerfully shared the good roles with me. That night at dinner, Mama laughed when I called Robin "he" -- she said it was a little girl. Unfortunately, Robin had only been visiting her grandparents and did not live in town.

There was another girl in the trailer park, Donna, who was a few years older than me and wouldn't actually spend time with me but we were both voracious readers and discovered our individual book shelves held lots of titles that the other one didn't have. So we swapped books regularly. She introduced me to Trixie Belden and Honey.

I didn't have any friends. I'd tried to make friends at school, with a girl named Becky McCuistion and another girl named Jena Bowden. When Becky found out I lived in a trailer, she said she couldn't be friends with me, her mother wouldn't let her. I told Mama about it, and she swore for a long time, said terrible things about Becky's mother. Jena had me over to her house once. It was big and fancy. When I was leaving, she told me I was too quiet and my wheezing bothered her, she didn't want to play with me again. I didn't tell Mama about that, afraid of setting her off.

But my teacher, Miz Davis, liked me as gushingly as all teachers seemed to like me. She gave me special projects all the time, letting me work way ahead of the other kids. She brought me her own books from home, histories and biographies that Mama said were for college kids. They were fascinating, and as soon as I read one, Miz Davis brought me another. So I looked forward to going to school each day, even without any friends.

On this day, when I got home from school, Mama wasn't there. Instead, Linda from next door was in our house with Bill and Little Johnny. My older brother wasn't home from high school yet. Linda took my hand and said Mama was in the hospital, that she had begun having her baby except it was too soon and something was wrong. I asked if Mama was okay, and Linda cried when she said she didn't know. She told me Daddy had been called but would not be home until very late that night.

I didn't know what to do. Linda kept trying to get me to talk, but I was too numb. When my older brother got home, he yelled a lot and demanded to be taken to the hospital. Linda said she had to look after the kids, and they weren't letting anyone in to see Mama, anyhow.

We went to Linda's house for dinner. After dinner, though, my older brother demanded to go back to our trailer and that he we go with him. He said he looked after us all the time, and we needed to be home in case somebody called. Linda finally gave in.

Once we got home, he said we had to clean up the house to make it nice for when Mama got back. She'd not been doing much housework for a while. He gave us impossible chores, things we didn't know how to do. He put a broom in Bill's hand and began yelling at him to sweep the kitchen. Bill did his best, but he was too small to really manage it. My older brother screamed at him more and more, and Bill began crying in terror. My older brother grabbed the broom from his hands and swung it at Bill.

I shouted at my older brother to leave him alone. He turned and looked at me, enraged. I realized I had to run for it. If I'd gone down the hall, I might have made it to the back door and could have gone to Linda's. But instead I bolted for Mama's bedroom. Once in there, I was trapped. I dove headfirst into her closet, which is where he caught up with me. He hit me for a while with the broomhandle. When he was done, I went back to trying to clean the stove. He didn't pick on Bill any more that night, though.

When we got up the next morning, Daddy had been there but already left for the hospital. Linda made us breakfast and got me dressed. She insisted on putting me in a frilly dress, with petticoats and socks that had embroidered flowers on the cuffs, things I hated to wear. Bill stayed home with Linda and Little Johnny again. After school, Daddy was home waiting on me. He told us that the new baby was dead, had died right after being born. He had been a boy. I felt a chill when I heard that part: Neither magic or prayer had worked.

Daddy said Mama's uterus had ruptured because she had toxemia and she had been taken to surgery. They had removed her uterus and barely saved her life. She would not be home for a week. The baby would be buried the next day. My father's parents, fundamentalist Baptists from Oklahoma, were driving in and would stay with us when Daddy went back to work in a couple of days.

I asked if the baby had a name. Looking upset, Daddy said they had planned to name him Thomas Samuel. He would have been called Sam. Then he said he had to go back to the hospital, that my older brother would look after us until our grandparents got there late.

I told Daddy I didn't want us to be left with our older brother, that we should stay with Linda instead. When he looked at me, irritated, I told him that my older brother had hit me with a broom. My older brother grinned confidentially at Daddy, shrugging his shoulders, and said "They were misbehaving, refusing to help with housecleaning, but I didn't hit her, I just swatted at her." Daddy laughed, man to man, and told me I was to mind my older brother. He left.

Years later, after I moved back to Texas from San Francisco, I went searching for the birth certificate of my lost brother. I discovered he had been born on January 24. The next day, January 25, was my oldest brother's 16th birthday. I'm certain nobody ever remembered it at the time.

The next morning Grandmommy took me out to buy some funeral clothes. She decided on a dark navy skirt and sweater instead of black so I could wear it on other occasions. But I never did.

At the funeral home, Daddy, my older brother and my grandparents all looked in the coffin at baby Sam, but they wouldn't let me or Bill, though I begged hard. Later Grandmommy told me he had been blond, with blue eyes, and looked like Bill as a baby. I was confused; Bill had brown eyes.

The training Daddy was getting in Irving was supposed to make him able to have an office job with his company and therefore not have to move around us around all the time. At the end of January, he rented an apartment for us in Irving, then came back to Midland to sell our trailer and most of our furniture. We moved to Irving, with Mama not yet fully recovered from her surgery. She was quiet and pale.

While we were packing, she told us all that she had died on the operating table. She said she had floated up to the corner of the room and watched them trying to bring her back to life. She had floated through the walls, into the sky, and then begun traveling toward a distant light. She said she was the happiest she had ever been.

But then her mother, Hettie, had appeared. Hettie had died when Mama was a year old, so she didn't really remember her, yet she know instantly who it was. Hettie told her she couldn't die yet, she had things she still needed to do on earth. Mama said Hettie meant me and Bill, she still had to raise us. So she came back down, returned to her body, and after a minute, she was alive again, in terrible pain and grief.

My older brother got up and slammed out of the house. I was completely terrified. I never stopped being scared about losing my mother after that. I knew the only reason she was around was because of her obligation to me, and I kept hoping that would be enough.

The week after we moved to Irving, Mama turned 37. Daddy bought her a Chihuahua puppy as a present from all of us, whom she named Chico. That night we watched Ed Sullivan, as usual. There was a band called The Beatles on for the first time. Mama thought their music and appearance was horrible, and kept making jokes about them. But I liked the way they sounded, and their long hair. I kept my opinion to myself. The next day, though, on the way to school I sang under my breath "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah."

(Link to some poems of mine written about the Midland era of my family, plus an ad for our trailer)

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