A Taste of Love
Today I’ve got to look better than awesome. Rumors have been running at school. Star Wars came out less than a year ago and Luke Skywalker’s thirteen-year-old twin, is a boy named Ray Wotasek. He’s the hero every Lakeview Junior High girl dreams to catch. So when Ray’s buddy Dave, told his girlfriend Monique, who passed on the news to Jen and LaNae, which is really the rest of the school, it was big news. Word is, Ray Wotasek’s eye is on me.
So far I’ve managed a miracle. The wardrobe was easy – wide-leg jeans, platform heels and, of course, my Star Wars tee. The challenge is always my hair. It’s taken an hour, but for once, it whooshes back evenly from the sides of my face. The bothersome part is that I’m running late. I’ve got to bolt for the bus stop if I’m going to catch the latest reports. So I’m irked as I’m trying to run out the door, when my mom smothers me in a hug.
“Happy Valentine’s day!” she plants a wet smack on my cheek. “Good luck with your first after school dance!”
Mothers. I wipe her lipstick from my cheek. How bogus can you get? Who doesn’t have mom love? Like every other year, she’ll spend the day baking. There’ll be heart shaped sugar cookies on my pillow when I get home and a cherry pie for my dad. Stupid family stuff.
“So Val, you think Ray got you a carnation-gram?” asks Kelly, as we wait for the bus, “Fifty-cents is a lot for nothing more than a love note with a flower.”
“You know what I think?” cuts in my best friend Steph, “He got her six. One for each class.”
That’s Steph, my ever faithful champion. Just one carnation-gram is all I need, any time, any class, as long as it comes, I don’t care. This could be it. If everyone’s right, on this Valentines day my status as ‘single’ could change.
“I’m going to do it!” swears Stephanie as we ride to the school. “I’m going to ask Wade Whiting to dance!”
She’s been crushing on Wade since the first of the year. He’s a popular jock. For moral support I promise I’ll be by her side and ask one of his best buds to dance.
Geometry starts. The first deliveries arrive. Steph gives me a smile of encouragement. Three carnations: one each to Christa and Megan, both currently taken, plus Eric James who is blushing.
History: Less than five flowers. Cheerleaders. They always get something. Still none for me.
PE: A handful of airheaded girls giggle over carnations they sent to themselves.
Science: When we arrive, Terry Calder, who’s a little retarded, has his shirt flipped up with a face drawn on his belly. He jiggles his fat so the expression keeps changing. Nearby the jerks who told him to do it are laughing their heads off. When the flowers come, Terry gets three. He’s so proud he reads the notes out loud. He’s the only one there who doesn’t know they aren’t real.
English: This time Ray’s in the room. Five floral gifts get dropped on his desk. There’s nothing for me but curious stares, wondering where my flower from Ray went.
Choir: The last carnation-grams arrive and it’s over.
Fine. No big deal. Fifty cents is kind of steep. That’s twenty minutes in babysitting money. There’s still the after school dance to consider. It’s our latest eighth-grade ‘socialization’ adventure starting right after sixth period is done. A while back we had a coed course in PE. Along with some disco moves, we were taught about dance etiquette to prepare us for the event, not that it will make much of a difference.
Like sheep, we’re herded into the gym. It’s dim. The floor’s covered in sawdust so we can slide and spin. There’s a mirror ball up front, mounted to a table, reflecting spots of color that move. My gender and I pack ourselves along the nearest side of the gym. Hugging the far wall, the opposing sex stands, trying to appear careless and cool.
“Brick House” by The Commodores starts. Nobody moves. Five stanzas pass. Finally the first boys venture into us girls. While I’m searching for any sign of Ray, Todd Johnson, a boy half my size, asks me to dance. It’s better than nothing. At least I got asked.
Two songs later they announce it’s girls’ choice. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees breaks out. It’s Stephanie’s big moment. We head over together. It’s a nerve-racking trek. But Steph is determined.
“Hey Wade, you wanna dance?”
The Wade gang all eyeball him, wondering what he will do. He gives them a sly glance like he’s got this one covered.
“What makes you think I’d dance with a bag of garbage like you?”
His fan club laughs.
I’m so shocked I can’t breathe. How could he say such a thing? To anyone, let alone Steph? Sure, she might not be the prettiest, most popular girl. But she took a huge risk. In the process, she paid him a compliment he doesn’t deserve. Steph’s smart and funny and gutsy. No one, no one, deserves that kind of rejection.
My best friend runs and I follow. She finds a dark corner. She cries on my shoulder.
I’m still in the process of trying to repair damage that can never be fixed, when every girl’s nightmare asks me to dance.
It’s Terry Calder, the belly jiggler from science. Thus far he’s been hit with one denial after another. It’s understandable to everyone but him. He doesn’t know better. During slow songs, as instructed by the same set of jokesters who say the girls love it, he latches on and will not let go. For a girl as tall as me, that means his greasy head will get plastered against my chest.
But after the put-down I’ve just witnessed, I don’t have the heart to turn him down. So while ‘Dust in the Wind’ plays, Terry wraps his sweat-soaked body around mine. It’s a battle with me trying and failing to retain a fraction of dignity. When the song ends, he won’t let go. I’m forced to peel myself free.
Still, the rumors regarding Luke Skywalker Jr. linger. During the girls’ choice songs Ray’s been busy. Thus far, however, he hasn’t approached any girl. According to grapevine reports, he’s saving his one slow dance for me.
The last song is announced, “Stairway to Heaven.” At seven minutes long, it’s the best slow song ever. For the first time, Ray’s heading into my neck of the woods. Our eyes meet. The gap between us is closing…
That’s when Danielle Morganstein, feminist of our eighth-grade class, decides to take the matter into her hands. Luke Skywalker’s too hot a commodity to ignore. Before Ray can reach me, on a boy’s choice song, she asks him to dance.
For seven long minutes I watch Danielle as she snuggles up to my guy. They leave holding hands. In one move the evil seductress dashes my Valentines hopes to pieces.
That afternoon, with my shoulders slumped, I walk through my front door. At the top of the stairs there’s a dozen roses in a vase. That kind of reminder regarding my still ‘single’ status should hurt, but it’s not so bad. It’s sweet. It’s tradition. Dad’s home. I can hear him in the kitchen moaning in pleasure as he samples mom’s cherry pie. Based on the smacking sounds I hear as well, he’s stealing kisses between bites.
“How was the dance?” calls my dad from the kitchen.
“Wade Whiting called Stephanie a bag of garbage.”
The pie is forgotten.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” he gives me a hug. Somehow mom gets in on it too. By the time we’re done talking, I’ve decided Ray Wotasek deserves a girl like Danielle. At least, unlike him, she had the backbone to step up and do something. I bet she sent him a carnation too.
Dad says better boys will notice my beauty, intelligence and talent. He looks at my mom. It doesn’t take much to know he adores her. They found each other. Like dad, mom sees all that’s incredible in me. That’s why every year she spends the day cooking.
Downstairs in my bedroom, her confections greet me. I devour all six. They’re divine. Maybe next year will go better. Junior high Luke might be a catch, but I bet he can’t beat the high school’s version of Han Solo. He’s the guy for me.
Head Transplants and First Kisses
“A head transplant?” cries a woman on the car radio. “Doctor, is a head transplant even possible?”
Nope. Not possible. I retort inside my head.
Outside it’s pitch black. The Big Blue Bomb, our family’s 1960-something station wagon lumbers through the dark streets like a snail. In his usual way, my dad’s driving by all the rules, waiting at deserted stop lights and signs, following ridiculous speed limits, like it’s any other day or time. But this drive is not normal or average. My dad and I aren’t talking. There’s so much tension in the air I’m surprised neither of us has snapped. Instead, the only sound between us is a ridiculous radio drama. How on earth did my father find a radio drama? It’s 1978. Didn’t they stop making those things ages ago? Oh right, I forgot, my dad is from ancient history.
“…It’s his only option,” answers the doctor. “If we’re going to save him, we’ve got to do the transplant now…”
Who cares!? I want to scream. If there was something I could throw, I’d throw it. I’d like to ram my foot into the dash, rip up the seats, and shatter the windshield. Instead I sit with my arms folded, my lips pursed, and my jaw clenched.
What thirteen-year-old is condemned to an eleven o’clock curfew on a Friday night? I was a girl on the brink of a life changing moment. My virgin lips were about to no longer be virgin!
It was ten-fifty-five when Karl Hillsman, the hottest fourteen-year-old boy I knew, had me in his arms. We were at a cast party for our junior high musical, a Star Trek spoof so bad it was an insult to both theater and music. I was cast as the female version of Captain Kirk. Karl was the space cowboy with a good heart, who in the end gave up his bad ways because of aliens and love.
Like most shows of this kind, it ended with the lead couple sharing a kiss. After seeing Karl for the first time with his cocky Harrison Ford good looks, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Unlike most junior high boys, he was tall and beefy to boot.
Unfortunately, Ms. Benoit, our French/English/Drama teacher, said junior high students were too young to be doing the real thing. So she had Karl take me down in a dip, with his hand over my mouth. Instead of kissing me, the back of his hand got kissed. The only bonus on that account was how Karl insisted on practicing the move as often as possible. He’d catch me unaware in the hall, charge from behind, drop me into a dip, and give me an almost kiss.
Tonight’s pizza party was the cast’s final get together. We’d already had our ‘school sanctioned’ affair with Ms. Benoit and the parent volunteers. Tonight was special. It was a party all our own. Shannon, a back stage tech, had reserved the side room of a pizza place her uncle owned. He’d promised to check in on us regularly – at least that’s how she’d explained it. Thus, if our parents asked if there was adult supervision we could still say yes.
Earlier, when we arrived at the squat, wooden building, I’ll admit I had my doubts. It looked more like a seedy bar than a junior high hangout. But when my dad asked if I was sure this was the place, I answered without hesitation.
“Don’t worry dad, I’ll be fine.”
Since it had started at seven, as planned, I arrived fashionably late at seven-thirty. An agonizing hour and a half later Karl finally strutted through the door. He sat around eating and chatting with his friends, which killed another hour. I’d been dancing with a lot of boys, but the one that mattered most didn’t ask me until after ten.
We were on our third slow song, Stairway to Heaven, when my curfew arrived. As we swayed to the music, Karl’s head dipped down low. Our faces were scarcely more than an inch apart. The distance was closing… He was going to do it, the most epic kiss of all time. My First Kiss!
“Shela?” said my dad from the doorway.
Karl and I couldn’t have separated faster. Everyone was staring at me. Not only had my hopes for a little lip action been ruined, in an instant my social life went down the drain. Nobody would ever invite me to a party knowing my dad would show up at the early hour of eleven. I wanted to melt into a puddle on the floor. Instead I grabbed my purse and rushed out the door.
“My head – it hurts,” a man moans on the radio. “Where am I? What happened?”
“You were in a car accident,” replies the doctor. “Your body was completely crushed. The only option you had left was a head transplant.”
“Are you telling me this body isn’t mine? If it’s not mine, whose body do I have?”
“Don’t worry about that part son. This is a rare opportunity. Unlike many others, you’ve got a second chance…”
“This is stupid,” I mutter tersely.
“You know the reason why I came to pick you up is because I love you,” says my dad.
Yes, I know. That’s the part that bothers me the most. All the ‘goody-two-shoes’ kids had parents picking them up at nine. A few more trickled out at ten. By the time eleven arrived we were down to a handful of kids swaying beneath a disco ball, and a lot of couples in the back of the room making out.
The problem was that I wanted both. I wanted to hang out with the popular crowd who bragged about hot tub hopping, playing the make-out game called Seven Minutes in Heaven, or spin the bottle, during parties that lasted all night long. But I also wanted the kind of love that drove parents like mine to set curfews and show up at inconvenient times.
“This is your last chance, Doctor,” says the transplant patient on the radio. “This body is driving me to do terrible things. You’re next on the list of casualties if I don’t get answers. Where did this body come from? Whose body do I have?”
“See for yourself,” says the doctor. “It’s all in your file.”
There’s a thud that mimics a hefty folder being dropped on a desk.
A few papers shuffle…
It doesn’t matter. I’m not paying attention. The idea of a head transplant is ludicrous. Who’s gonna try matching the wrong head to another body? That’s not how it works.
My Dad sits in the driver’s seat, his hands on the wheel, not saying a word. No matter how angry I am, he’s still the dad who gave me piggy back rides and, against my mother’s wishes, icicles to eat. Because of him I adore the tales of Frog and Toad, Winnie the Pooh, and all of Narnia. He showed me the magic of planting a seed, then watching it grow. When it took me forever to learn how to ride a bike, he stayed at my side every step of the way. And whenever I cry, somehow he knows just what to do.
I heave a heavy sigh.
“An executed criminal?! You put my head on the body of a serial killer?”
“It was the freshest body available.”
“What have you done?!” This time the radio voice is tainted with rage. The sounds of a struggle follow.
“I’m sorry you’re upset,” says my dad when we pull into the garage. “But I’ll do it again if the need arises.”
I’m sorry too. I think to myself. But right now I’m not going to admit it. The loss of the most epic first kiss of all time is too fresh in my mind. Who knows how long it will be before that first kiss arrives? However long it takes, I can tell you right now, it’s too long. So I turn my back on my dad, get out of the car and march to my room.
Thirty minutes later I’m ready for bed, but not ready for sleep. Quietly I knock on my parents’ bedroom door.
“Dad?” I whisper when he answers. “I’m sorry. I love you too.”
“I know,” he whispers back. And like every other time he has caught me in tears, he gives me the kind of hug that says, for me, he will always be there.
The Superpower of Cuteness
(Welcome to my memoir!)
I was born with the superpower of cuteness. I have proof. There’s an old photo that speaks of my unique appeal. I’m in a sailor dress. The black and white shot doesn’t let you know my hair is gold and my eyes are blue. But there’s something in my smile, the dimples in my cheeks, a glow about my face that makes you melt.
I knew it and I used it.
According to my memory, church was where I began to hone my skills. That was in 1967. I was almost three. We were living in Kearney, Nebraska, a nearly non-existent town with one main thoroughfare. By day my dad was a professor at Kearney State College. All the rest of the time he was the Branch President, or volunteer pastor for our church.
Sunday meetings were held at a Seventh Day Adventist building. It was an old, gothic style, clapboard shack. One of the best things about it was the abundance of peeling paint. My older sister, Lori, and I found no end of joy in removing the white flakes, exposing the brittle wood beneath.
Mother and Father frowned on this favorite activity of ours. Daddy would say, “Girls, this building isn’t ours. We need to treat it nicely.”
Lori, my five-year-old sister would then piously sit, hands folded in her lap, as I continued unperturbed. Daddy wasn’t going to stop me. I was his little angel who could do no wrong. Lori would give me evil looks that let me know I should be obedient like her.
Mother was more direct in her approach to my behavior. Without a word she’d grab me underneath the arms and plop me into a sitting position on the bench. Lori would give me a superior smirk.
The problem with Mother’s solution was that sitting on a bench made of nothing more than peeling paint and brittle wood, ground splinters into my tights. Little girl dresses back then were shorter than short. They offered no coverage in the needful region. Tights, on the other hand, were splinter magnets. Once the tiny spikes of wood were stuck, they were in for the duration. To avoid the painful annoyance, I could walk funny, on the tips of my toes, with my legs spread far apart. But even a two-year-old couldn’t get away with walking around the entire time at church.
There was only one solution. Lap-sitting.
I liked lap-sitting. Daddy’s lap (his being the lap of preference) wasn’t available during Sunday meetings. He had to sit up on the stand. Mother wasn’t easily accessible either. Most of the time she was leading the music, or playing the piano or giving speeches like Daddy sometimes did. Thus, I had to turn to the congregation for help.
Finding a lap was easy. This was where my superpowers came into play. All I had to do was smile. I’d cock my head to one side, and peer up at folks through my lashes. People couldn’t help themselves, they’d melt. The trick was in finding the laps of greatest advantage. Potential candidates were screened based on various factors. Did they have candy? Would they play games with me? Were they nicely padded? Did they wear interesting hats or shiny pins? But most importantly, did they wear itchy fabric?
The splinters were proof I had a delicate derriere. Lots of the older ladies wore thick, scratchy suits. But, looks could be deceiving and those same older ladies had the candy, most interesting hats and shiny pins. So, as often as possible, which was often, I’d walk down the aisle, running my hand from bench to lap to bench, to test how soft their skirts, dresses and suits all felt. Nobody minded because it was me. That silly little smile I kept on my face, kept everyone smiling back.
If a lady’s attire wasn’t acceptable fare, I could climb onto her husband’s lap, collect my candy and still have the opportunity to inspect their unique head gear and sparkling pins. In fact, older married men were gold. Their trouser fabrics were almost always suitable and they were prone to play games with me to kill the time.
Hats were a particular fascination of mine. Almost all the women wore hats to church. Some were tiny things that sat on fat poufs of hair with little nets that could drop down to cover your face. I saw no point in wearing such useless things. They didn’t keep your head warm or covered from the rain. But the nets were fun. Just like the ladies, I’d pull the net down over my face to peer at the world from behind a veil. It made me feel sophisticated.
The hats that really caught my attention, however, were made of straw and decorated with fruit and flowers. I wondered why anyone would want to carry fruit on their heads. Perhaps they used it for snacking. It was very disappointing to find out the fruit was fake. The flowers were fake too. Again, what was the point? I did not know.
Then there were the sparkly pins. They were shaped like flowers, or swirls or stars. Some had pretty colors. Some did not. I loved them all. I decided I’d have lots of sparkly things when I grew up.
Candies, of course, were an important lure. They were always of the hard variety, wrapped in cellophane. Skilled candy openers could pull on the two ends and make the colorful candy discs twirl open. Green ones were the best. Orange and Yellow were okay. Red I did not like much. I usually spit those out.
Of course, even the good ones required some spitting. I’d pop it in my mouth, suck for a while, then spit it out into my palm to visually check how things were progressing. Then, back in it went. It took about four checks (twice in each hand) before the candy was completely gone. Then the older ladies would suck on their clean hankies to try wiping off my sticky hands. It was a hopeless effort. In addition to my hands, there would be a big messy circle plastered around my mouth running from nose to chin to cheeks. Then I would have the pleasure of running up to Mother weather she was sitting on the stand or not, and she’d have to take me out to get cleaned up.
The biggest bonus of all, however, was lap-sitting in front of the sacrament table. Two or three handsome teenagers would sit at the table in front of the congregation looking somber. In my opinion, church was already too somber as it was. It was my duty to lighten their mood. Thus, in addition to my supercharged, dimpled smile, these guys got an extra bonus. I’d give them a little wave with my fingers. They would try to resist, but it was me. Resistance was futile. My super power was in action. They’d break down and crack a smile. Sometimes they’d even wave back. Victory! The world was mine.
There was only one person who could resist my super power. Lori. She detested how I could get away with doing things that she could not. When it came down to dealings between the two of us, she made it clear who was in charge. For example, our house in Kearney had a huge front porch. It was our favorite place to play.
“This,” Lori would tell me as she drew a chalk line from the far edge of the front steps to the corresponding side of the front door, “is your space. All the rest is mine.”
“How do I get down the stairs?”
She’d let out an aggravated huff of air, then drew an angled line six inches from the corner of the front steps.
“There! That’s it. That’s all I’m giving you!”
“But what if I need to go potty?”
With a growl my sister would march over to the front door to draw another angled six inch allowance. Well, at least my basic needs were met. Lori would then proceed to collect all the best toys (they were already on her side). I got the leftovers (tossed in my direction). This was fine. I knew she was my superior.
Wendy, her friend from next door would come over. They’d sit in the corner and play jacks. As if jacks required two-thirds of the porch! I was in the process of setting up my imaginary home, cramming everything, kitchen, laundry, baby’s bed and dinner table into the small allotment I’d been given.
You see, Wendy had a younger brother close to my age. By then he was four. Although Randy claimed boys did not play with girls, he had no one else, so I had to do. With him being a boy, one of our favorite activities was to play house (ergo my cramped one-third-of-the-porch household). This is what prompted Lori and Wendy to start whispering, pointing in our direction and giggling. Then they’d chant:
“Two little lovers sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.”
So? What was wrong with that plan? Mommy and Daddy had done it. Randy and I got along fine. Maybe we would get married someday.
Between giggles Lori and Wendy decided to make the union official. They ran around our two yards collecting lilacs, daisies, dandelions and whatever else they could find, to make me a wedding bouquet. Even though the two of them seemed to find the idea hilarious, Randy and I felt it was reasonable. After all, we were in the process of playing house. Besides, secretly, Randy did like girls. I know he liked me. He told me. It was that cuteness super power of mine kicking in.
Lori and Wendy had me march down the front walk to the porch steps where Randy waited with a clip-on bow tie attached to his striped shirt. Since Lori was the oldest, she officiated. She held an open picture book and acted like she was reading from it. The words didn’t matter. The part that was most important, the part that had Lori and Wendy giggling the most, was at the end when they said in unison, “Now you’ve got to kiss!”
Randy had no qualms when it came to kissing me. He was aiming to do it right and smack me on the lips. I did not want his boy lips touching mine! That was the part that made the whole thing official. Once you kissed someone, you were as good as hitched. I wasn’t ready to take that big of a step. At the last second I turned my head. No matter how many times Lori and Wendy told us how kissing on the lips was essential, I refused to cooperate. My cheek was fine. No boy germs were going to mess me up.
Eventually that excitement died down. Randy and I went back to playing house. I told him he had to be the daddy while I was the mommy. This plan worked for a while. Then one day he said he wanted to be the mommy who stayed at home. I thought this was a novel idea. We gave it a try.
According to standard procedure, the daddy was supposed to leave with a briefcase. I had my father’s worn out case. I’d give my ‘wife’ a kiss on the cheek, then trot down the sidewalk off to work. While my masculine friend tended to our baby and did the ironing, I would collect more interesting, important things, like rocks, ladybugs, maple leaves and acorns, to stash inside my briefcase. It turned out this was the arrangement we both liked best.
Winters in Kearny always included snow. One evening my sister and I ran from playing with our toys to staring out the front window across our beloved porch to the front yard, eagerly anticipating what was sure to be winter’s first snow.
“Don’t…” Mother would call from the kitchen a moment too late, “…touch the glass.”
She’d finish on the hope that maybe we’d remember the next time. We didn’t. In order to make a proper forecast, it was necessary to plaster our noses, cheeks, foreheads, and hands against the clear surface. How else were we to gage the cold?
Our breath would steam up the window. Lori would draw a heart, point at me, then point next door. By then Randy and I had been married for days… weeks… an eternity. It wasn’t as if I’d forgotten how I was the dad and he was the mom. Back to our toys we’d wander. Mother gave us a quick glance to make sure we were engrossed before walking over to the window where our face prints lingered to wipe them away.
Fifteen minutes later we’d remember all over again. Time to check! Lori took the lead.
“Girls don’t touch…”
Bam! Our faces would slap against the glass. The one spot we’d watch the closest was along the top of the low brick wall that surrounded our playing paradise. Due to the freezing temperatures it had gone into hibernation for a while.
Bam! Again Bam! Mother was getting aggravated.
WAIT! We gasped. Mother came running.
Fat flakes of white began to appear. All three of us paused to watch in wonder. The awed silence didn’t last long. Lori and I started squealing, jumping and running around the room. Snow! Snow! Glorious SNOW!
That night Lori and I included two important notes in our bedtime prayers.
“We’re thankful for the snow. Please, please, please let it stay until the morning.”
It was hard to go to sleep, wondering, if we’d wake to the magical winter wonderland of our dreams.
The next morning we both ran up the stairs. Before potty breaks and brushing teeth, we smacked our faces against the glass. God had answered our prayers!
Oh, how that day seemed long. Daddy went to work. Lori went to school. Mommy and I were stuck at home, with me repeatedly checking to make sure the snow wasn’t gone.
I was forced to wait even longer after Lori got home. Why, oh why did I have to endure all this torture? Once Lori started wriggling into her winter gear, I knew the wait was over.
That’s when another form of torture began. Two pairs of socks, suspender winter pants, boots, sweaters, coat, scarf, hat, hood, mittens. The list was endless. Mother was paranoid! Lori wasn’t getting packed into nearly as much as me!
She laughed. Lori laughed at how I could barely move once mother was done. She laughed when I nearly fell down the front porch steps because my knees wouldn’t bend and my boots remained flat no matter how hard I strained. I could have fallen and bounced back up onto my feet I had so much insulation.
All of that was forgotten the second we reached the white blanket that covered everything outside. We kicked paths along the sidewalk; knocked the barren bushes; dropped to our backs to make snow angels; rolled snowballs into bigger balls that we couldn’t lift; so then we’d make our own mini-snowmen to stand on the edge of the porch’s outer wall.
When Daddy came home the first thing he did was make two small snowballs that exploded across our backs.
“Harold!” My mother would fuss from the front door. It was strictly against her rules to throw snowballs. Daddy had broken rule number one.
Lightening fast he’d make another one for her. She’d jump inside laughing, barely closing the screen door in time to block the blow.
Daddy would promptly proceed to break rule number two. He’d snap icicles from the roof and pass them around for all of us to slurp.
“Harold!” mother would fuss again from behind the screen, “Those things are filled with germs!”
“Ginny,” he’d say sweetly with a grin, “if you’d like, I’ll break one off just for you.” She’d shake her head and laugh at him. I liked Daddy. He knew how to break the rules and keep mommy smiling.
Along with the snow came Christmas. We went as a family to pick the tree. Daddy carried it in. Mother was in charge of making sure he screwed it into the holder so it stood straight. The stand was red with green metal legs. The trunk was set in the bowl which we filled with water to make sure it was fed.
Daddy wrapped our beautiful evergreen in fat, colorful lights, the kind with bulbs that could be screwed in and out. We decorated it with colored paper chains Mother helped us make, then draped lots of tinsel from the branches to imitate icicles.
On Christmas eve we read the bible story. This was in preparation for our dramatic production. Daddy dressed us in robes with scarves on our heads. Since she was the tallest, my sister Lori, played the part of Joseph. This was something she resented. She’d been Mary every year before. I did not feel sorry for her in the least. As the cutest child on the face of the planet, I figured playing Mary was my right. She did have one small victory. Lori’s baby doll served as the new born Jesus.
A show well worth watching followed. My dad was a theater professor, so he knew how to do it right. First he was our donkey (as Mary I got to ride on his back), then in a flash switched out to be the grumpy and impatient innkeeper. Next he’d transform into the kind and apologetic man who brought us to the lowly stable.
“Ginny, come be the star.” He pulled her from her chair and positioned her behind us. She opened and closed her fingers, smiling brightly and saying, “twinkle, twinkle.”
Then he’d make her be a beautiful angel. As an admiring shepherd he’d wriggle his eyebrows at her.
“Harold!” she’d fuss with a wide-eyed smile. He’d be tickled when she blushed. And for the finale, Daddy would dramatically ‘moo’ while Mommy ‘bahhhed’ next to him as a sheep. We finished in fits of giggles.
Soon after that we set out cookies and milk for Santa. Then Mommy and Daddy tucked us into our beds.
The next morning we came running up the stairs. That year I got a toy TV. I turned a nob to wind it up. Music played while a colorful picture rolled in a repeat pattern across the screen. I couldn’t get enough of it. Lori got Raggedy Ann which meant I got stuck with Raggedy Andy. This was something of a disappointment. Poor Raggedy Andy got left on the couch while I wound up and watched my TV. Soon Lori started making her Raggedy Ann dance in front of my TV. This was not acceptable. I looked over at Andy, lonely on the couch. He was a boy, but Daddy was a boy. No one was more awesome than my dad. Who could argue with that? My doll was just as cuddly as Lori’s. I decided that I loved him. That very moment I wrapped him in my arms, grabbed my precious TV, and wound it up for another show, this time for Andy and me.
Later that year, I learned some important lessons. First and foremost, all toys must be stored at bed level or above. There was something in there about not leaving our most prized possessions strewn across the bedroom floor. But honestly, it wouldn’t have made a difference, so that lesson went ignored.
Kearny, like the rest of Nebraska, is in the heart of tornado country. We’d hear tornado warnings on the radio. I was no innocent regarding the severity of these warnings. I knew about The Wizard of OZ. The flying monkeys were the ones who truly struck fear in my heart, but a tornado was a very close second.
To help us feel safe, Daddy pointed out where there were sirens in town. If we heard them blaring, we needed to take cover. In our case that meant the whole family ran down to the basement bedroom my sister and I shared.
“Look what I’ve got up here!” Daddy exclaimed, “Tuna, peaches, pears, peas…”
My heart sunk. Peas? I mean, I knew the tornado stuff was serious, but I did not like peas in the least.
My bottom lip stuck out in a pout. With a sly smile, Daddy pulled out two small boxes for us to see. Animal Crackers! The peas were instantly forgotten. Animal crackers were the best! They came in a box decorated like a zoo cart with animals inside. There was a string handle attached, which was handy so we could wander and still have our snacks. While daddy showed us the flashlight and a funny box with a crank that was a radio that didn’t need batteries or a cord, I was trying to figure out how I could reach the crackers up on the high shelf.
If I could put our bathroom stool on Lori’s bed I could maybe climb up onto the tall metal filing cabinet. From there I could reach whatever I wanted. I could get my crackers, a flashlight toy and a nifty radio!
As soon as Daddy was gone I grabbed our wooden stool. It looked solid enough when I set it on the corner of Lori’s mattress, but when I climbed on top, the bed part collapsed. Bothersome, bed. I tried everything imaginable. That bed corner never failed to wilt. It was a sad day when I realized the tantalizing crackers would not be mine unless a tornado came around.
Storms came. Mommy would run out to bring in the laundry hanging out to dry. With the wind in a wild frenzy around us, Lori would grab the clothes as Mommy released them. I’d hold the bag to catch the wooden laundry pins. Once we were back inside, Mommy turned the radio on in case there was an emergency alert. Rain and hail pattered against the windows. The front screen door rattled, sprung open, then banged against the house. We listened for the sirens. None of us liked it when things were bad and Daddy wasn’t home.
Then one night the sirens must have sounded after Lori and I had gone to bed. I woke up because I heard voices in the room. Mommy and Daddy were down there with us in the dark. Outside the whole world was raging. Upstairs the windows were rattling. The front screen door was banging against the house. Wind was moaning and shrieking. Mommy looked worried.
I sat up peering at them both.
He turned from the battery operated radio he was holding to his ear.
“It’s okay honey.” he said softly, “You go back to sleep.”
Mommy didn’t look okay. But I was too tired to worry. We were all in our safe place. That was good enough for me.
As you may have guessed. We survived.
The next day daddy was on the phone calling the people from church to make sure they were okay. Someone lost their roof which I thought would be interesting to see. I was disappointed when Daddy did not let me go when he went to inspect the damage.
A couple college kids had a little store where the ceiling collapsed and water got inside. Lori and I got lucky. Mommy and Daddy took us with them when they went to help. Everyone was gaping at the panels of ceiling parts that hung with one end up high, the other end below. There were broken glass cases, bulging walls, and squishy patches of green carpet.
In the mean time I was wondering if they’d let me have a pretty pink flower pin that was on the floor . All the big people were talking about throwing everything out and having to start over. Maybe I could get the flower for free. I pulled on Mother’s skirt then pointed at the flower. She hefted me up onto her hip. I figured that was the end of that. Mommy had a talent for ruining my reasonable plans.
Then one of the owners noticed how I kept glancing with longing back at the floor. It was time to put my cuteness powers into play. I gave her an extremely masterful expression of both appeal and heartbroken distress. What can I say? She walked right over to the flower.
“Wouldn’t this pin look pretty in your cap.” she said with a smile, then stylishly fastened it to my knitted hat. I felt like a fashion model.
Since I got a pin. Lori got a pin. Hers was not anything like mine. She knew she had gained it off of my cuteness superpower, which bothered her plenty, so I let it slide.
Due to all the tornado talk, I was convinced our basement room was impervious to all ills. I was wrong. No one could have been more shocked, when one morning I awoke to the shrieking wails of my sister. Slowly I glanced about the room, wondering what could be wrong. The more I looked, the less I believed. It couldn’t be true. Our whole room was filled with water. Our beds were like two separate islands. The more Lori shrieked and tromped around her bed, the wetter it became. I couldn’t understand it. This was no reason for distress. We were having an adventure! It was like we were inside a story book.
Then I realized I needed to go potty. This was a serious problem. The water was dirty, so brown and full of floating bits of muck, we couldn’t clearly see the floor. Dead bugs were floating on the surface. I did not like dead bugs. The water was so deep it would probably swallow me whole. I couldn’t hop off my bed into that mess.
Then l noticed something even worse. Floating nearby was my precious TV. All the pretty pictures on the outside were bulging and peeling away. Poor Andy hadn’t fared any better. His red hair and happy face were a soggy brown and grey. Maybe Mommy had been right about the importance of picking up our toys. Then again, the toys we’d put away were just as soaked.
“Lori honey?” called Daddy’s calm voice from upstairs, “What’s going on down there? You’ve got to stop crying or you can’t tell me what’s wrong.”
Lori was trying hard, but she couldn’t get out a word. Daddy started down the creaky wooden stairs.
“Virginia!” he cried in a terrified tone. With a sudden WOOSH he splashed into the room. “Lori! Shela!” His voice was shaky. His eyes were wild as he snatched Lori and me, one in each arm, pulling us against himself, clutching us close. All in a rush he sloshed his way back toward the steps.
“Harold? What’s wrong?” Mommy’s feet thumped at a rapid rate across the floor above. Daddy met her with the two of us where we all collapsed together on the stairs.
Daddy was trembling as he held us. Mother was breathing hard. We were in a tight family hug. I felt safe. It was warm and nice. I liked it when we were all together.
Later Lori and I watched as the water was pumped out of our room. One by one Mommy and Daddy set aside every precious toy we had in a pile that was headed for the trash. Why? They could be cleaned. Mommy cleaned everything. Why couldn’t she clean our toys? Lori and I cried.
After that, no toy was left on the floor again. Lori and I had a strict policy of keeping all toys piled on our beds. That policy was never forgotten. Years later in Colorado and then in Utah, Daddy built us high shelves so we knew that horrible disaster would never happen again.
That sping my sister Emily arrived. Ages earlier, Mommy and Daddy had told us a baby was on its way. They claimed it was hiding inside Mommy’s tummy. This was a strange concept. At the time, Mommy’s tummy looked fine. So where was the baby hiding? The answer to that question became evident as Mommy’s tummy began bulging. Oh, how I was aggravated. This bulging belly business was cutting into my cuddling time. I couldn’t sit on Mommy’s lap, which had been one of my favorite places. To keep the peace, Mommy and Daddy assured us that it was a temporary condition. They did not, however, explain how a bigger problem was on the way.
Then one day my parents walked in the front door with a blanket wrapped bundle and there she was: Emily, the alien invader.
She was an ugly critter with red wrinkled skin and crazy dark hair that stuck out from her head like spikes. In spite of that fact, everyone who saw her cooed over how adorable she was. The whole world had lost it’s mind.
After that, things just kept getting worse. I’d want Mommy to read me a book. She’d be changing Emily’s diaper. Snack time would come. Where was my Mom? Holding Emily with a bottle in her mouth. All I’d want was a simple cuddle, but no, little Emily needed to burp! What happened to me and my needs? I was lap-less, story-less and starving!
Right about then I remembered my cuteness superpowers. If Mother couldn’t do the job, there were a lot of other big people who were more than willing. Randy’s mom, for example, was an easy target. All I had to do was give her a little attention. She’d be cooking in the kitchen. I’d pause to watch. Without me even asking, she’d sit me at the table and give me milk and cookies. If I wanted a cuddle, one well played pout of mine would do the trick. She’d even read me storybooks while Randy played with his trucks.
That’s the way it was with all the adults. I could get whatever I wanted. The most incredible part is that once I got started, it worked even better when annoying Emily was around. People from church would come to visit. They’d say they were checking on my Mom and our new baby, but it was all about me. When Mommy’s back was turned, they’d slip me special treats, not just candy, but things like flowers, rocks, rubber balls and marbles, that only a toddler like me could appreciate. Then on top of that, I’d get more lap-sitting, cuddles and stories galore. My cuteness superpowers were amazing.
After the shock of Emily’s alien invasion had died down, another dreaded trial came my way. I discovered the meaning of financial hardship. Each month my sister and I were given an allowance. Mine was fifty cents. This allowance was of extreme importance to me. Once a week mother would let my sister and I walk down the road, beyond where the sidewalk ended, to a solitary Dairy Queen.
Back then they didn’t have an area inside where you sat to eat or a drive-thru lane. You would walk up front to a window. Someone wearing a white paper hat and apron would give you your order through the same window and it was up to you where the food was consumed.
For ten cents I could buy myself an ice cream cone. I lived for those ice cream cones. So, when the charge was raised from ten cents to fifteen, I was devastated. I could no longer afford the number of ice cream cones I’d been enjoying. Even before the price increase, the number of ice cream cones I could buy was insufficient. Tearfully I told my parents about my dilemma, hoping they might give me a raise. My cuteness had served me well on previous occasions. Maybe it could work again.
Sadly, this wasn’t the case. My allowance was to remain the same. They told me that if I wished, I could earn more money by completing extra chores. Mother made up a list of things that I could do and how many pennies each task would earn. The list seemed very long. I had to neatly make my bed for an entire week. All my toys had to be put in their proper places for an equal period of time. No clothes on the floor. Help set the table for dinner. Pull weeds with daddy in the yard. The list went on and on. It seemed even longer when Mother showed me how many jobs I needed to complete in order to reach my financial goal. I’d been thinking just one would be enough.
Oh, but there was no pain I could suffer that trumped my need for the ice cream cones. I’d mastered my own ice cream eating method: Take one bite from the curling top, then lick the sides repeatedly so as little as possible dribbled down the cone. Once the fat sides were narrowed down, another bite on top would be required. Lick some more until the top was flat, then tackle the cone on down. By the time I finished, my hands would be thoroughly sticky. My face would have a silly white mustache and beard. It was heaven. Although it was a sacrifice, one by one I completed the tasks.
Mother counted out the pennies I earned. I would hold my breath, hoping it would be enough. Sometimes I’d have to do more, but I never missed an ice cream cone. To this day, I adore Dairy Queen ice cream cones. They remind me of living in Kearney, Nebraska and what it was like to be three.