Find Joy Where You Can

What do you do when your life is one of constant anxiety and fear? When you have no control over what happens to you? We found escape and joy wherever we could. I found them in books, in imaginative stories with Mary, in music, in food, in drawing, nature, and holidays. We had Mom to help us.

Though she was stuck in a difficult situation, Mom did the best she could.

We didn’t have much, but she kept the house clean and taught me and Diann how to help her keep it clean. We received a weekly allowance for helping to dust, vacuum and clean up after meals. The three of us often sang our way through the dishes, Mom washing, Diann and I drying. She taught us to cook and bake. I enjoyed preparing food, and liked eating good food, but hated canned peas. We were told to finish everything on our plates. “Remember the poor kids in China.” 

I loved trying out new recipes, as did my friend Mary. When we were older we planned several family meals for our parents. Dad declared he was a “meat and potatoes” man, but he ate everything we served, especially desserts.

Holidays were our favorite time.

Mom helped us make our costumes for Halloween and, when we were little, walked the streets with us, even so far as to Aunt Amy’s house on Snow Avenue. One night we imagined we saw a witch riding her broom across the full moon. 

For Easter, she gave Diann and I real woven baskets that we used over and over every year.

Mom filled them with grass, jelly beans, marshmallow chicks and bunnies, a chocolate bunny, a fancy sugar egg, and often some kind of little Easter toy. She wrapped a bow around the handle, and attached little fuzzy chicks to the handles and sides. The three of us always sat at the kitchen table and colored boiled eggs together, and she put the prettiest ones into the baskets. We never saw our baskets until after we searched through the house for them on Easter morning. She also made an Easter cake every year covered with her seven-minute icing and coconut sprinkles. In later years Dad barbecued a ham on a rotisserie outside after soaking it overnight in Bali-hi wine and pineapple juice.

Thanksgiving was reserved for Dad’s family.

We always went to Grandma Plotner’s house for the gathering of the entire Klink clan. It seemed we rode across Ohio country for hours to get to Grandma’s three-story house in Strasburg and sang “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go . . .” If it weren’t for the dark cloud that hung over me, the experience of the old rooms, Grandma’s garden, the cows in the pasture out back, and the barn where Grandma Jack shoed Amish horses would have been more enjoyable. 

The dining room was the largest, yet barely sufficient for the huge table that sat eight to a side, depending on how close the family squeezed together. Kids sat at a card table on the kitchen end. An amazing, carved, wooden cuckoo clock hung high on the wall at the other. Grandma came from Austria, so I think the clock did, too—a little bird popped out on the hour.

Grandma cooked the turkey she and Grandpa picked out from a man who raised turkeys nearby so that huge bird was always fresh. I don’t care for turkey these days because it doesn’t taste anything like the turkey from those meals. I feel the same about most vegetables because they don’t taste like those picked from Grandma’s garden.

The women brought their special dishes; the table practically groaned with all the food. We all did by the end of the meal. Afterward, the women cleared the table and crowded the kitchen to wash dishes, while the men congregated in the small living room to watch football. Equality? Unheard of in those days. This was the 1950s, even into the 1960s with this family. Though by then I was off to college and a few of my cousins were growing up and beginning to stretch their minds.

Diann and I often went for a walk, with a dog keeping us company. Snow sometimes covered the ground. Generally we would end up in the high four-poster bed in the front room off the dining area and nap away the sluggishness of the meal. 

If we needed to use the bathroom, there was a new one off the kitchen. When I was small, you had to go to the outhouse out back. I can still recall when Dad and Uncle George spent days constructing the new inside bathroom, which was after Dad learned to be a plumber. I don’t know who painted that outhouse bright pink, but it sure is pretty.

Diann and I were both horse crazy and rushed to the front window to watch the Amish trot by in their buggies. Fortunately, they gave our Grandpa plenty of work, as Grandpa Jack was a ferrier. He was also an excellent checkers player—American and Chinese. He taught me to play both, and I was so excited the day I finally beat him, many games later. Years later my older cousin David (Uncle George’s son) told me that Jack let me beat him. He did the same with David. Grandpa made me a beautiful wooden red and green painted Chinese Checkers set about eight inches square with the board laid out on top and a drawer for the marbles. I don’t know what happened to it and wish I still had it. 

So many things I owned and boxed up disappeared when I went away to college, including my photographs. Dad said they had a flood in the basement that destroyed everything. I wonder. He would never have spent the time to sort out what could be saved from what couldn’t.

Dad didn’t care for his stepfather. I understand that most of the family didn’t, except for Aunt Peg who was Grandpa Jack’s daughter. I don’t know why there was so much resentment in that family. They hated their real father for leaving them and they disapproved of their stepfather. Was it because he came from Kentucky hill country? The youngest son, Uncle Warren, never showed up at the gatherings, not Thanksgiving and not the Klink family reunion every summer. This was a family of intolerance and secrets. I suspect mine was only one of them.

Mom made Christmas the best holiday of the year.

Suck anticipation! Once we were old enough, even before school, our house, our lives, turned magical. Especially if you compared the days to our usual reality. We visited Santa Clause and had our pictures taken. Even Dad got into the spirit when we were small, so his change appeared magical, as well. One year Dad bought a black and white television; I wish I could recall how old I was, and we watched a Laurel and Hardy movie called “Babes in Toyland.” I got so excited when the wooden soldiers marched after the bogeymen I shit my pants—literally.

Diann and Karen with Santa

For years I wanted to believe in Toyland; I dreamed about it, yearned to go there, where I would be happy and safe. I would get as far as the gates but could never get in.

Toyland, Toyland

Little girl and boy land

While you dwell within it

You are ever happy then

Childhood, joyland

Mystic merry Toyland

Once you pass its borders

You can ne’er return again

 Yeah, pretty corny now, but I would wake up with tears in my eyes.

Having come to the United States from England, Mom baked a number of delicious British holiday treats passed down through her family. A couple of our favorites were lemon cheese (here called lemon curd) and mince meat pie. She stirred the lemon curd at a low temperature on the top of a double boiler until it was just the right consistency, stored it in a canning jar on top of the frig to add to tart shells she made with special tart pans she brought from England. The two weren’t put together until just before eating. Mince meat was made three to four weeks before Christmas (Cross & Blackwell mince meat only), adding diced tart apples and brandy. When older, Diann and I helped make the shortbread, lebkuchen and iced cutout cookies. Oh, yes, can’t forget the date nut bars and Syrian jam cake made with Damson plums. What heavenly spicy aromas drifted through our house! All the goodies were spread across the coffee table on Christmas Eve, with a special plate of cookies laid for Santa. Likely Dad ate those, as he had quite a sweet tooth.

Diann and I went nuts decorating. One year I painted a winter scene on the three-by-four-foot mirror over the fireplace mantle. When we were little the windows were bare of decorations; no tree stood in the living room. We could barely go to sleep waiting for Santa to jingle his way to our house. We’d whisper to one another from our bunks, “Go to sleep so he’ll come sooner.” We might see him by peering out the three-by-five-foot paned window across from our beds that looked over the roof above the kitchen.

Once morning finally came and we woke Mom and Dad and padded downstairs—there it was: a decorated and lit tree with beautifully wrapped presents underneath! Years later after we helped decorate I knew Mom stashed our presents in the back of her and Dad’s closet upstairs. I never looked because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. One of my first presents was a Lionel train set Dad arranged under the tree, a set I was never able to enjoy because he confiscated the entire thing, set it up in the garage on a table he built, bought more cars, houses, and parts, and played with it for a few years until something else took his fancy and his paycheck.

One thing I am thankful for—he didn’t drink. He couldn’t. Every time he drank beer or any kind of alcohol he developed a terrible headache. Migraines, I expect. I inherited the tendency from him, and years later a neurologist informed me that the anxiety from my childhood affected my chemistry, making me susceptible to migraines. I take prescriptions for them to this day.

New Year’s Eve was sometimes another Klink family event.

True to what I believe was an Austrian tradition for good luck (and a delicious one), homemade sauerkraut was served first thing on New Year’s Day, which meant right after midnight. For hours the women stood around the stove cooking fresh pork and sauerkraut in whoever’s kitchen the gathering was that year. Wish I still had the recipe. 

Otherwise, the evening was quiet at our house as my parents never went out and, because of Dad’s headaches, never drank. Diann and I were excited about staying up late and watching TV. There were always treats left over from Christmas. 

After all that excitement, reality set back in.

For years, even as an adult, I fought depression for the first months of the year until spring arrived when I could get outside. When I could escape the house. When the world appeared brighter. When I promised myself, “When I’m old enough I’m getting out of here . . . one day.”

For the Sanity of Our World

What happened to me has happened to many others. We have come a long way in this country but we have a long, long way to go. Lack of equality for women lies at the bottom of many of these problems as it does for African-Americans, latinos, and others. As you will note, my mom had no choice but to put up with my dad, which put my sister and me at risk. This at-risk situation is presently happening to countless children. A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds in the United States. I believe this is why we have so many “walking wounded” on our streets and why so many resort to guns to solve their problems. I also believe child abuse is why so many get unreasonably angry about not wearing masks. They have been hurt and are still hurting.

Reading over this sounds worse than when it happened. My life appeared nearly normal at the time. You don’t think you are that much different than everyone else. You believe your life is similar to the lives of others. I read this now and think how horrible this man was. Did this truly happen to us? This was my Dad?

There are children whose lives are so much worse and I ache for them. I cry for them. We must help them. We must. If not for the children, for the sanity of our world.

Childhelp

Dad removed us from the last people Mom could trust to help her.

One afternoon our family joined Dot and Vic and our cousins at a veterans’ club where Vic was a member, and I recall having a great time playing on a machine where I slid a disc across a slick board to knock down “bowling pins.” Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Shortly afterward, Dad declared we were not to see Dot and Vic because they “drank too much.” That was the last time we saw our cousins, Sally and Nancy, and I believe it was the last time Mom saw her sister until after Dad’s death many years later.

Mom told me Vic had been captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and tried to escape several times. He said the Germans were always waiting. Even so, he never liked the Russians because he had seen them strap German prisoners onto the front of their tanks before going into battle. He had seen and experienced a lot during the war. Even so, he was not a drunk. He was elected to a good government job in Akron, and years later after Dad’s death helped my mom. I now believe that Dad waited for my Grandma to pass on before he dared separate Mom and us from the rest of her family. Mom didn’t have the nerve to oppose him.

How could she? During the fifties, she was a woman alone with two children and without a high school degree. She did the next best thing. She got a job as a clerk at the local drugstore at Dietz’s Landing about six miles from where we lived—to help with the bills. She waited until both Diann and I were in school, and at first worked only during the week, but later, worked weekends, as well. She accepted more hours to get away from Dad. They appreciated her there. They didn’t cut her down like Dad. She eventually learned to keep their books and run their computer, something Dad couldn’t do. He became jealous. But that’s another story.

Dietz’s Landing at Portage Lakes, Ohio. The drugstore is across the road to the left.

Our separation from family and friends, Mom’s working, the presence of my dog, Maverick, all occurred within a few years. I don’t recall how old I was when Dad first did what he did, only the occurrence. I’ve never forgotten that. Never. Mom was at work, Diann out playing somewhere. Me and Dad were downstairs in the living room. He got me on his lap, like when we played horsie. Only I was too old for horsie. He spread his legs a little, which spread mine. His fingers were thick. What he did felt good. And horrible. I recall the exact words I thought, “Do Daddies do this”? He said things in a strange voice. I don’t recall what they were, except, “Don’t tell your Mom.” I was old enough to have an orgasm. I shook, my knees and legs shook when he let me down. I went upstairs to our room, my top bunk. Where my stuffed animals were. Hugged them. I had a large panda bear, a pink rabbit named Peter. Others. I got them all around me, wanting someone to tell me I was not a bad person for what had happened. But I was. Mom would know I was bad. Everyone would. So I couldn’t let anyone know, especially Mom. She would be so hurt.

What had happened was sex.

 I knew it from the books I had read and from what kids in the neighborhood joked about. Dad left Playboy magazines lying around the house and I had seen the jokes inside about sex. Sex was dirty which was why people made jokes about it. Unless it was romantic between two people who loved one another.

Sometimes I had heard him and Mom at night and he hurt her; I could tell from the sounds. Years later she told me she nearly died birthing Diann because she wasn’t supposed to have any more children after me. The doctor said she wasn’t made to have children. She lost a little boy between me and Diann. But Dad wouldn’t “leave her alone.” In addition, she was a bleeder, unusual for women.

I “buried my nose” in books more than ever and begged to be taken to Mary’s house for visits.

I felt safe there. Her brother, Jim, collected science fiction stories and Mary and I borrowed them to read. A bookmobile came to our school but we couldn’t borrow books above a particular line for readers our age, even though we had read all the others. I read everything at our house, including Gone With the Wind, though it was supposed to be years too old for me. The drugstore where Mom worked was the only other place we could get books, but, in the 1950s, not much was available besides mystery stories for men. We did manage to pick up a few westerns by people like Zane Gray. Mom had a subscription to Saturday Evening Post which ran a continuing story, and me and Mom would wait with baited breath for it to arrive in the mail. It would be years before I was old enough to take the bus downtown to the library with Mary.

Dad walked around upstairs naked in front of me and Diann, but not when Mom was around.

Mom always wore a nightgown. I wanted to run from him when he was like that, but had to pretend it didn’t bother me like everything else he did. I quickly looked away from that thing that swung between his legs. He gave me the creeps. I feel a little sick writing about it. I cross my arms in front of me when I stop typing.

I couldn’t forever avoid being alone in the house with him.

This thing, sex, with him happened again. Upstairs on their bed. I recall bits and snatches and it scares me how parts of my memory are gone. It’s strange when parts of your memory are cut off. When you know something is there, but it’s gone. I have emotions and see and feel the chenille bedspread and a part of me says, “Are you making this up or did it really happen?” The other part says, “I know it happened, but I don’t want to think any further.” I know there were a number of these occasions with him. I don’t know for sure that any of them went beyond touching.

I do know that I was not a virgin when I had my first intercourse with my boyfriend when I was twenty-two. For years I told myself I lost my virginity from riding my bike or that stick horse. Now I know that was practically impossible.

I began eating more. Food was a comfort, especially if I ate while I read. I gained weight. Perhaps, subconsciously I thought this would turn him away. It didn’t work. 

This situation would have been bad enough if he were a loving father, but I feared and hated him. 

He killed our pets, broke or took what was supposed to be ours, made promises he didn’t keep, invaded our privacy, told Mom she was stupid.  I would go to one of my special places outside or to Maverick and repeat, “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.” I couldn’t say a word to him, not to his face, no matter what happened.

Now this.

I wish I could recall how much time passed before I finally scared him enough to make it stop.      

Letting Those Decisions Slide By

How do we let those decisions slip and slide by? How did my dad do it? Each and every decision that led him down the path he chose. We each make those decisions every day. Famous people we learn of in the news make them and we hear of them going to prison or getting away with what they do. It is so easy not to focus on some decision, to let it slide. I do it every day when I decide to eat something I know I should not. “That’s not really good for me, but if I don’t think about it too hard, I’ll end up eating and enjoying it before I can feel guilty,” and down it goes. By then it’s too late. Deciding about food is one thing. Kindness, morality, and integrity something else. Is that what Dad did? He did this or that without thinking about it too much, and it was done. Too late now. No sense in worrying about it. Water under the bridge and all that.

I don’t think he planned ahead on separating us from everyone we trusted. He just did it. One person at a time. That is what perpetrators do.

School might have been a problem. But in those days, no one had any idea what to look for. I was shy. Mary was shy. Diann had a stuttering problem that could be solved by a speech therapist. No one thought of digging deeper.

I don’t recall being afraid of school, but I did have nightmares of missing the bus home. I had a difficult time in class until the teacher told Mom I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated those eyeglasses. I wore them in class, but took them off right after. Until the day I walked home and unknowingly dropped them on the highway walking home. We caught the bus at Rathbun’s grocery store on South Turkeyfoot Lake Road, about a half mile down the hill from Pillar Avenue. Once home, I discovered my glasses were missing, hurried back to search my route, and found them smashed on the highway. Eyeglasses cost money. Lots of it to us in those days. Dad was going to kill me. I told Mom, who could tell how terrified I was. Diann has since told me she said prayers for me that day before Dad got home, she was so scared for me. I lay down on the couch and buried my nose in a book, which was my escape from reality. Mom must have told Dad of my terror because he said not a word. And I was so very careful of my new eyeglasses for ever after.

One of the finest things about school was meeting my best friend, Mary.

Mary loved reading as much as I did, and was even as horse crazy as me. I had to share her with her other friend, Janet, who lived next to her. At recess the three of us ran around the playground playing horses. Over the years, our playing became more sophisticated, and we developed characters based loosely on books we read, even going so far as to research history for more interesting drama. As an adult many years later I learned that both Mary and I used our stories as an escape from what happened to us at home. We emulated different characters, acted out scenarios, and took control where we had no control over our real lives. Mary was always a strong-minded female; I became the adventurous male romantic interest. Janet, a tomboy in those days, generally played my rival in our stories, and often she and Mary continued on when I was absent, as they lived next to one another, and my house was miles distant. As young as I was, I felt left out, lonely, and somewhat jealous of their time together.

Growing up, I generally felt cut off from other kids. Years later I learned how Dad separated us from everyone but his own immediate family, and how typical this action is of someone like him.

In January of 1952, Mom’s mother died.

I was in first grade and me and Diann were left at Dot and Vic’s while the adults went to the funeral. Dot and Vic’s—Sally and Nancy’s—for several years this was a convenient place to remove me and Diann from the “goings-on.” We weren’t much aware that we had only one grandma left, Dad’s Mom, Grandma Plotner.

Only recently I learned that Grandma Plotner gave me and Diann a little beagle puppy named Dusty. I believed she was Dad’s because he took her over to breed her for purebred beagles. He kept her in a small pen in the backyard. When he walked up there with a rifle under his arm she ran around in circles so fast her tail practically wagged her. They would disappear together across the field and into the woods behind our house. You could always tell when she scared up a rabbit and where they were by the sound of her bugling cry. Mom slow-cooked the caught rabbits with spiced flour in a pan for supper. For years a vase full of pheasant feathers sat on the shelf over the unused fireplace. Dad and Grandpa Jack (he had two beagles) shot pheasant outside of Strasburg where Grandma Plotner lived.

Dusty would have nothing to do with the purebreds with which Dad attempted to mate her. She chose her own mate, dug her way out of her pen, and at least twice dropped a litter of unwanted puppies. The second time Diann and I were old enough to get attached to the four of them. Dad helped with the birth, and I found the pups curled up with Dusty in the doorway between the house and garage before their eyes were open. They were all spotted brown and white, and the biggest male was a fat little guy. Before long we had played with them, named them, and discovered their different personalities.

Diann and I were driven to Sally and Nancy’s for a weekend. I recall perfectly the ride home in the back of the car when Dad announced the puppies had “gone to heaven.” Diann and I were silent. What could we say? I expect we both felt the same. I stared out the side window. Felt the return of that black balloon in my chest and stomach. It would grow and grow and want to burst, but it couldn’t. I hated those lies. He had killed the first litter and now he had killed this one, all four of them. 

Maybe it was the Baker kids who had told me about the first litter. “He drowned them in a bucket.” I don’t know if that was true. They would say anything to make me feel bad. But I did know how he took care of a rabbit I “rescued.”

I once chased our neighbor’s cat that had caught a baby rabbit that was still alive. Over the roof of our house we went, across the wall, over the roof of the neighbor’s house, across their back yard, the back wall, back onto our side and through the bushes. Though it wasn’t easy, I was determined to save that little white-tailed bunny. That cat finally got tired of carrying the weight, and I picked it up, still alive, but likely frightened half to death. I took it inside, at my age believing I could save it. Dad let me hold onto my hopes for a couple hours until the bunny went catatonic, I think, or whatever bunnies do. Then he took it into the garage. I sneaked after him to see what he would do. He put the bunny’s head into a vice and hammered a nail into its head. A quick, humane death, I suppose. Or did he shoot them?

Fortunately, I had lots of stuffed animals upstairs in my bunk to tell my troubles to, since it was dark by then.

Dad once took Diann and me into the garage to shoot his black pistol. The plan was to teach us to be afraid of guns. The shot in the garage was plenty loud enough to scare us, to say nothing of the kickback in the hand of a little girl.

I grew up with what I consider a healthy fear of guns.

Though I turned out to be a good shot with a rifle, I don’t like them. I don’t care to be around guns, and I am wary around people who carry them. I believe gun laws in this country are much, much too lenient.

Did Dad shoot the puppies or use the nail? He liked Dusty, I think, though he didn’t take care of her properly, not enough to have her spayed. Maybe he still hoped for those purebreds. I don’t believe he was entirely without feelings. What did it do to him to “take care” of each of those puppies?

I had always wanted a dog of my own.

When Mom went to work, they decided we needed a dog to protect Diann and me when we were home alone. I named the black and white puppy Maverick after a calf that had lost its mother. He was originally for both my sister and I, until Diann got tired of feeding and cleaning up his messes, then he became mine alone. I read one of Dad’s dog books from cover to cover and trained poor Maverick in everything, from sitting to staying to sneaking around under blanket-covered furniture, including silent hand calls. I never hit him, as I believed in positive reinforcement—plenty of love and treats. 

Maverick

Maverick became another place I’d go with my troubles. His fur got dampened more than once with frustrated tears. Good ol’ buddy.

Now we had Maverick for protection while Mom worked, but none of her friends lived nearby. Aunt Amy had ceased visiting us, even during storms. Dad made her uncomfortable. When I was older Mom said that Amy began walking to a local bar for company, (she didn’t drive) where she met a man she invited to live with her. 

Mom’s sister, Dot, and her husband were the only ones of her family left, now that Grandma Flavel was gone. Dad would close that possible loophole next.

Nature is my Refuge

I expected that writing this memoir would be difficult at times, that it might bring up memories long buried. What has surprised me is that I no longer think of the past, of Portage Lakes, as quite the nightmare I have for so many years. This, in itself, is a relief. As I have been told, the more I speak of it, the more I bring these “things” to the surface, the less of a horror they seem. This is true even more so as I write them down here. I am not hiding behind a fiction-based character as I did the first time around in a novel, either. That was wishful thinking, something my sister, my best friend, and I constantly did as we were growing up—a survival tactic. This tactic was necessary then, but is not necessary now, and is no longer useful in the real world we live in.

I needed someone to play with.

Don’t all kids? Mom, Mommy, as she was to us then, taught me this song:

Playmate, come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree

Shout down my rain barrel

Slide down my cellar door

And we’ll by jolly friends for ever more.

Many of our best times were exchanging places with our cousins, Sally and Nancy.

Sally was a couple years younger than me, Nancy a little younger than Diann, and I’d spend a weekend at Sally’s house while Nancy came to ours, or vice versa. Their mom, Dorothy, known as Dot, was Mom’s youngest sister. I felt safe at Dot and Vic’s house, and Sally and Nancy had an upstairs bedroom all their own. Heaven. They had a dog and a cat, too, and friends around our age to play with. Sally had a two-wheel bike, and I learned to ride one at her house. I was scared the first time, but wanted to ride one desperately, so I just got on and went down the sidewalk, my knees and elbows quaking like crazy. I didn’t fall!

Grandma Flavel, Diann, Nancy, Sally, and me at our front door, Pillar Avenue.

I begged and begged to have my own bike after that and finally Dad got me an old second-hand iron thing that weighed a ton, but I loved it. It was so heavy it was Speedy Gonzales on the downhill and I developed strong thighs pumping it on the up. Only one gear in those days. I still have a couple tiny black remains in my knee from crashing in the cinder driveway next door. 

Years later after work and fresh paint that old bike got me to my college classes.

The family that moved into the corner house next to us on the hill were a pretty rough bunch.

A good many folks moved up to our part of Ohio, from West Virginia and Kentucky to work in the rubber factories and find other jobs in the area. Dad’s stepfather, Jack Plotner, was one of these transplants. The Baker family’s father drove a big wheeler like Dad and was often absent. The second oldest daughter, Jackie, was a little older than me and much heftier. I was a little afraid of her. Mom said she caught her and her older sister and brother bossing me and Diann around more than once and soon taught us about “indian burns.” This consisted of grabbing your arm in two hands and tightly twisting in opposite directions. 

For some time Jackie was all I had. I went to her when I was desperate for companionship. She gave me a number of unpleasant memories, and it didn’t take me long to be more content with my own company.  

Diann, me, Nancy, and Sally moving out of the picture. I think this must have been Sally’s birthday.

Diann was more fortunate in having a friend in Barbara, the youngest daughter. Although I will never forget the day they were playing around with fishing line and Diann came screaming from their yard dragging a fishing pole across the field behind her by a fish hook stuck in her knee. To this day I cringe with the thought of it.

I believe the Perry family, who lived across Pillar and around the corner from us, were another family of transplants from the hill country.

Kenny, the youngest, was probably the toughest, and always in trouble. We didn’t see much of the oldest boy, since he was much older than us, but Billy, about Diann’s age, would walk around the neighborhood in his Mom’s cast-off dresses and heels. Billy was the sweetest boy of the entire clan, and you can imagine how he was treated. He hung out with me and Diann the most since we accepted him.

Every so often neighborhood kids would converge, boys and girls of various ages, play softball, cowboys, have secret meetings, get up to the sorts of things parents will never know.

I never felt close to anyone. In fact, there were several instances where I had to stand up for my shy little sister. And for Billy. That was the sort of neighborhood in which we lived.

Diann and I had vivid imaginations, and cut comic books for story characters, made barns and houses of upside-down cardboard boxes, and cut stick horses out of branches. 

 I made a fantastic stick horse out of my favorite sassafras bush. I spent hours trimming the bark smooth. That branch was nice and straight, just the right length and width, firm but with a bit of spring to it. I tied clothesline on for reins, and named him Flame for a horse in a favorite Walter Farley novel. I knew every inch of that horse and rode it everywhere. Diann had one, too, so did several other kids, but mine was the best. In my opinion. Over days and weeks the oils from my stroking hands made Flame even smoother. Our mistake was believing a spot near the front door was a safe hitching post.

One evening Dad came home from work in a bad mood and threw our horses out. 

Diann and me. A neighbor’s pets

Nature has been my place of refuge as far back as I can remember.

My biggest fears and problems fade once I am outside, my feet on the ground, my head under the sky. I would lie down and watch clouds form and float by. I would smell and hear the wind in the leaves. I would climb my tree and cry like crazy and feel better afterward.

Nature is so big, so grand, so all-encompassing, that Dad seemed puny compared to it. As did my problems. 

And I finally found my forever playmate in the first grade.