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.”

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