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.
I never recall him following me outside.
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!
I 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 on 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 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. Recalling Billy is one of the reasons I decided to write The Texas Trilogy. I later learned Billy was sent to Vietnam, lost an eye there, only to return and be murdered In prison.
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. This 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 from part 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 away.
And I finally found my forever playmate in the first grade.