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.

Kids Need Truth to Balance Imagination

Mom loved reading, so love of books came naturally to me and Diann. If nothing else was available, I read the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast. We had a collection of Little Golden Books, and many came from Grandma Flavel and Aunt Amy, who was happily married and with a son and daughter of her own. We didn’t have kindergarten, but I read before entering first grade. Mom said she would be working at the kitchen sink and see me going by outside the window with my face in a book—walking around the house. 

Reading saved me; the worlds found in books were my escape when the real world turned too difficult and frightening. Or merely for adventure. In those days (1940s and 50s) only boys had adventures and I wanted desperately to be a boy so I could have them, too. 

I don’t recall Aunt Amy’s oldest boy, Bob, but I received plenty hand-me-downs from her daughter, Norma. I barely recall her husband, “Unca Charlie,” who I was told I loved, as he died when I was little. He and Dad went fishing a lot at “the lakes” as many called Portage Lakes where we lived. “You going fishing at the lakes this weekend?” All summer long you could hear the sound of motorboats speeding up and down Turkeyfoot Lake—about two miles to the end of Pillar Avenue, across the highway, and down the hill from our house.

Aunt Amy was a trip.

After Charlie died and her kids grew up and moved away we saw quite a lot of her. She had a house at the bottom of a steep road and practically on the lake. I used to have nightmares about getting stuck in a car that ran away on that downhill road. As I got older, maybe nine or so, I would walk to the end of Pillar Avenue and meet her because she was afraid of a beagle dog that would run out beyond its yard and bark. I eventually learned the name of that dog, and commanding him with it would stop him in his tracks. He was more bark than bite, thank goodness.

Amy loved to laugh. We had a Little Golden Record about the secret laughing place she loved to play for its funny laugh. She made funny sounds with her lips in her arm, making me and Diann crack up.

She visited us every time a storm was expected. Mom said this was because when she was a small child she had been outside when Grandma was doing the wash during a storm. Thunder and lightning struck just when Amy was splashed with a pot of boiling water. Consequently, Mom always made sure Diann and I had a great time during storms. We both grew up loving a fierce rainstorm. We had some humdinger storms in Ohio. Great, black and blue thunderclouds with driving rains. Fantastic.

Mom was always working at something.

I recall Mom bending over the wood and metal scrubbing board in the furnace room that ran between the kitchen and the garage—rubbing up and down, up and down, scrubbing that laundry clean. Next I followed her outside while she hung the clothes in the backyard on a cotton line with wooden clothespins, one pin  to corners of two overlapped edges of clothing. She said there was nothing like the smell of clothing fresh dried in the wind and sun. I remember holding clothing up to my face and that smell. When I was old enough, she taught me the correct way to hang clothes so as not to get wrinkles in the wrong places and use the least number of pins. 

This was before she received a washer, and years later, a dryer.

Mom was a wonderful cook. She made our birthday cakes, and what cakes they were: one chocolate layer, one strawberry, and one vanilla. In between each layer she lathered fudge frosting, and on the sides and top swirled high melt-in-your mouth crispy-on-the-outside seven-minute white frosting. I have never eaten a cake like that since.

Karen and Diann with birthday cake in front of Pillar Avenue house

Like many children, I became attached to animals of every kind.

We had a succession of cats, mainly to keep down the mice. Our house was on a hill—our backyard stretched up to my favorite climbing tree, beyond a wire fence to a wide and deep field that eventually led to what we kids called Meyers Woods. This field was a great spawning ground for mice, rats, and other similar critters. 

I don’t remember black Mike the First, though Diann said he would jump out from behind furniture and walls and knock her down, making her laugh. Black Mike the Second would sit on the wood highchair in the kitchen, shake paws and beg for popcorn. After Mike the First passed on we got Tiger, a huge ginger male with wide furry cheeks that followed us kids everywhere. He took no guff from dogs, either. Even the big dogs learned to give him space. Mom said she recalled seeing us kids walking in a line down the street trailed by a couple dogs with Tiger bringing up the rear. We lost him to a poisoned rat and buried the fellow with ceremony in our pet cemetery in the field out back with the other critters we found dead around the neighborhood, including birds. I wish I still had a photo of Tiger, but it was lost with other photos in a flooded basement when I was in college. Tiger was a difficult one to lose.

I got my first puppy, Tinker, when I was a tot. But Tinker turned out to be a big lug when he grew up. So big he knocked me over so Dad got rid of him. I hate to think how, considering the way Dad got rid of most animals. An early project of Dad’s was raising rabbits in hutches in the backyard. I don’t know if the group of rabbits came first or my white rabbit, Peter, came first at Easter. Naturally, I became attached to Peter, the pink-eyed, white rabbit. Perhaps it’s in my imagination that he followed me around. I do recall that Diann and I went to visit our cousins, Sally and Nancy, and when we returned, Peter was gone. All the rabbits were gone. I believe that Mom convinced Dad that having animals for sale around little girls like us was not a good idea since Diann and I could get attached to them. I doubt the rabbits were a good investment anyway.

I was told Peter went to live with our neighbors, but I knew the truth. I knew Dad had got rid of that rabbit with the others. That Peter was likely dead. I think I must have been four or five. What I am saying is don’t tell this kind of story to your kids. Tell them the truth because they instinctively know the truth. I was all that much angrier because I was being told a story instead of the truth.

As adults we tend to forget how attached children get to animals and things. We forget what a different world they live in, how very special and boundless that world is. Everything is of paramount importance. If you love, it is with all your being. Imagination and the mind is as strong as reality. Imagination helps you deal with the world. I recall a painting a young girl did of giant toes on a piece of white paper. “This is me walking in wet grass.”

Kids need the truth to balance their imaginations.

They need to be able to depend on adults for that balance, so their world doesn’t topple over. I’m not saying you can’t play and imagine with your kids. But they need to know where the boundaries of imagination and truth are. Parents must provide a safe, dependable island from where children can go out and explore their world and return.

Dad was big and strong. He would grab your arm and yank to give you a swat and raise a bruise for days. He not only yelled at us or swatted our behinds for the smallest infraction, he began cutting down Mom in various ways, making remarks about what she did or things she said.

My world and my sister’s world became one of constant anxiety. Except when he was out of the house . . . gone. 

My Depressed Dad Ruled Our Family

My parents had a small wedding at Grandma Flavel’s house in Akron just before Dad was inducted into the army. My sister and I have few photos of the wedding, and what we do have are of family only. There doesn’t appear to have been much of a reception. Perhaps this is due to the war. I see photos of the mothers, but none of the rest of the families. Why is this?

Everyone appears so happy at his induction, but I notice the dark circles under Mom’s eyes. By the time she visited him in Atlanta, Georgia, she was carrying me. What was it like for a young newly married woman pregnant with her first child and sending her husband off to Word War II? There were plenty women doing so. I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine what was in his mind, either.

Mom, Dad, Grandma Plotner, Grandpa Jack Plotner, and young Aunt Peg in front.

What I know about Dad I learned from Mom.

He never talked of his past, or anything else, for that matter. The only time he spoke to Diann or me was to discipline us.

She excused his behavior because his dad abandoned the family when he was young. “That’s why he’s this way. That and the war—he wasn’t like this before the war.” She showed me a letter he wrote to me (I was a baby) when he was in the army. He had beautiful handwriting. I couldn’t believe the words were his, they were so caring and full of love. I have never known that man—two sides of the same coin.

I recall what his sister, Esther, said to Mom about his temper. He was never in the fighting, as he was a staff sergeant accountant sent to Japan after they surrendered. His superiors offered him a commission if he would remain in Japan. They would bring his family over. He refused, left the army and came home to Ohio where he bought a house in Portage Lakes on the GI bill, and moved our family there.

Klink family, 1943. I can’t name them all. Left to right: ?, ?, Uncle George, Aunt Betty, Aunt Peg (the youngest sister), ?, Grandpa Jack Plotner, Grandma Plotner holding cousin David, Aunt Esther and her son, Donny sitting on the ground, Dad and Mom. Maybe that’s the youngest brother, Warren, sitting in the middle front.

According to Mom, Dad’s siblings looked up to him because he was the oldest. George, his younger brother, in particular, admired him. Throughout our lives Dad was always helping George and his family whenever they asked, despite the fact they had more than we did: a higher income, a bigger and finer house, nicer clothes. George and his wife, Betty, had two boys and Dad had two girls. Dad worked on their house when ours went years without a ceiling. We visited them often, but they practically never visited us. Mom was embarrassed about our GI bill house which was never finished. 

Mom was not close to Betty, as she made more than one remark that Mom didn’t care for. Mom avoided any kind of strife. She would close her mouth and say nothing. I lost count of the times she said to me, “Don’t argue with your father, it just makes him worse.” I think, in the long run, this capitulation, itself, made him worse. He could say anything to her and she took it.

Anyone recall that show All in the Family? That was my Mom and Dad. Only more so. And it was not funny.

The house on Pillar Avenue was quite a comedown from Grandma’s home on Hill Street in Akron.

Although it contained a nice, new kitchen and a garage, the flat roof leaked, the living room was incomplete with exposed rafters, and there was no water. Upstairs consisted of one small bath and one bedroom with an alcove separated from the bedroom by a chimney. This alcove would be my and Diann’s sleeping place, me on the top bunk until we moved and I entered high school. At the foot end of the bed we had one metal closet, 24″ x 24″ x 6′ high to hang our clothes, and one dresser to share. There was barely enough room to squeeze between the bunk and the window. Toys and any keepsakes went under the bed, the window, top of the dresser, and closet.

Did we get into trouble if any of those toys were left out where Dad could find them. That old adage, children should be seen and not heard, was paramount in our house. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” To this day I hear children screaming in grocery stores and I think, “You have no idea how spoiled you are, or how easy you have it.” We became known as the “good little Klink girls.” If people only knew.

I don’t believe Dad knew how to deal with children, especially girls.

He did attempt to bounce me on his knee when I was very small, to play “horsey,” which made me laugh and screech when he pretended to drop me. He tickled me, but tickled too hard with his thick, strong fingers. It hurt rather than tickled. He didn’t know how to hold back his strength.

Dad was a wonderful artist. He made a simple wood rocking horse with red polkadots for me and later, a beautiful weather vane for the roof of our house. He was sharp with math and could have gone far if he had stayed in the army or gotten a job as an accountant.

Karen and Diann

Knowing what I know now, I believe Dad was clinically depressed and unsure of himself. I try to recall times I saw him smile or laugh. He must have when we were with his family. Surely. But less and less as time went by.

Dad drove a fourteen-wheeler and was sometimes gone for days. As there was no water, Dad had to fill milk tins with water at the nearby state park. Mom heated water on the stove and bathed my baby sister and me in large metal tubs with handles. 

One night during Dad’s absence the dripping of the oil furnace woke Mom up. It was on fire! She scrambled to get me out of bed and carried my baby sister in one arm, pulling me in the other to the neighbor’s house. She returned to the house and kept the fire from growing until the fire department arrived. 

The furnace was replaced with gas.

Sometime during these years Dad learned to be a plumber and joined a local plumbing company. He hired a company to dig a well in our back yard for water, and I recall the sound of that drill banging for many weeks. Portage Lakes, as the name indicates, is an area of many lakes with water portages connecting them, and our street, Pillar Avenue, was high on a hill above Turkeyfoot Lake. This meant we had to drill deep before finding good water. Fortunately, we found just about the best-tasing water around. Unfortunately, the cost of finding it was much more than expected. I believe this was among the first (along with the new furnace) unexpected bills Dad found difficult to pay.

I loved the outside, especially climbing.

Three years older than my sister, Diann, Mom was carrying her when I climbed a tree in our front yard. Mom climbed up to get me down and got stuck up there with her oversized belly caught between two limbs. Our neighbor, Beulah, though this hilarious, and had to calm down from laughing before helping Mom down. Dad cut down that poor tree.

This climbing habit got me in big trouble. Dad found me on top of the garage and lost the temper my Aunt Esther had warned Mom about. I don’t recall, but Mom became so upset she took me, my baby sister, and fled to her mother’s house in Akron. She told her mom he had beat me too hard for a small child. Dad came apologizing and begging her to return. Grandma told her “You have chosen your bed, now you must lie in it.”

We returned to Pillar Avenue.