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.

Integrity and Morality have Little to do with Where You are Born

Mom said I wandered from the time I was old enough to walk. I wandered down the sidewalk from Grandma’s house in Akron when she turned her back for only a couple minutes, practically terrorizing Mom who she went up and down the street calling for me. Fortunately, an older black man took me by the hand and brought me back, asking where I belonged. 

At seventy-six I have ceased wandering. Maybe. Temporarily. Due to Covid. 

Karen and Mommy, Christmas

I found my first girlfriend when I was five by wandering up Pillar Avenue. Sylvia was my age and lived about half-mile over the hill from our house. 

I barely recall sitting on the floor in Sylvia’s beautiful home and playing with dolls. We had a short friendship, as one day she turned me away for no reason I understood. This rejection sticks in my memory to this day. What had I done? Mom was her usual loving self and attempted to make me feel better the best she could. Thank goodness, Diann and I had a mother who was always there for us, loving us unconditionally. 

I recall having told a terrible lie in school and being terrified about revealing this to Mom. For hours I was sick with worry, as we had been taught not to tell lies. I couldn’t stand carrying around the awful secret of what I had done and why. Finally I told Mom I had something bad to tell her, so we sat together on her and Dad’s bed upstairs when I finally let it out, in tears. I told her I had changed someone’s mark on a test and had been caught. I felt awful, as what I had done was the same as a lie. It was a terrible thing to do.

But she still loved me! This was such an overwhelming relief. I promised to never lie, again, and I never have.

First Grade, Turkeyfoot School. I am third from right, second row. My soon-to-be best friend, Mary, is sixth from right with the dark hair.

In reality, it was difficult not to compare myself to the girl whose test I had changed. Her name was Karen, like mine, but she came from a more well-to-do family than mine. She always came to school dressed in new clothes, she was blonde, like me, her last name began with “K” like mine, therefore, we sat before or behind one another throughout school, and, at one point, a teacher teased us about the resemblance of our last names. She never spoke to me, though. Our school, even then, had its own “cliques,” and the more well-to-do children kept to their group. These cliques stayed the same throughout grade school and pretty much into high school where they separated into “college prep” and otherwise.

I now suspect the situation with Sylvia may have had something to do with her mother, as her father was a white collar person and my father was a truck driver. We were from separate “sides of the tracks” so to speak.

I have since learned that integrity and morality have little to do with which side of the tracks one was born on. This fact becomes more obvious every day.

In spite of Dad and a few rough kids in our neighborhood, we had a pretty good life, mainly due to Mom’s unconditional love, one another, and the open fields where we lived.

Diann and I told stories to one another at night after we went to bed, often pretending we were other people and having adventures. We both grew up playing stories with our closest friends. This was a great way to escape our everyday lives. We found laughter to be a great escape, too, and sometimes got into the craziest laughing fits. We still do when we get together and reminisce.

Not that we didn’t get into arguments when we were kids. Boy, did we. Diann developed asthma and stuttered at a young age. I expect this was her response to constant anxiety. I developed migraines.

I was constantly told not to argue with Dad, not to argue with my sister. Any fight was always my fault because I was the oldest and “ought to know better.” And Diann was “sick.” This was so unfair. It appeared to me that it didn’t matter if I was right or wrong, I had no rights, either way.

“Bad” language was not allowed in our house. We heard those bad words from other kids in the neighborhood, but never in our house or from anyone in either of our families. Once Diann was angry enough to call me a “grunt,” which was considered cussing by Dad, and his temper took over. He grabbed Diann by the arm, took her outside and struck her bare legs with a sassafras switch.

We had no privacy in the bathroom. There was no lock on the door. Dad came in any time he wanted. And did. I began holding “it” in as long as I could, until I felt safe. Then—hurry up in case he comes.

We had no door on our bedroom alcove. Diann and I had no privacy anywhere in the house. Outside was the only escape, though Diann told me she used to hide behind the coats in the closet under the stairs. My place was in the tree at the top of the hill in our backyard. I loved that tree. I couldn’t climb it in rubber boots in the winter when snow fell, though. I was shit out of luck in the winter. Though the sassafras bush next to the tree was a pretty good substitute.

Mom piled us into layers of clothes in the winter, especially when we went sledding at the golf course. It must have been more than a mile to haul our sleds up Pillar Avenue and through the trees to the edge of the golf course, but the long hill at the top was worth every trudge. Diann reminded me that Dad took us the first time when we were too small to go by ourselves and didn’t know the route. 

Diann and neighborhood pooch. That snowman was a lot of work.

In later years on our own we were lucky to get in three rides on that hill because the walk back up was so long and tiring, especially under all those clothes. Layers of snow melt stuck to your gloves and boots and weighed you down, but that long, speedy glide swooshing down the hill . . . wow! Mom had sandwiches and hot chocolate ready when we returned—chilled, exhausted and hungry.

South Turkeyfoot Lake Road with golf course on right. Obviously, you can’t see the grand hill from here. Pillar Avenue is a mile or so ahead and to the right.

It’s strange to consider there actually were good times with Dad, as there were so few of them. Who was that man who hauled us both up that golf course hill, rode down it with us in glee, yet beat Diann with that switch? He would play with us one minute and frighten us half to death the next. 

Worse was to come.

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.