Our Wonder Years

It felt odd to be without a father and yet as the years passed it felt more and more normal. There were incredible people who stepped up to fulfill the roles that Daddy most certainly would have embraced and we learned that our mother was more than capable of keeping us safe. She defied the restrictions on women in a time when new vistas were barely beginning to open up for the females of society. She was not a submissive creature who bowed to any kind of domination. She became an incredible role model for me and even for my brothers. 

At the same time, there were men in our circle who gave of their time to Mike and Pat. There was Mr. Cohen, the Boy Scout leader and Mr. Morgan the baseball coach who spent extra time making sure that my brothers had advocates for their talents. Uncle Harold took my brothers aside when we visited and showed them how to use the tools in his workshop. Mr. Cervenka created neighborhood projects in which they learned how to build forts and other kinds of structures. Grandpa Little talked with them about history and the evolution of science. Uncle Jack introduced them, and me as well, to westerns and practical jokes. They saw Uncle Willie, Uncle Paul, Uncle Andy and Uncle Louie with their four very different personalities and ways of living. The male influencers of their lives were many and varied. 

As I entered the eighth grade in 1961, the world was changing all around us. We had the first Catholic President of the United States, the Civil Rights movement was becoming more and more vocal, we were quietly becoming more involved in the civil struggles of Vietnam, and the Cold War felt a bit more hot as the Berlin Wall was built dividing Germany into east and west sectors. My brothers were advancing in school and in their interests as well. Our mother was enjoying her work as a teacher and gaining more and more respect from the community at large. Our father’s legacy still loomed large but I was no longer able to remember the sound of his voice. Only the books and music he had purchased reminded me of the man he had been.

We often spent time on Saturdays at the nearby movie theater the Santa Rosa where the “Fun Club” was a big event. For under a dollar we enjoyed hours of games and viewing along with our favorite snacks. It was a happy happening that we enjoyed along with a few hundred other youngsters from the area. We no longer wanted to accompany our mother on trips to the grocery store. The lure of movies was far stronger than walking up and down the aisles of commerce. The Fun Club became our Saturday destination.

There were also more and more sporting events that involved my brothers. Pat was such a talented baseball player that the coaches advanced him to a higher level than someone his age might ordinarily attain. It was tons of fun going to the field, watching the games and walking around searching for people that I knew. Our community was so close knit that they had become like family.

We were more and more independent, riding our bicycles across the bridge that spanned Simms Bayou to explore Garden Villas, another neighborhood where many of our school mates lived. There was a park there where we took classes and signed up to create crafts. A bookmobile serviced our need to read that had been so indelibly imbued into us by our father. The tree lined streets were magnificent places for leisurely riding our bikes. It was a heavenly environment right out of the television show The Wonder Years.

Our mother wanted us to learn how to swim so she diligently enrolled us in classes and took us to nearby pools to practice. Sadly not one of us ever mastered the skill. Somehow we felt as though our bodies had been improperly designed because we seemed to automatically sink no matter how hard we tried not to do so. We laugh about our incompetence in that arena to this very day. I sometimes wonder if it was also tied to our mother’s concern that we might drown. Each time we became a bit risky in our practice sessions she became quite anxious and pulled us back into the shallow end of the pool. Perhaps she sent us an unconscious message of her fears and it affected our ability to overcome the pull of gravity that seemed to take us under the water more often than not. 

In many ways eighth grade would signal the end of childhood for me even though mentally I had felt like an old soul for years. I still felt great responsibility for my brothers but they were pulling away from both me and our mother and becoming closer to one another. I was often more interested in my peers and longing to be part of the changes that my friends were undergoing. I still appeared to be about ten years old with my tiny frame and my baby face. I had earned the title of Captain of the Twirlers on the Drill Team which made my mother ecstatic. Little did she know that I had to fight my self consciousness as I stood our front of the other more mature looking girls. I began to adopt a “cutie” attitude by telling people that my name and my size matched making me easy to remember. Inside I wondered if I was ever going to actually grow as I watched my friends one by one developing into young women. Somehow I realized that the trauma of losing my father continued to return to me again and again when I least expected it. I learned how to hide my sorrow under a smile and a false air of confidence. I did not want to burden my mother and I hoped that my brothers did not feel the same way even as we never talked of our fate until we were much older. It would be many years later before we dared to speak of how our father’s death had actually affected us. I no longer believed in Santa Claus even though I pretended to do so for my brothers. The wonder of living was still there but it had been tempered by the angst of my coming teenage years.


Time Was Rushing Forward

I began the fifth grade in September of 1958. It was a momentous school year for two reasons. First, I finally had a really good teacher and second, Michael started first grade. It was fun to have a sibling attending school with me at long last and my teacher, Mrs. Powers was quite wonderful in my eyes. She was strict, but not in a cruel way like my fourth grade teacher had been. She was quite smart and had a large family of her own. She knew how to handle children by setting limits with love. 

Michael proved to be a bright fellow just as we knew he would be. He was always quiet so his teachers did not see his intellect right away. He quickly learned to read well, but it was math that caught his fancy. He wanted to know how things worked and he dreamed of humans traveling into space. As a youngsters he had walked around the house with one of my father’s books about travel to the moon cradled in his arms. He studied the drawings of the rockets and the space orbits for hours. The book was by Wernher von Braun and it became my brother’s guide for future travel in space. With confidence he told everyone how it would happen and hinted that one day he would be part of the adventure.

He was always taking things apart to see how they were made. One time while our father was still alive he dismantled one of my favorite dolls. I became hysterical when I saw what he had done but Daddy seemed almost proud of Michael as he explained to me that my brother just needed to understand how the doll’s eyes opened and closed and how its arms moved up and down. Once in a fit of anger I vengefully took the head from Michael’s Dennis the Menace doll. Nobody was amused even though it was easy to repair. They understood that my motivation had been to harm, not to learn. Their response was a good lesson for me to realize the difference. I never did such a thing again. 

Life was good and we felt quite settled into our home, our neighborhood and our routines. We had learned to cope without our father and I was no longer afraid of catastrophe without him. Time began to accelerate at a rapid pace. Before long it was 1959, then 1960 and not only was Patrick heading to first grade, but our mother had been hired to teach fifth grade at Mt. Carmel Elementary School. I was entering the seventh grade and Michael was moving up to third, so all of our lives began to center around the school calendar. 

I was coming off of a second year of having a teacher that I totally enjoyed. In the sixth grade I had been fortunate enough to spend my days in Mrs. Loisey’s classroom and she would forever remain on my list of favorite people. In the seventh grade I would have different teachers for different subjects for the very first time. I really enjoyed the variety of personalities and teaching styles, but English, History and Science were my favorite subjects. I was a member of the Mt. Carmel drill squad as well. Mama had made sure that I took twirling lessons and I had become rather proficient with the baton. She was thrilled when I became one of the twirlers. I always got the idea that she had wanted wanted me to shine in ways other than just academics, but I always felt like a klutz save for when it came to manipulating that baton.

Michael and Patrick were both athletic. They were on Little League teams and we spent hours at the baseball field for practices and games. I on the other hand avoided anything having to do with catching or throwing or hitting a ball. I had not yet matured and I overheard my mother quietly worrying that something might be medically wrong with me. I don’t think she would ever have told me such a thing herself but I was always listening to her conversations and that bit of news began to worry me as well. I was not only a year younger than most of my peers but I was apparently a very late bloomer. My confidence began to waver a bit, but only my good friend Lynda knew of my fears. She and I consoled each other in believing that we were ugly ducklings who would no doubt become childless spinsters. I suppose that we thought we were the first young adolescents in history to feel this way, little understanding that it was only a phase that overtook almost everyone to some extent or another. 

In the spring of 1961, my science teacher, Mrs. Colby, was so excited about the upcoming launch of the first American in space that I became as interested in that dream as my brother Michael had always been. Mrs. Colby almost breathlessly taught us about the seven astronauts and the race into space between the United States and the Soviet Union. When I watched the brief but exhilarating adventure of Alan Shepard launch into space it felt as exciting and wonderful as Christmas. I thought about my little brother Michael with his moon book and began to believe that just maybe we would one day land on the moon just as President John Kennedy had challenged our nation to do. 

In the meantime, my English teacher Sister Mary Lester had taught us about propaganda. Of course we all knew that the Soviet Union was sending out disinformation constantly, but we were stunned to learn that lots of institutions did the same, including the United States. I was incredibly excited to learn something that seemed so adult. It felt as though I knew a secret that most people did not. Since that time I’ve tracked evidence of her assertion over and over again and I believe that she was quite right. 

The Cold War was roaring at an icy rate. We heard the piercing roar of the noonday air raid every Friday. At times we practiced ducking and covering our heads in the event of a bombing attack. I remember wondering who thought that just going under a desk and putting our arms over our heads would be sufficient to save us from harm in the event of an attack. It all seemed quite silly, but we politely complied with the drills in spite of our doubts about their effectiveness. 

Times were changing and I often found myself wondering what my father would have thought of our family and our world. He was such a history and science buff that surely he would have wanted to talk about what he saw. I wished that I might know him as someone who was attempting to grow into and adult. I liked to think that he would be happy with all of us, especially our mother who had devoted herself to us and who kept telling wonderful stories of how much our father loved us. I was proud of each of us and I think Daddy would have been so as well.

Standing Tall

We made it through our first year without our father just as our mother had assured us that we would do. It had taken a village of loving people to get us past all of the obstacles that had come our way, but somehow we were back to another Memorial Day and this time we were heading to Clear Lake to enjoy a day with all of the aunts and uncles and cousins. Mama had even planned a trip to Arkansas to see Grandpa and Grandma Little later in the summer. While we had not forgotten Daddy, we had learned from Mama how to adapt to our new reality

Our summertime Sundays at Clear Lake reminded us of the circle of love that surrounded us at all times. Somehow we understood that we were never alone. Our big extended family made sure that we were always okay, so when a friend innocently asked me what I would do if my mother died and I became an orphan I had no hesitation in asserting that my Aunt Valeria would take me into her home. While such a thing had never actually been discussed, I somehow believed it to be true because Aunt Valeria strangely had an extra bed sitting in her dining room. I never asked why it was there but it felt out of place unless it had some kind of hidden meaning. Somehow in my eight year old mind I had come to the conclusion that it was for me in the event of an emergency. At the same time I was never quite sure whether or not there would be room for my brothers as well, but I felt certain that they would find love in our family. 

Before long it was time for our trip to Arkansas. I though that our mother was the bravest woman on the planet for planning to drive so far all by herself. She just laughed and told me that she had traveled to San Diego to visit a friend in the middle of World War II when she was still a teenager. She assured me that the trip to Arkansas would be an easy drive for her. 

The car was packed with our things and ready to go in an early morning departure. Mama just needed to put out the trash before we went to bed to rest up for the trip the following day. She asked me to help carry some of the bags of refuse to the garbage can that stood in the backyard. She noticed right away that she was not going to get everything inside unless she compressed the refuse that was already there. With a big push of her two hand the collection of household debris gave way. Suddenly Mama was crying in pain. a glass jar that had been among the trash had shattered under the pressure of her hands and as it broke the shards of glass cut her wrists. I watched in horror as blood escaped from her wounds and she commanded me to run next door to get help from Mrs. Sessums. 

Soon both Mr. and Mrs. Sessums were in our backyard rendering aid to my mother. Mrs. Sessums took Mama to an emergency room and Mr. Sessums took me, Michael and Pat to his house. It felt as though we waited for hours before our mother finally came home. Her wrists were bound with bandages and she told me that the doctor had sewn stitches to mend the cuts that the glass had made. She looked pale and tired so Mrs. Sessums spent the night at our house watching over all of us. 

The next morning I heard my mother lamenting that people would think that she had attempted to kill herself now that she would sport scars on her wrists. She was grateful that I had witnessed the freaky accident and would be able to attest to her innocence. I felt sad that Mama was once again hurting at a time when everything had been going so well. I had so wanted to go see my grandparents and now that possibility seemed so far away. 

We spent most of the rest of that summer playing with our friends on Belmark Street. We had a good time and each evening when Mama tucked us into our beds she reminded us of all the wonderful blessings we had enjoyed that day. It was a daily ritual that kept our hope and joy alive. 

In August we got a wonderful surprise. Mama’s wounds had healed and our Aunt Opal, Daddy’s sister, was going to help our mother drive us all to see our grandparents in Arkansas. We were ecstatic and soon we also realized how much more fun the trip was going to be with Aunt Opal accompanying us. She was an amazing woman. 

Aunt Opal had lived in Choctaw territory of Oklahoma before it was even a state. She met her husband Harold LaRoche in Oklahoma and they were married before my father was born. The two of them had a big family of seven children, my first cousins, who were all way older than I was. In fact, some of them were contemporaries of Daddy. I remember he used to joke about being the uncle to some of his best boyhood friends.

Aunt Opal made the trip to Arkansas delightful for all of us. She liked to drink coffee and insisted that we make regular stops along our route to rest and refuel ourselves and the car. We’d find a local cafe and have a snack which more often than not included pie. Aunt Opal might have been our grandmother. She was old enough to have been either Mama or Daddy’s mother. She was loving and caring and always calm no matter the circumstances. Our mother adored her as much as we did. 

Our visit to see our grandparents was lovely. It was important for each of us to get together again. Grandma told me how much she missed her son and how hard it had been to know that she would never see him again. She told me stories about him as a boy, reminding me of how loving and thoughtful he had always been. She gave me a special book that had been his when he was only a toddler. it was faded, torn and falling apart but I treasured it nonetheless. When we were leaving she gave my mother the discharge documents from her father’s service in the Union Army during the Civil War. She asked Mama to keep them for me until I was old enough to give them the care they deserved. Somehow I knew that this gift to me was a great honor and a call to be a responsible person. I understood the message my grandmother was sending me.  

That summer women had shown me their strength and goodness. I learned from my mother, Mrs. Sessums, Aunt Opal and my grandmother. I felt the link that tied us all together. I saw resilience and determination is each of them. I took notes knowing that one day I too would be called to stand tall.  

Life Was Good

I returned to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic school after Labor Day of 1957 just after my little brother, Pat, had turned three. I was in the fourth grade, a changed soul with a more serious outlook on life. I was grateful to be back with people that I knew and trusted, but I was still in a state of grief that would follow me throughout that year. My teacher was a strict nun who taught me well, but was far too demanding for a little girl whose world felt so unsettling. I would have to find solace in my fellow students, the wonderful neighbors on Belmark Street, my family and friends. I withdrew into myself under the unrelenting sternness of my teacher. Looking back I realize that when I later became an educator she became my model of how not to behave around the children that I taught. 

We settled nicely into a routine at home. Mama was devoted to her dual role as both mother and father to us. It seemed as though her every thought was focused on our well being. She became an icon of strength and wisdom in our neighborhood, with a continuous line of visitors arriving for coffee and conversation with her. One woman in particular became a regular seeker of solace from our mother. She was a quiet and nervous lady who whispered anxiously and quite often burst into tears. When I enquired about her, Mama simply smiled and said that the lady was having some difficult times and just needed to talk about them.

Other neighbors were more gregarious and helpful. They brought out Mama’s smiles and laughter. They encouraged her to get involved in the Mother’s Club at church and to join a bowling team to get out of the house. It always amazed me how quickly our mother made friends, how easily she talked with them, how generous she was with them. Before long she seemed to know everyone who lived around us and was encouraging us to follow her example in accepting our fate and moving forward even if we were scared. 

She created routines for us like cleaning our home on Saturday mornings with Daddy’s music playing on our Victrola while we worked. Once we finished Mama presented each of us with a quarter to save or spend on our Saturday afternoon shopping excursions.  Of course we went to see our Grandma Ulrich on Fridays and attended mass on Sundays at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Sometimes we visited our aunts and uncles on Sunday afternoons. Our lives bumped along smoothly most of the time but now again we would feel the lurch of unexpected events like the murder of the sad lady who had often visited our home.

Late one evening we stood on our driveway watching the tragedy unfold along with most of our neighbors. We had all heard the screams and the shots of the gun. It was terrifying as we waited for the police to arrive because the woman’s children were standing in the front room window crying for help while the man raged in the background. It was our brave neighbor, Kathleen Bush, who charged across the street, pounded on the door, and demanded that the children be allowed to leave. I watched in awe of her courage as she stood her ground with the murderer. She threatened to force her way inside if necessary. Soon the front door opened and the terrified children ran into her arms. I suppose that Mrs. Bush became my idea of a hero from that time forward. 

Halloween came and Mama made costumes for us and then took us all around the neighborhood where everyone seemed to know who she was. We spent Thanksgiving at home and watched the annual gridiron grudge game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Mama sang the Aggie War Hymn and told us about the tradition of the Twelfth Man. We were totally indoctrinated into being proud little Aggies. 

In November, just before my birthday a cold front came to town. There was a chill over the house but Mama had no idea how to light the pilot of the gas heater. She mentioned her dilemma to our next door neighbor, Ethyl Sessums, who immediately insisted that she would send her husband, who was a plumber, to light up our furnace as soon as he came home from work. Surely enough he made short work of the task and before long our house was feeling warm and toasty. Somehow at that moment I felt that we were really going to be okay. I slept better than I had on any night since my father had died.

When Christmas came and we attended the annual Christmas Eve party at Grandma Ulrich’s house I became even more convinced that we were not alone. Uncle Andy gave me and my brothers teddy bears that were almost as big as we were. We would invent all kinds of games and adventures with those stuffed animals that brought lots of mischief and laughter to our home. When Santa actually found us on Christmas Day and left an array of gifts it felt as though the miracle of healing had begun. 

The New Year would bring Michael’s sixth birthday and a bought of measles to our home as well as an untypical snowy day. That was how it was, some ups and some downs but always the continuity of happy routines with our family and friends. Our mother would prove to be a mighty woman who tucked us into our beds each night with a reminder of how much she loved us. I would always miss my father, but I took my mother’s cue and began to allow myself to live again. Life was good. 

Becoming a Different Kind of Family

The days after my father’s death remain a blur, a kind of slow motion attempt to move forward while still believing that he would walk through the door at an moment to assure us that all of the furor over his passing was just a mistake. Eventually the aunts and uncles and friends busied themselves with their own lives and Mama, Michael, Pat and I were alone to grapple with our new reality. Nothing felt right in those first weeks, but soon our mother was busying herself with the tasks of living. She was determined to provide my brothers and me with a feeling of security, so she began the process of becoming the sole head of our household.

First, she needed a car since ours had been destroyed in the crash that took our father’s life. My Uncle Jack Ferguson, Aunt Polly’s husband, volunteered to accompany Mama to car dealerships in search of an automobile that she might afford. Daddy had always liked sporty cars with all of the bells and whistles of the time, but Uncle Jack was a Ford man with practical beliefs that the chief function of a family car was for transportation. Realizing that we only needed something that would reliably get us from one place to another, Uncle Jack bartered with salesmen to find Mama an automobile for the price of the insurance payout that she had received. What we got was a totally stripped down model with rubber floor mats, cloth seats, a standard transmission and no power steering. It was an ugly car for sure, but it drove well and was the right price. It would serve us for the next ten years of our journey without our father. 

The next phase of our new lifestyle was to find a permanent home. Mama knew how happy we had been when we lived in Overbrook so she thought it would be wise to return to the neighborhood where we already had so many friends. Once again Uncle Jack stepped up to help her find a house that was affordable. That meant moving to the small wooden spec homes rather than those like the custom brick place where we had once lived. Eventually our mother settled on a three bedroom, one bath property at 6411 Belmark Street. It was not even as nice as the home on Kingsbury but it was within walking distance of my old school and just down the street from our church. Best of all, after hearing of Mama’s plight, the owner of the house lowered his asking price enough to make her payments reasonable. 

Belmark Street was home to young families with children running and playing up and down the block. It was a friendly place where everyone rallied around our family from the start. Once our furniture and belongings were placed in the rooms it felt cozy and just right. Mama even purchased a bookcase that she placed in the hallway to hold our father’s books that had previously been in the packing boxes we had brought back to Texas from California. She played the records that he so enjoyed in the evenings just as he had done. We had a sense that somehow he was still with us if only in spirit. 

It took awhile for Mama to have the courage to open the anniversary gift that Daddy had left for her. She cried when she saw the iced tea spoons that he would never use. She quietly put them away in the wooden chest that held all of the knives and forks and serving pieces that our father had purchased for her in the eleven years of their marriage. Somehow that tiny treasure became symbolic of their love together which had been so short-lived. 

I had to be courageous when I told my mother about the lamps that Daddy had put in the layaway for her. i choked on my words as I described how happy he had been when he made me privy to the surprise that he had planned for her. We were unable to find any kind of receipt for the payments he had made, but I knew exactly where he had purchased them and I was able to described them in detail when Mama and I went to the store. As I told the salesperson my story she began to sob and assured us that she knew exactly where the gift was being stored. Mama made the final payment and we took the beautiful boudoir lamps home to place them on her dressing table just as Daddy had envisioned. 

The summer was a time for adjusting to our new reality. We met all of the other children on our long street and always had something to do on the sweltering hot days. I became friends with Candy Bush, Karen Janot and Jeannie Limb. To my delight I found that the bike ride to Lynda’s house was short and quick, so the two of us resurrected our friendship immediately. On Friday nights we religiously visited my Grandma Ulrich along with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. Friends and family members were constantly dropping by our house to visit and to help Mama with any difficulties that she may have had. I learned how good people are and because of them I slowly began to feel safe even though my heart was still indescribably sad. 

After Labor Day I began my fourth year of school. I was eight years old, but I felt like I was forty. I hid the grief that I was feeling under a facade of quiet determination. Even with all of the outpouring of love for our family my anxieties were chronic but I had decided that my personal duty was to be the kind of person that my father had always told me that he believed I might be. I watched over my brothers and did my best not to cause any trouble for my mother. Somehow I fully understood the burdens that she would face. I decided that I never wanted to be another one for her. I was a child who had instantly morphed into an old soul. I knew that we had become a new kind of family and I had duties to fulfill.