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.