Michael was a good brother from the start. He was always quiet, good natured and curious about everything. He quickly fit right into the family. Sadly sometimes he became very ill due to his asthma. There were times when my mother would be rocking him for long stretches with a worried look on her face. There were even occasions when our family physician, Dr. C. Forrest Jorns, would make a house call to check on Michael. I remember Mama disinfecting the top of our kitchen table and placing a blanket on it so that the good doctor might examine my baby brother.
Most of the time Michael was just a happy little boy who loved to be outside exploring the world. Because my mother wanted to be able to take us on excursions to the Houston Zoo and to visit with her brothers and sisters, my father purchased a used car called a Henry J. I thought the name was funny and the car itself was even more so. From the beginning Daddy complained that he had purchased a lemon that leaked oil and was mostly unreliable. He got rid of it rather quickly so that when Mama wanted to go somewhere with the car she had to drive my father to a nearby bus stop.
I have no idea where my father was working at the time. Somehow I lacked the curiosity to ask him about that. All I know is that suddenly one day he announced that we were moving temporarily to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a big project that needed his expertise. We simply locked up our house on Kingsbury Street and headed for a place that really excited him because he had been born in Skiatook, Oklahoma in 1923. He had also gone to middle school there, so he was familiar with the area and looked forward to returning if only for a short time.
We ended up renting an old home located in a tree lined neighborhood. Most of the residents seemed to be as old as my grandparents, but Mama became fast friends with them very quickly. We often visited with the older ladies while my father was at work. Everything about the house and the neighborhood felt ancient compared to the thriving area we had left behind. There were no children around so I spent most of my time attempting to create games with my brother who was only just beginning to toddle around.
My favorite memory from that time was attending a Native American night time powwow. It remains one of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed to this very day. The people were decked out in traditional clothing that included an abundance of colorful feathers, beads and leather. Their chanting was haunting and beautiful. The drumbeats and flutes were like nothing I had ever before heard. I was enthralled.
Back then the Howdy Doody show was a big thing with children. Michael and I watched it together virtually every afternoon. Imagine my joy when I learned that Buffalo Bob and Clarabell the Clown were going to visit a local grocery store. Mama was almost as excited as I was that we were going to see such stars in person. I remember feeling breathless when I saw Buffalo Bill walking toward us, but a bit disappointed that he looked so normal. Somehow I had imagined that he would be bigger than life.
On another day Mr. Peanut showed up at the store complete with his pince-nez. When he approached us with his hand ready to shake ours Michael uncharacteristically became hysterical. Not even Mama was able to calm him down so we had to flee from the store to halt his anxiety. I don’t think I ever again saw him cry until he was an adult when my mother was very sick.
I was glad when we finally returned home. I had missed my dance classes at a studio that was just around the corner from our house. I wanted to see my cousins and visit my grandparents again. I also longed to go to the new mall that had opened up just down the street. Palm Center was a wonder with stores of every variety. It was literally a one stop shopping area that featured a pharmacy, a grocery store, a variety store, a furniture store and lots of clothing and shoe stores. Best of all there was always an organ grinder there with his pet monkey that was so cute that I always laughed when I saw him dancing around.
There was a local kiddie show on television station KTRK, Channel 13. The star of the show was Kitirik, a woman dressed in a catsuit who celebrated children’s birthdays and showed cartoons. The day she came to Palm Center was a really big deal for all of us youngsters. I have to admit that I was a bit confused as to whether or not she was a regular person or a very strange looking cat.
My favorite thing about returning to Houston was visiting my grandparents again. My father’s parents lived in the Houston Heights at 1607 Arlington in a home that my grandfather actually built. I loved going there on Sundays for dinner. My grandmother, Minnie Bell, was an extraordinary cook. Everything she made was exquisite, but her berry pies and strawberry shortcakes were absolutely heaven. From an early time she taught me how to set the table with her silver and her china dishes that were called Happy Village. I felt like a big shot whenever I helped her to get ready for dinner.
Grandpa, William Mack Little, held court on their screened in front porch with a big box fan moving the air. I sat on the glider that was festooned with thick cushions and listened to his stories or tales about whatever book he was currently reading. He always puffed on his pipe as he spoke about an article he had read in the newspaper or one of his magazines. He was an imposing man who seemed to command respect wherever he happened to be.
Our Friday nights were spent with my maternal grandmother, Mary Ulrich, who spoke only Slovak. She was almost as round as she was tall which was well under five feet. She wore her hair in a old fashioned braid that trailed down her back and she walked around in her bare feet. She was beautiful to me with her dark hair and stunning blue eyes even though her face was filled with wrinkles. She called everyone either “pretty girl” or “pretty boy” and was the consummate hostess. As soon as we arrived she would rush to her kitchen to make us a cup of weak milk and sugar coffee served in enamel cups. If she had a loaf of dark rye bread from the Weingarten’s grocery store she would offer us a slice as well.
My paternal grandfather, Paul Ulrich, had died from a cerebral hemorrhage before I was born. I only knew that he must have liked to read because he had books of every kind inside lawyers bookcases. I was not yet reading but I was intrigued by the many shapes and sizes of the volumes. My mother told me that my Grandpa had read all of the time and often shared what he had learned with his children. I have always wished that I might have met him.
It was always fun at Grandma Ulrich’s house because my cousins came to visit at the same time with my aunts and uncles. The adults would talk at the top of their voices trying to get the floor while playing poker and filling the tiny living room with smoke. Even the smallest children played outside. It was like heaven to create games and just be ourselves with the adults hovering over us.
Sometimes my Uncle Bob and Aunt Speedy would come to stay at our house for a few days. They lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, where my father had gone to high school. Uncle Bob, Bob Janowski, along with a man named Lloyd Krebs, were my father’s best friends. They had all gone to high school together and then set off to Texas A&M College where each of them earned a degree. Aunt Speedy was my mother’s sister. Her real name was Wilma, put she officially used the name Claudia. My parents had introduced her to Uncle Bob when we all lived in College Station. Everyone was thrilled when they married, especially me.
Both Uncle Bob and Aunt Speedy were physically beautiful. When they came to visit the other children in my neighborhood were as in awe of them as I was. They drove a white Studebaker that was sporty and quite fitting because it made them seem like movie stars or celebrities of some kind. I adored both of them and they often spoiled me so their visits were always a highlight.
Otherwise life rocked along quite wonderfully and then my mother announced that another baby was on the way. I wished with all of my might for a sister and then waited for the day of birth. There would be incredible surprises ahead.