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.