Ready To Move Up

I enjoyed my eighth grade year save for my mathematics class which is somewhat ironic given that I would one day become a math teacher. I found myself totally lost but still making good grades in the class. Somehow I was able to fake it, but I really never had a genuine understanding of the concepts. I remember mostly being frightened of my math teacher who often sported aviator glasses and rarely seemed to smile. I’d come home and seek help from my mother who did her best to demystify the various processes. Eventually I would simply lock myself in my bedroom, pore over the examples in my textbook and teach myself the rubrics without ever really making the connections with what I was doing and the real world. I needed to understand the “why’s” and nobody was around to explain such things to me. That would happen later in my life.

The rest of my teachers were fabulous and I enjoyed their classes and their differing methods  of conveying information. Because I have always enjoyed writing I imagined myself as a journalist and dreamed of one day writing articles for newspapers and magazines. My teacher, Mrs. Getz, intrigued me because she often spoke of the challenges that dedicated writers must  consider. One of my favorite moments with her involved a lesson on proof reading papers before turning them in to her. She spoke of the incredible process that a group undertook in creating a new Bible. She said that literally dozens of dedicated souls had read and reread and corrected every possible flaw that might have crept into the sacred text. When the books were finally printed and ready for sale someone not even associated with the massive project picked up a copy, opened it and read, “I the beginning…” I never forgot that story and it makes me laugh to this very day.

Mrs. Colby was still teaching science and still as excited about the space program as ever. In February of my final year before high school she rolled a television standing on a tall cart into our classroom and let us watch John Glenn orbit the earth. We were all giddy over that accomplishment and somehow it made the future seem so exciting, especially since much of the pioneering work took place not far from where we sat in that classroom. In fact, we all knew people who were employed by NASA in those days. While I watched the work of brilliant engineers come to fruition, my brother Mike continued to dream of one day being part of the efforts to reach out into space. His mathematical abilities were already becoming apparent to his teachers and his inventiveness was stunning. I often imagined the kind of incredible conversations that he and our father might have had.

Pat continued to bring sheer delight to our family. He had Daddy’s love of humor and like our father, he collected friends easily. He was also a promising athlete, able to run like the wind, pitch like a big leaguer and adapt to virtually any sport quickly. He was quick witted, creative and a people magnet. In many ways he and Mike were becoming an amalgam of our father, each developing similar interests and talents that they shared with the father they would never really know. 

I enjoyed my stint as Captain of the Twirlers on the drill team and met lots of good friends along the way. My mother had always wanted to be a twirler herself but never had the opportunity to take the lessons and learn the skills. She drove me back and forth to lessons with Yvonne McCutchin at a Houston City Park while also teaching school, taking care of the house and family business, attending my brothers’ ball games, serving as the Historian of the church Women’s Club and enjoying fun evening for herself in a bowling league. While I took her efforts for granted at the time I now wonder where she got all of her energy.

The school year ended with the May tradition of honoring the Blessed Virgin. The annual event always involved the eighth grade class in a ceremony dedicated to the mother of Jesus. I was surprisingly chosen by my fellow students to be part of a special group that crowned Our Lady with flowers. Mama was so excited, but I was simply ready to move up to high school. It was the graduation ceremony that brought me the most joy, especially when they awarded me with a one year scholarship to Mt. Carmel High School which was located right next door. 

Grandpa and Grandma Little came to town to witness my transition from junior high school as did all of my aunts and uncles. After the ceremony we had a party at our house where Grandpa presented me with a book called Great Lives, Great Deeds. In the inscription that he wrote on the title page he challenged me to make my life one of integrity and good works. Somehow I felt that he was speaking to me as he knew my father might have done. I cherish that book to this very day and often joke that if my house were on fire it would be one of the first things I would grab on my way out the door. 

Lynda’s mother, Mrs. Barry, gave me the first perfume that I had ever possessed. It was Estee Lauder Youth Dew and it made me feel just a more mature than my image in the mirror had done. It would become one of my all time favorite scents and I continue to wear. it often. Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack gave me a 1962 Proof Set of coins and Mama presented me with a watch. To my delight I received lots of cash which I saved for my first year in high school. My graduation was the first really big celebration and gathering since Daddy had died. Somehow I felt that he was present and that he approved of how well all of us had done. 


A Storm Named Carla

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Each year there is always a potential for a hurricane in Houston, Texas. The city is only fifty odd miles from the Gulf Coast and while it gets a slightly muted version of the wind and rain that hits the coastline, such storms can be deadly. Going through one is a frightening experience. From June to October those of us born and raised near the Gulf Coast know how important it is to be prepared for the potential of devastating weather. So it was in September of 1961, when hurricane Carla appeared to be tracking to the area. 

Our home on Belmark Street had not been tested against high winds and devastating rain so Mama was worried about enduring a hurricane alone. Sensing her anxiety Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack insisted that we all relocate to their home until the danger from the hurricane had passed. Aunt Valeria also decided to join us there because her husband, our Uncle Dale, was called to maintain the operations at the Shell refinery where he worked. Ours would be an adventure shared with our cousins.

We helped Mama “batten the hatches” as she called it, gathering up anything in the yard that would blow away and cause damage, securing and protecting the windows of the house and setting aside water and nonperishable food for the aftermath when we might be without electricity for an uncertain amount of time. Mike, Pat and I packed our bags, put our pillows and blankets in the car and headed gleefully to Aunt Polly’s place unfazed by the potential of the storm which was about to wreak havoc on our city.

Aunt Polly lived on Alberta Street in a neighborhood near St. Peter’s Catholic Church where I had spent my first grade school year. I liked her house because it was located near a drainage ditch that afforded us kids hours of fun exploring and creating make believe adventures. There was also a set of stairs in the house that lead to the attic where Uncle Jack had installed flooring so that provided us with a gigantic playroom. Best of all was the den at the back of the house where Uncle Jack spent evenings watching westerns and really good television programs that our mother seemed to dislike. I knew that our stay over was going to be tons of fun with our cousins and good viewing with our uncle.

Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack had two sons, Jack and Andy, Jack was only a few months younger than I was and Andy was a bit older than Mike. We never failed to have fun playing with the two of them who always seemed to have great ideas for passing the time. Aunt Valerie brought our cousin, Ingrid, who was a year older than I was. She was always beautiful with blue eyes and hair that curled in lovely ringlets. She had just started her first year in high school so she seemed to be far more sophisticated than the rest of us. I was in awe of her and in some ways thought of her as a fabulous big sister. With all of us gathered together the hurricane watch would be more like a party than an escape from possible danger.

Aunt Polly had recently purchased a piano which quickly drew our attention. Jack showed us how to play Heart and Soul in duet form and before long we were taking turns filling the house with beautiful music, at least that is how it sounded to us. Our parents put up with our concert for a time but eventually grew weary of our banging at the keys and demanded that we go upstairs to find something to entertain ourselves. Back then I could not imagine why they were not enchanted by our musicality but as an adult I wonder if I would have had as much patience as they did before pulling the plug on our piano recital.

The expanse of the upstairs attic room was incredible. Most of the area had flooring saved for the edges along the perimeter. In those dark corners boxes and rarely used paraphernalia like suitcases and Christmas decorations lay waiting for occasional use. We were free to enjoy ourselves to our hearts’ content as long as we did not enter the far unfloored reaches of the area. We played board games and ran the electric train that belonged to my cousins. Then we attempted to design a more mature version of hide and seek that allowed us to hide anywhere in the house or the attic. 

I decided to be daring and disobedient by finding a place to conceal myself behind a pile of suitcases near the restricted edge. It worked well as I went undiscovered over and over again. Eventually I took the time to glance at the stacks of seldom used items nearby while waiting for my opportunity to get home free. As my eye scanned the area I went into shock when I saw what appeared to be a wooden leg. I immediately realized that it was the prosthetic limb that had belonged to my Uncle Bob. I was so stunned at seeing it that I screamed and gave myself away. Luckily my cousins and brothers all agreed to hide my lawless behavior from the adults as long as I agreed to be “it” for several consecutive turns. 

Eventually the air outside filled with the smell of the ocean and the winds began to blow harder than I had ever before witnessed. My cousin Jack took the opportunity to climb a tree in his backyard and ride the wind as the branches moved back and forth. We were having a great time watching his bravery when our parents insisted that it was time to lock ourselves safely inside because the hurricane was heading our way. 

Uncle Jack entertained us with his jokes and stories while our mothers looked more and more concerned as the windows rattled and seemed on the verge of breaking. Meanwhile the rain pelted the roof and objects of all sorts flew against the outer walls of the house. What we thought of as exciting seemed to scare our mothers. Perhaps that is because they had witnessed other hurricanes before. We were novices and had little idea of the destruction that was to come. 

Once the storm has passed over us we went outside to survey the damage. Huge tree limbs lay on the ground from fallen trees. Items that belonged to someone else littered the yards. Water stood in the street and filled the ditch out back. On television we saw images of shattered buildings and boats sitting in fields far aways from where they had been moored. It was a deadly hurricane that ranked as one of the worst to hit our area in decades. Mama and Aunt Valeria both worried about what they might find upon returning to our respective neighborhoods.

We would wait for a time before attempting to venture back home to our house. Mama worried that debris and high water might block our way. When we finally did make that journey we were stunned to find fallen utility poles blocking our path and high water that lapped over our tires threatening to find its way inside our car. There were businesses whose roofs had blown off and huge signs that lay on the ground. Hardly any of the traffic lights were working properly so Mama drove slowly and carefully.

The journey that should have only taken about twenty minutes, took well over an hour. At times our mother wondered if she should simply turn back to Aunt Polly’s house because the destruction that we witnessed was so bad. Nonetheless we keep moving forward and finally reached our street that was still filled with water. When we got to our home we all let out a sigh of relief. It looked just as it had when we left. It had weathered the storm without damage of any kind. Just as Uncle Jack had boasted when Mama bought it, we saw that it was a good strong house that would serve us well for many years. It was home and we felt wonderful to be back. We were okay once again.

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.