Discover more from Pat’s Posts
My Brother, My Mother, & Me!
My brother and I spent our early years raised by a single mother who was desperate to keep us from harm and did so by telling us mildly horrible stories. We lived blocks from the ravine near the Missouri River and to keep us away, mom told us that the ravine was where the police thought the child killer of Donna Sue Davis (a famous unsolved child murder) hung out and so we were to stay out of the ravine. Of course, this only encouraged us to venture further and more often into the ravine, at times wandering nearly to the river. To keep us away from the train tracks, mom told us that her great uncle was killed by a train and the police brought his body home in a peach basket. He was in fact found alongside the tracks, but the police suspected he’d been murdered and placed there to hide the crime. No peach basket was involved. My brother and I thus became quite good at telling stories ourselves, often entertaining people with the true stories of our childhood which at times verged on the ridiculous. We were happy as children even though we were aware of our poverty and of our mother’s struggles to maintain a stable home. One time talking to one of my many cousins, I commented that I had a happy childhood to which she immediately expressed strong disagreement. Her denial upset me so much that I called my brother, yelling into the phone, “did we have a happy childhood?” He said, “Yup, as far as I remember,” and that was good enough for me, although I’m still holding a grudge against my cousin and her disparaging remark. I can be small-minded like that.
Thanks for reading Pat’s Posts! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
My mother was born in December 1929 and the ramifications of growing up through the depression years would be with her for her entire life. Her family was divided into two groups with several years intervening between the first five children and the last three. The older group composed of four girls and a boy, and the later arrival of two girls and a boy. At one time, my grandmother was caring for four daughters, aged 2, 4, 5, 6, and a baby son, too quickly followed by another son and two more daughters. I’m pretty sure grandma suffered a nervous breakdown after the birth of my mother, the eighth child, but there’s no proof of that. Four years separated the first group from the second, and according to the eldest daughter the arrival of the final three was the beginning of the family’s financial demise. While they were living in South Sioux City, on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, they were doing well. They even owned the house they were living in. Sometime around the last birth, grandpa sold the house— “the worst mistake he ever made” according to my eldest aunt—and moved the family across the river to Iowa. I’m not sure how long the downhill slide took, but family legend has it that it was a financial rollercoaster from then on, less feast and more famine.
By the time my mother was a toddler, my grandmother had been temporarily institutionalized, my grandfather had become a confirmed alcoholic, the family was barely surviving financially, and my two eldest aunts had already quit school at 14 and 15 to find jobs. Named Juanita in a family of Norwegian and English immigrants, the onslaught of troubles began early. Mother believed that grandpa had named her after a Mexican cook who worked for him and with whom he was quite taken. Few in Sioux City knew how to spell her name, and she was often listed as Wanita, the Native American spelling. Growing up in Siouxland, surrounded by the seven tribes of the Sioux nation, it seemed a logical assumption. Eventually she quit using her first name completely, going by Jean for most of her adult life. Ironically, the name Wanita, often spelled as Waneta or even the Spanish form, Juanita, is an old English name for girls meaning “God is gracious.” According to Social Security Agency records, the name reached its peak during the years 1920-1929 in 1058th position. Whether mother was named after a Mexican cook or whether her own mother named her, choosing an old English name is uncertain. One of the qualities my mother excelled at was telling stories, so I’m guessing the origin of her name might have been just one more in a long list of captivating tales.
At one time mother told me that grandpa owned a large lake as well as the surrounding area which he lost in the crash of 1929. I remember swimming at Crystal Lake once or twice when we were young and supposed that to be the lake that grandpa had owned. The lake had a metal slide about twenty feet into the water; the sand at the bottom of the slide was worn down into a rather good-sized hole. On my one and only attempt to conquer the slide, I slid into the hole and for a few moments believed my life to be at an end. Eventually, no more than two or three seconds, I got a foothold on a higher ledge thrusting myself out of the water and into a shallower space, albeit acutely aware of the possibility of death for the first time. I told the story of the lake and the land to my aunt who said, “Poppycock! He never owned a thing except the house in South Sioux, and he sold that.” And that, dear reader, was that.
Even though she had older sisters who might have cared for her, on the day she was born, mother was farmed out to her mother’s brother and his wife, her aunt and uncle. She remained with them for her first two years. I’m not sure she ever forgave her sisters for not keeping her at home, but by Black Tuesday, the family was already suffering financial hardship and keeping her at home in the care of her teenaged sisters would have undoubtedly been the wrong decision. Sending her to live with relatives was in all likelihood a harsh but necessary one. Mother claimed to have been told that grandma suffered from tuberculosis and had to be institutionalized for her and everyone else’s health. I’m not sure that’s the whole truth of it. Knowing the high instances of overwhelming anxiety that runs through my mother’s family, I suspect she was hospitalized for mental health issues, perhaps even post-partum depression after the birth of her eighth child. This would never have been revealed in 1929. In the years since, I’ve come to understand the wide swatch of anxiety disorders that affects my family. Relatives have all handled their anxiety in different ways; several are alcoholics; many take prescribed medications; there are a few addicts in the group, and some just suffer. During an annual physical recently, my doctor asked about family history, questioning whether there were any issues of alcoholism or drug use. I told her that listing family members without issues would be a shorter list.
At that time, we lived in a little yellow house at the top of a very steep hill. The yard backed up against a huge unclimbable cliff that not even my brother, who could scamper up the tallest hill, would attempt. One night just after getting into bed, me in my own room, and my brother with mother, there was a pounding on the outside walls going all around the house. I was terrified. Whoever was racing around the house, pounding on the walls continued for only a few minutes before he or she disappeared—not nearly long enough to be caught or even sighted by the police. At first mother believed it to be a prank, but after several nights over several months, we all took it more seriously, even the police, who at one point stationed an officer in the coat closet in an attempt to catch the person in the act. I imagine this would be a case of stalking today and a much more detailed investigation would be undertaken, but at the time, it seemed an annoying, if terrifying prank, and the perp was never caught. Shortly after this episode we moved once again.
The little yellow house was also the place where we got our first dog—long before the wall-knocking prankster appeared. The dog was a large yellow lab who just seemed to show up in the backyard one day and since we had a backyard, mother agreed we could keep him. He wasn’t much more than a puppy at the time he arrived, and since he slept under the house, he required little more than food, water, and occasional petting. All was well until the day we went to play with him and he couldn’t get out from under the house. We coaxed and coaxed, but he simply had gotten too big too to escape the small opening of the den he’d created. Never one to leave solutions to others, mother got her shovel and began the arduous work of digging a tunnel out of the hard-packed earth to allow the dog escape. I don’t recall him being around much after that. I don’t even remember his name, but it would be a long time before we got another dog.
Around 1962 my mother remarried. Her new husband was a Fuller Brush man or an insurance agent, or a magic-potion seller—frankly, I have no idea what he did. He wore a suit and tie, carried a briefcase, drove a company car, and moved us two-hundred miles south to Ankeny, Iowa, a town of fewer than 25,000 souls which had no movie theaters, no swimming pool, and no one we knew. We’d moved in the summer, leaving everything familiar behind including dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins with whom we’d grown up. We were miserable, but thankfully, our misery didn’t last long. Within days of our arrival, our new neighbors who were the same ages of my brother and I introduced us to others in the neighborhood. Mother’s wedded bliss, however, was not to last. The new husband, who had no children of his own, turned out to be uncomfortably petty and childish himself, staking out food in the refrigerator as “his,” and having a fit if my brother or I touched it. He had no patience with children and we had no love for him. Not realizing that her children were her heart and soul, he made no effort to abide us and so within the year, he was a forgotten piece of our history. And he was truly forgotten. Mother never referred to him nor acknowledged she was once married to him. Years later I mentioned to my husband that mother had been married three times. He was astounded that this information had never surfaced. There were several interesting bits of information my mother never spoke about and that second husband was one of many of them.
Once settled in Ankeny, mom went to work for a general practitioner who was a Doctor of Osteopathy. In his employ mother became known as competent and proficient. For the first time in her life she was an acknowledged professional. She was active in nursing and at one time served as president of her organization. Although we went to Sioux City as often as we could, our relationships with family became less intimate and more formalized with weddings, funerals, and yearly family reunions.
No sooner had mother divorced than she began dating. My brother and I reveled in the irony of these events as mother had been single throughout our entire childhood, never dating, never introducing us to a man she might be interested in, never having any close male friends. In fact, because of her divorce from our father who she claimed was oversexed with various unacknowledged offspring spread across the country, we assumed she hated men. None of these so-called progenies ever showed up on our doorstep, so this may have been another of mother’s small exaggerations, further exaggerated. The move to Ankeny seemed to erase that assumption as mother prepared to go out on Saturday evenings with the “girls.”
What seemed like the passage of only a few months since the divorce, mom introduced us to a local man whose family had been in Ankeny since the founding of the town. Nearly everyone in town who had lived there for more than twenty years was related in some way. It was also the only place I’ve ever lived where I didn’t have to spell my new last name or explain how to pronounce it. Within the year, they were married and shortly thereafter, my brother and I were adopted. In their wedding photo, they look happy; my brother looks delighted (he was young) and I look condemned. I became a member of a large clan of people I didn’t know, with a family legacy I didn’t understand. Everyone was kind, including new grandparents who I don’t think ever took to any of us, but concealed it well.
By the time I began high school I was pretty much disgruntled with everything. I’d lost my birth father and my grandma through death, my school, my extended family, and my name. I didn’t think life could ever be worse, but of course, I was wrong as growing older has shown. Unfortunately, only in hindsight do I realize that this was probably the easiest time of my life. For once we had enough money, a secure home, a stable environment, and two parents who were both concerned about our welfare. We weren’t the Brady Bunch or the Huxtables, but we got along okay. It turned out that my adopted dad, who quickly became “dad,” was honest, ethical, and responsible. He rarely interfered with mother’s disciplinary methods, but he stood up for us when it counted. Physically I take after my birth father’s family who leaned to the chubby side, and as a child, I was always directed to the “plus” side of the department store. To counteract my physique, mother choose clothes in muted colors. I was the complete physical opposite of my mother who was thin, small-boned, olive-skinned, and brunette. I was chubby, blonde, and blue-eyed and in love with pastel clothing of which I owned none. For that first Christmas that we were officially a family, my new dad bought me a fluffy, pink bathrobe with silk edging. It was the most beautifully pastel garment I’d ever owned and right there I decided he could probably stay. He’s gotten better ever since or perhaps I’ve gotten more accepting—nah, he’s gotten better. Finally, mother had made the perfect choice. She was happy and secure and so were we.
Thanks for reading Pat’s Posts! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.