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More Stories - The Way We Were
A Powerful Time of Year
New Year's almost here again, a period when people tend to make resolutions and decide to make new starts. It's also an excellent time for people to reflect on grudges, forgive slights, and bring out into the open all those sins of omission and commission, real or imagined that keep us apart. Time to extend the hand of love and friendship without reservations holding one down. Especially this year, after the terrorist tragedies brought home to many of us the uncertainty of life and what is really important - our family, our friends and our love for others.
I had a graphic illustration of years wasted in belief of a slight (not that I obsessed or anything - I just believed badly of someone, and they thought badly of someone else).
As a baby I had a stuffed white rabbit with red velveteen pants and inner ears and red glass eyes. He was co-inhabitant of my crib (yes, I remember that very well) and comforted me through many bouts of tonsillitis, ear infections, pneumonia, chicken pox, rubella, even a mild case of polio. Over the years, his white fur turned a brownish gray, he lost his red glass eyes;cv his inner ears and pants turned a sort of rotten tangerine color.
From second grade through part of the seventh, we lived in a small town in western New York. My father was the Baptist pastor. My mother taught Sunday School, played the pipe organ and kept a perfectly clean house and yard, gardened, canned and froze, sewed and made ends meet on a pastor's somewhat meager salary. I wasn't a very neat child, and my mother was always picking up after me or harassing me to do so.
I wasn't interested in playing with dolls, but when my girl friends came over and insisted, I would haul out poor Peter Rabbit to play house with. At some point, one of the elderly lady parishioners decided I must love stuffed rabbits and made me two ugly ones from scraps. I put them away with Peter to keep him company when my friends weren't over. After a few sessions of playing house, both of them started to come apart (apparently lady parishioner wasn't a very good seamstress).
The town dump was a magnet for me and for my best friend, Kay Perry. In this era everything was bottled or tinned- no plastic - hence lots of sharp stuff everywhere, and flies that spread polio and worse, so we were banned from going anywhere near the dump. Naturally we biked down there from time to time anyway and carefully scrounged for goodies.
On one such visit the collection truck pulled up. We ran over to see what treasures were being dumped. As the garbage and trash slid out, right on top were my three rabbits, and they rolled sadly down the pile right to my feet.
To say I was outraged was an understatement. I threw them into my bicycle basket and pedaled home, mad as a hornet. Without regard for any penalties for having been at the dump, I began shouting at my mother and crying. "How could you throw out my rabbits?" I asked.
"They were dirty and the stuffing was falling out, and you never play with them..... and I was cleaning your room."
"But they're mine!!!" I was so upset neither Mom or Dad said a word about my having been at the dump. As I recall, I threw away the two wretched newer bunnies on the spot, and took poor Peter Rabbit to my room, where I wiped him off with a damp washcloth and set him out to dry.
Forward a year or so: we moved to Nebraska (see Who Do We Owe). If you'll read it, you understand the rest of this story better. But to recap, Mother was in bed threatening to miscarry, my Dad took a job across country, and they decided that he, my 2-1/2 year old brother Nathan and myself should go, leaving Mother behind until the new baby was born. I was told to go through my things and pack what I really wanted to keep. I had some books and games, rocks and fossils I had collected, a balsa wood jeep my Uncle Dick and Aunt Edith had given me during WWII, Peter Rabbit, my roller skates and ice skates, a couple of hunks of glassy lava that my dear Aunt Amelia had found as a young woman in a ravine in the Finger Lake area, as well as other little treasures. (Unknown to many, western New York is an active but infrequent earthquake zone). I was told to take with me right now only what I really needed, as we would be towing a trailer across country, and the bulk of the stuff would be shipped by rail freight.
Mother was concerned about my staying by myself, although I never minded being alone. We were in a temporarily rented furnished house. Daddy found a baby-sitter for Nathan on his way to work, and we settled in.
By the time Mother recovered from birthing Priscilla and joined us, we were about to lose our rented home, and had to move suddenly into terribly crowded substandard living quarters for a couple of months, with only an outhouse and a shower stall in the tiny kitchen. Finally we moved into a tiny two-bedroom home on the outskirts of Lincoln, something much too small for us but the only thing they could find that was affordable. The freight didn't even get completely unpacked for almost a year after the move. When it was, I found most of my stuff was gone, including Peter Rabbit, the jeep, some of my books and games and other things. When I asked where they were, Mother professed ignorance, and pointed out that in any case, I was about to outgrow the skates, the rabbit was old and faded, etc. Well, she'd thrown Peter away once, apparently she'd done it again, and along with a lot of other stuff. I was grieved, especially about Peter and the lava.
This stuck in my mind for years. I even mentioned it in the story Who Do We Owe, advising parents not to throw away their children's possessions: their stuff is their stuff!
It became apparent to me that my parents were on a very tight budget - in fact had considerable money problems. I assumed they just couldn't afford to move everything. Even poor Peter! But it still hurt. I felt they should have been up front with me and let me chose what to leave behind.
Now, one of the reasons I began this website was because I realized that I was the only bridge between generations in our family; I was nearly grown when my first brother came along, and the same was true for almost all the younger ones in our family. Most of them never knew the older people in our family, or the many family stories that even my parents had forgotten. Included in this website are pictures of some of our ancestors and relatives. I realized I didn't have any picture of my mother's real mother, Bessie Tupper Hine (see Aunt Amelia's Scrapbook), so I asked my mother to have a copy made of her mother's portrait. She informed me that she only had a small photo, but would have an enlargement made.
My mother, although in her mid-eighties, nearly blind and with several health problems, still has all her nuts and bolts, so as to speak. I knew she had an 8" x 11" portrait of Grandmother. But I didn't argue, supposing she had misplaced it or given it to one of the other children. That's okay. I also want to mention, before I get to the point of this story, that my mother would never, in past years, have criticized my father, even in her own mind, and especially not to anyone else. But Daddy has a type of dementia, and odd things are coming out now that he's no longer "around" the same way, and mother is his caretaker and often exasperated by his antics.
When I received this photo, as well as a matching one of Grandpa and a photo of their home, it was the same portrait I remembered from childhood in New York - except it was sepia instead of gray and in an oval "frame".
I called my mother to wish her a Merry Christmas and to thank her. I asked if she had gotten the photo reduced in size. She was taken aback; "No, I enlarged it. I don't have a big picture of her."
"What happened to the one that hung on your bedroom wall in Wyoming, New York, right across from the doorway? It was the first thing I saw whenever I went into your bedroom."
Long pause. "Are you sure?"
"How long has it been since you've seen it?" I asked. She admitted it must have been a large number of years, as she didn't recall it at all - and this from someone who was still grieving the loss of her mother while she herself was barely more than a baby.
"It must have disappeared on the move to Nebraska," I told her. "Don't I recall there were other things you couldn't find?"
Well, it turned out she had been angry for years at Nathan's babysitter for stealing a number of things from our first home in Lincoln before she got there with baby Priscilla. "You remember," she said. "Daddy got a baby-sitter - not that you really needed one, but you'd never been alone before, and of course someone had to care for Nathan when you were in school. But I don't remember now all of what was missing."
One problem here: Daddy knew me better than Mom did. I didn't need a babysitter - I was happy on my own and behaved well aside from "forgetting" to do some chores. Daddy dropped off my brother at the sitter's house, so the babysitter had never been in our home. Daddy had never told Mother otherwise, apparently not to worry her, and she had never said anything to Daddy about the missing stuff, as it would have seemed critical of his choice of baby-sitter. Obviously one or more of the freight cartons had gone missing in transit. I mentioned my skates, Peter Rabbit, etc.
"Of course I wouldn't have left anything behind you had packed to take," she told me. "I never could understand what had happened to them." I reminded her about rescuing Peter Rabbit from the dump, and assuming she'd done it again. She assured me that once was enough and there was no way she would have left him behind.
So for over half a century, I had resented losing all those childhood treasures that Mother had "discarded" and Mom had resented the choice of thieving baby-sitter Daddy had hired. She was obviously so grieved at the loss of the only portrait of her mother that she suppressed the very memory of it. All of this because of lack of trust, lack of communication and a lost shipment.
Whether real or imagined, mistakes, shortcomings, ignorance and insults are all part of the human condition. But we have a wonderful things in our power - forgiveness and love, and the ability to communicate. Try to exercise them this year as never before. And you might even be surprised, as I was, to find that things are not always quite what they seemed. Life is too short and uncertain for us to be able to afford to do otherwise. Let's spend the days and years wisely.