Without A Mother (Chapter 1)

         The memories I have of my mother Susan are scarce, as a child I had to close my eyes and focus hard just to conjure up her face because I went so long without seeing her that I forgot what she looked like. She was beautiful in my mind, with long, flowing mahogany brown hair, parted straight down the middle with no bangs. She was very quiet and never truly smiled, picture the Mona Lisa.  

            Everyone called me Ally back then, short for Alison. I had copper red hair, hazel green eyes and I had to wear glasses that looked like the bottom of a pop bottle they were so thick. I was self conscious because of my over bite caused by sucking my thumb until I was eight. We couldn’t afford braces so the other kids made fun of my bucked teeth. The first time I remember being teased was when we lived on Sycamore Street. We were riding our bikes and passed some kids who called us names. Our Dad told us, “tell them that sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt you.” So we did that the next time it happened and they threw sticks and stones at us literally!

            My parents split up when I was three years old and my little sister Marlene was two. Marlene was what they call a toe head when she was little. Her hair was so light blond it was almost white. As she got older it turned into a dishwater blond color. She had dark brown eyes and was always very slender while I tended to be on the chubby side.

During the divorce proceedings our mother discovered she was pregnant with our little brother. Our mother named him Dylan and according to the divorce papers our father thought Dylan wasn’t his which turned out to be false, Dylan looked just like Dad. Dylan had dark curly hair and brown eyes. Like me, he was also on the chubby side. My little brother was four years younger than me. Because of the age difference and because he was a boy I didn't have a lot in common with him. He always got his own room when we were growing up and our father rarely if ever spanked him and I resented him for that. For the most part Marlene and I ignored him and played with our dolls while he played with his cars or bugs. Once he let us put a dress on him and do his makeup. Another time I put him in the dryer and threatened to turn it on. The family used to say he looked just like Fred Savage, that kid from The Wonder Years, he had dark curly hair and bushy eyebrows.

After they split, our mom tried to visit but my father called the police and they dragged her away, kicking and screaming on the front lawn. The courts awarded our father full custody and I didn't see my mother again until I was twelve years old. For a long time I assumed that she just didn't care about us enough to try to reach us.                                                 

            Our Dad Nick had curly black hair, glasses, a mustache with a beard, and a huge stomach that hung over his belt. He intimidated us, barking orders like a drill sergeant. Dad had a quick temper and the only form of discipline he used was corporal punishment. He always wore shiny black combat boots that laced up, a habit from when he was in the Marines during Vietnam. He made it no secret that he didn't wear underwear or as he called it “going commando.”

 If we ever complained or whined about not getting something we wanted or needed by saying, “That’s not fair” he would snap, “Life’s not fair.” If we asked him to buy us something he was fond of sarcastically asking, “With what, my good looks?” He was always skeptical, if we received something in the mail from Ed McMahon claiming we were about to be millionaires he would tell us “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

            Nick loved reading, our house was always filled with shelves and boxes of books, and he kept every book he ever read. He mostly read science fiction novels but there were also quite a few books about Hitler in his collection.

When we were little we would sit on his lap and he would read “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” It was about a group of children who found a secret portal in the back of a closet that led into a magical land called Narnia. He had an old record player and a large collection of classic rock albums like Aerosmith, Pink Floyd and the Bee Gees. He took us to see musicals like Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz. I remember how we would cling onto his leg and ride on his boot. Even though I feared his temper and swore I would hate him forever after a beating, eventually I would forget. As most children do, no matter how their parents treat them, I loved him.

            We would play something he called Indian wrestling where I would lay down opposite from my sister or brother, lift one leg in the air, wrap it around the other and see who could pull the hardest. One time he asked us, “Do you know what an Asian sit up is?” When we said, “no,” he showed us by lying down on his back and pushing himself up by his legs. Only as an adult would I realize how completely inappropriate he often was. He taught us paper, rock and scissors and how to have a thumb war. He took us to the library all the time so we could check out books and wooden train sets. Nick could be cruel and downright scary but then he could also be lot of fun, you never really knew what to expect from him.                                                                           

            I don’t remember much of anything before the age of ten, just bits and pieces. It would be years before I realized that most “normal” people can remember most of their childhood from when they were really little. I struggle to remember most of my childhood. This is probably a blessing though, I don’t want to remember what Nick did to me.

            The first house I can remember that we had all to ourselves was an old, light brown two story house on Sycamore Street. The house we lived in was about a block away from the elementary school. There was a grape vine i the back yard that hung on a huge rectangular beam with small; sour green grapes and leaves drooping down. We had a beat up metal swing set and during the summer we would take the grapes; crush them up and fold them into the leaves to make tacos. Our cupboards were usually bare so we pretended they were real tacos, we tried eating the green grapes once but they were so sour we had to spit them out. We would set them on the slide to bake in the sun. We used to turn our bikes upside down and spin the wheels, placing a stick or a leaf into the spokes. We would sneak into our  Dad's room while he was sleeping to steal change from his pants. He was very open about the fact that he didn't wear pajamas to bed and slept buck naked as he called it. We would then go buy icecream with our stolen change from the truck that drove through our neighborhood playing music. One one occasion I remember taking a pet cat, grabbing him by the tail and throwing him into the sprinkler, I can't remember why I was compelled to do that. I wasn't normally so cruel.

            There were trees all over the neighborhood that had these little round orange seeds that we used to throw at each other because they were hard so they packed a good sting. My sister Marlene and I traveled around the neighborhood on bike or foot looking to make new friends. As an adult I look back at this time and I’m shocked at how little supervision we had back then. We would knock on neighbor's doors to find out who lived there and see if they had any children for us to play with.

Our neighbors included an elderly lady on the corner of the block; I used to imagine that she was a witch because her house was gray and spooky looking, set towards the back from the rest of the houses under a bunch of trees. There was a young woman with no kids across the street from us who gave us some of her old clothes, she was remodeling her house and she loved to garden. Then there was the overweight woman next to her with a blond haired, blue eyed daughter who we thought was a spoiled brat because she had one of those electronic Barbie jeeps and she refused to share it with us. Our Dad once told me, “That lady is so fat she would drive across the street just to check her mail.”

                 Two boys lived on the other corner of the block, Kevin and Lee, we spent most of our time playing with them. Their mom was my teacher at the elementary school. Mrs. Spelling once sewed me a two piece dress with ruffles that was pink with teddy bears and balloons on it. I rarely got new clothing but I only wore it once. I was a tomboy and I didn't feel comfortable wearing dresses. 

                 There was a huge pine tree in our yard that started growing roots into the neighbor’s driveway, creating cracks in his cement driveway. The grouchy old man that complained and had it cut down. I remember being so sad about that because we loved to climb on it and were planning on building a fort. The backyard was surrounded by a chain link fence and there was an alley in back with metal trash cans and lids like the character Oscar on Sesame Street had.

My sister Marlene and I shared a room; actually the entire second floor was our bedroom, separated by a closet with my brother sleeping in the bedroom on the other side. The first babysitter I can recall was Tammy. She had a little red scooter and she would take us on rides to go get corn dogs at Zips. We rarely ate fast food so it was a real treat. Once she told us, “There's a little boy down the street whose parents wouldn't let him take medicine even though he was sick and he died.” When I asked her why, she said his parents were Christian Scientists. I don’t recall what happened to her or why she stopped sitting for us but she would be one of many nannies who came and went.

            Our father hired a live-in nanny because he was going to the Community College at the time, taking classes to become a carpenter. Her name was Candace, she probably weighed around 300 pounds and she had short, bleach blond hair. She used to eat wheat thins in an attempt to lose weight. My sister and I hated her at first, even though she hadn't done anything to deserve our contempt. We decided to put ice cubes in her pillow when she first moved in, hoping that it would make her miserable and quit. Candace told our Dad and we got our butts beat for it. I remember hiding a belt up in our closet with Marlene so we wouldn’t get hit with it but I don’t actually remember being hit with it, maybe I blocked that out too.

            Candace made us pickled eggs once, that’s where you boil eggs, peal them and then leave them in dill pickle juice for a few days. They would turn green on the outside and have a pickle flavor, they were delicious. She was a great cook, she had this huge, leather covered cook book and she made meals like pot roast and potatoes. She had a little color television in her room and I would go sit on her bed with her and watch game shows and soap operas. In time we really grew to love Candace, we would wrap our arms as far as they would go around her soft, padded stomach. She was like a big cuddly pillow that you could curl up with.

             I started playing on computers at a very young age since our Dad was an aspiring electrician there was always fun gadgets to play with. We had a Commodore with a text game with a pirate's scavenger hunt.

On Halloween, we dressed up as pirates by putting a patch over our eyes and wrapping tin foil around cut out swords from cardboard. I remember seeing pictures of us dressed up as smurfs for another Halloween, our little eyes peaking out of the holes in the plastic blue masks.

During my childhood there was only a few times I remember getting presents from our father.  One Christmas, they were wrapped in old newspaper comics. Our father got my sister some hand puppets and I got a gray stereo, the front cover for the tape deck was missing but I was just happy it worked. I loved listening to Paula Abdul and Debbie Gibson and dancing in my bedroom, pretending like I had a microphone in my hand. My brother got a stuffed frog. My sister was just crushed when she saw that I got a stereo, I remember this heart breaking look on her face as she looked at her hand puppets and I offered to share my stereo with her because I felt so bad. She eventually did get a used stereo too. We were poor but our father was always finding used electronics at yard sales and pawn shops. We saw Santa that year and when I pulled on his beard, I was devastated to learn it wasn't real.         

I remember being afraid of the dark back then. We had windows in our room and there weren't any curtains. The blanket on my bed was hunter green and faded in spots from the sunlight. Our wooden beds were painted red at the time; they could be stacked as bunk beds or separated. I would turn my pillow over and over again to feel the cool fabric against my face until I fell asleep. I had nightmares a lot, with the same character every time. There was a big hairy wolf in a dark bathroom with me. I could also see a black hole in the bottom of the floor and I was scared I would fall in. I wished that I could hang my blanket on the window because I was afraid I would see a wolf peering in.

            Marlene and I decided to run away once, we were so tired of walking on eggshells to avoid being hit, we were lonely and sad at home, and we decided that all we needed was each other. We just wanted out so we packed our suitcase and walked to the end of the block where we sat down on the corner and discussed where we would go. We realized we had nowhere to go so we went back home.

            We were allowed to watch television as long as we wanted during the day. My favorite shows were Mr. Rogers, Thunder Cats, and Reading Rainbow. Most of them were on PBS. If I wasn’t watching TV I was outside playing. Before I would go outside to play I would always grab a handful of cat food to snack on. We had a ridiculous number of cats back then. I think there were about fifteen at the time, they just kept multiplying though. We also had an old German Sheppard named Lady that had two different colored eyes, one blue and one brown. She could catch a Frisbee in her mouth no matter how far away you threw it in the air. Our Dad said he taught her how to do that by taping her favorite squeeze toy onto the top. He tried to teach me how to ride a bike but every time I would fall down he would yell so I ended up teaching myself. He also took us to the swimming pool during the summer and taught us how to do the dead man float where you relax your entire body and float while pretending to be dead.

            While playing in my backyard one summer day I convinced Lee that I had breasts by lifting up my shirt, sucking in my stomach and showing him my ribs. We went over to his house where he had a light blue Volkswagen Beetle that was completely gutted out on their front lawn. All that was left of it was the frame. We decided it was our new fort and looked at a porn magazine we found in the trash behind our house of people who were peeing on each other. Another time we decided to experiment. We were sitting in the closet in our bedroom. We opened our legs and sat facing each other, trying to get the parts to fit but couldn't figure out how. I used to chase the boys at school and threaten to kiss them back then.

             During the summer they had this program at the park where they would hand out free hot dogs and chips to the kids. We would play games like mancala, an ancient African game where you move the stones around this wood board with holes in it. The next year the program was shut down though. There was a grocery store at the end of the block that was painted red and shaped like a barn. We would steal candy and sometimes scrape together enough change to buy a slurpie there.

            One time we heard that there was a creepy guy driving around the neighborhood trying to talk kids into riding in his car. We all learned in school about never talking to strangers, walking in groups and how to scream and run away if anyone approached us.

 I loved playing jump rope and hopscotch with the other girls. I learned double Dutch which is jumping with two ropes at the same time. We would sing rhymes like “Cinderella dressed in yella, went downstairs to kiss a fella, made a mistake and kissed a snake. How many doctors did it take? One, two three...”

             I made friends with a black girl named Susie, I would go over to her house and we would play with her piano. Her house smelled really good, like vanilla, I remember wondering how they got it to smell good because our house always smelled like cat pee. We would play in her backyard in the swimming pool and I marveled at how the top of her hands and feet were black but her palms and soles of her feet were a lighter shade like mine.

We got in a car accident and the guy who hit us totaled our brown station wagon. Fortunately, he happened to be a used auto dealer so he made a deal with our Dad and gave us another car on the spot. No one was hurt so we went on our way.

            Our father volunteered to be a Camp Fire leader one year. He was fond of telling the story of how that came about, that one time at a conference for school they asked for volunteers and Marlene & I begged him to help out but I don't remember it that way. I just remember him coming home with the manual and announcing that we were joining. We became Blue Birds which was so much fun, there were plenty of kids to play with and we would build little houses out of Popsicle sticks at the meetings. We went to a birthday party for one of the girls and hit the piñata with a stick and raced to get the candy that fell on the floor. Afterwards they had a sprinkler and we all ran through it. We also got to go camping in these big log cabins and watch movies while eating junk food during the summer. Later when I found out my father was a pedophile, looking back at things like his Blue Bird involvement was extremely disturbing.  

            Nick had two friends with long, curly hair and they would listen to their music really loudly and smoke. The smoke smelled different than our Dad's camel cigarettes, it smelled like a skunk. They showed us how to make paper airplanes and taught us how to do tricks with a yo-yo when they came over.

            We always went camping in the summer, Dad would pack up this huge, old green family sized tent, his black wooden trunk from when he was in the Marines and load us up in the station wagon and travel up to the mountains. We roasted marshmallows and hot dogs on the fire. We went swimming in the lake and hiked around in the woods. Dad would tell us a ghost story, “It was a long and stormy night, and three pirates walked into the bar and asked the bartender, Jack, tell them a scary story. So Jack began. 'It was a long and stormy night, three pirates walked into a bar and asked the bartender, Jack to tell them a scary story. So Jack began.' We would giggle at the repetitive story that never seemed to end. I got hay fever from all the pine trees and usually spent the night completely miserable with a runny nose and itchy eyes.

            Almost every weekend we would go to visit our Grandparent's in Idaho. Dad called them, "The folks.” I loved being with my Grandma, she was soft and warm, always cooking something delicious and hugging us. She had short brown curly hair and although she was elderly I always imagined her as young and beautiful, even though she had gray hairs and wrinkles even back then. She would rock us on her lap in her antique wooden rocking chair and read our favorite stories. My favorites were Cinderella and anything by Dr Seuss.

             Grandma taught us how to sew and how to make a cat from yarn. She loved gardening; she had a flower bed in the front of her house and a huge vegetable garden off to the side. We would spend hours digging in the dirt or picking raspberries from her bushes to have for dessert. Grandma and Grandpa lived way out in the country down a long dirt road. We would sing that song “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go” on the way there. We would play games in the back of the station wagon to pass the time. We had seats in the back that opened up out of the bottom of the floor to create two seats facing each other.

             Our Grandpa was gruff, always drinking beer and sometimes losing his temper. He had a shoe horn, this long plastic thing he used to take off his shoes and he would hit us with that if we did something he didn’t like. He liked eating peanuts and saltines with peanut butter while sitting in his reclining chair in the corner of the room, surrounded by his bookshelf. We would get in trouble if we tried to sit in his chair or eat the food he kept stashed on the shelf. He loved politics and comedies; something he had in common with our Dad. He told us a story once about his childhood, “When I was little my teacher would hit me on the hand with a ruler when I wrote with my left hand until I learned how to write with both hands.” 

 One night during dinner I listened to the news and they were talking about politics as usual and it made me wonder something. I asked Grandpa, “What’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats?” He replied, “Republicans only care about rich people, Democrats help the poor.” I declared, “Then I'm a Democrat!”     

When we came home from “the folks” house, our nanny Candace told us she was moving to Michigan to take care of another family. We were sad to see her go, she gave us her phone number for a while but eventually we lost contact with her.

            Our father brought home food from McDonalds one night (this was a rare treat) and announced we were leaving and moving to Montana. He said he got a job over there (he had recently graduated from the Community College), and promised things would get better. We didn't even get to say goodbye to our friends it happened so fast. Dad and his long haired friends packed everything up and put it in a U-haul. I lost my favorite Barbie doll, Peaches N Cream she had a peach wrap-a-around skirt that you could put on her in a variety of ways, my Grandma had given her to me for my birthday. We had about twenty cats at that time and Dad was trying to collect them all and get them in the car. There was a black cat we named Midnight who scratched his arm when he tried to grab him so he threw him on the ground and left him there after screaming obscenities and pealing out of the driveway. Our Great Aunt, who was a Catholic nun and my Grandma’s sister, gave us some coloring books to keep us occupied while we were on the road. It was a long trip and we stayed in a motel on the way over. I stared out the window and wondered what would happen to Midnight, what my friends would think when they realized we were gone, and what our new home would be like. Only as an adult would I look back at this time and wonder why we packed up so suddenly without saying goodbye.