Sneak Peek - The Best Life Ain't Easy
Chapter One - "Stopped on the Way to the Fair "
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When I was six years old and my brother Roger was ten. my father piled the four of us into our ’51 maroon and gray Dodge and headed to the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River. To this day, I remember being carsick in the back seat from both parents smoking in the front. Roger patiently kept me entertained and relatively quiet with funny word games and whispered jokes. No one wanted to make Daddy mad.
On the way home, we stopped for lunch in a pretty small town named Mexico in upstate New York, just off Route 11, a few miles from Lake Ontario. Driving down Main Street, we passed an impressive brick school with huge white pillars and a bubbling stream next to it. Lining the streets were lush maple trees shading quaint Victorian homes, churches with spires, small stores, a little post office nestled among them, a tiny A & P, an even tinier a barber shop, and a shoemaker next door. My father fell in love on the spot. Right after lunch he found a realtor and bought a six room, 150 year-old gray house on Lincoln Avenue at the edge of town. He had no job there; we had neither relatives nor friends. But no one protested, not even my mother. Moving was an annual event in our family. I thought everybody did it.
The day the big van unloaded our things, I met my best friend Barbie. Her sister Jane rode around the corner on her bike and invited me home for lunch. Both sisters had cute Buster Brown haircuts with bangs. Barb was shorter than me and shy, but full of adventure. Soon we were inseparable.
At home mother papered and painted every room and Daddy had the house painted red, built a white fence around it himself in the hot sun, and planted hollyhocks, purple iris and roses. He never worked again, but often sat alone admiring his work in a lawn chair in our side yard.
That summer he also joined AA. Dr. Thompson, an anesthetist from Syracuse became his sponsor. The Thompsons often visited us, bringing along with their two enormous black Newfoundlands, both champions, Sam and Mary. Dr. Thompson would let me “walk them” in the yard, which was more like them walking me. I grew to love AA picnics and the people we met there. My father and mother looked happy again. We all relaxed a bit.
Sometimes I sat and talked with my father in the yard, asking him to tell me funny stories. Telling stories was his favorite thing. I brought Barbie and Jane to meet him one day, hoping he’d entertain them, too, but he didn’t feel funny that day.
One day my father brought home a baby blue parakeet. We named him Herbie. Daddy spent hours talking to that bird and training it on the dining room table. “Put your finger out and let him sit on it,” he coaxed us. “He won’t hurt you.” And he didn’t. Roger and I had parakeets for years after that, way into our adult lives. His patience with pets was limitless. Even our terrier Chummy had a repertoire of tricks. People were another matter.
Even at seven, I knew Daddy was mentally ill, besides being an alcoholic. I’m fairly certain he loved us, but his temper was frightening and unpredictable. No one dared upset him. We were his second try at family life. I learned years later through legal papers in the mail, that an earlier wife and two sons remained in his wake just as we would. I longed to know them and often wondered where they were.
About the time our little red house in Mexico was painted and pretty, my father left. He had sat up all night smoking in his overstuffed chair in the living room watching our bedroom doors. Mother told me years later she had lain awake all night in fear. In the morning Roger and I went to school, and when we came home, he was gone. I found Mother washing dishes. She never looked up when I asked, “Where’s Daddy?”
“He left.” Is she crying? I wondered.
“When is he coming back?”
“He’s not.” Why isn’t she crying?
“Where did he go?” Maybe I can run after him and bring him home!
“I don’t know.”
The conversation was clearly over. I never asked again, but I cried in my bed at night begging God to tell me where he was. I couldn’t think of anyone outside our family to ask. We had secrets. Talking about Daddy was soon forbidden. There was no one left to ask but God, and I barely knew Him at all. I remember thinking, Maybe a Bible would help.
Decades later Mother confessed hearing rumors he’d tried to reopen an old office in Detroit. Once she’d received a letter from him threatening to kidnap Roger and me. I remember leaving our house with the shades down and staying in a hotel in another city while the police waited for him in our living room. Dr and Mrs. Thompson came to visit us and brought us toys. It broke my heart to learn Daddy had actually come for us and was taken first to jail, and then to a mental hospital in Utica. It was the best thing for him, but painful to hear. Finally on medication, he began to improve for the first time in his life, even sending Roger and me two plays he had written once for their church couples’ club. Eventually, he did well enough to work and live on his own, but mother had drawn up legal papers earlier that prevented him from seeing us again.
No one spoke about Daddy again. It was easier that way for my mother, who suffered silently most of the time. The next fall she went back to teaching school. We all tried to act normal. Roger played basketball, did the lawn and took out the garbage, I rode my bike, played with Barbie, and helped in small ways dusting and wiping dishes. Life was quiet, predictable, and safe for the first time I could remember. Mother tried hard to make life good for us. She sewed clothing, made birthday parties, gave us big Christmases she couldn’t afford. Her light was always on when I went to sleep. She’d work until late at night correcting papers. Roger and I both tried to be good and, hopefully, make her happy. For me, it became a lifetime yoke.
Most of my growing up was spent with Barbie, hanging upside down in trees, or playing cowgirls wearing my favorite six shooters in the woods, picking blackberries, or building forts and pretend campfires. We knew every trail in the two acre woods behind my house clear through to the hilly backyards of Church Street. It was our happy kingdom. Barb’s family eventually moved to a farm outside of town. We saw each other less often, but remained best friends for years. When she wasn’t around, I made a pest of myself with Roger and his friends until he’d beg Mother to call me inside or do something with me.
Life could get very boring around our house. Rainy days were especially lonely. I’d stay in my room and play paper dolls or store, or sweep off the red congoleum rug in our stone basement, arranging porch furniture and pretending it was my home, the one I’d like to live in one day. I folded napkins into triangles and welcomed neighborhood kids as guests for crackers and cherry Kool Aid.
My imagination became a retreat into a more interesting world. It probably saved my life. As I grew, my imagination almost took ovee. By the time I was ten, it was getting me in trouble. I exaggerated nearly everything, only I called it story telling. I liked it that way. Real life was dull and full of things we weren’t allowed to talk about, like where babies came from, and what was the meaning of life, and where my father was.
Then in fifth grade something amazing happened, a district-wide short story contest. My teacher, Mrs. Bullock, insisted I enter it. When she mentioned the first prize was any book you wanted, I knew I wanted a Bible. Instantly, I had a story in mind about a young boy my age who loved his horse, but the horse ran away. He searched and searched for the horse. It became a chapter book complete with drawings. Of course, the horse was found and the boy was jubilant. I had no idea I was really writing about my father. I won first prize, and eventually took home a big red Bible.
“Why did you want that?” my mother couldn’t hide her disappointment. “Why not some good book like Honeybunch or The Bobsey Twins?”
“I just wanted it, that’s all,” I said, tucking it under my arm and disappearing into my bedroom. Sitting on the corner of my bed, I opened it gently and caressed the new pages. The answers to life are in here. It was a holy moment.
But where to read? I’ll start at the beginning! I read a few paragraphs, but nothing made sense. Not in the middle, either, not even in the familiar chapters called, “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” or “John.” I slammed it closed. I can’t believe it! There’s nothing here! No answers at all! It’s a lie! God must be a hoax just like the Easter Bunny and Santa! Waves of acute disappointment turned to tears. I felt completely alone.
Two years later, Mother woke me for school one bright April morning. In the same voice she’d use to tell me breakfast was ready, she said, “Your father died last night. He had a heart attack. His landlady called. You’re not to tell anyone about this at school. Only Aunt Char knows.”
I sat up straight. “Does Roger know?”
“Yes.” I ran quickly to his room and found him still in his pajamas reading a book in bed.
“Don’t you know Daddy died?” I asked, stunned by the casualness of the news.
“Yes, “ he barely looked up.
“Don’t you care?”
“No. Not really.” It was years before I would know of the verbal and physical abuse Roger had endured. For now, I turned away to process my father’s death alone. I learned grief cannot be buried as easily as the dead. Like snakes under the porch, grief and unanswered questions can live underneath your life and frighten you a long, long time.
I never quite forgot my father or God, but I tried. Both I considered out of my life, less relevant with time, subjects best not talked about. Mother was right. It was easier that way. I moved on to enjoy high school academics, a mix of achievements, music, and fun with my friends. Barbie had retreated into her own world by that time. We saw little of one another in the years that followed, choosing colleges hundreds of miles apart. I applied at only one school, the University at Albany in the capital, and chose a double major in Spanish and English. At nineteen, college friends invited me to spend an exciting summer studying in Spain where I found life far more colorful than any of my early imaginings.
Strangely, I still felt agonizingly lonely at times. Friends were, after all, only friends. They only cared about you so much. My mother and brother were busy in their lives. I wanted more. I began to want a man. Not just a man. I wanted a Prince. Impossible. They didn’t really exist. I decided to pray for one.
Pray? Where did that idea come from? How did anyone really believe in that? God simply didn’t answer. I doubted He was even real. Still…
I began praying silently on my mile-long walk to class. Lord, if You’re real, show me by three o’clock. At 3:01 I’d check my watch. Nothing. I felt like a fool. Surely, He could have found some way to let me know. I prayed the same prayer again the next day, and the next, trying to give God a chance to prove Himself to me. Day after day, 3:01 would come, and nothing happened. I didn’t need a Salvation Army band, just some small sign. I stretched the deadline to four o’clock. Nothing. Then, anytime this week.
I became preoccupied with God, haunted by His silence. I told no one. Only God knew, if He was even real. Seeking Him became my obsession. Months passed. Then, at 10 AM one day in late spring, Steve walked into Dr. Creegan’s philosophy class and sat down right in front of me.
He was late, too.
The dark green leather jacket her wore that day still hangs in our closet. The English boots are gone, as is his dark hair. But the Prince remains. I loved him the moment I saw him. The greater miracle was that he loved me, too. Life became a romance, days whirled into months and the music lasted. It lasted through college, through our first years of marriage, through a new baby, and grad school, through Steve’s first job at Johns Hopkins as a new Ph.D., right up until that hot Sunday in Baltimore when our new friends, Ginny and Keith, invited us to church and home for dinner. Until the moment Keith opened his Bible and asked if he could read a psalm, and I saw Steve stiffen in his chair next to me, and felt my throat tighten with some choking, buried anger. Until the moment after Keith read aloud and I said, “May I ask you something?” That was the moment the music began to die.
I hardly noticed it go. I was consumed once again with knowing God. Tearing through the boxes in our basement, I unearthed the mildewed Bible I’d won in fifth grade. I read it all summer, barely noticing Steve, or the joy leaving him. You could hardly hear the music any more.
I took a new lover that fall. His name was Jesus. He was all I ever wanted, the God I’d hungered for so long. How could loving Him not be right? I hung on His words, talked of Him day and night, lived and breathed His Word, and gave myself to Him with abandon.
I barely looked at Steve except to notice his lack of interest in my new faith. I seldom looked in the mirror, for that matter, to see how plain I’d become. Steve didn’t understand me now. He wanted the old me back. He wanted the music again. How could I tell him I’d given it away?