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THE CHILDHOOD OF A FAMILY
By Deborah Wilson, Pamela Wilson, Diana Wilson, Priscilla Wilson, Valerie Wilson, David Wilson, Rebecca Wilson, Zachary Wilson, Paul Wilson
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 The Wilson Family
All rights reserved.
Prima Voce ~ Deborah Anne
I was born with my eyes wide open. That's what my mother told me, and I have chosen to believe it. She watched my birth in a mirror, which was attached to the ceiling at the foot of the delivery table, so she should know. For many years, from about the age of nine or ten through my teens, I had a recurring dream, except that it would happen as I was falling asleep. I don't dream it anymore, but the images have always remained the same. I am lying down, and the ceiling is very high above me. Everything seems white around me, and there are sounds—voices?—all around me. Suddenly, three people come into the room: first, a man with glasses and a mustache, wearing a white coat, then a woman in a white coat, and then another man. Everything is in black-and-white, which is odd because I have always dreamed in color. The only thing I can compare the place to is a hospital, but until very recently I have never been in a hospital, except for my birth. Now in this dream-memory there are more sounds—the voices of these three people. They come toward me, and I wish they would all be quiet and go away.
Also in black-and-white, but apparently some months later, I am seated on a counter. A man—my father, I think—is propping me up, and another man—Uncle Buddy?—is tickling me or cooing at me. The men are happy and laughing. I wish they would go away and leave me alone.
In Omaha, where I was born and where the events above occurred, I fall in a hole in the snow. I'm walking with my mother who is pushing a baby carriage—the big old-fashioned kind. My new sister, Pam, is in it, and she is tiny. We are eighteen months apart and I was born in May, so I can't be more than two years old. The hole is probably very shallow but to me, it is a shock, hidden under the snow, and I am suddenly frightened when there is no more solid ground.
Now I am being held up at the window in a door by someone other than my mother. I am crying and the lady is telling me not to worry, that my mother will be coming back. I believe they are on the way to the hospital to take Pam there after I closed the edge of a door on her fingers while we were playing. I wish my parents would come back and not leave me alone in this strange house with this strange woman.
When I was two we moved to San Francisco. My father, who had been a professional drummer for fifteen years and had put himself through medical school partly by studying during set breaks in clubs, had an internship at a hospital in the city. There is a newspaper photograph of my mother sitting on a sofa, with me on one side, my sister Pam on the other, and the new baby, Diana, just a few weeks old, in my mother's arms. When my parents got to San Francisco, my mother was eight and a half months' pregnant, and they couldn't find a place to live. In desperation, my mother took out an ad in the newspaper saying that if someone didn't come up with a house for them to rent, she would be forced to give birth in Golden Gate Park. Within a day or two, they had a house out in the Avenues, in the Sunset District.
San Francisco: feeding ducks by a lake in the park; my mother reading The Ugly Duckling to me as I am supposed to be taking a nap. She has fallen asleep on the bed beside me before she has finished, and I am pondering the sadness of the story. Now, standing by an easel at the de Young Museum, where I am enrolled in a children's art class, I have just mixed blue and yellow paint together and discovered green. I feel certain no one has ever done that before, that I have just discovered something unheard of in human existence. It is very, very exciting. There are other vague pictures in my head of a lot of children on our street, and young parents, and baby food cans being blown up on the street on the Fourth of July, but most of those are stories I was told; they are not my pictures.
Two years later, we moved a few hours north to Eureka, California. Eureka is on the coast, and my strongest impression of it is a kind of constant grayness. There must have been a lot of fog, but more than that, the sky was always gray; one woke up to grayness. To this day, I cannot stand more than a few days of waking to that kind of weather. Living in Paris is out. I believe that part of that grayness—that dull, depressing feeling that I had in Eureka—was due to my parents' unhappiness. I don't know what their life was like, but during that time, another sister, Priscilla, came along; I saw the only fight I remember seeing my parents have; there was a terrible earthquake; and my first two years of school were filled with feelings of isolation and depression.
On the other hand, there were interesting things there. We lived in a little house on a broad, busy street, and logging trucks would rumble past with long tree trunks chained in across the back of their flatbeds. My mother was always afraid when driving behind them, certain that the chains would break and the logs would come rolling into our car, killing not only her but all four of her daughters.
One time I was walking home from kindergarten with Jimmy Wilson, a boy my age who lived next door. For some reason, he pushed me out into the street as a truck came roaring by. From a block away, our mother saw it, and she tore down the street like a beast gone mad, screaming at Jimmy. When she reached him, she grabbed his arm and yelled in his face. He started crying and ran to his mother, who pulled him into their house without saying a word to my mother.
In our backyard, rhubarb and potatoes grew wild. The lady who had lived there before us had thrown potato peelings out into the yard and they had taken root. I hated the texture of cooked rhubarb, although I loved the red stems fading into green. But I loved the potatoes. Behind our property was a little alley, and beyond that, a big field. With a couple of neighbor kids, we would take potatoes into the field and dig a hole. Someone almost always had matches, and we would try to cook the potatoes in the ground. I'm not sure we managed very well, because I only remember learning to eat the potatoes raw with salt, and liking them at the time.
There were girls on our block who would dress up and come over to play with Pammie and me. Pam was very small, and these girls would dress her up in their dolls' clothes and push her around in a toy baby carriage. I must have dressed up as well, because I remember wearing an old-fashioned bonnet and walking with these older girls around the neighborhood. There was a Great Dane that would occasionally scare the bejeesuz out of me when its enormous head suddenly appeared over our back fence. My mother would roller skate with us or try to teach us, and one year, while she was eight months' pregnant, she fell off the step from our yard to the sidewalk and cracked her tailbone. Usually, she roller-skated in our basement. She had some trouble after the cracked-tailbone incident and spent some months in pain as a result. I learned to ride a bicycle there, with my mother holding the back of the seat as I tried to balance. I hated it and felt that I would never learn, and it felt like a full year later that a friend came over and wanted to ride bikes and finally, wanting to save face, I got on and just rode.
Three things stand out from that time. One is the only fight I ever saw my parents have. I don't know what the argument had been but in the middle of the night, we three girls, who slept crosswise in a double bed, were wakened by something, and when we came to the door of our bedroom, we saw our parents in the hall between the two bedrooms of the house. Daddy was standing in the doorway of their room, and Mama was in the hall with blood running down her face. They had had some kind of fight and he had pushed her, and she fell onto the heating grate in the floor, which cut her forehead. When he tried to look at it, she said, "Don't you touch me," very dramatically. I don't remember the outcome other than to hear my mother laugh about it later, mainly for refusing medical help from the doctor close at hand. I never saw them fight or argue again.
During the time that we lived in the little house, and while Mama was pregnant with Priscilla, there was a very strong earthquake. There had been a stronger tremor in the night, but I only remember the second quake the next day. Pam and I were on the floor of the dining room, playing near the table, and little Diana was on the children's potty in toilet training. Mama was on the back porch doing laundry. Suddenly, everything was shaking, and a leaf for the dining table fell across the room and caught by about an inch on the edge of the table. Pam was sitting directly under it and missed being smashed by that tiny margin. I ran to the back porch, noticing that Diana was sitting contentedly on the potty, but when I reached the door to the porch, Mama was trying frantically to get to us and couldn't. There was an enormous, heavy, full-length ornate mirror that had fallen from its place behind the door, and Mama couldn't lift it up to get past. I was scared, and I could see she was scared as well. She finally managed to heave the mirror back up and gathered up the three of us. Pam had been a near miss, and it turned out that Daddy had been in a records room at the hospital and had felt the entire building shivering and slightly twisting around him. He said he had wondered if the building was going to collapse and kill him; that it was one of the only times he had thought he might actually die right then.
School is the final significant image from that time, and it is not pleasant. In kindergarten, there was a girl who would be my friend one day and not the next; I developed an understanding of cliques at an early age. For first grade, I was sent to the Catholic school and taught by some order of nuns. I remember being pushed down outside, and cutting my knees on gravel, and sitting on someone's desk while a nun tried to pick the gravel out of my freshly grated flesh. One lunchtime, after the afternoon classes had started, I was kept in the cafeteria by a nun who tried to force me to eat all of my fruit-laden Jell-O, which only made me gag. Didn't she realize that if I could have eaten it, I would have? Why would I want to be kept there and be late for class, where I would feel humiliated going in late and alone? And to this day, I cannot figure out why someone would force a child to eat something that kept making her gag!
I also remember waiting one stormy afternoon for Mama to pick me up in the car. When she didn't come and she didn't come, I decided to walk home by myself. I was scared, but I thought something had happened, so I set out on the busy broad street that I thought led to home. There was thunder and lightning and cars whizzing by and I remember being very afraid, but having only the thought that now I had to keep going. Somewhere along this boulevard, my mother drove up in the car. She had gone to pick up my grandfather, her dad, at the airport, and she had my sisters with her. She was angry and gave me a fierce scolding. I realize now that it was because she had been so scared at not finding me waiting at school, and I learned once and for all to stay put if I was expecting someone to meet up with me.
We called our grandfather Papapa, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Mama's mother, Grandmama (emphasis on the first and final syllable) had died when Pam and I were very small, and I barely remembered her. Papapa was fun, and he had false teeth, which he would always pop out at us to scare us. He had a gregarious personality and always dressed rather formally in tweed suits, but he could be incredibly intimidating. Grandma would come to visit from Denver. She was Daddy's mother and always fun, and she had the most fabulous box of cheesy costume jewelry, which she let us comb through and wear. Once during a party at our house, my parents were doing the wheelbarrow, where one person would walk on his hands while someone else held up his feet. Grandma was the wheelbarrow, and she laughed so hard that she wet her pants right in the midst of the guests. She always smelled good and had a soft feathery powder puff and very soft skin, and she was witty and laughed easily. Sometimes at naptime I would sit on her lap in the rocking chair, cuddled against her pillowy bosom, and she would sing in her quivery voice, "Put on your old grey bonnet, with the blue ribbons on it, while I hitch old Dobbin to the sleighhhhhh. Through the fields of clover, we will ride to Dover for our golden wedding day."
Then we moved a few hours south to Mendocino County, and life began in earnest.
Two Years in Paradise
The house was big and surrounded by a cornfield in front and alfalfa behind. To the west and across the road that ran along the east side of the house, there was a pear orchard. In our yard were fourteen black walnut trees, and there was a big drive that swept in from the road and divided into one driveway that led to our house and another to the only other house visible, where there lived an older couple who kept chickens. Behind the house was a row of hollyhocks and beyond that, my alfalfa field. Just into the alfalfa was a small, lightly cleared circle, and with my two just-younger sisters, we set up our secret space. There was a small piece of rug, toy dishes, and a doll or two, and a section of log that had been cut so that we could sit on it and use it as a rocking chair. It felt as if no one could see us, that we could live a special life in this little place hidden in the alfalfa, behind the fence and the hollyhocks.
My father had taken a job as at the local mental hospital, and our house belonged to the state. We would go to the hospital and hear Daddy play drums in a band there and later, we would go there as a group, my three sisters and me, and sing for the patients.
The women were always more overtly crazy than the men. The men would sit quietly during the entertainment but the women would dance around. One woman, sitting in a chair, conducted us with her legs. Another time our family was sitting on the lawn, listening to the swing band with the other staff and the patients, and a woman came up and tried to take the baby from my mother's arms. Mama patiently explained that the baby needed to stay with her, so the woman went dancing off across the lawn, her old, sagging breasts flapping with her arm movements.
The hospital grounds were beautiful and vast. They had their own dairy, and they grew vegetables. Some of the men who lived there were called terminal alcoholics but were not considered insane. These men had jobs and as a result, we had a gardener from the hospital who came to take care of our yard once a week. Other men were the garbage collectors, and sometimes when they came driving into the yard, we could hear the truck from inside the barn where we were playing. We would sneak up onto the corrugated metal roof and throw walnuts down on them, but they never seemed to figure out that we were the culprits.
Some distance to the west of us, maybe a quarter of a mile, was the Russian River and the Talmage Bridge, which connected us to the main town of Ukiah, the county seat. There were stories of homeless men who lived under the bridge, and often, men would come to the back door of our house, and Mama would give them food. She found a mark on the wall of the barn one day, and she asked the next homeless man if he knew what the mark meant. She knew that a half-moon on a shed meant it was a toilet. He said it indicated that a "soft touch" lived in the house and that people would always be fed. Mama removed the mark from the barn, perhaps because by now, there were five little mouths to feed, but she continued to give handouts nonetheless.
We played outside a lot, although there was a beautiful glassed-in porch that held most of our toys on one side of the house. On the other side was a wrap-around open porch where we would roller skate endlessly. We had started our family with a cat named Muffy, which Mama had once deliberately spun round in the dryer, because the cat kept sleeping on the freshly laundered diapers. Muffy never did it again. But soon there were cats everywhere. At one point there were twenty-two cats living at, in, or around the house, and some of them were feral. Daddy sat up all night once with a gun balanced on the bathroom window and pointed out toward the barn and shot a cat that had been tearing up the others. Another time he tried to limit the population by taking the cats, one at a time, and driving them farther out into the country to let them out, hoping they would find another home. Once he put a relatively feral cat into the car and was driving out of the yard, but the cat went crazy inside the car. It kept running all around the car and getting under the gas and brake pedals. When the cat started running back and forth on the dashboard as Daddy tried to drive, Daddy gave up and let the cat back out into the yard.
Excerpted from 9 VOICES by Deborah Wilson, Pamela Wilson, Diana Wilson, Priscilla Wilson, Valerie Wilson, David Wilson, Rebecca Wilson, Zachary Wilson, Paul Wilson. Copyright © 2014 The Wilson Family. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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