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By Marilyn Slagel
Abbott PressCopyright © 2012 Marilyn Slagel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarly Meets Destiny
When I grow up, I'm going to marry him, I thought back in late autumn of 1966, standing in front of our tiny four-room house on the main drag of a small town in Illinois, truly the middle of nowhere. I was ten years old, soon to be eleven, an ugly duckling hoping to someday turn into a swan. (A girl has to dream, doesn't she?) Walking toward me on the sidewalk was a dark-haired, handsome, six-foot-tall man. He was dressed in loafers, white Levi's (very fashionable back then), and an olive-green corduroy coat.
One look at him and I knew. This was my destiny. Nothing would ever change my mind. You may ask how a ten-year-old child could know anything about destiny. It wasn't for me to understand. It just was. My heart skipped a beat when he murmured a low "Hi" upon passing. I was mute and couldn't have spoken if my life depended on it.
Life would take many twists and turns after that first encounter. My daddy had died in the spring of that year, leaving Mom, my little sister, and me with virtually nothing. Mom did not drive, so we were dependent on friends to take us wherever necessary. Before Daddy died, Mom worked swing shift in a factory in the next town, a few miles north of us, sharing rides with others to and from work. Upon Daddy's sudden death, she quit her job to stay home with us. This was a brand-new experience for Beth and me. We had always stayed with babysitters or Daddy. Without Mom's paycheck from the factory, our family income consisted of a small monthly widows-and-children Social Security check and an even smaller veterans pension.
It was hard for all of us. I wanted normalcy, even if it meant poverty and alcoholism, which is what "normal" meant to me back then. My poor mom wanted the love of her life back. At only twenty-nine, she was far too young to be widowed. My little sister was clueless at only five years old. "I wish my daddy would come back," she said one summer day as she blew the fuzzy seeds off a dandelion and made a wish.
Early summer brought the "widow hunters." My mom was and still is a very attractive, petite lady. She has never weighed more than 115 pounds in her life! Honestly, wouldn't you think God would have planned a little better when he created my sister and me? Both of us could give Mom a few pounds and never miss an ounce! Men would call or stop by our house trying to date her.
Trying is the operative word in this case. No way was my mom going to date them. She wanted no part of somebody new, as she was still grieving Daddy. One gentleman was probably a very nice man and a good catch. He was very tall with jet-black hair. He was also divorced, with a "crazy bitch" for an ex-wife and two little girls. No way was my mom going to get involved with that! She allowed him to come to the house for Sunday dinner once. After that, he was history.
It's strange how memories work, isn't it? I can clearly remember the pink-and-black-flecked Formica table in our kitchen that day. Mr. Eligible was very polite but quiet. The poor man was probably terrified of the tenyear-old brat sitting to his left. Did I mention I did not want a replacement daddy?
Others tried to wiggle into our lives that summer, but Mom resisted. She was too busy trying to house, feed, and clothe her girls. A few more twists and turns had to take place before her destiny and mine would appear.
Chapter TwoSummer Flip-Flop
A big change that summer was our home. A young couple lived in a mobile home up the street from our four-room house. Their trailer was very small, too small for the addition of either a baby or a beauty shop, so the young couple needed more room. I don't know what Mom's reasoning was, but in July she traded our house for their trailer. Forgive me for using the word trailer, but saying "mobile home" back then just wasn't done.
Beth and I thought the trailer was a huge step-up in the world. An indoor bathroom and running water in the kitchen were things we had experienced only when visiting relatives who were financially better off than we were in our little household of three. The trailer's kitchen had pink appliances—a pink stove, pink fridge, and pink sink. The bathroom had pink fixtures as well. I loved it! A girlie-girl from birth, pink was just fine with me.
The trailer sat on a corner lot about a block north of our house. Two classmates of mine lived on opposite corners. Things were working out just fine. I missed Daddy every day and night, but I knew he wasn't coming back. We just had to face it and make the best of it.
Still, as a ten-year-old child, I knew nothing about a household budget, bills, or the difficulty of reliable transportation to the grocery store or the doctor. I was no different from the average kid. The trailer was nicer than the house, and I was happy. But according to Mom, we were close to starving. We had always been poor, so much so that for years Mom took only bread and jelly sandwiches for her lunch at the factory. There was no money for good food, and who knew anything about nutrition? Survival was all that mattered, and Mom sacrificed everything, including her health, for Beth and me. I cry even now when I think about Mom being only twenty-nine years old when her teeth were extracted due to decay from all the sugary jelly. But she never once complained.
According to Mom the trailer was worse than the house in several ways. There were mice—a lot of mice! Fortunately, I have no memory of that; I abhor anything connected to mice even to this day. Could my fear and revulsion possibly be in my subconscious, left over from that time?
There was also a small problem of bad weather. Have you ever spent time in a mobile home while the rain, wind, ice, or snow raged outside? During a summer or late-autumn/early winter storm, my little bed would roll from its place against the west wall across to the built-in drawers on the east wall. It didn't have far to roll, maybe ten to twelve inches, but it made for interesting sleeping.
July through September was like living in a dollhouse. It was so much fun to take a bath in a real bathtub anytime I wanted to. I didn't have to wait for Mom to heat the water on the kitchen stove. Life was working out, or so I thought. As it happened, our lives would be forever changed, all over a basket of dirty laundry.
Chapter ThreeHere Comes the Laundry
Winter brought more expenses with the cost of heating, school, etc., so Mom began taking in laundry to earn extra money. A local man lived with his two sons just a few blocks from us. His name was Eduardo, but he preferred Eddie. No one in his right mind would want to be saddled with the name Eduardo. Eddie had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years before, leaving him to raise an adolescent son, Tom. Tom was exactly one year my senior. Eddie's other son, Johnny, still lived at home too. Johnny came home from the army and never left. After his mom passed away, Johnny stayed to help care for Tom. Three males can create a lot of laundry. In the 1960s, women still ironed everything—shirts, pants, T-shirts, sheets, and handkerchiefs. If it was wearable, it was ironed after being washed in a wringer washer and hung out to dry. Eddie began bringing his laundry to Mom weekly.
It was okay at first. Eddie's laundry was extra income for Mom, so she was able to stay at home with us. By this time, I was in the sixth grade and busy with my own friends. After a couple of months, though, things started to go downhill. Instead of just dropping off or picking up his laundry, Eddie began to come over nightly. Mom would put Beth and me to bed at our regular bedtime, but she stayed up to drink coffee and chat with Eddie.
Mom surely doesn't have a boyfriend, does she? Please, God, no! No one can take my daddy's place—ever, ever, ever! I couldn't believe it. Someone was certainly trying to take Daddy's place and was making some pretty good headway. Eddie wined and dined us in his particularly frugal way. He took us out to eat on the weekends, which was something we knew nothing about, having never been in a restaurant before. Sunday after church meant dinner at a local family owned restaurant. Saturday was shopping, which I loved. We're talking K-Mart before K-Mart had Martha Stewart items. Lunch on Saturday was in the K-Mart sandwich area with chrome tables and plastic-covered chairs, still special to two little girls who had nothing.
The holidays that year were somber for the most part. Mom did not want a Christmas tree. Never one to enjoy the Christmas season, she saw her state of mourning as a way to ignore all the holiday trappings. No Christmas tree? Seriously? Oh no, that was not going to stand. I begged and pleaded until finally she handed me some money and told me to walk the three blocks to town and purchase a tree. A petite little thing, I had turned eleven a few weeks earlier. Could I even handle a tree by myself? Determined we would celebrate Christmas, I dragged a tree home, decorated it by myself, and waited for Christmas.
Our family always opened gifts on Christmas morning. No changes to that tradition—ever. No changes, that is, until Eddie got involved. His family opened gifts on Christmas Eve. How dumb was that? Why would you spoil the suspense of Christmas morning? Mom decided we would go to Eddie's house on Christmas Eve and open one gift each. The rest would wait until morning. Thank goodness that was a one-time thing.
I received my first pair of "high heels" from Eddie that Christmas Eve. They were brown with a kitten heel of about one inch, possibly less; but to me they were high heels and meant I had "arrived"! A very precocious child, anything "grown up" appealed to me, whether it was makeup, clothing, men, etc. I wanted to be a grownup—the sooner the better. The fact that I couldn't stand Eddie and nearly threw up when he tried to give me a Christmas kiss didn't stop me from accepting those shoes.
My childish brain couldn't process all this. I loved this better way of life, but I hated the thought of someone taking Daddy's place. My opinion meant nothing, and we were nearly destitute. So when Eddie asked Mom to marry him, she saw it as a godsend, a way to save her children from more poverty.
Even though I saw that handsome man on the sidewalk a couple of months before this and just knew he was my destiny, I had not seen him since. My faith never wavered. He was going to be mine someday—I just knew it.
New Year's Eve brought a "party" at Eddie's house, which consisted of Eddie's son, two neighbor kids, Beth, and me. We ate snacks, drank Pepsi, and danced to music played on a portable record player. Eddie's kitchen was fairly large with a big open space. We put the record player on the small table and danced right there in the middle of the kitchen floor.
About a half hour after the party started, Johnny made a pass from his bedroom through the kitchen and out the back door, leaving me staring in his wake. My God, there he is! The object of my crazy, soul-deep longing.
If you are still reading, hang on—the rest of my story is so bizarre sometimes even I wonder if it all really happened.
Chapter FourMom Marries Eddie
The next morning, New Year's Day 1967, Mom announced she and Eddie were going to be married the following weekend. "You and Beth are going to your grandma's this weekend," she said.
"Both of us?" I asked. This was not the norm. I was Grandpa's favorite and had been back and forth from our home to theirs since birth. Due to Mom's work schedule when I was young, Grandpa and Grandma had been my caregivers until age five. When in school, I often stayed with them on weekends, holiday vacations, and during the summer. Beth, however, never went. As much as I loved Gramps, he played favorites, and I was his one and only, his "baby."
Something's going on, I thought. What is Mom hiding? We soon found out. Badgering her until she caved, I finally got it out of her. She and Eddie were going to Springfield to Mom's sister's house, where my aunt and uncle would be witnesses for the wedding. Beth and I were not allowed to go along no matter how much I pleaded. Remember, I was eleven and Beth had just turned six the week before. No kids allowed. Off to Grandpa and Grandma's we went.
Resentful? Oh, yes, I was very resentful. How can she do this to me? What about Daddy? I want my own daddy back, not some old man I don't even know. All weekend my thoughts went 'round and 'round, always coming back to What about Daddy? He had only been dead eight-and-a-half months—not a very long time in anyone's mind, especially mine.
The campaign began. There was nothing I would not do or say if it meant they would know just how resentful I felt. Eddie came by every night that week just like always. Mom would send us to bed at the regular time, but I would not go to sleep until Eddie left.
As you are probably aware, trailer walls are thin. My bedroom shared a wall with the small living room. Every night my ear was plastered flat against the bedroom wall listening for any scrap of conversation I could pick up.
Every day after school I begged, pleaded, cajoled, and cried. Even knowing Johnny was living there and I would see him every day didn't change my mind. Mom did not need a husband, and we did not need a new daddy. I held out until the bitter end and still remember the hopelessness that last day at home in the trailer.
"Mom, why do you have to get married? Why can't we stay here? I hate him. He's older than dirt. He could be my grandpa."
"Marly, I've told you a thousand times, it is not your decision to make."
"So now what? Are we just supposed to forget about Daddy? Just pretend he never existed? Is that what you want me to do?"
Poor Mom was caught in the middle. She had no idea just how awful the next few years would become for the whole family. We put dysfunctional on the map.
Amazingly, my schoolwork was never affected by the turmoil at home. I was a good student both before and after that time.
The second week of January brought the big move to Eddie's house. Eddie had nice furniture, nice floors, and lots of food. My mom was secure at last, never needing to work outside the home again. An outside job would have been much easier on her. She worked like a slave for Eddie, constantly cleaning, scrubbing, and kissing his ass night and day. I hated him with every fiber of my being. All I could see was my mom working like a slave for a slimy, smarmy, nasty old man. Eddie was twenty-two years older than Mom. Eddie and Johnny both expected Mom to be a servant to them. Chauvinism was alive and well back then.
Little did I know Mom had given orders early on—Eddie was not my father, would never be my father, and was not permitted to correct me in any way. Score one for Mom. Maybe she did love me after all. Most of the time I had my doubts. To say my parents were not demonstrative is a gross understatement. The only times I can remember my mom hugging me as a child was the day she brought my baby sister home from the hospital and the day of Daddy's funeral. A kiss from my mother? I cannot remember any. Mom showed her love in other ways, many other ways, all of them self-sacrificing. Now that I'm older, I wish I could be even half the mother to my children that she is to me. My heart breaks now when I think back to how awful I treated her. It's clear now that she did what she had to do for her children. That practice never ended. To this day, Mom is right there for me no matter what the situation. I cannot possibly live long enough to make it up to her.
My daddy's love was shown in different ways. There aren't too many memories left to draw upon, but I'll share a few with you. I want you to see Daddy as a real person, a man with good qualities who made poor choices. Hmm, you think there may be a DNA link to me regarding poor choices?
A construction worker, Daddy belonged to the Illinois Operators Union and loved to use the heavy equipment. He worked for his father, my grandpa Colone, digging ponds in the mid-1950s. According to Mom, we would have starved to death during those years if they had depended on Grandpa. He rarely paid Daddy's wages, but Daddy was too good to say anything or to refuse the work. Finally, Daddy was able to get into the union and worked out of the local labor hall until he died.
Daddy was my hero and my worst enemy. I loved him when he was sober, attentive to Mom and his girls. He was five feet, seven inches tall, 140 pounds, had green eyes, and had a great smile. A handsome, quiet man, Daddy was liked by everyone who knew him. His biggest challenge was alcohol. He could never control the urge to have just one more drink.
After drinking at one of three local bars—yes, three bars in a town of a couple hundred people—Daddy would either stagger the two blocks home or drive his pale green Rambler station wagon in what he hoped was a straight line. Those were the times he became my worst enemy. It was scary to watch him fall over furniture, weaving from the tiny living room through the kitchen into the bedroom.
Two incidents clearly stand out in my mind after all these years. The first is Daddy falling over the coffee table, breaking a leg off the table and a leg off the couch. Being drunk, he didn't get a scratch. Mom was ever-patient with him. She helped him up and into bed, just like a thousand times before.
The worst episode I remember was the burn to his back. Our tiny four-room house was heated with a coal/wood-burning stove that sat in the living room. Of course it was always up to Mom to buy the coal and keep the fire going. Daddy had been on a bender one day and was heading for the couch, shirtless. He tripped and fell backward onto that fiery hot stove. I will never forget his cries of pain. Mom used a combination of vinegar- and water-soaked cloths on his back while he cried. It has been more than forty-five years since that incident, and I still have tears in my eyes when I remember it.
Excerpted from Dirty Laundry by Marilyn Slagel Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Slagel. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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