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If someone asked me who was most important to me as a child, I'Daddy, my maternal grandfather, would first come to mind. Perhaps it was because my summers with I'Daddy and Granny near Lufkin, Texas, were the times I felt most loved, most free to be me in those early days. Or maybe it was because my grandparents showered us with the time, love, and attention that I longed for so desperately as the middle child in a family of six.
Although I was too young to recall all the details of those summers, I only knew that I wasn't invisible at I'Daddy and Granny's, like I felt I was at home. And I didn't feel inadequate or ugly either. Surprisingly, my mother told me that I even became a camera "ham." She said I always wanted to be out front.
For instance, I can imagine a scenario like this one summer day....
Dodging my older brother Pete's elbows, I squeeze into the center, inside of my sisters, Marjorie and Helen.
"Betty Catherine," Granny teases, "you're a little camera bug."
We push and shove until I'm off to the side, and our grandmother doesn't have a good view. So again I slip in front to pose myself in the center. When my feet are firmly planted on the bottom step, my grandfather folds his newspaper and directs his attention to us from the lawn chair behind Granny.
"I'Daddy, make Betty stop trying to get my spot," Pete yells. While learning to talk, Pete had been the one who had first called Grandfather "I'Daddy." Since then the name has stuck; we all use it.
"Settle down, kids, and stand farther back so Granny can get you all in the picture," I'Daddy says.
In her usual, feisty manner Granny approaches the steps and takes charge posing us. She tugs and straightens our clothes. Then, spitting on her finger, she pastes down Pete's stray hairs while he tries to squirm away. "Now stay put, and stand still. I want this to be a good picture for my album."
"Ettie," I'Daddy interrupts, "put Betty back where she was. Her height looks better in the middle. Besides, I want to see those big dimples."
I gloat as Granny follows his instructions and gives me the prominent position. I love having my picture taken. My boldness to pose out front or in the center of a picture surprises everyone. In most competitive situations with my brother and sisters, I wouldn't be so forceful.
After the photo is taken and Granny begins to turn the handle to rewind the film, I rush to my grandfather and lean on his knee. "I'Daddy, do you think we got some good pictures?"
"Well, the sunlight was just right. That last pose looked good, and your dimples really smiled at me. Granny will give your momma a picture when we get them developed."
A short distance from the house was my grandparents' country store. I often watched as I'Daddy pumped gas into a car. The driver got out and talked while I'Daddy cleaned the windshield and checked under the hood.
I positioned myself where I could watch my grandfather and hopefully have his attention when he finished servicing the car. I'Daddy made me feel special-something I was starved for. All he had to do was mention my dimples, and they magically appeared. What caused dimples, anyway? I didn't know, but they seemed to be the only part of my appearance that deserved praise. I had overheard my mother say, "I asked that doctor why Betty's head was so big and her body so small when she was born. She seemed so out of proportion compared to Marjorie and Pete."
After that I paid special attention to any comparison made about me. Comments offered to inspire me to improve often had the opposite effect. I wondered how many things could be wrong with me. I never heard negative remarks about my older sister, Marjorie's, appearance. Helen was the baby of our family but only fourteen months younger than I was. Her cuteness invited special attention from my parents and Granny. Pete, as the only boy, was special too. And then there was me, the girl who wasn't special in any way ... at least that's what I thought.
I watched I'Daddy remove the heavy nozzle from the man's car and hook it back in place. The man counted dollar bills that he took from his wallet as my grandfather wiped gasoline from his hands with a red cloth snatched from his back pocket. The man gestured with the money in his hand, and they had a hearty laugh as I'Daddy replaced the gas cap.
When the man started his car, I stayed a safe distance away. After the customer left, I hurried toward I'Daddy. "Can I put the money in the cash register?" He counted the dollar bills and handed them to me with a gentle pat on my head. I gripped them securely in both hands and walked as close to him as I could. I loved the smell of gasoline on his hands and clothing.
The cash-register drawer opened with a loud ding. He lifted me up, and I placed the bills on top of the few collected earlier that day. Together we closed the drawer, my legs dangling as he supported me for the strong push to close it firmly. Then, instead of letting me slip down to the floor, he lifted me shoulder level for a big hug.
When I was with I'Daddy, the negative feelings about myself disappeared. It was clear, even to a young child, that he loved me. He always seemed to have time for me, offering nothing but kind, encouraging words.
Whenever I could, I rode with him in his old pickup to do business in the town of Lufkin. I'Daddy drove fast. In the stores people made jokes about his crazy driving. I wasn't sure what they meant, but I also overheard comments on his business dealings: "Tom Miller is a no-nonsense kind of guy." Those trips were special for me because all around town his many friends greeted us cheerfully, and riding anywhere with him was a thrill.
During the day my grandfather did carpentry work while Granny ran the store and filling station. They worked long hard hours, but somehow during most of each summer, they managed to keep all four of us Freeman kids while Mother and Daddy focused on their jobs. We played in and around the store every day, taking turns pretending to be the store owner and customers. We even borrowed a variety of merchandise from the shelves to make our game more realistic. Of course Granny kept us near her, since she was responsible for the store and its real customers.
Our eyes never tired of looking at the variety of sweets displayed on their country store's wooden shelves. While most children could only dream of such a privilege, snacks such as peanut patties, Three Musketeers, and chocolate soda pops were available to us daily. What a privilege-the other customers had to pay for their treats and we got ours free. However, Granny carefully monitored the snacks we consumed each day. Although she was a tiny woman, we never put anything over on her.
One of our favorite treats, after playing out in the Texas heat, was digging for a Coca-Cola from the large, ice-packed soda pop box. As we sat under a shade tree outside the store, we would drop salted peanuts into each bottle. Then we would swirl the nuts around, searching the dark liquid to keep count. Or we covered the opening and shook the bottle. It's a wonder we didn't choke on a peanut when we guzzled the fizzing Coke. Once our drink was gone, we would pound the bottom of the bottle while holding the narrow glass top to our lips. We easily could have chipped our teeth or cut our mouths in the pursuit of trapped peanuts. But children don't think about such things, and we were fortunate.
At the end of his day of working as a carpenter, I'Daddy would relieve Granny at the country store so she could prepare supper in their home next door. Once the store closed and he came to the house, he would drop wearily into his rocking chair.
When I knew he was home, I was never far away. I anticipated my name being called and I wasn't disappointed.
In a flash I was by his side. It was an honor to be chosen.
"Would you comb the sawdust out of my hair, honey?" I'Daddy would run his fingers through his coarse black hair, freeing it of surface wood shavings. Then I would grab the big nylon comb and work tediously to remove the rest. I knew I had done my job well if he fell asleep with my comb's gentle strokes.
When the traces of carpenter's work had been removed from his hair, I'Daddy would hand me a nail file and let me clean his fingernails. I never saw it as a dirty job but worked patiently to earn his approving smile. I welcomed the opportunity to express my love in a way that seemed effortless for me.
Now I realize that my days with I'Daddy provided an emotional connection to the strongest father figure in my life. I drew stability and strength from him. When I was in his care, I was never lost in the middle.
The vacations with our grandparents were wonderful, but near the end of the summer all of us would become homesick for our parents and our home in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. When a long-distance call from Mom announced a potential day for their arrival, Granny went right to work mending, cleaning, and pressing our well-worn summer clothes.
Several days before their expected arrival, I would sit in the tree swing near the road next to the store. Pete, Marjorie, and Helen played nearby, as they had all summer. I occupied the swing for hours, hoping for a surprise, perhaps early, arrival. The swing gave me a clear view down the narrow road outlined by tall pine trees. When a car emerged from the distortion of heat waves rising from the pavement, I studied its shape and color. My heart pounded when I thought my parents were driving toward me. When the car, similar in color and size, drove past or turned in front of the gas pumps for service, I fought back tears. I wouldn't leave that swing until dark.
After several days of watching for my parents, I noticed Granny and I'Daddy bringing the suitcases out to the porch. I could hear Pete and my sisters playing with a doodlebug in the sand near the house.
"I asked you children to stay out of the dirt," Granny reminded. "Don't you want to be clean for your momma and daddy?"
I knew my brother could care less about being clean, but I cared. I checked my favorite blue sundress, one my mother had sewn for me. It was spotless, and the lace trim stood up crisply on my shoulders from Granny's starching. I wanted to stay neat and clean so Mother would notice me.
I wanted to be the first to see the peach-colored car, and the first to greet them when they pulled in front of the house. I rehearsed my words, envisioning the hugs and kisses. Maybe my father would pick me up and hug me the way I'Daddy did.... At least that was my dream. But I'm sorry to say that I don't remember that kind of affection from my dad. Although I felt his love for me, it seemed he struggled to express it physically. I found out much later that he, too, grew up feeling insecure.
Excerpted from Free to be Me by Betty Robison Copyright ©2003 by Betty Robison. Excerpted by permission.
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