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Just Like YouRemarkably similar in how we Love, Fear, Grieve and Self-Defeat, our capacity to help one another is vast.
By Louise Haller
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Louise Haller
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Cornerstone
There are just a few, very select pieces of time; from my early childhood through about age thirteen, which I have carried forward in memory over the years. The larger majority of days and years are gone. Of the images which remain, the gaps between treasured and heartbreaking are enormous. I thought of myself as an ordinary kid, if I thought of it at all. I didn't know that what I was experiencing was different than any other child. That is the nature of being a child, right? What we live is what we know to be "normal".
My earliest memories, before age six, although now flickering and from a scattering of circumstances, are all wonderfully warm, serene and comforting. I can no longer place these earlier memories in chronological order, but they are among my most cherished so I work to preserve them. I am told that they are from a time just after my natural parents' divorce, when my Mom returned to her parents' home in Kentucky, with my brother, sister and me.
I recall my grandmother working in the kitchen cooking, while I sat at the table or stood on a chair pulled up to the counter, watching. She put so much hard work and love for her family into each meal she prepared and I was always anxious for an advance sample taste. I sometimes followed her out to the garden to pick fresh tomatoes, green beans or other vegetables to include with the meal. She cooked from scratch, preparing dumplings with shredded chicken. She hand kneaded and rolled dough to cut into round biscuits for baking and served them hot from the oven with warmed molasses and soft butter. Grandma, whom I remember always wearing an apron, was ever patient and welcomed me in the kitchen as her "helper". There was a way about how she spoke to me, guided me, made time for me; that made me feel special. If I close my eyes I can see it so vividly that even the buttery smell of biscuits returns with grandma's image as she places the plate on the table. These foods she prepared are among my favorites still today.
More faint is an image of my Great-Grandmother; sitting in a rocking chair, just inside the door off the back porch. As I ran in and out ... and in again, the screen door slamming each time; I would tell her about all that I had seen while playing in the yard. She was my Grandpa Edward Cook's mother; so we called her simply "Gramma Cook." I can still hear myself calling out to her, "Gammy Cock, Gammy Cock"; the mispronunciation not disturbing her nearly as much as the squeaking spring pulling on the door as it slammed against the wood frame again and again. Gramma Cook's house was small, constructed of wood which was gray with age, and did not have indoor plumbing. The entire house had an earthy scent, like warm dirt on a summer day after a light rain. There was an oversized back porch with several steep steps, which led down to the large unfenced grassy yard and at the far end of the yard was a wooden out-house. Centered at the bottom of the sloping yard, was a well surrounded by rock, which had a large blackened metal churn with a rope and wooden bucket attached. During hot summer-time play, Mom would bring up a bucket of water for us kids to get a drink. Dodging the dragonflies which buzzed around us, attracted to the water; I used the brightly colored aluminum cup, which Mom brought out from the house, to scoop the water from the bucket. I recall gulping it down as fast as I could. It was simply water, but oh so delicious. Regardless of the water source or the cup I drink it from, never since has water been as sweet or perfectly tempered.
My memories of my Grandpa are few, but impactful. He was a hard working, patient and somber man. He and Grandma kept a large garden and he hunted and trapped for meat. He sometimes allowed me to follow him around as he worked. Although a bloody and grotesque task, he made no effort to shield me from watching as he skinned and filleted the meat of fish, rabbit or squirrel and on one occasion, the extraction of eggs from a turtle. He explained that he did these things to provide food. I believe because he approached it in a very matter of fact way, that I was not scared or upset by it. I felt safe, loved, important to him, and in some manner which I can't quite explain, I felt special when I was with him.
In the evenings, after supper, Grandpa sat in his chair and read aloud from the bible as the entire family sat quietly listening. He made a point of allowing time for questions after he read. I recall him reading from Genesis, my head filling with pictures of creation. I was in awe, thinking how amazing the story was. Even at that young age, it gave me the feeling that I was also a part of something important, grand and powerful.
When Grandpa passed away, despite being so young, I attended the services with the rest of the family; including the viewing which preceded his burial. Mom said that the services were for family to say good-bye. The room we entered was small and full of people crying and upset. I was a little scared as we walked toward the front of the room. Because in the days before the service Mom and Grandma had told me repeatedly that Grandpa was gone, and I had never seen a casket, I didn't understand what we were walking toward. Mom told me it was my turn to say good-bye to grandpa. I stepped up and saw grandpa lying in his church suit, surrounded by soft white pillowing cushions and reached out to touch his hand. I was startled by how cold he felt at first, and quickly pulled my hand back. Then a sense that he wasn't there anymore came over me. My fear became sadness. I reached back out and rubbed the top of his hand. As we stepped back, Grandma said that his spirit had gone to Heaven and left his body behind for the people who loved him to remember him and to say good-bye. I have looked back on that experience a great many times over the years and I am grateful that I was given the chance to say good-bye, and to understand where he had gone. Perhaps my Mom and Grandma knew how much I loved Grandpa and understood that I would need to say good bye. I felt included, a part of the loss shared by the entire family. I believe this is why I have never developed a fear of death and instead see it as a passage and return to the earth.
Moving forward, my memories of events around age five are all from time spent with my Mom. We had moved away from Grandma's house and lived in an apartment in the city. The images of this time are vivid, and as if viewed through a zoom lens, they interestingly include only my Mom and me. I remember watching her as she tucked her pretty dark hair back with large bobby-pins. In my eyes, she was the prettiest mom on earth. I remember her voice always gentle and calming, with a bit of a southern drawl. I remember her pulling me close to lie down across her lap as she patiently stroked my hair to settle me when I was sick. I recall her sitting next to my bed for hours on end when I had pneumonia. I remember her kissing me all over my face each night before bed. "I love you bushels and bushels", she would say. I felt safe and felt her love in everything she said and did. No matter whoever else was there with us, Mom had a way of making me feel as though it was just her and me. Through her eyes I was very special.
The cornerstone, by definition is the most basic part of something, upon which everything that follows depends. The foundation. I understand now that it was Mom's presence that sweetened the well water and it was the love grandma baked into the biscuits that filled the air with such sweet aroma. It was Grandpa's time and patience that made me feel that I was important to him. Because of the way in which they gave of themselves, I knew that I was loved. Over the coming years, I would clearly lose sight of my beginnings; but the strength of the cornerstone which was laid by my mother's hands would eventually bring me home.
Chapter TwoThe Man and the Waitress
One evening while home alone at our city apartment with my brother and sister; who were several years older than me, a man came and took us away. I saw my sister open the front door and a tall man walked in. I didn't know who he was, but I heard her and my brother call him Dad. He hurried us to gather some things, wrap in blankets and go out the front door. Both my brother and sister seemed hesitant. Their nervousness made me feel scared as I followed them out to the man's car, and then we sat together in the back seat. The man told us that he was taking us to a friend's house. He explained that his friend was a waitress, and she would make a cup of hot-chocolate for us. The drive seemed very long and I eventually fell asleep. I woke when we arrived and he was explaining that this was the waitress' house. When we entered I sat down with my brother and sister at a small table in the kitchen, and we waited for our hot-chocolate. A few minutes later the man came back into the kitchen and told us that, because it had gotten so late, we were going to spend the night and that he had set up beds for us. It all seemed very strange, but I was young enough to believe and tended to simply follow my brother's lead. A woman with her blonde hair twisted fancily on top of her head, dressed in her bathrobe, made and served us some hot-chocolate. When we finished our hot chocolate, the man walked the three of us down the hall and showed us into different bedrooms. There were already kids in each of the rooms sleeping in other beds, so we were put to bed quickly and quietly.
The next morning I woke when I heard my brother's voice in the other room. It was already light out and I was immediately excited by the prospect of going home to Mom. I got up and went down the hall toward the voices I heard. I found my brother, sister and the man all in the kitchen with the waitress who had made the hot-chocolate. My brother was talking on the telephone and my sister was standing behind him as if waiting her turn. After they talked on the phone for just a short time; the man told me to talk to my Mom on the phone, and say good-bye. I held the handset to my ear and heard my Mom's voice. I was so excited that I started telling her about the hot-chocolate that the waitress lady made and that we had to sleep over night, but that we were coming home now. She stopped me and explained that we were not going to come home right away. She told me to say good-bye to her as she made kissing sounds and told me that she loved me bushels. I was upset by not knowing when I would see her again. I could feel heaviness in the room and thought that it was going to be a very long time before I saw my Mom, if ever. I was an extension of her ... or her of me; and being separated from Mom felt like I was being torn apart-straight through my stomach. It was the first time I had felt sorrowful pain and the sick stomach that it causes.
The waitress lady began making breakfast and then three other kids came into the kitchen and they were calling the man "Dad". I didn't understand, but doing as I was told, I sat at the table with all the other kids, including my brother and sister, and ate breakfast, or at least pretended to eat. When we were done we were excused from the table and all told to go into the living room with the waitress lady. Dad said, "We're all going to stay here and live together now". Then, pointing to the waitress lady, he continued, "She is going to be taking care of you. She is very nice and I want you to mind your manners with her." Then he sent us back into the bedrooms to get dressed and make our beds. We were surprised to find that he had clothes for us to wear. We spent the rest of the day, back in the bedrooms with the other three kids, talking and playing.
I don't recall how many days had gone by, as I was still wishing that living at the waitress lady's house was temporary; when Dad gathered everyone in one room instructing us to sit on the floor in front of him. With the waitress lady sitting beside him on the couch, he spoke about how he believed everyone was having a good time and how he felt everything was going well. He said that he believed it was time we started to act like a family. He addressed my brother, sister and me, "this starts with you." After confirming that the waitress lady had been taking good care of us; cooking and cleaning the house, he said, "You will start calling her "Mom", as he put his arm around the waitress lady's shoulder. My brother jumped up in immediate rebellion and blurted out, "She's not our Mom". I thought the same, but said nothing. Instead, I just wanted to know where my real mom was. I asked, "Where is my other Mom"? He rose from the couch, in a very intimidating manner, and shrugged his shoulders, implying he didn't know where she was. He repeated his instruction to begin calling the waitress lady "Mom". My initial fear of him was now confirmed along with my lack of trust. I had never experienced mistrust. It was discomforting and confusing. Why would he pretend not to know? I just didn't believe him. I didn't understand and I wanted my Mom. Fear, mistrust, lies, calling someone Mom-who wasn't my mom, other kids-who called the man Dad and the man was saying that he is MY Dad. Everything was different in this house.
I was too afraid of the trouble that could come from Dad, not to call the waitress mom; but I tripped on the word as it came from my mouth. It took many weeks for it to feel less awkward. The term "real Mom" became part of my vocabulary. I continued to think of and miss my real Mom as time went on without speaking to her. I followed my brother and sister around as much as possible, but they were back in school during the day while I stayed home with the new mom and her two youngest children, both daughters. The youngest was still drinking from a bottle. The other was about three years old. She also had two sons; one age six and the other age seven, both went to school all day with my brother and sister. I would be starting school the next year as well, now that I was six.
On one occasion when five of us seven kids had been left at home alone, my brother and sister began searching Dad's and the new mom's shared bedroom. I followed along as my brother went through their papers. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was looking for a way to find our real Mom. He found a piece of paper and got very upset as he read it to my sister. The two of them were talking about the "license", and said it showed that Dad was lying and that it was proof that we were never going back to our real Mom. My brother said the license date meant that Dad had already married the waitress before he took us away from our Mom; and that he had planned to keep us from the beginning. I didn't understand at the time what it all meant, but I trusted and loved my brother. He always took care of my sister and me. I wanted my Mom so badly and was worried that I might never see her again. Worse, the new mom was not as nice as Dad said she was. During the school days that I spent at home alone with her and her two daughters, she was very mean. She did not cook for me during the day, like she did when Dad and the others were home. She yelled and screamed at me most all day and made me stay by myself in the bedroom, or worse locked in the mostly dark closet, for many hours, occasionally granting permission to exit, just long enough to use the bathroom.
After several months, we moved all together into a new house, in a beautiful family neighborhood in Kentucky. It was a very large house with an enormous back yard. Maple Hill Road was a long street, lined with mature trees and big houses with well groomed grassy yards, which ended in an oversized cul-de-sac where our new house sat. From the outside everything appeared picture perfect suburbia, upper-middle-class America. It didn't take long for me and the four kids older than me, to settle in and begin exploring the neighborhood. There were over twenty kids of all ages living on our street. Group games of hide-and-seek and tag were regular fun; especially when played at dusk in the warm summer air. It was easy to get distracted by lightening bugs and be tagged out early in the game. With so many kids and so many great hiding places, when it was your turn to be "it", it could take an hour to find everyone. When the weather turned colder the leaves fell from the trees in most yards. We would all work together to rake and gather the leaves into one enormous pile for tumbling, jumping, diving and hiding. When the snow came, large snowmen, castles and elaborate forts were built and some of the longest and fiercest snowball fights you can imagine ensued. Outside of the house, away from the parents and in the neighborhood with all the kids, was a wonderful, safe place to be and filled with childhood adventures and friendships. Inside the house my brother, sister and me were now all calling the waitress (Fran) "Mom", when we spoke to her and Fran when we spoke of her. Fran grew meaner and more abusive as time went on. She also began a twisted game of making up reports of bad behavior to my Dad when he returned home from work. Her false reports often resulted in an undeserved belt spanking. The spanking swats were frequently doubled for perceived lying, as we swore that we had not done what she had accused us of. It didn't take long to learn that the best thing to do was simply admit to all her accusations.
Excerpted from Just Like You by Louise Haller Copyright © 2012 by Louise Haller. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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