Growing up in her deranged East Coast household, Beth feels like an outsider-but a grateful outsider because her family is riddled with alcoholism, poverty, and an abundance of insanity. Beth has her defenses, though: her faith, a positive attitude, and a penchant for putting a comedic spin on life. She also harbors a secret escape plan and, eventually, the knowledge as to why she has always been the black sheep of the family.
Beth survives a deadbeat dad, a defeated mom, an overindulged sister, and a villainous brother to demonstrate that the School of Hard Knocks doesn't have to ruin you for life. If fact, it can almost guarantee success.
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A Less Than Perfect Beginning
By Diane L. Huffman
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Diane L. Huffman
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning ...
I had always been independent. And adventurous—downright fearless, in fact. Even a little bit crazy. Okay, maybe a little bit more than a little bit.
But I think it was because I was independent and adventurous and fearless and a little bit crazy that I was always able to survive. Perhaps those traits were innate. Perhaps I was just born with the capacity to overcome adversity. Or perhaps they simply developed out of sheer necessity—the necessity of having to endure my first eighteen years and three months of life with an alcoholic father, a brutalized mother, a passive-aggressive sister, and a freaking lunatic of a brother. They say there's no place like home, and in my case, thank God! I sure as hell hope there's no other place on the planet like the home in which I was raised.
In my formative years, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, I wondered if the families depicted on my weekly television shows— Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show—actually existed in real life. The fathers in the sitcoms always had good-paying jobs. The mothers always stayed home and vacuumed in dresses and high heels. The brothers and sisters were always respectful and obedient. They all lived in perfect harmony in perfect houses in perfect suburbs.
Once I was old enough to visit my little friends, I realized that their families did, in fact, resemble those blissful TV portrayals. When one of my Shirley Temple lookalike friends invited me to dinner, a pajama party, or a birthday party, I marveled at how those families actually seemed to like one another, even love one another.
Was it possible that behind some closed doors in this country, Dad didn't continually berate his little girl, Mom didn't blame that girl for every marital argument, Big Sis wasn't considered the sole female offspring, and Little Bro wasn't the devil incarnate?
Apparently, it was possible, because I saw the evidence in my playmates' homes. Even as a guest, I could sit around the dinner table as part of their family and have a genuinely civil discussion. (Yes, civil!) The mom would make us hot cocoa, tuck us into bed, and kiss us goodnight. (So this is what they call motherly love!) The dad didn't possess a simmering undercurrent that threatened to erupt into angry shouts and ugly accusations. (Wow! No need to beat a path to my bedroom for safety!)
My friends' families were simply—how do I put it? Well, sane.
Then I realized that simple sanity had never made an appearance in my house. I compared those picture-perfect families on TV and in my friends' homes to the Stedman household and knew there was a disconnect—a very serious disconnect. I could neither understand nor explain it, but even at five years of age, I recognized the divide was so great that it must be kept hidden from the outside world.
Therefore, I would host no pajama parties at my house. Or birthday parties. Or even playdates. I purposely kept the Stedman dwelling off-limits for entertaining. God forbid that my normal friends from normal homes should discover the dysfunctional and aberrant behavior exhibited behind the four walls of 1723 Longwood Boulevard.
Ward and June Cleaver would surely consider us to be unsuitable for their social circle, including their kids' social circle, and I would never again get another invitation to or glimpse of a normal happy household.
So thus was born, at a very young age, the genesis of my plan. A plan which I would dream about and meticulously plot for my remaining childhood years. A plan that would sustain me in my darkest days. It was a secret plan that I would not share with my own kin. But it was a plan that, at the age of eighteen, would ultimately deliver me from them.CHAPTER 2
Dear Old Dad
The Cleavers certainly would never have extended a social invitation to my father, who was decidedly unsociable. Actually, he was full-blown antisocial, not to mention racist, mean, hateful, and just plain freaking nuts. When you consider he was a 375-pound, six-foot-two-inch racist, mean, hateful, just-plain-freaking nut—well, he was someone to fear and to avoid at all cost. And my young life revolved around that objective.
I know it's politically incorrect to say Dad was freaking nuts, but that was the lingo of the 1950s, along with being loony, wacko, or psycho who was sent to a loony bin or funny farm. My apologies to any freaking nut, loon, wacko, or psycho reading this book from his padded room in the loony bin or funny farm; but mental illness was not the refined discipline that it is today. In the 1950s, emotional and psychological maladies were not as openly discussed or medically treated.
However, that might explain Dad's crazed behavior. Perhaps he suffered from some undiagnosed form of mental illness. Was he bipolar, schizophrenic, manic-depressive? Could he have been treated with drugs? Would he have benefited from therapy? We'll never know. Dad was never diagnosed or drugged, and he never bared his soul to a psychiatrist.
Or maybe there's another explanation for Dad's demented demeanor. Maybe he suffered from the so-called artist syndrome. I offer that as a suggestion because Dad was a brilliantly creative artist. He could sing beautifully. He could play the guitar masterfully. He could paint in any medium. He was a talented woodworker. And he was self-taught. Dad never attended an art or music or carpentry class in his life. Maybe Dad was simply creative to the point of being whack-off-the-ear-Van-Gogh crazy.
Dad was so talented on so many levels. I remember his silky voice booming throughout our suburban Pittsburgh home. His arias were on par with such great tenors as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Dad could have performed at the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala. He also could have played Nashville or pop concert venues, because Dad was adept at singing country and contemporary tunes. He did great imitations of Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra and The Lettermen.
Dad's beautiful singing would be accompanied by his beautiful guitar playing. But my father didn't need an expensive top-of-the-line instrument. He was so artistically endowed that he managed to coax lovely musical strains from an old beat-up guitar he had purchased in a secondhand shop. Dad never even learned to read music. He simply listened to someone else's voice or to someone else's guitar strums, and then repeated it by ear. He was a talented one-man band.
Dad was also a prolific and accomplished painter—oils, acrylics, pen and pencil, ink. He drew portraits and landscapes and still lifes. Nothing seemed beyond the grasp of his skilled hand. Dad never held an exhibition in a gallery, but his eclectic artwork was displayed on every single wall in our large two-story house. Even more rolled canvasses found storage in the attic.
I remember that Dad once combined his art and woodworking skills to build us kids a playhouse in the backyard. This playhouse, however, wasn't just a flimsy miniature structure that we had to crawl in and out of like Lilliputians. No, it was the size of an actual one-room, one-story house. Foundation, reinforced walls, shingled roof, front door—it had the durability of a fortress. On the interior and exterior walls, Dad painted cartoon characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Donald Duck, and Cinderella. In today's world, that playhouse would require a building permit from the city and a licensing agreement from Disney.
But lest you think that happy memories of Dad dominate my childhood, think again. Unfortunately, fond fatherly recollections fill only about 0.01 percent of my total memory bank. The remaining 99.99 percent are painful.
As an adult, I remember attending a baby shower where the hostess announced that we would play a game called "What's your fondest childhood memory?" And I panicked. I froze. I went blank because I didn't have any fond childhood memories. And the party revelers wouldn't have believed me if I told them that—if I told them the truth about my early years.
The truth was that my main recollection from youth was wondering how such outwardly pretty art and music could emanate from a father so inwardly ugly and evil. But that truth would have been jaw dropping for the merrymakers. It might have been appropriate to divulge that memory on The Jerry Springer Show, but definitely not at a festive baby shower.
So to comply with the party game, I simply fabricated a fond remembrance of an idyllic family at an idyllic picnic with idyllic neighborhood friends. It was, of course, a fond, idyllic lie. I didn't care about winning the prize for the happiest memory. I just wanted to take my turn at sharing and get it over with.
That subterfuge turned out to be so effective that I would continue to use similar ones throughout life. If I found myself in a situation where I couldn't avoid talking about my dismal childhood, I simply created a fairy tale. It was more humane—for me and for my audience.
Actually, when it came to neighborhood friends, I don't remember my parents having any, idyllic or otherwise. In fact, I don't remember them having friends at all, neighborhood or otherwise. For the eighteen years that I lived in the Stedman household, I can't recall a single instance of my parents extending an invitation to anyone. There were no parties, no barbeques, no cocktail hours at our house. There were no attempts to meet another couple for dinner at a local restaurant or for a movie at the local theater.
A social circle for the Stedmans simply didn't exist—and the blame for that state of affairs could be placed squarely on Dad, a man who had an intense suspicion of and dislike of people in general. When Dad met someone for the first time, he unreasonably assumed that they had a malevolent agenda, that they meant to take advantage of him or harm him in some way. There was no factual basis for Dad's wariness; it was just his default nature.
Dad would warn my mother, "Stay away from those new neighbors.
Next thing you know, they'll be over here borrowing my tools."
Or, "He looks shifty. I don't like him."
Or, "I'm not going to talk to that new guy at work. He'll probably just pump me for dirt on everyone. Nosy son of a bitch!"
Life, however, is a two-way street, and the feeling between Dad and people in general became mutual. Over time, they disliked Dad as much as he disliked them. So not only did my parents never extend invitations to friends, they never received invitations from friends either—because there were no friends.
Putting aside Dad's social challenges, when all is said and done, he was an extremely talented artist. When Dad was a young, single man of twenty-two, he capitalized on that talent by striking a clever deal with the owner of a local German restaurant, the Black Forest. Dad agreed to supply the owner with paintings to hang on the walls of his establishment, and the owner agreed to supply Dad with food and beer. It was a win-win for both parties: the business owner got free interior design services, and Dad got free dinners.
It turned into even more of a win for Dad because his artwork caught the eye of a restaurant patron who happened to be an art professor at a local university. That very intrigued professor then quizzed the restaurant owner about the artist's identity and requested Dad's telephone number.
"Hello, Mr. Stedman. This is Professor Arthur Harriman," the man said, introducing himself over the phone. "I saw your artwork in the Black Forest restaurant, and I'm very impressed."
"Professor? Of what? And from where?" Dad asked, stymied about why this stranger would be calling him and completely ignoring the stranger's kind compliment.
"I'm a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University," Professor Harriman proudly explained.
"Carnegie Mellon? The Carnegie Mellon? In downtown Pittsburgh?" Dad asked, wondering if the professor was actually referring to the school that was world-renowned for its arts and music programs and was practically located in Dad's backyard.
"Yes, Mr. Stedman, the Carnegie Mellon University. My colleagues and I would like to meet with you. Based on the magnificent canvasses that I've seen at the Black Forest, we would be interested in offering you a fully funded four-year art scholarship to attend our university," Professor Harriman continued, happy to be conveying such joyous news to a budding artist that he had personally discovered and certain that the budding artist, my father, would be just as joyous.
And Dad should have been joyous. It was an incredible opportunity for any poor, struggling young man. It was the opportunity that every promising artist dreams about and prays for: To go to a prestigious art school. To put those God-given creative skills to good use. To start on a career path that would lead to fame and fortune. Not to mention the golden opportunity of going to that exalted university for free.
Not many twenty-somethings who inhabited society's lower classes were handed a gift like that during the Great Depression. Americans couldn't even find jobs in the 1930s, let alone find a benefactor willing to pay for an expensive college education. A Carnegie Mellon scholarship was the equivalent of being offered tuition, room, and board at Stanford University today. Or in Moses's time, it was manna from heaven.
But Dad's response to Professor Harriman's generous offer was a simple and indifferent: "I'll think about it."
A fellow worker at the time was highly impressed with Dad's good fortune.
"Hank," he said, "you're single. You don't have to worry about supporting a wife and kids. You only have yourself to consider. Go for it!"
"Yeah, Hank," another coworker agreed. "After all, if being a college student doesn't work out, you can just go back to life as it was. No harm, no foul."
So what should Dad do with that once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend an esteemed university? Should he grab the ring? Should he embrace the proffered opportunity and experience campus life? Should he give up his job and devote himself to his studies?
"Nah," Dad said, not swayed by the advice of his enthusiastic workmates. "I'll just stay where I'm at."
With hardly a second thought, Dad called the benevolent professor and rejected the university's coveted scholarship. Dad rejected the chance to become a Carnegie Mellon alumni. He rejected the chance to dazzle the world with his brilliant artistic and musical talents. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Dad rejected the one shot he would ever again have to find true fulfillment in life. Ever.
Instead of studying at the university, Dad chose to remain in the job he occupied when Carnegie Mellon discovered him. His job in a mill. Yes, one of the many dark, grimy, noisy steel mills of industrialized Pittsburgh. A mill located in a poverty-stricken, crime-infested part of town along a river that was once beautiful but was now polluted with toxic byproducts. Dad knowingly traded the chance of an artist's creative life for that of a mill worker's grinding one.
I was ten years old when Dad, in a rare attempt at familial communication, revealed this surprising story to his two daughters. But the surprise for me wasn't the university's offer—I was aware of my father's talents. My surprise was Dad's decision. Anyone who grew up in Pittsburgh had a reverence for Carnegie Mellon. Its reputation was legendary, and we understood that a degree from that university practically guaranteed prestige and success for the graduate. Even at my young age, I thought it seemed foolish for Dad to have turned down such a wonderful opportunity.
Being curious, I asked him, "Why didn't you take the scholarship, Dad? Why did you decide to stay at the mills?"
I guess my naïve questions reminded Dad of his misguided choice long ago and its ultimately grave consequences for his life. Family bonding immediately vanished, and his usual surliness returned.
"Because the mills paid good money!" Dad barked at me. "Do you think mill-town people like me had the luxury of being a college student? Do you think I could go years without a paycheck?"
Excerpted from A Less Than Perfect Beginning by Diane L. Huffman. Copyright © 2014 Diane L. Huffman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is an immensely entertaining read. Written with so much wit and character that it leaves you wanting just one more chapter. Hopeing for more by Diane Huffman in the future. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a simple story of life's trials yet told in such a way it leaves you with a nice afterthought!