Three months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated riding in a Lincoln Continental convertible in Dallas, Texas, I was a bashful six-year old arriving in a white Plymouth Belvedere at my new home in DeRidder, Louisiana. Just another west Louisiana one-stoplight town, it was near Fort Polk and that was enough to lure my army family. Once again we were looking for yet another inexpensive rental house within close proximity to my dad's latest post. I didn't know who JFK was, or what he stood for. This was my seventh new home in as long as I could remember and I was consumed with more immediate matters. Would I make any new friends? Would I be allowed to have a pony? Would my chicken have a house of her own?
Small town Louisiana in 1963 was a virtual hell hole of flagrant ignorance and racism. Our next-door neighbors who brought over get-acquainted casseroles were the same family that had a black cat named Nigger. Strangely, it was a place I came to love. Lacking any kind of purposeful guidance in such matters, what I knew then was that some kids came to school without shoes and that there was no shame in being poor so long as you were white. I knew that the colored ladies, as we called them then in polite company, lowered their heads and stepped off the sidewalk to get out of the way of my mom or any other white lady on her way to the Hinky Dinky five-and-dime on Main Street. I knew they had their own school and their own town that we never visited. On the map, it was called Sugartown, but that wasn't what everyone called it. They even had their own drinking fountains and special doors in cafes. They owned the balcony at the Joy Theater and I wasn't allowed up there even though I wanted to go.
It didn't occur to me to question these things, or any other things, beyond the extent to which they affected me. And they did not affect me so I didn't wonder and I didn't ask. Although my parents didn't actively participate in the derogatory name-calling and hateful rants, they never condemned it. And my mom didn't hesitate to take me with her when she gathered up her cigarette case and six-pack of cold Pepsi and walked up the gravel road to visit the neighbors. In her flowered sundress, she had freckles across her shoulders. Her bare limbs were strong and willful as she strode along purposefully with me running along in her wake.
The family next door, the Houstons, had two teenage sons and had built the little frame house in which we now lived. The mom chain-smoked Winstons and raised Chihuahua dogs for extra money. The dad was big and blustery and seemed especially outraged about the Negroes. He was the town sheriff.
Another family was named Freeman and they lived up at the turn-around in the road in a nicer, bigger brick house. In time, the daughter, who was perhaps nine or ten, would allow me to ride her horse, Trigger. The Freemans belonged to a strange church called Pentecostal that said girls should never cut their hair or wear shorts. They were a little different from the rest of us, neither snubbed nor scorned, but somehow removed from those who lived along the road.
Of course, I didn't know any of this on the day we arrived in the Plymouth. I only knew I was anxious to get out and walk my chicken. We had gone to see my Grandma on our way south from Springfield, Missouri, and through Oklahoma where she lived on a real farm. To me, an avid animal lover, that was the Promised Land. She had cows and pigs and chickens, and dogs called beagles. My Grandma told me if I could catch one of the little chicks, I could take it with me when we left. So I managed to corner a fluffy one and put it into a shoe box along with some grass and a handful of chicken feed. I had taken one of my colored pencils to poke holes in the top of the box so my chicken could breathe.
I loved that little chick and took the box with me into stores and cafes and motel rooms all the way to DeRidder. I was a morbidly shy little girl without any lasting friends or attachments. But I had a chicken and a prodigious imagination and a passion for animals, all of which I carried with me wherever I was taken.
When the Plymouth came to a stop in front of the unpainted little house on a dirt road in backwoods Louisiana, it was all I could do not to shout with glee. Filled with the wonder of a naïve little girl, I burst out of the car with my peeping shoebox and my high hopes about the shantytown animal empire that I hoped to build.
While the adults toured the house and my brother Klaus went off down the road to kick at rocks, I found an abandoned doghouse around back that I fancied would make a lovely new home for my chicken. Only it wasn't abandoned, and the tenant, a very pregnant and ill-tempered Chihuahua named Roxie, came running as fast as her little legs could carry her and chased my chicken around the side of the house. By the time I caught up with them, there was little left but blood and feathers. Roxie turned on me and barked a couple of times before running off toward the house next door.
Two weeks and countless tears later, my parents (along with Roxie's no-doubt much chagrined owners) sought to console me by offering the pick of the new litter. Faced with a pile of black and white piebald puppies, of course I chose the oddball solid-colored female, not black but not quite chocolate brown either, and promptly named her Happy. In what was surely one of Mother Nature's most ironic asides, when happiness was all I longed for, I cherished and chased Happy until I left home in my late teens.
Growing up the way I did, relatively unnoticed and splashed into and out of diverse environments every year or two when my dad was transferred by the army and, later, by his second career in federal civil service, I'd become something of a budding sociopath. I didn't actively manipulate or violate the rights of others but I held a total disregard for social norms and I masked my true feelings and intentions because I believed I was very different than other people.
I did what was expected of me, no more and no less, kept my dreams to myself, remaining utterly apart and alone. Friends, and later lovers, came into my life and it didn't faze me when they ultimately went away. And they all did go away. I expected it. I longed for it, longed for an end to the complications of a peopled life. I wanted to stay in my room, writing or just daydreaming, searching everywhere for that perfect life that had so far eluded me.
I can remember the dreadful family vacations we used to embark on every summer. No, not to Wally World. That would have been a dream come true. Instead, we drove around the country visiting relatives we didn't know and doing it as cheaply as possible. The strategy involved "making incredible time" by day, stopping only for six-for-a-buck hamburgers at some greasy spoon drive-in along the way. I can still hear my mother chastising me about wanting to have cheese or fries with my burger. Extras were strictly verboten.
"No fries," she would say. "You don't need fries." As a fat kid, that always had a special zing to it. I didn't realize she was just trying to save money. At least that was part of it.
We timed each nine- or ten-hour spell of driving so we could arrive at the relatives' homes in time to stay the night. A lot of them were rural people. They didn't have spacious houses. Some of them didn't even have indoor bathrooms. But they were all welcoming. Just as if this was normal behavior. What I remember most is hiding on the porch or out in the barn while the grown-ups sat chatting and getting acquainted. I literally ran from these people. I don't know why my mom and dad didn't realize this was abnormal behavior even for a little kid.
The next day, after a night sleeping on the floor with some kids I didn't know and to whom I refused to say a word, we would start out again at daybreak. My brother and I stretched out in the back of the station wagon. He was intent on finding new ways to make me cry while I just longed for the inevitable stop when I could get out of the car for a few minutes and partake of a greasy hamburger.
"Go to the bathroom. And come right back." That was the drill. "No, you can't have fries. You don't need any fries."
There still exists today a gallery of photos of Klaus and me as little children, all dressed up in our Easter best or togged out in mismatched corduroy trousers and shirts, looking for all the world like we were the Children of the Corn. Haunted. Vacant-eyed. In every photo but one we both appeared as if we were suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. The exception is one where I'm about five or six and happily eating an ice cream cone.
I was that kid, the one with a huge bullseye painted on my chubby chest. I attracted playground bullies, mean girls, teachers with cruel streaks, and all manner of thugs in training. Lord of the Flies was the story of my life. I was the kid who would start to cry at the slightest provocation. And those tears were like blood in the water. If it's true that there's something primal in the hunt, then someone will always be the prey. Sometimes prey does escape, and I did, but not without my scars.
Through all the times we moved and all of my early agonies, my dad was away, being "in the army" and stationed in strange-sounding places. Though the Second World War was long over, it was still alive and well in my family, and all word of it came through my mother's eyes. She told us about being at home in Leipzig with her stern parents and many sisters and of hearing the bombs dropping on their town. She told us repeatedly of escaping East Germany after the war, of being shot at, of bribing the Russian guards with bottles of cognac, of running for her life. She was a German war bride. To her, evidently, meeting my dad was not so much of a love story as a tale of redemption. She got to come to America.
The story of my mother's war explained a lot of things. I got the feeling the way our lives played out was just a byproduct of her acting the parts of housewife and mother and citizen, of doing all the right things to avoid being snatched away in the middle of the night by the Gestapo. It seemed normal from the outside but, to me, inside and looking out, my childhood seemed to exist in a vacuum. There was no context to it at all. I was playing a part too and felt that I wasn't quite as good at my role as I should have been. No one ever complained or told me to be a better little daughter and sister, but their dissatisfaction with me was there just the same.
My mother would say "This is good enough" as an answer to any complaint I might have about my cheap and raggedy school clothes, the food I took for my lunch, or my poor general potential in life. "This is good enough" meant you were lucky you didn't live behind the Iron Curtain. "This is good enough" meant you were foolish and misguided to ask for or expect more of anything. Whether this had to do with a limited family budget or just a cheap, miserly world view, I didn't know. The results were the same. I longed for something I didn't have and I couldn't put a name on what it was.
I remember one time a representative from the Girl Scouts came to my school to recruit. It sounded like the coolest thing ever so I took my sign-up form home with mounting excitement. My mom said when she was a kid, she wanted to join Hitler Youth and her dad had punished her severely. I guess that meant not being in the Girl Scouts was good enough for me.
My mother's war also meant that she spoke with a pronounced accent people found charming. As I grew older it occurred to me that when people spoke Spanish, for example, or any Asian language, they were told impatiently to "speak English" while my mother continued to charm. Apparently, some accents were better to have than others. In sixty-some years, hers never lessened, never changed. She would come to use it as a reason she didn't understand or remember anything she didn't want to understand or remember. Klaus was born in Germany and spoke German at home as a little kid. By the time I was born, we were in the States. I was given an American name after some B-movie Hollywood starlet and was expected to learn and speak English. This was a tall order for a kid who spent ninety-nine percent of her time with her foreign-speaking mother and brother. English turned out to be one of my favorite subjects once I started school, not because of any accolades I achieved by mastering it against long odds but because I loved the way it sounded. I loved the way it looked on the page. I loved the rules that ordered its usage. Everything about speaking and writing English excited me in a way that little else did when I was small and playing the part of the second child.
I don't ever recall my parents talking with my teachers or involving themselves in the business of my childhood. My dad was simply away most of the time and my mom just didn't understand a lot of what was happening. I didn't understand much either but it wasn't a language barrier in my case. It was that odd lack of context that I existed in. No one ever told me what was expected or who I was supposed to be. I was just a little creature made up entirely of emotional reactions. When someone looked at me or spoke to me, I usually just cried. When I look back now, I think of myself as being like one of those feral children raised by wolves. I had just awakened in a strange, new environment and everything terrified me. There should have been someone there to tell me everything was going to be okay.
Years passed, as they inexorably do, and I grew up, very much the product of a lifetime of unintentional neglect. Assumptions were corrected, lessons were learned and I came to adulthood in a strange state of wonder. Oh, so this is what it all means. I blundered through each compartmentalized aspect of my life—career, marriage, motherhood. By the time I'd reach the cusp of my golden years, I knew not to cry in public if I could help it. I knew that role-playing was not always the answer to fitting in. And I knew that authenticity counted a hell of a lot sometimes.
Title image "Backwood Travels" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.