The early years
My Mom was 17 when I was born. Now you may not be aware of it, but being a 17-year-old single parent way back in 1965 wasn’t the non-stop thrill ride of joy that it is today. I know you might be thinking that 1965 was smack in the middle of the decade of hippies and free-love and awesome music and such, but what you’re forgetting is to make the small-town-in-Missouri adjustment required to give you an accurate picture of my hometown in the year of my birth. In small town Missouri in 1965 everything was pretty much exactly the same as anywhere else had been in 1955 or perhaps even 1950.
Young unwed mothers were… uh… frowned upon. They certainly were not encouraged to continue in school because it was thought that they might contaminate the other (decent) girls with their free-thinking free-love free-Cambodia cooties or something. When word had gotten around the school around Christmas time that Mom was pregnant, the Principal had tried to expel her half-way through her Senior year. He didn’t know what he was up against.
My Grandpa was a huge believer in learning and education. He was horrified at the idea that Mom wouldn’t be able to complete her education. He argued with the Principal that Mom’s personal situation was a family matter that was none of the school’s business but the Principal wouldn’t budge. Finally Grandpa went to the school board and threw such a huge fit and threatened to sue the school district and caused such a general uproar that they had to eventually come to a compromise with him.
Every single day of Mom’s last semester Grandpa went to the school at lunch time, picked up all her assignments and turned in her homework from the previous day. Mom went in every Friday and took any tests given that week in the Vice Principal’s office. That’s how she got her diploma thanks to Grandpa. I was born in July one month after my Mom graduated from High School.
During a time period when many unwed mothers were being tossed out of their homes to make their own way in the world as best they could, Mom and I lived with Grandpa and Grandma for the first three years of my life. I don’t really remember Grandma much. She had had rheumatic fever when she was young and was always quite sickly. But my very first memory in life is of sitting in Grandpa’s lap watching the nightly news and waiting for Mom to get home from work.
I adored my Grandpa. He was a big old man who smelled like sawdust and pipe tobacco and butterscotch. He loved reading and taught me to read when I was three years old. He was always bringing books home for me and we would sit and read them for hours. He would read me parts from his books before I went to bed. I remember he loved Zane Grey books. After a particularly heroic section of his book he would pause and tell me that I could be a hero, too. All I had to do was always do the right thing. And he made it clear that doing the right thing was exactly what he expected from me in any given situation. He was quite matter of fact in his belief that I would grow up to be a hero in a book someday. He made it all sound so easy.
Not that Grandpa was always serious because he had a wicked sense of humor. I didn’t even realize how good his sense of humor was until I was an adult looking back on things. He loved to laugh. I remember he bought me this giant blue plastic piggy bank. It was all I could do to lift it. When he would have company come over, he would have me stand up in the middle of the living room and sing a song at the top of my lungs. You have to know that I have literally no singing voice whatsoever, but that didn’t bother Grandpa or me. Anyway, when I was finished with my song, he would say, “Now go do what I taught you.” And I would run off into my and Mom’s bedroom, get my giant blue piggy bank, and walk up to each person shaking it until they gave me some change and I wouldn’t go away until they coughed up the cash. It always made Grandpa burst out laughing when I would shake that bank at someone. Looking back on it now, I would imagine that he was laughing at the look of shock and horror that was probably on their faces as I shook that giant blue pig at them, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew back then was if I made a lot of noise shaking the bank Grandpa would laugh even harder.
Not that his laughter was always a good thing. I was kinda uptight as a very young kid. I couldn’t stand it when people laughed at me when I had done something funny like fall down in a silly fashion or something similar. Let’s just say that I took myself a little too seriously — which Grandpa was determined to nip in the bud. So every time I would get all pissy because he was laughing at me he would sing this song:
Hedon’s mad and I’m glad
And I know how to please her
A bottle of ink to make her stink
And ten little boys to squeeze her
Well that song would absolutely make me see red! First of all, I did not want to stink. Secondly, I absolutely did not want ten little boys to squeeze me. (gosh that’s weird, huh?) I tried to explain to him how utterly wrong his song was but he took no notice of me. He would sing that damned song at the top of his lungs and I would just get more and more angry. I remember one particular time standing in the utility room stomping my foot and sputtering with rage while Grandpa laughed and sang and danced around the kitchen flapping his overalls straps.
Then one day it just made me laugh. I don’t know what finally caused the shift, but maybe the utter silliness of it all finally got through. I would like to say I was completely cured that afternoon, but I wasn’t. However, I did start down the road of being able to laugh at myself that afternoon… thanks to that stupid stupid song and Grandpa dancing around like an idiot.
I may still not be a hero in a book, but I would like to think that he would be pleased with how far I made it down that particular road.