207 Lane K

Our tiny family moved to Sunflower, Kansas in 1946. Post-war housing shortages made the town a magnet for veterans. It had row after row of charmless cramped apartments, a drug store, a grocery store, a school and a movie theatre. Gangs of unattended but safe children my age ran the cinder alleys like packs of dogs.  I did the first of a life-long series of dumpster-dives, discovering a treasure-trove of discarded makeup that I’m sure was loaded with lead. It was in Sunflower that I had snowball fights, organized a doll show, wheeled kittens around in baby buggies,and started school.

But Sunflower was also the site of my awful, original sin.
My sister was born in June, two months after my fifth birthday.
I was sent away to stay with my grandmother during my mother’s confinement.  When I came back, puzzled and homesick, I was introduced to a blanket-swaddled, crying, odd-looking creature and there was a crib for her in my parent’s bedroom.

As an adult, I can understand why my shell-shocked parents, caught in the vortex of guilt and confusion in creating a malformed baby suffering from an unknown birth defect syndrome, unintentionally pushed me out of the way to make space for their grief. But in addition to feeling abandoned and frightened, I was furiously, ragingly jealous. As I stood on tip-toe to get a better look as my mother changed my sister’s diaper, I saw the horror of a freshly repaired umbilical hernia. My baby sister had no belly button.  I knew, as only a magic-believing, all-powerful, jealous five-year-old can, that this was all my fault.  In the next few years the disaster I had unleashed continued to unfold.

I knew that her disfigured face, her umbilical hernia, her cleft palate, her congenitally dislocated hip, her years in a body cast, her stumped fingers and her low normal IQ were my jealously come alive. This was surely my original sin.  No one ever told me differently.

All is Well

Six years ago this week a piece of my heart shriveled like a rose too long without water.  My best friend/sister and knower of my dreams died.   She didn’t die quickly.  The small cell carcinoma took small, steady nibbles …her hair, her lung, her ability to cook, and to eat.  She watched comedies on tv to pass the days when she wasn’t having poison drip, drip, dripped into her.  I couldn’t hug her becase her blood counts were so low that it might kill her.  She planned her funeral, asking me to read a poem I had written about her 25 years earlier.  She told me she didn’t know if she was doing this dying correctly. She didn’t understand what people meant when they told her she had to fight this cancer.  I told her that’s just the bullshit people say when they are at a loss for comforting, soft words.

She died in late July.  She was 67 years old.  The line at the wake wound round the block.  She had touched so many lives, and she had embraced mine since we met as locker mates the first day of high school.  We were 14.

The day she died, I had a dream. She and I were in a store that sold antique baby clothes.  I tried to touch her, to speak to her, but she was ahead of me, just out of reach. As she was going out the door, she turned to me and handed me a silver cup engraved with the words “All is Well.”. I sure hope so.

Through the Frame

Since I first peeked over the edge of my bassinette in 1942, I have framed my life with humor. Not because it’s been one long, laughable journey.   But because humor is the frame that keeps me from running off the rails.

I was a wanted child, born in the blink between depression and war.  My father and mother were impossibly beautiful, like F. Scott and Zelda transported to a farm in eastern Kansas just beyond the dustbowl. My father loved my mother and farming; my mother loved everything about my father except the farming part.

And I knew they adored me. They passed me proudly around a circle of grandparents, aunts and uncles both regular and great,  townspeople and farmpeople.  I’ve got the pictures to prove it.  My mother sewed me coats, hats, purses, dresses and even undies, with skill and finesse and fashion sense.

When America entered World War II ,my land-locked and farm-bound father joined the United States Navy and was stationed in the Naval Post Office in San Francisco. Two years old and still the cossetted only child, I accompanied my mother across the country by train to join my father in California.  I was blissfully happy, unaware of war, of Asian countrymen in U.S. Concentration camps, of Jews and other non Ayrans slaughtered methodically.  I was bothered only by the shortage of bananas, my favorite fruit.

It was all palm trees and walking down the steep hills, a toddler drunk with happiness holding a parents hand in each of mine until the war ended in 1945.