For "the rest of the story," go back a day and read Part 1.
When I was a kid, just 8 or 9 years old, my family up and moved. Again. It was, I think, my fourth new town, third state, and fifth or sixth elementary school. I'd pretty much rolled with it, because I had my family, no matter where we lived, and my little sister, who was only 3 or 4, was too little to really get much of what was going on. This most recent move took us to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and while I didn't fully understand the reasons behind it all, I saw my parents read a letter that came in the mail one day, and then hug each other for a long time, and I saw my mother crying, and smiling and laughing, while they talked about answered prayers. Even I knew that whatever news that letter held, it made them happy and a little scared, all at the same time, and that was the day they told Andrea and I that we were moving to Fayetteville, so that Dad could "finish school," and become a teacher, and go back to coaching basketball. And I can tell you, that the idea that my GROWN-UP father still had school to finish? Horrified me, because I had already developed a staunch distaste for formal education. I can recall thinking, "My gosh, is it never OVER, this school stuff?"
So anyway, then we lived in Fayetteville. I'm pretty sure we were there for the start of my 4th-grade year, so that would have been 1975, when I was eight, though I turned 9 in October of that year. We were only there for one year, but I'm being honest when I tell you that the majority of my childhood memories, the things that really stuck--the feelings, the sights, sounds, and smells, the books I read, the pictures I drew, even specific visits to the doctor--come from that single year. It was the golden year of my childhood, the year of my childhood in which I was the most "worldly," but the last year that I was still 100% little girl, not yet yoked and bound by the constraints of involuntary womanhood that would come in the 5th grade--the bras and the periods.
1976, for most of which I was 9 years old, was pure childhood for me. It was sunshine, kite-flying, bike-riding, playing with my sister, running up and down the streets and in still-undeveloped meadows...and love. Lots and lots of love. It was the happiest year of my young life. I learned, years later, how very little our family had financially, and how much my parents struggled during that time, and was dumbfounded at how I'd NEVER suspected such a thing. Sure, we lived in a tiny rented house, without much furniture, but we always had what we needed, and I certainly never felt deprived of anything. I remember a birthday, it almost had to be my 9th, on which the monetary value of all my gifts combined probably amounted to less than $40 worth in today's currency--and I remember being so happy that I CRIED. I remember this because those were the first tears of joy I'd ever shed in my life. I'd never before been so purely happy that I could not contain the emotion, and I cried. It was the year that I got an Evel Knievel motorcyle-jump set AND a parakeet, and I was overjoyed.
I didn't see a lot of my parents that year, compared to years past and years that followed, but what I do remember is a lot of high-quality time. Mom and Dad were working HARD to pay for Dad's school and support their young family, which meant that they had to be away from home a good deal, especially Dad. He coached at the local high school, he was on staff at the university, he mowed lawns, he drove a school bus, he taught elementary school P.E., and he worked nights at "Mr. Burger." And those are just the jobs I can remember, without consulting my mother for help with accuracy. I remember waking up nights, late, getting up to go to the bathroom, and seeing low lamplight glowing from a small, rickety card-table in the front room. If I went and looked, I'd see my Dad bent over a biology or physiology textbook, diagramming the anatomy of the heart, or studying kinesiology. When I'd go and hug him--and I always did--I could usually smell the faint aroma of the onion rings he'd cooked for who-knows-how-many people's dinner that night, intermingled with the smell of his shampoo and the clean white t-shirt he'd be wearing. He never scolded me for being up, just hugged me and told me he loved me, and to get to sleep.
I have a similar sensory memory of my mother, of hugging her at the kitchen table (seated grownups were at optimum hugging-height at that age, you know), and thinking, very clearly, that she smelled like sunshine. I do remember them both being tired a lot of the time, but never to tired to tend to us girls, and certainly never too tired to let us know how much we were loved.
There was a series of child-care situations, including a period of time when I walked to a sitter's house for after-school-care with a bunch of other kids. I know I hated it there, but all I really remember about it was that there was an argument, settled by voting, EVERY SINGLE DAY among the kids about the allotted television time. The choices were "Family Affair" and "Emergency" (with Rudolph Mantooth, yo). There were more girls than boys, so "Family Affair" ALWAYS won, much to my disgust. Buffy and and that creepy Mrs. Beasley doll had NOTHING on "Emergency," in my young opinion. I mean, you ALWAYS knew how things were gonna resolve themselves when Sebastian Cabot was involved, but Rudolph Mantooth, well...he was a guaranteed wild-card. So one day, I just walked past the sitter's house and took myself right on home. I think other arrangements were made after that. I also think that I fled from school, in a similar fashion, in the middle of the day, on at least one occasion, and scared the wampus out of everyone involved. I was not what you'd call an "easy" child.
We had one scary babysitter, Karen Something, the kind that, as a parent, you have nightmares about. She was really, really awful, and had her bluff in on me, keeping me quiet about her minor cruelties and negligence...until she started being mean to my little sister, and that's when I busted her out to my mom and got her summarily fired. And then we had the fabulous Trella Yates (is that name itself not just magical?), one of those rare, exceptionally wholesome and responsible teenage girls, she of the homemade snickerdoodles, piano-playing virtuosity, old farmhouse with the wraparound porch, and what seemed like at least a half-dozen cute brothers. We loooooooved her. But the best part of the day, even on Trella days, was always being reunited with Mom & Dad.
It was in 1976 that I saved my sister's life, which is why she has to love me forever. We were at the public pool, and she went face-down in the kiddie-pool, and I was the only person who noticed, and pulled her out, her spitting up water and gagging. It was a close call, but she returned the favor probably a hundred times over, just in the sheer number of times she stopped me from wandering into traffic in later years.
When it could be spared, I got a couple of bucks to spend as I wished, and as I wished was always a walk down to the Kwiki-Mart (not "Kwik-E-Mart," like on "The Simpsons," and the spelling of the name of this store was forever entangled in my mind with the image on the top of my dad's shallow cans of Kiwi shoe polish), for an Orange Push-Up and a Mad Magazine. GOOD TIMES.
It was a big year for me medically--I had two trips to the emergency room for injuries (stepped on a rusty can-lid and sliced my foot open once, but the resulting tetanus shot came in handy later when I ripped a slash along my thigh while sliding down an old metal slide and catching the business end of an expose screw, and Dad was on duty for both those mishaps), and was incorrectly diagnosed as epileptic after passing out during a film at school (it was assumed that the flashing lights of the movie projector had triggered a seizure, but no one bothered to ask me what the FILM was about--the last thing I recall before everything went black was some pioneer guy having broken his leg, and him screaming in agony while it was pulled back into place to be set...to say I was a "sensitive" type would be an understatement). Now that I think of this, I have no idea how my parents paid for these things. But again, did I have any idea things were strained financially? NONE.
This was the year that I learned I had an odd artistic talent, that I could reproduce on paper anything I could look at a picture of, with great accuracy. The first time that happened, it was...alarming. It was also the year I first remember deliberately, and with intent, disobeying my mother, who had told me NOT to read Peter Benchley's Jaws, which I did anyway, and then had nightmares for WEEKS about the grim underwater death-by-shark of Hooper (yeah, I know that in the movie, Richard Dreyfus lived, but that ain't how it went down in the novel). I outed myself a year later, after the movie had come out, when I interrupted my mother and a friend who were discussing the movie by blurting out, "But he DIED, Hooper DIED, and the last thing he ever saw was the 'dead black eye' of the shark, through a cloud of his own BLOOD!" Yeah. I was smooth like that with the secrets.
This was the year of my childhood that I learned the most about interpersonal relationships with other children, the main message being that other children are MEAN. There was an older girl who took my favorite toy, my Lemon Twist. You know, if you are a girl, that you remember this toy. It was a plastic lemon on a rubber cord, with a loop on the other end. You put the loop around one ankle, and swung the lemon around and around, jumping over it with the other foot. (Later versions of this toy included an automatic rotation-counter, but back in the day, we had to do it the HARD way and count out loud with each jump.) I could lemon-jump all DAY. Anyway, Mean Girl just TOOK my Lemon Twist, and then just pretended it was hers. Just like that. I'm astounded at the nerve even today. When my dad got home, I told him about it--not because I wanted him to "fix" the situation, but just because he asked me why I was sad. He simply drove me out to where Mean Girl lived, where she was blatantly just outside playing with my Lemon Twist, just in flagrante! He walked up to her, while I slumped down in the car, awaiting confrontation, because she was just going to say it was hers, and we couldn't PROVE it was mine, and it was going to be horrible...and the next thing I heard was my dad quietly asking, "Is that yours?" to which Mean Girl mumbled something, and then, miraculously HANDED IT TO HIM. I'm telling you, when my dad got back in the car and handed me my precious Lemon Twist, he was the BIGGEST HERO THE WORLD HAD EVER KNOWN in my eyes.
My parents were constantly proving themselves larger than life to me, and I was nothing but happy with my family. It was a good family, and I'd learned enough of life, and seen just enough of other kinds of families by then, to realize, and internalize, that this was something special, this family of mine. I not only had parents who loved each other like crazy, and who loved my sister and I with an amazing ferocity, but I had a little sister who seemed to worship the ground I walked on, and who was fun to play with, and who I loved to distraction.
I had a pet gerbil. I had a parakeet. I had (of course) a poodle. I learned how to catch crawdads out of the creek with a piece of beef-jerky on a string. I brought crawdads (and all manner of other critters) home. One of these times, while my mom was trying to help me fix up a little tank for a crawdad I'd brought home, said crawdad proved itself to be, in fact, a crawMOM, and birthed about 8,042 babies in our bathroom sink. My mother calmly helped me to strain them out, one scoopful at a time, and liberate them all outside. One crawdad in captivity would have been OK for a while, I guess, but thousands was apparently testing the limits of even Mom's patience.
And one day, when Mom got home, she fixed dinner, as usual, and called Andrea and I to come and eat. Dad was working, so it was "just us girls" for dinner. We washed our hands, came in and sat down at the table, blessed our food and our family, and then looked at the fare before us. IT WAS THE GREATEST DINNER EVER! We had pigs-in-the-blanket, macaroni and cheese (SCORE! We hardly ever got Kraft mac & cheese, because Dad didn't like it...but we LOVED it), and extra biscuits. They were canned biscuits, which didn't hold a candle to my mom's homemade biscuits, but still, with grape jelly? Perfect way to finish off a meal. There were some Beanie-Weenies or some kind of baked beans there, too, but I didn't eat any form of bean back then, so I didn't pay any mind to those. Those were for Andrea, who was a Beanie-Weenie-Eater (only she picked out the weenies, which for some reason was hilarious to me, because she ASKED for Beanie-Weenies by name on grocery days, and she didn't like the WEENIES).
We dug in, Andrea and I smiling happily at each other and at Mom through mouthsful of this divine dinner. Before getting halfway through my pig-in-a-blanket, I grinned at my mom and said, "MOM. This dinner is GREAT. We should eat like this ALL THE TIME!"
It was at this point that my mother burst into tears and fled the room, leaving my sister and I staring at each other with huge bug-eyes.
It was not until years later that we talked about it and I was able to put together the whole story...and it's a story I've loved ever since. (For years, it was, "Hey, remember that time we complimented Mom's cooking and she busted out crying and ran out of the room?") And right now, when things are extremely tight for us--Alex and I--financially, and I'm wondering where all the money we need is going to come from, I find myself thinking back on those days. I'm sure that my parents were under even more financial strain then than Alex and I are now, but what hits home with me as I look back on those "belt-tightening" days is this: That those were some of the happiest days of my life.
Because they were filled, to the brim, with love.