Usually every summer we traveled to a lake and stayed in a cabin for a week, but once my parents divorced, that wasn’t an option for us. Mom couldn’t afford that kind of vacation, but she came up with a plan that became a tradition for several years. She took us to Madison – 1 ½ hours away, and made a reservation at the Holiday Inn. Kids stayed free and there was an indoor swimming pool. Mom got her kind of vacation with kids – no cooking, no cleaning and lots of relaxing. We checked in and John and I immediately christened the beds with a little jumping and bouncing. We were so excited to be together for a couple of nights with the freedom of no responsibilities. John and I immediately got our suits on and we headed for the indoor swimming pool.
Mom was there the first time we swam. She watched us and smiled, delighting in our play. After that, John and I were on our own in the pool. She relaxed with a book in the hotel room and enjoyed her peace and quiet.
After swimming she took us to the mall across the street and told us we could pick out one thing that we could do as an activity in the room. I got my first cross-stitch piece. It was a beginner’s kit – a big orange owl – and I couldn’t wait to start on it. Mom showed me how to make each stitch and I became absorbed in the process. I loved art and the creative process. I don’t know what John got, but he was just as content. We bought cheese popcorn and decided that it was the number one snack after swimming.
The next day Mom slept in and John and I were in the pool by 8am. We loved to swim and wanted to get in as much as possible. I’m sure the physical exercise was especially good for John. We had lunch and put on our wet suits to go back to the pool. Then in the late afternoon, we relaxed with our popcorn, projects and watched TV. We didn’t even go out to eat. We brought the food in our room and ate together. It was an intimate and perfect vacation.
Back at home, John and I continued our routine of some play time together and some alone time. We had a very small neighborhood that was quite secluded, surrounded on two sides by 4-lane highways. The other two directions backed up to the Milwaukee River, and a few of the homes near the river had ponds in their backyards. There were 10 houses or less in the whole area. We had a 2-block road in front of our house that acted as a frontage road. Standing on that road and facing our house, we had one neighbor to the right. They were an older couple with a big Irish Setter that barked a lot. We communicated with them, but they didn’t have any kids, so we didn’t have a lot of interaction with them. To the left was the road that led to the other houses. The frontage road continued one more block and led to Marla’s house. She was an only child and about 3 years older than John. Once our siblings were gone, we saw more of Marla.
There was a family in our neighborhood that had 3 kids that were all younger than me. We didn’t enjoy being with them. They whined a lot and complained, and tried to take control over our toys. John and I did our best to be nice to them – he was better than I was. I would hide in my room when I saw them coming. There was nothing fun about the time I spent with them.
A woman Mom always referred to as “the artist” lived across the street and a couple of houses down. She was a single woman that seemed more like the odd aunt of someone’s family. Mom had us go there several times to deliver cookies or some other errand. I always hated it. She would tweak my nose to the point of pain while saying how cute I was. She grabbed my nose between her index and middle finger and twisted. She never did it to anyone else. She seemed to enjoy watching me wince with pain. We called her the artist because she drew a still life of Dad. It was an amateur charcoal drawing at best. Mom told me that she suspected Dad was having sex with her, which surprised me initially, but sounded true.
The “bachelors”, as Mom named them, lived directly across from our driveway. They were well-dressed and always friendly. They had beautiful trees in their yard, and their home seemed protected and cozy. I really liked their energy and secretly left them some fresh picked flowers on the first day of May in honor of Mayday (which our class was celebrating.) Mom told me later she thought they were a gay couple – but I never put that together. Naming them the bachelors kept me on the mindset that they were eligible for marriage with a woman some day. It didn’t matter to me. I liked having them as neighbors.
John loved being in nature and would sometimes disappear for hours, either exploring the ponds or the river. He also spent time with Pebe, who lived at the end of the dead end street in the biggest house on the block. (She was the one who took us to the horror movie.) She was a year or two older than John. I never saw her at school, on the bus or with anyone in her family. I think she was alone a lot. She never came to our house, but John would go and visit her. They had a big German Shepherd that lived in a cage in the backyard. There were stories about when they were cleaning up the cage and had the dog tied to a rope. The dog got loose and attacked the paperboy. I was terrified to even go near their house. I also felt really bad for the dog being locked up all the time. He was always in that cage barking at whoever came by. I went to her house once, and had no desire to return. It was not a comfortable place for me.
We always had our set chores to do every Saturday. Mom established that by the time I was 7 years old. My job was to clean one of the bathrooms – toilet, sink, shower, floors (swept and scrubbed), including scrubbing and drying the tile in the shower. It took me a good hour and was hard work for my little body. I would get up on Saturday morning and do it immediately so I could have the rest of my day to do whatever I wanted. The other kids wanted to watch cartoons, which hardly interested me. They were too predictable and violent for me to enjoy. I would watch my brothers and sister spend a lot of time and wasted energy procrastinating and arguing with Mom before they did their chores. I also wanted to ease the burden for my Mom. She didn’t need kids arguing with her with all that she had on her plate.
If I wasn’t playing with John, or doing my chores, I played with my own toys. I enjoyed the Barbie dolls my sister had left behind, my Barbie fashion show, (I bought another doll for it from my own fashion show earnings, so the little doll that came with it would have a friend) and my baby doll, Tabitha. She was my favorite. She had a soft body out of cloth with brilliant blue eyes that closed when you laid her down. She had short and curly brown hair, and since I couldn’t completely bathe her, I would wash her hair, face, hands and feet (since they were made of a harder material.) I only had a few clothes for her, but I would wash them by hand and hang them outside on the line to dry in the summer – just like Mom did with our clothes. I tried to sleep with her, but she would fall out of bed in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine how terrifying that was for her, so I made her a little bed on the floor with blankets next to me.
My siblings teased me about Tabitha – I’m not sure why, so I usually played with her in the privacy of my own bedroom. If they hadn’t, I might have taken her with me everywhere. But since I didn’t feel safe with them, I probably felt it wasn’t safe for her either. This proved to be true.
One day John grabbed Tabitha and got a hold of one of her arms. “No! I yelled and hung onto her for dear life. He continued to pull back, trying to get her away from me. “Give her to me!” I yelled, as if I were trying to rescue my actual child. He continued to pull and her arm tore off. I had Tabitha, and he was holding her arm. I was in shock. Tabitha was dead. My sweet baby felt no longer alive in my arms. The tears were uncontrollable. This was the first year it was with just Mom, John and I, and to lose Tabitha too was a big blow for my precious 9 year-old heart.
The shock on John’s face was genuine. He went from teaser to rescuer within seconds, and ran over to me. “It’s okay, Julie. I can fix her.”
“You can’t fix her.” I said quietly between sobs.
“No really. I can fix it. Just let me try.”
I knew he was trying hard to make amends, but I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want to give her to him.
Then he used his brilliant imagination and stepped into my world with Tabitha. “She can come into my hospital, and I can take her into surgery right now. The sooner the better, we have to operate right away. She just has a broken arm. I’m sure I can help her. She’ll have to go under, and you’ll have to stay out of the surgery while I work on her, though. Please let me help her.”
He was treating Tabitha like a real baby, and it made her come back to life. It seemed like the only logical thing to do, but it was incredibly hard to hand her over to him.
We had a sectional couch that curved around the corner of the room, which created a little space in the corner behind the couch. He made a little surgical unit there and put a sheet over the top so I couldn’t peer down on what he was doing. He let me stay near, but said I couldn’t be in there with the patient. I waited for what seemed like an hour on the couch.
He spent 10 or 15 minutes with a needle and thread putting Tabitha’s arm back on. When he came out, he said the surgery was successful, and she didn’t even cry. Tabitha seemed to be smiling, although something wasn’t quite right. Her arm was shorter, and was on backwards. Her hand was now turned the wrong way. John was only 10 – almost 11, and I knew he did his best. I was sad that she was no longer the same, but at least I still had her. He never took her from me again.
I had a diary that I got at Christmas time. I was too young to have a diary but I really wanted one because my sister got one the year before. It was a 5-year diary with a lock and a key. I wrote in it religiously for 2 years. But all that came out was “Today was a good day.” Or “Today was a bad day.” Once in awhile I would write, “Today I had a piano lesson. It was a very good day.” Or “Today was a very, very bad day.”
John once blurted out to me that my diary was pointless – I never wrote anything worthwhile in it.
“What?!” I yelled. “You read my diary?!”
“Yea, you just kept it in your mattress – it was such an obvious hiding place.” (Note to self – it’s my fault that he was able to find my diary and read it. What?)
He also had to find the key, which I kept hidden somewhere else. Either that or he picked the easy lock. It was a red flag warning me that John didn’t respect my privacy and wasn’t to be completely trusted.