Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I walked to school on my own in the 4th grade. My brother was in the middle school (6th grade) and we were just out of the two-mile radius in order to get the bus to pick us up for either school. So he walked in the opposite direction to his school, and I walked to mine. As a 10-year old, I took a short cut through the woods, crossed the main street without crossing guards, and fought the occasional thoughts of fear that a stranger might see me and take advantage of the situation. If it was raining or really cold, Mom would leave earlier and give us a ride to school before she went into work. She didn’t pick us up from school because she had to work until 5:00pm. She told us that if she took too much time off, she would lose her job. On days that we were home sick, she would check on us before going work, stop home during her lunch break, and then we would be on our own until she got home after 5:00pm. It was a stressful load for Mom, but she rarely complained. At least she didn’t complain to us.
It was hard being home sick by myself as a child. At least in school you had people around you. There was no incentive for me to play hooky, or stay home if I was feeling a little off. If it was the flu and I couldn’t get out of bed, I’d be home. Otherwise, I’d rather get through the day not feeling well at school, then be home by myself.
Mom decided that she wanted to get back to socializing and meeting more people, so she planned an open house/Christmas party, and invited the people she knew from work. I helped her with the homemade invitations and preparing games to play. She really knew how to engage her company with great appetizers, drinks and games.
I was a little nervous about a group of grownups that I didn’t’ know coming over to the house that I was barely used to, but Mom was so excited, it was contagious. She picked characters from books, movies and TV shows for each of the guests that said they were coming. Jessie James, Bugs Bunny, Dorothy from the Wizard Oz (I think that’s the name John and I picked for Mom) were some of the names that we wrote on little slips of paper. We pinned them to the backs of the guests and as they mingled around, then they would try to guess who their character was by asking yes and no questions. I became curious to see who the people were going to be that matched these names.
30 minutes before the guests were told to arrive, the doorbell rang. Mom answered the door and said, “Al! You’re early! Come on in….”
I never knew anyone to show up so early to a party. He walked in and I was immediately intrigued. There was something special about this man. He was somewhat short, about 5’ 8 – 10” tall, had dark hair, dark eyes that closed up when he smiled, and a gentle spirit. He looked to be about my Mom’s age, maybe a little younger, although at 10 years old, it was hard for me to judge the age of grownups.. He was really happy to be at our house and was willing to help Mom with anything that needed to be done. I couldn’t help but be very curious about him. There was almost something familiar – something comfortable - about being with him.
I whispered loudly to Mom, “What name does he get?” I was eager to see who he was.
Mom explained the game to him, and whispered very quietly in my ear, “Jessie James.”
It added a little more mystique to this man that intrigued me, but I didn’t know why.
Eventually more guests showed up and the small townhouse was full of people, all holding drinks in their hands and talking loudly. I watched as they played their guessing game, trying to figure out who they were. I could tell who loved playing the game, and who was frustrated and couldn’t get it over with fast enough. I think one person went into the bathroom so they could read their name in the mirror since they couldn’t get anyone to tell them who they were. Some people were patient and just played along for fun, some were extremely competitive, and some had no imagination at all. I can’t remember how long it took Jessie James to figure out his name, but I knew liked him and was happy he was there. I also noticed that he was the very last to leave.
“I think he likes you Mom.”
“Al? Why would you think that?”
“Because he came 30 minutes early and was the last to leave. Also, he couldn’t stop staring at you, and was really happy to be here.”
“Hmmmm. He is good looking.”
I watched as her thoughts started evaluating if she liked the idea or not.
It wasn’t long after that when Al asked her out on a date.
“Told you so,” I said.
Little did we know, he was going to become my stepfather.
I started meeting new friends of my own. There were two sisters that lived 4 or 5 houses down the street. I guessed that one was a year younger than me and her sister was 2 or 3 years younger than me. They were very sweet girls, and I enjoyed being with them. They would show up at my house and we would play outside. For some reason they never invited me down to their house. After a few weeks, they stopped coming over. I really missed them and wondered what happened. I walked past their house several times until I finally saw one outside on her driveway. She started to run away from me and headed for the back of her house. “Wait!” I cried. “Why won’t you play with me anymore?” She looked quickly at the house, made sure no one was watching her and said, “My dad said I can’t play with you anymore because your mom’s a divorcee.” Then she ran inside in fear, just because she spoke to me.
I was crushed and confused. I could tell that she was sad that our relationship was cut off, but I still didn’t understand why. What was a divorcee? And why would he be calling my mom names?
That night at dinner I asked Mom about the term. When she told me it meant that she was a single woman who got a divorce, I was dumbfounded by the ignorance of the man who said his daughters couldn’t play with me. Mom explained that people had judgments and beliefs about single divorced woman that they weren’t good people. Had they known us when the whole family was together, it would have been much more dysfunctional (and possibly dangerous) to play at my house. But with just the 3 of us, it was so much more loving and peaceful. It hurt my heart to think I was missing out on a really good friend because of poor judgment and misconceptions.
I saw her again in her driveway one day and didn’t say a word. I was sad to lose a friend I was enjoying, but wasn’t going to push it. There was no way she was going to disobey her dad, and I wasn’t going to prove in any way that I might be a problem child. It was a loss for both of us.
John was in the middle school and he was getting poor grades and getting in trouble with the teachers. Most of the reports were that he was disruptive in class and wouldn’t pay attention. Our bedrooms were right next to each other, and my headboard was against the wall that divided us. I would hear Mom talk with John at night for a long time, wishing she would spend at least half that amount of time with me. I would fall asleep to the drone of their indistinguishable words.
John was still inventive with games and play on the weekends. Neither of us had made any friends that came over to play, so we relied on each other for entertainment. We had a second story in this new living situation, and the carpeted stairs became one of the settings for one of our favorite games.
“Julie!” John yelled from the stairs one Saturday morning when Mom went grocery shopping. “Come here!”
He was joyfully collecting the pillows and cushions from the couch and carrying them up the stairs.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m building a barricade. You want to help me? It’s really fun!”
He grabbed more pillows and brought them to the top of the stairs. I followed him and got more pillows from our bedrooms. Then he started building a wall, first with the cushions and then piling the pillows around them. (I paid close attention so I could help him build it the next time.)
“Now,” he said excitedly, “we crash through the wall and roll down the stairs. You’ll see….it’s fun!”
I looked at him, the barricade and the steps. I was dubious about this game. It looked a bit risky. “It’s fine,” he assured me. “I’ve done it before and it’s really fun. Do you want me to go first and show you?”
“Yes!” I answered, happy with the option to witness a test run before I committed to it.
“Okay, move back a little.”
I scooted back on the top of the landing and watched him gather his bravery. (I could tell it was a little scary for him too.)
“Ready?” He said, buying himself a little more time.
“Okay. Here I go…one, two, THREE!!”
He crashed through the barricade and tumbled forwarded, pillows and cushions cascading and tumbling all the way down with him.
He landed at the bottom where the stairs met a wall, and yelled, “That was fun! Let’s do it together this time.”
It really did look like fun, and I agreed to go with him on the next run.
We methodically and excitedly built the barricade together. When it was ready, we both got down on our knees behind the barricade and made sure we were close together so there was room for both of us.
“Let’s hold hands.”
The offer to hold his hand the first time I was going to do this was comforting and I immediately took his hand. He looked at me with his eyes sparkling. "Ready?"
"Ready!" I replied.
He counted to three and yelled, “Avalanche!!!!” as we both fell forward, holding hands, crashing through the wall of cushions and pillows. We tossed and tumbled all the way down the stairs. At some point our hands let go of each other. It was a rough and amazing ride. We crash landed at the bottom of the stairs, not knowing what direction we were facing, moaning and groaning about what we hit the hardest. Once we laid there for a minute or so, we’d got up and John said, “Let’s do it again!” We eagerly limped and crawled back up the steps with our hands full of as many pillows as we could manage, and build the wall for our next tumble. Looking back on it, holding hands probably kept us closer together and gave us less room to accidentally kick and punch each other on the way down. When I think about the collisions we did have with each other, I’m convinced we had angels protecting us. I don’t know how we ever got through all of the many times we played ‘Avalanche’ over the next couple of years without breaking anything – especially our necks!