CHAPTER ONE: Part Two
That said, my second memory around the same period is of her lying at the bottom of the stairs in a navy blue satin robe with rose piping, whimpering. My dad had pushed her. That is all I remember however. My sister Beth has no recollection of the incident, although she does recall my father beating up my mother at that early stage of their marriage.
From what I can determine, the Nelson’s lived in New Richmond for about 6 years. Unfortunately, it remains a sketchy period for piecing together family history. What I can figure out – mostly from various accounts retold by family members now deceased - Kenny and Betty Mae moved to New Richmond soon after they married. However, they were surely seeing one another before my brother Skip was born, which means they were a couple when my mother worked as a black-jack dealer in Reno, while waiting for her divorce to be finalized. Although, I doubt my dad joined her there.
I know that Beth was sent to San Francisco to live with Nana and Bumpa during my mom’s sojourn in Nevada. And I believe my dad continued working as a shoe salesman at a department store in downtown St. Paul while mom was away. Skip was 3 years older than me; therefore the year of the divorce had to be 1946. This timeline makes more sense, since, soon after my mother’s return from Reno, Skip was born. According to my father’s account, he was present for Skip’s birth.
Though dad never adopted Skip, he often tried to prove his love for him by repeating the story of how he had been there for my mom during his difficult birth. (This was because, so the tale went, the rotten first husband had deserted her.) Dad also claimed to be responsible for naming my brother “Skip”. We all had been told this story over and over, until it became fact. Oddly enough, my brother was given the same name as his father, Robert, although mom insisted he had been named for her brother Robert – not his father. At any rate, the reason Skip was given that name should have been obvious, yet for our family, it became sort of a multiple choice answer, depending on the condition of my dad when he told the story. Thus, any of the following explanations might apply.
A) The birth was difficult but the strong baby boy “Skipped” into life.
B) He was such a little commander; he was just like a “Skipper” on a ship.
C) My dad didn’t name him and may not have been at the birth.
D) My mother and dad called him Skip so she wouldn’t have to call him “Bob” like his real dad.
E) Who knows – they lied about everything.
Okay, so at some point, maybe a few months after Skip was born, Betty and Kenny were married at the courthouse in downtown St. Paul. They and the wedding party then drove up the hill to the Cathedral to have their wedding photos shot there. I know this because they had a photo, just one photo. Of course, I don’t really know if they had simply posed on the steps of the Cathedral on another occasion, only to represent the same photo in later years as a wedding picture. Whatever the case, when I happened across the photo, my mom passed it off as from her wedding day. I suppose I was about 6 or 7 years old when I asked about the picture. I clearly recall asking her why she hadn’t been wearing a wedding dress, and she quietly explained it had been fashionable at the time to get married in a suit. (This would hold true during war time and in cases when the bride couldn’t afford a gown.)
Obviously impressed my parents had been married in such a grand church, I pressed mom for more details. I wanted to know where all the pictures from inside the Church were. She quickly stated the priest did not allow photos in the Church. (That was probably true for the time as well.) Excited about anything to do with the Catholic Church and sacraments, I eagerly asked if the Archbishop had married them. Suddenly, exasperated with my incessant questions, she grabbed the photo from me and shouted, “That’s it! I will not be brow beaten like this! Get outside!” Shortly after that, Beth explained to Skip and I how it came to be that she and my brother had a different dad. That day Beth taught us the definition of divorce and how it applied to mom. She did her best to explain why they could not be married in the Catholic Church, which meant they lied about the Cathedral wedding and had really married before a Justice of the Peace instead. Then looking at me, knowing how religious I was, she added that they were probably going to hell too, all because they got married outside of the Church. But I’m jumping way ahead here.
Back to New Richmond. Somehow, sometime, after the wedding, mums and dadums bought a house in that quiet, idyllic, unsuspecting little Wisconsin town. Dad had been hired by a plastics company there. From what I understand, he was in management, and worked in accounting. I was born in 1949, and baptized at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the town – my baptismal certificate is the only evidence I have that we really did live there. Unfortunately, anyone who could help me out with memories from the time as to what life was like for the Nelsons, have either died, or repressed their memories – which is pretty much what my sister has done. As I mentioned, what memories she does retain are all mixed up as far as the timeline of various events. Thus, to make a long, boring story short, I’ll cover that ground quickly with what I’m able to recall from the anecdotal evidence repeated to me throughout the years my parents were alive.
After I was born, my dad was soon drafted into the Army to serve in the Korean conflict – which began in 1950. In his tour of duty, he never saw combat, although he had been a medic stationed in Japan. I know my parents corresponded, but the letters have since been lost. Dad returned home and was reinstated to his position with the plastics firm. As mentioned, Beth recalls our parents fighting a lot, and by that time, dad had already escalated to physical abuse, behavior I thought relatively uncommon for newlyweds. Why he would get so angry that he physically abused my mother, I am unsure, but I have my theories.
From the moment of my birth, my Catholic, wanted-to-be-a-nun, guilt-ridden, neurotic mother decided I was a bastard in the eyes of the Church, since I was born “out of sacramental wedlock”. Naturally, that idea never sat too well with my dad, a born and raised Lutheran, who was sure to knock mom around every time she brought the subject up. (Which she seemed hell bent on repeating throughout my childhood, especially when she got angry with me or my dad.) As I said, I have no recollection of any violence at that time, except for the time my mom was lying at the bottom of the steps – in her silk robe. Turns out, that robe was a souvenir my dad brought back for her from Japan.
I suppose I ought to have mentioned that my mom and dad were party people, sort of Nick and Nora Charles types. Amongst their circle of friends were cocktail lounge lizards, a couple of close relatives who liked the night life, along with a few other shady characters. My dad was an excellent dancer; my mom was not, although what she lacked in dance floor grace, she made up for with her seductive charms. Dad danced with other women, mom flirted with other men. (No offense to be-spectacled women, but in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, I had the impression women who wore glasses were considered unattractive, therefore, as a child, I couldn’t imagine what men saw in her?) That said, I’m fairly certain Kenny and Betty’s social life became the main source of their problems, not simply because of mutual jealousy and insecurity, but because finances were strained as well. In a small town, although they didn’t have the night clubs they enjoyed in the city, Betty and Kenny were regulars at the local taverns, and adjusted quite well to the “common life”. In fact, I think they must have had starring roles as the down-to-earth, sophisticated city slickers who moved to the country to settle down.
As their social life gained momentum, so did the drinking, and as I hinted, the money was apparently running low. Soon my dad started appropriating funds from the company he worked for – to supplement their lifestyle and probably meet house payments. It wasn’t long before he got caught – it was a small town – everyone knew each other, and the Nelson’s were living the high life. I have no idea how he got caught, all I know is, he lost his job and went to jail. Neither do I know what happened at his trial, much less who his lawyer would have been. My dad was a charmer and must have presented very sincere, so it is not surprising the judge let him off with a suspended sentence. Of course we lost the house and moved back to St. Paul, Minnesota… and no one - except my mother, would ever again dare to bring the matter up.
Earlier I mentioned the verse from Psalm 50, "O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived." I hope you are beginning to see how that verse fits in with the story of my life. Although, as my story unfolds, I’ll explain how guilt had been perverted to become synonymous with shame. Guilt is about something we did, shame is about who and what we are. Yeah, guilt can be expiated… shame is far more destructive and debilitating.
End of Chapter One.
Note: This is a very rough draft, so expect some editorial changes. Photo: Nick and Nora Charles.