Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Story: Chapter Three; Part One

Chapter Three: Part One

If you are still reading this, it means you made it through the most boring part of my life – who wants to read the memoir of someone’s infancy? I had to do it however, I wanted to offer brief glimpses into the personality of a couple of the people who will come and go throughout the entire monologue – my parents. Without delving too deeply into why Betty and Kenny acted the way they did, I have revealed just enough for the reader to understand they came from rather difficult backgrounds, having been children of the depression and all of that. Indeed, both of my parent’s childhoods were marked by instability along with elements of abuse, although I will bring that out later in the narrative. There is no telling of a life story without understanding the family or milieu one grew up in, for better or worse, the manner in which one was nurtured has its effects.

The pattern of instability in my dad’s life, losing the farm, the divorce of his parents, moving from apartment to apartment with his dad, continued into his adult life. Our family life took on an aspect of a traveler family, or perhaps more accurately, a fugitive’s lifestyle. I actually credit this sense of exile as a sort of foundation for my spiritual life, especially as I got older. I grew in the awareness that life on earth is indeed an exile and human beings are pilgrims upon earth, as the scriptures tell us. Hence, my sense of home was always more interiorized, because we had no permanent homestead, much less possessions of any value. Feeling the outsider was something I became acquainted with from an early age, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, except when a sense of shame causes it to seem so.

Our first apartment in the creepy mansion on Bates Ave. was upstairs on the 3rd floor. To get there one had to climb several turns and twists of staircase and narrow hallway, permeated with old cooking smells typical of canned food, escaping from transom windows. We were on a floor where the occupants of various apartments had to share the bathroom. In those days I guess it wasn’t so uncommon, although today it seems unimaginable. Just imagine yourself taking a bath in a tub other strangers used.

Years later, when we had to move into worse accommodations, I recall my mom crying as she cleaned the place, totally grossed out at the filth of the previous tenants, and even more despondent over the depth of poverty we had sunk to. I never remember any tears on Bates however. I’ve decided, since no one is here to contradict me, that with both parents working, there was enough income to maintain a certain comfort level. Actually, for my mom, she was happy if the house was immaculately clean, the cupboards and refrigerator were full of food, and we had beer. I should also mention that although my mother drank in those days, she wasn’t a heavy drinker then, only my dad was – he stopped after work only to return home drunk. It was kind of a workingman’s thing to do back then.

The very first thing mom did after we moved into Bates was sign the family up as parishioners at the Church of St. John on the eastside of St. Paul. Skip and Beth were immediately enrolled in the Catholic school, as they had been in New Richmond. To my mom’s credit, she insisted upon Catholic education for all of us, which I am sure contributed to our well being as we grew up. I of course wanted to go to school with Skip and Beth, but I was too young, although I remember going through their books to find holy cards and anything religious when they came home from school. Mom also contributed to the missions and sent offerings to various religious orders for Masses and prayers to be offered. These organizations often sent gifts, plastic statues and framed pictures, which were given to me for my altar. Thus, mom took care of our souls the very best way she knew how.

Eventually mom left her job at the motel and got a better one at Minnesota Mining, or 3M as it became known. She worked in a newly constructed modern office building on St. Paul’s eastside, a fact which for some reason impressed Skip and I very much. It was a glamour job in our eyes, mom dressed in very fashionable clothes, had her hair done regularly, and made a very good salary for the time – more than my dad earned. I can’t say for certain the circumstances of her leaving Lakes and Pines, although I suspect something may have been amiss.

Not with my mother, to be sure, but with my dad. About 6 or 7 years after they left employment at the motel, one April Fools day my sister played a trick on mom and dad that morning while they were yet asleep. In those days there was a number one could dial to have your own phone ring, which Beth did. As she answered the phone, she pretended the Comports were on the other end – they had been the owners of the motel. Beth covered the receiver just as my parents whispered, “Whoever it is, we are not home!” (I’ll bet that is where my habit of never answering the phone came from!)

Covering the receiver, Beth told them with a sense of urgency in her voice, “It’s the Comports! They want to talk to you right away!”

Well it hit the fan then, they leapt out of bed and my mom yelled at Beth that she specifically told her to tell them they were not at home. My dad was swearing and insisting he was not there and wouldn’t talk to anyone. It was chaos; finally, she grabbed the phone and said, “Hello?” The three of us kids broke out laughing and shouted “April Fools!” Unfortunately Skip and Beth and I were the only ones who thought that was funny – I don’t remember any hitting, but we were in trouble. Neither parent liked children’s humor very much.

I mention this because, knowing my sister Beth, she “knew” something as to why my parents left employment at the motel. (Of course, today she can barely remember living at the motel.) Looking back on how Kenny and Betty reacted to the pretend call from former employers they hadn’t spoken to in years; I’m convinced something happened at the motel they were covering up. I think my dad left employment first because mom discovered he had been dipping into the till. I should have mentioned that when they got into fights, mom invariably assaulted my dad’s character, by bringing up examples of dad’s dishonesty. One of the proofs for Betty Mae’s allegations had been the receipts she had saved from when they worked at the motel. (Obviously she had done her best to cover any discrepancy in the books.) Therefore, my theory isn’t such a leap. And my sister Beth, who was always such a quiet and well behaved girl, sweeter than candy, was actually kind of a stinker – which makes the whole story even funnier today.
As I write this phase of the story, my remembrance of the house on Bates evokes the backdrop of a recurrent dream I experienced as an adult. In the dream, I was sure to be on an upper floor of a very large old house, searching for something unknown. I would roam the floors of the house trying to look behind doors, peer into cupboards, looking under furniture for something, yet I never could find what I was searching for. As the dream progressed, I had a growing sense of foreboding about my search, afraid I would be discovered and accused of some crime. I sensed danger lurking in the house, not only as if it was haunted, but also as if someone, or something could leap out at me at any minute. Each dream sequence involved various stages of the search, yet every dream ended with my discovery of a trap door to the basement. I was never able to open the door, either because I was standing on it, or some other intrusion distracted me from doing so. Then I would usually wake up.

To be continued.

[Photo: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Blondel, Dina Merril, and Sue Randall - from the film, "Desk Set" - the photo depicts the type of glamour job we imagined my mom had.]


  1. I understand the feeling of exile.

  2. Your comment, "Hence, my sense of home was always more interiorized, because we had no permanent homestead, much less possessions of any value", brings to mind a quote from Thomas a Kempis: "Here we have no place of long abiding; wherever we are come, we are but strangers and pilgrims."

  3. My husband grew up in a military family. They moved a lot while he was growing up. They also had none of the sense of permanence and 'home' that I had. Their little family unit was the only permanence they had.


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