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.]

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Story: Chapter Two, Part Three

Chapter Two: Part Three

Exiled from New Richmond, the family headed back for St. Paul. Our first place of lodging was The Lake and Pines, a motel located in an area that was not even a first tier suburb of the city at the time, although today it is part of the city of St. Paul. Actually, it was a classy motel for the period; I think it eventually became a Holiday Inn. I know, it was by no means the Ritz, but at least it wasn’t a fleabag motel.

In fact, the owners hired my parents as managers, allowing us to have a small apartment there. I remember very little about the accommodations, although I have vivid memories of one Christmas there when I received a realistic looking choo-choo- train, as I called it, but it was rubberized and the wheels didn’t move. I recall being very happy with the train yet disappointed it did not have moving parts or a track. I believe I was still young enough to ask about that without being misunderstood as a total ingrate. I distinctly recall thinking, “No wheels… doesn’t move… looks like choo-choo… not real choo-choo.” (I was a smart kid, huh.)

I also have memories of lying in my crib crying and my parents yelling at me to “shut the hell up” and saying things like – “Keep it up! Keep crying – and you’re never getting up again!” I wonder if most parents just let kids cry themselves to sleep from time to time like that. When my younger brother Tim was born, eleven years after me, many times he was treated the same way when he refused to go to sleep or had an earache. It wasn’t uncommon for Betty or Kenny to slap him until he stopped crying, or yelled so loudly, he would be too scared to continue crying. Therefore, I’m fairly certain I received the same type of treatment. Betty and Kenny could be rather impatient parents, but at least none of us died from shaken baby syndrome.

I never asked why we left the motel, although my mother retained an office position there, taking the city bus to and from the ‘country’ to keep her job. I remember my mom wore make-up and perfume, and dressed up for her job. I was taken along everyday and dropped off at day-care in a garden-center/nursery, called Seifert’s, across the road from the motel. I loved it there, and looked forward to taking the bus every morning with mom. I remember the bus driver being very nice to both of us, and often giving me treats. Because of the experience, I had decided I wanted to be a bus driver when I grew up. The driver liked that, and sometimes, after we left the city limits, he’d let me sit on his lap while he drove. At that early stage of my development, the bus driver had become an important person for me. By his kind, friendly demeanor, he left the memorable impression he liked both my mother and me. Each morning he seemed happy to see us and was always kind. As an adult, his example stands out for me as to why it is so crucial we show kindness to strangers, especially children, since many may not experience it at home.

While my mom continued to work at the motel, my dad found a job as a laborer at Lampland Lumber, a lumber yard on the outskirts of downtown St. Paul. We also moved into a huge, wooden, Victorian apartment building at 252 Bates Ave. in St. Paul, I recall the address being repeated to me so that I would never forget it – just in case “someone kidnaps you.” To this day I can remember the telephone number as well, Prospect 1- 5256. Without doubt, it was a very creepy building, I never heard anyone describe it as anything better than a tenement slum.
While we lived on Bates, I arrived at the age of reason, as well as the realization our family life was anything but happy.

End of Chapter Two

Thursday, February 21, 2008

My new patron saint...

Claude Newman

I first read about him on Fr. Blake's blog, and continued on Paul Priest's blog, and did more research and found detailed information on this site. The icon is by Br. Claude Lane of Mt. Angel Abbey.

Chronology of Claude Newman's life.

Fr. Robert O'Leary, SVD (1911-1984) seems to have condensed and slightly altered the circumstances leading to Claude's imprisonment, perhaps for the very simple reason that he wasn't perfectly certain just what all the facts were, or, since it was only 20 years after the events he relates in the radio recording he made of the story (1960's), many of those involved were still alive and kickin'. In the end, his main concern was Claude's miraculous conversion, which he did know about first hand. The trail is a bit cool now, 60 years after his execution. Claude Newman Chronology:

-1923- Dec.1, Claude Newman is born to Willie and Floretta Young Newman in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

-1928- Claude and his older brother are removed from their mother by Willie, who takes them to be raised by their grandmother, Ellen Newman, in Bovina, MS, east of Vicksburg.

-1930- 6-yearold Claude appears in the Federal census, living with his Grandmather in Warren County. They reside on the Ike Henry place.

-late 1930s- Claude spends time in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp)

-c.1939- Ellen Newman marries Sid Cook. Soon he becomes sexually abusive toward Ellen.

-c.1940-41- Claude works on Ceres Plantation in Bovina, owned by U. G. Flowers. Sid Cook was born and raised on this place. If Claude Newman has married, it was not registered in Warren Co. Perhaps he was married in another county, or parish of Louisiana. In any case, he is no longer with her by Dec. 19, 1942.

-1942- Dec.19, Egged on by dominant friend Elbert Harris, Claude lies in waiting in Sid Cook's house (Cook and Ellen Newman have separated). Shoots Sid as he enters. Takes his money, then flees to his Mother in Little Rock, AR., arriving on the 20th. First time she has seen him since he was five. She is now re-married to a man named Rogers, who finds Claude a job. Claude goes by the name 'Ralph'.

-1943- Claude has been apprehended, returned to Vicksburg, and makes a coerced confession on Jan. 13. Despite protests of Claude's lawyer Harry K. Murray, confession is admitted as evidence. He is found guilty by an all white jury. Is to die in the electric chair on May 14, 1943. Appeal to re-try the case is rejected by State Attorney General. Sid Cook's patron, U. G. Flowers, has too much influence. Jan.20, 1944 is given as new date for execution.

-1943-44- Probably sometime late in 1943, Claude puts on a miraculous medal, begins having visions of Mary. She encourages him to find a priest and become a Catholic. Fr. Robert O'Leary, SVD of St. Mary's for Colored, and Catholic County Doctor Augustine Podesta, minister to him.

-1944- Jan.16, Fr. O'Leary baptizes him 'Claude Jude' in jail, with Sr. Benna Henken, SSpS standing as his sponsor. Just before Claude is to be executed on Jan. 20*, a stay of execution of two weeks arrives. He is finally put to death on Feb.4, 1944. Claude has his favorite dessert, coconut pie, on the night before he dies. His body is taken the historic Black cemetery, Beulah, for burial. Some months later he appears, along with the Blessed Mother to a reprobate, who is himself seated on the electric chair. The man repents and is saved from eternal damnation-- at the very last moment.

-1945- Fr, O'Leary founds Immaculate Conception Parish (for Colored) in Clarksville, MS

-1960's- Fr. O'Leary records Claude Newman Story for radio broadcast.

-2001- Claude Newman Story appears on internet.

-2002- While looking for information on Cardinal Newman, Br. Claude Lane of Mount Angel Abbey, happens on the story.

-2003- In the early summer, Br. Claude is inspired to write the icon "Mary, the Teacher." Began the task of researching Claude Newman's life with initial help from Catholic Family News, and the researches of John Sharpe, Sr. of Phoenix.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Story: Chapter Two, Part two

Chapter Two: Part two

Although life must have been relatively happy while dad was away, it wasn’t exactly Sunnybrook Farm for mom. Grandma Eliason, my father’s mother, often came up from the cities to lend a helping hand to her new Catholic daughter-in-law. Granny’s name was Della, and she had been married to Oscar Nelson, my paternal grandfather – a gem of a man, an artist and a scholar. He came over on the boat as they say, from Sweden; his family settled in North Dakota where they established the beginnings of a rather prosperous farm, until the depression. I have no idea how he met Della, herself a first generation Norwegian, but they married and had four children; Hermann, my dad Ken, Viola, and Jim. They divorced after they lost the farm in the depression and moved to St. Paul. The boys finished high school and lived with their dad, and Aunt Viola finished school while living with Della.

Betty Mae despised Della, and Della supposedly hated my mom. Although later, while I was in grade school, when the rather fashionable Protestant matron came around, she usually seemed very respectful of my mother, if not afraid. I often noticed how grandma visibly bit her tongue, then her lips, with tears welling up in her beautiful hazel eyes, while mom berated her. Suddenly, her hands shaking as she grasped her handbag, she would be off, placing a slobbery kiss on my lips before she ran out the door.

I believe I mentioned that we kids found letters of my dad’s from Japan, some were love letters between Betty Mae and Kenny, and others were penned arguments between Kenny and his mom. Dad was kind of a mama’s boy – he idolized his mother. I don’t know if it was because the divorce was Oscar’s fault and she came off as the victim, or what. At any rate, he found himself in an awkward position, love for his mom and love for his wife. The first strike against my mom had been the fact she was Catholic and intended to raise me a Catholic. Della was furious that I was baptized in a Catholic church.

Though born and raised a Lutheran, Della remarried after the divorce, becoming the wife of “Daddy Ed” a Pentecostal tent preacher, with the reputation of being a lascivious man. Della played the tambourine at the prayer meetings, always wearing her characteristic v-bodice dresses, swinging and swaying to the music. Grandma Eliason was quite a beauty, and probably something of a draw for the men folk to come out to the revival meetings Ed conducted. I actually remember him – without hearing anything from anybody, he just came off creepy and mean to me. Betty Mae later claimed he had put the make on her, touching her breasts and other parts south. In mom’s eyes, that somehow made my grandmother a slut for marrying Daddy Ed.

At any rate, while dad was gone, granny often stopped by between gigs to check in on mom. Unbeknownst to Betty Mae, grandma had been writing to my dad claiming mom was cheating on him – I have no idea if it was true or not. The upshot of their correspondence led Della to take it upon herself to rescue me from my unfit mother. One day, while mom was coming out of the dime store downtown, ‘Della’s car screeched to a halt, almost driving up on the curb. With the engine still running, she jumped out of the car, lunged upon my mother and attempted to snatch me out of her arms. A huge struggle ensued, lots of screaming and tears, until a policeman came over and ordered granny back into the car and off she went. I was saved from being raised a Protestant!

Naturally, I have no recollection of the scene since I was no more than a year old, although it must have impressed me and contributed to my love of drama. Nevertheless, my recollection of the episode is limited to what my mother told everyone, over and over; when she attempted to convince her listeners my dad’s mother was insane. At the time mom was successful in getting a restraining order against Della and her preacher man husband. (He kind of looked like President Truman.) It wouldn’t be the last restraining order against Della, and mums liked them so much, she would come to have them served on others from time to time. She loved restraining orders as a form of punishment – better put, harassment - against people she wasn’t fond of. They were easier to obtain than say, commitment papers, arrest warrants, reform school admissions, what have you. Mom reserved these threats to be used against immediate family members only and then just for special occasions.
I expect many of the fights which ensued between Kenny and Betty Mae upon his return from Japan, may have centered on the tumultuous relationship with her mother-in-law. I’m sure there were many stories about mom that grandma had written to my dad, needing clarification. Obviously mom was successful in convincing my dad that grandma was a liar. No doubt the “grandpa’s hands” story may have convinced dad to renew the restraining order against the Eliason’s. Although that may have cut some of the funding grandma supplied dad – she had always been good for a loan. That lost resource may have been another motive for dad embezzling funds at work.

To be continued.
(I'm doing shorter segments per post.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Story: Chapter Two: Part One

Chapter Two: Part One (Sorry, graphic language.)

Leaving New Richmond was very difficult for my mother. Life in a small town was not at all about night-clubbing and partying, I’m convinced this period represented a new beginning for her. My dad had more than a good job; he had a position, a career full of potential. They owned a house – the last house we ever owned. My mother had her gardens, which Beth, Skip and I helped her to tend.
In fact, when she was dying, before anyone knew she had incurable cancer, she asked my dad to call me to let me know she was in hospital. She told him to be sure and tell me she had been thinking about how we gardened together and how I invited everyone to come and “smell all the ‘putty pews’” – my words for pretty flowers. Dad called me and told me that over the phone. Oddly, her reminiscence had been my signal she was dying, and before leaving work to visit her in the hospital, I called my friend Fr. Gerry to set up a time for him to come to hear her confession. I surprised her at how quickly I showed up at her bedside.

“You didn’t have to rush over here, I just wanted your father to let you know I had fallen and they are doing tests. The doctors were just here. I’m glad you came though.” She said, clasping my hand.

“When dad said you brought up the ‘petty pews’ I knew it was serious. You’re going to die aren’t you.” I stated that so matter of fact, I startled the two of us. It almost took my mom’s breath away, prompting her to reply with stunned surprise.

“How did you know that? Have you spoken with the doctors? You saw them before you came in here! Don’t tell your dad yet, I want to tell him when it’s time. He won’t be happy about this; I’m scared I’ll get beat up for it.”

She kind of shrugged her shoulders with a giggle, and then we both laughed, not that it was so funny, it was simply the absurdity of the situation; my dad angry because she was dying and taking it out on her – nothing ever changes. I then explained that when she mentioned how we used to garden it was like a clarion call to me that she was dying. I had no idea she had been sick since the previous Christmas, nor had I talked to her until that July day. No doubt, God or our angels had a hand in our silent communication; however, I think it was mostly based in nature, the bond between a mother and her son. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself – the story of her death is an entire chapter to itself.

Throughout my childhood, mom loved to recall life in New Richmond, once again providing evidence it was the happiest time of her life. She loved our dog Hermann, the big Labrador who had been a babysitter for all of us until my sister was old enough to supervise even him. Hermann went with us to play at the park across the street. He took us to Mass and was so well behaved; the ushers allowed him lay beneath our pew at the back of the church. Mom and dad never attended Mass, so Hermann accompanied us, with Beth, who had already made her First Communion. The church wasn’t far from the house, a mere two blocks down the street.

In a special way, Hermann was most especially my dog, since he never left my side, although he also knew I was his meal ticket. We used to hide in the cupboard under the sink and take naps – after we ate our dog biscuits. Mom loved to repeat the story, “Terry and Hermann would be under the sink, with the doors closed and you could hear Terry, ‘One for Hermie, and one for Terry’ until they had their fill of biscuits and fell asleep. When I’d open the door Terry would be lying on the dog, with his thumb in his mouth and holding the tip of Hermann’s tail in his ear.” That memory delighted her for the rest of her life.

I think mom found a certain bliss after my dad went into the Army, she was alone with the three of us, and she settled into domesticity. I’m quite sure she attended Mass each Sunday with all of us, and knowing her piety, she must have prayed numerous novenas for my dad and for all of us kids. Something also tells me she consecrated all of us to the Immaculate Conception at the time, which may account for my particular devotion. I’m quite sure she would have requested nuns she had known from her school days with the Notre Dames, to pray for us as well. (There must be some reason that my brothers and sister turned out as well as we did.) Her devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux had been intense all of her life, and when I was born, she named me after her – not the name Therese of course, but Terrance, with the nick name of Terry. Several years later I had lamented my lack of a patron saint, and nagged mom to tell me who mine was. Short fused as she was, she slammed the lid down on a pan and shouted, “St. Teresa!”

“Which one? Which one?” I asked eagerly.

“Jesus Christ! THE LITTLE ONE! Are you happy now?” She was going way over the top, and I knew I better leave her alone.

Indeed I was happy though, Therese had been a favorite saint of mine even back then in 2nd grade, and I immediately adopted her as my godmother. Looking back upon the incident, I’m fairly convinced my mom’s ‘high anxiety’ was not only related to her neurotic guilt about her spiritual state, but she may have been concerned about gender issues.

While my dad was in Japan, she never cut my hair while I was growing up. No, she was not trying to make me a little girl; she just loved my hair – which strikes me as very funny today. “Ooooo! Love the hair!” Anyway – it was special – it was almost white blonde and wavy. Don’t worry; I’m a male, and I have always been duly embarrassed by photos from that time. Thank God when dad returned from the service, he immediately took me to a barber and had it all cut off, telling my mom, “He looks like a God damned little girl.”

End of 1st part of chapter two. 1st rough draft.
(Photo credit: Little Shirley Temple. LOL!)