The Mysterious Connection Between Sex and Bowling

bowl sexMy Irish Catholic parents were not people who talked about sex. Ever. My four siblings, as far as I know, had to learn about sex the old-fashioned way–on the streets. My brother told me once that, after he had already been “to the street,” my father took him out for a walk. This alone signaled Important Doings, because my father was not big on walking. The city mailbox was less than one block from our home, and my father used to drive there. Once my dad and Johnnie embarked on this unusual father-son walk, Johnnie could see that my dad was trying to move the conversation in a certain direction. It never happened. Apparently my dad “ran up” on the subject a few times, and then aborted the mission. This unsuccessful attempt at a father-son talk was not exceptional for the times. At least in Irish Catholic families, sex simply wasn’t discussed. Ever. (Even such reticence was a step ahead of the previous generation. When my mother was a child, a boy in her class at Our Lady of Peace School told her what turned out to be the correct facts about how babies are made. Appalled, my mother ran home from school and told her mother what she had learned. Without missing a beat, Mommy Mayme replied, “That’s a dirty lie.” I have no idea when my mother realized that indeed it was not a lie but a Beautiful Truth.

By the time I started in the direction of puberty in the late 1960’s, parents were encouraged—even admonished—to tell their children about sex; learning about it on the streets was no longer acceptable. The sixth grade teachers at Christ King School must have, at some point, informed our parents that we would be talking about sex in Religion class and to be prepared for questions. I think this must be so because one day out of the blue my mother asked me to bring my Religion Textbook home with me. She wanted to look at it. This was an unprecedented and surprising request. Until that moment, I had no real sense that my parents even knew exactly what classes I was taking, much less what books we were reading. Nonetheless, I dutifully complied.

My mother took the textbook from me and took a quick glance at the Table of Contents, then turned to a specific page and read something there. Then she closed the book and handed it back to me, saying “Well, that’s fine.” Deeply intrigued and ever on the alert for Odd Parental Behavior, I noted as best I could where in the book she had looked, and as soon as I had the book back in my possession, I went there.

I found the pertinent paragraphs. It was a section of our book we had not read yet, and it was called God, Sex and You. It was mystifying. Our author started out by telling us that sex is Very Beautiful. Then he said that sex is like a fire. If I put logs into my fireplace and light them on fire, they give the room a lovely glow and lend warmth to all who are gathered. That is, the author pointed out, a Good Fire. A Bad Fire is when, instead of putting logs in the fireplace and lighting a match, I set fire to my whole house.  Such a fire rages out of control quickly and destroys everything in its path. That, the author pointed out, is a Bad Fire. He concluded by saying that sex should always be like the Good Fire and not like the Bad Fire.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and why anyone thought he needed to tell me not to set my own house on fire. I may not have been an “A” student at the time, but I knew not to do that. I didn’t pursue the matter further, though; by that time, I was resigned to the basic strangeness of all adults whenever the word “sex” was spoken.

By the time we actually arrived at this part of the textbook in Religion class, I had a sex5better—though by no means clear—idea of what they were getting at, because my mother had done her maternal duty and taken me to a movie at Christ King School about the Facts of Life.

I do not know the name or provenance of the movie they showed; all sixth grade parents were encouraged to attend along with their child. There were actually two movies, because the boys and their parents were sent to the “big gym” and the girls and their parents were directed to the “small gym.” My father did not go with us, so it was just my mother and me taking our seats while one of the sixth grade teachers welcomed us. I don’t know if the boys and the girls were shown the same film, but I doubt it. Our film involved a lot of information that I realize, in retrospect, would never have been deemed suitable for the boys.

I have only very dim memories of the film, but three things stayed with me: first, it opened with scenes from the Garden of Eden; we saw Adam and Eve looking happy and healthy, and then God pointing out a few trees that were Strictly Off Limits, and then the snake showed up and things spiraled downward from there. It was a familiar story. The one scene from this part of the film that I remember vividly was the moment when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. There they stood, with their hair and/or hands strategically covering their private parts, looking extremely sad. Behind them a very angry angel glared in their direction and slid a golden spear through the handles of the Gates of Paradise, shutting them out for good.

Having heard this story many times, both at Christ King School and at mass, I admit that my mind started to wander at this point. We had had to leave the house immediately after dinner to make it to the film on time, and so dessert had not been served. I knew there was some butter pecan ice cream in the freezer and some Hershey’s Syrup in the fridge. I was musing on this pleasant prospect when I realized that the film had exited Genesis and was now showing scenes of Typical Young People Doing Fun Young People Things. I was not a typical young person, though I often longed to be, and my ideas of fun almost never meshed with what other young people did, so whenever I was offered a peek into scenes from a typical life, I soaked them up with the passion of an anthropologist.

bowling2The Typical Fun Girls in this movie were, at first, having milkshakes together at an ice cream store (very nearly derailing my focus back to that butter pecan ice cream awaiting me at home), and then they all went bowling together. Over the pictures of these smiling, happy young women, the narrator intoned the information that “something was going to happen to me.” Soon. Now they had my attention. What was going to happen to me?

I am pretty sure I paid close attention at that point but I surely must have missed some crucial bit of information, because now the narrator was telling us that as a result of this thing that was going to happen, there would be times during the month when I would feel lethargic and even cranky. At those times, I would not want to go bowling with the gang. However, the narrator encouraged me, I should go bowling nonetheless; it was very important that I bowl, no matter how I felt.

This seemed to me to be a very badly made movie. I had no idea why we moved from Adam and Eve to this bowling scenario. We were still years away from Rotten Tomatoes back in 1969, but this film would have scored abysmally on my Tomatometer. After the exhortation about bowling, there were some diagrams of what looked like part of the engine of my father’s car—tubes and knobs and a central joining-up place—that the narrator said was my Female Reproductive System. He went on to say that God was amazing, because He had thought so far into my future that I already had all my eggs. “Just think of it!” said the Narrator. “Right now, this very day, you have all of your eggs already in your body!”

I cannot adequately describe how confused I was by this. All my eggs already inside me? I thought. But I eat eggs. Eggs that are clearly outside me and then I eat them and only then are they inside me. They are never “already there.” Should I not be eating extra eggs, since I already have the eggs I need right there inside me? Before I could ponder this weird Narrator Side Trip, however, the lights came up. The movie was over.

On the way home from Christ King School that night, my mother asked me if I understood the film. “Yes,” I replied honestly. I thought I did understand it; I just didn’t think it was very good. I hadn’t been asked for an evaluation, so I didn’t tell her that I had found the movie confusing and not at all well-made. Genesis? Bowling? Eggs? Then my mother asked if I had any questions. I could tell that she hoped that I didn’t, so I did not ask any, but I certainly had some. For starters, I had only been bowling once in my life, and I hated it. I was also terrible at it. Why was it now important that I embrace bowling with my friends? And why was bowling important only at certain times of the month, when I was cranky and out of sorts? Why did we go to school at night just to brush up on the well-known facts of Genesis? And what was the mysterious thing that was going to happen to me? And what was the deal with the eggs?

A few months after the Really Bad Movie about Adam and Eve, Bowling, and Eggs, I read an article in the Milwaukee Journal about a sexual assault. I didn’t know what the phrase “sexual assault” meant, so I asked my mother. She said it was an assault having to do with sex. Well, that was not at all helpful, so I asked her what “sex” was. My brother Johnnie was in the room during this conversation, and he began to chuckle. That was my clue that something was up; I had a clear vibe that information was being withheld.

My mother said that “sex” meant the female sex was a girl and the male sex was a boy. Johnnie’s chuckling intensified, and he said to my mother, “Good one.” Now I was really hot on the scent. They were both holding out on me. At that moment, my mother decided it was time to start making dinner, so she left for the kitchen to assemble grilled cheese sandwiches. I followed her.

I was a child flawed in many ways, but I had some strengths. One of them was doggednss. There was unstated information between Johnnie and my mom, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I stood sentinel at the cutting board while my mother methodically placed slices of Kraft American Cheese on individual slices of bread and topped them with tomato, green pepper and onions. I pushed and pushed for the information I wasn’t getting, and finally my mother erupted with, “Ok! Sex is what happens when the penis is inserted into the vagina!” As my mother continued slapping sandwiches together, I felt as if actual dawn were breaking over my consciousness; it was one of the few moments in my life when I felt literally enlightened. “That’s why husbands and wives sleep in the same bed!” I crowed. My mother agreed that yes, that was so, but even then I could see that she thought it an odd response.  She must also have been confused as to why this was such news to me; after all, she had done her due diligence: she taken me to the film at school and she had even asked if I had had any questions.

At some point I made the connection between my mother’s startling fact about intercourse and that time of the month when I would feel cranky and out of sorts. Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was eager for that part of puberty to begin. Everyone told me that it would mark the beginning of My Life as a Woman, and I was ready. Childhood had not held many charms for me, and I was ready to move on.

I kept careful watch for what my mother told me was called “My Period.” No one told me that when that rite of passage was on the near horizon, my body would change in some other startling ways. Thus it was an unhappy surprise when I went to bed one night and realized that my chest has taken on a disturbing life of its own. I didn’t have breasts, but out of nowhere my nipples were starting to swell up. That can’t be good, I thought to myself, and figured I just might be getting cancer. The thought of asking my mother any more questions in this area was not appealing, so I took matters into my own hands, and tried to pop them with a safety pin.

That did not go well. In fact, it hurt. A lot. Still not in the mood to approach my mother, I told my sister Susan I might be dying, and showed her my chest. Susan studied my chest sagely, then said, “You don’t have cancer. And stop stabbing yourself in the chest. It’s weird. It’s all just part of the whole thing that happens when you get your period. And you can’t stop it.”

I asked her if she had already “become a woman.”  “Oh yeah,” she said. “For a few years now.” This was fascinating information for me, as I shared a room with Susan and thought I knew all of her secrets. “Did you know all the facts of life when it happened?” I asked her. “Oh no,” she said casually. “It just came one night when Mom and Dad were out. I thought I was dying of cancer. But I wasn’t. Mom explained when she got home. Then she washed my pajamas.”

Not too long after that conversation, my period arrived. I was so happy. I was a woman. I told my mother and showed her the tiny stain in my underpants. She was prepared, and brought me into her bedroom, opened her chest of drawers, and pulled out a box. In the box were padded things, which she then pinned to a belt she also took out of the box. This was a “sanitary napkin.” I had never seen anything like it. She showed me how to put the belt on, how to pin the pad to the belt, how to pull my underpants up and over this bulky new situation in my swimsuit area. While I was thrilled to be a woman, I found all of these mechanics distasteful and embarrassing. My mother showed me how to wrap a used pad in lots of toilet paper and dispose of it in the wastebasket.

I was not a fan of the mechanics of Becoming a Woman, and by this time, I was eager for the conversation to end. I had no idea how I was expected to live my normal life and still deal with this belt and pin and pad and toilet paper chores. I found out that, in fact, there were now going to be days when I would not be able to go swimming or take a bath. The filmmakers who had been so obsessed with my bowling commitments might have at least mentioned this, I thought.  I actually liked swimming and I loved baths. So far I was hearing nothing pleasant about this great moment when I Became a Woman.

And then I heard some magical words. “When you are at this time of the month,” my mother told me, “You aren’t expected to participate in gym class.” Now there was some good news. I despised gym class for many good reasons. “How do I get out of it? I asked her. “Tell the gym teacher at the start of class that you are having your time of the month,” she told me. I can do that, I thought. I can definitely do that. This news almost offset the creepy parts with the belt and the pins and the no swimming rule.

At my very first opportunity, I told Mr. Landisch, our gym teacher, that I could not participate in gym class because it was my time of the month. Instantly uncomfortable, he nodded and mumbled something and hurried off, clipboard in hand. It was as if I had been given a magical incantation. While my classmates climbed ropes and raced each other on tiny little scooters and picked teams for indoor soccer, I happily sat on the sidelines with my book. As time went on, of course, I could not resist using my Get Out of Gym Free card even when it wasn’t officially required. After a few months of that, though, even Mr. Landisch was not fooled. I used my card one morning, but on that particular day, he bellowed at me across the entire gym, “Maloney, you’ve had your period three weeks in a row!” That was the end of that; I knew I could only use my ironclad excuse once a month. It was still better than nothing.

And as for bowling—I didn’t bowl again for at least twenty years. I was still terrible at it. But I felt just fine.

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“Who Ate All The…?”

vintage-mom-shoppingFor most of my childhood, my mother went to the grocery store once a week, on Friday. My father was the breadwinner, and each week he gave my mother an “allowance” for all household expenses. On Friday morning, my father would tuck a check into the corner of the mirror that rested on top of her dresser and on Friday afternoon, my mother would go grocery shopping. Whatever my mother bought on Friday was our food for the week.

Typically, we ate the same things for dinner from week to week, a steady routine of spaghetti, meat loaf, pot roast, baked chicken, minute steak, porcupines (ground beef rolled in minute rice and cooked in tomato soup), English Muffin pizzas, roast beef or roast pork on Sundays, ham, and hamburger patties with a strip of bacon wrapped around them. Our milk came every day from the milkman (we consumed vast quantities of milk) and my mother bought bread every other day from the bakery across the street (we also ate a great deal of bread.)  When my mother went to Kohl’s Food Store on Fridays, she bought the ingredients for the week’s meals and a few treats for the family: some cookies, a box of Kohl’s Brand potato chips and six cans of pop. That’s six cans of pop for five children—for a week.

My dad had discovered a Great Deal on pop, at a bottling plant called American Beverage amer-sodaCompany; there, he could buy pop by the case—glass bottles of pop in wooden crates that he could then return for the deposit. My father loved nothing better than a bargain. He was known to drive from Wisconsin to Indiana to get a good deal on cigarettes, and until the 1980’s he drove to Chicago to buy alcohol at a place called Twins Liquors; bourbon was the family Drink of Choice and Twins had a house brand that was not as expensive as the pricier brand name bourbons. He also knew of a shoe store in Chicago that had nice shoes for cheap and he went there for years, bringing both of my amer2brothers. He was thrilled by the low price of American Soda; he didn’t drink pop himself, which explains a great deal. Strange as American Soda often tasted, though, it was plentiful and cheap, and much, much better than tap water.

The generic pop supply was steady but the name brand pop disappeared quickly. My eldest sister Marbeth loved Real Coke so much that she started to buy and keep her own supply in her bedroom closet. Woe to anyone who dipped into that private cache of Coke. Marbeth also bought her own lemon drops and artfully displayed them  in a glass jar on her desk; when my sister Susan and I were feeling particularly bold, we would dash into Marbeth’s room (as the eldest, she alone had her own room), snatch two lemon drops from her jar, and run for our lives.

Shortly after we moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had my new friend Ellen over to play. Ellen came from a calm family, the sort of family who never fought—or even disagreed, as far as I could tell. Her house always felt like a museum; her mother had an extensive doll collection housed in glass cases, and every room was perfectly organized and arranged, like a slightly dusty model home.

football-3On the first day Ellen came over to my house to play—a Sunday—the Chicago Bears were playing the Green Bay Packers on television. We were all pretty new to Wisconsin and so were collectively experiencing some significant homesickness. (The first time my mother saw downtown Milwaukee, she turned to my father, said “This is IT?” and burst into tears.) My father and brothers still identified with the Bears, of course, and despised Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. No doubt feeling festive about the football game, and not all that interested in having an American Soda Company version of “Coke,” my brother Johnnie had “borrowed” one of Marbeth’s Cokes from her closet.

Ellen and I had been playing—calmly–for about fifteen minutes when either the Chicago Bears did something regrettable or Bart Starr did something good. Whatever it was, my father and brothers started screaming wildly at the television set and pounding their fists on the living room floor. I was unfazed, as this was just another Sunday afternoon for me, but Ellen was instantly terrified and wanted to go home. My sister Susan and I managed to calm her down; after some minutes had passed, she was even smiling (albeit a bit tremulously). That was when my sister Marbeth ran past us, a screaming blur of rage wielding a baseball bat; she was hunting down my brother Johnnie and the Purloined Coke. That did it. Ellen was out the door and back at her house well before Marbeth caught up with Johnnie. From that day forward, Ellen always offered her house as our playdate destination, which was fine with me, since her mother was generous with offers of Name Brand Cookies and Choo Choo Cherry drinks.

Food, then, was a bit of an “issue” in our household of seven, and no food item was more controversial than cookies. Every Friday, my mother bought two packages of cookies for the week. Inevitably, one of the two packages would be a complete waste of sugar and salerno-butter-cookiesshelf space. I never understood the reason why Salerno Butter Cookies even existed, much less why they absorbed any part of my mother’s meager Cookie Budget. The butter industry should have sued Salerno for using the name “butter”; at the very least, they should have called them Salerno “Butter” Cookies–And By “Butter” We Mean “The Paper That Butter Comes Wrapped In.”

Another anti-cookie pretending to be an actual cookie was the Nabisco Sugar Wafer These were thin strips of what tasted like very thin balsa wood held together by sawdust and microscopic bits of icing. Just looking at Sugar Wafers was enough to fill my mouth with dust. Then there were the truly execrable Coconut Bars, which could only have been produced and sold by someone who hated cookies, children and the entire Baked Goods Industry. I was a child who would eat just about anything if there was sugar in it, but even I was known to turn my nose up at Coconut Bars, which tasted like someone had collected the hair out of all the combs in the house, mixed it with flour, toasted and baked it. coconut-barsFinally, there were Pecan Sandies, a favorite summer time cookie for my mother. She bought Pecan Sandies so that when we went to the beach we could eat something whose taste wouldn’t be altered by being covered in sand. I am not making this up.

In addition to the Essentially Tasteless Cookies, though, there would always be a package of something wonderful, usually Oreos or Pinwheels. Pinwheels were the Platonic pinwheel-packageForm of cookie; for one thing, they were huge. They were the only cookie I could eat just two of and feel satisfied. Plus, Pinwheels had three delicious elements: a graham cracker base, a good deal of marshmallow, and a covering of chocolate. When they were fresh, I could bite into a Pinwheel and the chocolate would resist for just a moment before collapsing into a pillow pinwheelof fresh marshmallow and graham cracker. Heaven. The only down side of Pinwheels was the fact that they only came twelve to a package. At least Oreos had three rows of multiple cookies, making it harder to keep count of how many were gone.

My family lived under a Cookie Honor System. No one was supposed to eat more than her/his share of the cookies, and it was expected that cookies would be available through Thursday night’s dinner for anyone who fancied one or two. The Oreos and Pinwheels rarely made it to midweek. Even the Tasteless Blond Cookies were always gone by Friday and often before.

I snuck cookies at every opportunity, knowing full well that there would be a Day of Cookie Reckoning in my near future. When no one was around and I was hungry for sweets, I displayed an astonishing lack of ability to weigh short term pleasures against long term consequences, and I would eat a good bit more than my share of the weekly cookie supply.

untitledThe dread would start in my gut right around Wednesday night after dinner, when my brother Jamie would go over to the cabinet where the cookies were kept. I swear that he never wanted a cookie at all until he was sure they were gone. He seemed to enjoy more than any cookie the drama of opening the cabinet and yelling out, “Who ate all the…..?” I would cringe, because it was almost always me and I was almost always in trouble for it, especially when I was on a diet. My mother was never happy to discover that she had been baking halibut for me while I was scarfing down Oreos on the sly.

It was my sister Susan (she sometimes got into trouble over Cookie Consumption, but not nearly as often as I did) who came up with a solution to our problem. One Wednesday night after the weekly Cookie Inquisition—and this time, Susan was the main culprit–she stomped away from the kitchen, taking me with her.  “I have some of my own money,” she whispered to me. “Let’s go to Kohl’s and buy ourselves our own package of Oreos and our own bottle of milk!” Brilliant. My sister is a genius, I thought to myself. The best kind of genius—one with her own money.

Thus began a tradition of buying food in secret and consuming it in secret—unlike a candy bar here or there, we were talking entire packages of cookies, bags of chips, the large size candy bars. We did have the problem of spiriting these contraband goods past the eyes of my mother, but Susan and I solved that problem by inventing a pulley system whereby we snuck out the back door, down our side yard, across the Steins’ front yard and to either Kohl’s, Fessenbecker’s Bakery or Hayward’s Drugstore, depending on how hungry we were and/or how much money we had. Once we had the goods, we placed our contraband goodies in an old bicycle basket and pulled them up onto our little balcony with a jump rope.

For some reason, Susan moved on from this behavior after a few weeks. Perhaps she was weary of funding my prodigious appetite for sweets, or perhaps she was turning into a Normal Person; in any event, my silent partner in crime was pulling out. Not me. I developed a firm and pernicious habit of buying junk food and consuming it alone. Once in a while, Susan would still join me in the Search for the Sugar High; when there were no goodies in the house—or the goodies that did exist were a worrisome “Jamie will get us for this” trap–Susan perfected a recipe for our own “frosting.” She mixed butter with cocoa and powdered sugar and we would eat it straight from the bowl. It was actually pretty good, and just as importantly, we could make it quietly and fast.

When even the ingredients for Fast and Sneaky Frosting weren’t available or I had no money of my own, I was not averse to consuming Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup straight from the can, or—if we had them–poured over graham crackers. One night I was craving the Chex Mix I had tasted at a friend’s house, and I attempted to recreate it by guessing the recipe, limited of course to whatever ingredients were on hand in my mother’s kitchen. I poured Cheerios on a cookie sheet, doused them with soy sauce, and baked them for about thirty minutes. They were not tasty.

m-and-mWhen my brother Johnnie got married in 1971, I was eager to hear from him what marriage was like. My sister Marbeth had married in 1966, but she lived far away, first in North Carolina and then in Texas, so I couldn’t ask her. About a week after coming back from his honeymoon, I asked Johnnie, “What’s the best thing about being married?” Without hesitating, Johnnie said, “I go to Kohl’s and buy the pounder bag of M&M’s. I bring them home, and put them in the cabinet. And then I eat as many as I want.” Made perfect sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get married.

The Worst (and also the best) Roommate in the World

 

I have a Ph.D. in philosophy now, but in the early years of my formal education, I was a marginal student at best. As a child, I rarely paid attention in class; in second susan and megrade, I took Get Smart paperbacks to class and read them under my desk while class went on around me. In sixth grade, my teacher nicknamed me “who me” because every time he called on me, I responded, “Who? Me?” Once in history class that same year, I was called on and had no idea what we were even discussing at the time. I had been busy designing a new wardrobe in my mind for my SuperBall. I glanced quickly at the picture in our textbook; it was a shot of some soldierly-looking types in a field. “So?” my teacher said archly, glancing around at the rest of the class. “What is it?”

“Um,” I guessed, “A weapon?” Laughter all around. Mrs. Fitzpatrick said, “Well, I suppose textyou could really hurt someone with it, but no, Anne, a scythe is a farming tool, not a weapon, just as it says in your assigned reading for today.” More laughter. I felt weirdly proud of being the cause of so much merriment in class, and I kind of appreciated the wit of that teacher’s remark. Those sorts of interchanges, though, were steady, and did nothing to help me win good grades.

There was a bit of chaos at my home in those grade school days, and my mom would go to teacher conferences with no idea of how I was doing in school. Intermittently during the term, she would ask me if I had any homework, and I almost always said I had done it already. Then my mother would go to conferences and find out that I simply had not turned in six of ten assignments. She would come home and yell at me, and I would cry. She would lay down a rule such as “no TV on school nights,” but I knew that I had to be just a little bit patient and she would get preoccupied and stop keeping track, so before too long I could be back to my after school TV habit of Star Trek, followed by reruns of I Love Lucy and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

It didn’t help that until eighth grade, I shared a bedroom with my sister Susan. She was five years older than I was, and a chronic night owl. She would be up most nights well past midnight, doing things like her homework and cleaning our room. With all the lights on. Susan would get mad that I was such a slob and pile all my things on my bed. One night when I was in the fourth grade, I got fed up and threw my things off the bed and onto the floor. It was one o’clock in the morning. Susan reacted by taking those things and throwing them off our little balcony and into the snow. I screamed bloody murder about that, which woke up my mother and she ran so quickly toward our room to find out what the trouble was that she ran into the metal banister that girded our stairs and broke her toe. There was hell to pay about that, and I learned never to scream in the middle of the night about my sister again.

imagesAs much Susan tormented me, she was also my best friend and, during those times when my mother was juggling an alcoholic husband, an elderly and failing mother, a rebellious older daughter and two teenaged sons, Susan mothered me. When she was in the fourth grade, her school had an elaborate Spring Fair; it was a big deal, sort of a Parish Fair, and any children who went to Christ King were encouraged to bring their younger siblings for a whole day. I was five years old at the time, and I was over the moon with excitement about going to this fair. I had only just started dressing myself—my mother always dressed me, until HER mother came for a visit and told her that a five year old should be dressing herself—and I picked out a perfect outfit, a yellow dress with little white daisies. I completely forgot about underpants, and no one noticed—at least, no one noticed until I got to the school, where Susan noticed. Immediately. It was a short dress, and it would not be long before everyone saw, as my grandmother used to say, “All the way to Clare.” Susan snuck me into the Girl’s Bathroom and put her underpants on me; her dress was longer and she figured that it would be less likely to be noticed if she “went commando” that day. Her underpants were much too big for me, but she had found a piece of rope somewhere in the classroom and used it to cinch the panties around my waist.

mayfield-lgWe left the bathroom and started in on the Fair. All went well until we had exhausted the indoor activities—a bake sale, fortune-telling, a craft sale—and ventured out to the playground. One of the boys in Susan’s class lifted her dress to show her panties (no one had the slightest concept of sexual harassment in those days) only to find that she wasn’t wearing any. I remember that moment with utter clarity, and everything after that moment is blank. I have no idea what happened after that, and when I asked my sister, years later, what happened when she was “unveiled,” she claimed that she had no
memory of any such event. That was Susan, always—she remembers her childhood as utterly perfect, and if others remembered problems? Didn’t happen. Or, more correctly, she didn’t remember it happening.

soap-heart
Our Vision

Susan genuinely loved me and wanted to help, but she wasn’t very old herself. One day when I was in the sixth grade we had an assignment to carve something out of a large bar of soap. I put the bar of soap into my schoolbag and forgot all about it until the weekend before the project was due. My parents had friends in town that weekend, my dad’s old gang from his one year of college at St. Mary’s of the Lake in Chicago. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the party was sounding very merry. I remembered the soap and scooped it out of my schoolbag to show Susan. “I have to make something out of this by Monday,” I whined. “I don’t know what to do with it.” Susan took the soap out of my hands and examined it; it was a straightforward white oblong bar of Ivory soap. “Whittle it into a heart,” she suggested. That’ll be easy, and it

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Reality

will look good.”

I got busy, finding a short bladed knife in the kitchen drawer and starting to carve. What I hadn’t realized was that my pudgy, sweaty hands were going to make the soap get progressively slipperier as I worked. I had no artistic talent whatsoever, and by the time I was finished, the heart was gray from my sweat and dirt, a bit foamy because of all the sweating I did, and grotesquely misshapen. The heart was about two inches across on one surface and about one-half inch across on the other surface. I showed it to Susan and she said, “Well, I think it’s fine. Why don’t you show it to mom and dad and see what they think.”  Dutifully, I trotted off to the living room with my soap heart; as soon as I entered, a woman in a halter sundress saw it and burst out partylaughing. “Oh my God,” she shouted, “What is this?” Everyone looked over and saw my soap heart, and everyone reacted as if it were the funniest thing they had ever seen. Shyly, I looked around and beamed; I wasn’t sure just how I had become the center of attention, but I liked it very much. I loved hearing those adults laugh.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick, of course, did not laugh when I brought my soap heart to school. In fact, she scowled. And when I saw the other projects, I realized why. There on the window ledge sat the other soap sculptures: dinosaurs in precise detail, charming boats (one with its own soap anchor), a bunch of grapes with carved leaves. I put my misshapen grey soap heart next to them and sighed. I knew I would get a D. Again. And I did.

In that same school year, I had to make a collage. I had no idea what a collage was; almost certainly, it had been explained in class, but I never listened to what was going on in class. I came home and told Susan I had to make a collage. “What’s a collage?” Susan asked. “I think it’s a collection of things on a piece of paper,” was my response. So Susan found a piece of green construction paper and we opened the “junk drawer” in our kitchen, methodically removing about 20 random items—a match stick, a piece of gum, a nail—and we glued them to the piece of paper. Voila! A collage. Not only did I get a terrible grade on my collage, but it didn’t even get hung up on the wall with the other collages, which had themes and things.

bunny
Our Vision

I think it was that same year, but might have been a year earlier or later, that I was assigned a homework project involving clay. I was supposed to make clay from a recipe given to me at school and then sculpt something out of the clay. I took it home to Susan and she and I followed the recipe, but our clay refused to be three dimensional. I ended up “sculpting” a bunny rabbit head on a piece of paper out of the clay, so that my project was more like a fresco than a statue. I think it also looked a lot like the profile of the then-ubiquitous Playboy Bunny. Again, my homework was not displayed with the others.

soap-carving2
Reality

In fifth grade, our teacher entered us all in an essay contest. We were given a specific topic and told to write about it. The topic was “Industry’s Role in Pollution Control.” I dutifully brought this assignment home to Susan, but for some reason she misunderstood the sentence, and thought that our topic was “Industries Roll in Pollution Control.” This struck both of us as a very odd image, and we had no idea what we supposed to say about that. An entire Industry can’t roll, and even the vision of such a thing was absurd. And what where these Industries rolling in? Grass? Mud? How could an entire Industry roll in a concept such as Pollution Control? I don’t remember the entirely of the essay I handed in, but I do remember that it began with the sentence, “The little fish could not swim past the red schoolhouse because it was black.” My essay was not a winner. My grade was not good.

scene-1d-17-1Susan did an awful lot to make me feel less alone in the world. We were sisters, and for many years, we shared a room, so we fought viciously, but we also loved each other and counted on each other in hard times. Susan did have a quirky side, and I was often her accomplice in some escapades that, looking back, were ill-advised to say the least. The summer I was going into second grade, we shared a room, a big bedroom over the garage. Marbeth still lived at home, and our brothers shared the other bedroom. The room over the garage had a linoleum floor, which was less than ideal. It had never been designed as a bedroom, especially a girl’s bedroom; when my parents bought the house, it had a grand piano in it, which the previous owners said we could keep for free if we wanted it. We did not want it, and they had to get it out of there. The sellers took the grand piano, but they left the scarlet red walls and the black drapes with red Chinamen imprinted all over them. Interestingly, Susan and I didn’t mind the walls or the drapes as much as we minded the floor. It was cold in the winter, but that wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was that it was brown, and it was linoleum. Our friends on the block had cute pink bedrooms with candy-striped wallpaper and flowered bedspreads; our in-closet working sink just wasn’t compensation for living in a room that looked less like Gidget’s bedroom and more like Lily Munster’s.

Susan was always thinking, always trying to imagine ways to improve our situation. On this particular hot summer day, she approached me with the bursting confidence of a used car salesman. “Anne!” she said. “I was at Mayfair the other day and I found out that Klode Carpet throws out those sample squares of carpet when they get dusty or they stop selling that color. I bet that if we went there and asked, they would let us have those squares of carpet!” Trying to understand why this was such Great News, I slowly said, “And…?”

our-vision
Our Vision

“And, we can bring them home and sew them together and make a carpet for our bedroom!” she crowed. “It will be a patchwork quilt carpet and it will be so cool! We can cover the whole floor with it for free!” We were both pretty sure that our parents would be thrilled to receive a beautiful patchwork carpet free of charge. They would be amazed at our entrepreneurial spirit and grateful for our creative contribution to the household. It was a pure win-win situation. I was in.

Off we went to Mayfair, about a one mile walk from our house. We arrived at Klode Carpet and asked for their rejected carpet squares in our sweetest, most polite voices. The manager of the store was brought in and he and the salesperson looked at the two of us somewhat dubiously. “Are you girls sure that you want these carpet squares?” they said, looking at the two of us with some concern. (I was six years old and still a skinny little kid; I didn’t plump up until second grade. Susan was going into fifth grade, and the two of us could not have looked strong enough to carry home the amount of carpet they had stored in the back of their store.)

Of course, we had no idea how heavy carpet actually was, and so we nodded vigorously that yes, we wanted all the carpet squares that we were willing to give us, that yes, we had a way to get the carpet squares home, that we knew exactly what we were doing, and that we had a Very Important Craft Project which would require all the squares they were willing to

duraceramic-stack
Reality

part with.

Klode Carpet had a lot of carpet squares, and they were willing to part with all of them. They helpfully provided us with a box, and even loaded the carpet squares into the box. The box of carpet squares was roughly twice as tall as I was and three times as wide. It resembled a telephone booth in height and size, at least from our perspective. Wanting to get out of there before the people at Klode Carpet changed their minds and reneged on this gift, Susan and I each heaved up one end of the massive box of carpet and walked out of the store, trying valiantly to look jaunty and in control.

Once we got out to the parking lot, we put the box down and rested. I was starting to have my doubts about this whole enterprise, but Susan’s determination was unflagging. She exhorted me that yes, we could get this box of carpet home together, and then just think! We would have a beautiful, warm checkerboard carpet for our room! For free! We heaved the box back up and started for home.

It was a death march. I don’t know how we did it; I do know that it took all day. We would walk as far as we could without collapsing under the weight of the box, and then rest until the pain in our arms and shoulders was at least bearable. When we were no longer near tears from the pain, we would pick the box up again and walk as far as we could. That box of carpet squares did make it to 2337 Swan Boulevard that day, and we were both sore and stiff for the better part of a week. But we did it! We could just about see that beautiful carpet already!

While the box of carpet squares was still in the garage, before we tried to work out how we were going to carry it upstairs to the bedroom, I asked Susan, “How are we going to turn this into a carpet?” I am not sure why this question hadn’t occurred to either of us earlier, but it had not. Susan thought for a few minutes and said, “We can staple them together!” I brightened up.

“Yes! That will work great, and the staples will hardly show!” By this time, we needed something to remind ourselves of why we were undergoing this pain; also, we still hadn’t figured out how to get the box up the stairs, so I suggested that we start making the carpet right there in the garage, while we waited for someone who could still feel his arms to come home and help us with the box. Susan thought that was a capital idea and went into the house to grab the stapler.

We decided to start with two of the prettiest-colored squares, but realized immediately that carpet is actually a great deal thicker and tougher than the construction paper we usually used the stapler for. Even when we got our father’s heavy duty stapler from the basement, we couldn’t figure out any way to get a staple through even one piece of carpet, much less staple together two. I was distraught. Also, exhausted and hungry and sore. “Well?” I said to Susan. “What now?”

Ever the optimist, Susan said, “No worries! We’ll just get Daddy’s hole puncher, punch holes in the squares, and tie them together with Marshall Field’s gold string (our mother saved all gift cords from Marshall Field boxes, so we had a considerable supply in the Box Closet.) She went back into the house and emerged a few minutes later with a lot of gold Marshall Field string and a hole puncher.

The moment she tried to punch a hole in a carpet square, we both knew. This carpet was never going to happen. The hold puncher didn’t even disturb the pile on the square, much less penetrate any part of it. We couldn’t face the reality of it that day, not given the sweat and hope we had invested in that box of carpet. “We’ll go out tomorrow and buy a bigger hole puncher,” Susan said, and I nodded vigorously. “Sure! Tomorrow we’ll be rested, and we can get right back to this! Can we get something to eat right now?”

We did not go out the next day to get a bigger hole puncher. We pretended the box of carpet squares had never existed. After a week, our mother asked what on earth we intended to do with that giant box of carpet squares in the garage, and Susan sheepishly said she had no idea. My mother set it out with the rest of the trash, and the garbagemen took it away. We lived with the linoleum floors until the day we moved out of that bedroom, and said no more about it.