Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Brownstone

(Continued from last Saturday . . .)
Kindergarten ended in May 1942. In late July, Mom and Dad and my little brother returned to Kansas City. Within a few weeks, we had moved to a farm. Mom was raising chickens, we were eating their eggs, and I was attending a hillside country school overlooking the Missouri River.
            Between our July reunion—I have no memory of this—and my starting first grade, two things happened that filled me with renewed fear. The first I’ll share today; the other on Thursday.
            In early August, Mom, Dad, my little brother, and I began looking for a place to live. After a long day of no luck—the war had brought many people to the city and available apartments were few—Dad parked the car in front of a gloomy brownstone.
            Mom went inside. Within a short time, she closed the front door behind her, descended the steep front steps, strode toward the car, leaned in the open passenger window, and said, “Well, another one that won’t let us have kids. Let’s put our two in gunnysacks and throw them in the river. That’s the only way we’ll get an apartment.”
            Of course she was kidding. But I didn’t know that. I’d just spent a year not understanding why they’d left me behind when they went to Parsons. In my mind, throwing me in the river was just another way of getting rid of me.
            I did wonder what my little brother had done that would make them want to throw him away. I can remember so vividly sitting in the back seat of the car and wondering that.

My little brother in the stroller, a cousin, and me when I had just turned four.  

            For the next three years, until my little brother was six and began sleeping on our farmhouse couch, I tried to protect him both day and night. Our shared double bed was in a corner, shoved up against two walls. I lay on the outside; he, on the inside.
            He fell asleep quickly. For as long as I could keep myself awake, I lay worrying that our parents would throw us in the river that night. But I had a plan to foil theirs. I lay with my left ankle over his right one. If my parents stole into the room and tried to pick him up before me, I’d wake when they lifted him and scream bloody murder.
            Who did I think would hear me? We lived out in the country for heavens sakes. Who would hear?
            No one. But I figured my screams would scare my parents. They’d drop us on the floor. We’d leap up, race down the rutted driveway and onto the highway, flag down a car, and get away. I’d find us a family to live with. After all I was six. Then seven. Then eight. Then nine. I could work. I’d earn our keep.
            For three years, I slept like that each night, sure my parents planned to dispose of us. When they didn’t, I decided that for some reason unknown to me they'd put aside their plans. By the time I'd reached that respite, I was hiding knives, hatchets, and hammers under the mattress at night. I’ll share the reason for that new fear in a future posting.
            A counselor has told me that for most of my seventy-five years, I've lived with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I thought that was nonsense. But as I recount these memories I begin to see what she meant.
                                                                        (. . . to be continued on Thursday)


  1. Oh, my goodness, Dee! As if your story could get any more bizarre! This is dreadful! My heart aches for that precious, innocent child, now burdened with even more trauma. I realize your Mother was speaking out of frustration at a time that must have been worrying, but how unfortunate that she chose to vent it in that way and not realize the effect it would have had on you! I cannot begin to understand the level of fear under which your life was lived during the next three years! And the added strain of not only being concerned about your own life, but that of your baby brother's too! To have constantly been aware of your role as his self declared protector would have burdened your young mind with unimaginable levels of stress and anxiety! To have had no one in whom to confide this deep seated fear, to have felt so vulnerable and yet, so responsible for keeping both of you safe, must have eaten into your mind! You probably suffered from sleep deprivation, too, which would have had an enormous impact on your mental and physical health! All I can say is that you were subjected to the most unfortunate set of circumstances and I hope your story will make parents a lot more aware of the effects their actions have on their children!

  2. Dear Dee--DESIREE said everything that was in my heart, too!

  3. Oh, Dee! Your story is such an excellent example of how careful adults need to be in talking around or about children, who tend to take things so literally at certain ages. It really does sound like PTSD --and how great that you got therapy to work through that and other issues. I'll look forward to reading the Thursday post as well. You tell this painful story so vividly and with such insight.

  4. I echo what Desiree said as well (she always says it perfectly). You learned to be a survivor at a very young age and that makes me sad.I hope my child never has to have something like that gnawing at her.

  5. Such a brave, courageous little girl. I wish your mother never would have said that! I can't imagine how she could be so insensitive after what she'd put you through before.
    Once again, I wish I could hug that brave little girl.

  6. I don't think your mother thought about those words or how very hurtful they could be to a 6yr old. Children often are so literal about things when adults are just joking. For example I once told my daughter that I couldn't buy her a toy she wanted because I was broke. She burst out crying because she thought I was broken. It took me 2 hours to calm her down and explain the difference. In your case because they had left you and all the ugly things your grandmother said I can see why you would really think they would kill you.

  7. Oh Dee, I also echo the writing of Desiree, and others, who got here before me. It is so true that children are so literal. I am always amazed when even 5th graders take something I've said teasingly so literally! I've learned to be very cautious of what I say.

    Your memory is so clear, I've impressed, as always. It's astounding what we know now about post traumatic stress, isn't it? Good therapy is so valuable.

  8. I feel terrible thinking: on the margins of wretchedness...but I do think it. I find it amazing you have been so brave, come so far...know(are aware of, understand) so much. ~Mary

  9. I am left wondering whether your brother registered the "threat" in your parents' words as well. I know that my siblings often report completely different memories (or lack of memory of a specific event burned into my mind entirely) than I. Funny how some things impress certain people in a particular way.

    It is also amazing how quickly your fears could have been alleviated with some communication. If you had felt comfortable expressing your fear to your parents, they could have explained that they were frustrated or tired of looking for places or angry with discrimination against families, or simply joking.

  10. What horror to live--no, not live--pass time with such fear! How you survived day to day is a mystery.

  11. How many parents have said or done things without thinking...not realizing it might be something remembered for a lifetime. Honestly, back then, many people didn't think children remembered much in the first place. They didn't worry about what children heard or saw because they assumed that they would forget it--probably thought you wouldn't remember being left for a year, for that matter. I'm only 60 and there was such a difference in how the adults thought about children from when I was little. My grandparents were even worse. It was like we didn't fully exist, if you know what I mean.

    And there you were...worried all the time that she meant it and trying to protect your little brother. You were a fighter. A survivor. You had a plan for escape. You weren't going to just take it lying down--not even from your parents. And you weren't going to leave your brother on his own. What a huge heart! And smart! Smart enough to know that even your parents could be wrong--not accepting what's handed down--having your own sense of right and wrong, in other words.

    You are an amazing woman. :):)

  12. This is an amazing story but, sadly, all too common. Children's literal minds are unable to distinguish a throwaway remark made out of frustration from an actual, realistic comment and that's what you get, a messed up life.

    My own story is littered with such 'misunderstandings'.

  13. I am so sorry, Dee, that you had to go through this. It strikes me as so sad, and so brave, that you seem more concerned about your little brother than you were about yourself.

    One of the really powerful things about your story is that it shows so clearly what an impact a seemingly small event can have on the course of a life.

  14. Children are so very literal, and having been abandoned already, your fear made perfect sense. So very sad. No child should have to live in such fear. Especially from the people who are supposed to love them.