1939: The Worst Year of My Life – A new story
When I was six years old, I had the good fortune to suffer the worst year of my life. Broken romances, bad investments, divorce, deaths, professional disappointments, and embarrassing moments over the course of a lifetime do not compare with the trauma I endured and survived in 1939.
Toward the end of 1938 I glimpsed what was about to happen. One of my two adorable “maiden” aunts got married without consulting me. Aunt Dorothy, my father’s twin, taught art and English in a small-town high school on the western side of Nodaway County, Missouri. Aunt Leta taught music and English in a similar school on the eastern side of the County. Aunt Dorothy was now living with a husband who taught in yet a different high school than she did, and she stopped coming home on most weekends to visit me. To be with him, I supposed, but I felt betrayed.
The aunts influenced my young life. After my grandmother died in January of 1932, my parents continued living with my grandfather on the family farm near Maryville in the center of the County. I made my debut just before Christmas of that year on its shortest and coldest night. For six and a half years I was the only child born to the three brothers and three sisters sired by my grandfather.
From my earliest memory I was the sole object of attention and affection for the aunts and to a lesser degree my grandfather. Yes, the aunts competed for my attention, and, yes, I encouraged it. They all took turns reading to me, playing games with me and on summer evenings engaging in competitive tag and hide-and-seek matches. Some times my father joined in but never my mother who wasn’t athletic and couldn’t run as fast as the aunts. I got to be the ball boy for the aunts’ tennis games on the grass court in our side yard. I can still close my eyes and visualize the dusk of the long summer evenings the aunts–Dorothy four feet, eleven inches tall, and Leta five feet, one inch–racing across the yard determined to outrun my father.
My precious aunts were comfortable and comforting. Although small in stature, both had large bosoms into which I nestled my curly head while they read to me and told me about the places they visited, the people they met, and the sights they saw. In later years I too visited some of those places. They each owned a Model A Ford coupé. Their summer vacations provided ample time for them to travel around the country to New England, New York City, the Southwest, and Mexico. On the longer trips they sometimes traveled together or with their older sister and her husband, but they didn’t hesitate to go alone. I accompanied them on shopping trips to Maryville for art supplies, books, sheet music, and ice cream or to the tiny towns of Pumpkin Center (pronounced “Punkin” Center), Skidmore, Quitman, Hopkins, Pickering, Maitland, Burlington Junction, or Elmo where a friend or family member lived or was buried. Usually we took a picnic lunch eaten in one of the parks or wooded areas scattered around the County. These day trips during their long summer vacations on the farm were an opportunity for them to get away from each other.
Aunt Leta took a year off from teaching and went to New York City to get a masters degree at Columbia. Because of her interest in music and having extra time on her hands, she took classes at Juilliard, returning to Missouri with a limited opera repertoire. Although opera was not my favorite pastime, I humored her by letting her entertain me with these pieces and endured the endless practice sessions. In the meantime, Aunt Dorothy, who did not sing opera, would be waiting to give me drawing lessons.
In December of 1937, as though announcing a Christmas present I would enjoy, my mother confided to me that she was going to have a baby: “A little sister or brother for you to play with, Frankie. Aren’t you excited?”
My emphatic unspoken answer was, “no, No, NO!”
I had all the people I needed to play with–people who could read to me, play tag and take me with them on excursions. No baby could provide any of those things. Besides, I’d seen enough of my friends’ younger siblings to know that upon their arrival the older children were expected to help take care of these usurpers, and the newcomers also distracted the attention of parents, aunts, and uncles from the older children. It was simply unfair. The pernicious idea slithered through my mind that the aunts might like the little monster, especially if it were a GIRL. The handwriting of things to come flashed on the wall in florescent colors.
As 1938 rolled out my mother got bigger and bigger and right on schedule delivered in June the brother I was meant to enjoy. When mother came home from the hospital carrying the bundle, sure enough, the aunts were ecstatic to see “it,” cooing and poking in a disgusting manner. With their usual competitive spirit, the aunts vied to see which one could hold “it” the greater amount of time. I confided despairingly to my dog Patsy: “This is a disaster!”
During the first couple of months I spent a lot of time consulting with Patsy as to how we might get rid of this “thing” (not a person to Patsy and me) which diverted my aunts’ and parents’ attention from me–the designated object of attention for the whole family. I had worked hard and faithfully to educate them about rearing children. I let them entertain me. I felt discarded, even abused. I didn’t deserve this treatment. I couldn’t just throw a tantrum, though.
Aunts, parents and grandfather all were of one mind: “We don’t throw tantrums in this family, now do we!” They were conveniently forgetting that Leta on occasion threw spectacular tantrums.
Patsy and I planned a runaway carriage accident that would, alas, be fatal to the usurper. But there were no hills steep enough for the carriage to reach mach speed. I thought of running away, but what about my meals? This move would simply be my unconditional surrender to “it.” No plan of action came to mind that would eliminate the usurper without incriminating us. I knew Patsy would get off with a stiff warning of “bad dog” while I would bear the full rap for the crime.
So, I hunkered down and consoled myself by avoiding every possible contact with this brother. I exerted even greater effort to monopolize Aunt Leta’s time when she returned to the now expanded family.
As though the earthquake in my life were not enough and must be followed by a tsunami, at Thanksgiving, when our family gathered around to express appreciation the grasshopper plague had left a few bushels of corn in the field, came the coup de grace.
Aunt Leta calmly announced: “You remember Lawrence, he came home with me last weekend, he sings baritone in my choir at the Methodist Church, his wife died a couple of years ago and he has the two nicest daughters–who are married and live in California–well, he asked me to marry him and we’re going to, right after Christmas.”
Aunt Dorothy, Leta’s brothers and their wives, my mother in particular, covered up with smiles and congratulations their relief at this good news. The piece of meat I was chewing stuck in my throat. As quickly as possible, I excused myself from the table without taking my usual second helping of pumpkin pie and went to my room where Patsy and I could feel sorry for ourselves in private. Patsy was “good dog” about this even though she didn’t get her second piece of pie either.
The story has a happy ending. Lawrence was a nice man, like his daughters who stayed out of Aunt Leta’s way most of the time. He was delighted to delegate to her the running of his life and quickly learned to avoid vexing her. Tantrums became less and less necessary in her life. His beautiful baritone voice was much in demand for church choirs and funerals accompanied by Aunt Leta. The “kidnapper” of my wonderful Aunt Leta turned out to be my favorite uncle who never minded being monopolized by his “favorite” nephew.
Gary, the unwanted brother whose “accidental” demise Patsy and I spent hours planning, and I developed an amicable relationship–not close but respectful of each other’s accomplishments and compassionate about the vicissitudes we each encountered along life’s winding road. Strange as it may seem, we never had a fight or angry confrontation. In our twilight years we exchange phone calls several times a year and keep each other informed on events and milestones in our lives. He now lives in New York State near the Canadian border and I in Arizona near Mexico.