Puppy Love. A family moved into a house on the corner of the next block down. There was a mother, father, a girl and two boys. The girl, Betsy, came over to visit a couple of times. She was about my age—still preadolescent at the time—and I learned the hard way that girls are not sissies...
Now, I have to admit that as time had gone by, I'd not been a particularly nice guy all the time; I'd grown a little stronger than some of my younger friends, and I'm afraid I'd turned a little bit of a bully with some of them. No hitting or beating up anything like that, I'm glad to say, but I was just kinda mean sometimes—the worst was ditching them after tying them up, stuff like that—and I look back on all that with considerable pangs of guilt. I think I just thought of it as teasing, then, but, needless to say, I lost a few of those friends as friends. Not, as I think I've mentioned earlier, that I didn't have some guys in the area that I was terrified of for a while.
But Betsy, a bit chunky when I first knew her, had grown up with two older brothers, and I don't think I even initiated some of the battles that ended up with her sitting on top of me, grinding my elbows into the dirt with her knees. So I got to the point where I more or less tried to avoid her.
I'm not quite sure what the circumstances were, but one day I gather Betsy's parents were away for some reason, and my mother agreed to look after her a little bit. I can remember Betsy coming over and sitting in the kitchen while my mother brushed her hair... I was hugely nervous about that, which I suspect amused her at the time. And I remember Mother saying to someone, "Oh, she's going to be a heartbreaker someday."
Now, I didn't know what that meant, but the phrase stayed with me, and I guess over the next few months any doubts I had about the phrase began to fade...
It wasn't a quick turnaround by any means. There was once when she and a couple of other kids confronted me and dared me to hit her. I don't know why, now, but apparently something had gotten around, or she had joked with them about me—I never did learn the motivation behind it (or if I did, I've forgotten it). But she stood in front of me, ready for what I would do, and suddenly it wouldn't do! For one thing, her, uh, physical profile was different... She was still a pretty robust young woman, but, shall we say, she was morphing into a woman, and there was some evidence that robust was losing its ro... I remember even considering that if I did hit her it would have to be lower than her chest. But I said no, and had to convince them that I wasn't going to do it.
I didn't see much of her after that. She had her friends, I had mine, I guess. But then, one day, when we were both 13, there was to be a school dance, and, not knowing what I was doing, really, I got up the gumption to go over to her house and ask if I could take her. I had to be encouraged to do so by my folks. My brother Hale pointed out that with our names—Betsy and Ross—we were obviously predestined for one another. So I went and met her parents and asked. And she said yes.
It turned out it was a first date for both of us. It was a costume ball. I went as Raggedy Andy—striped socks, blue pants, plaid shirt, a kind of sailor's cap that (I think) my sister made for me, along with a cardboard mask I think I made that looked like Johnny Gruelle's illustrations, and one of Grandpa's wigs, which wasn't as red as Raggedy Andy's yarn, but was a kind of auburn. Betsy went as a newspaper. There had been a fashion flurry of newspaper print dresses about 1950; she not only had such a dress, but a blouse that was done in a comics pages design, and she wore a classic folded paper hat made with newspaper. She was really cute in it.
Mother drove us to the school dance in my grandfather's Model A. We went in, were welcomed, and then I proceeded to bomb... I didn't know how to dance; shuffled around the floor with her once, I think. She did know how, and did, with many others there. I sat around, went outside, all that kinds of stuff a dumb wretch of 13 does, until it was finally time for my mother to pick us up and bring us home. (You know--I'm not even absolutely sure someone else didn't drive her home that evening. A bit too late to ask now...)
After that, I often saw her walking by, getting prettier and slimmer and living up to my mother's prediction. My puppy love almost strangled me; I couldn't talk to her. Once only, in those later times, did I even approach her, stuttered something about asking if she'd like to go out with me sometime, and she said, "No, I don't think so." I was crushed, of course, but I knew she was right...
Some time later, my friend Jack showed me a picture he had of her—a school photo, pretty, but still at about 13 years of age. I suspect that he'd been a bit sweet on her, too, but in any case he let me have the photo, which I kept in my wallet until it was stolen some 15 or 16 years later in New York City...
Mortality and Infirmity While on one of his trips for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, somewhere in the Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, I gather, my father had a stroke, or more accurately, a cerebral hemorrhage. After he came home, and recovered, he was a changed man. To me, it seemed like he could still be the jolly father I'd known, in many ways, but for most of my young life I'd only seen him in periods between trips. For Mother of course, and for my sister Elinor, and for Hale, it was much clearer that he'd changed.
In perspective, it appears that he'd lost much of his capacity to think things through, though he still was a wealth of knowledge about a number of topics. He had to retire. He became compulsive about eating, and while he'd always been on the heavy side, he gained quite a bit. He looked for possible new jobs, with one that seemed almost to have a possibility—in Nigeria. None of us, I think, quite had an idea of what it would be like to move to Nigeria...
Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had such severe arthritis that she needed crutches to walk from before I was born, had become almost completely bedridden. She had a wheelchair, and I'd walk her on our veranda from time to time (not entirely voluntarily; I loved her but I was such a snotty kid at times), but for the rest of the time she stayed in bed, in the room at the front of the house that she and my grandfatehr shared.
Whenever I had friends over, we were enjoined to keep things quiet, especially in the yard around at that side of the house. We spent most of our outdoor time elsewhere anyway, or in the back or the house next to the garage—or in the garage, playing at my grandfather's workbench, which he didn't particularly appreciate.
There was a Dr. Moore that we had recommended to us. We were given to understand that he was a chiropractor and naturopath; he made use of an electronic machine with which he presumably could read the vibes and prescribe natural medicines for whatever ailed one. Whatever his actual qualifications to practice medicine (and our level of gullibility), in fact most of us, including my grandmother, improved considerably in our general health while under his care. We had kelp tablets, and St. Johns wort tea (now a recognized antidepressant, I gather—but the tea tasted bloody awful), and any number of other pills and teas—I learned how to take multiple tablets at once during that time. And he introduced us to yogurt before it became a popular dairy staple—we had equipment to make it (but had to buy the cultures from him or his sources).
He sold us a pair of dark plastic "glasses" for me, with a grid of holes instead of glass lenses, that actually worked--somewhat. The images were sharper (before I was fitted for glasses I'd discovered the trick of looking through a hole between pinched fingertips to see the blackboard in school; these worked on the sme principle) but the view did have a tendency to be multiple, not unlike the view one's seen in movies where one appears to be getting an insect's viewpoint. I wore these at school for a while, but they really weren't as effective as the real glasses I had. There was a lovely blonde girl in class whose family also went to the same doctor; she'd also been given a pair of these, but I don't believe she ever wore them to school. It may have been in part because I did, but we were friends (I even had a bit of a crush on her, too) and I think it was more because of the appearance of them. The "dark-glasses cool" thing was yet to really take ahold, at least in our part of Texas. I still had them a long time after I stopped wearing them, but they were eventually lost in our various subsequent moves.
Eventually, my grandmother died. I don't recall if there was some particular illness that overcame her, or if in fact it was a gradual accumulation of problems over and above the arthritis (and, I believe, weight gain that had developed while she was bedridden, a viscious cycle thing), but regardless, despite the good doctor's ministrations—from a distance; he was not a house-call guy—she passed away. I don't rememeber the date.
I was not asked to help carry the coffin. She was buried in a local cemetary. I only vaguely recall the funeral and any other ceremonies that were held for her. And, truthfully, I only recall from later perspective how her passing affected my grandfather and my mother, whose mother she'd been, and other members of the family. And I don't remember grief for her in myself.
I'm aware of some of the psychology of that, I guess, now, but I think it contributed to some of the guilt that was to become a factor in my own life for a while. I won't be burdening you, kind reader, with too much mulling on that aspect of my life—confessions, as it were. You've glimpsed some of the symptoms of it here, and may see more, but meanwhile, it became about time for us to move away...