We lived in Geneva, Illinois for parts of 1968 and 1969. We would move 11 times in 10 years, and sometimes, I have a difficult time placing myself in the proper space and time.
I was in kindergarten then. My best friend was my cousin, Tracey, and we both went to morning kindergarten. I can't remember my teacher's name, but I remember Tracey's teacher was named Miss Eraser. Or at least, that's what I think her name was. That's what we called her.
Kindergarten did not bring out the angels of my better nature. I hated kindergarten. I especially hated when we got out our little mats and lay down upon them for our "rest." We didn't have to sleep, but we did have to lie still for 45 minutes while the other kids slumbered on.
I didn't sleep. Naps seemed kind of silly since I had only been up for a few hours. Besides, I had such horrible insomnia as a kid that I was already resentful of being sent to bed hours before I could fall asleep. If I could barely control myself in my own bed, how was I supposed to lie still on the floor surrounded by 20 sleeping five-year olds?
My dad taught me to read when I was three. By the time I got to kindergarten, I was reading "third-grade level" books. Discussions were carried out among the teacher, my parents, the principal about whether I should skip a grade. I remember the day the principal called me down to his office. He invited me to sit on his lap, and he got down from his shelf some story about a magic carpet ride.
"Read this for me," he said in his principal soft voice. I had heard he had a really grouchy voice if you got in trouble, but I was too scared to get in trouble. I already knew what getting in trouble meant, and I had no desire to be punished by someone who wasn't going to tell me "this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" before whacking me on the butt.
I remember I read the passage perfectly, except for one mistake: I read "in" as "is." He corrected me, and I remember thinking that I couldn't go to first grade now because I'd made that mistake. When I told my dad that night about what had happened, he sort of blew air through his teeth when I told him about the mistake. I think I may have disappointed him, but part of me always felt as if I was disappointing him. Try as I might, I was not the perfect daughter.
I wasn't moved up to first grade. (Although I would wind up skipping second grade.) Instead, I had to stay in that room with those kids while they were sleeping. The good thing that came out of my being bored was that it was agreed that I could read a book—quietly—while everyone else slept. And so I did.
My parents were young. When I was five, my mom was 22 and my dad was 25. They were babes in the woods, and the woods were even more frightening because they had emigrated from Northern England to move to the States, where my father felt that he could escape the class system and get the job his advanced degree should allow him.
The apartment we lived in was bare. The living room had a linoleum floor—light green with some kind of pattern on it—and we had a couch and a chair and a black-and-white television that sat on top of a rolling cart. One time, my mother had been sweeping the floor and she had accidentally knocked the television to the floor, smashing it. She had cried then. But my father had gone out and bought a new television—still black and white—so my mom could watch her serials during the day.
January in Illinois bore no resemblance to January in England. My parents had never experienced temperatures that cold, and in the summer, my mother could barely move because of the heat and humidity. My mother didn't know how to drive; she walked everywhere, and I can still see her in her dresses with her ankle boots and coat trying to push my brother's stroller and carry groceries. I tagged along, running to keep up with my mom who just wanted to get home.
One morning in January, I woke up, not feeling well. We didn't have insurance, so most of the time if I was sick, my mom would put me to bed, feed me toast and tea, make me a rice pudding, and expect me to get well by staying in bed. I went to school that day because I didn't look sick, but by the time the school bus took me home, I really felt awful. As it turned out, so did my cousin. And I itched. I sat on the bus and squirmed. I unzipped my coat, and then put my hands under my blouse, where my skirt's waistband was. I scratched and scratched and scratched, but the itches didn't go away.
I got home and told my mom that I didn't feel well. My aunt called. She was a nurse, and it turned out, she told my mom, that my cousin had chicken pox. So, apparently, did I. And within a day, my two-year old brother was covered in spots and pretty miserable too.
My mom didn't know about oatmeal baths or Benadryl. I just remember being painted pink with Calamine lotion. When my mom ran out of cotton balls, she started using toilet paper to apply it to my skin, and I remember that the little bits of tissue stuck, so that I looked like I had been tarred and feathered with Pepto-Bismol.
I was pretty bored. Bored, feverish, and itchy. Bored, feverish, itchy and too sick to read. So my mom put my brother and I on the couch. He lay with his head at one end, and I lay with my head at the other. We were just tall enough that my feet would graze his feet if I stretched my legs long. My mother kept us covered with a blanket, and we lay there, watching her as she swept and mopped the living room floor that was always getting snow and mud tracked all over it.
In 1969, morning television for kids comprised "Captain Kangaroo" and "Romper Room". "Bozo the Clown" was on in the afternoons, but other than that, there wasn't much to watch. Sometimes, I would sit with my mom and watch her serials: "One Life to Live" and "General Hospital." I didn't understand a lot of what was going on, but I knew the characters' names and who they were married to.
But on that day, that day when my brother and I were lying on the couch underneath the blanket and staring at the black-and-white t.v., there was only one thing on. The inauguration. Richard Nixon was becoming president. The images were black, white, and grey, but I remember the black robes of the Chief Justice and the Bible that Nixon put his hand on to say "so help me God."
The commentators were confusing me, though. In my house, we still spoke British English. So, for example, a "plaster" was a bandage; a "flannel" was a washcloth. I constantly had to correct my language when talking to my friends or they thought I was speaking a foreign language, which I was. The commentator said that Pat Nixon was wearing a camel coat and high-heeled pumps. Now I was really confused. Pumps were tennis shoes to us. Pumps were the scuffed red canvas things I wore on my feet when I went playing in the creek I wasn't supposed to, or that I hung off the back of my cousin's bike when I was riding on the back. It was my red pump that got stuck when I put my foot in the spoke of the bike and tore most of the flesh off my ankle. So, pumps to me were not what you would wear to this Inauguration thing. Which was boring by the way. And went on for hours. And even though we kept asking my mother to "turn the telly over," on every channel, that's all there was. The new president, his wife in sneakers, and a bunch of people wearing black and grey clothes.
My mom went into the kitchen to fix us tomato soup for lunch. My belly itched, and with her out of the room, I pulled up my p.j. top and scratched and scratched until I felt better.