Don and Barb

Don is sitting on a bar stool drinking a cold beer in a dark tavern in San Diego, California. He’s a boiler technician in the U. S. Navy and on liberty from his ship. He is so handsome in his Cracker Jack uniform with that thin line of a mustache above his sure, sexy smile. A cigarette dangles casually from his lips sending smoky tendrils into the atmosphere.

Barb is sitting on the stool next to him with her own cigarette femininely perched between two fingers with manicured red nails. She’s gorgeous with her 1951 perfectly coifed, blond hair framing her narrow face. Her smiling lips are painted to match her fingernails. They met in the greasy spoon down town where she waits tables. Two beautiful people looking for someone to share the night.

Barb calls Don and when he answers, she’s quiet. “Don?”

“Yes.”

“Don, I’m pregnant.”

They marry and a two-day honeymoon at the Morgan Hotel passes by quickly. When Don’s orders come to ship-out the tension is permeable as they try to say goodbye. They hesitate before they kiss then Don gently squeezes Barb’s shoulder until his emotions take over and he embraces her. Tears stream from Barb’s eyes, but are they of love or fear of being alone again?

On July 2, 1952, after a long and arduous labor, Barb delivers a stillborn boy.

Don requests emergency leave and returns to a woman he has married because of a child, a child that has never drawn a breath. This boy is buried alone, without a name, in a strange cemetery.

All too soon, Don goes back to his ship. Barb continues to work at the café as she grieves alone and wonders again if he loves her.

When Don is discharged from the Navy in 1954, they move to northern California where they have three girls: Deborah (Debbi), Roberta (Berta) and Donna. Donna is just three months old when they move to Meredosia, Illinois and a better job for Don at the Central Illinois Power Service plant.

Two years later Barb delivers another daughter, Barbara (Bobbi). Barb and Bobbi have just come home from the hospital when Barb begins to hemorrhage. The funeral Hearst doubles as the ambulance and carries Barb back to the hospital where she has an emergency hysterectomy. At four-and a half Berta plays “mommy” with Bobbi and does everything she can to take care of her little sister.

Say Goodbye

“Go!”

“I said ‘Go!’ damn it!” Daddy said with a hard shove to Mommy’s back. She stumbled forward a few steps and stood still on the porch. Daddy repeated his words with more expletives.  Mommy cried quietly without fighting back and seemed to have no control over her body. She could barely stand, let alone walk. Daddy continued prodding until she was down the front steps and standing next to our car.

My three sisters and I sat on a worn blanket in our front yard that early spring morning crying as we watched them fight.

“Why do you have a suitcase, Daddy?” I asked. “Where’re you going?”

“I’m taking your mother to the airport. Say goodbye.”

“Say goodbye to Mommy? No!” we all cried.

No hugs or kisses. Not even a sad smile. Daddy threw the suitcase in the backseat and shoved Mommy in the front seat of our little white Corvair. They drove away.

Mommy and Daddy had fights all the time but they’d never left us. We stayed on the blanket until Daddy came home three hours later. He was alone. “Girls, your mother has moved to California.” Life went on as if Mommy had never been there. We were four lost little waifs who needed their faces washed and their hair brushed in a little town called Meredosia in Illinois.

No one seemed surprised. No one but us, her children.

Two weeks later, we had school pictures taken. Wearing my favorite dress that had a light green skirt with a cream-colored bodice, I tied a matching green ribbon in my strawberry blonde hair. Green was my favorite color. The photographer teased me about my big smile and it grew even wider. After school, I hurried home to show Daddy how pretty I looked. He wasn’t there, and I was afraid he’d left me too. I cried myself to sleep on the couch that evening.

I awoke crying; my panties were off and Daddy was leaning over me, touching me. “Daddy, it hurts.” I could smell the beer on his breath and the stale cigarette smoke in his clothes. He said nothing, but got up and walked away.

I wet the bed every night after that, and I was so embarrassed I couldn’t tell anyone. Daddy yelled, “You’re just like your mother!” I was eleven and didn’t understand. I found out later that Momma wet the bed also.

In sixth grade, I had physical education and had to change into my gym suit. My flat chest embarrassed me when I saw other girls at later stages of development. I turned toward my open blue locker to change and wished I could just crawl inside. My suit was too short in the straddle and cut into me, but I was so ashamed of what Daddy had done down there that I never told anyone. We were supposed to shower after class but the thought of being naked in front of everyone was terrifying, so I lied every day, “I have my period.” We didn’t have to shower when we had that. No one questioned me; I was ignored.

Winter came and the house was cold. I couldn’t remember being cold when Mommy was there. My sisters and I played in a crawl space under the stairs where we had an Erector Construction Set, Old Maid and Go Fish playing cards, our dolls, and a single white Christmas bulb on a three-foot cord. That tiny light hung from a nail and filled our small refuge with light. It was our safe-haven where we could talk about Mommy and how we missed her and wondered where she was.

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