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Mom did her best to keep us grounded. She told us how she had grown up in a small cabin in Montana and that she knew what it was like to go without. I believe that’s why she volunteered at the Seattle Milk Fund delivering groceries and goods to less fortunate families. I often went with her on deliveries, even when I was as young as five years old, and was amazed that people lived in shacks and sat on couches that looked like mice condominiums. Children toddled around while the mom had a baby in each arm.
It was normal for one or two men to flee out the back door as we entered a dwelling, leaving an awkward silence in the room. Mom would later say, “The men were more than likely living off the woman’s welfare check and weren’t supposed to be there. I’ve never seen men run so fast, thinking I was with Social Services coming to bust them,” she explained.
I remember one delivery where a man stood in the small living room wearing a white tank top and ripped pants, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His eyes squinted against the smoke shrouding his face. Although I was afraid, I reached up to offer him the food basket I held in my arms. Even through the haze of smoke, the look on his face remains indelible in my mind. He was embarrassed. It made me sad, so I moved the basket closer and he finally took it. In a timid voice he said, “Thank you.”
Mom was benevolent and thrifty. She had made our clothes for the trip to Europe; Jackie-Kennedy style clothes, little suits, smart, sleeveless dresses with geometry and dot patterns, and what she didn’t make she bought at Sears bargain basement. She would wash Styrofoam coffee cups in the top rack of the dishwasher until all the recycling eventually disintegrated them.
She reupholstered our furniture and refinished anything made of wood. She and Grandma painted birds perched on branches on the living room wall. Although, one of the birds, I think they were robins, looked like it was flying upside down. They were beautiful though, red breasted with inlaid gold along their feathers. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen on a wall, and the most beautiful. Mom knew that the wall would be better if she put a bird on it.
David was also benevolent. I found this out when Dad locked David and me in a bedroom when I was six and David was eight. We sat on the edge of the bed and Dad loomed over us, dressed in a nice suit and tie.
“Which one of you stole some Kennedy half dollars from my safe!” It was an accusation, not a question. I was scared, but David treated it like any other bollocking. Each time Dad asked us the question his voice grew louder.
“One of you stole my 1964 Kennedy half dollars! Which one of you did it?” he hollered.
“It wasn’t me!” I shouted back. WHACK. My butt was ablaze. Then Dad grabbed David and smacked his bottom, too. Every time one of us denied the accusation Dad whacked both our bare butts.
“It’ll go on like this ‘til one of you confesses,” Dad barked. I couldn’t confess to something I didn’t do! My butt cheeks were hotter than the devils’ own. This discipline party went on for about half an hour.
“David, just tell the truth!” I screamed through my hiccoughs, tears squirting from my eyes. After a couple more whacks, David finally confessed to stealing the coins.
“Dana, you can leave,” Dad said. I ran from the room, flew down the stairs as fast as my short legs would take me – had I slid down the banister it would have caught fire – and body slammed my mom, burying my face in her evening dress.
“Dad spanked me! Over and over and over!” I screamed. “I hate him!”
“No, you don’t,” she said, rubbing my back.
We heard the cracking sounds of Dad’s hand to David’s bare butt. David apparently had no idea that the 1964 Kennedy half dollar was minted in ninety percent silver, and was part of Dad’s valuable collection. On second thought, maybe he did know their value, because back in the bedroom where Dad asked David why he took them, David said:
“I stole ‘em pecause there’s a poor girl who sits next to me at school and she needed money so I gave ‘em to her.” Dad would admit later that it hurt him just as much to spank us like that as it did for us to get the spankings. I believe it did. Sometimes benevolence is painful.
Dad was a big, tough guy who hunted and came home with an elk, or a bear, and a beard that he scraped against my cheeks. He had guns, axes, and chainsaws, which I saw him use frequently at the lake. But he did something that revealed his soft heart.
It may have been sparked by David’s attempt to help a poor girl, but at Christmastime Dad had asked the principal of our elementary school what the less fortunate kids needed. The principle replied, “Lunch.” Dad wrote him a check for X amount of dollars and the principle looked at Dad and said, “Thank you, Mr. Dewey. This will feed a lot of kids for a very long time.”
This do-goodness had an impact on me, too. When I was in eighth grade, I volunteered on a committee to help less fortunate people in our community. The committee would deliver Thanksgiving baskets for the holiday. One day after school, I walked with a committee member to her house to help organize the fundraiser and to decide on the contents of the baskets. She lived a long way from the school, in a part of Queen Anne that was foreign to me. Her home was in a ramshackle building, held up by spindly sticks that I feared would snap and send us crashing down the hill. It looked like the Milk Fund houses I had visited years before. I was nervous walking in the front door.
We worked diligently, planning, organizing, and spit-balling. She had several good ideas, many more than I did. I stared out the window a lot, waiting for the house to break apart. Dad picked me up on his way home from work. On the ride home he said, “Is her family on the charity list?”
“No. She’s on the committee to help.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but it looks like her family could use some help.”
“She doesn’t see it that way.”
I don’t remember her name, this girl who felt others were in greater need than she and her single mom were, but I remember that she held my respect.
To be continued . . .