My brother had just turned two on the hot August day I was born. My very first memory, and it’s probably a false memory, I admit, is of lying immobile on my back on the floor in my grandparent’s hallway in Wauwatosa, shaking and bellowing blood-curdling cries, watching my brother jump over me, back and forth, left and right, laughing, helpless to stop it. As a second sibling, it can feel strange to look at photos of your parents and their first child, all taken before you existed. He was a chubby-cheeked toddler with curly blonde hair sitting on my dad’s shoulders. My mom wore bell-bottoms and had long, thick hair. They looked like a complete, perfectly happy family in no need of a little newborn tagging along. Do parents love their first babies more? How could they not? Everything you hear about eldest siblings, about birth order, came true in our case. Jeff is reliable, conscientious, and successful. He is everything in a big brother a girl could ask for. He taught me to ride my bike, running along with me in the grass in our front yard before pushing me off and cheering me on. He soothed me when I was stung by my first bee. He hid with me after dark when I was “it” in Bloody Murder, Seven Steps Around the House, or George Washington’s Ghost. I had his back too. We had one babysitter, Pam, who would lock him in our basement. I’d wrestle with her until I was sweating to open the door and let him up. One winter he built an enormous fort of heavy snow that caved in on him. I couldn’t get him out. I raced into my grandparent’s cottage, breathless, found my grandmother, and the two of us took several minutes digging him out. “I can’t breathe,” we heard him shouting from within, his voice muffled. I was terrified, and when we found a mitten poking out of the snow, I was so relieved. In elementary school, I remember sitting on the gym floor with my fourth-grade class, glowing with pride as I watched him win first place in our school’s oration contest, and another time, sing a solo, “Go West, Young Man,” in our school musical. He set the bar high and I wanted to be just like him. Going into fifth grade, my future teacher, Mrs. Jones, said that if I was anything like my brother, I’d be her favorite student.
I prepared all summer. I sat on a woven area rug on the floor of my grandparents’ cottage in northern Wisconsin perfecting my penmanship, proctoring my own spelling tests, drilling myself on my times tables. The cottage was our summer home as kids while our parents worked in Milwaukee. I practiced my posture and paying attention and sitting still. When fifth grade started, I began earning straight As, a welcome improvement on my past. If I misspelled a term on a quiz or fumbled the definition of a vocabulary word, I’d punch my leg hard with my knuckle when no one was looking or pinch my arm until a purple bruise appeared. It worked.
Our summers at Post Lake offered us a freedom and a closeness to nature inaccessible to our friends back in the suburbs. They were watching Nickelodeon, riding bikes in cul-de-sacs, skateboarding, or picking corn for two dollars an hour at the Baur’s farm. Meanwhile, we had seven acres of forest to roam. We were leaping off rope swings into the lake, canoeing down the Wolf River, catching bullfrogs and digging in cool mud patches for nightcrawlers, learning to build things out of wood, putting on matinees, and naming stars in the sky, which never looked clearer. Still now, the smell of fresh sawdust and gasoline takes me back to some of my happiest memories. It’s the smell of my grandfather’s garage and tool shed. Some girls are told they should marry a rich man in order to carry out all of their future philanthropic and creative plans. But Grandpa put a hammer and saw in my hands and told me I could do anything.
Granny and Grandpa made sure to balance our freedom with structure too. Grandpa woke us each morning at 7 am to do our chores.
“Elizabeth!” he’d call in a cheery voice, stressing the Liz in a way that meant “Good morning!” but also “I can’t believe you’ve slept so long!”
He had been up since 5:30 am and was ready to serve scrambled eggs and sausage and put us to work.
Grandpa’s catch phrase was “It’s a bee - you - tiful day in Wisconsin!” He even had a sweatshirt with the tagline on it, as if he’d coined the phrase. It was given to him by the staff at Whitman Middle School in Wauwatosa when he retired in 1983 from teaching history and serving as vice principal. I borrowed that sweatshirt and took it to college, where I wore it so often the cuffs frayed, holes grew in the sleeves, and the letters began cracking and peeling off.
After breakfast, he and Jeff raked seaweed, snail shells, and bloated, fly-infested fish off the beach. It was my job to help Granny clear the table, hand-wash and dry the dishes, and put them away. Then we’d tend her strawberry garden and fold fresh sheets that had been air-dried on the clothesline. Afterward, she’d sit at her vanity and do her make-up. She was beautiful.
We weren’t allowed to make phone calls, accept visitors, or go elsewhere until 10:00 am each day. We agonized over this, our eyes fixed on the microwave oven clock over the stove. Jason, a sweet red-headed, freckled-faced boy, lived next door. Brian and Kathleen, who we’d later learn are our ninth cousins, would drive up from Madison and stay for weeks at a time at their cottage down the road, “The Messmanor.” Tommy and Lisa also came with their family from Madison on holidays. Their cottage sat high on a bluff overlooking the lake. We were all around the same age, and our families had been friends for generations. We were a pack of wild kids with two dogs, King and Snooker, tearing through the woods.
For the most part, no kids were permitted inside of the cottage during the day, except for when Granny called us in for lunch, klonging the antique iron triangle hanging over the porch. She made peanut butter and jam sandwiches cut in half, served with a glass of milk. We kids would set the table, always with placemats laid carefully over her tablecloth and with paper napkins folded evenly and set on the left side of the plates. Then she’d sit with us and chat while we gulped down our sandwiches. Sometimes she remembered I didn’t care for a layer of regular butter under the peanut butter, but not often. In Granny’s kitchen, we knew not to ask for something different. If we didn’t like it, or if we became hungry between meals, then “Tough bananas,” she’d say. The kitchen was closed until the next meal. On the wall opposite my chair were two plaques. One read, “Kiss the Cook.” Jason would often give Granny a kiss on the cheek after eating, which made her laugh. The other read, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other, wings.” At every meal she required us to practice our manners, because one day, you never knew, we might just be invited to dine at the White House. My brother went on to travel the world as the director of foreign and public affairs of naval reactors at the National Nuclear Security Administration, and later as a member of the Navy’s elite senior executive service, positions that involved dining regularly with dignitaries in Tokyo, London, and Washington DC. But he still licks his plate after dinner when he visits the lake. After lunch she’d send our friends away and force us to read for an hour. I read Misty of Chincoteague, Lost on the Amazon and Prisoner of the Ant People and other Choose Your Own Adventure books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, books on women who’ve helped shape history, and some of the American Girl books that Granny gave me. Jeff, who liked to curl up across the room on the edge of the blue couch, with ribbed, woolen fabric, near the black iron stove. He read Robinson Crusoe, Knights of the Round Table, The Jungle Book, The Hobbit, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’d sprawl on the couch, a sort of soft plaid patchwork of orange, reds, and blues, in the quiet living room with the drapes pulled shut, reading, daydreaming, and asking how much time was left. When the hour was up, we’d bound out of the house, leaving the screen door swacking shut. Meanwhile, Granny sat at her kitchen table, looking out at the lake, writing poetry or letters, scribbling down recipes on cards from a magazine, or solving crossword puzzles. She created a character named “Big Red,” a watchful red squirrel who lived at Post Lake and looked over my dad and his brother, and now me and Jeff and her other grandchildren, as we grew. Here are a few stanzas:
My name is "Big Red"
On nuts I've been fed.
I have a long tail
that is bushy and red
Can you guess who I am?
A squirrel. Yes, it's true.
Though I chatter a lot,
I talk only with you.
When I was a baby
I fell down from a tree.
It hurt like the dickens.
Oh my golly! Oh gee!
I was skinny and scrawny
and so weak and ugly and bare
I didn't know how
from that fall I would fare.
But Granny was right there,
as she usually is.
She didn't ask questions
or give a big quiz.
She wrapped me in cotton.
It felt just like silk.
And then with an eye dropper,
she fed me some milk........
All of us kids had to use the “biffy” when we needed to go to the bathroom. It was a pit toilet in a shed Grandpa had built. If I was alone and had to go, I’d leave the door cracked open because there was no light inside and plenty of daddy long-legs. If someone was with me, I’d fasten the door shut with a little metal hook, allowing just a sliver of light in. They’d stand guard so that none of the boys would lock me in from the outside. On the rare occasion this happened, Grandpa would be summoned to the biffy with a key to unlock the padlock and set me free. There was also a danger of this happening in the girls’ and boys’ changing rooms, which was part of the same shed. Entering the house wearing a wet bathing suit was a cardinal sin. All children were required to change into and out of swimming suits in the biffy. The boys’ changing room was stuffed with sports equipment – badminton birdies and racquets, soccer balls, half-deflated dodge balls, croquet mallets, soft balls, swimming goggles and snorkels and inner tubes for playing in the water. Similarly, in our changing room, there were orange life jackets crusted with sand and a couple kid-sized life vests, inflatable tubes for tubing behind the motor boat, paddle boards, Granny’s chair with Styrofoam arm rests that floated in the water, and colorful plastic sand toys. Sometimes the boys would get on each other’s shoulders and spy on us. We girls would balance on one leg, holding onto a towel hook or a shelf for balance, slipping on our cold, wet suits, dodging deer flies and spiders.
One morning Granny found a fledged ruby-throated hummingbird on the ground, brought her inside and, with our help, fashioned a soft bed made out of cotton balls in a shallow dish. We set her back up on a branch in her new nest and hoped mama would return to her. Later in life it occurred to me that in many ways Granny and I were kindred spirits. But on the surface that seemed like a stretch. Mary Jane was a striking beauty, she had spot-on fashion sense, a biting wit, a love of department stores, warmth, social grace, and a talent for drawing, painting, and baking. In contrast, I was an ugly child. My skin was as white as a soap bar. I had freckles and straight, dark brown hair, if not in a bowl cut then “permed” with tangled, frizzy curls exploding from my head in every direction. My mouth was small and my lips were thin. My legs and arms were long and bony. From about age six to age thirteen, it was difficult to tell if I was a girl or a boy. On any given day I might be wearing tube socks, running shorts, an E.T. T-shirt and a red bandana folded into a head scarf like I’d learned how to do at Girl Scout camp.
Every evening before dinner, Grandpa made sure we went around the yard and put away the day’s accoutrements – a soda can down by the beach, the waterski rope, flip flops in the sand, towels draped on lawn chairs, a paper plate left in the pontoon boat from a picnic on the river, bug spray, life jackets, fishing tackle. Dinner was always home cooked when we were little. In middle school, when I became a vegetarian, Grandpa kept the freezer stocked with Jack’s cheese pizzas. Only after the dishes were washed and dried was the TV allowed to be turned on. First we watched World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Then Wheel of Fortune. Sometimes Hee-Haw, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Love Boat, or Fantasy Island. Most nights he would pop popcorn in the air popper. We’d drizzle warm butter over our bowls, giving one to Granny first, then settle in for a musical. I practically have all the songs and dialogue memorized to 1776, Singin’ in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, White Christmas, and so many more.
Some summer nights, reading in bed in the dimly lit bedroom, I’d meet my eyes in the large mirror over the dresser and concentrate on making my gaze as repugnant and psychotic as possible, without changing my expression, just focusing on the look in my eyes, until I’d frighten myself and need to look away. Waiting to fall asleep, I’d examine the window curtains, handmade by Granny, sea blue with wooden ships sailing on stormy waves in between continents, with some latitude and longitude lines marked. I’d trace the yellow water stain on the ceiling with my eyes. I can still see its shape. I’d count the whorls of the oak walls. Grandpa had built the cottage himself. I’d scan the photos in the room. Beside the dresser hung a large sepia-toned painting of Granny’s father as a boy of about six and his two older brothers. Across the room on another dresser stood two photos – one of my Uncle John and Aunt Karen on their wedding day and one of my mom and dad on their wedding day. Both men had shaggy mustaches and the women were tall and thin. On the other wall, near a bookshelf, was a portrait of Jesus. Sometimes I had to remove it because I thought he was watching me. I loved when Granny would take down the book In Grandma’s Attic and sit beside me on the bed and read to me.
When I’d get scared at night of robbers breaking in and hurting us, Granny would tell me that she was so ugly she would scare them off with one look.
“I’m uglier than you,” I’d say.
“I’m uglier than you!” she’d insist.
We’d go back and forth until we were laughing and I was no longer scared.
There were some days, when all the kids had gone away and the weather turned cold or rainy, that I despaired. I’d look straight up at the sky, only the tops of a hundred foot pine trees in my view and spin around until I’d fall. A strong wind, harbinging autumn, would whoooo through the trees, making their skinny trunks sway. Whitecaps out on the water would answer with angry, incessant slaps on the beach. There were some lonely days where I longed for my mom – for her warmth, her words, her love. She was everything to me.