1960s · Sisters

Christmas Cat

1964, Christmas Cat

A.J. my son’s cat that bares a striking resemblance to my Christmas kitten

My Christmas present was hiding under Kelly’s single bed. I lay flat on my tummy and peered into the dark place. Coloring books, socks, shorts, some Legos, and two rectangular boxes took up most of that space, but all the way back against the wall, I saw a pair of yellow eyes.

“Minny, minny, meeyew,” I called to my first all-for-me pet. Footsie (like all dogs we had) was a family pet, but the hiding kitty was all for me, a present from Aunt Dolores, who was married to a vet. As soon as my aunt had stepped inside the house to visit Momma, she announced that she had a special gift for me. Aunt Dolores placed a large striped box on the coffee table, and as soon as I lifted the top, a black blur of fur jumped out, jetted down the Terrazzo hall straight into the middle bedroom and under my sister’s bed.

When my cat calls did not convince the gift to emerge, Kelly handed me half a vanilla wafer. “Try this.”  I ignored the offering and ran to the kitchen for a small bowl of milk.  Momma, fixing fresh Community coffee for her sister, warned me, “Do not spill a DROP on the carpet.” Aunt Dolores smiled and added, “Bon chance, Ginger.”

I maintained a steady pace and looked straight ahead and not at the sloshing bowl just like Lee Ester had taught me to carry a tray of coffee cups, cream. and sugar to grown-ups. I did feel a drop or two on my bare toes so I moved slower.

Gayle and Kelly had stayed in the bedroom, and almost all of Kelly except her two feet was underneath the bed now. 

“Move outta there,” I said. 

“I’m petting him,” said Kelly from beneath the bed.  

“Just pull him out by his paws,” said Gayle. 

Coullion!” I said at first but on second thought told my middle sister, “You could pull Kelly out by her feet.” Gayle obeyed immediately so I stood out of their way as they shoved and fussed playfully.

“I know what my kitty wants,” I said and placed the milk on the floor. “Minnie, minnie, meeyew.” A weak “Meow” answered me, yet the cat did not move.  

Kelly jumped on the bed thinking to scare the cat out, so Gayle joined her. The two held hands as they jumped up and down.  

“Get off and get out!” I said. “Y’all are just scaring him to death.”  My sisters stopped jumping but stayed on the bed. 

“It’s our room,” said Gayle. 

“Yeah! And it’s my bed,” said Kelly.  

“Look, we gotta give him time to wanna come out,” I said. The two bed jumpers stared back at me.

“Y’all want Aunt Dolores’s peanut butter cookies?” Momma called from the kitchen and both younger girls jumped off the bed and ran to the kitchen.  

AJ in the wild

I let out a sigh and sat on the floor with a couple of stuffed bears. I had patience galore, and I leaned against a bookshelf. I caught the super soft zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the central heater kicking on.

You had to be patient. One does not make real change over night. I took a large leather bound book from the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall book case in the study and pushed my dark round glasses up a bit. A wild haired child sat on the floor rocking a rag doll. I sat next to the girl who jumped at my approach. “It’s ok, Helen. I have an idea,” I said  and sat on a foot stool beside the child. The girl was deaf and blind, and I put my right hand over her left one and used sign language letters to communicate. Helen touched my face and then mimicked my hand motions. I guided one of her hands to my face and nodded to let her know she’d spelled the word correctly. She moved her fingers to create the letters again. I smiled and squeezed her hand before moving it towards my face again so she could feel my smile. Helen rewarded me with her own smile. I leaned over to kiss the top of her unkempt head. Helen made a purring sound and leaned into me. 

The Miracle Worker, 1962

The shiny black cat had left his hiding place to lap up my milk offering. His fur felt like silk and his tail curled into a regal question mark. After his snack, he thanked me with a few sandpaper licks.  “Lookit you,” I said as I scratched my pet behind the ears.

AJ looking regal

“I’ll call you ‘Christmas’ because you’re the best Christmas gift I ever got.”  

I pampered my pet like royalty, and several months later I shortened her name to Chrissy when she gave birth to five mewing kittens.

My friend Nancy’s cat, Emmy, also reminds me of my Chrissy.

1960s · Cerebral Palsy

Book Pincher

  Book Pincher  1967  

Mr. B was my first male teacher.  If he represented the world of masculine educators, I hoped to go to a Catholic college run by nuns.  Mr. B. taught seventh grade, and most of what he said or did floated above my consciousness.  Turning twelve gave me the confidence to better escape school’s daily dose of boredom.  I started each subject’s lesson as the bespectacled model student I was famous for being. My three-ring binder was filled with looseleaf paper and sat on my desk below the pen and pencil that shared the narrow writing utensil groove of my wooden desk. I made all A’s and turned in every assignment neatly written and on time.

Me in 7th or 8th grade

On a drizzly November morning Mr. B. said, “Get out your science books and turn to Chapter Thirteen on page 262.”  In eleven seconds I pulled the book from the desk’s metal under seat container and opened it to the right page. Mr. B. began the lesson drone from his wooden podium at the front of the room; however, after he had asked student volunteers to read book sections aloud, he paced up and down the rows to discourage student shenanigans.  I forgot my typical shyness and volunteered right away to read aloud.  The teacher was prone to call on cute girls first. So I bided my time, and my hand was up as soon a cheerleader had finished Section One, and B. asked for a new reading volunteer.  This time I got picked (probably because Section Two was about Classification Kingdoms and included lots of bolded scientific terms).  Multi-syllabic words could not intimidate me.  I read well, and B. himself sometimes mispronounced words.  I looked at B.’s shining bald head after I finished reading and nodded a couple of times as I watched his flappy lips move, but I took in none of the meaning of his words.  I stared ahead as I slid my novel I had underneath the Life Science textbook to the top.  I held my fake focus on the teacher even as I opened Little Men to the bookmarked page.  I was a third into Louisa May Alcott’s novel and was eager to reenter Jo’s world as head mistress at Plumfield Academy for orphans.  As soon as Mr. B got his third volunteer reader going, I entered my book.  The stress and worry of seventh grade disappeared. I forgot about my stupid hair, oily complexion, and big feet. I did not care that some girls in my class were “going out” with the same boys that two years ago all of my female classmates agreed were “gross and stupid.”  I loved Jo’s compassion, even for the unruly Dan.  The fictional students were valued and molded in marvelous, nonthreatening ways.  I let my former successes at reading a book inside a book keep me engrossed in all things Plumfield, especially the scenes with Jo and wild Dan. 

In the past I had always caught a whiff of B.’s Brylcreem when he got near my row (Why did an almost bald man need hair stuff?), and I would slide my novel back beneath my textbook like a seasoned card magician.  

Maybe Mr. B. forgot to smooth down his seventeen strands of hair that morning.

Maybe I was coming down with a cold.

Maybe Jo’s expert handling of Dan’s rule breaking made me believe I was at Plumfield.

I felt a sharp pain on her upper right arm, exactly on my chicken pox vaccine scar. 

My “Hey!” came out before I realized what I was doing.  B. had used his go-to class management strategy on me: a pinch and a twist to a kid’s arm with his long thumb nail and dirty index fingernail.  I had seen purple and red marks on arms before – usually on boys’ arms- and usually for rowdy stuff like chalk throwing and spit balls but had never been pinched myself.

“What is this, Miss Ginger Ann Keller” he said as he grabbed Little Men off of my desk. Is our lesson on life forms and kingdom classifications not grabbing your attention?” 

I was not shocked enough to cry even though I could break out a crowd of tears faster than Elvis got girls screaming.  Mr. B. admonished me for my sneaky ways, but I heard only the zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the struggling electric school fans. 

A bulky man with long fingernails pointed a hairy finger at me.  I was standing and holding out my empty wooden bowl.  “More?!  More!?” said Baldy.  I nodded and said, “Yes, please.  May I have some more?” and I felt the fear of hundreds of uniform-clad kids seated at rows and rows of wooden tables behind me.  Baldy started singing insults at me while waving a yardstick like a baton. He had a nun to his right who accompanied his singing with a harmonica. Baldy used my name to express his hate:  “Ginger Ann/ Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!”  And all the kids beat time on the tables with wooden rulers and echoed his song. “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann/ What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!” Then the nun gave her harmonica a break to add specificity to their chant. “She trips. She falls. /And her face is afire with zits galore./  She thinks she has brains and wits. /But she’ll never get liked cause she has no tits.”  And the room’s “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann” continued. The rhythmic sounds beat me down to my knees and I tried to escape by crawling under the tables, but the kids all kicked me with their saddle oxfords and laughed as I crawled faster while the “Ginger Ann” song got louder. The table extended for miles, and the nun got back to her harmonica as Baldy chased me by running between the endless rows of tables. Then an extra hard kick on my left ankle forced me to stop crawling.

“You gotta go up front,” said the girl who sat to my left. 

“What are you waiting for?” asked B. “ Sign my detention form and be here after school if you want your book of,” and he read the cover, “Little Men back!” 

I felt the suppressed giggles from all sides as I walked to the teacher’s desk and counted the floor tiles. I made sure to not drag my left foot and I tried to hide my shorter left with my good right arm. I felt relief that I’d washed my hair the night before so the long waves of boring brown hair that now covered my face were not greasy.  Three tiles away from B’s desk I tripped on a baton that stuck out from under a future majorette’s desk. It was not a fall-down trip, just a hiccup of a stumble like a possible dance step if I had possessed an iota of coordination.  A big-toothed boy loud-whispered, “Don’t fall for your Little Men now.” 

Mr. B. slapped his yard stick on his podium to say he had attempted to control the laughter from half the class.  I scrawled my name on the detention notepad and ignored the drop of wetness on the paper. He covered his mouth and coughed.

Did B. put his hairy, dirty, long-nailed fist to his mouth to hide his own laugh, or did he really need to clear his throat? I thought.  I retreated to my desk without time to count tiles because a song/chant formed in my head. “Book Pincher./ Arm Pincher. / What a mess of a man is Book Pincher/ Arm Pincher./ May he rot in a pot of reptilian snot!”