When we moved from the the big two-story house on Knickerbocker Street to the smaller ranch-style house on Caldy Place, our huge dining table was relegated to the Caldy basement.
There was no way that dining table could fit in our tiny Caldy kitchen.
But I had happy memories of all my birthday parties celebrated ’round that table; and, days spent sitting there cutting out paper dolls and clothes for them; and, lots of coloring with my sisters — I loved that table! Beautifully-grained wood, rectangular, and, big enough to sit, gosh, a minimum of eight adults or, even more children?! It made me smile just to look at it.
I was either not quite eight years old, or, had just turned that age when we moved from Knickerbocker Street. Sally was 18 months under me, and, Sharon, about two years under her: roughly, eight, six, and four, we were. (Phil was yet a baby; Pete, at about 11 and allowed more independence, tended to be out playing with his friends.) So, when Mom did laundry down there in the basement on our ringer washer, we girls would sit at the big table and color, play with dolls, or whatever, sunlight streaming down on us through the casement windows.
Stock photo, ringer washer circa 1950s.
It was a lovely time, and as time went on and we made friends in this, our new neighborhood, “everyone” wanted to come to our house on days too cold or rainy to play outdoors, to gather and play at the giant table.
Paul was the younger of our two oldest brothers — at least nine, 10 years older than myself — and his “room” for some reason became a corner of the basement under the stairs, and I would come to dread the place I had loved best in our house on Caldy.
A dictionary says dread means “great fear or apprehension,” synonyms including “fear, apprehension, trepidation, anxiety, worry, concern, foreboding, disquiet, unease, angst; more.” Yup — that about sums up how I came to regard Paul in the basement.
It started with me coloring at the table and him, sprawled on his 1950s “Hollywood bed,” saying most warmly, “Would you like a hug?” Well, what little kid doesn’t like a nice hug?
“Sure,” I’d smile and he’d go, “C’mere,” holding out his arms all nice.
Then the hugs turned into, “Let’s cuddle for a little while,” and he’d pull me close and soon he was holding a Playboy magazine in front of us, his free hand wandering into my underwear. He would want me to touch him, pull my hand to his genitals, all the time pointing out this photo in Playboy, that cartoon, making lewd comments.
I did not like this, I did not like him. I would try to get away but he was strong. It was hard to escape.
Soon, I avoided that basement at all costs unless my mother was down there with me, but, perhaps because she was dying of leukemia and, probably needed an assist around the house, and, in one of those unrealized bad-choice happenstances Paul had been designated her “helper,” we younger kids were told we were supposed to “mind” him. So a lot of times he would insistently yell upstairs to me from his basement domain where he resided like some truly awful particularly dreadful evil giant (six feet four) hiding under a bridge (the basement stairs), “Come here a minute,” and I would “have to” go see what he wanted, even though I anxiously knew.
One time I distinctly remember saying to him, “Stop or I’m going to tell Mom,” at which he laughed and said, “Go ahead. I’ll just tell her you’re lying, and who’s she going to believe?! Me, because I’m older.” And what did he do shortly after that but, set me up one night, telling Mom I’d done some this-or-that naughty — which I had not — and, what happened? She believed him, disregarded my protests of innocence, and I was sent to bed without supper.
This went on until one summer day when I simply left the house after breakfast and did not come home until suppertime — when my father would be home and when Paul let me be — and that marked my new daily pattern. (Did my mother know what was going on? I do not know, but it seems odd to me, now that I’ve been a parent myself, that she allowed me this all-day “freedom,” only asking that I return at the sound of the cowbell she rang evenings to call us all in to dinner.)
I did get hungry during the day, so I would eat apples and pears from the wild orchard across the street; carrots pulled from people’s gardens, brushing the dirt off them with my hands; a tomato here & there from same; young corn-on-the-cob, whole. I’d drink at neighborhood water bubblers, of which there seemed numerous back in those days. I’d eat wild raspberries and blackberries, and there was an edible clover I liked that I called “eating clover.”
There was a home with several horses in the neighborhood and I liked to feed the horses apples, sitting on their fence, my hand held flat. I would “explore” wooded areas; play in the fields; climb trees; run through cow pastures; catch frogs in drainage pipes; play at construction sites. I loved it — I had a good time.
But throughout, I did wish that I could go home during the day if I wanted; that I had a choice. And I envied the kids who could.
I was like a wild child, raised by wolves.
In adulthood I learned that in addition to me, Paul had molested my two sisters as well, plus a neighbor of ours around Sally’s age. Little girls, all.
In my 40s, following my emotional breakdown and quite a lot of therapy with Carol-the-A+-excellent trauma therapist, I gathered up the courage to write and mail a letter to my brother Paul. I wanted monetary compensation — I was seeing Carol once- to twice-weekly. I could not work. This was the least Paul could do as far as I was and am concerned, statutes of limitations in my state having left him free from any & all criminal charges, penalties.
His response: no apology, no words of shame or regret; he simply had a lawyer reply to my send and point out, you guessed it, statutes of limitations.
I am, yet & still, majorly proud of myself that I was able to write and mail that letter.