Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter

It’s funny how things you see or hear tap into a feeling from an earlier time. Christmas lights and/or the Herman's Hermits song Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter sung by Peter Noone does that for me. When I see the lights on the dark, I am at peace. When I hear the song,  I relax, feel safe, then I get a little melancholy.

The worst was right before the end. Dad was out of control. He was angry, crazy and violent. And drunk. A lot. There is so much that I don’t remember from that time. But one thing I do, well parts of it at least.

It is late and I was in bed but now I am standing in the dark hallway looking into the living room. I can see the television, a side table and part of the couch. I also see my Dad choking my Mom. Both of his hands around her throat, her arm flies out and hits the lamp and it crashes to the floor. The next thing I remember is lying in my sister TJS’s bed, my face buried in her back.

Years later I learn that there is more to the story. Things I had blocked out.

I was not alone in the hall that night. My sister CAS was there too, behind me. She too saw Dad and Mom, and Mom’s hand hit the lamp. Then she did something, she screamed. That scream made Dad stop. My sister then turned and ran back to bed in the same bedroom she shared with TJS. So while I was climbing in bed with TJS, CAS was climbing into her bed. My Mother came into the bedroom and said to CAS, "Your father wants you." When CAS and my mom were back in the living room, our father said to CAS, "You wanted to watch, now watch." and started hitting Mom again. I don't remember any of it.  I also don’t remember the police coming or Dad going to jail. The ironic thing is CAS doesn't remember me being in the hall or my getting into bed with TJS. Trauma can do that, prevent memories from being formed.

I don’t remember if it was before or after that, but one night around the time when all the craziness was happening CAS was in the kitchen making dinner. Mom wasn’t home from work and no one else was home. I was in the living room, sitting in a stuffed chair that rocked. The Christmas tree was up and the tree lights were the only lights in the room. The pine scent and the soft glow of red, blue, green and amber lights filled the room. The sparkle of the colors on the tinsel was so beautiful. I was gently rocking in the chair and CAS had her Herman Hermits record playing.

Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter
Girls as sharp as her are somethin' rare
But it's sad, she doesn't love me now
She's made it clear enough it ain't no good to pine


I was relaxed, no one unpredictable was there.

She wants to return those things I bought her
Tell her she can keep them just the same
Things have changed, she doesn't love me now
She's made it clear enough it ain't no good to pine


I was safe no one was angry.

Walkin' about, even in a crowd, well
You'll pick her out, makes a bloke feel so proud


I was at peace, nothing bad was about to happen.

If she finds that I've been round to see you (round to see you)
Tell her that I'm well and feelin' fine (feelin' fine)
Don't let on, don't say she's broke my heart
I'd go down on my knees but it's no good to pine


The melancholy is not a feeling from then, but now.
From realizing how crazy my world was that I remember being 5 and feeling safe.

Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter (lovely daughter)
Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter (lovely daughter)
Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter (lovely daughter)
Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter (lovely daughter)

Where I lived from 3 years to 18 years old

14th & York St.
12th & Elizabeth St.
11th & Lincoln St.
14th Ave @ Emerson St.
25th & Lafayette St.
S. Grant St. & Arizona Ave.
37th & Humboldt St.
10th & Pontiac St.
E. Iowa Ave. @ Ash St.
Albrook Dr. & Peoria St.
12th Ave. @ Tamarac St.
S. Dayton St. & Mississippi Ave.
E. Ellsworth Ave. & S. Ogden St.
14th & Humboldt St.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Evictions

Eviction. A lot of people can’t imagine going through it, but really after a couple of times there is a rhythm. Anyway Mom was really good a moving us before the Sheriff’s actually came and to put our stuff on the street. The only time that happened, my Mom had a rental truck and got the Sheriff’s to help load our stuff onto the truck. There we all were my sisters, brother, Mom, some neighbors and some Denver Sheriffs all loading the truck.

Through my school years we moved on average once a year. Twice we stayed some place two years; twice I went to three schools in one grade. Lots of times we moved because we were about to get evicted. It was hard for Mom to make enough money to keep a place.

We usually lived in low income minority neighborhoods. We, as the white family became the minorities there though. We didn’t live in these neighborhoods because of Moms involvement with the civil rights movement, but ironically, it was her involvement with that and all of her other political passions that caused us getting evicted from some.
You would think living in a black neighborhood you would have no worries about being evicted for being involved with the Black Panthers. Not true. Anyway, we lived where mom could afford. And usually we got evicted when she couldn’t pay rent. When I was really young I didn’t understand why we were moving, we would just suddenly move. All I knew was I was about to have a new home. A new neighborhood. A new school. And I would be the new girl. I got very good at making friends quickly. The only things that stayed the same were the crappy neighborhoods and the crappy schools.

My Dad left Mom with five kids, 15 to 4 years old. It was 1965 and a woman couldn’t make enough to support a family herself. So even though Mom was a college graduate, spoke fluent Spanish and was one of the smartest, most well read people you could want to meet, she couldn’t get paid enough in her job to pay all the bills. And she sucked at managing her money. And although I don’t believe she really wanted kids she did her best to support us.

When I was in 4th grade I was sitting in music class when through the door window I saw my oldest sister. She motioned me to come to her. I, of course, didn’t. Not without permission from my teacher. When I got to the hall my sister said, “Come on we are moving. Mom told me to come get you.” I honestly don’t remember if we went and got my stuff from class or not.

When we got home the moving truck was there. The sheriffs too. Mom told me to go inside and help pack. As we packed things up they went directly into the truck. This time I was old enough to know something was not right with all this. There were people watching, I felt embarrassed. But we plugged away at loading everything in the truck.
There are always things left behind during an eviction. The things deemed unnecessary at the time. I have very few mementos from my childhood because of this. We lived in church subsidized projects for a couple of years after this.

Time passed, my siblings got older, got jobs and help pitch in; and equal pay for equal work became more common for women in the workplace. We never moved as suddenly again. We didn’t officially get evicted after that. However I do believe that there were times when mom moved us just before the notice would have been taped to the door. But that’s ok, it’s not an official eviction without the sheriffs visit to your house.

Mi Familia

Dad - born Indiana
Mom - born New York

MAS - 1st sister, born in Pensacola, Florida (11 years older than me)
CAS - 2nd sister born in New York, New York (10 years older than me)
RJS - Only brother born in Peoria, Illinois (8 years older than me)
TJS - 3rd sister born in Clinton, Indiana (5 years older than me)
Me - “The baby” born in San Diego, California

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Lessons

Mrs. Silverberg is what we called her at first. Miss Silberberg was correct. The compromise became Mrs. Silberberg.
Miss Ellen Silberberg, my 5th grade teacher.
She saved my life.

The first day of school when I walked into one of the two, second story, 5th grade classrooms in one of the oldest school buildings in Denver I was worried about who else was in the class. I was hoping that there was someone who I could become friends with. I only spent the last few months before summer break of 4th grade at Wyatt, not enough time to infiltrate and be included in the friendships that already existed. I had a couple of friends from the block I lived on, but they were not the same age so wouldn't be in this class.

My other concern was who the teacher was. She was new so no one knew anything about her. But I was relieved that I didn't have the other 5th grade teacher. From what I heard, she was mean. Really mean. Hit her students with a yardstick kind of mean.

That kind of “physical discipline” was common at the schools I went to. You could be “physically disciplined” for any and all infractions. Missing a spelling word, talking without permission, not following instructions, talking back, perceived talking back. You name it. I wasn't worried about getting hit though. My mom always sent a letter to the schools I went to and told them I was not to be physically disciplined by any school employee. For any reason. Ever. I think it had something to with her childhood Catholic school beatings from the nuns.

Discipline aside, I was worried that this new teacher would be mean. And strict. And I would hate every day of school. We all sized her up. Young (23 we found out later), short (two students in the class were taller) and white. Hmmmm… not much of that around this black and Hispanic school.

Once we were all in class and roll was taken, she had us sit on the carpet she had brought with her and explained how things would be in her classroom. This is what we were waiting for. There was some nervousness since earlier a new student came in the room and our new teacher called out, “Hi David.” David went pale. It seems David was in her class at his last school. He didn't seem happy to see her, not good.

“First thing,” she said after we settled down, “I will never hit any of you. I may get mad and drop you out that window onto your head, but I will never hit you.” Hmmm….

It turned out to be true. She never hit any of us. And she never threw anyone out the window either. What she did was teach us about life. Not just “life”, but our lives. Our impoverished, hard little lives. She knew that not all of us would make it through what we were living, some of us would be sucked down never to recover. But she was determined to give us as many tools as she could to help us make it.

She pointed out that the choices we make now determine our future. That we can choose to be like our siblings and neighbors who dropped out of school and do drugs......or not. We could drop out and then only get work at low income jobs or end up living in the projects.......or not.

She showed us that we were smart, capable students and that our past grades did not determine our intelligence or our success. She took kids who were behind by as much as 3 grades and by the end of the year they were at grade level. She showed us that we had gifts untapped. That we all deserved respect and though we might not be treated with value at home, we were valuable. And that failure was not a bad thing, not trying was.

She saved my life by showing me a different future than the one that surrounded me. And made me realize that I can decide my path. Before her I missed a lot of school. I just didn't go and my grades reflected that. When I received a report card with all A’s &; B’s, I went and thanked her. She changed my world again when she told me not to thank her. “You earned the grades, not me.” She told me. “You can do the work, if you’re here.” Ahhhhh…I get it. Another life lesson.

She did all this and so much more my 5th grade year. In a thousand little ways and hundreds of big she changed me. I am happy to say that because of her I never did hard drugs. I never got arrested. I went to college. I never had to live in the projects again. And I never stood on someone’s back so I could feel better about myself.

I wish I could clone her into a million Miss Silberbergs so that every student could have the opportunity to learn academia, life and self from her.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Denver Public Schools I went to:


Kindergarten

Stevens
Evans

1st Grade
Evans
Emerson

2nd Grade
Emerson
Whittier

3rd Grade
Whittier

4th Grade
Whittier
McKinely
Wyatt

5th Grade

Wyatt

6th Grade
Wyatt
Montclair
Ellis

7th Grade
No school

8th Grade

Smiley

9th Grade
Smiley
Place
Morey

10th Grade
East

11th Grade
East

12th Grade
East

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Phone Call

I am sitting in my 6th grade classroom at Wyatt Elementary with all of the other students having a normal uneventful day when the school secretary comes to the door and looks straight me and says, “Maura, you have a phone call.” My first thought is, “She knows my name?”


“Ok.” I answer getting up and begin heading to the door. The whole class quiet as I make my journey. I see she is holding the phone. It’s a big heavy, black rotary dial phone, funny, I didn't realize it before. It has 5 clear buttons on the bottom and one red one that I know is for putting people on Hold.  

My mind is a blank as to who could be calling me at school. I have never gotten a call at school before and I wasn't sure what to make of it. It can’t be anyone at home since we don’t have a phone, because we can’t afford it. Maybe my mom or my sister are calling from a neighbor’s house, but why would they do that when the school is just two short blocks away? While I ponder all of this the secretary plugs the phone into the classroom door jam. This is not peculiar to me. “Thank you.”, I say taking the receiver she is holding out to me. I turn away from her for privacy, facing back into the classroom which is now empty. All of the students are gone.


Dreams are funny that way. The way the most unusual things seem normal.


“Hello?” I answer.
“Maura, It’s your father.”
“I know.” I answer, recognizing his voice at once. This too is peculiar since I hadn't heard his voice in 6 years and wouldn't recognize it, or him for that matter, if this weren't a dream.
“Do you love me?” he asks.
“Of course I love you, you’re my father.” I answer.
“That’s good, because nobody else does.” he replies.


That is all. Dream over. Just my dad calling to ask if I love him. Weird, but aren't all dreams? I tell no one about my dream, but it stays with me, talking to him seemed so real I can’t really shake it, but no, I don’t share this. I am worried that if I tell any of my family they will make fun of me or be mad at me for loving the man they all hate so venomously. They won’t understand that I can love this dad who left when I was 5, never to contact us again. Ever. Who almost choked my mom to death in front of us in one of his angry drunken episodes. Who regularly, and thoroughly, beat my siblings and made their lives a living hell.


Not me though, he didn't beat me. I was “the baby” and too young for such abuse. Funny how even monsters can have boundaries. I was his little buddy. I was the one he took to the bars with him when Mom was at work and my siblings at school. We would go to one of the neighborhood bars along Colfax, The Squire Lounge being one of his favorites. Mine too, I loved the way the door opened directly on the corner. It was magical to me. We never sat in the red booths liked I liked, instead he would lift me high up on the bar stool at the bar where the bartender would give me a Shirley Temple (7-up with grenadine) or a Roy Rogers (Coke with grenadine) or a Coke with cherries, I never got to pick for myself, but that was ok, I enjoyed them all. Yup, at these times, I was his little buddy.

My Dad also defended me when no one else did. One night I woke up scared and crying because I saw a giant eye on the wall by my bed. No one believed me, they kept saying it was a dream, that got me even more upset and I cried harder, desperate for them to believe me. | “Enough” dad told everyone, “If she says she saw it, then she saw it!.
“Here”, he said giving me a long thin curtain rod. “If it comes back, you poke and it will go away.” My first lesson in self-defense.


Though I was his bar buddy and he defended me, I never missed him after he left. The tension in the house went down considerably and we didn't have to walk on eggshells anymore, and there weren't any more beatings, for mom or the kids, but I didn't hate him either. He was just gone and for the most part our daily lives were more peaceful.


About a week after my dad dream, my Mom came home late after work with a friend, a women she met through political work. She had been someplace else first, I wasn't sure where but I could smell she she had been drinking. Not beer which was almost the only thing I ever saw her drink, but liquor.  For courage it turned out. She was visibly upset as she gathered us together and quietly told us “Your Father is dead. He killed himself in California about a week ago.” Nobody cried, everyone was just quiet with their own thoughts. My thoughts were of course about my dream. The last part. The “That’s good, because nobody else does.” part. He committed suicide and in my dream when I said yes I loved him, he said “That’s good, because nobody else does.”


I am happy believing that my dad died knowing that there was one person in the world who loved him when he died. I didn't mourn his death. I hadn't seen him since I was 5, so I didn't miss him in death. Gone is gone, whatever the reason. Later I would mourn that I never got to know him and that I never got to really have a father. Later still, I realized that if he hadn't left us when he did, I too would have ended up hating him and he would have died unloved. Funny isn't it? That his selfish act of leaving his wife and five children ended up allowing a love for him in his death that he wouldn't have had otherwise.

No, I have never hated him and all these years later, I no longer love him either. It has been so long since I last saw him and being so young at the time I never really knew him. Regardless of it all, he still is and always will be my father, a part of me. Even though I can no longer remember the sound of his voice, I have not forgotten being in my 6th grade classroom and getting his call.


Songs from the early years

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let...fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but..two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road.

1-2-3-4!
We don’t want your stinking war!

Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now
I feel good, I knew that I would, now
So good, so good, I got you
Whoa! I feel nice, like sugar and spice
I feel nice, like sugar and spice
So nice, so nice, I got you

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreaming
On such a winter's day

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

Moon river, wider than a mile
I'm crossing you in style some day
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way.

I'll do anything
For you dear anything
For you mean everything to me.
I know that
I'll go anywhere
For your smile, anywhere --
For your smile, ev'rywhere --
I'd see.

Baby, baby
I'm aware of where you go
Each time you leave my door
I watch you walk down the street
Knowing your other love you'll meet
But this time before you run to her
Leaving me alone and hurt
(Think it over) After I've been good to you ?
(Think it over) After I've been sweet to you ?

Mmm I bet you're wonderin' how I knew
Bout' your plans to make me blue
With some other girl ya knew before
Between the two of us girls ypu know i loved you more
It took me by surprise I must say
When i found out yesterday
Don't you know I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
Oh, I'm just about to lose my mind

Mrs. Brown you've got a lovely daughter
Girls as sharp as her are somethin' rare
But it's sad, she doesn't love me now
She's made it clear enough it ain't no good to pine

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

I want to thank you falettinme
Be mice elf agin
Thank you falettinme
Be mice elf agin

Is this going to be on T.V.?

I remember thinking “Is this going to be on TV?”
I really didn’t understand why the news station would come to our house just because my brother locked us out. And the cops were there too. Why?

I mean, the cops usually came when he was yelling and throwing stuff, like the phone after we called them, but man, we had been locked out for hours anyway. Since before Mom got home from work. We didn’t call her when he locked us out though. Our neighbor Mrs. Anderson said we could use her phone to call Mom, but we knew we would get it trouble if we did. Mom had a strict rule about calling her at work. We could only call if “we were bleeding from both ears” and well, no one was.

After he locked us out I just went to my friend’s house and played there. When her Mom got home, I had to go back home. On the way I remembered that my brother had locked us out. I was sure that was all over by now though. Man, was I surprised to find we were still locked out. Mom was home and trying to yell up to him to let us in, but he wouldn’t.

The neighbors were all watching now. I don’t know who called the police but they came to watch too. They really didn’t do anything. Not until my brother remembered that there was a rifle in the house and yelled he was going to get it. Then he did. Stupid.

He was always that way. He didn’t know when to stop. Always crossed the line, went too far and got in trouble. By the time he was 18 he got picked up by the cops and sent to Juvenile Hall more than anyone else in Denver. Ever. But Mom was smart. When he got picked up, she left him there overnight. He learned that Mom wouldn’t save him if he got in trouble and after he turned 18 and could go to jail, he never got arrested again.

So there he was pointing the rifle barrel out the bathroom window and the cops rushing to get us all out of the way. Which was stupid too. The bathroom window faced the windowless wall of the house next door and that wall was so close you had to be almost sideways to go between those houses.
I know, I did it once. Only once. On a dare.

It was smelly like cat pee or something. And it had spider webs that you could all of a sudden feel. You know the kind you can’t see and can’t get off you and freak you out. There was nothing on the ground but dirt, weeds and some trash that blew in, and I knew a mouse was going to be under one of those pieces of trash. But I was determined that I would not scream. After all the whole reason I went through there was to prove I wasn’t afraid. And then I was out, no mice, no screams. Just brave me.

So come on, if an 8 year old could barely fit through there how was my brother going to get the rifle out to shoot us on the street? Anyway he was yelling that he was going to shoot himself if they broke down the door. He wasn’t threatening us. He was just showing them he had the gun. Duh.

But the TV news? Really? Why did they care? Then the cops fired tear gas into our house. Into the bedroom I shared with my Mom to be specific. It was the closest room to the bathroom. The smell stung my nose and did its job and teared my eyes. It was one of those sharp smells I loved and hated. Like skunk.

It reminded me of being at protests with my Mom where they used tear gas to break it up. My Mom tried to make sure I wasn’t at any protest that might get out of hand, but sometimes it happened. Usually my sister got me out at the first sign of trouble when my Mom would say “Get the baby out of here.” We would pass our signs over to someone else, skim through the crowd to the side of the group and walk right past the cops. They never stopped us, my teenage sister and me looking too young to be involved with such things. Later we would laugh about how we walked right past them without getting caught.

So now I know why the TV cameras are here. To record my brother being led out of the house through a haze of tear gas, handcuffed and coughing. Shirtless in the summer heat, with a big afro that every brotha’ in the neighborhood was jealous of. I remember my friends asking how come my brother was white but had such a big afro. That was how everyone knew it was my brother on the news. The white skin and the afro. I didn’t know that years later people would say “Oh, were you that white family where that guy got arrested on the news?” “Yup. That was us.” I would answer. “Yea, I saw that on TV.” Yea.

My Mom & I never did sleep in that bedroom again. Could never get the smell out. We had to stuff rolled up towels under the door to keep the smell out of the rest of the house from then on. The summer was the worst, phew, the heat made that smell rise. The hide-away sofa in the living room became our bed. It was Ok though. We ended up moving from that house later that next fall. After getting evicted.