Me and my dog Shag
There are a lot more pictures at the end of this blog.
I was born into this particular life on April 8, 1950 at 1:07 a.m. Little did I know at that young age what challenges I would endure while walking my path.
My mother was not married when she conceived me nor when she gave birth. That made me illegitimate, although I have never applied that label to myself. I was always just me.
I found out much later, when I was in my early twenties and had obtained a copy of my birth certificate, that my mother had another child, a boy, who was stillborn. I would have had a brother two years older than me. I always wanted a sibling. Instead, I was raised as an only child.
When I was in the first grade, I stood before the class for show and tell and told them that I had a new little baby brother at home. At the PTA meeting that night, my teacher congratulated my grandmother on her new baby. She knew Grandma was raising me. My grandmother was about 61 years old at the time and was astounded. The next morning I had to go before the class and tell them I had lied. I never thought it was a lie; it was just my very strong imagination believing something so much because I wanted it so much, that I spoke as though it were true.
I have always wondered who my father was, not with a morbid curiosity, but with a yearning to know, just the same. I asked my grandmother, my cousins and my aunts, but they all said they didn't know. Even my mother said that she didn't know! No one wanted to discuss it. When I grew older I was told that it was just some man my mother had met in a bar one night. For some reason I never quite believed that, perhaps because I had never seen my mother drink.
Eventually I asked my family who the father was of the baby boy who was stillborn. They did not hesitate to tell me it was the neighbor who lived right across the street behind the big stone wall. I asked if he could perhaps be my father, as well, but the answer was an emphatic no. They told me that my mother did not live at home during the time she had become pregnant with me.
On the day I was born at Booth Memorial Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, my mother could not think of a name for me. The nurse chose it. Thus I became Colleen Sue Downey, born to Bernice Downey, with no father listed. The nurse must have thought that the name Colleen would go well with the Scots/Irish surname of Downey.
When we left the hospital we went straight to the farm of my mother's parents. The story I had always heard during my childhood was that my mother said to my grandmother, "Hey, do you want a baby?" My grandmother thought I was a doll at first, for apparently she didn't even know that her daughter was pregnant. Then she saw that I was, indeed, a real live baby. She took me in her arms and kept me.
When I was in my twenties, my aunt Bernadine, who was my mother's fraternal twin, told me that when my grandmother saw my mother with a baby, my grandmother said, "You can't raise a baby," and took me away from her and kept me for herself. To this day I do not know which version is the truth, but I do know that from that day forward I lived with my maternal granparents, Cordie Ethel Cole Downey and Peter Augustus Timothy John Burr Downey. My mother did not live there on the hobby farm with us but came to visit. I was taught to call her Bernice rather than Mom or Mother. I thought of her as a rather eccentric aunt.
I grew up as an only child on my granparents' farm in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, about seven miles north of downtown St. Paul. My friends were the menagerie of cats, dogs, and whatever else happened to be hopping around, such as birds, rabbits, squirrels and a barn full of pigeons.
I don't remember much before the age of three or four. My very earliest memory is of me sitting on my little red potty chair and being potty trained. My grandmother made me go potty every morning when I first woke up. One day I got stubborn about it and insisted I didn't have to go. She got mad and told me, "Ok, go eat your breakfast then." I did, but soon started squirming uncomfortably. When her back was turned, I snuck back into the bedroom, sat down on my little potty chair, and relieved myself. My grandmother heard me, and when I was done, I got a sound spanking for not having gone in the first place when she had told me to. I think she was really mad at my grandfather and took it out on me.
My grandmother did everything for me. She even wiped my butt until I was over five years old. I remember when I was quite small I would sit on the pot and yell "Done! Done! Grandma! I'm done!" I would get very upset if she didn't come and wipe my little butt right away. When my Aunt Dolores came from Nebraska to visit, she would always get mad because I would never let her wipe me. It always had to be Grandma!
Toilet training must be very traumatic, for I notice that a lot of people's earliest memories revolve around this natural function. It seems to be an experience that most people don't forget.
Grandma didn't spank me very often. I only recall two occasions when I was spanked; the one just mentioned, and once when I refused to go to Sunday School. That was the time she picked up a hairbrush and gave me a sound beating on the bare butt.
Looking back, I don't think I received a spanking on those two occasions because my deeds were so dastardly. Most likely my normally loving and mellow grandmother was upset about something else or with someone - no doubt with her awful husband, my grandfather.
To my knowledge, my grandmother did not know her husband was awful. She had known him since her childhood, for they were first cousins. Their mothers were sisters. Their family did not wish them to marry at all, so they ran away from York, Nebraska and came to St. Paul, Minnesota, and were married on Halloween Day of 1911. My grandmother was already pregnant with her first child. Grandma was born and raised in Bushnell, Illinois. After she graduated from high school, she removed to York, Nebraska to help her Aunt Effie out on the farm. Effie had six children.
I loved growing up on the farm in Vadnais Heights. By the time I was born it was no longer a working farm, but that was even better. It meant I could grow up enjoying the land but not have to do a lot of chores.
The farm was my refuge - not the house, for that was a place of danger - but the fields, the meadows and the forest. There were many times that I had to run quickly away from the house, for unknown to my beloved grandmother,my awful grandfather sexually molested me from the time I was about three years old until I was thirteen.
My earlies memory of my grandfather was sitting on his lap learning to play checkers. Then the abuse began. When my grandmother went to the store, to PTA meetings, or to do other necessary errands, I wold be called to my granfather's side. He would sit on his chair at the head of the big oak table in the large red and yellow farmhouse kitchen. When I obediently arrived next to him
(to be continued; this is hard to write about; will come back to this part later)
Of course I never told anyone about any of this until I grew up. Children seldom do. There are many reasons. First, they are afraid. Afraid of what will happen or of the threats the perpetrator makes to the child. My granfather often warned me that if I told, he would come back and haunt me after he died. To solidify my fear, he would make me stay up late at night to watch horror movies on our black-and-white television set. Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf movies might seem pretty tame by today's standards, but when I was a child I was terrified. Perhaps watching them intensified the fear I already held within myself.
Another reason children don't tell is because they, perhaps unconsciously, want to protect the innocent - in my case, my grandmother - from the terrible knowledge. What would that knowledge have done to her? What she be mad at me? Would she believe me? Would she think I was a terrible child? Would she think it was my fault? What would happen to me? Would I no longer have a place in her affections? Maybe Grandma wouldn't love me anymore. Then who would protect me from the other bad things in life, like sickness and getting hurt? Or maybe everyone would find out what Grandpa was doing to me and then I would be even more ashamed. So I kept my terrible secret and never told anyone until I was fully grown. This is how child molesters get away with their monstrosities for so many years.
Not only did I have to put up with my grandfather's sexual molestation; I also had to put up with his verbal abuse. Whenever he wanted anything, he shouted. Whenever he had an argument with my grandmother, he yelled at the top of his lungs. My grandmother used to tell him, "I guess you're always right because you yell the loudest." Sometimes they would have terrible fights. Once my grandmother got so mad she threw a wooden yardstick at him. He broke it in half and threw it back. She broke those two pieces in half again and threw them back at him. This went on until there was nothing left of the poor yardstick.
Just before this fight we had been sitting in the living room watching television. As the fight intensified, I ran into the bedroom, jumped into bed, pulled the covers up to my chin and put the pillow over my head while I tried to plug my ears to shut out the sound of the fighting. I cried and trembled and tried to burrow my small body deeper under the covers. This is what I did every time they fought at night. Parents have little realization of what their fighting does to their children.
I remember once I was visiting at Aunt Bernadine's house. She and Uncle Everett began to fight. It made me cry. Bernadine stopped fighting and gave me a hug. "What are you crying for?" she asked. "We're not mad at you. We're just mad at each other." I still felt bad, though. Bernadine often told me I was too sensitive. It seemed to me that more people should be more sensitive of the feelings of others. Then there would be less fighting in the world.
Often the fights between my grandparents happened at night. My grandmother would be lying in bed reading, which she loved to do. I would be lying there next to her either reading or trying to fall asleep. (I shared a bed with my grandmother until I was about eleven or twelve years old, for my grandfather always slept alone on the couch ever since I could remember. There were two bedrooms upstairs, but it was too scary up there alone at night. I always felt safest in bed right next to my grandmother.)
We'd be lying there reading or drifting off to sleep, or even already asleep, and all of a sudden we would both jump, for my grandfather would shout, "Cordie! Cordie! Come out here and watch this show with me."
She would yell back that she was sleeping, but he would yell louder, at the top of his voice, "Cordie! I said come out here and watch this show with me."
So she would have to get up out of her cozy bed, and often out of her sound sleep, and go into the living room and watch television just because her husband wanted her to and because she was sick of listening to his yelling.
Sometimes it was the Red Skelton show. Other times it was some horror or mystery show that came on late at night. Sometimes he would not only yell, "Cordie," but also, "Kid," and then I'd have to get up and watch television too.
My grandfather never ever called me Colleen. Never once did I hear him call me by my name. It was always "Kid."
"Kid, come here!" he would yell. Once I was way up the hill playing with the neighbor children, Theresa and Tammy Fast. Over all that distance - through our apple orchard and across the corn field that we rented out, and on up the hill - I heard that loud, terrible shout. "Kid! Get home right now!" Then I knew I'd better get home immediately, although I would rather do anything than be around Grandpa.
As I got older, I learned to avoid him. I would be upstairs playing with my dolls when I heard him call me. He was old and fat and walked very slowly with a cane, and later with two canes. He was slow enough that I had time to make my escape before he made it up the stairs. I'd walk very quietly down the upstairs hallway to the attic door, then open it, slip inside, and shut it. Then I would tiptoe across the attic floor to the window. I'd slide the window up, crawl through to the roof of the porch, then shut the window again. Then I would jump off the porch to the ground. After that I'd sneak to the big picture window that my grandparents had installed in the farmhouse kitchen. I would, ever so carefully so there was no chance of my being seen, peek through the window.
Sure enough, there was Grandpa opening the door to the stairway to go upstairs in search of me. I felt very good that I had outwitted him. I did the same thing many times over the course of several years. I know he'd seen me go upstairs, so I don't know where he thought I'd gone. I only wish he'd just give up and leave me alone. I got very good at running away. I learned to run away from danger. Unfortunately, I engaged in that learned behavior many times in my adult life. If there was something I didn't like, I just ran away from it, usually my moving my place of residence.
Another way I'd outwit him was from the downstairs bedroom. My grandfather was very slow by the time I was in 4th and 5th grades. I could always hear him coming. First he'd yell out, "Kid!" Then, when I wouldn't answer, I could hear him scrambling for his cane and trying to get off his chair in the kitchen. Meanwhile, I opened the window in the bedroom, removed the screen, climbed out the window, then shut it and put the screen back on. Then away I ran to the fields, the forest and the meadows. I became very close to nature in those years. I would rather be outside than in the insecure boundaries of the farmhouse walls. The only time I ever felt comfortable in the house was when I knew my grandfather was not there. How I grew to hate him. He was absolutely disgusting.
Looking back, I suppose I was lucker than many little girls, for no penetration ever occurred. However, when I was thirteen, there was an attempted rape. My grandmother was in the hospital for a hemorrhoid operation. I went with my grandfather and Aunt Bernadine to bring her to the hospital. On the way home we dropped my aunt off at her little cottage, which was just up the hill from the farm. I remember feeling very scared with a sinking in the pit of my stomach that felt like a knotted rope. I told my aunt I didn't feel so good. I began to cry and begged to stay at her house for the night.
My grandfather said, "No, you come home and sleep at your own house."
My aunt asked, "Now I wonder what's wrong with her?"
When my granfather and I got bak to the farm, I started to go up the stairs, mumbling that I was going to sleep upstairs tonight. That idea was vetoed as well. I was told that I had to sleep downstairs. So I went into the bedroom, got into my pajamas and went to bed.
About seven o'clock in the morning I suddenly woke up. I could see through the slit in the curtains that separated the bedroom from the living room that my grandfather was coming toward me. He was stark naked. I was terrified. The next thing I knew he was on top of me.
I remember screaming and screaming and struggling to get his fat ugly body off of me. I remember him trying to get me to stop screaming. He said, "Stop your screaming before somebody hears you." That made me scream louder and louder. Then he was afraid that my uncle would hear so he got off of me and went out of the bedroom. Thank God he left before he accomplished what he came for.
My Uncle Everett, Bernadine's husband, came down to the farm early every morning to get water from our outside hose. There was no running water at their house, so Everett came with two big huge tin milk cans and filled them up. My grandfather was afraid that Everett would hear my screams and come into the house to investigate.
After he left the bedroom I slowly got dressed. I knew I had to go into the kitchen to eat my breakfast, although my stomach felt like lead. I went into the kitchen, purposefully ignoring my grandfather, who was sitting in his usual spot at the table. I sat at my spot, pured myself cereal and milk, then promptly propped a comic book in front of my face. The large cereal box blocked my eyes from his view so I didn't have to look at the ugly, disgusting old thing.
I began to eat, even though I had absolutely no appetiite. I felt like gagging. I heard my grandfather say, "What did you have to do all that screaming for? I wasn't going to hurt you. You should know I wouldn't hurt you."
How pathetic is that? There are those men (rarely women) who are into child pornography and sex with children, then try to rationalize their behavior by saying that the children like it. They think that children are sexual beings from a very early age, if not from birth. To this I say a resounding "Bullshit!" No adult has the right to prey on the innocence of children. Just from what I went through as a child, it is my firm belief that child molesters should be taken out and shot, or at the very least, castrated.
My grandfather cast a dark haze over the memories of an otherwise good childhood. The times when he was gone from the house were spent in the usual childhood pursuits. The times my grandmother was home were pretty good, although if he were in the house too, it cast a damper on everything. These memories affected most of my life until about a decade or so ago. Women who were victims of rape when they were kids have feelings of anger, fear, resentment, insecurity, frustration and the inability to form good romantic relationships during adulthood. Many never again feel truly safe or able to trust people. I feel somewhat lucky in that my rape experience was never completed.
I've heard a lot of women talk about such experiences. Studies show that up to 75% of girls and 25% of boys have been sexually molested when they were children. We seriously need to put a stop to this. I'm all for harsher punishment for child molesters.
After the attempted rape, my grandfather never touched me again. I suppose he realized that he couldn't get away with it any longer, for I was growing into a rebellious teenager. He was most likely concerned that before long I would tell. He knew he couldn't control me any longer. He died when I was in ninth grade. I'll admit that I was very relieved.
There were certain aspects of my early years that were quite good. Indeed, if Grandpa had not been in the picture, I would have had a most delightful childhood.
I loved growing up on the farm, even though by the time I came along it was a non-working farm. That didn't matter to me. It was the trees, meadows, apple orchard, ponds and forests that I loved. It seems that I loved trees from a very early age. From the time I was seven or eight, I spent a lot of time in my favorite climbing tree. It was a silver maple that had wonderful climbing branches. I would always climb to the very top.
In the summer, no one knew where I was, for the leaves would hide me. In the spring, Grandma would come out the back door, look up in the tree, and say, "Colleen, get out of that tree." Then she would go ack in the house. Pretty soon she would come out again and yell, "Colleen, get down out of that tree before you fall and break your neck." Then she would go back in the house again. When she came out the third time, I knew I had to finally get out of the tree.
That tree was good for something besides climbing. We used it as a storm predictor. When we could see the undersides of the leaves of a silver maple tree, we knew a storm was brewing.
We had a huge elm tree in our front yard. When I was about ten or eleven I nailed small boards to the tree to make a ladder, then dragged big boards up the tree and began to build a treehouse. I managed to make a nice floor, but never did get around to finishing the rest of it.
I also loved the oak trees. I've always had an awareness that they were special. Some say they are sacred. I was hugging trees long before it was cool.
When I was little, my favorite hiding place was the little space I had burrowed out beneath the row of lilac bushes that bordered the side yard. I often stayed under there for several hours playing with my Ginny dolls and ignoring those who called me. I never went under there in the Spring when the lilacs were in bloom, for I had a great fear of bees that bordered on the irrational. Whenever I saw one I would scream and run away as fast as I could. My family was amazed at the extent of this fear.
I had my own dog, a female Collie named Pal, who went everywhere with me. We bounded across the meadows and hiked down the Water Works Road. The interstate had not been built yet so we could hike for miles. Sometimes I went with Steve Hamel, one of the boys who lived down Twin Lake Road and who was from one of the four families in the neighborhood who were not Catholic.
The little neighbor girl also had a dog. Cindy was about four or five years younger than I was. Her dog was a big, very mean German Shepherd. The dog was so mean that he chased a neighbor man up one of our apple trees. One day Cindy came to play with me in our big front yard. She ran toward me. Her dog also ran toward me, which scared me and made me try to run away. This infuriated the dog, so he attacked me. He bit me quite badly on the hip. My grandmother immediately rushed out and chased Cindy and her dog home. She then called the doctor, who told her to bring me in right away for a tetnus shot. When we returned, Grandma marched me across the street, banged on the neighbor's dooor, and made me slide my pants down a little so the neighbor lady could see what her dog had done to me.
That dog became such a terrible problem in our neighborhood that they finally had to get rid of it. I was so glad, for I had to wait for the schoolbus in front of their driveway. Often the dog would be outside - and not on a leash! There were no laws about such things back then. When the dog was outside in the morning, my Grandma called the neighbors and told them they had to bring their dog in the house or tie him up until I got on the bus. My Grandma was very protective of me!
By the time I was an adolescent, the family had moved away and some nice people moved in. They had two young daughters, but no dog, so I was able to make a little money babysitting for them.
During my girlhood I often hiked and played with my cousin Diana. She is my Aunt Bernadine's daughter and four years older than me. Because Bernadine and my mother Bernice were twins, Diana and I called ourselves twin cousins. All the time we were growing up, she was like the sister I never had. I regret that we lost touch over the years.
In the winter, when it was too cold to play outside, I would amuse myself with various activities. One Christmas I received a toy typewriter for a present. It was the kind that had a little dial that you turned to get to the letter or number that you wanted to type, then you pressed the bar and it would type the letter onto the paper. It took a long time to complete one page, but that winter I typed up an entire newsletter filled with neighborhood gossip and interesting tidbits. Then I typed up twenty more (we didn't have easy access to copy machines in those days) and sold them to neighbors for twenty cents each.
One year I decided to write my own version of Tom Sawyer in the form of a play. It took me a month to complete. I then brought it to school and tried to get my peers to be in it. None of the boys wanted to have anything to do with it. I was so disappointed.
Another year I decided to put on a magic show. I talked Grandma into buying me The First Book of Magic. I studied it and practiced the tricks for hours Finally the big day came. I charged twenty-five cents for admission. I made two dollars.
I was encouraged, so that summer my cousin Diana and I put on a circus using all our dogs and cats for the circus animals. We made a bit of money, which we thought was a great lark. We took the proceeds and bought kool-aid and sugar, made the kool-aid in a big pitcher, and brought it down to where the new freeway was being built. We used my little red wagon. The construction workers were so hot and thirsty that they bought all our kool-aid.
In the summers, we often made roads and houses in the dirt behind the barn. We brought our matchbox cars out and played happily in the dirt for hours. We made the cars go up and down the dirt roads. We used sticks for telepone poles. We shaped bigger mounds of dirt into buildings such as the bank and the grocery store. It was so much fun that I never could understand why boys always played with their little cars so differently. They always smashed them together and crashed them. Diana and I never did that. We were having too much fun playing town and country.
In the autumn we sold apples from our own apple trees. The farm had a good sized orchard with many different varieties of apples, including the pear-apple and crabapples. We would put them in bushel baskets and half-bushels and pecks and sell them at the side of the road.
Then winter would come again and we would get out our collection of paper dolls. We had Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead and their two teenage kids and the dog Daisy. We also had Tony Curtis and Ricky Nelson, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and Ricky's brother David Nelson. In my collection were Elizabeth Taylor and Annette Funicello. There were many others, but I don't recall them all. We got tired of the paper clothes falling off of them, so we cut off the little white tabs tht were supposed to hold them on and we pinned them on with straight pins instead.
Sometimes, when I had no one to play with and had to amuse myself, I cut the cartoon characters out of my favorite comic books and used them for paper dolls. The ones I liked best were Little Lulu, Iggy, Tubby and Witch Hazel. I just loved those comics, even better than Archie, Betty and Veronica.
Other times I would take out The First Book of Rocks and work on my rock collection. I got out my hammer and broke some of the rocks in half to see what they looked like on the inside. Then I would test their hardness according to the instructions in the book, then catagorize them and label them.
Another of my favorites in The First Book series was The First Book of the Solar System. I absolutely loved learning about all the planets. Later I received another book that fascinated me about astronomy in general. I developed a love of learning at a very early age, partly because of my grandmother's habit of reading to me all the time. I enjoyed this so much that soon I was saying "Grandma, read to me," every chance I got. This started when I was only two years old! Soon I was able to pick out the words on my own. From then on I was an avid reader.
Diana and I loved to go to the library. Sometimes we got to go to the downtown St. Paul library, which was housed in one half of a huge granite buiding. The other half belonged to the James J. Hill Reference Library. We would go downtown with Bernadine and Grandma and do some shopping at Dayton's and Donaldson's. Then we went to a movie at one of the huge movie theatres they used to have downtown, such as the State or the Orpheum. We saw movies that were appropriate for family viewing, which is basically all there was to see back in "the good old days." Our favorites were all the Haley Mills movies that were made by Walt Disney, such as Pollyanna and In Search of the Castaways. Our favorite was The Moonspinners. Grandma and Bernadine both loved Gone with the Wind.
Then, after the movie and the popcorn, we went to the library. Diana and I went to the children's room and chose marvelous books such as No Children, No Pets; Tom's Midnight Garden; The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet; Dangerous Island; and Half Magic. Those were the books that instilled in me a fascination with the mystical and started me on my own spiritual path.
Once a week, on a Friday evening, the Bookmobile would come to the little strip mall on Rice Street just up the hill from the farm. Diana and I always walked up there and got more books. The Nancy Drew series was another favorite. I must have read nearly every one of them. As I got older, I also turned to the Beverly Cleary books. From about the age of three, books have always played an extremely important role in my life. As a young teenager, I began including many nonfiction books in my reading lists. I also greatly enjoyed science fiction novels by such authors as Clifford D. Simak, Robert Heinlein and Paul French.
I rarely became bored in my childhood, for there was always so much to do. During those few times that boredom did strike, I would wander up to the attic. There were all kinds of wonderful things in Grandma's attic. There were trunks full of old clothes and boxes filled with magazines from the twenties, thirties and forties. My grandmother saved all the magazines that featured her daughter, my aunt Phyllis. In her youth she was an acrobat of sorts. She could twist her body into various contortions. She was one of the bouncing girls from the St. Paul Winter Carnival parade. A group of marchers would hold the edges of a huge fabric, then a bouncing girl would run fast and hop onto it. "One...two...three," they would chant, and at each count they would bounce her higher. On the last count she would bounce high above the heads of the crowd.
There were many other treasures in the attic. Old birdcages, outfits that Phyllis wore when she was in Major Bowie's troup that travelled around the United States, a lot of knickknacks that Grandma had collected over the years, and boxes of letters written back and forth between Grandma and her various relatives.
Diana and I were very creative in our play. After all, there wasn't such an array of toys back in the fifties as there is today. We had to greatly improvise, so improvise we did.
One of our favorite pastimes was to take a plain large cardboard box and decorate it to look like a castle. We used cotton balls for the thrones and painted a red carpet on the cardboard for the royalty to walk on. For people we used glass stones that we confiscated from Grandma's and Bernadine's costume jewelry. We became quite adept at prying them out of their settings. The only problem was that we forgot to ask permission first. Imagine their surprise when they discovered their vandalized jewelry!
We loved to play outside, especially when the weather was warm enough to stay outside all day. Sometimes we would pack a lunch and go for a hike. Other times we would get together with Theresa and Tammy Fast and have a treasure hunt. One of us would write a lot of clues on pieces of paper. Everyone would start out with the first clue. Then, if we figured it out, it would lead us to where the second clue was hidden. These clues were hidden all over the meadows and woods of the farm, or in the farm buildings, especially our favorite places such as "Treasure Island" and "Dry Pond," or perhaps along one of the paths that wound through the woods. Finally, if all the clues were followed correctly, the treasure would be found, which was usually some small toys and some candy.
Sometimes, when Diana and I were at her house, we'd go to the edge of the woods where a few oak trees grew and play Chip and Dale. (Remember them? They were the little Disney chipmunks.) We climbed the oak trees and pretended to hunt for nuts. We chattered and squabbled back and forth. Diana always made me be Dale because that chipmunk was not as smart as Chip. Diana was four years older than me so she always got to choose the best parts.
When we had to go to the grocery store with Bernadine and Grandma, we got bored, just as children do today. So we played Cops and Robbers. Diana got to be the Cop. I had to be the Robber. Of course we never took anything off the shelves of the store. I just flitted up and down the aisles of the store until she finally caught me.
Another favorite pastime was playing with our Ginny dolls. There were all the rage back in the 1950's. They are shorter and stockier than Barbie and have neither breasts nor a boyfriend named Ken. Aunt Bernadine would make beautiful dresses for our Ginny dolls on her Singer sewing machine. Sometimes we were able to buy store bought outfits that included straw hats and little shoes and stockings. They even had small purses.
Twice a year - for my birthday and for Christmas - I could pick out whatever I wanted for a present. My mother, who had married William O. Anderson when I was three, would get the money from her husband and buy me what I wanted.
When I was eight years old, I asked for a Lionel train set for Christmas. I was thrilled when I got it. That was the same year I got my Ginny dolls, so we promptly set up the train set and gave the dolls a rousing ride around the track in the open gondola cars. Next we gave the chihuahuas a ride, but they were not amused.
My grandmother had begun raising chihuahuas. When the newborn puppies were old enough, they were sold for about fifty dollars each. We kept three chihuahuas - Tinkerbell, who was the mother of all those puppies; Beaver, who was a male and very shy; and Honeybee, who we kept but for some reason never had puppies of her own. Tinkerbell was the mother of both Beaver and Honeybee. Watching all of the litters being born was the most amazing thing I experienced during my childhood.
My cousin Diana had two dogs. Chiquita was a chihuahua. Pixie was a little black and white terrier mix who was prone to fat.
Our dogs played a big part in our lives. We celebrated each of their birthdays with a tea party. Often we would dress them up in doll clothes. They would sit patiently and gobble their crumpets and lap up their tea.
The dogs we had were very intelligent. We taught them to do all kinds of tricks. Each one of them, except Beaver, could shake hands, roll over, speak, play dead and dance. We even taught Tinkerbell, Honeybee and Chiquita to jump through a hula hoop. Sometimes we even set it on fire. They still jumped through it after a lot of encouragement and the promise of treats.
One of the worst moments of my childhood was the day Tinkerbell died. Grandma and I noticed her missing. We called and called for her, but she did not come. Finally Grandma looked toward the street. Then she said, "Colleen, go up the street a ways and see what that is on the side of the road. See if that's Tinkerbell."
So I went up the street and sure enough, there was Tinkerbell lying stiffly off on the shoulder of the road. She was dead. I began to drag her home by the tail, for I did not really want to touch a dead dog. Then I thought, Poor Tinkerbell, and I picked her up in my arms and brought her home. Grandma got the shovel. We buried her in a shoebox next to the petunia garden.
When we went back in the farmhouse, Grandma picked up the old black dial telephone and called Bernadine to tell her what happened. I remember that I was very nervous, for it was my first experience with the death of a creature I loved. I remember that I kept praying, "God, don't let Grandma cry. Oh please, God, don't let Grandma cry." I must have thought my little world would surely come to an end if my strong Grandma cried.
After a few months, Grandma bought another chihuahua that looked similar to Tinkerbell. We named her Tinkerbell the Second, in memory of the first Tinkerbell. Life soon went on as usual.
In the summer, Diana and I liked to build things from wood and nails. One summer we built a frame about three feet tall for my red wagon. Then we put a blanket over it and voila! We had a covered wagon. We hitched the dogs up to it - one collie, three chihuahuas and a terrier - and had them pull us, one at a time, up and down the long and winding driveway of the farm.
Once we built a raft out of boards, nails and rope, dragged it down to the pond, and got on it, without lifejackets, and paddled around for a couple of hours. Grandma and Bernadine didn't know anything about it. Between that and my skating alone on the pond in the winter, I'm truly surprised I ever made it past childhood.
One year for my birthday I asked for a tent. Of course I got it. It was 9 x 11, made of canvas, and had a center pole that was over five feet tall. Diana and I immediately set it up in the back yard and spent many nights camping out in it. When I was older, we dragged it down to the shores of Twin Lake and set it up on the land belonging to Mitchell's pig farm. We did get permission that time. Sometimes some of the neighbor girls would sleep in it with us. We'd have a campfire, sing songs, talk about boys and tell scary stories. Sometimes a few of the neighborhood boys would sneak up and scare us in the middle of the night.
My family was very big on holidays. We all got together every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, as well as for all the assorted birthdays and anniversaries. For Thanksgiving we had a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings. At Christmas we took out the cardboard manger scene. I loved setting it up each year and putting it in its place on top of the black and white console tv that was housed in a wooden cabinet with doors. Then we would go pick out a Christmas tree at the tree lot and bring it home and decorate it. There were always lots of presents under the tree.
On Christmas Eve, Bernadine, Everett and Diana would come down to the farm and bring bags full of presents and put them under the tree as well. Then Bernice and Bill would come and do the same. We had a big family dinner about 4:00 every Christmas Eve. Afterwards we gathered in the living room to open all the presents. On Christmas Day we would have another big dinner.
On Easter we always had an Easter egg hunt and a big ham dinner. Sometimes my birthday fell on Easter. Some years it was still cold and snowy; other years it was very warm and sunny. My grandmother always said, "This is Minnesota. If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute." That was true, for I remember times it snowed in May, and one year, at a 4th of July picnic, we had to wear warm coats.
The core group was Bernadine, Everett, Diana, Bernice and Bill, my grandparents and myself. Once in awhile relatives from out of town would join us, such as my Aunt Dolores, Uncle Ben and Cousin Randy.
For Christmas and birthdays there was always lots of presents and lots of food. Grandma and Bernadine rarely said, "I love you," but they showed their love by giving presents and making food. Bernadine always did everything for everyone. She made delicious food, especially potato salad for all the picnics, and all the birthday cakes. She was forever sewing on her Singer sewing machine and making beautiful dresses for Diana and I as well as clothes for our dolls.
We had picnics every chance we got. It didn't matter whether it was on the picnic table at the farm, at Bernadine's little cottage, or at one of the many beaches near our farm. Our favorites were Lake Owasso, where we would have our picnic and then go swimming, and Lake Vadnais, where we would picnic in the park and look at the lake where no swimming is allowed because it is part of St. Paul's water supply. Often we would pack a picnic lunch and drive in the country until we saw a picnic table on the side of the road, such as along the St. Croix River or the Mississippi River between Anoka and Elk River.
Bernadine always brought a huge tossed salad, a homemade potato salad and a cake or a Jello salad. Grandma would make a tuna salad or tunafish sandwiches, or hotdogs or hamburgers to grill. Many times Grandpa and Everett would not come along, as they were working at the Minnesota Transfer Railway. Everett was a brakeman and a fireman and Grandpa was an engineer. I was always relieved when Grandpa did not come along, for everything was always so much nicer when he was gone. I have no fond memories of him whatsoever.
My Golden Birthday came the year I turned eight. I was eight years old on April 8, 1958. I asked for a bicycle. My mother bought me a brand new Schwinn. I think she wanted to get me something special because it was a special birthday. It took me forever to learn to ride that bike. My grandparents would put it in the old Studebaker, then drive to the State Fairgrounds where there was plenty of room at that time of year for me to learn to ride. One of my grandparents, or my mother or aunt, would run along and push the back of the bike and balance it so I wouldn't fall off. I hated it when my grandfather did it and always wanted Grandma to do it instead.
Finally, after a couple of months, the moment came when no one was pushing; I was riding all by myself. Naturally, as soon as I discovered this phenonemon, I fell off. Soon, though, I was riding well. At that point my grandfather decided that I should take my bike to the top of the grandstand ramp and ride it down the ramp. He insisted on standing at the bottom of the ramp to catch me in case I fell. It turned out that my bike with me on it ran right into him and knocked him down.
After that, my grandparents took me to many different places to ride. Once I rode around the back roads of Anoka, Minnesota. They would drive behind me very slowly in the car. They would even use the speedometer to see how fast I was going.
By the time I was ten I was riding all over the neighborhood and even into other neighborhoods. I decided to use my bike as a means of transportation for my new business - selling flower and vegetable seeds for The American Seed Company. I had seen an ad on the back cover of a comic book. There were a lot of farms in Vadnais Heights and Shoreview at that time, as well as regular houses with huge lots. I sold my seeds to everyone. I have always loved sales. I started out with Girl Scout cookies. By the time I was eighteen years old, I was selling Watkins Products as well as working for a magazine telemarketing company.
There was another aspect of my life besides the sexual abuse that was rather frightening. It had to do with my mother. Because I was raised by Grandma, I never really thought of Bernice as my mother. I called her "Bernice," and not "Mom." Everyone else called her Bernice, so of course I did too.
My mother got married when I was three. She became Mrs. William O. Anderson. We called her husband Bill. He worked at the downtown St. Paul Post Office. My family thought of him as being different than the rest of us. For one thing, he was very stingy with his money, whereas the Downey family was notoriously generous almost to a fault. Grandma always said about Bill, "He's so tight his shoes squeak."
Bill made a deal with my grandparents. He gave them fifty dollars a month for my support in return for him claiming me as a dependent on his tax return. My grandparents were retired by the time this arrangement was offered, so they went along with it. The only other thing he ever did was to give Bernice a bit of money twice a year, on my birthday and at Christmas, to buy a couple of presents.
Bernice and Bill lived in a duplex on Bradly Street on the East Side of St. Paul. Bill bought the duplex and decided that they would live upstairs and rent out the downstairs. The downstairs, of course, was much bigger. He could get more rent money for it.
My mother did not have a very good life after she was married. It started out okay, I suppose. Bill took her fishing quite frequently, which was one of her very favorite pastimes. At first she tried to be a good wife and housekeeper, but after awhile she gave up. I don't blame her a bit, for her husband's stinginess would have made a saint feel depressed.
My stepfather refused to have a telephone or a television, for they would cost too much of his hard earned money. When the vacume cleaner broke, he refused to fix it or buy a new one, so Bernice had to sweep the carpet with a broom. After many years, the furniture became shabby and the curtains hung in shreds, but they could not be replaced. It would cost money that he did not want to spend. He was too busy putting it all into his bank account. When the old wringer washer broke, my mother had to wash their clothes in the bathtub. Finally, after the water heater broke, my aunt Bernadine nagged Bill to fix it or replace it, but he only said, "We have hot water...there's the cold water faucet and there's the stove."
When Bill's car broke down, he wouldn't fix or replace that, either. He just got an old bicycle and rode it downtown every day to his job at the Post Office. He made very good money there and invested most of it. What he didn't invest he put in the bank. He did this until he had several million dollars in stocks, bonds and bank accounts. What good did it do? He and my mother lived like paupers.
My mother didn't drive. When Bill was at work each day, she was left to fend for herself. She did not work after her marriage. Perhaps Bill would not let her. She was usually stuck up i nthat little four-room duplex every day, so many times she would walk down the hill to Payne Avenue and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in the dime store. Occasionally she might be able to afford a sandwich, for Bill did not give her very much money. When she felt very energetic, she would walk all the way to Phalen Park and back. Bill went so far as to put padlocks on the kitchen cupboards where the food was kept. He put out the cans of food that he thought she should eat while he was at work.
Bernice developed mental illness. It got much worse over the years, probably because of neglect and emotional abuse by her husband. I never heard him yell at her or raise his voice, and he never hit her, but there are other methods of abuse. The mental scars can run deep.
Grandma said that when Bernice was in school, she was in a class for slow learners. Her older sister Dolores and her twin sister Bernadine both graduated from Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul, but Bernice dropped out. Within a decade of being married to Bill, my mother developed depression. For all the years she coped with it, the doctors misdiagnosed it as schizophrenia. Today it would be correctly diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
When my mother was depressed, as it was obvious she was most of the time, she would sit and chain smoke. She never smiled. Then, about once a year, she would have what Grandma called "spells." Sometimes they were worse than other times. Usually she would end up at Hastings State Mental Hospital. We would go there to visit her. We sat in a big room that had tables, chairs, couches and a television. There would be many other patients in the room as well. I remember feeling scared because many of the patients were yelling and saying very strange things.
Sometimes, if Bernice wasn't quite so bad off that she had to go to the hospital, or if it was inconvenient to take her to Hastings, my grandparents would go to St. Paul and get her. They would bring her back to the farm. They locked up all the butcher and carving knives, then brought my mother upstairs where there were two bedrooms and an attic. They locked her in. I guess they didn't want her to come downstairs and hurt anyone.
This was very scary to me because I knew that was my mother up there. Often I would worry that her condition was catching, particularly when my grandmother, when she was irritated with me for some little thing I did that was naughty, would say, "You're going to turn out just like Bernice. Colleen, you're going to turn out just like your mother."
Looking back now, it seems so pathetic. People just didn't have the knowledge about depression and other mental illnesses that they do today. Unfortunately there were no good medications at that time either.
I remember once when my mother had a very bad episode. She tried to slit her throat with a knife. There was blood all over. Luckily the cut was only superficial. She also kept saying that the foxes were coming to get us. She was very delusional when she had her "spells." I now think that she was in the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
While my mother was in the hospital, the doctor would put her on a medication that they used at that time. She would get better and go home. Unfortunately, she would either quit taking the medication on her own or Bill would "wean her off of them," for he didn't want to pay for them. Thus the cycle would begin all over again.
I believe that many things made my mother depressed. Her marriage to a miser, being cooped up in a small upper duplex, not having any friends, and knowing that she had a daughter and yet knowing that she didn't have a daughter in anything except name. Many times, when my mother came to the farm - which was only when someone would go to St. Paul and get her - she would go out in the back yard with me and play baseball or croquet, or make angels in the snow. She constantly said, "Colleen, do you know I'm your mother? Colleen! Do you know I'm your mother?"
This always irritated me very much. I suppose, in my ignorant youth, I did not want her to be my mother. I wanted a mother like other children had. I wanted a normal, happy family. Yet I loved Grandma dearly. So dearly that I let her go to her grave without knowing the terrible secret that I had guarded for all those years.
Is it any wonder that I often had bad dreams, or even nightmares, as a child? I often dreamed of the closet in the bedroom I shared with Grandma. That closet was dark and deep. At least it appeared that way to a small child. The clothes hung in front where Grandma could easily rach them, but if you crawled under the dresses, there was quite a bit of room for boxes filled with Grandma's keepsakes. Then, if I crawled to the right, there was somewhat of a tunnel that went back under the stairway. The doorway to the stairs to the second floor was off the kitchen, but "under the stairs" was in Grandma's closet. Sometimes I hid there because it was less scary than out where my grandfather was.
Many times I dreamed that I was in that closet in the darkness under the stairs. In my dream, it opened up to another world. It became the door between worlds. Sometimes I woke up frightened because I didn't know which world I was in. Or maybe it was because I wanted to stay in the other world but woke up back in this one.
Other times I would dream about our basement. It was an old farmhouse unfinished basement with a dirt floor. To get down there you had to lift up the trap door in the floor of one unused corner of the kitchen. On top of the trap door we kept a rug, and that's where our collie Pal slept, as though to guard us from the monster that surely dwelt below.
At one end of the basement was the furnace. One wall had steps leading to the outside. Sometimes we saw mice or little green lizards scurrying across the floor. I rarely went down there alone, for it was a frightening place for a little child. When I dreamed, it turned into a place of horror filled with the vampires and werewolves that I had been forced to watch on late-night television.
It's been said that our childhood shapes us into the adults we will become. In my case, my childhood was filled with creativity, a love of reading, and a great love for the outdoors. Those are the positive outcomes of my childhood experiences. On the negative side, my childhood taught me to run away from danger and from bad situations. That's probably why I moved so many times and had so many different jobs up until about 1990.
I'll post another blog to tell what my adolescence was like. Meanwhile, here's some pictures of my childhood.
This is my Girl Scout troop. Can you guess which one is me?
My cousin Diana and me with our Ginny dolls and our grandparents.
Me in our farmhouse kitchen.
Me shoveling snow in our back yard. That's our barn in the background.
Me and my birthday cake in our farmhouse kitchen.
Me and my cousin Diana having a tea party for all our dogs. That's Grandma Downey in the background reading the newspaper.
Me driving the tractor. I'm about to plow the field behind the barn.
This is me at the age of two.
This is me at age 12. It's my sixth grade picture.