Posts Tagged ‘siblings’

By Bob Chrisman

I possess no physical evidence to offer in defense of my father. Family stories and my own fragmented memories comprise what little I know of him. Fifty-seven years have blurred much of what I remembered, but I will bear witness for him.

At a trial, the court clerk would instruct me to raise my right hand. “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” I would hesitate before I answered. I don’t know the “truth.” I only know my truth. But the court doesn’t want to hear my doubts. The only answer to the question is, “I do.”

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My Father – 8 Months Old, circa 1914, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

On February 28, 1914, my father, Len Chrisman, became the first child of H.T. and Annie Chrisman. In September of that same year, H.T.’s gall bladder ruptured. The resulting infection killed him. My father never knew his father, not even from stories, because his mother didn’t talk about the man.

Several men courted the Widow Chrisman. A local banker, my father’s favorite, asked her several times to marry him, but she refused.

When she remarried in 1920, she chose a widower, William Hecker, who had seven children. By all accounts, including some from his children, he was a very angry man. Mr. Hecker stipulated one condition for the marriage. “You must promise that you’ll never favor your son over my children.” She promised, and she never broke a promise.

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My Father In His Baby Carriage, circa 1914, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

My father rarely talked about the mother of his childhood. I remember him saying, “She married him because the children needed a mother. She felt sorry for them.”

The step-daughters resented her. Ruth, the oldest, had already married and left home. Fern and Gladys soon followed their oldest sister’s lead. The remaining daughter, Myrtle, who was my father’s age, loved both her new stepmother and stepbrother. The teenaged stepsons, Ralph and Glenn, took after their father. They hated my dad because he had been an only child with a mother all to himself. The remaining step-son, Everett, died in 1926. My father rarely spoke of him, except to say, “He died too young.”

Early in the marriage they lived in western Nebraska. One day the boys roped my dad and dragged him behind a horse through cactus patches. “I never cried. Mom pulled the needles out of my bottom and back with a pair of pliers. I didn’t cry then either. I never let them have that satisfaction.” His voice remained flat as he told the first part of the story, but cracked when he said. “You know, my own mother didn’t say anything to Dad Hecker or to the boys.”

A high school teacher offered to send him to college and pay his expenses. My father wanted to go. “Mom and Dad Hecker listened politely. The last thing he said was, ‘A brilliant mind like his shouldn’t go to waste.'”

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Widow Chrisman & Her Son, circa early 1900s, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

“Mom answered as soon as he finished, didn’t even take time to mull it over. ‘None of the other kids went to college. Len doesn’t need to go either.’ It wouldn’t have cost them anything. I left the room because I was so mad at her.”

Her decision doomed my dad to a lifetime of farm labor and blue collar jobs. He worked at a dairy. He worked in a foundry, a meat packing plant, and finally in a grain mill. He never fit in with his fellow workers. He read too much, thought too much.

My father met my mother in the mid-1930’s. She lived down the street from his parents. The two became friends. In the late 1930’s he traveled to Oregon to pick fruit because local jobs didn’t exist. His traveling companions were his future brothers-in law. He wrote letters to my mother. She saved them, called them “love letters” even though they contained no obvious expressions of love, other than “Love, Len.”

I asked my mother why she married him. At that time, he had been bedridden for five years. “Did you love him?”

She dodged the question. “I promised myself that I would marry someone like my dad.”

“Was Daddy like him?”

“No, he was nothing like my father. I felt sorry for Len. He needed me.” I cringed. My heart hurt. She hadn’t loved my father. I didn’t ask any more questions because I didn’t want to know the answers.

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My Father Dressed For A Tom Thumb Wedding, circa early 1900's, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

In 1942, my sister was born. My father loved her. She was his special child.

In 1943 his stepfather died, but not before he secured a promise from his wife to watch over Ralph. My father never understood why she agreed to put up with someone who had treated her so rudely, a man who cussed and swore about everything. Maybe she felt sorry for him because his vision was so severely impaired. Whatever the reason, she took care of him until her death 32 years later in 1975.

In 1952 I arrived. Unexplainably, my mother laid sole claim to me. She excluded my sister and father from taking care of me. I was her child. The possession of my life had begun.

For the first five years I slept next to my parents’ bed in a crib, then on a tiny rollaway bed. Our four-room house didn’t have any extra rooms. My father added two rooms, moved my sister to a new bedroom and moved me into her old room.

He lived his early life abandoned and betrayed by the people who loved him or should have loved him.  He had no protector, no father. Long after he died I complained to my mother about the kind of father he had been. “Don’t be so hard on him. He never learned to be a father because he never had one himself.” My father and I never had a chance to have a normal father-son relationship. That’s all the truth I know for now.

About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. This is Part II of a series of three about his father. Part I, My Father’s Witness, was published on red Ravine in August. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters, Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, The Law Of Threes, and In Memoriam.

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I’m trying to remember how it was. I see myself skinny on the concrete driveway, dirty knock knees, a striped t-shirt, tiny bumps for boobs. Not only the youngest, but a young youngest.

I didn’t develop until I was 17, didn’t know about Kotex or tampons, although my older sisters told me about starting periods and not to worry when it happened.

I sat on Janet’s bed and watched her being a teenager, brush her thick black hair and curl her eyelashes. When she was out with friends I tried the eyelash curler on myself, clamped down steel on rubber, my eyelashes held hostage as if in a guillotine, waiting for the blade to fall. I was startled by how tightly the contraption held on to my lashes, so startled that instead of opening it back up, I pulled it away from my eye and ripped out a bunch of hairs. Afterwards, I felt like I was peering out of one of those old clown wigs that’s missing sections of bangs.

Being the youngest makes me think of creeping around places I shouldn’t be, opening drawers, looking for scandal. Nudie pictures, drugs, notes from boyfriends. I fell in love with Janet’s boyfriend, Paul, and every time he called I listened in on the conversation. I perfected how to lift the receiver without them knowing. I would unplug the cord from the wall jack, pick up the receiver, plug back in the cord.

Once Paul yelled at me to get off the phone. I got so hurt that I crawled under the impossibly small space under Mom and Dad’s bed and cried myself to sleep. I woke up hours later to my parents and Janet, frantically searching the house, about to call in a missing person’s report.

I loved sneaking around Larry’s room, too. I stole his clothes, wore too-big flannel shirts that sometimes smelled like sweat, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be like him, listen to New Riders of the Purple Sage, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull.

No music, it seems, was ever my own. Everything I got they gave to me, from 50s bop (Patty), Carole King and R&B (Bobbi), Cat Stevens and The Carpenters (Janet), and Frank Zappa (Larry).

They taught me how to drive, I still remember going around the corner of Glenarbor Court for the first time in Janet’s VW. She said to shift into second, but second was right next to reverse. I hit the wrong gear and it sounded like the engine was going to drop out. We came to a halt and she said, “I’d better drive.”

Larry once rescued me when Jay Baca was going to take me off to one of the bedrooms. We threw a party when Mom and Dad went to the lake and Janet had already moved out. I got drunk and Jay had me in his arms. “Where do you think you’re going with her,” Larry asked, blocking Jay at the hallway. They threw Jay out, and me and Larry got in trouble, much as Janet tried to erase the traces of the party the next day.

Being the youngest, I think how much I adored my older siblings, how much they left their imprints on me. I sometimes wish we could go back to those days, those natural roles. My oldest sister says I’m bossy now. I think she’s probably right.

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – BIRTH ORDER

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