My grandmother had finished high school and begun a job of some sort when her mother died. As the eldest daughter, she discovered she was expected to abandon her job, which she enjoyed, as well as all hope of a 'normal' life, and to devote her life to caring for her younger sisters, her brother and her father. This was made clear to her in a most graphic manner; the time was just before Christmas and her father took her to her mother's closet, told her that henceforth she would be wearing the plain clothes therein, and she discovered that her name had been removed from all the Christmas presents intended for her, and her that younger sisters' names had been substituted. That is, at least, the story as my mother told it to me.
Grandmother had recently visited a friend in some small upstate New York village, and on the night of that day when her father laid out her dull grey future as spinster caretaker to her siblings, she packed a bag, sneaked out of her house and fled to the friend. She never saw her father nor most of her siblings again, except for a sister named Daisy who tracked her down years later and who resumed a relationship with Grandmother and her ever-increasing brood of girls. Shortly after moving to the village of her friend, Grandmother met her future husband and they were married. Grandfather was a good man, the marriage seemed happy, and they ultimately had 10 daughters and a son, of which 8 daughters lived beyond childhood. The son died shortly after his birth and two of the daughters died in the great flu epidemic of 1918, a year in which my Mom, the sixth daughter would have been two years old.
For some reason, my Grandmother had a restless streak which manifested itself in an odd manner; every year or two she insisted on moving to a new house, usually within the same small town where the last house stood. Grandpa apparently was unperturbed by this and his job didn't change; there was no apparent reason for these moves, at least none that my Mom ever knew. Eventually Grandmother had lived in all the available houses in the town where Grandpa worked, and she moved to a larger village some distance away, while Grandpa remained in the town where his job was. My mother hated moving with a passion, and at first remained with my grandfather, while her mother and sisters moved to the larger village. Eventually she joined her mother and, later, Grandpa ended up in the larger village also. I have never got a sense that there was any breach between my grandparents, and from tales Mom has told, they were people to whom others turned for help when someone needed bringing to the doctor or the like. Apparently the local doctor in the smaller town where Mom spent her younger years called upon Grandpa so often to collect or return patients to their homes that Grandpa acquired the nickname "Doc" which followed him all the rest of his life. I know Grandmother only from my mother's recollections; she died at the age of 49 , from complications of epilepsy the same year my Mom graduated from high school and when Mom's youngest sister was only two years old.
I suspect that I may have inherited my Grandmother's restlessness as evidenced by my desire, which is almost a lust to go someplace else from where I am at differents points in my life. Had Grandmother lived in my era, I suspect her moves would have been to far greater distances. A woman of her era was terribly circumscribed. I don't think the impulse to move was rooted in a desire to get away from either her husband or children - there was just an intense desire to try some new place. I completely understand this; I never leave things, really, instead I go to new things.
When my father asked my mother to marry him, she laid down one condition: from the start they must own their own home. So much had my mother hated moving all the time, she had no desire whatever to move ever again. Consequently, my parents purchased a three-story frame house at 512 Goodling Street, an important north/south street in the city, but not so busy as Main Street or other commercial avenues. This house had an apartment on the second floor which my parents rented to a childhood friend of my mother and her daughter Bunny who was my age, while the husband and father of this pair was off in the army fighting World War II.
So few men were at home during the war that there was a manless culture in the city. My father had been denied entrance to the service because of his age, although he had tried to enlist; he had married at the age of 41. This was a time when each neighborhood had its own commercial center, and neighborhood groceries were found every few blocks. Mom tells me that so many young wives were living alone, with no one to babysit while they shopped for groceries, that it was common for a line of infants in carriages to be left outside the larger grocery stores in the commercial district which lined the avenue a block north of my parents' home. Young mothers might come into the store and call out, "The baby in the blue jumper is trying to crawl out of the buggy!" or "The little girl in the pink dress is crying!" and the mother oif the child in question would hurry out to fix the problem. No one worried about abduction or mishap beyond the normal type of mishap which might occur at home as easily as it would on the sidewalk outside the grocery.
When I was three, my Uncle Bern who had inherited the family farm in Reedville, 15 miles south of the city, developed a severe heart condition which rendered him unable to continue the strenuous business of farming, though I believe that was the life he loved with all his heart. His wife, Aunt Delia, was the quintessential house-proud farmwife, who dearly loved Uncle Bern. It was agreed among the members of the family that my parents would swap their home in the city for the Farm. Thus my mother, who had always been a girl of the towns and villages, came to be a farmer's wife. She had hoped for a life in the city and she had hoped to remain in the house she and Dad bought when they married, but I never heard her complain about the new circumstances in which she found herself. Late in life she said she felt it was much better to have raised nine kids - eight of them boys - on a farm in the country, rather than in the city. For my father, however, it was a bitter disappointment. He did not like the regulated life of a farmer with the never-ending morning and evening milking, the lack of time off, the lack of control over one's time, the endless round of planting, cultivating (i.e. weeding crops), harvesting and so on.
Frequently Aunt Delia would have me visit her and Uncle Bern in the city; they were childless and they loved me very much. Dad and Bern's sister Agnes (also childless) lived across the street from Aunt Delia, with her husband Mick who was a car salesman and who owned all the buildings on the short block of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst streets - the side of the block which faced Delia's house. Uncle Mick's buildings consisted of three three-story houses which were broken into apartments and a long multi-car garage which looked like it had six parking slots - at least there were six square windows in the facade of the one-story wooden building. Aunt Agnes was my favorite aunt and she adored me. She was a wonderful aunt for a child to have, but she was a sore trial to any adult who knew her. I didn't know it for years but she was a severe alcoholic, whom I think may also have been mildly agorophobic. In a "Chap Record" I found at the Farm later, there was an entry that predicted she would end up tired and nervous, bent over a washtub. Chap records were a fad, something like autograph books, only instead of containing autographs, they had entries by the owner noting each person he or she met with a humorous note as to how they struck the writer.
Aunt Agnes loved having me to stay with her for short vacations. These visits were very odd times; she was a weird combination between a fussy guardian and a permissive one. She taught me how to behave and how to use every possible table utensil including shrimp forks and fingerbowls, without ever once giving any kind of meal except a quick one at the kitchen table at which I was never joined by anyone except my brother Gary when he was also invited. Things not eaten at one meal showed up again at the next, not out of some form of punishment, but just because there it was and there we were. Gary and I learned early that Aunt Agnes would not hear us go to the back door and throw things off the back landing - Mick and Agnes' apartment was on the second and third floors of the corner building, so uneaten food made a most satisfying arc as it descended into the back area below. Often Gary and I would check on our next visit to see what stage of decay some of the larger bits of food had attained since we threw them.
Aunt Agnes - or Aunt Delia, for that matter - thought nothing of sending us to the shops which were a block north of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst. So long as we didn't have to cross a street, they saw no need to worry about our safety. The only street we ever crossed was Opal Street itself, since the two aunts, who had a bit of a rivalry over my affections, lived on opposite sides of that street and I had to (and wanted to) see plenty of each. On these forays of perhaps 200 or 300 feet, I was given all sorts of safety instructions: look both ways, don't dawdle, watch always for the automobiles which apparently were believed to lie in wait with drivers who neither saw us in front of them nor who had any other purpose in life than to mow down heedless children.
When I was six and had begun first grade, I was visiting one of the two aunts and I had with me the money to do some Christmas shopping for the first time in my life. I think I had to purchase a gift for the draw at my school at the local five and ten on the commercial block which had a selection of enticing toys on offer. On this occasion Gary was with me, and we were allowed to go by ourselves (as always) to do our Christmas shopping. The modern parent might think that my aunts were incredibly lax in their oversight, but at this time it would have been far more unusual for any child to be restrained from exploring his own block. Children seemed to live outside on the local sidewalks. We seemed to live in a world that cherished us; my aunts, especially Delia, from whose house Gary and I actually made our sortie, were actually more overprotective than otherwise, but protection of children in those days meant cautioning them about heights, cars, sharp objects and electricity.
At the five and ten, Gary and I separated and he was looking at one side of a toy counter while I was in the aisle that ran the length of the opposite side of the counter. Counters in five and dimes were generally like long tables; one could see across the store over them. Those stores did not have the high walls between aisles which block one's view as does Walmart or other stores of today. While I was looking at a bunch of hard-covered books on the counter, a man in a grey three-quarter length coat and a fedora-style hat - the winter uniform of any man in public in those days - came to stand beside me and opened a conversation. He asked my name and age and if I went to school yet. I answered everything truthfully and in a respectful manner. Although I had been cautioned about dealing with strangers, I always imagined strangers as being men or women on the street. This was in a store and thus the other constant injunction to always be polite and respectful to adults was in operation. The man asked if I had any girlfriends, and I recall being a little confused as to how to answer. I kind of intuited, even at that age, that the cool young man always would reply, 'yes' to this question. I both knew and kind of didn't know exactly what was meant by the term 'girlfriend'. I knew that it meant something different from 'friend who happens to be a girl', but I salved my conscience by recalling that I DID have plenty of friends at school who fit the category 'girl' so I said 'yes'. I also was beginning to feel uncomfortable with this man - he stood very close and spoke in an undervoice. He seemed so old, and his voice held something different from the jocular tone in which my uncles, or my Dad's friends, spoke to me. I looked for Gary but he was engrossed in something in the next aisle.
The man then went on to ask me if I knew "what girls like." I felt a sort of sick fear slide down inside my chest to my stomach. I didn't dare move away - he was a GROWN UP - and I didn't dare lie, though I SO didn't want to know, because somehow there was an aura of - not really menace - but sort of sickness, like watching someone cut open an animal, so I said, "No." I never felt physically threatened, just a sort of horrified feel of the Earth shfting unpredictably under my feet. I have since had dreams - though they probably have nothing to do with this incident - where something is very wrong, but all around me people are unconscious of anything unusual and are proceeding with daily concerns and I can't seem to communicate the danger. This felt exactly like that dream. The man proceeded to tell me a number of graphic scenarios, about bodily areas in girls whose appearance and purpose I wasn't really sure about. I was in a panic. I felt smothered by this man. I desperately willed Gary to look up, but he didn't.
Finally a sales clerk started to come in our direction - not because of the man, but because she apparently had business near us. The man quickly stepped away, breaking the spell that had held me frozen. Quickly I darted around the counter to Gary and whispered urgently, "Come on!" I had already gathered a couple of gifts, and being the orderly and regulated child I was then, I felt I had to stop and purchase these before leaving the store. The whole time I was frantic with worry that the man would return to me and I couldn't yet speak to Gary because for some obscure reason it was imperative that the store's personnel not hear me, but the alternative to making the purchases was to return each item to where I had found it (it never occurred to me to just drop them anywhere other than where I found them), and doing that felt far riskier. It would have returned me to the man's proximity. As we scurried home, I told Gary all that had been said, and I think it scared him too although he was always much braver than me and I really don't recall his reaction.
When I got back to Aunt Delia, I told her the whole, word for word as I recalled it. If you knew Aunt Delia, or at least knew how she appeared to me, you would realize the extent of my shock. Aunt Delia was nice through and through. Such words as I was saying are not ones I would EVER have spoken to any adult, let alone her, under any other circumstances. Aunt Delia had grey hair which she wore in a bun, and wire rimmed glasses. Her character matched her appearance - a grandmotherly, kindly, sweet, decent woman who thought only of ginger cookies and family pictures, not of getting girls alone and touching them in dirty places. She was all that is meant by the word 'genteel'. Of course she was shocked and horrified, and happily she did not for a minute make me feel bad or as if I had somehow done wrong.
I don't think I was terribly marked by this incident, although I can still picture the man in his grey coat and his fedora. I can't picture his face, though. I became, perhaps, a little warier for a time and probably had a healthier - though not morbid - awareness of how to behave toward people I didn't know. I never ascribed those occasional dreams I mentioned above to this incident, and even if they were a result, they have not been a serious factor in my life. I think my relatives reacted exactly correctly - they were on my side, they didn't behave as if I had caused the problem, but I don't recall that they became markedly more protective, or stopped letting me go about on my own.
When I was in my first weeks of college, about a dozen guys in my dorm were having a bull session and somehow the topic of these kinds of encounters arose. All but one of us had experienced something similar. My roommate (who had become a six foot plus basketball scholarship athlete) had actually been knocked down and fondled briefly by a man who used to watch his Little League games. He didn't seem terribly harmed. It seems to me that more harm is done by overreacting to these incidents in the child's presence, or by instilling terror. I speak, of course, of boys, and of incidents that do not reach the level of abduction or actual sexual relations. Boys know this behavior is aberrant and they don't like it at all, but they should not (in my opinion) be terrorized into thinking every man will do this sort of thing. Reasonable caution, not vigilante gangs of men bearing torches and pitchforks, seems to be a reasonable response.
I wonder, though, what was this man's motive. He made no move to get me to go with him, nor did he talk about male privates; he spoke only of girls. Was he a bitter and angry man who saw a happy boy shopping and who wanted to spoil the boy's confidence? Is there a kind of thrill in having a conversation like this with a frightened and unresponsive boy? I never felt he would physically bother me (I could have been wrong), but I felt like my psyche or my view of the world or my joy was being besmirched. I didn't feel targetted: I felt, so far as I thought about it, that any boy standing where I did would have been equally a victim. I was very frightened, but not of being attacked. It was like things didn't make sense for a while. There was no order to things. I think it is like seeing one's guardian or caretaker being drunk; where is the safe certainty of life?
I am not complaining or regretting; I am more curious than anything. What was happening from the man's point of view? Was he mean? Envious? Destructive? Turned on? I like to know why people do things and how they see their own behavior, and I really can't fathom this man's motives or his reward, whether realized or anticipated. It was never a big deal later in my life; I don't even know why I wrote about it. I was just thinking of that house on Goodling Street and my times there and then I thought of this and it was something to write about.