Preliminary Steps…

I always thought my Dad was pretty handy and a good carpenter. Don’t know if it was out of necessity that he took care of stuff, but I rarely heard him complain about it. Think he really enjoyed working with his hands. First thing I remember he built was a playhouse. It was awesome. Real siding, windows, even a brick chimney. “Neese” in my playhouse when I was about 4 years old, 1955.

After we moved to 15th street, it magically appeared in the back yard from our old house. That must have been a bugger to move. Thanks Dad. He also like to “kanooey” (tinker) with kids furniture. He built several kid sized kitchen cupboards, resembling the old Hoosier cupboards, complete with doors, drawers, each weighed about a ton. All kids stuff were various sizes, depending on how much lumber he had at the time. He’d slap on a coat of paint, usually yellow, and use left-over linoleum for the countertop. I don’t know if he gave them away or sold them.


One of the Adirondack’s Dad built. Yellow, of course…

Once we moved to 15th street, he would stay busy off and on for 50 years with that house (not the play house, the big house). I don’t think it had a modern kitchen or bathroom when we moved in, something Dad started on immediately. He built kitchen cupboards, moved the sink so Mom could cook, and modernized the bathroom. The first addition to our house that Dad built was a “haukee.” A Dutch word for add-on or small room. The door to our basement was on the outside of the house, not a good idea during Iowa winters. This new haukee would eliminate that, plus we had a freezer the size of a 1960 Caddy and it fit in there perfectly. Dad then put on a door from the kitchen to this haukee cause there was no heat in it. The problem with this little room was the step from the kitchen. It was a doozy, maybe 4 inches deeper than a normal step. After we got used to it, it was fine. But any unsuspecting person thought they were falling into a black hole. Plus there was no light switch, just a pull string.

These “odd-sized-steps” would prove to be Dad’s “signature” on all building projects in the future. Mom had lots of plans and ideas for remodeling. She would get tired of the cupboards, wallpaper, or want new windows, soon Dad was back to having that flat square pencil behind his ear, running back and forth to the lumber yard and garage. Mom didn’t like where the garage was located. Too far from the house, way back by the alley. She thought a nice attached garage would be better. Easier to unload groceries, and they wouldn’t have to trudge through the back yard of snow to get to the house. Dad had to build another haukee first. This one resembled a breeze-way. It attached to the first haukee to enable the nearly impossible turn the car would have to make to get into the garage. The second haukee housed Mom’s baseball cap collection. It naturally had a step, another step for the new garage (big surprise).

He later tore off a huge front porch. Replaced it with a small enclosed one, complete with a step from the side walk. And another step into the house. He just could not get that measurement down pat (leveling the floor). He might be off 3 inches or 10. He never used more than one step though. Often it was just enough to trip over, or way too deep.

Their bedroom was upstairs and this staircase was wicked when I was 5. It was about as steep as a ladder, with a nasty turn 2 steps from the top. No, these steps were not Dad’s doing or fault. Just the way our old house was built. When it was no longer a good idea or safe for them to be going up and down those stairs, especially at night, he decided it was time to build again. About age 75 Dad started on a new master bedroom off the den downstairs. It ended up with a couple issues. They had twin beds, 2 dressers, and 2 night stands, so it should have been a couple feet bigger. The doorway was a few inches too narrow, it was actually easier to go in sideways, then of course there was “the step.”

Now over the course of 40+ years Dad had added a Baker’s dozen of “odd-sized steps” to different areas or rooms of that house. But for some reason this small step to the new bedroom bothered him. His solution was to make it a small ramp instead. Now when you were entering the room, you picked up some speed just in time to run into the first dresser. Oh Dad. Had he been allowed to attend school longer, and encouraged to take some carpentry classes. Maybe had a mentor and some building instructions, I really think he could have been a master carpenter. In retrospect, maybe the odd steps in our house were all part of the bigger picture in Dad’s life. He was just practicing on his own stairway to heaven. Job well done Dad…






The Sitter…

What’s a budding pre-teen girl do when she finally wants some of her own spending money? It’s the early 1960’s and there’s only so many job oportunities in Rock Valley, my small town in northwest Iowa. Let’s see, there’s life-guard, but I’m not old enough, and the season’s too short. A new fad has finally hit northwest Iowa. Just 22 years after first being introduced in California. Think it got here by a covered wagon on 3 wheels. It’s called a Drive-in. Girls wait on you in your car. Well, who doesn’t want to eat in the cozy confines of their car? The eating part sounded good, but I don’t want to wait on people. No, that’s not a good fit either. If I were not totally-clueless-about-absolutely-everything-involving-farming, I could pick weeds, run along side a combine, cook sweetcorn or something.

Neese in my room, 1961…

Around this time I discovered babies. My sister Mona just had her firstborn, a baby boy named Brian. What a little heart throb! Oh, I was smitten bad. I even wrote a poem about him. I’ll try and remember it before I’m done, though it was pretty lame as I recall. Hey, maybe I could take care of adorable babies like Brian. That’s the ticket to the-none-of-my-own-money-problem. Once word spread that you’re “available” I had no trouble lining up work. The going rate for my expertise in early childhood development was 50 cents an hour! Watch out Beverly’s Apparel, here I come!

Neese with nephew (ha) Brian, 1962…

There were several families that either liked the way I treated their rug rats or I was so far down on the list of possible babysitters that it was either call Neese or stay home. They never said, I never asked. One such lucky couple to engage in my totally qualified services, we’ll just call the K-family. They were probably in their early 30’s and parents of 3 very rambunctious boys, not at all like sweet-little-baby-Brian. They were 7, 5 and 2. The 2 older boys liked me. They were busy conniving what they were gonna get away with while under my “constant care and supervision.” The toddler was still on the fence whether it was a good idea that I was there instead of Mommy. Unless I grew a third eye, it was almost impossible to watch all 3 hooligans at the same time. My eyes were not those of a real mom’s yet and I hadn’t acquired the ability to swivel each one of them individually-every-which-way. When I tried this maneuver, all I got was a blistering head-ache. Plus, it would be years before the mom “eyes in the back of my head” was fully developed.

Those little shits recognized my shortcomings and were busy honing their invisibility-cloaking skills whenever I blinked. Once the toddler hit the hay and I brought in the artillery from the garage, the 2 older ones knew it was time to call it a day. You see with the ladder, even though I couldn’t walk on the ceiling with them, I could grab the little buggers and haul ’em back down.

After they collapsed in a heap from utter exhaustion, I’d lug them to bed, slide down the steps on my butt cause my legs had lost all feeling, take one look at the kitchen, and as God is my witness, had to fight the urge to walk straight out of the house (kids or no kids) and NEVER come back. No, it wasn’t the kids, they only wrecked the rest of the house. The kitchen had been trashed long before I got there. Now that I think about it, if Mrs. K was not holding down 2 full-time jobs, I’m royally ticked. What a slob! I swear she never washed ONE SINGLE STINKING DISH from the time I babysat until the next week when she’d pick me up and hog-tie me in her car. Come to think of it, this might be part of the reason I was asked every week. I’ve been snookered, huh. Honest, there were stacks of dishes on every available kitchen surface, and they were evil, nasty stacks. 50 cents an hour. Are you kidding me? What on earth ever compelled me to do the dishes? I NEVER did them at home. Mom’s kitchen was absolutely spotless. I’ve said all my married life you could eat off either one of our kitchen floors. Hers because it’s that immaculate, mine cause there’s a 3-course meal on it. Still, I needed to move forward on this gross mountain of dirty dishes.

I’d limp to the living room, over to a stereo the size of P!NK’s limo, only to find records of some old dudes I’d never heard of. What? Yes, Neese it always could get worse. The K’s were COUNTRY WESTERN FANS. This had to be a joke and I’m on Candid Camera, right? I wish. Well, I had to listen to something during my weekly 2 hour stint of dish duty.

At some point in my life I’m going to have to retract all those “mutterings under my breath” about the K’s and their horrible music choices I suppose. I listened and enjoyed, who knew? Though it was not my kind of music, I grew to love a couple of their records. The singers? Johnny Horton (In 1814 we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip) and Johnny Cash (I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, I keep my eyes wide open all the time).

Adorable Brian playing my piano, 1963…

Ok, listen up, here’s my little poem:

“Brian Lee”

Handsome you are with your eyes so brown,

Cute when you smile, cute when you frown.

Your eyelashes long, are as black as can be,

You’re a heartbreaker lad name Brian Lee.

Even my mother is smitten with your charm,

She’d buy the moon or maybe a farm.

If I were older, I’d marry you,

But I’m not of age and you’re only 2.

You’re my dear little nephew and I am your aunt,

So marriage is out, you know that we can’t.

A quick little hug and a shy little kiss,

Is what I call the height of bliss.

Author-Neese, 1964…


Family fears…

After Larry had been killed, Mom developed or acquired some irrational fears for and about me. I understand how that could happen, but back then it wasn’t easy for a ten year old.

Holy spit-curls Batman! Neese about 10, 1960…

Here’s a good example. My best friend growing up was Char. She came from a large, normal, mentally healthy family. Her parents had several children, took a baby break for a few years, then added 4 more daughters. Yikes. The first set of kids were gone by the time Char and I became fast friends. Char was the second oldest in the last batch of their kids. These 4 kids had specific chores everyday or week. I had none, zip, zero, nada. Each one had to either bake, dust, mow, weed the garden on Saturday’s. Their mom, Esther was pretty lenient about who did what. If you loved being outdoors, or enjoyed baking, well, that was your chore.

My best friend, a very special girl, Char…

My mom never let me NEAR a lawn mower. She was convinced that a rock or a piece of coat hanger wire would fly through the blades, out of the mower, pierce my heart, killing me instantly. Even at 10, that sounded a little “off.” Thus, if I happened to be over at the Schelhaas compound when one of them were doing yard work, I’d beg to push the mower for a few rounds of the yard. That sounds kind of crazy too, what kid ever “wants” to mow? Guess that was Neese (doing what I did best) in my first of many stages of rebellion.

Mom was nearly paralyzed with fear every time I got on my bike. At the time I really thought I had the “run” of my great little town, Rock Valley, but there were many places where I was not allowed to go or ride bike. Never near hi-way 18 where Larry had been hit, even I could see and agree with that logic. But the dump, Rock River, Van Zee’s Sandpit, Benson’s Hill, the Park, even the swimming pool at first. Anywhere near railroad tracks or bridges were off limits to me. Every time I got a cold, sore throat, or childhood disease she was convinced I wouldn’t live through it.

I guess she tried to make up for these phobias taking over her life and mine by allowing me to do nothing. I did no dishes, cooking, never a load of laundry, no dusting, never swept, vacuumed, or washed a car. Sounds like I was spoiled rotten right? Well I was, but in reality, this was turning into a very unhealthy relationship for both of us. I wanted to be in the kitchen, learning how to cook and bake like the rest of my friends. But Mom wouldn’t let me literally or emotionally. If I mentioned I was hungry for fudge, apple pie, cinnamon rolls or spaghetti, it wasn’t long before she MADE it for me, but never WITH me. Wouldn’t let me help in the kitchen.

Maybe this was one way old dealing with her grief, but it would put a barrier between us that would take decades to fix. And what about poor Mona and Dad, neither very high on her priority list? Well, Mona had just gotten married, so she was out of the house. Dad would find other things too. Volunteering for several duties at church, the Consistory, Sunday School teacher, and the M-2 program with inmates at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota prison. Should also point out that this “absolutely no experience” with anything to do with housework, cooking or baking was pretty tough on John and I when we were newlyweds. More on that fun subject later!

Mom somehow managed to stay detached, but overbearing, smotheringly close on anything to do with me. But she became an introverted loner with low self-esteem. The closest I ever saw her returning to “the normal Mom” I remembered was after the birth of her ONLY granddaughter. Our firstborn, Shannon Marie born in December of 1970, a little over 12 years after Larry’s death. That short window however, would not last very long. On the plus side for me, her unhealthy need and ability to dominate and manipulate every facet of my life, bar none, had finally come to an end. But for Shannon, it was just beginning…