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Letter from Katie: Little Women

We moved to Detroit, Michigan, from Paris, Tennessee, in 1950. My father and his brother bought two small houses five doors apart, their loans guaranteed by the GI Bill. Everything around us was new, the way things were new right after World War II, when the smell of raw lumber and sawdust hung in the air. Even the light looked new, so thin it was the color of skim milk.

We were not used to the noise of Detroit. The ambulance sirens scared us, horns blared, the traffic whirred around us like a great river of cars. We could go north into Bloomfield Hills and see vast luxury, and we could go south to downtown and see country boys in rhinestones and cheap satin shirts lying in the gutters, passed out, left where they fell. Most of them had grown up in an agrarian economy; they had never had money before. Now they were working in the automobile factories, ending each Friday with a pocketful of cash that they spent in a weekend orgy of beer, women, and flashy clothes.

My father and my uncles were rarely in evidence. They worked hard through the week, getting in as much overtime as they could, punching a time clock for their share of the American Dream, playing golf on the weekends and watching television at night. They were about as accessible as President Eisenhower. And so I came to prefer the company of my sister and my cousins—we were all girls—and the women who were raising us.

My Aunt Olyne was the mother of my cousins Sandra, a year younger than I was; Linda, an auburn-haired beauty; and eventually my cousin Patti, who was almost an afterthought. But with her long red hair, brown eyes, and spunky disposition, Patti was everybody’s favorite back then. My sister, Jackie, was blonde and so small that we could slide her through the milk chute when Daddy forgot the house keys.

In my memory, we were almost always in somebody’s kitchen. Often as not, it was ours, with music coming from the big console radio Daddy bought just before television became a craze. And there was always something going on.

“Hold still, Jackie,” Aunt Olyne would yell, exasperated, trying to pin a hem in my little sister’s dress. “You’re worse than a worm in hot ashes.”

We learned a lot about marriage in the kitchen.

“Fred Taylor makes me so mad I could spit,” Aunt Dot said once, fretting about her husband. “He gets up at 6 every morning, fixes himself breakfast, and then he paddy-foots around or jingles his keys till I’m awake.” She shook her coppery hair around her pretty face as if she were really going to leave him, once and for all. “This morning,” she said, “I jumped out of bed and started following him, putting my feet where he put his.” She demonstrated, imitating Uncle Fred’s bowlegged walk so accurately that we laughed till we were sore.

“I ought to just kill him and put him out of his misery,” she said, clicking her high heels on the floor and finally laughing herself.

“You’d better be careful who you talk about killin’,” my grandmother said. “Ruth Owens went to the pen that way.”

“What’s the pen?” I asked.

“Little pitchers have big ears,” my mother said, effectively shutting down a conversation that was just starting to get interesting.

Being in the kitchen with the women was like attending a meeting of the UN General Assembly. We learned about power struggles, border skirmishes, and ultimately about helping one another. When Aunt Dot had one of her headaches, it was Mother and Aunt Olyne who understood it and put her in a quiet room. Aunt Olyne sent some pot roast home with Dot that night so she wouldn’t have to cook supper, and Mother wrapped up half a chocolate pie.

“May as well send something for Fred,” Aunt Olyne said, looking serious. “If it were Clarence Haley,” she reflected on her own spouse, “he wouldn’t know how to turn on a burner on the stove, much less cook anything.”

As the eldest of the girls, I was the first to go to school. I have hazy memories of first grade at Robert Burns Elementary in northwest Detroit: drawing a big red apple and furiously coloring it in, making a chain of construction paper loops, coloring a picture of a turkey. That first year my Mother drove me to school. Having come from the country, where being prompt at school wasn’t a priority, my parents weren’t obsessive about time and I was late a lot. Each day I was tardy I had to go to the principal’s office to explain what had happened to prevent my timely arrival. I don’t remember what all my excuses were—usually it was some kind of invented car trouble (not that we had to invent car trouble)—but there I was. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when we arrived 10 minutes after the bell. I began to realize in a somewhat hazy fashion that there was a difference between me and the other children in school. And my teachers didn’t know what to make of me.

Once when the women were gathered in the kitchen I asked about being different. “Why do they make fun of how we talk?” I asked. “And why do they make fun of our clothes?”

“Put your head back in the oven,” my Mother said firmly.

“You’ll get pneumonia,” my aunt said.

Mother was drying my hair. She saw a definite correlation between a wet head and fatal disease. Hand-held hair dryers had not been invented yet, and going outside with wet hair was tantamount to a death wish, so every Saturday afternoon we got our hair washed and our heads shoved in the oven.

It was my grandmother who offered a retort to the school humiliation. “Ask ’em what banana boat they came in on,” she snorted.

“No,” Aunt Dot said. “Tell them you come from Tennessee, and you’re proud of it.”

The next year, my cousin Sandra entered the first grade, and we walked to school together, braving the bullying and the teasing along the five-block trek. My hair was curly, and I was called “fuzzhead.” Sandra was spared the embarrassment of a nickname, but she had her own shame: she couldn’t understand a word anybody said because they talked so fast. Her teacher sent her for a hearing test.

In those days women dominated our education. Our classroom teacher, Miss Moran, was charged with preparing us for life in the Atomic Age. She showed us a movie about what to do if we were hit by the Bomb and instructed us to walk through the wings of the auditorium towards the back where the gas masks were stored. (Don’t run, don’t shove, and raise your hand to talk.) Under the circumstances, the auditorium might have held traumatic associations. But I remember it fondly, because it was where we put on plays and talent shows and where I sang “My Buddy” on Veterans Day.

My piano teacher was a woman, too. I liked piano lessons, but I hated the recitals. At my first one, I had a fever. I walked out on the stage in my taffeta party dress, sat down at the keyboard and could not find middle C. I tried one note and fumbled to follow it with the tune I’d memorized, but with no luck. My teacher patiently hissed at me to start again. My ears were roaring, Aunt Dot died a thousand deaths, and the auditorium was as still as the tomb. I tried again. Still no middle C. Eventually I found it and sped through my song with feverish panache, finishing with a flourish, crossing my left hand over my right for the final note.

Even music instruction was thwarted by cultural misunderstanding. My cousin Sandra and I were enrolled in violin lessons under the tutelage of a Russian immigrant named Ara Zerounian. When I showed him my violin, a prized gift from my Tennessee grandfather, he became slightly apoplectic at the discovery that there were rattlesnake rattlers inside—a practice of old time fiddlers, who used them to keep their instruments “mellow.” Instead of being impressed, Mr. Zerounian began to speak angrily in another language. I was forced to get a new violin from Montgomery Ward’s—one, mind you, that I felt had an inferior tone.

Once Sandra and I had learned to upbow and downbow and play  “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” we were sent to District Junior Orchestra. One day a week we took the bus to the junior high for rehearsal. Here my enthusiasm for the violin dimmed.

The way you advanced in Junior Orchestra was to challenge the player sitting in the seat in front of you. Both the challenger and the incumbent played passages from the repertoire and the conductor made a judgment call. Two boys sat in back of Sandra and me, and even though we were in elementary school, they fell under the spell of her perfect blonde ponytail and big blue eyes. They wanted to sit next to her, so I was challenged, and I lost. I remember the hot shame of it. I walked out of the rehearsal hall and took the bus home all by myself.

The world opened for me when I discovered the school library and the miracle of books that could be checked out, taken home, and read morning, noon, and night. “Get your head out of that book and go outside and play,” my Mother said at least once a day. So the thrilling stories of children shipwrecked on islands or hiding in secret gardens fueled the games we played in the backyard. My sister and my cousins would set up adventures under a willow tree, draping the branches with blankets and quilts, turning the willow into cabins or desert island hide-outs or royal palaces. We liked the idea of being marooned, of being thrown back on ourselves. We played at being pioneer women living in the mountains, using our dolls for babies and washing our clothes in an imaginary mountain stream, always on the lookout for Indians.

We lived across the street from a large high school, and in the summer the grounds were ours. We set up forts in the bushes of the front entrance and executed our own military maneuvers. Whatever the imagined scenario, there were never any husbands. Since we had no male siblings, it seemed natural. For us, boys were the most foreign of creatures in the strange land that was Detroit.

Somewhere along the line, Sandra, Jackie, Linda, and I outgrew our tomboy ways, and we organized ourselves into the singing Haley Sisters. We had fallen in love with the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk’s television show, and since singing came so easily to us it was a natural move, something we didn’t really even have to talk about. We liked singing together; we found that people liked hearing us sing together, and by the time we were on the precipice of adolescence it gave us a new way to express ourselves.

Our mothers stitched us the kind of dresses fairy tales were made of: blue organza with crinoline petticoats starched into voluminous shapes; yellow satin gowns with cummerbunds and corsages. Our youngest cousin, Patti, who wasn’t even in school yet, sang too, with ribbons draped in her long red hair to match our dresses. 

Now the men entered our lives—fathers and uncles who hadn’t taken much interest in us before were now getting us “gigs” at church services. They even learned to cram crinoline petticoats into car trunks without crushing them.

We started out singing church music, but we ended up doing popular music and show tunes as well. Eventually my piano skills were taxed, and we got an accompanist, Mr. Tremaine, who taught us some of the finer points of performance, how to breathe together, how to relax and smile. My sister, Jackie, turned out to have a voice like an angel. In no time at all, Mr. Tremaine had her soloing on songs like “Indian Love Call,” her lovely voice echoing on When I’m calling you…oo-oo-ooo-oo-o....

The stomach-churning nerves of piano recitals were gone; singing was something different—a joyous kind of tension and release that grew out of something we’d been doing all our lives and knew we did well.

We entered a contest and met Hank Williams’s widow, Audrey, and his son, Hank Jr., who was just a boy himself, a little younger than me. Audrey Williams was a judge for the contest, and she sat in a framed compartment draped in purple fabric. “The purple means she’s in mourning,” Aunt Dot whispered behind her hand. Onstage Hank Jr. was playing the guitar and singing his father’s songs—“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Lovesick Blues”—in Hank Sr.’s voice and style. I remember watching him and worrying about him. His mother was a mess, his father was dead from a drug overdose, yet Junior had to stand up and try to sing and play the guitar just like him.

My cousin Linda remembers that Audrey thought we were cute. We won the contest, which meant we got to appear at Cobo Hall when stars of the Grand Ole Opry came to Detroit. We met Minnie Pearl in the dressing room and hit the stage singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” After that, we made a record and began to be paid occasionally for our appearances.

But the adult world intervened. In 1959, my father was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, to work on the space program. We cried and begged but the grown-ups were adamant. We had to break up the act.

The farewell scene at the airport was a soggy mess of tears and tissue. Aunt Dot tried to be brave. She was dressed in a new navy suit with polka dot trim, her best high heels, and her perkiest hat. Our grandmother was sad, and we had never seen her sad before. She could always make everybody laugh under the most tragic circumstances, but this time she didn’t have a card up her sleeve. Our cousins were as shattered as we were, and when we boarded the plane, it was like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. We vowed to be best friends forever, but it was never the same; it never is.

That first summer in Alabama was lonely, the heat so stifling we could hardly breathe much less come up with games or activities. When fall came, my sister and I went off to different schools; she made friends with a girl named Peggy, and they talked on the telephone for hours after school, her bedroom door closed over the telephone cord. Our game of Pioneer Women was over, our campsite broken up and our lives scattered.

We all survived though, and now the five of us enjoy being together when we have the opportunity. Except for the exigencies of age, we are all the same girls we were when we played in the back yard, protecting our dolls from hostile invaders while keeping our clothes clean (Aunt Olyne would have insisted on that). On April 10, Aunt Dot’s birthday, we all try to go shopping together, which would have pleased her greatly. 

My mother is the only one of the grown-ups left, and we all try to see her as much as possible. Her smooth, olive colored skin and her gentle voice remind us of the strength we all have at our disposal, and the gentleness that we can choose as well.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue.