Friday, January 4, 2013

A Blessed Journey

Barbara Spring

I was born in New York City where my mother pushed my baby buggy through Central Park.  When I could stand, I rode the buggy like a chariot in the streets of New York City and I begged for ice cream when I heard the bells of the good humor man.  I don’t really remember this.  My mother liked to talk about it.  I was blessed with good parents.

I grew up in Columbia, Missouri where I loved to play with friends in the neighborhood.  We skated, and played our pretend games. I was blessed with good friends.  I collected butterflies and moths that visited the zinnias in our yard.  My father made a butterfly net for me out of an old golf club handle and some cheese cloth.  He made mounting boards and helped with my collection—a happy time.  Until the age of nine, I attended a private school near the campus of the University of Missouri.  There were always a lot of student teachers in the classrooms and it was a bright and airy place.  I remember being sent to the “cloak room” for talking when I should have been quiet—very humiliating.  It was really my mother who taught me to read since I had pneumonia in the first grade and she feared that I was missing a lot of important lessons.  She found out what book was being used after the teachers would not tell her.  She ordered it from a bookstore and I was right up with the best of the class when I returned to school. 
Walking to and from school-my mother allowed me to do this when I was six-was always actually better than school. I learned so much on these meandering walks. Halfway between my
house and school, the sidewalk took me through a gothic bell tower.

Halfway was the magical place. I could see the bell tower as I entered the campus of the University of Missouri near the persimmon tree. I could see its pointed arches and asymmetrical peaks-the tower absolutely drew me to it. I
saw the clock with its Roman numerals and heard the chiming of bells. Am I late again? I drew my scratchy wool maroon coat closer around me as the wind whipped across the campus' broad open spaces. At the tower at last I trudged up six
steps, walked through the archway where, on either side, I could peer through more pointed arches, a stone cutwork valentine or fairy castle where the wind blew through the openings like something alive, tugging at my scarf, biting my
cheeks while soot from the soft coal furnaces settled eventually on the snow all around the town.
I dawdled down six steps on the other side.

The first time I tried to walk home from school by myself, I got lost. I came out the wrong side of the school and there was an enormous red dog with a black tongue. My bell tower- where was my bell tower?

Soldiers were marching on the street in front of the tower, for the year was l942, when I got straightened out at last, I spotted my mother who had come to look for me because I was so late. We walked home through the tower, past the entomology department, down the hill, past the Lee Street store built under the hill where I could usually find plastic mills or white pennies on the sidewalk, past Mr. and Mrs. Funk's house, past the Nailers' with their peculiar son Dennis.

First grade did not go well. I had a bout of double pneumonia, but after I recovered six weeks later, I walked to school each day and by spring I knew each tree and building along the way. Mother wrapped bandages for the soldiers at the Red Cross after I recovered.
Everyone was patriotic. At school we sang patriotic songs: "Over There", and "From
the Halls of Montezuma," wherever that was. Ugly pictures of Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini inflamed us and we brought scrap metal and rubber to school to help the war effort.

"Are you sure you want to donate Betsy Wetsy?" my mother asked.

I nodded. My doll was starting to get rather wrinkled in hot Columbia, Mo. summers anyway, and the faded rubber ball with blue and red stars-I brought that too and laid these offerings
on the pile near the playground at school with a few twinges of regret.

I knew all the detours and bypasses by the next school year. My teacher wrote a cautionary note home: "Likes to tease."

That's because there had been complaints about me. I threw Douglas's hat up in the bare limbs of a tree and he couldn't get it down.

Sometimes I wandered into the entomology department to look at the cases of luminous tropical butterflies that glowed blue and green in the dimly lit hallways, butterflies I had never seen alive.

One time as I was on my way to school I saw two soldiers crouched on the side of the bell tower. They were waiting to ambush their buddies with hard packed snowballs-so perfectly
round that I stole a few-over their loud objections. I coveted their perfectly round hard-packed missals.

That Christmas I asked for a gun. I wanted to play army with the boys in the neighborhood.

"If you get a gun, you can't have a doll," my mother said.
"That's O. K."

I really wanted a gun.
The gun I got for Christmas that year was double barreled and shot corks, but the boys wouldn't let me play combat games. They said my friends, Sally, Nancy and I had to be nurses.

It wasn't what I had in mind, so we went roller skating instead, clamping the skates on to our Buster Brown shoes with the skate keys we wore on strings around our necks.

Or we took the bus downtown to see a movie by Walt Disney. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs fired our imaginations. At the end, Snow White rode off with her prince toward a castle that looked a lot like the bell tower on campus. My book of Grimm's fairy tales was illustrated with Gothic
castles where Cinderella attended a ball or frogs turned into handsome princes.

If I wanted to visit my father's building on campus, I walked past a rose hedge like the brambles that covered Sleeping Beauty's castle, past a pond where thousands of tiny frogs
emerged each April.

"What makes the bubbles that rise to the top of the water?" I asked my dad.

"A good question," he said.

Maybe it's a giant, I thought, or a dragon. I stared into the murky water.

Sometimes I explored the dairy barn next to the pond on campus and let the calves lick my hand with their wet, warm tongues as rough as hairbrushes sending shivers up my spine.
I found that the kittens in the barn had rough little tongues too, and sharp teeth and claws as well.

Outside, the sour grass with its little yellow flowers and heart shaped leaves tasted good to me and the sweet red clover I sucked. The bees and butterflies sucked this nectar too. I watched a yellow tiger swallowtail land on a blossom,
unroll its spiral tongue, fan its elegant wings. Gothic towers belong in natural places.

Years later I made a pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral, in the countryside of France. The Great gothic cathedral is resplendent where it soars upward in a small village surrounded with grain fields. I walked through the pointed arches and all around me the stained glass windows, and the geometry built upon fours and twelves spoke of the seasons and their cycles. The numinous black Madonna, dark and rich as the pond gave me the feeling confidence I had felt on my old campus home.

Somewhere in the imagination, there is a tower, a castle, a church where I always return and the landscape surrounding it with its pleasures and fears come to a point in that place. Soldiers, frog princes, dogs, calves, kittens, butterflies, rose brambles, sourgrass, clover, persimmons with their velvety warm skins and mouth puckering taste-the bare limbs of a tree with a boy's hat dangling,
war, soldiers, guns, skates, fears, hates. The landscape needs to be pierced with a tower, not heavy and blunt, but delicate as stone lace.
Then Michigan.  In the shadow of MSU, I attended public schools and then college where I graduated with a major in English, minors in social studies and French and a secondary teaching certificate. To get it I had to sign a paper that said I was not a Communist.  It was that way then.    I dated then met my future husband in East Lansing.  We were going through a cafeteria line at Kewpies and he asked me out that evening.   

We married after a couple of years and went on a cold and rainy honeymoon to Florida.  We came back to a tiny apartment in Lansing. I tried to find a job but there was a recession in 1958.  He worked selling insurance for Prudential.   I said I never wanted to live in the Lansing area so we moved to Oxford, MI.  I was pregnant.  He had a teaching position in the Oxford high school.  I did some substitute teaching there and some tutoring. 

My beautiful baby girl was born in Pontiac, a hospital near Oxford.  The labor was very long—three days.  The hospital and doctor were terrible in the way they treated me.  In Oxford we had moved from an apartment downtown over a pool hall to a cottage near a lake on Brabb Road where I rocked a nursed my new little girl.  We were poor, but we had each other and a beagle named Tyke.  I read Dr. Spock’s book on baby care like a bible.  

We moved on.  There was a job on the east side of the state in Sebewaing—near Bay City.  By now Norm had a Master’s Degree in counseling and he moved from being a teacher of science to a counselor.  Our apartment was on Saginaw Bay.  I was pregnant again and our second beautiful girl was born in Bay City.  This was also a long labor, but not as long as the first. I hated the hospital there because the nurses would not let me nurse and hold the baby when my breasts were overflowing with milk.  I cried and the doctor said I could go home.   The babies were 22 months apart. 

After a year in Sebewaing, we took a good look at the map and decided to move to Grand Haven. Lake Michigan looked wonderful to us. Some of our friends had moved to California, but we decided to stay in Michigan.  I was ready to put down roots.  I wanted to know the people in the houses and neighborhoods and we made many friends.  It was a good choice.   

We pulled into town with all of our possessions in a small U-Haul trailer and in the car, our beagle Tyke and two babies.  We drove from the east to the west side of the state with no idea of where to live but we soon found a house to rent and settled in.

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