Rock Falls, Illinois is a small town with not much to recommend it. It is situated across the river from Sterling. My memories are a little fuzzy since I haven’t lived there since my first day of school many years ago. I was a timid kid, afraid of my own shadow it seemed.
“Don’t play with that stick! You’ll get poked in the eye and we can’t afford the doctor.”
“Don’t play in the rain; you’ll catch cold and we can’t afford the doctor.”
My mom was always yelling at me not to do this or that because I might get hurt or sick. We were around horses a lot because my father frequently worked as a hired hand for farmers, but he couldn’t seem to keep a job. I was never allowed to go near the horses. I was told they were dangerous. But they are so big, and wild, and magnificent. I wanted to ride so badly, but I was denied the privilege.
My parents split up right about the time I was starting first grade. Frankly, I was glad because they had lots of knock-down, drag-out fights that scared me useless. When my mother couldn’t find a place for us to live that she could afford, I went to live with her divorce lawyer and their family. They had four boys and no girls, and I was spoiled rotten. If I didn’t like something, I didn’t have to eat it. Their youngest son and myself were nearly the same age and our names rhymed: Aleta Kay and Larry Jay. All of the boys treated me like a little sister but I wasn’t used to have brothers and didn’t know how to take their antics. One time I had a frog put down my shirt. Another time I got carried over a shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Still another time I got dunked when were ducking for apples. They meant it in harmless fun. I wish I had understood that then, but mostly I was afraid of them.
There were horses on the property but only the big boys were allowed to ride them. We young kids were told that they were too high-spirited for us. It was true. But I had a lot of fun there. It was a pretty place with wild violets growing along the hillsides and the main road was red brick. There was a small farm across the road, or up the road a little ways and Larry and I would go play with those kids. I don’t remember their names but they had red hair and freckles. I thought they were cute. I don’t think I had ever seen red hair and freckles before then.
When my mom came back to get me, she was remarried to a man eighteen years older than she. He had never had kids and was so excited to finally have a daughter. He wasn’t just my step-dad; he was my DAD. I asked to be adopted so we could have the same last name. He would have spoiled me too, but my mom wasn’t about to let that happen.
I was glad to be back with my mom but she sure had a temper. My brother was born when I was nine years old. I don’t remember feeling jealous, but looking back, it was about that same time that I started to convince myself that my mother hated me. It seemed she was always yelling at me and comparing me to the teenage girl across the street–Beverly. She was the perfect daughter, always helping her mother, always cutting the grass without complaining. I resented Beverly and my mom. It seemed my mother’s favorite thing to say to me was, “Why can’t you do anything right? If you can’t do anything right, leave it alone and let somebody else do it.” Or she’d say, “All you want to do is play, so go on. Get out of here. Go play. You don’t do anything right anyway.” Yet, if I started to walk out the door she’d say, “Where do you think you’re going? Get back in here and get this chore done.”
It wasn’t until I got married and had kids of my own that I began to understand my mother. She hadn’t meant to belittle and criticize. It just came out that way. She was frustrated with me because I only half tried to do my chores. I had already convinced myself that I couldn’t please her anyway so I didn’t do my best.
I lost my mom in 1994, after a massive heart attack and three subsequent strokes, all within a month. I’m glad I was able to make peace with her before she died. There were good times too, when I was growing up. She’d play Old Maid or Go Fish with me. We did jigsaw puzzles together. She taught me how to play 500 Rummy. She taught me how to cook. And God taught me how to look at the good and leave the negative in the past where it belongs.