Thursday, November 13, 2014

Helping Hands (Melissa)


I like to walk.  It helps me in many ways, both physically and emotionally.  It gives me an opportunity to be calm and to think.  There are three places I like to walk.  One is through the prairie preserve by my house, although I don’t walk there when the sun is beating down; one is along the river branch near my house, because it is very lush, and canopied by trees, and the other is in the historic district of the town I live in. That is actually my favorite place to walk because when I do that I can go by the little cottage that was our very first house when I was a kid.

Our town is a college town. It is sometimes called “the biggest small town in America” because while it maintains a certain Midwest provincial flavor, it is also the hometown of close to 150,000 residents.  Still it is a college town. Our old house is on the grounds and is now the campus radio station.  It sits next door to the president’s mansion, and across the street from some dorms and many beautiful Victorian houses. It also sits overlooking the football stadium, which was not there when I was a kid.  When I lived here in 1968 we were surrounded by open meadows.  In bed at night I could see past the Burger King, one of the originals, the Cock Robin, and then out for miles and miles.

One day as I was out walking around looking at the “painted ladies” as my mother called them, and I walked by the school, a marble structure, where my older sister, Melissa, and I went.  As I passed by, watched the kids on the playground, I thought of a funny story that I remembered.

I was in kindergarten.  As such, my mother always walked me to school after lunch, and Melissa, who I was attached to, always walked me home. Melissa is almost two years older than me so she didn’t like that she had to do that. It infringed on her burgeoning freedom to be with her friends and do the things she wanted to do.  Melissa was a clever girl though.  She worked hard to make sure I made friends with kids near our house, and to convince my mother that I would be perfectly fine walking the not even six blocks home from school.  After accomplishing this, with some difficulty, she was allowed to go to the candy store after school with her friends, and to leave me to get home on my own.

I did develop close friendships with two kids, Jill and Mike.  We walked home together every day. Jill lived about halfway home in one of the big houses.  Mike lived in an apartment above the hardware store on the main drag Washington Street alone with his mother.  The three of us had a lot “play dates” at Jill’s house because she had a big yard and a wishing well that we liked.  We also played at my house because we could run in the fields behind the president’s house.  We never played at Mike’s place though he suggested it all the time.  I once asked my mother why we never went to Mike’s to play.  She just said, “Mike lives in a small apartment and it is right downtown.  His mother is also very busy.  She has a lot of callers.”  I didn’t know what she meant by that until I was much older and started to understand those kinds of things.  Walking home from school my mother always waited in the front yard for me.  She gave me a big hug and chided me for not zipping up my jacket.

One Wednesday after school I couldn’t find either Mike or Jill.  I went looking for Melissa and couldn’t find her either.  She had already gone off to the candy store. There was a boy named Denny that was on the playground, and he said, “I’ll walk home with you, Tommy.” I didn’t know Denny all that well, and didn't particularly care for him. He was a little, tow-headed, rat-faced kid who talked rapidly about stuff that didn't always make any sense. Nevertheless, I figured it was better to walk home with Denny than it was to walk home alone.   On the way Denny started telling me stories about his brother who was in Viet Nam. He told me that he was prisoner of war, which could have been quite possibly true in those days. Then he started telling me some really preposterous stories about how his brother was strapped to a pole and about to be run through with thrown spears, and about how the Viet Cong were out looking for children so they could put them in cages.  In retrospect I think that Denny maybe shouldn’t have ever seen Doctor Doolittle, or Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, which were both popular movies then.

It doesn’t matter.  All I know is that at that time Denny scared the hell out of me.  When we got to his house he pointed at an airplane and said “There’s some Viet Cong now. You better get home quick.”  I didn’t know what to do.  I started running home.  Every time I saw another plane, I hid behind a tree or under a bush.  Finally, I got so panicked I did what my mom had always told me to do if I ever thought I was in danger. I ran to a house with the white Helping Hands in the window.

I hammered on the door and rang the bell.  A older woman answered and asked, “Hello, young man. What can I do for you?”  I don’t exactly remember what I said to her, but I think a close approximation was, “Get the hell out of my way woman! I am being chased by the Viet Cong!”  Probably, what I actually said was something closer to this: “Arrrrrrgh!”   I then dove behind her sofa and curled into a ball, and refused to come out.

She was a nice woman, talked soothingly to me and tried to use cookies to coax me to come out from behind what she called the davenport. She finally got me to tell her my name and where I lived. She knew who my mother was.  She got on the phone and then seemingly suddenly my mother was there. She knelt on the couch and peering at me she said, “Tommy, you have to come out. It’s safe.”   I still refused. I did not want to put my family at risk.

At one point my mother saw Melissa walking home from the candy store and she went on the porch to flag her in.  Melissa asked about what was going on. My mother told her, and she calmly said, “I can get him out.”  She came into the house and crawled to where I was.  She said, “Tommy, it’s safe.  I just bought some pixy stix and I got you a Popeye pez dispenser. You can’t have them unless you come out and go home.” My sister has always known my weak spots and how to influence me.  At that time in my life I trusted her more than any adult, so I came out.

After that, while my mother stayed behind to talk with the nice Helping Hands lady, Melissa and I walked home.  As we got closer, I started to cry.  She said “What’s the matter?  I replied “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?  Mom and Dad are going to be mad at me.”  She didn’t even skip a beat. She just reached out, and softly pushed me in the head. “No. Not this time.  They’ll talk at you but you’re not in trouble.  It’s going to be OK, Tommy.”
Melissa was right.  All my Mom did was to send me to my room for a rest. All Dad did was bring me some soup and sandwich and then talk to me, especially about the proper times when you utilize Helping Hands, and then he left me alone on my bed to deal with my embarrassment.  Later on, Melissa came to my room and asked me if I wanted to go up to the attic. “Maybe it will make you feel better if we work.”  I nodded my head and took her hand.

Our attic was a wonderful place with lights and windows, and mattresses all over the place where we could jump and play.  Melissa and I went up there all the time and did just that.  It was our secret spot.  It is the place where we “worked” and where Melissa gave me the greatest gift I have ever even better than a Popeye pez dispenser.

Because she knew I wanted it so bad, Melissa almost daily used took me up to the attic with a bunch of books and then letter by letter, word by word, and sentence by sentence, teach me how to read and how to write.  She had me copy letters underneath the letters in the books and sound them out.  Both reading and writing were very hard for me. She said, “You are left-handed, but look at mommy, she writes pretty. You will too.  And once you get the hang of reading by yourself in your head, you’ll love it. ” She then would read to me one of my favorite stories Joe, the Bear and Sam, the Mouse before Dad or Mom would shoo us back downstairs.

It would take a long time for me to get the hang of things, because what we didn’t know until I was in fourth grade was that I am dyslexic. Melissa didn’t know about that at all until just a short while ago, because it was ingrained in me that you didn’t talk about those kinds of things.  My mother feared stigmas and she passed it on to me.  It was when I saw the success of Melissa’s son, Patrick, who also struggled like I did that I started talking about it.   I probably should’ve sooner. Fortunately Pat found his niche in art and I found my niche in reading, writing and speaking. Both of us owe that to our parents. I particularly owe it to Melissa who kept working with me, never gave up on me, and helped me to achieve the gifts I now have.

Melissa has always been a caregiver, a teacher, and a person with “helping hands.” She’s a wonderful wife and mother, and someone who I never stopped being attached to. We have always been great friends, shared classes, double dates, and meatloaf sandwiches in the corner diner on Green and Wright in Champaign when we were in college. I am extremely thankful for that. She has always been the person who I turn to and trust in my life when I need it most. Aside from my wife and children, she is one who I go to when I need comfort or solace.  She is the first person I called when I found out I had Parkinson’s.  I still call her first when something great or something bad happens in my life. Sometimes I just call her to remember who played what character in a TV show or movie, or to remember someone’s birthday.  Sometimes I just call her to hear her voice.

I guess helping hands aren’t always displayed on windows to lead you to refuge…they’re just there always.