A Tale of Shock, Overreaction, and Embarrassment!
(Disclaimer From the Storyteller)
Memory is a peculiar thing. We forget information from yesterday but can clearly recall details from decades ago. Why does this happen? I believe our emotions play a significant role in how we remember things. Emotionally charged events can sear some images forever into one’s mind. We have all heard someone declare they’ll never forget the look on someone’s face or the sound of a voice. Yet, the mundane, routine details surrounding an intense moment are often overlooked.
I cherish one particular recollection from my childhood more than any other. At the time, it made quite an impression on me. I still laugh out loud thinking about it. I will concede time has blurred some facts. But, I clearly remember what my mother, brother, and I said and how we acted.
Sadly my own children and grandchildren have no clear memory of my mother. Wanting to preserve her memory, I decided to write a story about her. Hopefully, they will step back in time and appreciate what life was like in the early 1950s. If I am lucky, my family will feel connected with my mother. This is more than a simple retelling of what happened. It is a snapshot of who my mother was.
I have taken some liberty with peripheral facts while writing. All the story’s elements are drawn from actual memories. Any contrived features might as well be true; for all I know, they are.
In 1955, my parents bought their first home, a two-bedroom cape on Auburn Street in Detroit, Michigan. It was a working-class neighborhood filled with small, modest houses built for servicemen returning from the war. Close by was an area zoned for light industry and at the end of our street was a shop that made garage doors. Sometimes, we would stand at the end of the block listening to the strange sounds of machinery operating. A busy, commercial railroad lay just behind the workshop. The temptation to explore the tracks was strong, but we were absolutely forbidden to go anywhere near them. I fell asleep every night to the sound of steam engines rumbling by.
Midwest summers are inherently hot and humid, but I remember the heat on this day was particularly oppressive. School was out for summer vacation, and the street was full of children enjoying their new freedom. My father, a young officer for the Detroit Police Department, was out on a patrolmen’s shift. My mother stayed home to care for my little brother and me. Like many days, she had a few neighbors over for coffee. Mrs. Margaret Dunhill, Mrs. Ruth Williams, and Mrs. Mary Gerhardt had dropped by to visit on this particular afternoon.
My brother and I were outside in the front yard playing with our friends. Michael and Mrs. Williams’ son, Scott, tumbled about hollering and screaming, pretending to be cowboys or soldiers. I played hopscotch with Mrs. Gerhardt’s daughter, Cindy. Scott’s little sister, Booboo, tagged along with us. She was just a toddler. She couldn’t hop too well, but we humored her. Beverly was her real name. Nobody called her that. She, in all likelihood, came to have her nickname because her brother probably struggled to pronounce Beverly. The same thing happened to me. My brother couldn’t correctly say my name when learning to talk either. He called me, Yo instead of Nita Jo. Thankfully, he learned to say, Jo. I shudder to think of what school would have been like if everyone called me Yoyo!
With the high temperature of mid-day approaching, Cindy and I asked to play inside for a while to cool off. Thirsty, I went into the kitchen to get some water. My mother and her friends sat around the table, chatting, slurping coffee, and smoking. Everyone smoked in those days. But Mrs. Dunhill smoked like a chimney! A blue, hazy cloud filled the room whenever she was over. The kitchen was noisy with the radio playing a Perry Como song. Mom loved music. She swayed in her chair, tapping her foot. She immediately took notice of me. My mother was fond of saying children are best seen and not heard. I knew I was intruding into adult space. I whispered into her ear, asking if I could take a couple glasses of water into the living room. My mother was in a good mood and feeling magnanimous. Nodding, she turned her attention back to her friends.
“Oh, the heat is quite unbearable. You haven’t been sitting out in the sun today, have you, Peg?” Mrs. Williams asked.
“Why sure! It’s on hot days when you can really work on getting a tan.”
Mrs. Dunhill probably would have worn nothing at all if it was acceptable. Come summertime, she perennially wore strapless halter tops. She hated tan lines.
“Not me. I try to stay indoors until evening.” Mrs. Williams said. “Flo, thanks for letting the kids play inside.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. They’ve been wilting more than usual with this heatwave.” my mother said.
“They sure have. I’ve made a point of giving Scott and Booboo plenty of fluids. Perks ’em right up. Can’t be too careful, I say.” Mrs. Williams said.
“Hey, Ruth. I was speaking with Louise the other day. She thinks that the polio shot will be ready before school starts. Are you going to get it for Scott and Booboo? What about you, Flo? Will Nita Jo and Mike get it too?” Mrs. Gerhardt asked.
“Oh, yes. Polio is a dreadful disease…those awful iron lungs! I won’t even let Nita Jo or Mike play in their swimming pool.” my mother said.
“Oh, absolutely, Mary! I know I’ll rest easier after Scott and Booboo get their shot.” Mrs. Williams said.
“It’s just amazing what modern medicine can do. What with penicillin now, you practically don’t have to worry at all about getting sick.” Peg said.
Mom jumped up, grabbed the stove-top percolator, and topped off everyone’s coffee cup. She changed the subject to a lighter topic.
“Gene and I watched that new T. V. quiz show.”
“Oh, you mean The $64,000 question?” Mrs. Williams asked.
“The people on that show are so clever. How do you think they know the answers to all those questions?” Mrs. Gerhardt asked.
“Probably read a lot.” my mother stated.
“Flo!? You should be on that show! You’re always reading!” Mrs. Dunhill said.
“Oh, I’d be absolutely terrified knowing millions of people were watching me.”
“Flo, you could do it! Would Gene allow it?” Mrs. Williams shouted.
“Honestly, I would faint straight away with those cameras and the audience.”
Having filled two glasses with water, one for me and one for Cindy, I began carefully walking back out to the living room.
“What’s the scoop, Peg? Your husband works down at the newspaper now. He must get all the stories before they’re printed.”
“Oh, he always says it’s top secret. Truth be told, the machines run the papers through so quickly he couldn’t possibly read anything. He gets the news same time as us. Although, he certainly acts like he’s in the know.”
“Well, I heard something dreadful! John told me there’s talk at the station about finding another girl dead. This time in Kalamazoo. Just eight years old.” Mrs. Williams whispered loudly.
Curious, I stopped to listen.
“Goodness! And that poor girl found in Pontiac this spring. The newspaper said she was only 7.” Mrs. Gerhardt said.
“John says some of the other officers at the police station think there’s a serial killer loose. What does Gene think, Flo?” Mrs. Williams asked.
My mother spotted me and shooed me out.
“Nita Jo, go play with Cindy. You know better than to eavesdrop on grown-up talk.”
I blushed and smiled apologetically as my mother put a lid on the hysteria simmering about her kitchen table.
“Pontiac’s an hour away. Kalamazoo is even farther. Gene says the poor things probably didn’t have anyone watching over them. Nothing is going to happen here. We keep a close eye on our children.”
“Your right. Keep the kids within hollering distance, and they’ll be just fine.” Peg said.
“Hey! Did you hear Disney has a new cartoon coming out? It’s called Lady and the Tramp. You know Peggy Lee is doing one of the voices. I just love Peggy Lee. I think I’ll take Nita Jo and Michael to see it next week.”
With the mention of a trip to the movies, all interest in listening to the grown-up talk left. Staying out of trouble was of utmost importance now! I scurried out into the living room to share the good news.
Cindy and Booboo were still playing house. Mrs. Williams had offered each of us a nickel if we continued to keep Booboo occupied. I was saving to buy a Mickey Mouse Club lunchbox, I saw at Woolworth’s for eighty-eight cents.
Excitedly, I handed Cindy her water.
“My mom is taking Mike and me to the movies next week. We’re going to see Lady and the Tramp!”
“Oh, you’re so lucky.”
“You should ask your mom if you can come too.”
“I will. I love the movies.”
Booboo stood smacking her mouth together thirstily. In truth, we had only agreed to watch her because she was like a live babydoll. Cindy gave her a drink of water from her glass.
“Here, baby. Momma has water for you.”
We continued pretending to make supper. The tv was our oven. The chair was a sink, and the coffee table was our kitchen table. It was the only safe game to play. Booboo put everything in her mouth. We couldn’t play jacks for fear she would swallow a jack, or worse, the ball. Paper dolls were out too. I was sure Booboo would get them all wet and mushy.
“You help Daddy set the table while I cook.” Cindy continued.
I didn’t want to be the father, but I had lost at One Potato, Two Potato. Resigning myself to my role, Booboo and I set our pretend table. Suddenly, boisterous sounds came from just outside the front door. My little brother and his friend clamored up the steps.
“Hey! Jo!” his shrill voice called.
Michael and Booboo’s older brother sounded excited.
“Rats! Why can’t he play outside?” I muttered.
Mike’s little hands fumbled with the handle. He ran in, slamming the screen door behind him. Another bang followed as Scott came in. My brother carried a rope he had been attempting to jump outside.
Ignoring him was impossible. He always wanted to hang out with my friends and me. But, the five-year age difference made getting along problematic.
“What’re you doing? Can we play too?”
“No. Go play outside.”
“They can be babies. Oh, I know! They can be Booboo’s big brothers.” Cindy said.
“I’m not a baby!” my brother protested.
“Me neither!” Scott added.
I folded my arms across my chest sternly.
“If you don’t want to be babies, you can’t play with us. Just go back outside.”
“It’s too hot,” Mike complained.
“Yeah. It’s too hot.” Scott confirmed.
“Well, you can’t play with us.”
Cindy and I continued playing house. I tried to ignore my brother, yet I found myself watching him out of the corner of my eye.
“Hey. Look what I can do!”
Mike held out the shiny, red jump rope handles to either side, positioning the rope behind him. Standing in the center of the room, he began to jump rope. A part of me hoped he’d knock something over and break it. I was confident he’d be sent off to his room with a swat across his butt for being so stupid. Instantly, I took back my wish, realizing I’d be the one in trouble because I was the big sister. I could hear my mother scolding me for not putting a stop to this nonsense.
“You should do that outside, Mike! You’re not supposed to jump rope in the house.”
“Watch me! I’m getting good.”
Mike bounced up and down a couple of times and tripped on the rope. Undeterred, he started again.
“Jo, watch me!”
“No, Michael Gene, go outside! Stop bothering us!”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
Seconds passed as Mike clumsily jumped rope.
Despite myself, I watched disgustedly.
Mike’s uncoordinated efforts steadily moved him backward toward our Danish modern-style couch. Its narrow, rectangular arms were rigid without significant padding underneath the upholstery.
Mike’s final jump backward set off a chain reaction of events I will never forget. As Fate would have it, my brother came directly down on the edge of one of the couch’s arms.
His mouth dropped open, his eyes screwed up into the back of his head, and his face turned almost as red as his hair.
Interestingly, I don’t recall a cry, scream, or any exclamation of pain. Mike had landed squarely on his tailbone. This blow to his rear knocked the wind out of him. It appeared to me as if my brother couldn’t breathe.
“Mom! Mike hurt himself. He can’t breathe!”
Rushing into the room, my mother saw my brother standing silently, mouth open, gasping for air like a freshly caught fish. The jump rope was draped over Mike’s shoulders. This last detail completely rattled my mother. Panicked, she mistakenly assumed my brother had strangled himself.
My mother was not known for holding back her emotions.
“My baby! Oh, God! My baby! He’s hung himself!”
Vaulting into action, she scooped Mike up and hurried toward the front door while shrieking.
“My baby! My baby! He’s hung himself!”
My friends and I followed. The other mothers, now in the living room, followed us. We paraded out into the front yard like some bizarre scene from an ancient Greek tragedy.
“My baby! My baby! Help! Someone! He’s hung himself!”
Realizing my mother believed Mike had tied the rope around his neck and hung himself, I tried to explain what had actually happened.
“No, Mom! Mike hit his butt on the couch! He was jumping rope!”
“My baby! He hung himself! Help! Someone!”
My mother staggered out onto the front stoop and down to the walkway.
“Help! Help! Anyone! He’s hung himself! My baby hung himself!”
Neighbors began peering out windows and doors. People hurry towards us.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.
My mother clearly had absorbed a tremendous emotional shock. It had become too much for her to bear. Her body slumped, her legs folded neatly beneath her, and she gently dropped to the ground. It was like a scene from a Rudolph Valentino movie. It was a beautiful faint.
Mike rolled out of her arms, falling to the ground. This second blow knocked the wind back into him. He began to howl.
A small crowd of housewives, children, and workmen from the nearby workshops gathered around my unconscious mother’s prone form.
“Is she dead?” a child asked.
“No, now hush dear! Stop crowding her.” a mother said.
Everyone started speaking at once.
“I heard someone hung themselves!”
“Where’s the baby?”
“Now, look! There’s no baby here!”
“She was talking about Michael. He just got the wind knocked out of him.” Mrs. Dunhill said.
“Come here, Michael. Stop crying.” Mrs. Williams said.
She picked my brother up from the ground, brushing the dirt off him.
“Jo! I want Jo!” my brother cried.
“I’m right here,” I said.
I pulled him close, putting my arm around him. He sniffled, wiping his eyes with grubby little hands. He still held the jump rope. We stared down at my mother.
“Someone get a cold cloth.” Mrs. Dunhill ordered.
“I’ll get one. Come along, Scott; Booboo.” Mrs. Williams said, hurrying inside.
“Shame Louise wasn’t here.” someone said.
“She must have worked the overnight. Her shades are all down.” someone else replied.
The crowd grew as more neighbors arrived, drawn to the commotion.
“I know I heard something about a baby was hung. Where’s her baby?” a newly arrived workman asked.
“Oh, she was talking about Michael.” Mrs. Dunhill said, pointing to my brother.
“Thank goodness, he’s alright.” another neighbor said.
“So, what happened then? Should someone call a doctor?” the workman asked.
People turned their attention to my brother and me. I knew I had to say something in front of all those people.
“Michael was jumping rope inside. He hit his butt really, really hard on the couch. He couldn’t breathe. Mommy thought he hung himself with the jump rope.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. Understanding began to dawn on my neighbors’ faces.
“Here’s a cool cloth.” Mrs. Williams said, returning.
“I tried to tell her what happened. But, she didn’t hear me.” I added.
“It’s no wonder with all that screaming.” one of my mother’s friends said.
A couple people snickered.
“Well, if Louise had been with us, she would have taken charge before all this happened. She’s very sensible, what with being nurse and all.”
There was a stirring from the ground. My mother was awake, staring up in bewilderment.
“Oh…oh my. What happened?” my mother asked.
Michael rushed to my mother’s side, hugging her.
“I thought you were dead!” he exclaimed.
Relaxing with the knowledge no one was seriously hurt, people smiled and laughed.
“Flo, you had quite a scare. You fainted.” Mrs. Dunhill said.
“Here, let’s get you up. Easy does it.” a man said.
A couple workmen helped my mother to her feet. Straightening her dress, she brushed herself off and ran a hand through her hair.
“Lord. How embarrassing. I thought for sure I had lost Michael.”
“I would have done the same thing if I thought something horrid had happened to Stevie or Booboo for even a second.” Mrs. Williams said.
“That’s right, Flo. Nothing to be ashamed of.” Mrs. Dunhill added.
My mother, still recovering, appeared eager to escape all the attention.
“Thank you, everyone. You are all so kind to have rushed over to help.”
“Of course, ma’am. Just happy to know no one was hurt.” a workman said.
Looking down at my brother and me, she took our hands and made to retreat inside.
“Nita Jo. Michael Gene. After all of this excitement, I think we should rest for a bit.”
“Yes, you should lie down.” Mrs. Williams said.
“Do you want me to stay awhile with you, Flo?” Mrs. Dunhill asked.
“Oh, no, Peg. I’ll be fine. Excuse us. Thank you. Everyone, thank you again.”
My mother took us back into the house with all the dignity she could muster. Once inside, she closed the door and pulled the shades down. We took it easy the rest of the afternoon.
I still wonder what my father said when he got home. I don’t recall overhearing any conversation about it. Growing older, the story became more amusing than embarrassing. I realize it’s a perfect example of how my mother acted when worked up. Almost seventy years later, I can still hear my mother’s hysterical cries for help as she carried her hung baby outside for all the world to see.
Permission was granted to publish names of Flo, Nita Jo and Michael. All other names have been fictionalized to protect other’s privacy.