Here is the essay that started it all, and was intended to chronicle all that I could remember about that ominous day:
“THE DAY OF CHANGE”
I only remember a few things about the day of change; I was only three and a half years old, but I vaguely recall a long ride in a car. I distinctly remember that evening, being in a strange house, and hearing my sisters crying on the back porch. I recall wondering why they were crying, and then hearing a mournful whistle, like that of a train, blowing in the distance. Little did I know how that whistle would influence my life for the next fifteen years.
That day was September 17, 1949; the day that we left our home forever. I knew nothing of this new place or why we were here, or anything at all really, about the events that were unfolding. In later years, and even now, I am hurt and angry that nobody ever tried to help me understand the circumstances that had brought us to this place. For the longest time I thought my family had abandoned me until I realized that they were all victims of the same tragedy.
My mom had disappeared long ago (about a year), and nobody had bothered to tell me that she had died. Or maybe they thought that I was too little to understand what that meant. Or maybe they told me that she went “to heaven,” and I wouldn’t have known any more than if I had been told that she went “to the bank,” or “to church,” or anywhere else that I had never been.
I have come to surmise that my last encounter with my mom probably involved her leaving the house on an errand and telling me to “be a good boy” until she got back (she apparently died of a burst appendix, and my guess is that it occurred while she was out).
I have no way of knowing these things for sure, but often in the coming years I found myself apart from groups of other children, and feeling like I was waiting for my mom to return.
Much of what I believe about this part of my life is the result of trying to match what little I know of the facts and what I have come to understand in retrospect, with the feelings, and images in my memory to form a history, albeit fragmented, that I can embrace as my own.
My dad, who had brought us here and then disappeared had, as it turned out, been trying to keep us together for the past year with the aid of a housekeeper named Jane. I’m sure that I must have been close to Jane, and I remember her fondly, but like so many others that were close to me, I was never to know what became of her. And although Dad visited us on most Sundays for the first year or so, he would claim that “nobody could love a man who would give up his children,” and use it as an excuse for drinking most of his remaining life away.
The place to which we were brought was called ‘reception,’ where we stayed together for two weeks. We were then separated and assigned to various buildings according to age and gender:
Lynn was sixteen months old.
I was three.
Kathleen (“Kathy”) was four.
Michael (“Skip”) was seven
Susan (“Suzie”) was eight.
Elizabeth (“Betsy”) was twelve.
James (“Jimmy”) must have been about fourteen because I remember a couple of years later, learning that he had been killed in a motorcycle accident and he was then sixteen. I don’t recall that he ever came to visit with Dad, so the day of change must have been the last time I ever saw my brother Jimmy.
Mary Ann was about seventeen when she married Norm Keepers, an employee at Dad’s motorcycle shop, and one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever known. I don’t know when they were married, and I never remember a time when they weren’t, but it must have been sometime around the day of change. Years later my dad showed me a photo album of their wedding. They were escorted from the church to the reception at the Webster Hotel in Chicago by three hundred motorcycles, a fact of which my dad was very proud.
John Thomas Jr. (“Tommy”) was the oldest. He, Mary Ann, and Jimmy were above the age limit of twelve, and remained at home. Tommy might have already left home by then, as I learned years later that he and Dad didn’t get along, and he must have been around nineteen or twenty by then.
As little as I was, I was obviously talking and had personal, loving relationships with all of my brothers and sisters until that day when everything changed. I suppose that maybe this is a common situation in many people’s lives, that everything is one way for a consistent period, and then suddenly life is so different in every way that the past seems nothing more than a distant dream. But for me, it created so much confusion and uncertainty that more than sixty years later, I’m still struggling with its disturbing effects.