Columbus, Georgia/Ft. Benning. In the middle of January, my husband left for a month of training in Indianapolis. We missed our first anniversary together. The next year he would be in Vietnam on our anniversary. By the third year, I no longer even knew when it was, mistaking it for years with the day we met, only two days later.
By four months, our son was smiling and turning over. By six months, he was crawling.
I washed the kitchen floor daily after I saw my son spitting bubbles of drool onto the floor, then licking them up.
At six months, he was eligible to stay in the nursery on the Post. I arranged to go to an Officer’s Wives event, polishing silver. I was gone two hours. When I got back to the nursery, he was sobbing uncontrollably, hoarse from crying. I demanded that they tell me what had happened and if they’d given him the bottle I left.
“We gave him his bottle, but he didn’t seem interested. He didn’t hold on to it.”
“He’s six months old. He can’t hold a bottle yet. Didn’t anyone pick him up to feed him?!”
Silence. I never left him at the nursery again and vowed not to leave him before he could hold his own bottle.
I found a baby-sitter when we were invited to go out to an officer’s party. She was an older woman with a wide, soft, comfy lap, giving me confidence that he could be left alone with her. But, I made the mistake of introducing him to a new baby food with bacon for dinner that night.
It didn’t agree with him. The babysitter called an hour after we got to the party.
“He’s thrown up all over me. He won’t stop crying. I don’t know what to do.”
By the time we got home, he was asleep. It was six months before I introduced bacon again.
At nine months, he was walking.
I’d been baby-sitting since I was 12. Taking care of a new baby didn’t intimidate me. In fact, my roommate in Oklahoma had been excited at the opportunity to see what a newborn was like so she could prepare for having her own children one day.
Until the day I made hamburger stroganoff. The first step is to brown the hamburger and pour off the extra grease. We’d been given an electric skillet as a wedding present. Its automatic controls made it easy to cook hamburger stroganoff. My college roommate had given me my first real cookbook, Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook. The only cookbook I brought to my marriage was Betty Crocker’s Cookie Book. By now, though, I’d bought myself Betty Crocker’s New Dinner for Two Cookbook, in my continuing effort to learn how to cook. It was this last book that I used to make Hamburger Strogonoff.
Now, I knew that toddlers had six-foot arms. I put the orange juice can I poured the hot grease into well back from the edge of the table. But, not far enough.
That day, those six-foot arms might as well have been rubber they stretched so far. Just far enough to catch the edge of the orange juice can and pour hot grease all down my son’s beautiful face and chest. His screams pierced me.
I put down the hot skillet and scooped him up. I have no idea what my plan was. When I was growing up, you put butter on a burn to stop air from getting to it. But, my husband, who had worked on a grill in college and learned that ice water stops a burn, rushed our son under a cold shower. He ordered me to fill a bowl with ice water and bring a washrag as we rushed to the car.
I laid the washrag over our son’s face and gently poured cold water over it. I had to stop, though. My husband said he could not concentrate on driving for the screams. Our son fell asleep. We were at the hospital in minutes. I ran into the emergency room and got in line while my husband parked. A nurse came up to me to find out why we were there.
“My son has been burned.”
“Why are you standing in line?! Come with me.”
Years later a nurse explained why I was approached in line. Having never been to an emergency room, I assumed all emergencies were equal – burns, knife wounds, broken arms. She explained that a sleeping baby in an emergency room is a danger sign. They might not wake up.
The nurse rushed us back to a curtained room, where they wrapped gauze over my son’s face and chest and filled a bowl with ice water and Phisohex, an anti-germicidal soap. They handed me a turkey baster and directed me to squirt the ice water on the gauze every few minutes. For the next hour, I squirted and he woke up screaming. Then, I sang him back to sleep with my favorite lullaby, “Summertime.”
After an hour, they peeled back the gauze to reveal skin that was red from the ice water, but healed from the burn. Eventually, we discovered that, in our haste to make sure his eyes were not affected and his chest and face would not scar, we missed the fact that his finger was burned. He still has the scar. He would not let me sing him “Summertime” for years.
Since most of our neighbors were there for the Army’s 90-day jump school, we found ourselves in a rotation among Encyclopedia salesmen. I had grown up with a set of World Book Encyclopedias and loved both the easy access to research for school and the serendipitous facts I learned from randomly scanning the books. But, we could not afford a set, so I always turned the salesmen down. Until one night, when I turned aside all the selling arguments from one young woman –
“Yes. We believe in having our child surrounded by books. You can see our bookshelf is already full.”
“No. I’m sure we cannot afford it. My husband’s salary is just enough to support us.”
“No. We are not going to sign up for an installment plan. We still cannot afford it.”
“Yes. Encyclopedias are a good investment for a child’s education, but, we cannot afford it.”
She broke down crying. At this point, I took pity on her and invited her in to collect herself. There was no way she was going to make a sale at the next house if she were still crying.
“But, no one has ever said ‘No’ before.”
While I believed her, I also knew we wouldn’t be the last to tell her no and she needed to learn how to deal with it. She dried her tears and moved on. We never bought a set of encyclopedias, but probably now have more than 1,000 books. We have 200 cookbooks alone.
In the Spring, I planted marigolds. They thrived under the steady drip of our window air conditioner and bloomed until Fall.
We explained to our next-door neighbor what water looks like when it boils. No more than 19 himself, his wife had gone home for the weekend. He had never boiled water.
He brought the pot of water next door to me.
“Is it boiling yet?”
Of course, when you take a pot of water off the heat, it stops boiling. I took him next door, put the pot back on the stove, turned up the heat and waited to show him the roiling, bubbling evidence that his water was finally boiling.
When my husband got his orders for Vietnam, to report in October, we went to Atlanta to look for apartments for our son and me to live the year he would be gone. Atlanta was close to both sets of parents. There was even a pool. We scavenged furniture from our parents and for the first and last time in my life, I had curtains made.
As the one-year tour at Fort Benning came to a close, I started scrubbing the apartment. In particular, the kitchen floor had been waxed repeatedly, but the now yellowing wax never removed. It seemed time. I was about a quarter of the way through when I came down with strep throat. I thought I could ignore it, but when we visited my mother-in-law and father-in-law one weekend, she insisted that I go to a doctor. The doctor asked what I was doing that had so worn me out. I explained the yellow, waxy floor. He ordered me to bed.
“But, I can’t. I have to finish cleaning the apartment.”
“Is your husband capable of cleaning?”
“You tell him that either he cleans and you go to bed or I’m ordering you into the hospital. Strep throat, unattended, turns into rheumatic fever, then heart damage.”
I went to bed at my in-laws. My husband returned to finish cleaning the apartment and packing up for the move to Atlanta. When he came back to Hogansville, I brought our son out to greet him.
It was the first time he’d said “Daddy,” one of only two words he knew. He was fifteen months old.
Long Binh, Vietnam. When he arrived for his one-year tour in Vietnam, he found that he would not be serving as a Forward Observer, after all. Computer experience was rare in those days and his personnel jacket had been pulled when they spotted his experience as a programmer at IBM. He would run the computer room 13 hours a day, 7 days a week, at Long Binh depot, outside Saigon.
Atlanta, Georgia. I visited our parents every other weekend. A favorite aunt and uncle of his lived in Atlanta and invited us over for dinner often. My Mom taught our son to roll a ball. My mother-in-law gave him a flour sifter and coffee pot to play with.
My mother-in-law had told me stories about sons in World War II who were told by their fathers to be the man of the family while they were gone and then were never able to reestablish a father/son relationship when their father returned, years later.
I resolved to keep a father’s place in my son’s life for the year. Every day, we wrote a letter together or tape-recorded a message to his father. Most days, we looked through our photo album of pictures of his father. I read him snippets of his father’s letters to us.
My husband had bought an orange tree to have a living plant in the apartment. My luck with plants is dismal. But, at Christmas, I strung lights on the tree. It recovered enough for a few more months of life.