I started first grade at age 4. It was September. I’d be 5 on October 8th. Nearly old enough for the first grade. I was the only kid on the Eastern Shore (Wrightsville Beach, NC) in 1957 who wasn’t in the tiny schoolhouse each morning. I could read words like “cat” & “go.” I could write neatly. And I got on my mother’s nerves being home all day—especially when it rained.
“Mama, can you make fingerpaints?” I’d ask.
“Yeah, Mama,” Bob joined in. He was two, independent as a wildcat but loved doing art.
“I’ve got laundry & other chores to do. Entertain yourselves! Draw something.”
So we’d draw for what seemed like hours. Then begin again.
“Please, can we do fingerpaints?”
Finally, Mom would relent. She’d mix cornstarch & food coloring, then drop dollops of warm, colored goop onto waxed paper. Bob & I loved the feeling of mushy colors smearing into abstract designs. Our parents were such neat freaks, it was a joy to be messy!
One night, I heard Mom telling Dad, “that child has got to go to school. She is driving me batty.”
“Well, go to the principal & see about it. It won’t hurt to ask, even though she’d have to start in first grade. This place doesn’t do kindergarten. If you think she’s ready, it’s fine by me.”
“She may not be ready but I most certainly am!”
A few days later, I nervously got into a crisply starched dress, white ruffled socks, patent leather shoes. Mom clipped a barette to hold back my wavy/frizzy hair. Then I walked with Mama & brother Bob toward the small clapboard school house. Although I truly wanted to go to school, I began to sniffle upon thinking about being away from my brother all day. No fingerpaints! No drawing! Just learning.
A beautiful lady stood in the doorway of her classroom, ruffling boys’ hair & saying “Good morning” as students rushed to their desks. I had no idea which desk was mine! Sniffles turned into real crying.
“Now, what on earth!” Mom exclaimed, “I thought you were happy to be going to school.”
“You’ll love it. We’re going to paint today.” The teacher smiled & bent down to look into my face.
Paint! Oh, that would be great. I had no idea you were allowed to paint in school. I thought it was all reading, ‘riting & ‘rithmatic like the song went.
“Look, Dixie. Your desk has an inkwell. When I went to grade school, we used inkwells.” My mother softened.
Inkwell? How do you use it? I worried.
“Of course, students don’t write with ink pens any more. We use pencils and crayons,” the teacher said. “But it’s fun to have such beautiful, old wooden desks.”
The desks were elegant: worn by decades of childrens’ arms, hands & behinds into a shiny, oak patina. Dark blue stains surrounded the ink wells.
Kids turned to look at me. I stood up straight, walked to the only empty desk & sat down. I held my hands in front of me & stared at the blackboard. Other kids were scary. I was friends with my brother but didn’t play with anyone else. I could feel them staring.
The teacher told my mother & brother goodbye.
“School gets out at 3 o’clock, if you could be here to walk Dixie home then, that would be ideal.”
I glanced at the doorway & saw my brother’s huge eyes looking sad. I waved at him.
School began. The teacher handed out workbooks.
“Turn to page 6 . Dixie, it’s OK that you missed pages 1-5. You can catch up at home.”
Page six had a drawing of a girl throwing seed to hens. There was a list of words underneath the picture. Hen, seed, girl, sun, day.
“Print the words you see. Then we will tell stories about the girl & her hens.”
The day flew by. The teacher told me my penmanship was Excellent. She loved my painting of a sun, a girl & hens. Although my chickens looked more like seals.
“I messed up,” I fretted. But my kind school teacher was encouraging to all her students. We glowed in her presence.
We lived on the Eastern Shore for 3 months. Then packed up for the next assignment. Dad had told me Wrightsville Beach was where Misty of Chincoteague was born. My favorite book. We didn’t live on an island but I believed my father because on Sundays, we took a ferry from the shore to one. We’d have picnics in the sunshine. Bob & I would run around on wet sand & dash toward the sea, running away from waves as if they were monsters. We laughed gleefully. Both of us, like our father, adored the ocean. Mom, born & raised in land-locked Wyoming could not swim! I thought that was the weirdest thing Ever! Dad demanded that Mama learn how to swim.
“You will always be living close to some form of water with kids who love swimming. You may need to jump in & save them if they get into hot water.”
Hot water? What did that mean? Could an ocean suddenly get hot like tap water?
Mom resisted for a long while. Finally, after baby Kathi was born & began to toddle towards the sea, giggling happily, she agreed to give it a try. Mom could dog paddle. She’d sink if she tried to stay above water.
“You are all muscle, Benji. Fat people float. Now, c’mon! Kick!” Dad commanded.
Bob & I jumped around in the waves, showing how fun the water was. Kathi stayed on shore like a good girl. She shouted “Go! Go!” to our terrified, frustrated mother.
Dad gave his only days off, Sundays, holding Mom up with both arms as she did sort of an Australian crawl. He’d let go & she’d sink.
“Oh No, Mama!” we kids would laugh. Then we’d dive into the sea like porpoises. Kathi had to float on an inner tube. She was too little to brave the waves at that time.
Finally, Mom learned to swim well enough to rescue us if we were drowning. But that wasn’t going to happen. We kids were born with gills. When Dad had to map deserts, we longed for salt water.
Across the country we drove in a black & white DeSota, big enough for 10 people. No air conditioning in the ’50s so the windows were all rolled down, letting air blow the girls’ (& Mom’s) hair into rats’ nests. Dad’s was Brylcreamed into Superman style. Bob’s buzz cut remained stuff with Butch Wax, even in a devil storm.
We lived in an adobe hut near Yuma, Arizona. Desert! Colorful sunsets, sidewinders in arroyos Bob & I jumped over. Burning hot asphalt road our parents told us never to run across. Ouch on bare feet!
A drive-in movie down the highway. Dad was a movie Nut. He’d take us to see flicks 2-4 nights a week. Mom would pack a picnic dinner & we’d eat it in the car, a rarity since Dad was a neatnik about his that DeSota. We kids would fall asleep on blankets in the back seat while the huge screen flickering into late night.
My brother & I called the adobe hut “the mouse house.” Desert mice scurried around at night. Bob & I slept on blow-up mattresses on the adobe floor, eye level with the tiny beasts. The creatures amused Bob & me. Mom hated us calling it “the mouse house.” She thought vermin reflected badly on her good housekeeping but it wasn’t her fault. The little rodents got into everyone’s homes.
Both Dad & Bob said my “book-keeping” list of our moves was missing 5 or 6 places. During one visit when I was in my 30s, I sat with Mom & Dad, trying to get the data all written down correctly. They kept arguing as to where we’d lived, for how long & what happened there. I
later asked Bob to send me his memories in the mail. No letter came but he did talk on the phone quite some while about going back to old homes.
Picnic while moving from one Gypsy camp to another
Mom took this photograph. Kathi wasn’t born yet