I grew up wide-eyed, innocent and shy - a smart little girl with a very vivid imagination and an incredible memory. I was just as happy playing alone as playing with others. In our small town, everyone knew each other and there were no secrets, a fact that would make life somewhat unpleasant occasionally. You couldn’t get away with anything.
It was safe for us to wander around. You could walk almost anywhere cutting through the fields and your neighbors’ yards and never worry. There were very few fences. If we wandered too far, someone would invariably call our parents and let them know where we were in case they were looking for us. Mom never locked her car. In fact, she never even took the keys out of it. It would sit in front of the house or a store unlocked with the windows down and the keys in the ignition, and no one ever touched it.
As a child growing up in this environment, my existence was uncomplicated and uncluttered. I was a plain little girl, living in a protective bubble in my small, rural town. Life was simple and carefree. I didn’t have to worry about anything and I was free to let my imagination carry me away.
I devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books and anything else I could read. I spent hours in the library reading and at night under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep. The three television channels we got from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Paducah, Kentucky and Harrisburg, Illinois fascinated me. I was always disappointed when 10:30 rolled around and the National Anthem played and the test pattern appeared. I grew up on Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriett, Father Knows Best, Captain Kangaroo, The Honeymooners and all the other wonderful shows of the 50’s.
I loved the game shows. One of my favorites was Video Village. It used the contestants as tokens on the three streets of the village and was interactive and fun. I was so enthralled with it I even built my own set – laying out the streets using a roll of butcher paper Mom had for wrapping packages. I memorized the whole show and could play it for hours.
Most of our radio stations were small and played country music with lots of talk and local news. But at night when everything was still, you could get the rock and roll stations from St. Louis 100 miles away. Rock and roll was taboo at first, but gradually it was accepted, especially after Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan.
We had a party line on the phone, our number was 998-W and our neighbors’ number was 998-R. That sometimes made life interesting unless my Mom caught me listening in on their conversations. My Dad owned a local car dealership at the time and his phone number at work was 405. But when I wanted to talk to him, I just picked up the phone and told the operator that I wanted to talk to my Daddy and she connected me without even asking who I was. It was like magic to me. I thought that was how everyone lived.
Occasionally something really special would happen. The Circus came to town and we got to see all the lions, tigers, bears and elephants up close. We would watch the performers and dream of the day when we would join the circus and go on tour as famous acts with our faces on posters – thrilling the crowds.
Once the Harlem Globetrotters came and performed at the local high school. I actually got to see Meadowlark Lemon and his teammates put on a very funny show and soundly beat the other team. It was incredibly exciting and everyone in town talked about it for months.
There are so many little memories that stick in my mind from childhood. They’re odd flashbacks of things that made me happy. For instance, I was a frustrated architect at heart. Not only did I design and draw houses, almost always in odd shapes, but when the lawn was cut I would take the grass clippings and use them to form outlines of houses – like looking at a giant floor plan. Then my friends and I would assume various roles and pretend we were a family living in the grass house. If one of us got mad at the others for something, we would just kick the ‘walls’ of the house and send the grass clippings flying everywhere. That would signal the end of playing for that day.
My older sister’s best friend had a trapeze hanging from a huge old tree in her back yard. We used to love to go over there and practice being trapeze artists – pretending we were in the circus and wowing the crowds, preparing for when they came back to town and were looking for replacement performers. I always wanted to be a star and would practice posing as I was hanging upside down at some odd angle.
We had a corner grocery store down the street from home – just a little place. We always went there for candy and ice cream bars. They had all the wonderful penny candies in jars and a nickel or dime would buy enough tiny soda bottles or candy lips to keep us happy for hours. To look really cool, we would buy packs of candy cigarettes and pretend we were sophisticated and grown up like movie stars. Almost all the grown-ups and teenagers smoked back then. If we didn’t have any money, they just put it on our account and either we paid the next time we were in or our parents paid.
Mom wanted us to be exposed to culture and expand our horizons, so we took both piano and dance lessons. I hated the piano lessons because of all the practicing. Doing the same things over and over was not my idea of being creative and fun. I thought it was boring. Even today I can’t tell what key anything is in. I always describe it based on how many sharp or flat signs there are in the clefs. “It’s in the key of three sharps or four flats”. My accompanists always seem to know what I’m talking about.
Dancing was okay because at least I was moving around. I took tap and ballet. Tap was fun and reminiscent of the wonderful movie musicals I so loved like “Singin’ In the Rain”. We had recitals and my mother would dress my older sister and me up in matching costumes and we would perform to the polite applause of all the other parents whose children were also exhibiting their skills or lack thereof.
Ballet was a bit harder to incorporate into my fantasy life. They didn’t show ballets on TV and it was really rare for a ballet troupe to perform in Southern Illinois. One thing the ballet teacher emphasized was flexibility. She would have you lie on your back on the mat and have someone hold down one leg while she stretched the other one back to your head.
The first time I saw this, it looked really painful. I was sitting on a window sill and when it was my turn to be stretched, I was so adamant about not doing it I actually pressed into the window so hard I broke it! That scared me more than the stretching. After Mom assured the teacher she would pay for the window, I submitted. Being stretched was the price I paid for breaking that window. To this day I can still lean over with my legs straight and touch the ground with my palms. I am physically flexible.