WHEN I WAS five months old, Mom found a way to move us all from Redlands to San Diego, where she deliberately set out to meet and marry a handsome sailor. Mom was attractive, with her long, chestnut brown hair, sapphire blue eyes, and porcelain skin, and she looked younger than her thirty-two years. In no time, she had done just what she intended, with one small difference—he was an ex-soldier, not a sailor. Howard T. Kelley had striking, blue-black, wavy hair, and eyes so dark you couldn’t tell the pupils from the irises. Eyes of coal and choking hands—those would eventually become the most predominant recollections of the only legal father I would know for the first ten years of my life.
An old Army base barrack was converted into an eight-hundred- square-foot home. The house was partitioned into three bedrooms: one for my parents, one for my two brothers, and the third for my grandmother and me. It was so small that when we sat on our twin beds, our knees touched. The Army built the neighborhood barracks so close that everyone could hear their neighbor’s conversations, even when they were inside. Most neighbors made their homes pretty with paint, grass, and flowers. Not us! Our house had no paint, no grass, no flowers. Instead, it was littered with broken beer bottles, a big old door lying in the driveway, and dirt. Plain, old, ugly dirt.
As a little girl, I’d daydreamed I lived in the house next door. In size and shape, it was just another little box house, identical in construction to ours, but it was different. The way it showed itself off, the way I imagined it smelled, the way it sounded with happy family sounds, the way it felt. The people who lived there planted sweet peas, but could never enjoy them the way I did. When I sat among their flowers, I often imagined that I was at a wonderful party—maybe even a birthday party—maybe even for me. Sometimes I even ate the flowers. They made me giggle. The flowers felt like a hug in my mouth all the way to my tummy. The blue ones tasted best.
The sweet peas that entwined their arms through the chain link fence that marked the border between plain dirt and manicured lawn next door beckoned to me. Although I was not yet old enough to attend school, I couldn’t resist repeating my grandmother’s favorite expression for all things really bad or really good when I saw them: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” How good those flowers smelled and tasted. Their heavenly scent carried me through many a frightening and lonely day as I snuggled in between their leaves and tendrils. I’d often sit there and pretend I was hidden from all the ugliness of my life.
Joining me daily were a handful of tattered dolls found on my scavenging forays behind the local five-and-dime and grocery store. Even though the black Dempster dumpsters sat like towering monsters with their backs against the store walls, I climbed up on old crates or tires and into their cavernous bellies. There, if I was really lucky, I would find discarded candy and other edibles, like stale doughnuts, packages of broken cookies, and overripe fruit. I was content to fill my tummy with any type of food and my arms with soft treasures to hold.
—to be continued.—
Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe at www.Amazon.com