Testimony, by Margery Wakefield - Next - Previous

Chapter 1


My story begins on November 20, 1947 -- the day Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were married.

My grandparents were in the living room of their large Victorian home, listening to a broadcast of the royal wedding, when the phone rang. It was my dad.

"It's a girl," he announced. That was my beginning.

I was born in a small town in Michigan's frigid but beautiful Upper Peninsula, sometimes referred to by its inhabitants as "God's Country" because of the northern shorelines and scenery and crisp unpolluted air.

At first we lived in an apartment above the hardware store which my father managed. My first memory is of lying on the floor of that dark apartment playing with my schmoo. When I could walk I would go with my mother to the back deck to hang out the laundry. Sometimes we would go down the long flight of front steps and into the waiting world.

When I was two, my brother Charles was born, an event I do not remember.

My first memory of my mother is of her standing in the kitchen of the apartment making cut out cookies shaped like chicks and letting me put in currants for the eyes.

My first memory of my father was of him blowing up my birthday balloons and popping them with his cigarette while I sat on his lap and screamed. Although my father had many good qualities, and worked dutifully and hard through the years to provide us with a comfortable life, there was also a sometimes streak of unhappiness which would affect us all.

My parents met through a photograph.

My mother and my father's sister shared a dorm in college and my future aunt had a picture of my very handsome father in uniform on her dresser. My parents began to correspond during the war and they were married shortly after the war ended.

It was a difficult marriage. Both young, and too soon with a growing family, they made the discovery too late that they were in many ways not compatible. There were frequent arguments and I grew to hate the hostility between them.

I would hear their voices quarreling into the night and lie in the darkness wondering what was going to happen.

When I was four, we moved into the grey house on the hill, and this became my new world.

The most important person in my world at that time was my grandfather. My grandparents lived in the Victorian house down the street and around the corner from our house, and their house was a wonderful world to explore with its four stories full of rooms and secrets.

My grandfather loved to play with me, and I remember him swinging me on the wrought iron gate behind their house in a game I never grew tired of. Or he would show me the roses in his garden. Or he held me on his lap and read to me. He had a wonderful love of books which I would later come to share.

During my fourth year, my grandparents took me with them on their annual mid-winter trip to Florida. In Georgia I was sick to my stomach and my grandmother introduced me to Milk of Magnesia. The next day I was asleep on the back seat of the car, and I awoke to see palm trees and I was terrified.

My grandparents taught me to read on that trip by pointing out signs and reading them to me. When I returned home I could read, although no one realized it. I would amuse myself at the table by reading all the cereal boxes and milk cartons.

Florida was a paradise. I loved the beach and the water and the long walks my grandfather took with me, and the serious conversations he patiently held with his four year old granddaughter. Somewhere I have a picture of him and me that winter walking on the beach, and it is my favorite picture. He was a gentle and kind man.

Florida was full of surprises. Once we rode in a glass bottom boat and they put me down on the glass and I was mesmerized by the living world beneath me.

My grandparents took me to a movie one day. There was a scene in an ad at the beginning of a man falling into a big bowl of tomato soup. I started to scream at the top of my lungs and nothing would quiet me down. Finally my desperate grandparents carried me outside the theater and I remember my grandmother was very angry. We didn't go back to the movie.

Soon we were back in Michigan and the next new world for me was Mrs. McKevitt's kindergarten. It was a confusing world with so many new things happening all at once. Graham crackers and orange juice, naps on our blankets, songs at the piano, coats in the coatroom and always having to look up at the grown up people in the world.

Each new teacher had her own specialty. In first grade it was reading. I was bored. I already knew how to read.

To pass the time and the interminable boredom, I used what resources I had. I would spit on my small brown desk and draw pictures with the spit. One day, engrossed in this way with my first artistic attempts, I looked up to see Miss Faull staring down at me, far from amused. I got the ruler on my hand. That was the end of my artistic career. To this day I draw only stick people.

In second grade it was penmanship. Travelling ovals were Miss Prince's one mission in life. She was an elderly spinster. One day, when we came back from lunch, she had us close our penmanship books and sit quietly at our desks with our hands folded. The world, she said, was going to end at two o'clock. We sat and watched as the minute hand made its inexorable way to the hour. Nothing happened. We waited some more. Then we went back to penmanship. It seemed a little strange at the time, but the idea of the world ending is incomprehensible to a seven year old.

At about this time my brother John was born. I remember my mother's water breaking and several days later she came home with the new baby.

By this time Charles and I became playmates. We spent hours together in the block of woods across the street from our house making up endless versions of cowboys and Indians and cavemen.

One night my father brought a black and white television home and we tried it out before dinner. Soon Crusader Rabbit and Zorro and Lone Ranger were a part of everyday life.

When I was seven, my parents and my grandparents took me to a concert in a nearby town -- the Roman Sisters, a traveling duo-piano sister act. I discovered the piano.

I would not leave my parents alone. I wanted piano lessons. I wanted to play this magical instrument.

Soon after, I came home from school to find a piano in our living room, a gift from Aunt Jessie. I was ecstatic. I got Pat Gilles, a neighbor girl, to show me how to play. She brought over a piano book and I caught on.

The next morning I got up early in the morning and sat down with one of the books that had come with the piano and I silently figured out all the notes. Soon I was playing all the songs in my mother's grey and purple books, and soon after that it was decided I did need a teacher.

After a few miserable lessons with an irascible local teacher who used to hit my hands with a ruler when I made a mistake, I complained loudly enough to be given a chance with someone else.

That someone else turned out to be a wonderful woman in a nearby town who took me under her wing and introduced me to the joy of music. She will always be my friend.

There were many happy events in my childhood, plenty of things to look forward to: Fourth of July bicycle parades, roller skating, discovering the first crocuses poking through the last snow of winter, playing in the puddles of melting snow on the way to school, baseball in the street, overnight parties with friends, and trips to visit Grandma and Grandpa Graves in South Dakota.

Little did I know that my parents' marital problems were coming to a head. I was not even aware that they had separated. I was sent for the summer to my grandparents in South Dakota where I spent a mostly happy summer.

Two things of importance happened that summer.

The first was that I discovered religion. I was about eight years old. My grandmother kept Baptist tracts in the bathroom and I started to read them. I was entranced by the stories about Jesus. Soon he became my invisible friend. He used to meet me in the white room in the back of the house and we would talk. My grandmother gave me a Bible and I read it with great interest. I was in love with Jesus.

The second event of importance happened on the Fourth of July, and it was a shadow that crossed my life for the first time.

I had been having the feeling when I was around the friends my age that my grandmother introduced me to, that there was something amiss. It was a subconscious feeling. But at the Fourth of July picnic, the subconscious shadow came to the front. I knew that something was wrong with me. I didn't tell anyone because I didn't know what to tell. I just knew that something was wrong. I knew the wrongness only as a shadow for which I had no words.

The shadow followed me home. Back in Michigan, I began to see things in the windows that weren't there. Hideous faces. I would go and hide under the telephone table in the hall.

Later in junior high school I tried to find words for the shadow.

"Something is wrong," I told my science teacher. "I have no personality." That was the only way I knew to describe it.

From the time I came back from South Dakota, the shadow was always there. It is with me still. The only difference is that now I have words for it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

When I was ten years old, my sister Joann was born. I was delighted.

When Joann was a baby she slept in a crib in my room. One night I woke up and heard strange noises coming from her bed. I went over to her, not sure what was happening. I went and woke up my parents. They came in to see. My sister was choking.

My parents rushed her to the hospital where her life was saved. She had indeed been choking, a complication of an illness called infanta roseola.

I always loved my sister. If I did save her life, that is the best thing I have ever accomplished in my life. That, in itself, would be enough.

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