I’ve been watching a Netflix original called The Crown. It’s about Queen Elizabeth and her family. She and her father, who was later to be king, had an exceptionally close and loving relationship. Watching it took me back in memory to the beginning of my life with my own father. Once upon a time………………
He delivered me at home in the middle of a nasty blizzard in International Falls in December. To hear him tell it, it was on a par with winning World War II single-handed. My earliest memory is at the age of two and a half sitting on the front lawn of our home in Bovey, MN. Dad had joined the Marines in 1944 and he was coming home. The war was over. My siblings and I were sitting on the front lawn with mom and my Finnish grandma and grandpa. I couldn’t take my eyes off the top of the hill where the first intersection closest to our house was. I knew that was where he was coming from. I stood up to look closer and there he was in his Marine Corp uniform carrying a duffle bag. I took off running as fast as my little legs could carry me and threw myself at him in a state of total rapture and exhilaration. If I close my eyes I can still picture it, the emotion pouring from me in undulating waves.
I was always my daddy’s favorite. Everyone knew that and sometimes I’d hear townspeople say, “there goes Bernie Leick and his little girl. He has 3 other children living with him too.” As I grew older he taught me to play piano. He had had twelve years of practice and had spent his time during the war playing in Bob Crosby’s orchestra in the Hawaiian Islands.
We left Bovey, MN and moved to Beulah, ND where we lived for six years. Dad was the Superintendent of the Occident Lumber Yard. Once I started school we always stopped on our way home to see him. He always had time to answer all of our questions and to ask us how our day went. My Dad was the smartest person I knew. Once I asked him why he wasn’t President of the United States. He just gave me a grin and ruffled my hair. Elliott Construction Co, who was moving around the country building electrical substations came to town and started spinning dreams in my dad’s head.He quit his job to climb line poles during the day and study electrical engineering at night. When Elliott’s left town we went with. The next several years we followed the work from town to town along with the other employees. We were like a band of gypsies. I loved our life. We finally settled down in Petersburg, NE, a town with 510 people, 97% of them Catholic. We fit right in and bought our first home.
Growing up in the Midwest was enchanting. The seasons, even more pronounced in Boone County, had always regulated our existence. Spring, full of virgin growth, brought a promise of things to come. Clouds, heralding a hearty April thunderstorm, grew menacing and bunched together as if preparing for battle. Rain approached in subtle drops, rapidly growing to pelting downpours, accompanied by thunder that deafened our ears and lightning that lit up the sky like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Next, summer in all its abundance arrived as it spilled its beauty onto the foliage and drifted into the waters of Rae Creek and the Beaver River. Hide and Seek, Ditch ‘Em and Steal the Flag were adventurous games on hot summer nights. Moms and Dads rocked on porches, swatting mosquitoes, sipping lemonade and cold beer while they watched children scamper about. Twilight extended to almost 10:00, lending an eerie feeling to our nighttime romps. Daylight hours meant swimming in rivers and public pools, picnics in the park and baseball on vacant lots. The atmosphere, hot and humid, slowed the pace of life as we waited for harvest time and cooler weather.
Soon, autumn, with its coat of many colors, delivered leaves that slipped from tired branches, clustering on the ground. We raked them into piles we tumbled in and later roasted marshmallows and hot dogs over the burning leaves. Brisk air prompted Mom to dig into moth-ball-filled trunks and drag out sweaters and wooly caps.
Wintertime, with frozen rivers and driven snow, caused red noses and pinched cheeks as we built snowmen and forts, had snowball fights, slid down feathery hills, and played angel wings on powdery blankets. It included treks into the woods with Dad where he taught my brothers and me to hunt for rabbits. Afterward, he explained to us parts of our weapons while we cleaned rifles on newspaper spread across the floor. The odor of gun cleaning fluid still conjures up happy memories. Every winter morning was another adventure. We huddled around the wood-burning stove, the boys in long johns and us girls in flowered, flannel nightgowns, sipping hot chocolate with marshmallows as we dressed, peering at Jack Frost with his sculptured images that sprang to life on our windowpanes.
Holidays marked time on the calendar. First came Easter, with baskets and egg hunts, followed by Fourth of July as we watched Dad light fireworks and chased each other with sparklers. Halloween was a never ending “trick or treat”, where I dressed up like a Gypsy in Mom’s long skirts, colored scarves and jewelry. Thanksgiving meant the all-day smell of a turkey or a goose roasting in the oven, followed by the fragrance of home-made apple or pumpkin pie. My favorite was Christmas with feasts of food, packages arriving from relatives to be stashed in closets and hidden from our curious eyes, driving into the woods to cut down a tree and happy hours spent decorating it while Mom made Christmas cookies, munched with the ever-present hot chocolate. Nothing can stop my heart like the memory of caroling in the snow, our children’s voices, sweet and pure as we stood outside homes. The wonder of Midnight Mass with its candles and incense and the choir singing familiar Christmas songs sidetracked us children from wanting to rush home and open presents. Even New Year’s Eve was a night to celebrate the passage of time. We stayed up past midnight watching enthralled while Mom and Dad toasted each other with champagne. Using glasses where the amber liquid went through the stem to the bottom of the glass seemed a romantic and magical touch to my parents’ love for one another.
Throughout the year, there were weekly visits to the Roxie movie theatre, my quarter allowance clutched in my hand, watching the Movie Tone News, Tom and Jerry cartoons and John Deere commercials before the much-awaited double feature. We survived climbs up the grain elevator where we played in bins of corn. Years later, one of the Reicks boys suffocated that way. Jumping on and off the freight train that rumbled daily through town added even more adventures to an already magical life.
During the day, Mom was the center of our existence. When Dad came home, it was as if Santa Claus had arrived. He wrapped his arms around Mom and had special kisses for everyone: the Scottish kiss, the Finnish kiss, and the Eskimo kiss. He grabbed each of us in turn and heaved us onto his shoulders as he paraded around the house, happy in the adoration of his family. Mom brought him something to drink and we nestled at his feet as he talked about his day. After dinner, we gathered around the radio listening to Gangbusters, The Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy. We munched on buttered popcorn, washed down with homemade lemonade. My parents made a perfect team and my world was safe because of their love.
What a wonderful life filled with enchantment, my own “once upon a time” fairy tale.
Until, when I was thirteen, my father entered my bedroom in the middle of the night and raped me. My “once upon a time” world died that night. I spiraled downward as rapes and beatings dictated a future filled with running away from home, failed suicide attempts, Psychiatric Wards and time spent in a women’s shelter as I plunged from one abusive relationship to another until finally I had reached my bottom. Five years of recovery finally revealed the source of all my pain, both revealed it and healed it.
Do you have your own “Once upon a time” story?