Episode 3: WISHING

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Episode 3: WISHING by Jessica Harper

Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper and this is episode three of WINNETKA.

(singing)

In spite of the fact that, as we discussed in the last episode, my parents had some concerns about our safety, '50s parenting philosophy could be expressed in four words. "Be home before dark."

After breakfast, you were cut loose and it was, "See you later." Billy especially thrived under this policy. He was a born explorer, a wanderer even when he was limited to the confines of a small Chicago apartment.

Eleanor H: Jessica and Diana were asleep, but Billy was awake. He didn't want to take a nap. I was sitting with him. He was wandering around the room from chair to chair, chortling, eating paper, and (laughs) all I could think of, my happy tramp.

Jessica H: Even being jailed in his crib didn't stop him.

Eleanor H: He and Jessica shared a bedroom when we were in Lake Forest, and they were in separate cribs, but he always found a way to bounce his crib across the floor, climb into her crib, and sit on her.

Jessica H: When he was maybe three, the real adventures started. Like the time he became the town's youngest wedding crasher at the church, right next door to our house.

Eleanor H: And there was a lot of action at the church, which was right next door. We tried to keep an eye on the kids, but I lost Billy, and I didn't know where he was. He came home eventually, and the next morning, I was reading the Sunday paper, and there I saw on this page a picture of Billy. The caption read, "Wishes he were a member of the wedding," and he was staring up at the bride, and (laughs) minister was looking nervously down at him. Later when I asked him about it, I said, "Billy, what were you doing at that wedding?" He said, "Oh, I just wanted to see the beautiful lady," and I trembled for his adolescence, (laughs) as well you might have.

Jessica H: I tried to emulate Billy's adventurous spirit, but it was tough to keep up until I got my wheels. Once we had our tricycles, I came into my own as a sidekick. Together, traveling at high speed, we were able to expand the perimeters of our play territory, making discoveries and acquaintances for blocks around. We might wander over to Mrs. Aire's house, 'cause she usually had frozen chocolate chip cookies, or we would play pirates at the McKinnons' house, using their random lumber to create a plank. I'd make Billy walk the plank repeatedly, meeting his death on the unforgiving ocean, which was represented by an empty wading pool.

But as we pedaled around the neighborhood, there was one house that we definitely avoided. It was spooky. It looked like it was inhabited by, say, Boo Radley, and we had never seen anybody emerge from its shadowy porch. But then one day, that changed. We were pedaling by, and you know, we usually picked up speed when we went by this house, but this time we slowed down because there was a man waving to us from the front door, and he looked kind of old, you know, bent over and kind of sweet. So Billy and I held hands and we approached the house.

He waved us in. "Want some lemonade?" he said. We never said no to sugar. We thought the man told us his name was Mr. Friendly, but I'm pretty sure we made that up. He showed us to his living room, which was surprisingly cozy. The furniture was nice and poofy. There was a mellow cat by the fireplace, and he brought us the lemonade in tall glasses that had flamingos on them. We sat and sipped, and Mr. Friendly watched us, smiling like a proud grandfather. Then he asked us if we'd like to hear something, and without waiting for a reply, he went to his crowded bookshelf and pulled out a record. Yes, as in an old fashioned LP, a round piece of black vinyl.

It was titled, "Bozo Under The Sea," and on its cover was a picture of Bozo the Clown, deep in the ocean, having a close encounter with a swordfish. The fish had this long nose that looked more like a chainsaw, and a fierce, death-to-all-clowns expression. By the way, if you're too young to know who Bozo the Clown was, just take it from me, he was a very famous clown at that time.

Mr. Friendly put the record on, and we listened to a very long, they don't call it LP for nothing, tale of Bozo's near death at the hands, or fins, of a mean swordfish. The plot was thin, but gripping. The swordfish chased the clown a lot, and when it was over, Bozo escaped a chainsaw massacre, and the swordfish swam away to pursue less goofy prey. But we needed to hear it a couple more times.

Halfway through the third round, Mr. Friendly's head dropped, and he began to snore. When the story ended, and the record player's needle began to skip, we didn't have the heart to wake him up, so we tiptoed out of the room and out the door, leaving Friendly world behind, although visions of scary swordfish continued to swim in our heads. In retrospect, things could have gone badly at Mr. May-or-may-not-have-been-Friendly's place, but it was 1950s suburbia, so the odds were in our favor. We depended on the kindness of strangers. We expected it. However, there was one rule we were supposed to live by. Be home before dark.

By the time we left Mr. Friendly snoring on the couch, it was no longer before dark. So when we jumped on our trikes and rocketed up the sidewalk towards home, we weren't motivated by the fear of a neighbor or a kidnapper lurking on our street. Ironically, what concerned us most was what lay in store for us in our own home. Although I was only maybe four, my dad's anger and his harsh punishments had taken a toll. I was deeply afraid of him.

As Billy and I raced in the direction of our undoubtedly irate father, I imagined him waiting for us with that slipper with a sole like a street shoe that he used to spank us with, and shivery with fear, I wished, as I sometimes did, that dad would just disappear. As it happened, my wish came true. Dad was working late that night, so we were spared one of his wicked spankings, only subjected to mom's hugs and her mild rebuke. She was relieved that we were safe, and so were we. While her parenting style was, shall we say, relaxed, when it came to potentially life-threatening activities like swimming, mom exercised greater caution than usual, entrusting our care to someone older and more mature.

Eleanor H: Well, Diane turned into a caregiver. I gave her the responsibility, for instance, with taking, uh, her brother and sister to the club to swim. She had to be sure they were okay, and she felt very responsible for them.

Jessica H: Diana was only 18 months older than us, and I'm pretty sure Billy and I did not appreciate her efforts. She made sure we remembered our towels, and stored our shoes in the locker, and wore our floaties, but we didn't think of her as a caregiver so much as a bossy cow. This set up a dynamic between us that, I'm afraid, went on for some time. There's a photo taken of the three of us back then, Diana with one protective arm around each of us, her tiny charges, and I'm looking at her like, "Whoa, back off, Mary Poppins. You are not the boss of me."

When Diana got tired of this kind of push back, she declared us boring, and scoped the neighborhood for more compliant playmates. She zeroed in on a seven-year-old named Joan. I kind of thought Joan was dreary, and by the way, she was so old. I mean, she could have been a babysitter for God's sake. But I was glad Diana was occupied, so I could have Billy all to myself. Billy and I were so close, sometimes mom worried that we were too dependent on each other.

Eleanor H: Jessica could do everything right from the beginning, but, uh, he seemed to be very slow in learning to tie his shoes, and once when I found him letting Jessica tie his shoes, I said, "Billy, you're the same age as Jessica, and you should be able to tie your own shoes." And he said, "Mom, remember we're two different people."

Jessica H: Not only were we two different people, but we were two different genders, and inevitably, we started getting into more heteronormative activities. I started taking ballet, which wasn't considered a masculine pursuit in those days, but not to be sidelined, Billy found a comparable activity that he felt was manly enough.

Eleanor H: I remember when Jessica took up ballet, and Billy was crazy to do that, and they retired to their room, and when I went to check on them, Billy was in his underpants, and I thought, "Oh, God, sex." I mean (laughs) I said to Billy, "What are you doing without your jeans on?", and he said, "Well, acrobats don't wear jeans, do they?"

Jessica H: One birthday, I think it was our fourth, Nana, our grandmother in Denver, sent us some gifts, and she sent Billy a tent, one that he could pitch in the backyard, and Billy was ecstatic. I mean, the tent embodied his passion for adventure and mobility and independence and manhood. My gift from Nana was a purse. I was also ecstatic, so while Billy hung out in his tent, pretending he was camping on some mountain range a thousand miles to the west, I roamed the backyard pretending I was shopping at Bergdorf's, a thousand miles to the east. Some things never change.

Once in a while, when she couldn't find any better company, Diana would invite me to play girl games, like house. Billy joined us, although Diana and I, pretending to be desperate housewives, insisted that since he was the dude, he had to go to the office, and this meant that Billy was exiled to another room for an extended period of time, until we allowed him to commute back to our suburban fantasy. Billy was pretty frustrated by this game, and he really started to long for some male company. The truth is, he longed for dad, but dad was working.

Eleanor H: He put a lot of pressure on himself, of course, because he was a perfectionist, and he did well, and he was very disciplined and very smart.

Jessica H: Dad wasn't the first guy to suffer from work pressure, but there was a unique reason why he and others of the greatest generation pushed themselves. They were children of the Great Depression.

Eleanor H: Well, we did have kind of a cloud hanging over us. I felt I could never spend any money that I didn't have to, and Paul was never certain that his job wouldn't disappear into the mists, and leave him with no income. So there was a certain amount of on pressure in that, even though this was a very good time economically, we still had this bad log of, of experiences during the depression that haunted us.

Jessica H: All that hard work meant a lot of travel too, so he'd be away for like, you know, a week, 10 days, sometimes two weeks at a time.

(singing)

Eleanor H: There was a time when there was a break in Paul's travel schedule, which had been very tough, and he was home, and saw something of the children, and it was as though he saw them for the first time. And particularly bonded with Billy, who looked to him for the first time like something besides a crying baby, and they couldn't get enough of each other.

Billy H: He would take me on outings with just me and him. I remember going to the train yards, and looking at the trains, and him teaching m-me the names of the different kinds of cars. The oil car, the flat car, and the box car, the salt car, and so forth. When I was with him, I was happy and calm. I loved being with him.

Jessica H: I, for one, was kind of terrified of dad, so I just tried generally to stay under his radar, but you know, in spite of their volatile relationship, dad and Billy shared this unique sensibility, this humor. I mean, had a lot to do with the fact they were dudes.

Billy H: He had had, uh, an accident with an ax. He was trying to take a branch off a tree, and the ax bounced back and hit him in the head, and gave him a cut on the head. He had to go get stitches, and the way he told it to us was that he had accidentally chopped off his head. (laughs) "What?" "Yeah, they had to sew it back on." (laughs)

Remember when we were on that road trip, and he slammed his finger in the car door and completely destroyed his finger, and had to go to a doctor, and had to have all this stuff done to it, and then it was ... And then he did this whole skit. It was a actually wonderful thing on his part, being, taking this terrible thing that happened to him and turning it into a comedy routine for us. "Daddy slam finger in core car door," he said the doctor said back to him. And then he'd d-do this pain dance, because he'd have to change the dressing. He said, "Now it's time for my pain dance," he said, (laughs) "gather round."

Eleanor H: (laughs)

Billy H: He changed the dressing and whoop and holler and dance around. Certain things that he would do were just the best.

Jessica H: (singing)

Eleanor H: Then when Paul's travel schedule began to heat up again, and he was gone, and he sort of forgot about his connection with the children that had been so valuable for both of them. When he came home, he felt Billy could be calmed down in the old way of giving him a, a good spanking. But that was not Billy's mode. When it came to Billy's soul, you had to be calm and gentle, and it was his soul that cried for Paul.

Billy H: He just started working in this company when we were born. Became more and more, uh, ambitious and engaged in the operations of the company, and stresses built, I'm sure, and time obligations built. And so he spent less and less time with us. This is what I understand later, but as a child, of course, you don't care about any of that stuff. You don't know about it. You don't care about it. All you know, is that we used to play and now he doesn't want to play with me. I can't tell a story about that, because it doesn't form itself in my memory as a story. It forms itself in my memory as a feeling. I had this feeling of, "Why aren't you playing with me anymore?" It's desperate sorrow about that, and betrayal. I'm sure I did things to provoke his anger. I'm sure I did things to get his attention.

Eleanor H: He was a man's man trapped by women, and he caused a lot of trouble and his ... And he got so angry about Paul being away, he went kind of crazy.

Jessica H: Then my brother took an ax, and gave the windows 40 whacks.

Billy H: You know, you had your storm windows, and then you had your screens, and you had to replace them every year, and he'd gone to this big trouble of replacing all the screens and had them stacked up in the garage. And I took an ax and put the ax through the entire stack (laughs) of screens.

Eleanor H: Oh my God. (laughs)

Billy H: (laughs) But it became a legendary act of vandalism on my part.

Jessica H: Billy's rampage did not end there.

Eleanor H: He'd pull the registers out of the floor, and threw anything he can find down into the furnace. He pulled out the light plugs, and if I interfered with him, he'd start screaming, something he hadn't done for months, so I didn't know quite what to do with him.

Billy H: It was just so important to me to have that connection with him. It stopped kind of abruptly, and left me with this deep vacuum in my heart that's never resolved, and it's still there, that grief around that is still there, and anger.

Jessica H: (singing)

So in some ways, dad just didn't get it. But it was the '50s, and I don't think parenting was even a verb yet. Certainly not one that most men were expected to be familiar with. But while dad may have been MIA, or just, you know, clueless sometimes, there were moments when he was exceptionally present. I remember one afternoon, when Diana and Billy and I were outside playing with some neighborhood kids, and dad was nearby doing yard work or something. And he overheard one of the kids teaching us this song that, sadly, many of you will be familiar with. It went like this. "Eeny meeny miney mo, catch a n-word by the toe. Eeny meeny miney mo, if he hollers, let him go."

Okay, I was four or five, I didn't know much, but when I saw dad make a beeline for our playful circle, I knew something was terribly wrong. I expected one of his rages, or one of those spankings without explanation, but instead, dad stopped our play and told us in a calm, firm, articulate way, that we must never speak that word. He explained to us what a racial epithet was, and the harm it would do, the evil it perpetuated, and he did so with absolute commitment to what he was teaching us. He wasn't being just dad, he was super dad, like I had never seen him before.

So I took that lesson in. I mean, it was almost like I felt it physically, like it was locked into my body, so that even now, when I heard that word, no matter what the context is, I feel this little twist inside. Now, I'm not saying dad's behavior was heroic. One would expect the same from any thoughtful parent, but it was unusual for him to speak that way to us, with such earnest intensity. And then many years later, after dad's death, I learned some things about our family history that put a whole new spin on that particular teaching moment. I'll tell you more about that in upcoming episodes.

There were times when Diana was off playing with Joan or some other suspect, and Billy was God-knows-where, so I was left to my own devices. I couldn't imagine finding another playmate who could measure up to Billy, or as I called him, my B. And as long as my mother was within shouting distance, I was perfectly happy on my own.

Eleanor H: My mother said of Jessica, "She was the cat who walked by herself," and I think that has proved true. I didn't take it that seriously. I worried a good deal about her. I thought, you know, she was so independent, but then I heard her say, "When I wish upon a star, I don't seem to get what I want." So I thought, "Well, maybe she has things she needs that I'm not aware of."

Jessica H: Mom was right. There was something I needed, something I wanted so badly I finally gave up on that unaccommodating star, and started praying for it. It all started in 1952, when we got a television.

(singing)

Eleanor H: Paul's father had insisted that anybody in the advertising business ought to have a television set. We accepted that and he was right.

Jessica H: We got the cutest little black and white TV set with a charming antenna.

Eleanor H: We were in the new people on the block. Nobody else we knew had one, so when it came around to the republican convention, Eisenhower and Stevenson contending, we had everybody over to the house. Then it got to be a regular watching of television. We had our dinner on trays in front of the television set, and heard the news or whatever. On Sunday, we watched Sid Caesar, who was wonderful. We'd done this for about three weeks when I suddenly noticed Paul had his head in his hands. (laughs) - working all day, coming home and watching television was the new American way, and he said, "If this is the new American way, I can't buy it." That was the end of our (laughs) slavish watching of television, but the children, of course, loved it.

Jessica H: (singing)

After dad's failed attempt to embrace the suburban agenda, they kept their watching to a minimum and made an effort to curtail ours, to get us engaged in more lofty pursuits. One night, dad came home from work to find us engrossed in the TV and he irritably switched it off, so that he could present us with postcards of Audubon's renderings of a scarlet tanager and a pelican. This was a losing battle.

Programming was pretty limited back then, to be sure. I mean, there was this circus show, whose star was this blonde lady with a sequined leotard, and then there was a show with a trio of amusing sock puppets. Another with a duo of not-so-amusing clowns, and then, there was the show that was the real life changer. The Mickey Mouse Club. For one thing, the Mickey Mouse Club was an empowering show for us, because it was kid-driven. I mean, yeah, there were a couple of old guys on the set, Jimmy and Roy, but they wore mouse ears, so they didn't really read as grown ups. And the club kids, oh my gosh, they were so cute. They were talented and well-behaved. They were this cluster of shiny, clean role models.

Just as when in the '60s, my siblings and I each chose our favorite Beatle, we each had our Mouseketeer, and mine was Annette Funicello. I thought she was kind of perfect. I wished that she could be my babysitter, instead of Nancy, who had those awful sweaty armpits and limited us to one Oreo apiece. Also, I coveted Annette's skirt. Although we had a black and white TV, I was pretty sure that the skirt Annette and her female "keteer" peers wore was green. It had a thousand pleats, which gave it this kind of swingy grace and a capacity for swirl that was unlike any garment I had ever seen. At night in my prayers, I requested a favor in exchange for good behavior. I asked God if he could send me, by express mail if possible, a replica of Annette's skirt. I really wanted a ticket to Disneyland too, but I didn't want to push it.

While I understood that God was fairly busy, I was disappointed that my request was apparently in low position on his to do list. I learned to accept life without Annette's skirt, not to mention her babysitting services. Eventually, she traded in her Mouseketeer wardrobe for beach movie bikinis, much to the delight of Frankie Avalon, and I switched obsessions to the Beatles, Paul to be specific. P.S., my longing to go to Disneyland was only satisfied when I was over 30, when I went with two of my siblings who were also still chasing the Disneyland dream. The place did not live up to our impossibly high expectations, but a Polaroid from our visit shows my brother and sister wearing traffic cones on their heads, a sure sign that we were having fun, or at least, a lot of tequila.

(singing)

When I ask mom what she wished for at that time in her life, she said-

Eleanor H: My wish would have been for more domestic help.

Jessica H: And soon, she was going to need it, because she had another wish, and that one was coming true.

Eleanor H: We wanted to balance the family with another boy.

Jessica H: Apparently, in pursuit of this desire, as the likely apocryphal story goes, my parents ditched us one afternoon to take a walk in the neighborhood, and as Diana would later report to the babysitter, "Mommy and daddy laid down in the weeds, and got poison ivy." They laid down in the weeds, an excellent euphemism, and Dad, who was especially allergic, got the worst case of poison ivy he ever had. But there was another, more welcome outcome when they rose from their bed of weeds. Well, it was welcome to them. Certainly not to me.

Eleanor H: I remember my first pregnancy when I felt terrified that the options I had once had for my life had closed. By now, I can see that what that had done and opened a whole new life for me, full of challenges and creative activity, and now with this other baby coming, I can think, "Another miracle. A new life. A new door opening."

Jessica H: The news of mom's pregnancy made all of us very nervous. Billy began a period of bedwetting, and Diana started crying whenever mom left the house, and I went into the bathroom and cut off the hair on one side of my head, not in a good way. And as if the prospect of a new sibling were not unsettling enough, there was this event that took place shortly before the birth, that I could not help but think was associated. There was a seiche.

So, a seiche is sort of like Lake Michigan's tepid version of a tsunami, only the science of it is different, but I'm not Bill Nye, so don't ask me. What I know is that this giant wave rolled across the lake and onto the shore, killing eight fishermen in its path, and leaving children like me suddenly aware that Mother Nature was not always friendly. Not only did she bring you unwanted babies, she brought you disaster.

I remember going down to the beach after the lake had calmed itself. My dear, lovely beach, where I ... Well, I'd almost drowned once, but mostly I'd had so much fun there in the summers, and seeing all kinds of unusual detritus in the sand, these grotesque curly plants and oddly, a light fixture. But the most disturbing thing of all was this giant fish. I mean, it was the size of our babysitter. I was kind of appalled to learn that when I wa-had been frolicking in the lake all summer, I'd been sharing it with all this gnarly stuff. So my new sibling's conception had caused a torturous rash, and the birth caused a tidal wave. And things only got worse.

Eleanor H: We wanted to balance the family with another boy, but we got a girl instead. Nine pound baby.

Jessica H: The last thing I needed was a sister. I was having enough trouble as it was. Diana getting all the attention for being the oldest, Billy getting all that attention for being a boy. I knew I was excess baggage, a second girl. Who needed a third to share what crumbs were left of the attention pie?

When Ann Lindsay Harper came home, she arrived in a straw basket with a handle on it, as if she'd been delivered by the Easter Bunny. And she was sickeningly cute. I remember my parents looking down at her, cooing in her snug little nest, and I learned the meaning of envy. As mom had said about me-

Eleanor H: She was the cat who walked by herself. I thought, n-n-you know, she was so independent.

Jessica H: And I was. With attention-getting siblings like Diana and Billy, you had to be independent, but still.

Eleanor H: But then I heard her say, "When I wish upon a star, I don't seem to get what I want." So I thought, "Well, maybe she has things she needs that I'm not aware of."

Jessica H: And yeah, she was right. I did, and while I may have prayed to God for Annette Funicello's skirt, when I saw the look on dad's face as he gazed down at my new sister, I understood what my wish really was. I also knew that it was as unlikely to be fulfilled as the skirt delivery had been. Because I feared my father, I made a habit of avoiding contact, quietly lurking in his peripheral vision, out of harm's way. But with Lindsay's arrival, I noted how glorious his full attention could be, and also that it now seemed unattainable. How could I ever get my father's love light, so tenderly trained on this charming little baby, to shift position and shine on a timid four-year-old with a crooked haircut? A cat who walked by herself?

Thanks to the disastrous arrival of my new sister, our house quickly became too small. We would have to find a larger one. I did not want to move. I was, I was change resistant. So this gave me one more reason to hate Lindsay, in the event that I needed one. Little did I know that even greater disasters lay in store for me when we moved to the nearby town of Winnetka. You'll hear all about that in the next episode.

Next: Episode 4: WINNETKA transcript