MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 19 – Turning Point
Life settled into as much a routine as any household could with a new baby. Since I have always believed when babies cry there must be a reason, whether wet, hungry, or just needing their mommy, we rarely allowed our son to cry for more than a moment. He had two adults completely under his thumb, and was becoming quite the little tyrant.
Although it took many, many tries to teach him to eat from his tiny infant spoon, he soon caught on, and even with the extra cereal and fruit, our little fellow seemed to be hungry all of the time. When he was not eating and sleeping, he wanted to be in my arms. Of course, with my first child, I dedicated my days to him; although I tried to keep my nights open for his father who I believed was going through a bit of a jealousy stage. No longer was I completely available for all of Billy’s needs, rather one whimper from the crib or the playpen would send me rushing to my infant. It had been my hope from the beginning that I could ‘train’ Billy to be as much a part of Michael’s life as I was, and he was very good about changing him, giving him his bottle, or just rocking him. That is, IF I was otherwise occupied preparing his supper, hanging clothes, or another of the multitude of chores that befall a household with a baby. After all, Billy was taking a summer class and working as many hours as possible.
I tried to change as little as possible in our pre-birth routine. I still pampered Billy and we resumed our nightly trysts as soon as Dr. McCrum said I was ready at my six-week check-up. Although I was beginning to wonder if it was normal to be so tired all of the time, after talking to some friends with babies, I realized this is a chronic complaint of any new mother. I just never seemed to have a day when I felt like visiting with Kay, or taking the baby to the store, or even hanging clothes, although this one task I could not avoid. Michael loved to lie on a blanket on the grass while I hung line after line of clean, sweet-smelling diapers, and this way he was able to get some sunshine and fresh air. Inevitably, our neighbor, the pastor’s wife, would come outside to sit and visit, helping me to hang diapers on occasion, but even this took just about every ounce of strength I could muster.
If I did not regain my vigor soon, I thought perhaps I should go back to see my doctor to see if there was something wrong with me when I made a wonderful discovery! Billy and I were taking turns getting up at night with the baby, warming his bottle while changing his diaper, then feeding him. However, every morning, whether it had been my turn or his, Billy asked how many times the baby woke up! He had been taking care of his son all of this time in his sleep, and amazingly, quite well, as the baby was never harmed. It then dawned on me if I woke him telling him it was his turn to get up, he would never remember the next morning he had done so, thus saving me a half hour of sleep and by this time every minute was precious. The first few times I tried this, I did not go back to sleep since I was worried Billy might heat the baby’s bottle too hot, or stick him with a diaper pin, or cause some other catastrophe. However, by the end of the third week, I knew my child was perfectly safe with a father, who though sound asleep himself, took as good care of him as I did fully awake. With my fears set aside, when I was just too tired to get up, I would poke Billy and he would automatically get up and go about diapering and feeding his son, and each morning would ask how many times I had been up! I know this appears a bit selfish, but I felt if he did not miss his sleep and I did, and if he was actually semi-sleeping while he fed Michael, then no one was any worse for the wear.
Therefore, as long as Michael continued to wake up during the night, his father dutifully took care of him while his mother slept! I kept this secret to myself and I was a better wife for having the extra sleep. Soon Billy was almost as attached to our small bundle of joy as I was, and would automatically jump up regardless when he cried, and I do not think he ever knew what was happening.
Our weekend recreation continued about the same just with a playpen added to the furnishings with two bright baby boys sitting in their ‘Infant seats’ watching the grownups play cards. Usually we played at our home since Jimmy and Kay did not have as much room for a card table and a playpen. Kay, who was still nursing Chris, would excuse herself to go into our bedroom to nurse, while Billy would feed Michael his bottle or hold him over his shoulder until he fell asleep, and not miss a bid.
Occasionally we would go to the drive-in theatre in Gainesville, and while Michael slept soundly in the backseat, his young parents would snuggle and kiss as if we were on a ‘date’. Rarely was there a movie showing at the local theatre that was recent or we were interested in seeing, and of course a theatre was no place for a baby and we certainly could not afford the luxury of a babysitter. The drive-in was our best alternative, although a couple of times we would ‘trade’ sitting chores with Kay and Jimmy, at least for a few hours since no one could feed Chris except Kay.
Thus, on a Sunday in mid-summer, an event occurred that forever changed the way I adored my handsome husband. There was an unusually good movie at the theatre, and as on rare occasions, we decided to go while Jimmy and Kay kept Michael, then we would keep Chris so they could go to the second show. Jimmy had other ideas though, and sometimes I wonder if he was just trying to start trouble, but he decided he and Billy should go together to the earlier show while Kay and I went to the second. It was not that I did not trust Billy, but then again maybe there was a bit of jealously, and I did not particularly want him in a theatre without me. Besides, I wanted to go to the show with my husband, not with Kay, as much as I liked her. I could not understand why Billy did not prefer to go with me!
What happened that Sunday afternoon was a ‘power struggle’, Jimmy goaded Billy by calling him ‘hen pecked’, and Billy could not accept that Jimmy thought he was anything less than the man of the house. He wanted to be a man, and a man ruled his roost, and the wife went along with his ideas, but he had married the wrong woman if he expected me to sit back, say and do nothing, and just let him carry on however he pleased. Most of all I was hurt since it seemed as if Billy would rather be with Jimmy than with me. Certainly, I had no idea that Jimmy had ‘called’ him on the issue, and Billy was determined to prove to Jimmy that he was a ‘man’, and the unopposed ruler of his domain! It was a ‘set-up’ and we both walked right into it with our eyes wide open!
I had baked a ham, made a potato salad, rolls, and opened the now routine can of LeSeuer peas for our dinner that Sunday, but, just as I was ready to put it all on the table, Jimmy called and asked Billy if he was ready to leave for the theatre. I heard Billy tell him we had not had our dinner yet and that it was almost ready, but obviously, Jimmy said his meal could wait while the movie could not, and he talked him into meeting him at the theatre in just half an hour.
When Billy came into the kitchen where I was busy putting the salad together and told me he was leaving, I lost it; I really, really lost it. I was already on the verge of tears and hurt by his determination to go separately, and frankly, I wondered what they were really up to, not trusting Jimmy at all. After a few harsh words flew between us, I did what I usually did when something very important to me did not go my way. I ranted; raved, cried, and told him if he left, I would just throw his dinner in the garbage since he obviously did not want it. However, he was just as determined not to let Jimmy think he was ‘hen-pecked, and as he picked up his car keys on the mantel I proceeded to dispose of my carefully prepared meal, except I used the sink! First in went the ham, a week’s worth of sandwiches, and another meal, for both of us, then I dumped the potato salad on top of the ham, added the peas with their liquid, threw the rolls in one at a time and finally poured a pitcher of iced tea over the entire mess! I suppose I would have broken the dishes too had they not been melamine, but long ago Billy had decided that a glass plate in my hands was a lethal weapon.
Hearing the racket, since I certainly was not attempting to be silent, Billy came back into the kitchen. Appalled by the waste, he lost it and he slapped me! The first time he had ever raised a hand to me, and the last. My nose and lip started to bleed and he rushed to get ice while leading me to the daybed in the living room. He fell to his knees, apologized, and begged me to forgive him. He wrapped his arms around me and he cried, and promised he would never again allow his temper to get away from him like that. I know now, with maturity, it was all a ‘control’ issue, but ‘issue’ was not even a word in the early 60’s. We were just two stubborn, first-born children, with tempers that equaled one another’s, although I think mine was a bit worse than his was, and we both reached the peak of exasperation with each other that day. Never had I been as angry or as hurt with him, and he had never been as angry and as hurt with me.
While I sat on the couch with the ice pack on my face and sobbed, Billy called Jimmy and told him that something important had come up, and we were unable to go the movie, and could not keep Chris that afternoon.
With one arm around my heaving shoulders, he held ice to my lip with tears streaming down his face, saying our children would never, ever see him hit their mother, and he begged me over, and over not to leave him. I had always told him if he ever hit me or otherwise hurt me physically, I would leave, I would not allow my children to be witness to what both of us had endured in our childhood homes.
I wanted to leave. My rage was still not satisfied. Only my love for Billy and my desire for my son to be raised by both of his parents made me stay, although I promised Billy, if he ever hit me again, or even tried, I would leave, regardless of how much it hurt or how much I loved him. I would not and could not love him to the point where I lost myself as my mother had to my father, I was determined to be a mother who cared enough about her children not to live in a volatile situation, and he knew it. I would not be controlled either, and of that I was determined. It was on that day I finally and ultimately won the upper hand, since Billy had been the one who had broken his promises to me.
As he thought about the life his own parents lived and how sad his little brothers always seemed, and how starved for affection, he could not tolerate the thought that our son would be witness to physical as well as verbal violence in our home. He also finally realized the meanness of the game Jimmy had played, and he never fell into that trap again with anyone. From that day on, we were practically inseparable, and once a friend’s husband told me that Billy and I were so much in love with each other, we were ‘silly’, and he had never seen any other couple as committed as we were. That is what I wanted my children to see and to remember – that their father loved their mother and their mother loved their father, and neither would go against the other.
Our dinner was not salvageable except for the ham for sandwiches, but I was still too emotionally overwrought even to think about eating. Billy cleaned up the mess in the sink without a word while I laid on the daybed and continued to sob.
Just as he finished cleaning up, there was a knock on the door and there stood my aunt and uncle! They had been out driving around a nearby lake where they owned a lot so they decided to come and see the new baby and us. Well, with my eyes swollen from tears and my lip from the slap, I ran to the bathroom to see if I could make myself presentable while Billy retrieved Michael from his crib. By putting the ice on my eyes instead of my lip, I was able to get the swelling down quickly, and then with makeup and the dim light in the apartment, since the overhead lights were not on, I was presentable. I had to hold my lip in with the edge of my teeth so the swelling would not be noticeable and I wondered for a long time if my aunt and uncle realized their visit had come at a most inopportune time by my relative silence, which certainly was most unusual for me. There was no way I could be sociable and hold my lip in at the same time, and later my aunt told me she thought they had not been welcome guests. While I assured her they were always welcome, someday perhaps I would tell her the entire story.
It was not too many years later, I did tell her the details of the hour preceding their visit, and why I had not been my usual effusive self. She was surprised since she thought Billy and I never fought. I explained that we did not fight often, but when we did it was usually a humdinger, and they just happened to walk into the worst fight we had ever had, and that nothing like that had ever happened again.
They only stayed about an hour, but one of the longest hours, I have ever spent, and we both breathed a sigh of relief when they finally left. Never did we want anyone in either of our families to have any occasion to tell us we were too young and had made a mistake. In other words, we did not want to hear, "We told you so!"
After they left and Michael had been changed and fed, Billy and I made love on the daybed. He was so tender and gentle, so kind and loving and his promises still ring in my ears. We never did have another fight like that one, although it was not the last time we disagreed over something, and once Billy had to replace the bathroom door saying better the door than me. He finally realized the reason I had been so irrational was that I loved him so much I wanted to be with him and not with Kay! He told me how Jimmy had taunted him about not being the ‘man of the house’, unable to make any decisions for himself and always having to be with me, and had even used the dreaded ‘henpecked’ word. While I understood he thought it was a test of his manhood, and I knew he wanted more than almost anything, to be a ‘man’, I told him a real man did not hit a woman, and he agreed. He wanted to be a better man than his own father was, and ultimately he was a far, far better man.
I would have crawled up into his heart and stayed, if it meant I could be with him forever. We both felt we were so much a part of each other that the other could not survive alone, and I knew I could not. However, we also wanted something better for our children than our parents had given us, and never again was there a violent episode in any of our small homes. We may have disagreed, but never in front of Michael, and we never used the words we heard so often while we were growing up – our children deserved something better, and that is exactly what we gave them.
From that day on, we always sat and talked about how something the other said or did was hurtful, and if angry, why. Amazingly, this course of action worked very well, at least for us. We figured out something our parents could not, but then again there was no alcohol involved in our disagreements, just ‘feelings’.
When Michael was six weeks old, I was able to apply for unemployment benefits, but first I had to call my old boss and ask if he had an opening for me to return to work. When I did this, I was totally taken aback when he asked me if I wanted to come back to work for Wayne Feeds since he could use me. Of course, I said, "No, I want to stay home with my son."
Saying how he felt he ‘owed me’ for the good work I had done for him, he then promised he would sign the form that certified I had asked for my job back but they had no positions open, thus clearing the way for me to collect the benefits. He concluded our conversation by telling me if I ever wanted or needed to go back to work to call him first and if they had no openings he would be happy to furnish references. That was very kind of him after the way I had behaved on my last day, and it meant we had another steady source of income that would last until Billy could finish his studies in December and receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, less than six months away.
Our son continued to thrive and by late summer he weighed 15 pounds, far off the charts at the pediatrician’s office, who proclaimed him ‘above average’ in all categories. No one was more proud than Billy. He wanted his ‘little man’ to be able to do all the sports that his childhood abdominal injury had prevented him from enjoying, and he always made sure he was able to accompany me on the visits to the doctor’s office. He beamed when anyone commented how handsome and healthy Michael was, and my life became dedicated to this charming baby’s comfort and happiness as long as it did not interfere with the things most important to his father.
No longer were we overly concerned with every whimper, as we had been when he was newborn. Michael was the most smiling baby I have ever seen – he smiled at everyone, cooed, and giggled when Billy would tickle his little feet and tummy. "How perfect our life was," I thought, and it would be even more so when we were finally independent of Gene’s monthly check. I had thought surely, he would hold his contribution to our household over our heads, but he never mentioned it again, just sent the check like clockwork on the first of each month. Although we now had a baby to feed, he did not add one extra dime. There was never a note in the envelope, just a check, and I knew Billy hoped that some day, in some way, he would be able to give back every cent. Certainly not the way it finally happened. I had always thought Gene was somehow tying that check into his business, and if not making money on his contribution, he certainly was not losing any.
After that Sunday, I was fully confident that our worse days were behind us, that from now on, our seas would be smooth, and there would be no storms on the horizon. Life seldom takes the path one desires, but always holds surprises, and I suppose it would be pretty dull if we knew what was coming next, but there was no way we could have been prepared for our next crisis.