MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 24 – Christmas 1962
Less than two weeks following Billy’s commissioning we were ready to begin our new lives. We packed the car with Christmas gifts for all the family, the necessities for our almost seven-month old son and our clothing. Carefully Billy hung his new uniforms from the backseat window hooks. He pulled heavy socks over the top of his shoes, so new and polished, to protect the hour’s worth of ‘spit-shine’, and his hat went on the shelf under the back window carefully protected from the sun by a hat cover.
Both of us looked around the apartment to make sure we had not forgotten anything, but also to remember the lessons we learned while living there. We thought of the love we shared in this, our second home. So many cherished memories, not just of the nights we spent on the green sofa bed but all of the special moments. We would never forget how much we had learned, not just about each other, but how simple it was to create a real home when there was love, respect, and the Good Lord. We had dutifully gone to church, and continued to do so even after Michael was born, until he reached the age when entertaining him was too difficult during a service. Finally, we had to admit our little tyrant made it impossible for us to attend, and he was too young for the nursery, but we never forgot what we learned while members of that warm congregation.
I knew I would leave a part of me here, just as I would everyplace we wandered, and as tears began to well in my eyes, Billy put his arms around me and softly whispered, "Honey, don’t cry or you will make me cry too! We loved a lot here and we will always remember the special times - our first Christmas tree, our son’s first home, but dry your eyes now and let’s go make some more memories! Even better than the ones we take with us!"
As usual, Billy knew just the right thing to say to make me smile, and with a long kiss, we were ready. Last, we packed up the small amount of food left in the refrigerator to take to Kay and Jimmy on our way out of town, and without a backward glance we were on the way into our future!
Mrs. Harris had refunded our deposit in full, and I had spent days making sure the apartment was clean from top to bottom. The refrigerator was spotless, the freezer defrosted, the stove and the oven looked as if they had never been used, and the casement windows were sparkling in the December sun. In the evening, after he got home from work and ate his supper, Billy had cleaned, waxed and buffed the gray floor tiles to a ‘barracks’ shine, and all the baseboards and furniture would have passed any ‘white glove’ test. We needed every cent of the deposit to add to our limited funds to put down on our next home, although we were sure we would never find an apartment as large as this one for the money! Mr. Moore, once again always generous, gave Billy a Christmas bonus that included a commissioning gift, so we had more money than we had expected to set up our new home at Ft. Benning.
We knew there would not be post quarters available and, at this point, Billy was "TDY" (temporary duty) as a student, and his permanent assignment would follow his successful completion of the Officer’s Basic School. Officers’ quarters on post were only for ‘staff’ and ‘cadre’, or those permanently assigned to the huge fort. There was nothing available for ‘students’ and for those passing through except, perhaps the B.O.Q., or ‘Bachelor Officers’ Quarters’, and Billy was definitely not a bachelor.
Lastly, we loaded ‘Fella’ into the backseat. We had arranged for Billy’s brothers to take care of him until we settled into our new home and, hopefully, we could bring him to Columbus, but first we had to find an apartment that would allow us to have a dog. Good old Fella`, he had been such a devoted companion for Michael and had protected his family with his ferocious growl and hair standing straight up on the back of his neck. When we had visitors, particularly the boys, and my cousin, Kathy, he welcomed them like family with that long tail of his wagging so hard his entire body moved. Billy liked to say his body shook his tail! We both hoped we would find some place where we could keep him since all three of us would miss him if we had to leave him in Griffin, and we had no idea how that would go over with Helen, but decided to cross that bridge only when necessary.
I did not look back as we left Dahlonega and North Georgia College, although the memories of our days there would remain abundant and precious. After all, I had arrived there a seventeen-year old freshman and was leaving, having just turned twenty, as the wife of an Army officer and the mother of a healthy son. We would always remember the kindness of Mrs. Harris, Mr. Moore, Dr. Hoag, Dr. ‘D’, and the countless others we were leaving, along with our good friends, Kay, Jimmy, Diane, and Nicky. We had shared births, exams, parades, parties, and a myriad of other moments that wove a tapestry of memories we would never forget.
Hopefully we would see most of our friends again when they finally graduated and accepted their commissions. The happiest days of my life revolved around that lovely campus and the quaint little village, and there my life changed forever when I met Billy McConnell. I had no regrets, not even about being unable to complete my education. Rather, what I had learned about life and love would already fill a book and I was so devoted to Billy I would have followed him to the ends of the earth.
With our second anniversary approaching, I loved him more than ever – more than I thought possible for any woman to love a man, and I was secure he felt the same about me. He had often told me North Georgia College was just a ‘school’ until we met. Only then did it became special for him, and this small mountain town, our home, but it was years before I knew he had changed his official Army ‘home on record’ from Griffin to Dahlonega. I knew I would miss the mountains and our friends, but our future seemed so bright at that moment these thoughts left my mind as quickly as they had entered.
We stopped briefly in Atlanta to deliver Christmas packages and to accept congratulations on Billy’s graduation and commissioning. Once again, my uncle made sure we had enough cash for our journey to Columbus by slipping a twenty-dollar bill into Billy’s hand as we left for Griffin. Of course, we stopped at The Varsity, not knowing when we would be headed back to Atlanta, and we placed our usual order for six ‘steaks’ (hamburgers), two chili-dogs, a large order of fries, a large coke for Billy and a chocolate milk on ice for me. We were less than an hour’s drive from Griffin, and just one brief overnight stay away from our journey to Columbus to search for our new home.
As usual when we walked into the house in Griffin, the little boys were all over us hugging and kissing while their handsome faces reflected their hero worship of their big brother. This time they all were excited about their ‘job’ of taking care of ‘Fella’ while we were gone, and they showed us how they had cleaned out the old doghouse, sturdy and weatherproof, although it had always remained unoccupied, at least in my memory. They also promised solemnly if the weather turned cold, they would bring him into the laundry room – I just hoped Helen would allow it. They wanted me to leave Michael with them too, but of course, there was not any way either of us would leave our son! Helen would take care of the dog before she would Michael! After Billy showed the boys had to feed Fella, he settled into his new, hopefully temporary home.
Then, with anticipation of Santa dancing in their bright eyes, the boys, shaking each package, helped Billy carry the gifts into the house and placed them under the tree. We unloaded the car but just unpacked enough of our clothes to have a change in the morning, and all were clean since I had washed until the very last minute. Certainly, I would never ask Helen if I could use her washer and dryer! I would rather go to a Laundromat first! Michael had far more clothes than Billy and I put together, since it had been hard to resist the precious little suits in the stock of Moore’s General Store. Now he was growing so fast he barely wore his clothes but a few times until he outgrew them. He had just begun to crawl and it would not be long before he would be walking, and then running, and I knew I would have my hands full!
We were so anxious to get on the road the next morning we did not even eat breakfast in Griffin. Instead, we settled for juice and donuts in the car, although I fed Michael his fruit and cereal before we left. Billy had not wanted to talk ‘business’ with his father until we got back from Columbus, found an apartment, paid our deposit, and knew exactly what furniture we would need. The Army had packed our few belongings, including Michael’s crib, our kitchen utensils, linens, etc., and they were in storage at Benning until we knew where we would be living, and could call for a delivery date.
Michael’s playpen was in the backseat of the car and we were using that for his bed, although he had already learned to put his chubby little toes in the mesh and climb the sides! In order for me to get my work done during the busy days packing and cleaning, I had been forced to put the pad on the floor, turn the playpen upside down and put encyclopedias on the corners to keep him from falling on his head on the concrete. He had screamed with rage when he realized I had effectively stopped his climbing, but soon settled down when I ignored his tearless tantrum. Billy was so proud of his son’s imitation of a mountain goat he took snapshots of him halfway up the side, before he removed him from the mesh and placed him safely back in the center of the pad.
"He is going to be something else, isn’t he?" Billy said with pride, more a statement than a question, and I assured him as precocious as both of us had been as children, our son did not stand a chance!
On the other hand, was it I who did not stand a chance! He was definitely going to be adventurous and mischievous just like his father had been when he was a toddler, or so Bubba told me, but he was a good little traveler, and that was a plus for an Army officer’s son. So far, he did not have to be entertained in the car, but would watch the passing scenery from his car seat and eventually fall asleep.
We arrived in Columbus about lunchtime and decided to go on the post to eat lunch and to feed Michael. Actually, I think Billy just wanted to get his officer’s bumper stickers so the M.P. on gate duty would salute when he drove through. Of course he just happened to find the M.P station, so it was our first stop, and after he placed the stickers on his front and rear bumpers, he drove back through the front gate, down the long entrance to the post, three more times! Billy’s smile was contagious and I laughed aloud on our third pass through the gate, wondering if the M.P. noticed this was the third time he had saluted the same car. Sometimes I wonder if Billy did that as much for me as for himself.
We were finally on our own; free from family support, and as welcome as it had been when we were desperate we were glad it was over! After our third pass through the gate, Billy reported to The Infantry School, although classes would not begin until the first of the year. From the day that he received his commission, he was officially on ‘active duty’, ‘on leave’ relocating his family until classes began, but he was now on the United States Army payroll. We drove around the post for awhile; located the Infantry School’s classroom buildings near the jump towers, and then rode down to ‘Officer’s Row’ where the houses of the senior field grade officers (Lt. Colonels and above) faced the golf course.
Billy looked at the peaceful old brick houses, turned to me and said, "Someday we will live here."
He was so full of plans for our future and the promises of tomorrow and not once did I doubt him, not even a little bit. If he said we would live here someday, then I was sure we would.
After we ate a quick hamburger at the snack bar near the Post Exchange and fed Michael, we headed for Battle Park to see if there was any TDY quarters available. Most officers bringing their families with them to their Officer’s Basic School lived either in Battle Park, which was military housing available to not only TDY officers but also to the families of officers on ‘hardship duty’ overseas, or the Camellia Garden Apartments. Yes, those same apartments where we rented a room with Joan and William right after summer camp. We needed to get an idea of the average cost of rent in the area, which would give us the figure to give Gene on how much we could save if we had our own furniture. Billy hoped his father would either give us the furniture as a graduation and commissioning gift, or allow us to purchase it at his cost and make small monthly payments. We certainly did not have the cash to buy even a bed!
As we suspected, there were no vacancies in Battle Park, so we drove around the gate one more time for another salute. These were the days before ‘rent-a-cop’ gate guards, and there were Military Police stationed at all entrances and exits leading into and out of the fort. Then, being an officer or an officer’s wife was an honor and a privilege, and Billy never again abused that privilege by making circles around the gate, but I do not think he ever tired of driving through and receiving, and returning, the honor of a salute.
Since the apartments were right outside the road to the main gate, we were there within a few minutes of leaving post, and half an hour later, we were looking into both furnished and unfurnished apartments. We immediately noticed that some of the apartments on the end of four-unit buildings were larger than most, and we asked if any were available. We decided with the money we could save by renting an unfurnished apartment, we could afford the larger one with two-bedrooms and two extra windows. The manager then took us to the first court not far from the main road and the rental office. Arranged in an unconnected U shape with buildings on each side and one in the back, the four unit apartment buildings had ample grassy space, and many had playgrounds with picnic tables. The vacant apartment we saw was an end unit in the building that was the furthest from the parking lot and the street.
The street was not especially busy, rather a loop veering off the main road that served the extensive apartment complex. With an energetic little boy on the verge of walking, we were delighted with the unit’s remote location. About 150 yards from the back door was the railroad track that served the fort, but assured by the manager that the train did not run daily, but only about once a week, and only during the daylight hours, we were satisfied our son would be safe, and our sleep uninterrupted. There was a chain-link fence running along the track, separating it from the lawn behind the apartments, which offered added security. We went back to the office and signed a lease for the larger apartment, not having any idea how long we would be there, although Billy hoped long enough to finish Officer’s Basic, Airborne, and Ranger schools. Now Billy just had to convince Gene how much we could ‘save’ by having our own furniture. What amazes me now is the confidence we shared that Gene would not turn us down.
The major drawback was that we could not have a dog, so we also had to talk him into to keeping ‘Fella’ until the day we could retrieve him, knowing the little boys would love and care for him, and vice versa. Fortunately, Michael was not yet old enough to have formed an attachment to the gentle old dog, although Billy and I were greatly disappointed we could not keep him. I had envisioned our son using the dog’s strong back to pull up for his first steps, but perhaps this would happen with our next son.
On the drive back, Billy rehearsed the speech that he would give to his father, and expecting all kinds of resistance, he made up a dialogue for any negative excuse Gene might use. We went straight to the store when we reached town, and surprisingly, Gene was glad to help us cut down on expenses and told us we could select anything we needed and he would have it delivered! He also agreed to keep ‘Fella’ if the boys would assume responsibility for his care, and of course, we knew they would since they had always wanted a dog, but their mother would not hear of it.
I anticipated we would hear from Helen about the dog for the entire holiday, and I so wanted it to be a tension free and a happy time since this was our son’s first Christmas, and Billy was so exhilarated. Amazingly Helen never mentioned ‘Fella’ during the entire weekend, so Gene must have pre-warned her that Billy had emphatically told his father our small son would not be a witness to her bad temper, and we would pack and leave the moment we felt uncomfortable. I am sure she was on her best behavior because of Billy, not for Michael, or for me, but she did love her oldest son, and now that he had fulfilled their dream for him of graduating from college, she was especially warm. Unfortunately, Billy never did get over the way she treated his little family, as he often referred to Michael and to me, and she had lost him for good, regardless of what she tried to do now. It was far too late for her to salvage any kind of relationship with Billy, and even in her alcoholic stupor, I believe she knew this.
I did not expect Helen to enjoy playing with her grandson, although pleasantly surprised by how much Gene seemed to enjoy him. Bubba and Pop had already fallen in love with our adorable little boy, and I simply did not understand how Helen could not bring herself even to hold him. Of course, by now, Michael wanted to be down on the floor, crawling and exploring, and he was the Lewis and Clark of crawling explorers! One morning, while Helen was still sleeping, Billy took her mink coat out of the hall closet and laid it on the floor of our bedroom while he snapped picture after picture of his naked son crawling on the soft warm fur! He said bearskin was not good enough for his son – he deserved mink! All I could think of was Michael peeing, or worse, all over her prized coat! After using an entire roll of film, Billy allowed me to retrieve and dress our son while he hung the mink back in the closet. Thank goodness, there had been no accidents, and I still have these precious pictures. Soon I will give them to Michael to share with his own dear children.
Christmas Eve day Billy left Michael and me at the house with the boys while he went down to the store to talk to his father about when and where to have the furniture delivered. I knew Gene would welcome the break in his day, and Billy wore his uniform so his father could show him off to his employees and customers. Again he took my breath away – he looked so handsome, and he held me tight and kissed me before he left, leaving me almost weak in the knees! I wanted him to rip my clothes off, carry me down to the bedroom, and forget about his father, but it was important he have some time alone with him since Gene had been so generous, and I knew Michael would be a distraction. Billy needed to have his father’s full attention, as well as his love and understanding, and there was no better way for him to please Gene than to show up at the store in uniform.
Lunchtime came and went and I fixed the boys’ sandwiches while they helped me to feed Michael. I had them draw straws to see who would be the first to hold him while he drank his bottle, since he now insisted on holding it himself. I promised the other two they could have the next two turns and so on until we left for Columbus. They were such dear little boys and needed so much more love than their alcoholic mother and their workaholic father had ever given them, and I would always have enough love to go around. Just like their big brother, they were such enthusiastic recipients.
Billy arrived back at the house about 1:30 in the afternoon, not long after Michael, with a full tummy and a dry bottom, had settled in for his afternoon nap. Gene had taken him out for lunch as I suspected, wanting to show off his newly commissioned son some more, but also to talk, away from the store, where they could speak privately. Promising the boys he would be out to play with them just as soon as he changed out of his uniform, he motioned for me to follow him to the bedroom, as if I would not have done so anyway.
Whispering, so not to waken Michael, he pulled me into his arms and told me his father had said for us to come down to the store the day after Christmas to select our furniture, including a new television/stereo! Billy had gotten all, and more, than he asked for the previous day and was so proud of his ability to butter up his father; at least he had been able to do so this time. Since Michael would sleep soundly for another hour, Billy took off his uniform, hung it carefully in the closet, and then began to undress me as he quickly locked the bedroom door. The boys knew they were not to open the door if closed, but Billy made sure we would not be disturbed. Once again, he wrapped himself around me, while we made love, then we both fell into an exhausted, but satisfied sleep until awakened by our son demanding immediate attention!
Since I cannot remember any special event happening on Christmas Eve there must have been no fireworks, just a normal evening with three very loud, excited boys, and a baby who was the center of attention. Someone had to watch him constantly so he would not break, or worse eat, the decorations on the Christmas tree. Billy and I did stay up with Gene setting up the ‘Santa Claus’ for the boys, and for our own infant son, but the house was quiet by 10:00 p.m.
Since this was Michael’s very first Christmas we had carefully and frugally bought toys we thought he would enjoy and could not break since he was already showing signs of being a ‘true McConnell’. Much to my dismay, even at this early age, he was quite destructive and there would be no ‘flimsy’ toys for this ‘all-American boy’. We had bought him a plastic ball with a butterfly that spun around inside, a top, a music box with a jumping jack and several other small toys. Gene gave him a bright red high chair, at our request, and each little boy chose a gift for him at the store. Helen, as far as we knew had nothing for the baby or me, at least there was not a package from her under the tree for either of us, and again, she had not acknowledged my birthday. I knew Bubba and Pop would be coming down with their gifts on Christmas afternoon, and our gift to all adult family members was a photo of what else, our son!
We finally fell into bed tired, but content Michael’s first Christmas would be a happy one, surrounded by his young uncles and parents who loved him dearly. So far, Helen was behaving, although she poured herself drink after drink, but I would not make the same mistake twice, so I had no plans to fix breakfast the next morning!
I felt as if my head had just hit the pillow when three excited little boys, ignoring the ‘closed door’ rule, burst into the bedroom to tell us Santa had come and had even left toys for Michael! Billy sleepily pulled on his pants and socks, and handing me my robe, then picked his screaming son up out of his playpen. The excited voices of the boys had woken him and he was not happy! In the only way he knew how, he was loudly protesting, and if the boys had not awakened Gene and Helen, this angry little boy surely would. While I made myself halfway presentable for the inevitable snapshots, Billy soothed and changed his son, then waited for me, to take him upstairs. When we reached the den, Billy put Michael down on the floor with the boys and he seemed to know which his new toys were. Staring wide-eyed and spellbound at the Christmas tree with its glowing lights, and at all the bright packages, he was far too young to comprehend what all the excitement was about, at least this Christmas. Even so, he was not about to be left out of the fun! Now content, he was happily gnawing on ‘pop-beads’, the tree lights sparkling in his blue eyes, while Billy was hard at work trying to prevent him from opening all the packages. It seemed as if his favorite part of Christmas, other than the bright lights on the tree, was the vivid paper, and he ripped and tore wrappings from any gift he could get his hands on.
While the boys checked out their various toys, Helen, in her robe, joined us and sat down on the sofa, and lit a cigarette while Gene made coffee, which we all needed badly. When he rejoined us with steaming mugs for the adults, the boys began opening gifts from family since all the Santa gifts were already open. They insisted Michael open his first in the time-honored tradition to begin with the youngest, and since now he was just another of the McConnell boys. He really got into the spirit of the moment, tearing paper and throwing bows so the boys allowed him to open all of their gifts until he tired of the activity and wanted his breakfast.
Just as I got up to heat Michael’s cereal and fruit, Helen handed him a package from her! I was not stunned since she was, after all, his grandmother, but a bit surprised since she rarely paid him any attention at all. His tiny hands ripped into the paper once again and out came a rubber kitten! That was it! Just a rubber, squeaking toy kitten, and I should have been grateful she thought of him at all, but for some reason, I became very upset about the cheapness of her gift to her first and only grandchild on his very first Christmas. Billy must have read the disappointment on my face, so he thanked his mother for both of us; although he knew, the morning that began on such a high note, now lay in ruins, at least for me. While Billy fed Michael his breakfast, sitting in his new red high chair, I excused myself to dress, and left the kitchen to Helen to get her own family’s breakfast, my own appetite having vanished.
For some reason, maybe hormones, maybe the tension, I got to the bedroom just in time to break out in tears. I laid on the bed sobbing and Billy slipped into the room, having left Michael in the care of Gene. He sat on the side of the bed and held me in his arms, rocked me like a baby, and promised I would never have another unhappy Christmas, and this would be the last we would spend with his parents. While I knew that promise would be hard to keep since the boys were so important to both of us, I relished his attention and his care for me. As he held me and I held onto him, I loved him even more than the day before if that were possible, and I knew he would do anything he could to make sure his family had the happiest of holidays with no reason for tears.
Had we not left our son upstairs, we might have made love, but we knew the family was waiting. I composed myself as best I could, put on a bit of makeup to hide the circles and puffiness under my eyes, and then got dressed. Together we rejoined the family, Billy, firmly holding my small hand in his large one, and I felt so safe. Throughout the entire day, he kept me by his side. I must have looked like a frightened deer when headlights trap them on the road, and Billy knew I was emotionally fragile. When I was like this, he never let go of me, often pulling me around a corner for a quick kiss, and I do not know how I would have made it through the day without him. I just knew as soon as I could, I would toss that rubber kitten in the garbage!
With Bubba and Pop coming down that afternoon, I knew Helen would not drink until after they left. I am sure other family members had told Bubba Helen was an alcoholic, but as far as she was concerned, anything ‘wrong’ with Helen was "Eugene’s fault." I never thought Bubba accepted or even admitted her daughter’s addiction to alcohol. If Helen had not been injured in that accident (and I do think that was the beginning of her addiction while she was on painkillers), if Gene had been kinder, if he was home more, if he did not work so hard, if she had a daughter, if, if, if. It is hard for a mother to find blame with her own child and it is so much simpler to have another to blame for their shortcomings. However, the ‘truth’ was like asking which came first – the chicken or the egg. Each explanation had a justified answer, and not even Helen recognized she was slowly killing herself with the pills and bourbon, and I am not so sure that she even would have cared - she was that far gone.
The sixties was not a time when one from a ‘good’ family ‘talked about problems’. Alcoholism, like mental illness, stayed well buried within the family secrets. I can plainly remember my own grandmother telling me not to tell her anything bad, although she knew life at the house I grew up in was anything but pleasant. After all, she lived with us for years and witnessed first hand my father’s rage and abuse. Helen’s drinking was the worst kept secret among her family, and rather than incur Bubba’s wrath, no one dared even insinuate Helen was a drunk, and she did not drink around her mother, and Bubba continued to worship her only daughter, while she barely tolerated Gene. As usual, they would arrive before dinner on Christmas Day and be on their way to their home in Atlanta before dark, and by the time they arrived at their home, Helen would be half pickled and well on her way to passing out.
Pop was still frail looking after his frightening brush with death, but he loved Michael and spent most of the visit playing with him. Michael already had Bubba wrapped around his tiny finger, and it was obvious he was going to be another one of her ‘favorites’; after all, Billy had always held a special place in her heart as her first grandson, and now she had this little boy, so like his father – her first great grandchild. Michael was delighted with all the attention, and the festive atmosphere of the entire day. It had been almost impossible to get him down for even a short nap after dinner, but we knew if he did not have one, he would be hell on wheels by evening. When he became so cranky that nothing pleased him, Billy rocked him in Gene’s big chair in the den until he finally fell asleep on his father’s broad shoulder. The boys had gone outside to play with their new bicycles and finally we could have a moment or two of quiet and adult conversation, so without his uncles to stimulate him, Michael’s little head nodded as he finally fell asleep. I imagine he too felt just like I did, safe in his father’s arms.
He did not sleep long, but just long enough to take the edge off the excitement all around him, and overall it had not been a bad day, but then again we had learned the year before what to avoid. Gene had skipped church, although I was not sure why other than knowing we all were exhausted and probably would have elected to remain at the house. That evening, we had a late snack of soup and leftover turkey sandwiches, which Helen allowed me to fix since by now she would have had difficulty standing. I used an entire loaf of white bread and put them on a large platter in the center of the coffee table where everyone could reach them. Then I poured mugs of steaming cream of tomato soup, glasses of milk for the boys and Billy, who said he had more than enough cokes that day, coffee for Gene, and tea for myself. Politely I asked Helen if I could get anything for her, and even more politely, she replied she was fine, but by now, she was slurring her words. I figured out that Gene must have had a HUGE talk with her before we arrived, thus her new kinder and gentler attitude towards Michael and me.
While I cleaned up the kitchen, making sure I put everything back in its place and took another full loaf of bread out of the freezer in the laundry room, Billy took Michael downstairs for his bath.
Nothing can compare to a freshly bathed and powdered baby, and Michael’s little face was still glowing as he looked at the Christmas tree lights that remained on all day. Billy put him down on the floor for one last romp with the boys while he heated his bottle, and when Michael finished his warm milk, in no time at all he was off to dreamland. With our son safely tucked into his makeshift bed, we watched television with Gene and the boys since Helen was off in some other world by now. I cuddled close to Billy on the couch while he put his arms around me, and I held onto his strong, callused hand.
As soon as polite, feigning exhaustion, we said goodnight to everyone. With Michael already asleep, and after our usual hot showers, we made love until neither of us could hold our eyes open any longer.
I dreamed that night of Christmas in our own home, with our own tree, and our own gifts, and I knew this could possibly come true as soon as next year. As always Billy was there with his arms around me, and I knew I could do anything with him by my side.
The day after Christmas, following breakfast, we followed Gene down to the store to select our furniture; leaving Helen at home with the boys since the maid was still off. The store was not open since Gene had given his employees a three-day holiday, so we were able to look at everything without distraction. Of course, we took Michael with us, since I would never have left him with Helen, even if she offered to look after him. He went everywhere I went and was never out of my sight, except briefly, and then he was with his father.
Billy and I both decided we liked the ‘Early American’ furniture since it looked so comfortable and homey with high backs on the soft overstuffed sofa and chair. We selected upholstery in warm earth tones, not because this was the color of the fall leaves, but the fabric was sturdy and treated against stains, a necessity with a baby in the house. We then chose a maple coffee table and matching end tables with rounded edges so our little adventurer would not cut his head if it encountered them. Additionally we needed lamps since there was not an overhead fixture in the living room of our apartment, and we found two brass table lamps with golden glass globes that matched the gold in the sofa upholstery. Then Gene told us to choose a television/stereo console as our Christmas present, and we found one to match the wood of the tables. The maple looked so rich and warm we selected a bedroom suite in the same wood, with a double bed, a bookcase headboard, bedside tables, a double dresser for me, and a chest of drawers for Billy’s clothes. We added a braided room-size rug for the living room in colors to match the sofa and chair since the floors in the apartment were tile over concrete, very hard and very cold. Finally, we selected a table with six chairs for the dining area, also maple, and our apartment was fully furnished. There was very little doubt in my mind we would have the nicest, warmest, homiest apartment in all of Camellia Gardens, and I could barely wait to shop for the accessories that Gene did not carry such as drapes and throw rugs.
All we needed to purchase now were these items, and since the small casement windows in our apartment in Dahlonega did not require long curtains, we had no choice. We had hung green floor length drapes over the living room windows in the basement apartment to make the small windows look larger, and these we planned to use in our bedroom that just happened to be the same shade of green.
I could not thank Gene enough as his generosity was overwhelming. No one could ever say he did not love his oldest son, and in fact spoiled him outrageously, but above all, he did not want to see us start out struggling financially, although we always would. Billy had his diploma and his commission, so he fulfilled part one of Gene’s dream that each of his sons graduate from college since he had not, and this was his way of showing his appreciation. He even thanked me for helping turn Billy’s grades around so he could finish, and I thought he had not even noticed.
I wonder now if he also still held hopes that someday Billy or I would tire of military life and move back to Griffin. Being ‘nice’ to us now was, he assumed, an investment in his own business, because he knew his eldest son was a born salesman. He could envision the strict discipline of the Army would get old before too long, and he sent Billy to North Georgia College because of the military program, hoping the rigidity would settle him down a bit. That plan had worked, but in the meantime, Billy came to love the atmosphere, and he thrived in the environment, and was now making the Army his career. I knew I never wanted to live in Griffin, a small town where everyone knew everyone, and everyone talked about everyone else! In addition, I did not want Billy to be around his high school friends, both male and female, since he had told me some wild tales about his escapades. I did not want to lose ‘my’ Billy, the responsible father and loving husband, to his ‘wild’ friends, or for him to be around old girlfriends. No, if I could help it, we would never ever move to Griffin, and I did not think Billy could be happy working for his father.
We arranged with Gene to have our furniture delivered to our new apartment on Monday, and we all went back to the house to spend more time with the boys and to get ready to make a trip the next day, a Saturday, to Atlanta. We planned to go to the Sears Roebuck Store where we had a charge account we could use to purchase the drapes and other necessities we would need in our new apartment.
I was so excited to be setting up our home once again, and I wanted to make it a place where Billy was comfortable and could relax after a long day in class. In addition, I envisioned nights of playing bridge for entertainment and I wanted to create a home where we would be proud to welcome guests, and, finally yet importantly, I wanted our son to have his long overdue nursery.
We left early the next day for Atlanta, leaving Helen still asleep, and Gene already at the store for his big ‘after Christmas’ sale, and we stopped for a quick breakfast at a motel just north of Griffin. Michael loved to ride in the car, but like a giant rocking chair, he was asleep about five minutes after we resumed our trip. I had made a list of what we absolutely needed, what we would like to have, and ‘dreams for the future’. Since Billy had finally sold those outrageous single-shot derringers that had precipitated one of our first arguments, we had a little bit of extra cash, so we were hoping not to have to charge too much, and thankfully, we did not.
We shopped until lunchtime, adding some forgotten Christmas gifts to our list, and when we returned to the car, we found someone had broken into it and many of our possessions were missing! How could this happen when all seemed to be going so well? Had we been too smug and were now paying for it, or were we just chosen at random because in an older car it was far more simple to jimmy the lock than a newer model. Billy and I went through our belongings and were most grateful that most of our clothing and particularly Billy’s uniforms had been left in Griffin, but Michael’s new snowsuit, a gift from Bubba, was missing along with a .45 caliber pistol Billy had ‘borrowed’ from his father. He did not even know if the gun was registered, and the officer assured us we would never see it again. There were other small items missing, but nothing of consequence, so after filing our report for the police and obtaining a copy for our insurance company, we both were famished.
We knew we could use my grandmother’s discount to get a new snowsuit for Michael, and personally, I did not care whether the pistol was gone or not since I did not even know Billy had it! I just hoped his father would not suspect Billy had taken it, but who else was there to blame it on?
Anyway, after our traumatic experience, it was Varsity time, as it always was when we were within a half hour’s drive! Billy so enjoyed eating there, and when we came through on our way to Griffin, we had no idea we would be back in Atlanta so soon; surely not until Billy finished ‘Officer’s Basic’.
After lunch, we stopped by to see Tommy’s mother, who ‘adopted’ Billy since she knew he did not have a ‘normal’ home life, and Billy wanted to show off his handsome son. She had sent a nice gift when Michael was born, and I really liked her from the moment we met. She seemed honestly delighted to see us both, and the baby. We visited for about an hour before leaving for Griffin and two more nights before we would be in our own home again.
Supper was ready about the time we arrived, but Helen had been home all day, thus drunk off her gourd, and she immediately said she had not planned on us coming back this early, so she had only cooked enough for the boys. Her own ‘supper’ was in either her hand or just an arm’s reach away, and she reeked of bourbon. Gene was nowhere in sight, and was probably still at the store, because the day after the Christmas holidays was one of his busiest. All of the toys were half-price so he could clear them out and not use precious warehouse room to store them, plus the inevitable barrage of returns.
Without a word to his mother, Billy picked up our son, who was playing on the floor with the boys, and we walked out to find somewhere to eat. Unless with Bubba and Pop, Helen rarely ate herself, her diet being mostly liquid, and she was very tiny in stature to the point of looking seeming unhealthy. She certainly did not go to any trouble to feed her boys either, and they always had some kind of meat, a starch, which was usually rice, and either applesauce or LeSeuer baby green peas. The menu never varied and none of the boys would eat any other vegetables just like their older brother. No wonder Billy was so peculiar about his eating habits!
We drove around Griffin for a while where usually the sidewalks rolled up at dusk, so we went back to the same motel restaurant where we stopped for breakfast. By the time we finished our meal and fed Michael, Billy had calmed down enough to drive back to the house, and I do not know whom I felt the most sorry for, my handsome husband or Helen.
As much as the air he breathed, Billy needed to love and to be loved, and he felt he got nothing from his mother, and of course, neither did his father or brothers. I never quite understood why Helen seemed to undermine any feelings Billy might have for her by not being more kind to Michael and to me. She was just too far gone to realize all it would take were some condescending words, and Billy just might dig deep in his heart and find a modicum of love for her. Now, of course, he had me, and he knew I loved him as much as anyone could ever love another, and no matter what, I would love him forever. Most of all, he knew my love was unconditional, and that it would have been almost impossible for me not to love him. In her way, Helen too loved Billy, and he was obviously her favorite son since she seemed to treat the three younger boys as one unit rather than as individuals. Obviously, she was still angry about our marriage, the baby, and everything else that took Billy away from her, and rather than try to accept us, she chose to be unpleasant every opportunity she could and just pushed Billy further and further away, and towards his own little family. Like most alcoholics, she sabotaged herself! Billy wanted to spend as little time as possible with her, and if it had not been for his father and the boys, I doubt if we would have ever stayed in that house at all, but he adored his little brothers and they him, and now I adored them too. Billy felt the boys needed both of us to make up for the love and affection so sparingly dealt out in that household and he was so very conscientious about giving these necessities to his own son.
Sunday, we decided not to go to church with Gene and the boys since Michael was still sleeping soundly after his exciting holiday and neither of us wanted to wake him. Both of us also needed and wanted to sleep until Michael woke us since we had a long week too, and having stayed up until early morning making love; we needed to ‘catch up’ if possible. We did arrange to meet Gene at a restaurant for dinner after church, and agreed to bring Helen along if she made an appearance in time to get dressed. Naturally, both of us were hoping she slept soundly and were careful to be very quiet once we did get up, and she did not stir. She usually drank herself into unconsciousness nightly and would waken with a horrendous hangover, which did not improve her already nasty disposition. Now that I think back on it, I never once saw her hug or kiss her boys, never mind Michael! She never even held her grandson to my knowledge. No wonder her boys were so happy to see us and so loving – they were starving for affection.
Sunday seemed to drag on forever since both Billy and I were anxious to begin our new life at Ft. Benning, but we could hardly stay in an apartment with no furniture. We planned to leave early so we could have the kitchen drawers lined, the floors clean where the heavy furniture would go, and Michael’s crib set up so he could nap. The Army truck was due with our household goods from Dahlonega early Monday morning and we could not afford to miss it. Gene had promised the truck with the furniture would leave the store no later than 10:00 a.m., so that did not leave us a lot of time to work on the apartment before our furniture and other goods began to arrive. We made our plans before we even left Dahlonega, not knowing, of course, if Gene would really give us the furniture, rather we had just hoped he would. I think if we could have afforded to stay in a motel, Billy would have left on Sunday, since he was so anxious to get us settled before he reported for class right after the New Year. Also four nights in Griffin was a long, long stay and it was more than obvious it was time for us to leave, not only because of Helen, but since Billy and his father had been getting along so well, why risk this holiday ending on a sour note and a disagreement.
Since we ate a large meal after church with Gene and the boys, we were not hungry for supper and Gene told Helen that sandwiches would suffice, although that did not please her. I think the one contribution she gave her family that she enjoyed, was the Sunday meal. I knew Gene was in for a fight by taking us out to eat, and someone was going to take the blame for not waking her. That someone was Billy, and I knew he was in no mood to tolerate her ranting and raving, so we decided to go for a drive and take the boys along while Michael napped in the car. Gene said he had business at the store and I almost felt sorry for Helen left alone on a Sunday afternoon, but she was her own worst enemy. We all fled because we knew what would take place if we stayed at the house. I envisioned snuggling up next to Billy while he, his father and the boys watched football on television, relishing the scene, and maybe even nodding off myself while Michael took his nap, but with an alcoholic, even the best laid plans rarely come to fruition.
We stayed out until almost dark, dreading going back to the house, never knowing what to expect from Helen, and finally returned from our ride with a cranky, hungry baby. The house was dark as we approached except for the Christmas lights in each window. Gene’s car was not there, so we all quietly entered the house through the unlocked side door. Helen was sitting in her recliner, alone, passed out, with a glass on the floor beside her, in the almost pitch black den. She did not even stir when Billy turned on the lights and the boys turned on the television. I was worried she was in some kind of alcoholic distress, although I had seen my own father in such a state many, many times, but she looked almost dead! Billy called his father at the store, and thankfully found he was still there. He explained his mother’s seemingly desperate condition and asked if he should call the doctor, a neighbor, or an ambulance, but Gene, obviously not at all surprised or upset, told him not to do either but promised to come right home and take care of her.
I fixed Michael’s supper while Billy changed his diaper, and while I fed him, with his mother unconscious, Billy washed a load of diapers so we would not run out until he had the washer hooked up in the apartment. We had already located a nearby Laundromat since if the weather was wet or cold, we would have to take them there to dry, and there was no room for a dryer in the apartment. There was barely room for the washer, which meant we would never be able to open the back door more than halfway since, of course, it opened inward, and the washer blocked the entrance. The sink, which was on the opposite side of the room from the only place the machine would fit, was also the only drain available, and Billy planned to rig up some kind of hook so the pressure of the draining water would not knock the hose out of the sink. Amazingly, there was a water hookup, and we could never understand why they had not added a drain at the same time, but Billy was sure the answer lay in the tile covered cement flooring. Outside the back door, which opened just enough for one person carrying a flexible plastic clothesbasket to exit, there was a long, shared clothesline with four strands of wire that ran the length of the apartment building. In nice weather, I could hang our clothes outside in the sunshine, which I preferred to do anyway.
After Michael finished eating, Billy took him down to our bathroom to bathe him while once again I made soup and sandwiches for the boys’ supper. Helen still had not stirred, and obviously, the boys were used to her condition and seemed no more concerned than their father was. By the time I had the boy’s supper ready, and had just poured large glasses of milk, Gene walked in the door. He went straight over to Helen, passed out in the chair, picked her up, slung her over his shoulder, and carried her to the bedroom, without a word to any of us. When he returned, he asked what smelled so good and when I said, ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’, he asked if there was enough for him. I told him that it would be no trouble to open another can, which I did, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all of us to go along with the soup.
Once we all finished eating, it was time to rock Michael to sleep with his bottle, so I picked him up off the floor, where he had been playing while we ate. Much to my surprise Gene asked if he could feed and rock the ‘little boy’, so I handed him over. I believe I saw tears on Gene’s cheeks when Michael nestled his head under his grandfather’s strong chin after he finished his bottle and he quickly fell asleep. Our little boy’s long day was over, and both Billy and I were as tired as he was, but we stayed up to keep Gene and the boys company while they watched football on television, just as I envisioned them doing all afternoon. I retrieved the book I was reading and curled up on the sofa next to Billy, who put his arm around me and held me close by his side, sometimes leaning over and kissing the top of my head or just laying his head on top of mine. Oh how I loved my handsome husband!
Gene finally told the boys to go to bed about 10:00 p.m. and he and Billy started talking about Billy’s future and our immediate plans for moving. I had so hoped they would have a pleasant conversation without breaking into shouts, and this one night, they did talk quietly; both seemingly as emotionally drained as I was. Gene told us he believed Helen would one day drink herself to death, especially mixing her pain medications with the alcohol. He was concerned what he would do with three little boys to raise alone, although I thought to myself that Helen had not been involved in their lives enough for them to miss her. It was Gene who went to their ballgames, who played with them, who talked to them, but he was not home enough either and he knew it.
Once again, he asked Billy if he would move back to Griffin when he finished his obligatory two years of service, and he even offered to pay back the student loan we had taken out so he could finish his last year and a half at North Georgia. I think what he really wanted was for both of us to be there when inevitably Helen died. He knew I loved the boys almost as much as Billy did, and at least with us living nearby, they would have some security. Again, Billy was adamant about his desire to make the Army his career saying he knew they could not work together peacefully, but Gene insisted they could work out any problems. Sure, they could! By shouting at each other until one finally gave it up for a loss cause. No, it would have never worked, and this was something we did not have to think about now as Helen, although drunk most of the time she was home, was still the boys` mother and she did fix their supper, and I did not want to feel obligated to spend every Sunday afternoon with her.
She had always had a full-time maid who cleaned and did the laundry, and for the boys, she represented continuity and someone in the house when they came home from school, although I remember they did not last long around Helen. It is my guess that eventually she said or did the wrong thing to the maids who served her family so faithfully, and they left without further words with her. One simply cannot talk or reason with a drunk!
Billy did not want to discuss moving to Griffin any longer, so he took my hand, pulled me up off the couch, and said goodnight to his father. Not only did he not want to continue the conversation, as he told me when we got to the bedroom, he was ‘horny’ and could not sit there another minute without this dilemma becoming apparent. I laughed as we undressed for our shower, as his ‘thing’ was standing at attention, ramrod straight, and it would have been difficult to hide it much longer! We showered for a long time, even making love once under the steaming water, but not satisfied, Billy held me in his arms after we got into bed and we made love again, and again. I was still on the birth control pill I started after Michael was born, but soon I would have to go off it for six months, at which time we would have to be more careful. We could not afford another baby right now, not until he made promotion to 1st Lieutenant, if even then.
In those initial years after ‘the pill’ became available, there was not enough known about the side effects of long usage. Women could stay on it for only six months, then six months off before we could take it for another six months. Billy thoroughly enjoyed taking advantage of my last package of pills! Soon enough we would have to begin counting days and hope we would not make a mistake and have another baby too soon. I wanted to enjoy our son, and did not want him to grow up too fast, so we decided three years was the minimum distance we wanted between our children, and no more than five years. Oh the plans we made, my handsome soldier and I, and the more we talked about them, the more real they became, as if we could actually move into that space and time, but always and forever we would continue to love each other more than life itself.