MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 48 – Next Stop – Okalahoma City
Michael was the first to awaken that Tuesday morning and as I slowly opened my eyes, I saw him kneeling quietly in a chair in front of the big window.
“Mommy, Mommy, are you awake?” he asked, so before he wakened his father and sister, reluctantly I climbed out from under the sheets and joined him at the window. Pointing to the wide river below, he asked, “Is that the Chattahoochee?” Amazed by his perfect pronunciation, I realized this was nothing new since he was always saying or thinking of something he had not the day before, and it was a simple and fun word for children to say.
“No big boy that is the Mississippi River.” I said and carefully taught him how to say that word too. I had found that the Native Indian words, although long, have a musical pronunciation, simple for children to memorize like nursery rhymes, and the Hawaiian language. There are no ‘hidden’ vowels or consonants, each pronounced just as written, and soon, after repeating each syllable about five or six times slowly, he could say Mississippi perfectly.
“Daddy, Daddy,” he said as he jumped into bed with Billy. “That big river outside is the Mississippi, and it’s not as dirty as the Chattahoochee.”
Billy stirred and pulled Michael to him in a big bear hug, and told him those were very big words for such a little boy, but Michael was incensed and said, “I am not a little boy. I am a big boy!” Of course Billy apologized and agreed with our pint sized little man that he was indeed a “big boy” and a big brother now too. “I don’t want to be a big brother; I want to be Mommy’s boy.” Michael insisted, since obviously he very much resented the time I spent with his baby sister. I assured him he was indeed still his mommy’s boy, and that I had loved him first, so he had a head start on his baby sister, and that seemed to please him. Billy then joined in and said that he wanted to be ‘Mommy’s boy’ too! Michael then put both hands on his hips and said, “You are too big to be ‘Mommy’s Boy’ because you have to take care of Mommy, besides you are Mommy’s daddy!”
Billy then grabbed our verbally exceptional son and said, “Well I think that you and I need to have a talk about Mommy. Since I am your daddy, and Mommy is your mommy, then Mommy is my wife.”
“What’s a wife?” Michael continued and left Billy searching for the right words, and while I fed Margie, I listened intently to see how this conversation was going to work out. How do you explain what a husband or a wife is to a not quite three-year-old!
Billy raised his eyebrows and looked at me for help, and asked, “How did we get into this conversation so early this morning?” I just smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and continued feeding my ravenous newborn whose little mouth was already open for the next bite, just like a baby bird.
“Well, son, let’s see if I can explain this. I met your mommy when we went to school together, and that was over four years ago, and when I saw your mommy sitting at the desk in the library, I decided right then and there that I loved her, and I wanted to marry her and to have children with her. Then not too long after I first saw her, she decided to love me too, and she wanted to marry me and to have children with me. Then we got married and I became Mommy’s husband and Mommy became my wife, and then we began our own family and you came along. Now we have your baby sister so we are a perfect family, one daddy, one mommy, one boy, and one girl. Just like your Aunt Helen, Uncle Homer and Ginny are a family, we are a family too, your family.”
“Did Uncle Homer love Aunt Helen so they could be a family, like you love Mommy? Why do you call Mommy your ‘little girl’ if you are not her daddy or her big boy, and can I marry Mommy too?”
“O.K. who opened this can of worms?” Billy asked perplexed, but again I just smiled at him and told him that I believed that he had opened it
“Well Daddy, can I marry Mommy too?” Michael continued since he had always wanted to know everything there was to know about any subject, and simple explanations did not work very well with this precocious child.
Again, Billy searched for the right words, and finally said, “Son, I am not sure that I can explain this to you the right way so early in the morning because I don’t have my thinking cap on right now. But, no, you can’t marry Mommy because Mommy can only be married to one person at a time, and it’s my turn.” Oh no! I thought I knew what was coming next!
“When will it be my turn?” was Michael’s predicted reply, but Billy, now in way over his head this time, grabbed Michael and started tickling him on the bed, then started a pillow fight to distract him.
“Well, when?” Michael insisted. He had too much of me in him, and he was not letting go of this one until he had all the answers!
“Never!” Billy replied, “No one else can marry your mommy because I won’t let them, and that is that! Go brush your teeth so we can eat our breakfast, and then I will take you across that big bridge over that big river and we will be in Arkansas!”
Thank goodness Michael was far more interested in the big river, our trip, and breakfast – he wanted waffles –, so he followed Billy into the dressing room where the sinks were located, and side by side, father and son brushed their teeth, then Billy inspected Michael’s clean teeth, and Michael insisted on inspecting Billy’s. With a warm washcloth, Billy washed his son’s angelic face, told him to take off his pajamas so he could dress him, then he picked up his electric razor and began to shave. All I could think about was how much longer before Michael tried that too!
Fortunately, Margie did not require much attention other than changing, feeding, and nursing, so I had been able to give Michael most of the time he had with me before her birth, but slowly as she got older, that would change, and I just hoped it would be so gradual he would not notice. Either Billy or I always read to Michael before he went to bed, and although he preferred that I read the book, recently he had not protested as loudly when Billy told him that it was his turn to read to him. I think he had missed his father while he was in Ranger School, and he looked forward now to being with him. Often I would catch him walking right behind Billy and imitating his every movement, and after all, I could not throw him in the air like his daddy could, and that was more fun than reading.
While Billy dressed and began packing our small bag, I nursed the baby, and then he dressed Michael, saving him for last so he would be as clean as possible to go downstairs for breakfast. While I quickly made myself presentable, Billy checked the room thoroughly, making sure we had not left anything behind, particularly cars and trucks that Michael might miss once we were too far away to turn back. We did not need any unnecessary expenses if we wanted to enjoy a leisurely trip to the West Coast, so I had packed one suitcase with the necessities for a one-night stay. Each day I would transfer the dirty clothes to a bag in the trunk, and select fresh clothing for the next day and add them to the small bag. That way Billy did not have to unload the car for each stop. We thought we were about as organized as anyone could be, at least anyone traveling with an infant and a little boy.
While Michael held onto one of his father’s big hands, Billy carried the suitcase in the other hand, and with my boys leading the way, I followed with the baby and her car bed. We hoped that for the rest of the trip we would find motels with rooms on the ground floor, where we could just park with the trunk towards the room and would not have to carry so much in one trip. We could have called for a bellboy with a cart, but that meant a tip, and we were trying to avoid tips if possible. Since we had plenty of time to plan this trip, and work out each detail, we did not have any difficulty coping with this ‘fancier’ inn.
Not too long before we left Columbus, Billy changed his mind about making reservations in advance since we were traveling during an ‘off’ season. We thought that when we came to the Holiday Inn at our planned destination, surely there would be plenty of rooms available, but then again just one ‘no room in the Inn, and we would either have to drive to the next one available, or spend our now plentiful, but still limited, cash. I was surprised then when, at the last minute Billy decided to stop in the lobby and have the reservation clerk call ahead for a room in Oklahoma City, our goal for this day’s drive. He also asked the room held for ‘late arrival’ since travel with an infant could be unpredictable, and he wanted to be able to ‘stop’ and ‘tour’ if we saw something interesting. If possible, and if this plan this worked out tonight, then we would make a habit of doing the same at each stop, except the last since we had no idea what type of lodging we would find near the harbor in San Pedro, but we already knew it would not be a Holiday Inn, nor was one nearby.
We had a huge, typically Southern breakfast while Billy commented that I should get my fill of grits now since they would become harder to find the further west we traveled. I had not imagined I would not be able to order certain foods as we left our beloved South, but he assured me that before long they simply would not be on the menu, and some waitresses would have no idea what I was talking about. There was a breakfast buffet at the Memphis Holiday Inn with eggs cooked to order, and I ate enough that I was sure I would not want any lunch. Fortunately, there were waffles on the buffet too since Michael had made up his mind that was what he wanted, and I did not want to start the day with a tantrum. As I watched Billy put down enough breakfast for two men, I worried that he would be so full of eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, and fried apples that he would be too groggy to drive. This had not happened yesterday because he had been far too excited about the first day our great adventure to feel sleepy, but I feared that with this heavy meal under our belts not only would he not be able to stay awake, but I would not be much help keeping him awake either.
I really had nothing to fear though since as soon as we were in the car and back on the road and headed towards the river out of Tennessee into Arkansas, he was jovially singing with Michael again, then gave me a wink and reached for my hand as they sang, “Michael row the boat ashore – halleluiah…”. “ Suddenly Billy stopped in mid-verse and shouted, “Here we go, over the great Mississippi River!” as the car approached the long bridge.
“Mississippi, Mississippi” Michael echoed from the backseat, and we all craned our necks to see the great river made even more famous by Mark Twain’s nostalgic tales. Not sure what to expect I was surprised that Michael had been exactly right, for I saw a wide ribbon of green water undulating its way downstream, around a bend and then out of sight. Certainly there was no comparison with the mud red ribbon that distinguished the Chattahoochee. The wild stream that trickled out the mountains of North Georgia clean and clear, and then roared through the rocks until exhausted from its rapid descent it finally became a wide and lazy river, the same color as the Georgia mud. Slowly it undulated around Atlanta, down to Columbus and on to the Gulf. This river looked lazy too at least from this vantage point, and it too would wind up blending with the same Gulf waters as the Chattahoochee, but I had read enough Mark Twain, and other books by Southern authors to know that looks can be deceiving and that this river had its treacherous side too. I had also seen numerous photos in the newspapers and magazines when the great river flooded, driving inhabitants out of their riverside homes.
Billy drove as slowly as traffic allowed, and after he crossed the bridge into Arkansas, he pulled over to a small waterside park so we could say farewell to our beloved south and watch the river with its slow-moving barges just a little bit longer. ‘The Mighty Mississippi’, I had heard it called both in books and the news on television, but today it was quite tame, and content to languidly drift along. There was a rustic tugboat, badly in need of paint, pushing a huge barge making its way upstream, and I wondered if it had come all the way up from New Orleans. How I would enjoy someday getting on a boat and start at the beginning where the river was still a stream, then take the grand Mississippi all the way down to the ocean. I suppose my fascination took root with those wonderful Southern authors that so glamorized this grand dame of all rivers, but I had never dreamed that someday I would be standing on its banks. In just one day of travel, Billy had shown me a sight I thought I would never see, and we had just begun our journey!
Back in the car, as we left the river overlook, we saw the ‘Welcome to Arkansas’ sign and although it was a bit out of our way, we headed toward Hot Springs, Billy thought lunch there would be a diversion, and since he had never been there, he wanted to see if there really were hot springs. We drove through Arkansas and found the passing countryside not too unlike our own rolling Georgia hills, awakening to spring with branches just beginning to sprout green, which as April wound into May would then come into their full plumage. The highway was dappled with sunlight from the overhanging branches, the pattern flickering through the windshield eventually hypnotized me, and unable to stay awake I dozed against Billy’s strong shoulder. Just before I fell into a deep sleep, I felt him put his hand on my leg, and softly kiss the top of my head. Oh how I loved this man, my darling, my Billy.
“Wake up, Mommy!” I heard my son say as if from a long way off as I struggled to open my eyes. When I asked Billy how long I had slept, I was amazed when he told me we were in Hot Springs. I slept the entire morning, and was angry with myself for missing the passing scenery. Billy assured me I had missed very little since the countryside had remained the same with just a few more hills as we neared our destination, and he promised me if there had been anything of interest to see he would have wakened me. He knew how much I did not want to miss anything on our journey, and I wanted to keep him company too for fear that he might become drowsy along the way. Fortunately, he was still too excited about what we would find around each bend in the highway and had not had any problem staying awake, but since narcolepsy is an inherited disease, I was perhaps overly cautious. I knew Billy would never put his family at risk, and if he found himself becoming too sleepy, he would wake me up so I could help to keep him awake. If I had to, I could always resort to our old ‘trick’, although it would be teasingly cruel since we still could not make love. I also knew Billy was counting the minutes like he did after Michael was born, but as sore as I still was, while not dreading it, I was a bit apprehensive if I would be as ‘good as new’, which is what Billy said following Michael’s birth.
We drove around Hot Springs but not once saw a sign that pointed the way to any spa, or the famous springs, and we wound up on a lovely hilltop at a Holiday Inn where we decided to have our lunch. I took the baby’s warming dish and food inside the restaurant with us, and following our planned routine we asked if we could sit next to an electrical outlet so we could plug the dish in and feed our daughter. The waitress told us there were no outlets near any of the tables or booths. However, added she would be happy to take the dish to the kitchen and heat it for us with a promise to bring it back as soon as it was warm so we could feed the baby while we waited for our own lunch to be prepared. True to her word, she returned in about five minutes with the now warm baby food, and I practically had to shovel the food into Margie’s tiny mouth. She was such a neat little eater for one so young, but after Billy warmed her washcloth in the men’s room, I cleaned off the residue of her meal and she happily gurgled and played with her fingers, satisfied for the time being, while we ate our lunch. Soon she would want to nurse, and my breasts always warned me when it was time as my milk let down and they grew firm, then the dampness of the leaking milk filled the pad in my bra as my breasts became painful and rock hard. Anticipating this event shortly, I hurriedly finished my meal.
After we left the restaurant, Billy spotted some swings and other play equipment on one side of the motel, so he pulled the car into an area where there were no other cars, making sure that no one could see me nurse. After he assured himself there was nothing more I needed him to do, he took Michael out to play and to run off some of that energy that was always abundant in our small son after a long road trip. We had decided yesterday, after the walk to the deserted caverns that it was well worth the extra time to allow him have some exercise in the middle of the day so when we stopped for the night he would need only a short romp with his daddy after supper before ready for bed. Delighted, I watched as Billy chased him while they ran all over the hilltop, then he picked him up to throw him in the air over, and over again. I was no longer concerned that this ‘rough’ play would have him throwing up, rather pleased our fearless son no end as he laughed and played with his father, and Billy was sure this trait would certainly lead him to a career in the Army, and a desire to follow his example to become an Airborne Ranger. Funny, how you can have such plans your children never taking into consideration how time and circumstances can ruin many a parent’s dream, and their lives turn out so differently than imagined.
After I finished nursing Margie, I got out of the car and laid her in her car bed to change her diaper. Much to my distress, I found she had an awful rash on her bottom and her soft baby skin was beginning to turn beet red. “So much for the paper diapers,” I thought as I dug into the bag holding the cloth diapers and the cream I had thought to pack at the last minute, and now used to coat our daughter’s bright red bottom. It was a good thing we had decided to bring her cloth diapers and a diaper pail, just in case the paper diapers did not work out, but now we had the added burden of looking for a Laundromat when our supply ran low, not to mention the extra work involved in rinsing out dirty diapers. With the weather so nice, we rode with the front windows open, so the odor would not be a problem, at least not yet, and I refused to borrow trouble before it came!
As soon as I was sure she was clean and comfortable, I picked her up and slowly walked out to the playground to join my husband and son, but Billy saw us headed his way and corralling Michael, he said, “Let’s get on the road big boy!” He was so anxious to get started, and Michael had enough exercise, so we were off again. I told him about his daughter’s rash, and he agreed with me that we would just have to add a Laundromat stop to our schedule if the motels did not have one. Never knowing what could happen when traveling with little ones, Billy had allowed plenty of time before we had to turn our car in at the San Pedro pier, so we could take care of our children’s needs, which, of course, were our first priority, and take any side trips we found worthwhile.
Soon we left Arkansas for Oklahoma, and the hills became pastures with more and more cattle along the sides of the highway than I had ever seen in one place. I had not known that Oklahoma was famous for its beef, but I was about to find out! Billy spotted the first oil well and before long, there were forests of them with cattle grazing beneath. Most were pumping steadily and Billy said he would bet we were on Cherokee land since the pastures was so sparse but the oil so plentiful. This was the land where the United States government had decided to settle the once great Cherokee nation, and then rounded them up like a herd of cattle and set them off on their Trail of Tears. Sadly, the powers to be had selected this barren land since they had no use for it, and they badly wanted the rich Cherokee land in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. It was anything but a fair trade. I had heard the story many times since my ancestors had received some of the Creek land in lotteries held after the American Revolution, and I had always felt empathy for the Indians. I almost enjoyed the fact that the last laugh was on our government though as they thought they had settled them on worthless land, and beneath their very feet was a fortune in oil. Of course, it was many generations before the discovery and the Cherokee suffered on these harsh plains, but now the few left were becoming wealthy, and I did not resent one dime that went into their pockets. My father had always bragged about our ‘Indian blood’, but through years of research, I have found not one single drop. Rather an ‘Indian fighter’, in my Great-Great Grandfather Josiah Cowan York, who not only fought the Creeks and the Cherokee, but was awarded land in the North Georgia mountains for his service under General Jackson during the Seminole Indian War!
I did not sleep that afternoon since the scenery was more interesting and far different from the rolling hills of Arkansas, and while my boys sang their songs I regaled in the love and joy that filled our car that warm afternoon. I watched my handsome husband’s profile against the window, and my heart overflowed from wanting him, but I knew we would have to wait a little while longer. I was still sitting on my cushion and strangely, sore, but not even pain could keep me from resuming our intimacy. Never could I deny Billy my body, my heart, my very soul. If anything I was more in love with him than I had been during those confusing, adoration filled days at North Georgia College when we were first beginning to know each other, but this was not unusual for me to feel this way as I had loved him more every day that we had been married. We had just celebrated our fourth anniversary, nine days after the birth of our daughter, and Billy had held me close that night and told me repeatedly how much he loved me as I echoed each word he said. Often when I looked at him, and caught a glance of his eyes on me, chills ran up and down my spine, and I wondered if every married couple felt like we did, but I doubted it. I knew we had a very special love for each other, a love that was rare and pure, and as I reached out to put my hand on his leg, he once again took his hand off the steering wheel, reached for my hand and kissed it gently. I held his big hand with both of my hands, held it to my cheek, and brought it to rest over my heart thinking how very much I loved this man, my handsome soldier, my Billy.
He turned, smiled, winked at me and said, “I love you too, little girl,” as if he had read my thoughts. I remember that afternoon vividly as the flat prairie rushed by our car window and the love that I felt for my darling Billy, and his love for me filled that moment in time.
It was nearing dusk when we reached Oklahoma City and Billy began to search for our motel. As we passed the City Hall, I was amazed to see an oil well on the front lawn, then another on the lawn of the state capitol building! Where did they not have oil wells, and again I was astonished when there were two in front of the Holiday Inn that was our destination for that night, and all were pumping furiously! This was a sight to see and to write home about!
Billy parked in front of the lobby and went inside for our key. When he had called from Memphis he asked for a ground floor room and fortunately there was one available so he did not have to carry so much luggage and baby paraphernalia up a flight of stairs, not that he minded, but it was so much easier. All the rooms faced the outside on two levels and we saw there was also a nice restaurant opposite the lobby, and it seemed as if there were plenty of diners, so the food must be good. Before supper, though we needed to freshen up and I wanted to change Michael who was rather dusty from the playground in Hot Springs and wrinkled from the ride. Billy said he felt ‘grungy’, so in order to save time and kill two birds with one stone, he took Michael into the shower with him and I fed Margie. While Billy dressed himself and Michael, I bathed her in the bathroom sink. She loved her bath time and I stretched it out while she splashed and played in the water, gurgling and cooing as only a tiny baby can do. As young as she was, she almost filled the small sink, and from the very first day we brought her home, enjoyed the feel of the warm water as I trickled it over her with my hand. Billy, fresh from his shower, dressed her while I took a quick shower, then I nursed her while he lay on the bed beside us, playing with her tiny toes, and Michael watched the television. After our daughter was finished, and my breasts once again returned to softness from the rock hard ‘time to nurse’ state, I dressed while Billy walked Margie all around the room, and whispered a lullaby in her ear. Soon she was fast asleep. After we placed our sleeping daughter in her infant seat, we headed for the restaurant where the aroma of broiling steaks made my mouth water! I was hungry and knew that my boys had to be hungry too.
We were seated in a large comfortable booth in the middle of the restaurant, and I was glad we had taken the time to clean up and change our clothes since this appeared to be a nice place and quite busy. When the waiter came to take our orders, he brought a booster seat for Michael and a child’s menu with him. I quickly glanced through the menu and then offered Michael several choices, none of which was acceptable to our now cranky young son. He wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! I looked through the menu again, and found nothing that would resemble any kind of sandwich and I knew Billy’s tolerance for Michael’s temper would not expand to his having a tantrum in a crowded restaurant. Thankfully, the waiter came to my rescue and said he thought the chef could make a sandwich for our determined son, and I ordered a glass of milk and French fries to go with it and knew that my perpetually hungry husband would finish any leftovers. Billy asked the waiter what the specialty of the house was and the reply was steaks, any kind of steak, and he promised we would not be disappointed. Having just avoided a crisis with Michael and his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I decided it was safe to try to swallow so I ordered a small filet and baked potato while Billy ordered the king-size T-bone with fries. I will have to say we were definitely NOT disappointed! My steak was perfect, grilled with just the right amount of redness, and Billy’s steak was so large it hung over the sides of the platter size plate! These Oklahoma steaks were the tenderest and tasty either of us had ever eaten, our son was quite content with his sandwich, which the chef had kindly cut into four triangles for him, and we decided he must have young children at home. I savored each bite of my fork tender filet, and almost wished I had ordered the larger cut, but by the time I ate my salad, and about half of my baked potato smothered in sour cream with chives, bacon, and cheese, I could not eat another bite. While we finished our supper I ordered some chocolate ice cream for our son who had cleaned his plate with the help of his father, but neither Billy nor I wanted any dessert since we were both too full, but Billy did not leave one single piece of that huge steak on his plate either. Margie slept through the entire meal, never once making a sound even with the noise of the other diners, but noise did not seem to bother her, being acclimated by her rambunctious big brother, whose voice only knew two volumes, loud and louder.
Back in our room, Billy turned on the television, pulled off his pants and shirt and after he settled Michael into one of the big beds; he climbed into the other and motioned for me to join him. I brushed my teeth and quickly slipped on my gown, which buttoned down the front for easy access for the baby; although it pleased Billy how quickly, he could open it too.