Read an Excerpt
Facing the Music
Eight months after the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, my parents found themselves unwed, pregnant, and expecting twins. Before they had even considered what their lives might look like, they were confronted with a challenging beginning as to how they were going to be a family, or if they even wanted to. My mother, a teenager, and my father, a post-Vietnam Navy veteran barely into his twenties, did as most honorable small-town Kansas folks expected at the time. They decided to keep their babies and get married.
My young parents’ brief history together was colored by the social taboos they had challenged. Their seven-year age difference, their clandestine love affair, premarital pregnancy, and a shotgun wedding no doubt seemed like slim odds for a lasting relationship. Instead of finishing high school, my mother spent what would have been her senior year giving birth and nursing babies. After an adventurous summer with a pretty young girl, my father suddenly found himself responsible for the welfare of a wife and two children.
After two years, they would divorce. My mother, barely in her twenties, lost the custody battle to my father. The court reached an unusual decision, choosing my father as the parent most responsible to care for my sister and me. We were two toddlers still shaky on our feet, trying to understand what phrases like child custody and visitation rights had to do with why Mom wasn’t there to tuck us into bed each night. Growing up, we would have to learn how to adapt to the pitch and roll of being shared between my parents’ two worlds. Going forward, we were to live full-time with my father, while spending alternate weekends with Mom.
Mom only lived a few miles away in those early years, but everything seems bigger, longer, and farther away when you’re little. Even though Mom might be living in the next county over, our journey there was always an adventure.
Fridays were the most important, highly anticipated day of the week for us. I would be in utter bliss when I knew Mom was on her way to pick us up for the weekend, and disappointed when I realized that I’d have to wait another week to see her.
The best Fridays were filled with the ritual of her coming. With anticipation, I’d get to pack a little bag of clothes and place it by the front door. I’d sit at the window, willing every passing car to be hers. What joy it was when through the darkness, a pair of headlights turned from the road into our driveway! Mom! At last!
Once I’d jumped into the car, I was in her world, a place in which we had developed our own traditions. I couldn’t wait to show her every tomboy bump and bruise that I had acquired since we were last together, so that she could hasten the healing of each blemish with her tender kisses. Then, after every ache had been attended to, we would sing. I was torn between the excitement of joining in the chorus or just listening to her sing alone. Hers was the most glorious voice I had ever heard. Whether she led us in a rousing rendition of “Bill Grogan’s Goat” or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” I was beside myself with awe and wonder over her talent. The longer the drive to our destination, the better. I welcomed the nights when the rain poured down and Mom had to drive more slowly. Rather than fighting the weather, we sang through it. Ours was the perfect cocoon of joy on four wheels.
During our short times together, Mom always made an effort to do something special for us. In the winter, she would join us in a wild snowball fight. In the summer, she’d start a water war by grabbing a garden hose and dousing us with cold spray. If we were stuck inside, she’d teach us to play a card game or how to make a batch of cookies. She found a way to be a part of our lives by making memories out of the most ordinary days.
If Fridays were the good days, Sundays were bittersweet, knowing that the minutes with Mom were ticking down, and that we soon would be parting ways. I was aware that she would be taking us back home. I was old enough to repeat the facts, that it would be two weeks until we could do it all over again, but two weeks, to a five-year-old, felt like a lifetime. It was difficult to imagine passing the time between then and the next visit, so I tried to make the most of the lazy Sunday afternoons before going home. I’d do my best to fight back the tears, aware that our weekend together was drawing to a close.
She’d drive us back home to the small farm where we lived with my father in rural southeastern Kansas, five miles east of a cozy little town called Chanute. Our house was a breezy fixer-upper nestled on a few acres between pastures and soybean fields. My sister and I spent most of our time outdoors exploring, looking for wild mulberries along the fence-line trees or working alongside my father in our old, red wooden barn as he tended to his horses. I found comfort in the simplicity of my father’s world. There was always something constructive to be done around the farm, mending fences or feeding the animals. When the chores were done, he’d grab a rope and teach us how to lasso a sawhorse as if it were a calf, or maybe even fashion us a bow and arrow made from tree branches and baling twine. With Dad, there was always adventure with work and with play.
Among my favorite things to do was to help Dad shoe the horses. His skills as a farrier were fascinating. Whenever he brought out his tools and the anvil, I was right there to join him. Though I was still small enough that I could walk under a horse, I begged for him to let me in on the action. There were times where he might say something like, “This is too big a job for a little girl,” but I wouldn’t have it. I wanted to be just like him. So, he taught me, perhaps nervously, to pick up the hoof of our mare, hold it between my knees and file it down. It didn’t matter that I only had the strength and coordination to last for a few seconds. He let me be a part of his world and I was overjoyed. While other little girls were playing with dolls and dressing up, I found my stride alongside my dad as a happy little tomboy.
My father faced his fair share of criticism for supposedly letting his pretty little girls run wild. I was as happy as I could imagine when I was knee deep in mud fetching the horses from the pasture. However, Grandma Knapp did not see it that way.
There were the odd Sundays when grandma insisted that we clean up, put on dresses, and head to church with her. Yielding to his mother’s insistence that we should at least try to act like little ladies, she would squeeze us (against our will) into nylons and patent leather shoes, comb our hair, and send us off to Sunday school. I felt like a lump of meat shoved into an itchy sausage casing. I was the spitting image of Scout from To Kill a Mocking Bird. There was nothing more excruciating than to have to try to pay attention to the unwanted, boring lessons about Jesus and the loaves and fishes while trying to manage a pair of creeping nylons running up my backside. All I could think of was changing into a pair of jeans and getting back outside on the farm with my dad.
Much of the adult conversation in my father’s world in those days was about how his little girls needed a woman’s influence. The fear, I suppose, was that we would soon grow so wild and tomboyish, that we might eventually be unrecognizable as girls. My mother, with her allotment of four days per month, and my Grandma Knapp were doing the best to inspire femininity in us, but it wasn’t enough. I think everyone felt a bit of relief when, after a few short years of being a single father, he would meet and introduce us to the woman who would change our lives.
I remember being excited about my father’s new love. While I adored my father’s laid-back style of living, there was some charm we were clearly missing without a woman on the scene. Up to that point, our country house was little more than a shelter, where we ate and slept. The only life we had known for the two years since my parents’ divorce was that of subsistence. A life in which we all worked and played outside until we had nothing left, then retreated tiredly indoors, choked down one of my father’s dreary hamburger hash concoctions, then prepared for bed, with the prospect of doing the same the next day. Though I loved my father and found comfort in his attention, I had no idea how much all of us still ached for a sense of family.
The early days of my dad’s courtship were wonderful. Instead of the once dull, gray meals we ate alone with our father, we now had company to add excitement to our evenings. All of us together, joyfully preparing the dinner and sharing the happenings of the day. Dad seemed relaxed and his happiness spilled out for all of us to share. I found myself hoping that they would get married so that it would last. She was also a much better cook than my father, and I began to notice what a void those days were in between comforting weekends with my mother. I saw my grandmas and grandpas together, and I saw other children with their moms and dads under one roof and I realized that I had been missing out.
I remember thinking how beautiful my father’s friend was. She had long, silky straight hair that fell down her back all the way to her waist. I was enamored of it, and often begged for her to let me run my fingers through it. I had never seen such long and splendid locks except on television, when the famed country music star Crystal Gayle sang on Hee Haw. After dinner, we would retire to the living room to watch whatever was on television, and she would let me play with her hair. She taught me how to weave the long tresses into braids. I felt so proud and loved when she would admire my work in the mirror afterward, turning her head this way and that, saying “What a beautiful job you have done!”
I liked her very much.
When they decided to get married my Grandma Knapp sewed two matching yellow flower girl dresses and, it seemed, we all got married together. I was five years old and starting to get into the swing of life with two sets of families—my mom’s, whom I visited, and my lived-in home with my father and his new bride. I finally started to feel like I had an idea of what family was and could be. For a while, I couldn’t have imagined it working out any better.