A toddler in an emotionally explosive and unstable family has her leg amputated. In spite of significant hurdles, she powers through to become a successful career woman and equally successful single parent.
A toddler in an emotionally explosive and unstable family has her leg amputated. In spite of significant hurdles, she powers through to become a successful career woman and equally successful single parent.
The first thing I remember was the television set. It was a rectangular blond wood box, as tall as I was but maybe only a couple of feet or so wide. The tube-powered screen bulged out grey in the top center. It was a small screen, only maybe 8 or 10 inches wide. There were a couple of dark, round knobs underneath the screen. The set was in our living room. My first memory was standing before it, holding something – probably my ever-present Susie doll. The room seemed dim, and I was watching Queen Elizabeth proceed down the aisle of Westminster Abbey to very big and important music. I only saw her back, and I only remember her royal cape. It was long and wide, trimmed in what I learned later was ermine. It seemed to almost reach from pew to pew. Just a snippet of a memory, but I was totally transfixed. That was June 3, 1953… I was 2 and a half.
I think at that time we were living in a small house on Kirkshire, down the street from my aunt and uncle. We lived in four houses by the time I went to kindergarten, so it’s a bit difficult to remember which house was which. We had a part-time maid-nanny, Beulah. I remember her, too. I think we shared her with my aunt and uncle. She was a big, warm woman with a broad smile and lots of hugs in her. She was very kind to me. She wasn’t with us very long – only as long as we lived in that house. I also remember there was a family across the street that was moving out of state – California, I think. She was a nice lady too. She had children with whom I sometimes played. I think my mother was a little jealous of that family – California seemed much more glamorous than Michigan.
That house was on a paved street. I seem to remember that our house was painted a dark color. It was on the north side of the street. I knew that we had to turn left just past the big city water tower, and then turn right at the first street. Our house was on the right, about half way down the block. There were neat rows of little bungalows on either side of the straight street, with saplings standing in for trees. My older brother was riding on that street when he fell off his tricycle and hit his head hard on a curb. My father had our one-and-only car and was at work, so we borrowed a car and a driver and headed to the hospital, my mother in the passenger seat holding my by-now-vomiting brother. I mostly remember the tension in that car. There was something really wrong – my brother was unconscious. We had to leave him at the hospital. I was later told that he had been scheduled for surgery to relieve the pressure build-up in his brain. He awoke in the nick of time. I am not totally sure he ever fully recovered. Either that, or he was burdened by his difficult birth. He was two months premature, weighing only a couple of pounds. As a result, he was slight and frail, with gorgeous pale sea-green eyes, fringed in dark lashes, that were horribly, horribly near-sighted. I was told that was because of the incubator he was in for weeks and weeks.
I turned three in that house. My mother threw a 3-year-old birthday party for me. I remember that party. My mother’s post-war “everybody’s-having-babies” friends brought their daughters. There must have been a half-dozen or so. I remember Kit being there. Kit was six months older than me, and at 3, someone 3-1/2 was someone to respect. I seem to remember the moms more than the girls, probably because I saw the mothers over the years, even though their children ended up in different school districts. Not Kit. Kit and I ended up in the same district in opposing high schools. I was really happy that day, until I heard my mother say she would never do that again. She seemed irritated. That was my first and only birthday party. Someone asked me why it was my one and only… I guess my mother would be the only one able to answer that. Was it too much work? To stressful? Who knows. As a child, I knew only that my mother kept her word – she never threw me a birthday party again.
I turned four in a different house. I remember that house, too. It was a small contemporary house with a vaulted ceiling, on a dirt road named Shallowbrook. The kitchen cabinets didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling – they just sort of stopped, making a room divider between the galley kitchen and the living room. There was a sunroom off the back that my dad built. I remember that we had a problem with mice. We had a very big yard, and my swing set was off to the side. One day I was swinging, watching my shirtless father mow the lawn. I got stung by a bee and must have screamed, because I remember my father racing over to me.
Out back, on the other side of the property line, was a large stand of trees. My mother said there was a creek back there, and a Fruehauf estate. I never ventured into the woods – those trees were very big, and it was dark and foreboding in their shadows. My sister was born when we lived in that house.
This house had a one-car garage, but I can’t remember the car ever being in it. My brother got into our Studebaker one day and somehow managed to disengage the brake, or clutch, or whatever was keeping the car from rolling into the garage door. That was memorable – the car rolled into that new garage door, damaging it. There was quite a bit of yelling going on after the fact.
Cathy Wild lived next door. We were the same age, and I considered her my very best friend. I can’t remember whether her family moved first or we did: her father was a salesman and landed the pencil account for Ford Motor Company. They left for the footlights, in a manner of speaking, joining High Society. She ended up going to Vassar or Wellesley or somewhere equally prestigious after attending Kingswood, the most prestigious local private school for Young Ladies. Last I read about the family they were hosting President Johnson at some event. There was apparently a lot of money to be made in pencils back in the day.
These houses were in a new subdivision, with no telephone service. My father made the subdivision entrance signs – Devon Hills, cut out of some sort of wood in old English script and painted white, mounted on black backboards. Those signs were there for decades. My dad was very popular with the neighbors because he had an important position with the City of Detroit. He had been appointed to sit on the commission that was charged with coming up with an evacuation plan in the event the city was bombed by Russia. This was during the prime Cold War era. The telephone company ran a line to our house so the City could contact my dad if need be – thanks to that, the subdivision had telephones before anyone else around. Very much later, my father revealed that the commission had concluded that it would be impossible to evacuate everybody living south of Eight Mile Road… the plan was to let them die in place. My father told us that everyone would be blind from the nuclear blast, even with our eyes closed, and we would all die anyway.
My grandparents came up from Grosse Ile for Easter that year – actually Hickory Island, off the tip of Grosse Ile. I have pictures of my brother and me standing in front of my grandfather’s big sedan. It was two-tone, a late model, and had little fake air intake holes on each side. Four of them. Four meant it was a premium car, I was told. It was sometime between Christmas 1951 and then that I had my right leg amputated at the knee – I know that because in a picture the inverted leather “Y” over my right knee – part of my artificial leg - is quite visible. I think that leg must have been too short, because in that picture I am standing lop-sided.
I was born with congenital abnormalities… I was missing both the ulna and the tibia on my right side. My radius and fibula were bowed inward, and my right hand’s middle and index finger were webbed together, the index finger a mere stub. I have no right thumb and my wrist is noticeably clubbed. That arm from the elbow down is quite unattractive and is now a good nine inches shorter than my left. I vaguely remember being told that for a time I was in a leg brace to try and straighten and support my right leg, but I do not remember. I was told that at two months old my mother shipped me off to my grandmother in Cleveland while she investigated facilities that took in disabled children. I don’t know how long I was with my grandmother, but after visiting several institutions my mother decided that perhaps I didn’t need to be shuttled off to one of them. She saw severely disabled children and decided maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. That fact haunted me – I would not be surprised if it still does. My mother didn’t want me. I was so far from perfect.
I remember being in the hospital for that operation – mainly I remember having a bed near a window and watching my Aunt Jean walk up the sidewalk with my mother. My aunt was carrying the biggest, most beautiful curly-red-haired doll ever – nearly as big as I was. The doll was clothed in a turquoise dress and Mary Jane shoes. I was so excited! My mother told me later that the nurses loved me – I always had a smile on my face for them. They brought me a goldfish in a bowl, and red roses for my table. My mother told me the nurses cried for me. I don’t remember much more than that, except that I was not happy when they moved me away from the window.
My first artificial leg was made of willow and it strapped around my waist with a wide leather belt. Because of that, my mother tried to find dresses that would hang from my shoulders. I grew so fast that the artificial legs were very quickly too short. I would end up with different size shoes, so I always wore the same style - navy blue oxfords with navy and white laces. I came to hate them. I ended up with scoliosis because of those improperly-sized legs. I understand nowadays children have adjustable “shins” and visit the prosthetics shop frequently to make sure the leg length accommodates growth spurts.
Not back in the day… not back then. I never liked going there – to those prosthetics shops. They were dirty and small and bare-bones utilitarian. I do remember having a walker that was long gone by the time that picture was taken in the spring of 1954. It was aluminum and the top came up chest-high. It wrapped around me and had wheels. I remember walking with it wearing pastel corduroy overalls with a white blouse with short, gathered sleeves. I apparently fell at pretty much every tarred concrete expansion joint on the sidewalk, falling and hitting my forehead. I almost always had bumps on the corners of my forehead from that. My mother used to scream crossly at me for falling so frequently.
It was about then that my dad’s assistant Karen got married. My father gave her away, and I got to be the flower girl. I was thrilled because the dress I wore was so very pretty. My mother never dressed me in “girly” clothes: everything – absolutely everything – I owned was some sort of tailored blue. I was normally dressed in blue jean jackets and sailor hats. Absolutely no lace on anything except the gorgeous baby clothes my grandmother bought at Moseley’s. No big ribbons tied in back, no shiny fabric, no lace-trimmed anklets. Then came the wedding – a beautiful wedding in the equally beautiful Shrine of the Little Flower. The dress I wore was an Alice in Wonderland dress. It was powder blue organza with a full skirt and puffy petticoat, and it had a white organza pinafore over it. I had a big picture hat that was powder blue and woven so you could kind of see through it, with ribbons trailing down my back, white lace-trimmed anklets and white patent leather Mary Jane shoes. I never felt so pretty. I can still see Karen’s face, smiling in her beautiful lacy wedding gown, throwing the bouquet over her shoulder.
I started kindergarten in 1955. We moved to house #4 by then… a small ranch on Brooklawn that backed up to the Pembroke Elementary School playground. I could hop the fence to play on the equipment and get to school much more easily than having to walk down to the street corner, turn left, and walk another block to the school entrance. This house had a carport with plywood doors on storage cabinets. The yard was certainly much smaller than the prior house. However, it did have the schoolyard right there, the ice cream man drove by the house, and in the summer the school district had a little summer craft/activity program a couple of blocks away that I attended. I think I liked the sense of community and activity better than living out in exurbia. I really liked being able to walk down to the summer day program – that was fun.
Even though I was not yet five, my brother had been telling me what he had been learning in school. I started kindergarten already reading. One of the first books I received was about a little disabled girl who needed leg braces. She wanted to be a ballerina so very desperately. She would practice and practice – first position, second position, third position, fourth position, plié… I wanted so much to be her. She got stronger and did end up being a ballerina. I memorized those positions and practiced them and practiced them… I don’t think I ever really adjusted to my amputation until I was thirteen. It was then I had my first dream where I saw myself with my artificial leg. Up until that time I was just like everyone else in my dreams. I so remember waking up at thirteen, remembering that dream, and automatically thinking that I must have finally gotten to the point of accepting myself.
It didn’t take the kindergarten teacher long to figure out I could already read, so she used to sit me atop the piano bench and have me read to the other children when she needed a little time to tend to something else. We didn’t have para-professionals or parent volunteers back then. While I ended up generally loving school, my first day was positively terrifying. We were late because we walked down the block and around the corner. The classroom was by far the biggest room I had ever seen. The class had already started, and everyone was on the far side of the room. They seemed so far away – they looked small to me. The floor was freshly waxed and polished, and it was so, so shiny. My mother didn’t walk me over to the teacher, she kind of shooed me across the room. There I was, walking towards total strangers, all alone in between the class and my mother, in my brand-new leather-soled navy blue oxfords, on that shiny, slippery floor. Half way across the room I slipped and fell. Not a very auspicious entrance.
In kindergarten, I remember getting into a heated argument with Billy Thompson. You see, I was very insistent that he was spelling his last name wrong – as insistent as he was that I was the one confused. I think we were both near tears, so very proud that we knew how to spell our respective names and so shaken that someone was telling us we were wrong. I remember someone separating us and telling us were both right… at the time I don’t think either of us believed that.
I have other memories of kindergarten. My teacher was Mrs. Wirey – she seemed old to me, but she seemed to simply accept me without qualification. I loved music time – we played little instruments like wood blocks and cymbals and sang songs. And the older children were very kind to me – they would lift me up and place me on the top of the merry-go-round. I remember sitting in the center of the merry-go-round while the older kids spun around and around. I would sit up there in the middle and sing my heart out. The merry-go-round was close to my backyard… I think it was the closest piece of playground equipment. The fence between the schoolyard and the house was also a sort of retaining wall: the house yard was higher by some distance – perhaps a foot or so. My feet were so small that they slipped right into the chain links, so climbing was a breeze. That was my very-much-preferred way to get to and from school.
I remember more about the summer between kindergarten and first grade. That was the summer that my brother got mad at me and smashed all my dollhouse furniture on the floor of the carport. That was the summer I went down to the craft camp and made beaded bracelets and loop-woven potholders. The summer I had to chase after the ice cream truck. My mother didn’t have a nickel so she gave me a quarter instead. I bought five ice creams because I didn’t understand the concept of change. By the time I got home I was a melted ice cream mess – I wasn’t a very good chaser and I wasn’t a good carrier, either. I was very sad, both because my mother was mad at me, and I didn’t even get much of any ice cream.
Betty Lippard lived next door. She was my mother’s friend and was over for coffee after the men went off to work. I think I remember my mother’s friends better than I remember mine: Fran Baird, Doris Patee, Bonnie Graham, Betty White, Ruth Cotter, Marge Goodwin, Marnie Bergman. There were others in that group that I can see but whose names escape me in the fog of time. The beautiful redhead that got multiple sclerosis – the one that was a perfect size so that nothing needed to be tailored. The other redhead with lots of freckles, with whom we went to the Detroit Historical Museum. Most of these women met after the War, when they all bought starter houses on the same street and started families (that was our house #1). These married couples also started partying together. Back then, parents would leave their sleeping babies and toddlers at home and gather at someone’s house to drink and smoke, all house doors up and down the block unlocked. Every once in a while, an appointed mother would make the rounds of the various houses, checking in on the sleeping babes. All but Ruth and Marnie. Ruth was my mother’s childhood friend – Ruth didn’t drink, and didn’t live on the same street. My dear Auntie Rudy was very saintly - I never heard a cross word from her. And my Aunt Marnie was my mother’s college friend. She was a fantastic woman – she was my godmother - and she was very wise and sparkly. Marnie and her husband Ed never had children.
My father had a dental office in Royal Oak when I was little. It was a small brick building with room for only one practitioner. Across the street, set back and to the right, was a large Robert Hall men’s clothing store. It seems to me that my dad’s office was in a triangle made from bisecting streets. It’s long gone now, having been claimed by eminent domain for the expressway and the widening of Woodward. I clearly remember my father, wearing his military brush cut until after I left for college, putting on his tie to go to work. I liked to watch him tie his tie… he’s the one that taught me the difference between a Windsor knot and an ordinary, every-day knot. After his breakfast, that usually consisted of eggs, sliced peaches, toast and coffee, he would put on his glengarry and go off to work in his MG TD convertible.
I mention “his” breakfast because it was never “our” breakfast. Many foods were reserved for the adults… eggs, peaches and bacon were reserved for my father – children got cold cereal with milk, toast and orange juice laced with cod liver oil. My father would occasionally give us a small piece of bacon – such a treat! Food was a big issue in our house, and looking back, I cannot understand why. It’s not as if my mother had suffered as a child during the Depression: her father was as attorney, and the worst that happened to that family was that they put the Packard in the garage and drove a Chevrolet to downplay their relative wealth. My mother had a chinchilla hat and coat at age five. It was my father, if anyone, that should have been food-frugal. Being immigrants, his family scratched out an existence. They raised their own chickens, grew their own vegetables… built their own house. Somewhere along the way my mother’s view became warped. We were not allowed to open the refrigerator. We were not allowed more than one juice-sized glass of milk per meal. We rarely had desserts, rarely had fresh fruit besides apples, rarely had fresh vegetables. Sunday dinner was either a roast chicken, a beef roast, or spaghetti. My portion of the chicken was a wing. My mother murdered fish, so I hated it. Occasionally she made liver and onions – the only other main dishes I remember besides those were hamburger “guck,” which was hamburger, onions and a can of cream of mushroom soup, and the ever-present can of tuna/can of peas/can of cream of mushroom soup combination. We must have gone through many cans of cream of mushroom soup. I learned later that my mother was skimming food money and stashing it on the top shelf over the sink. By the time I was in high school she had a wad of money - $700 or so.
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Wendy Sura Thomson received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and her master’s degree from Florida State University. She has worked in finance, management consulting, strategy and process design in the telecommunication, automotive and information technology industries.