Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 16

For weeks I put off going through the contents of the two boxes I’d found in mom’s closet, uncertain if I would be thrilled or depressed by the discoveries unearthed. They had remained on my closet shelf, out of sight where dad would not disturb them. Over Thanksgiving break I made time to examine the contents when no one was around.

I pulled the boxes down and set them on my desk, carefully pulling off a lid. Inside the first one was the black presentation case for her 1955 East High diploma, a black and white photo of mom and her sister Jennifer in bikinis tucked inside, the same pair seated side by side on a picnic table displaying mischievous grins as they enjoyed ice cream cones, and another one with her in the East High graduation gown in front of grandpa and grandma Gaten’s house, wearing the beautiful smile I saw so often as a child.

Underneath this was the 1954 Football State Championship program with a ticket stub from the game stapled to the front, on page five a picture of a young Mike Wilkinson opposite the East High roster posing as though he was going to throw the ball down field. Tucked in the last page of the program was an article from the Press Citizen with a picture of Mr. Wilkinson under center with thirty-one seconds remaining in the game. It was the first time I put two and two together – that the championship trophy inside the front door of the school was when Mr. Wilkinson was quarterback.

I sighed and continued to pull items out of the box, a black and white poster of the 1954 Homecoming King and Queen candidates, Mr. Wilkinson and mom smiling in the lower righthand corner of the picture with arms around each other’s waist. Oh my God! Mom was a homecoming queen candidate? It was unbelievable. I held up the keepsake, staring back and forth at the two happy faces, trying to reconcile this couple with the two I knew. I looked at them for a long time.

At the very bottom of the box there was a dark cloth bag with what reminded me of a small misshapen pie tin inside, one side higher than the other. I opened the drawstring and furrowed brows when I grasped the object, wondering what it was. The contents shocked me.

A silver tiara and a folded sash with the words “1954 Homecoming Queen.” I stared at the white satin band, unable to absorb the treasured memento. My mother had been the homecoming queen at East High, Mr. Wilkinson the king. It would have been tough to come up with a more incongruent history of the pair, a relationship at its apex in 1954, twenty years later my mother reduced to the torn and tattered woman I barely knew.

I saw her in a different light, more forgiving of her flaws and frailties, ashamed at my dismissals and rejections, aware she was doing her best to hold the family together. Guilt-ridden tears ran down my cheeks and puddled on the desktop, the sobs growing louder as I acknowledged my shameful behavior. Instead of seeing her as tender and kind-hearted, too often I treated her just like my father had done, as weak and indecisive, destroying a fragile ego with my contemptable actions.

I was only there for a snapshot of her life, unaware of all the beauty hidden underneath. If I had the good sense to nurture her like a fragile flower she might have blossomed. But I didn’t. I berated myself for the insensitivity, sobbing until my tears were gone, summoning courage to continue my search through the next box despite a heavy heart.

Paperclipped together in the second box were birth certificates for Alice, Ashley, and me, at the back a death notice for a son named Robert, a sibling who died in December 1961 – three weeks before his due date. The cause of death was listed as “Unknown.” Ashley and I would have had a little brother. Bobby. I paused to calculate. He would have been nearly fourteen years old. Maybe my cross country teammate. I sighed, wondering if he had brown hair like mine or the auburn tint of mom when she stood in the sunlight.

His death was probably the final blow. Her point of no return. Folded over twice at the back of this cluster was a marriage certificate, signed on August 26, 1958, by the Justice of the Peace joining Mary Ann Gatens, aged 21 of Iowa City to Thomas Allen Wilson aged 23 of Cedar Rapids, their parents the only witnesses to the ceremony.

A small bouquet was wedged underneath the official document. Below the dried flowers was “My Personal Diary,” only a few entries inked in on the initial dates, all of it meaningless. I pulled out a dried red rose and a black and gold hair ribbon tied through a gold ring with a small diamond atop, underneath a picture of the new bride and groom with their parents, insincere smiles pasted on every face.

Lying at the bottom of the box was her 1955 yearbook. I went through it page by page, reading inscriptions beside senior pictures, marveling at the words written so many years ago.

“To Mary Ann from your Best Friend in the World – Susie Smith” with a heart underneath her name, “Mr. Miller’s chemistry class sucked! – Steve Jones,” and “You are the love of my life – Wally,” no last name attached. Sitting by itself in a corner of the box, almost unnoticed, a tie clasp with the initials “MWW.” I sighed, wondering at its significance. I paused, staring out the window, troubled by her downward spiral from the halcyon high school days.

That evening I sat in our living room that with Liz, showing her the contents of the boxes, proudly telling her that Mr. Wilkinson and mom were the Homecoming King & Queen at East High, saddened to discover I had a brother named Robert who died prematurely, and that my parents were married six months before my birth. Liz leaned in and wrapped her arms around me as I sobbed in the depths of despair, praying to myself that my mother would forgive me for my sins. I was ashamed of myself, hoping Liz still believed I was a good person - one deserving of her love.

I vowed that all my mother had done for me would not be in vain.

As time passed I became aware of tasks we had all relied on her for, wondering why we never got bills over the past months, afraid it was because they might be overdue. Mom had always written the checks, paid the taxes, filled in the forms. Who was paying the mortgage now? The gas and electric bills? The phone?

Alice and I celebrated Thanksgiving with a meal at Mr. Johnson's, all of us helping with the preparations in the kitchen, my little sister setting the table with dishes and silverware Mrs. Johnson stored in the China hutch, unused in the time since she had died. The dining room was illuminated by candles at the table and on the mantle, Mr. Johnson saying grace and then making a toast to his wife and to our mom, all of us teary eyed as we touched the wine glasses in the middle of the table.

After we finished the feast Alice and I stayed at the table and talked while Mr. Johnson stepped into the kitchen, the sound and smell of coffee percolating in the pot on the buffet so homey, his eyes aglow as he brought in dessert plates with big slices of pumpkin pie covered in huge mounds of whipped cream. It was just like I had always imagined.

I had no idea where dad was. And really didn’t care.


Saturday morning I stopped at Iowa Gas & Electric to learn if this bill was being paid, the woman at the counter claiming they received a cashier’s check from the bank each month. A load was lifted off my chest. It was reassuring but I didn’t have a clue who sent it. I knew dad didn’t. I had to investigate more.

Crossing the street I walked towards the 1st National Bank, suddenly aware that I wasn’t even sure who held our mortgage, hoping Mr. Wilkinson could point me in the right direction. His secretary looked at me oddly when I asked to meet with him but she took me back to his office, knocking lightly on the door.

After we got through the pleasantries I asked my question.

“Dad wanted me to ask you…to make sure you are getting the mortgage check.” I looked at my feet, uncomfortable misleading someone I respected. He had a faint look of surprise on his face, eyes darting side to side like a child trying to come up with some lie. He paused before answering.

“Let me see.”

Mr. Wilkinson spoke on the phone to his secretary and she brought in the file. He ran his finger down the spreadsheet. I didn’t know what I would do if he said we owed money. He looked up and smiled.

“Yes. Looks like you are in good shape.” He smiled. “Both you and the mortgage.” I chuckled at his joke. He paused, his face growing serious. I still didn’t know who was paying it.

“Matt, I know how hard your mother’s death has been, so if you ever find yourself needing help, any help, I want you to promise to come to me. Is that good?” I nodded, uncertain if it was a general financial statement or an allusion to my situation at home. I started to stand but he indicated for me to stay seated.

“One more thing.” Mr. Wilkinson closed the file. “It’s never too early to begin planning for your future, to set aside money each week for down the road. I’ve talked with Coach Cretzmeyer about you many times.” His mention of the Iowa coach made me giddy inside. “That he needs to keep an eye on you. You’re a great one.” I couldn’t hide the smile on my face. “But he might not be able to get you a full ride. You might have to pay for some of college out of your own pocket. So, I want you to open a savings account. Maybe $5 out of your Howard Johnson paycheck each week. It’s not much, but in a year you’ll have almost $300.” I grinned as he nodded.

“Thanks Mr. Wilkinson.”

We shook hands and he sent me on my way. College. I’d never entertained the thought before. I walked home with a smile on my face, relieved by Mr. Wilkinson’s words.


Although rarely at home, dad still left the $25 for groceries each Saturday afternoon before he started his weekend of drinking. The Chevy Impala idled in the alley when he dropped off the money, another head in the passenger seat any time I looked out the kitchen window as he came towards the back door. Other than at Donnelly’s tavern, I had no idea how to get in touch with him or where he was staying. But as long as he tossed the money on the kitchen table weekly it didn't matter.

It was comforting to be free of his presence, his wanton cruelty, and the moodiness, but the responsibility of running a household was almost more than I could handle – ensuring Alice was fed each day, had clean clothes, got to school on time, and felt safe when I was at work. I’m certain Mr. Johnson was aware of the situation but I was too embarrassed to discuss it with him. Ashley was the only person I could open up with and express my daily worries, to expose our vulnerability no one else saw. But she was in Des Moines and frequent phone calls were simply too expensive.

My Howard Johnson paycheck provided for Alice’s lunches at Central Jr. High and presents for the upcoming holiday, but there wasn’t much left if we had an emergency. As Christmas approached my worries about dad’s typical December layoff grew, concerns about whether we could handle his lost income keeping me up many nights, leaving me on edge. It was a heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old.

When she had the chance, Liz stopped over after school to keep an eye on Alice, explaining to her mother that she was playing with my little sister, but with her other responsibilities she couldn’t always be a constant presence. I made Liz promise she would tell no one of our plight, especially not her family, afraid Child Services would hear of our unsustainable situation and split us up in foster homes.

What was I going to do?


Before Christmas Liz and I ran into dad while walking towards JC Penny’s in search of presents for Alice, a skinny dishwater blonde on his arm laughing obnoxiously as they turned the corner heading in our direction. He saw us and immediately crossed the street towards Donnelly’s tavern, glancing over his shoulder as he opened the establishment door. He didn’t bother to say hello. And I had no idea who the woman was.

In the junior girls section of the store Liz slid out clothes from circular racks while I subtly took mental notes of what she grabbed, nodding as she held the clothing to her body like she would a paper doll, making a note to ask Alice to join me when I bought presents for Liz. I owed her so much. She was the only one who kept my worries at bay over winter break.

Christmas was quiet and blissful, Alice old enough to know Santa was a hoax but young enough to still find great joy in the holiday. We asked Mr. Johnson to come over when we exchanged presents, wanting him to spend the evening with us, knowing he was alone. It was comforting to have him around and it was clear he enjoyed the visit. He brought cookies and made hot chocolate on our stove, watching us open gifts around the tree, surprised to get the camera strap Alice made for him at the art center.

I opened a card from Aunt Jennifer, mom’s sister from Chicago, a piece of paper falling to the ground as I read the inscription inside, shocked to see a $100 check made out to me. I picked it up, fantasizing about spending it on something stupid, like records or clothes – yet I knew what had to done with the money. Make our living room look like a home. Create an environment we weren’t afraid to show to the world.

Before Mr. Johnson left that evening, he invited us over for a meal on Christmas Day, planning to serve chicken, au gratin potatoes, a green bean casserole, and rolls. It sounded heavenly. I walked him to the back door, hoping I would find the courage to ask him a question that hung over my head, but I couldn’t summon up the resolve.

Liz joined Alice and me at Sears for the after Christmas furniture sale, spending forty-five minutes picking out a couch and matching chair with Aunt Jennifer’s money, a bookshelf for knickknacks and pictures, and two throw rugs for the wooden floors. The girls were giddy as we walked home, discussing colors to paint the living room walls, deciding on a purple velvet plant for the dining room table and a hanging plant for the front window. The thought of it was exciting.

Two days later I finished painting the living room, attaching pictures and sconces to the walls, two throw rugs in place waiting for the delivery of our furniture. Alice and I noticed immediately, but it was hard for Liz to appreciate how the room had been transformed – as though we changed it from a haunted house into the enchanted land of Oz.

The following week lamps adorned the end tables, the dining room table assembled and sitting at its Thanksgiving location, a horizontal bookshelf with a set of encyclopedias in a spot behind the couch, the walnut knickknack shelf I built in shop class attached to the wall filled with family pictures and one of Alice’s art projects. If only we had a nice TV for the room it would have been perfect.

We invited Mr. Johnson over to show him the transformation, serving him coffee and cookies as we sat in the living room and talked, our neighbor mentioning he missed having the Christmas tree outside this year to enjoy at night, thanking Alice again for the camera strap and holiday cookies we decorated for him last week. Before he left Mr. Johnson said he had two propositions for us. He looked at me.

“I have a combination TV/Stereo in my living room that I never use. I have a small one in the kitchen that I watch all the time. And it looks like you have an empty spot in this room where something like that would fit in very nicely. So, if Steve and you want to bring it over here, I’d be more than happy to give it away. Sort of a late Christmas present.”

The three of us looked at each other and nodded, so excited it was hard to contain our enthusiasm. He smiled and continued.

“Good. The second is for Alice.” He looked at me and then turned to Alice. “I would be glad to come over here every day after school so you have someone around…you know, when Jim is at work or Liz can’t make it.” He looked at me with an embarrassed smile, all of us appreciating the words not said. “And I would even be glad to help you with dinner if you want. I get tired of eating alone and would enjoy your company.” Alice jumped up and gave him a big hug.


School resumed three days after the New Year, Mr. Johnson’s daily appearance in the house comforting, his eagerness to please something neither Alice nor I had experienced. He gave me tips at dinner, reminding me to keep an eye on W-2 statements from Howard Johnson’s and Agee Painting, saying he would be glad to do our taxes. I hadn’t known Mr. Johnson was a certified public accountant. That’s why he knew so much about Alice’s mathematics homework.

A week later I could feel someone else in the house when I came through the back door at 9:30 after work. The same stale smell in the air, a TV with the volume too loud, ominous thoughts creeping into my tired body when I took off my coat. As I walked into the living room the presence lit me up like a Roman candle, his supine body lying on the new couch in dirty work clothes, empty beer cans littering the floor at his feet. He looked up and smirked at me, tossing out an ill-advised comment.

“It looks like you fixed up this dump…”

I rushed at him, anger exploding from my throat like the backfire from a car.

“You better get your ass off that couch. And I mean NOW!” His eyes got big and he stood to challenge me, a dulled anger awash on his face.

“Listen you smartass…” He stumbled backwards when he saw the fury in my eyes. I pointed a finger at his chest, the threat slicing through his haze loud and clear.

“I’m going to tell you this once and then I won’t say it again.” It felt good to use the words I said to the sixth graders a year ago. “If I ever come home and see you in this room again I’m going to beat the shit out of you. Is that clear?” His aggression disappeared like a puff of smoke.

“Okay. Okay.” His eyes went to the floor. “Don’t have a cow.”

I glared at his back as he walked towards the bedroom and shut the door behind, reaching down to turn off the new TV, grabbing five empty beer cans off the floor, slamming them into the kitchen waste basket with untempered fury.

Pausing by his bedroom door I could hear the Cub game now on the old TV, continuing towards Alice’s room, tapping five times so she would know it was me. The door opened immediately and she wrapped her arms around my waist sobbing as I held her tightly. I was so wound up I didn’t fall asleep until after 1am, Alice’s soft breathing on the other side of my bed the only comfort.

From now on she would have to stay with Mr. Johnson until I was home from work. I couldn’t count on dad’s absence or allow Alice to be alone with him. His drinking had gotten worse since Christmas. Whenever dad was at home he drank as though trying to fill an empty vessel with alcohol, the old 19” TV in the bedroom loud because of his dulled hearing, the noise and the smell and the work boots at the back door an annoying reminder of his existence.

There were many nights I wished he would drink himself to death, that I might wake up in the morning and find him lifeless on top of the bed, his skin cold and pallid. Yet we relied on his very existence to keep us together, without his presence the three of us in danger of being separated. It was maddening to be so dependent, to realize I had to coexist with the man I despised – yet we had no choice.

Each night before I slept I took joy in weighing the good and bad of methods to kill my father – asphyxiating him in the garage with a running engine, blowing out the pilot light and turning on the gas stove, or holding a pillow over his face after he passed out each night. The planning was the only thing which helped me relax enough to fall asleep.

In time his presence at our house seemed to be a thing of the past. I prayed it would stay that way.

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