Sunday, March 31, 2013

LOST childhood...lost boys, a lost girl.








I thought the people I lived with were my parents. I called them mama and dad. The woman said to me one day "Don't call me mama. You're old enough to know better. I'm not related to you in any way, You just board here. Your mama's coming to see you tomorrow. You can call her mama if you want to."
I said, thank you. I didn't ask her about the man I called dad. He was a letter carrier. I used to sit on the edge of the bathtub in the morning and watch him shave and ask him questions —which way was east or south, or how many people there were in the world. He was the only one who had ever answered any questions I asked.
The people I had thought were my parents had children of their own. They weren't mean. They were just poor. They didn't have much to give anybody, even their own children. And there was nothing left over for me. I was seven, but I did my share of the work. I washed floors and dishes and ran errands.
My mother called for me the next day. She was a pretty woman who never smiled. I'd seen her often before, but I hadn't known quite who she was.
When I said, "Hello mama," this time, she stared at me. She had never kissed me or held me in her arms or hardly spoken to me. I didn't know anything about her then, but a few years later I learned a number of things. When I think of her now my heart hurts me twice as much as it used to when I was a little girl. It hurts me for both of us.
My mother was married at fifteen. She had two children (before me) and worked in a movie studio as a film cutter. One day she came home earlier than usual and found her young husband making love to another woman. There was a big row, and her husband banged out of the flat.
While my mother was crying over the collapse of her marriage, he sneaked back one day and kidnapped her two babies. My mother spent all her savings trying to get her children back. She hunted them for a long time. Finally she traced them to Kentucky and hitchhiked to where they were.
She was broke and with hardly any strength left when she saw her children again. They were living in a fine house. Their father was married again and well off.
She met with him but didn't ask him for anything, not even to kiss the children she had been hunting for so long. But like the mother in the movie Stella Dallas, she went away and left them to enjoy a happier life than she could give them.
I think it was something besides being poor that made my mother leave like that. When she saw her two children laughing and playing in a fine house among happy people she must have remembered how different it had been for her as a child. Her father had been taken away to die in a mental hospital in Patton, and her grandmother had also been taken off to the mental hospital in Norwalk to die there screaming and crazy And her brother had killed himself. And there were other family ghosts.
So my mother came back to Hollywood without her two children and went to work as a film cutter again. I wasn't born yet.

The day my mother called for me at the letter carrier's house and took me to her rooms for a visit was the first happy day in my life that I remember.
I had visited my mother before. Being sick and unable to take care of me and keep a job, too, she paid the letter carrier five dollars a week to give me a home. Every once in a while she brought me to her rooms for a visit.
I used to be frightened when I visited her and spent most of my time in the closet of her bedroom hiding among her clothes. She seldom spoke to me except to say "Don't make so much noise, Norma." She would say this even when I was lying in bed at night and turning the pages of a book. Even the sound of a page turning made her nervous.
There was one object in my mother's rooms that always fascinated me. It was a photograph on the wall. There were no other pictures on the walls, just this one framed photograph.
Whenever I visited my mother I would stand looking at this photograph and hold my breath for fear she would order me to stop looking. I had found out that people always ordered me to stop doing anything I like to do.
This time my mother caught me staring at the photograph but didn't scold me. Instead she lifted me up in a chair so I could see it better.
"That's your father," she said.
I felt so excited I almost fell off the chair. It felt so good to have a father, to be able to look at his picture and know I belonged to him. And what a wonderful photograph it was. He wore a slouch hat a little gaily on the side. There was a lively smile in his eyes, and he had a thin mustache like Clark Gable. I felt very warm toward the picture.
My mother said, "He was killed in an auto accident in New York City"
I believed everything people told me in that time, but I didn't believe this. I didn't believe he was run over and dead. I asked my mother what his name was. She wouldn't answer, but went into the bedroom and locked herself in.
Years later I found out what his name was, and many other things about him— how he used to live in the same apartment building where my mother lived, how they fell in love, and how he walked off and left her while I was getting born— without ever seeing me.
The strange thing was that everything I heard about him made me feel warmer toward him. The night I met his picture I dreamed of it when I fell asleep. And I dreamed of it a thousand times afterward.
That was my first happy time, finding my father's picture. And every time I remembered how he smiled and how his hat was tipped I felt warm and not alone. When I started a sort of scrapbook a year later the first picture I put in it was a photograph of Clark Gable because he looked like my father—especially the way he wore his hat and mustache.
And I used to make up daydreams, not about Mr. Gable, but about my father. When I'd be walking home from school in the rain and feeling bad I'd pretend my father was waiting for me, and that he would scold me for not having worn my rubbers. I didn't own any rubbers. Nor was the place I walked to any kind of a home. It was a place where I worked as a sort of child servant, washing dishes, clothes, floors, running errands and keeping quiet.
But in a daydream you jump over facts as easily as a cat jumps over a fence. My father Would be waiting for me, I daydreamed, and I would come into the house smiling from ear to ear.
Once when I lay in a hospital after having my tonsils out and running into complications, I had a daydream that lasted a whole week without stopping. I kept bringing my father into the hospital ward and walking him to my bed while the other patients looked on with disbelief and envy at so distinguished a visitor; and I kept bending him over my bed and having him kiss my forehead and I gave him dialogue, too. "You'll be well in a few days, Norma Jean. I'm very proud of the way you're behaving, not crying all the time like other girls."
And I would ask him please to take off his hat. But I could never get him in my largest, deepest daydream to take his hat off and sit down.
When I went back to my "home," I almost got sick again. A man next door chased a dog I had loved and who had been waiting for me to come home. The dog barked because he was happy to see me. And the man started chasing him and ordering him to shut up. The man had a hoe in his hand. He swung the hoe. It hit my dog's back and cut him in half.

My mother found another couple to keep me. They were English people and needed the five dollars a week that went with me. Also, I was large for my age and could do a lot of work.
One day my mother came to call. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. She stood looking at me without talking. When I turned around I saw there were tears in her eyes, and I was surprised.
"I'm going to build a house for you and me to live in," she said. "It's going to be painted white and have a back yard." And she went away.
It was true. My mother managed it somehow, out of savings and a loan. She built a house. The English couple and I were both taken to see it. It was small and empty but beautiful, and it was painted white.
The four of us moved in. I had a room to myself. The English couple didn't have to pay rent, just take care of me as they had done before. I worked hard, but it didn't matter. It was my first home. My mother bought furniture, a table with a white top and brown legs, chairs, beds, and curtains. I heard her say, "It's all on time, but don't worry. I'm working double shift at the studio, and I'll soon be able to pay it off."
One day a grand piano arrived at my home. It was out of condition. My mother had bought it second-hand. It was for me. I was going to be given piano lessons on it. It was a very important piano, despite being a little banged up. It had belonged to the movie star Fredric March.
"You'll play the piano over here, by the windows," my mother said, "and here on each side of the fireplace there'll be a love seat. And we can sit listening to you. As soon as I pay off a few other things I'll get the love seats, and we'll all sit in them at night and listen to you play the piano."
But the two love seats were not to be. One morning the English couple and I were having breakfast in the kitchen. It was early. Suddenly there was a terrible noise on the stairway outside the kitchen. It was the most frightening noise I'd ever heard. Bangs and thuds kept on as if they would never stop.
"Something's falling down the stairs," I said.
The Englishwoman held me from going to see. Her husband went out and after a time came back into the kitchen.
"I've sent for the police and the ambulance," he said.
I asked if it was my mother.
"Yes," he said. "But you can't see her."
I stayed in the kitchen and heard people come and try to take my mother away. Nobody wanted me to see her. Everyone said, "Just stay in the kitchen like a good girl. She's all right. Nothing serious."
But I went out and looked in the hall. My mother was on her feet. She was screaming and laughing. They took her away to the Norwalk Mental Hospital. I knew the name of the hospital in a vague way. It was where my mother's father and grandmother had been taken when they started screaming and laughing.
All the furniture disappeared. The white table, the chairs, the beds and white curtains melted away, and the grand piano, too.
The English couple disappeared also. And I was taken from the newly painted house to an orphan asylum and given a blue dress and a white shirtwaist to wear and shoes with heavy soles. And for a long time when I lay in bed at night I could no longer daydream about anything. I kept hearing the terrible noise on the stairs and my mother screaming and laughing as they led her out of the home she had tried to build for me.
I never forgot the white painted house and its furniture. Years later when I was beginning to earn some money modeling, I started looking for the Fredric March piano. After about a year I found it in an old auction room and bought it.
I have it in my home now in Hollywood. It's been painted a lovely white, and it has new strings and plays as wonderfully as any piano in the world. 

My mother's best friend was a woman named Grace. I called nearly everybody I knew Aunt or Uncle, but Aunt Grace was a different sort of make-believe relative. She became my best friend, too.
Aunt Grace worked as a film librarian in the same studio as my mother— Columbia Pictures. She was the first person who ever patted my head or touched my cheek. That happened when I was eight. I can still remember how thrilled I felt when her kind hand touched me.
Grace had almost as rough a time as my mother. She lost her job in the studio and had to scrape for a living. Although she had no money she continued to look after my mother who was starting to have mental spells—and to look after me. At times she took me to live with her. When she ran out of money and had only a half dollar left for a week's food, we lived on stale bread and milk. You could buy a sackful of old bread at the Holmes Bakery for twenty-five cents. Aunt Grace and I would stand in line for hours waiting to fill our sack. When I looked up at her she would grin at me and say "Don't worry Norma Jean. You're going to be a beautiful girl when you grow up. I can feel it in my bones."
Her words made me so happy that the stale bread tasted like cream puffs.
Everything seemed to go wrong for Aunt Grace. Only bad luck and death ever visited her. But there was no bitterness in my aunt. Her heart remained tender, and she believed in God. Nearly everybody I knew talked to me about God. They always warned me not to offend Him. But when Grace talked about God, she touched my cheek and said that He loved me and watched over me. Remembering what Grace had said I lay in bed at night crying to myself. The only One who loved me and watched over me was someone I couldn't see or hear or touch. I used to draw pictures of God whenever I had time. In my pictures He looked a little like Aunt Grace and a little like Clark Gable.

As I grew older I knew I was different from other children because there were no kisses or promises in my life. I often felt lonely and wanted to die. I would try to cheer myself up with daydreams. I never dreamed of anyone loving me as I saw other children loved. That was too big a stretch for my imagination. I compromised by dreaming of my attracting someone's attention (besides God), of having people look at me and say my name.
This wish for attention had something to do, I think, with my trouble in church on Sundays. No sooner was I in the pew with the organ playing and everybody singing a hymn than the impulse would come to me to take off all my clothes. I wanted desperately to stand up naked for God and everyone else to see. I had to clench my teeth and sit on my hands to keep myself from undressing. Sometimes I had to pray hard and beg God to stop me from taking my clothes off.
I even had dreams about it. In the dream I entered the church wearing a hoop skirt with nothing under it. The people would be lying on their backs in the church aisle, and I would step over them, and they would look up at me.
My impulse to appear naked and my dreams about it had no shame or sense of sin in them. Dreaming of people looking at me made me feel less lonely I think, I wanted them to see me naked because I was ashamed of the clothes I wore—the never changing faded blue dress of poverty. Naked, I was like other girls and not someone in an orphan's uniform.

When my mother was taken to the hospital, Aunt Grace became my legal guardian. I could hear her friends arguing in her room at night when I lay in her bed pretending to be asleep. They advised her against adopting me because I was certain to become more and more of a responsibility as I grew older. This was on account of my "heritage," they said. They talked about my mother and her father and brother and grandmother all being mental cases and said I would certainly follow in their footsteps. I lay in bed shivering as I listened. I didn't know what a mental case was, but I knew it wasn't anything good. And I held my breath waiting to hear whether Aunt Grace would let me become a state orphan or adopt me as her own. After a few evenings of argument Aunt Grace adopted me, heritage and all, and I fell asleep happy.
Grace, my new guardian, had no money and was out looking for a job all the time, so she arranged for me to enter the Orphan Asylum—the Los Angeles Children's Home Society. I didn't mind going there because even in the orphanage I knew I had a guardian outside—Aunt Grace. It wasn't till later that I realized how much she had done for me. If not for Grace I would have been sent to a state or county institution where there are fewer privileges, such as being allowed to have a Christmas tree or seeing a movie sometimes.
I lived in the orphanage only off and on. Most of the time I was placed with a family who were given five dollars a week for keeping me. I was placed in nine different families before I was able to quit being a legal orphan. I did this at sixteen by getting married.
The families with whom I lived had one thing in common—a need for five dollars. I was, also, an asset to have in the house. I was strong and healthy and able to do almost as much work as a grownup. And I had learned not to bother anyone by talking or crying.
I learned also that the best way to keep out of trouble was by never complaining or asking for anything. Most of the families had children of their own, and I knew they always came first. They wore the colored dresses and owned whatever toys there were, and they were the ones who were believed.
My own costume never varied. It consisted of a faded blue skirt and white waist. I had two of each, but since they were exactly alike everyone thought I wore the same outfit all the time. It was one of the things that annoyed people—my wearing the same clothes.

Every second week the Home sent a woman inspector out to see how its orphans were getting along in the world. She never asked me any questions but would pick up my foot and look at the bottoms of my shoes. If my shoe bottoms weren't worn through, I was reported in a thriving condition.
I never minded coming "last" in these families except on Saturday nights when everybody took a bath. Water cost money, and changing the water in the tub was an unheard of extravagance. The whole family used the same tub of water. And I was always the last one in.
One family with whom I lived was so poor that I was often scolded for flushing the toilet at night.
"That uses up five gallons of water," my new "uncle" would say "and five gallons each time can run into money You can do the flushing in the morning."
No matter how careful I was, there were always troubles. Once in school, a little Mexican boy started howling that I had hit him. I hadn't. And I was often accused of stealing things—a necklace, a comb, a ring, or a nickel. I never stole anything.
When the troubles came I had only one way to meet them—by staying silent. Aunt Grace would ask me when she came to visit how things were. I would tell her always they were fine because I didn't like to see her eyes turn unhappy.
Some of my troubles were my own fault. I did hit someone occasionally pull her hair, and knock her down. But worse than that were my "character faults." A slightly overgrown child who stares and hardly ever speaks, and who expects only one thing of a home—to be thrown out—can seem like a nuisance to have around.
There was one home I hoped wouldn't throw me out. This was a house with four children who were watched over by a great-grandmother who was over a hundred years old. She took care of the children by telling them blood-curdling stories about Indian massacres, scalpings, burnings at the stake, and other wild doings of her youth. She said she had been a close friend of Buffalo Bill and had fought at his side in hand-to-hand battles with the savage Redskins.
I listened to her stories with my heart in my mouth and did everything I could to make her like me. I laughed the loudest and shivered the most at her stories. But one day one of her own great-grandchildren came running to her with her dress torn from her neck. She said I had done it. I hadn't. But the old Indian-fighter wouldn't believe me, and I was sent back to the orphanage in disgrace.
Most of my troubles were of this minor sort. In a way they were not troubles at all because I was used to them. When I look back on those days I remember, in fact, that they were full of all sorts of fun and excitement. I played games in the sun and ran races. I also had daydreams, not only about my father's photograph but about many other things.
I daydreamed chiefly about beauty. I dreamed of myself becoming so beautiful that people would turn to look at me when I passed. And I dreamed of colors—scarlet, gold, green, white. I dreamed of myself walking proudly in beautiful clothes and being admired by everyone and overhearing words of praise. I made up the praises and repeated them aloud as if someone else were saying them.
Daydreaming made my work easier. When I was waiting on the table in one of the poverty stricken, unhappy homes where I lived, I would daydream I was a waitress in an elegant hotel, dressed in a white waitress uniform, and everybody who entered the grand dining room where I was serving would stop to look at me and openly admire me.
I never daydreamed about love, even after I fell in love the first time. This was when I was around eight. I fell in love with a boy named George who was a year older. We used to hide in the grass together until he got frightened and jumped up and ran away.
What we did in the grass never frightened me. I knew it was wrong, or I wouldn't have hidden, but I didn't know what was wrong. At night I lay awake and tried to figure out what sex was and what love was. I wanted to ask a thousand questions, but there was no one to ask. Besides I knew that people only told lies to children - lies about everything from soup to Santa Claus.
Then one day I found out about sex without asking any questions. I was almost nine, and I lived with a family that rented a room to a man named Kimmel. He was a stern looking man, and everybody respected him. and called him Mr. Kimmel.
I was passing his room when his door opened and he said quietly "Please come in here, Norma."
I thought he wanted me to run an errand.
"Where do you want me to go, Mr. Kimmel?" I asked.
"No place," he said and closed the door behind me. He smiled at me and turned the key in the lock.

"Now you can't get out," he said, as if we were playing a game.
I stood staring at him. I was frightened, but I didn't dare yell. I knew if I yelled I would be sent back to the orphanage in disgrace again. Mr. Kimmel knew this, too.
When he put his arms around me I kicked and fought as hard as I could, but I didn't make any sound. He was stronger than I was and wouldn't let me go. He kept whispering to me to be a good girl.
When he unlocked the door and let me out, I ran to tell my "aunt" what Mr. Kimmel had done.
"I want to tell you something," I stammered, "about Mr. Kimmel. He—he—"
My aunt interrupted.
"Don't you dare say anything against Mr. Kimmel," she said angrily "Mr. Kimmel's a fine man. He's my star boarder!"
Mr. Kimmel came out of his room and stood in the doorway smiling.
"Shame on you!" my 'aunt' glared at me, "complaining about people!"
"This is different," I began, "this is something I have to tell. Mr. Kimmel—"
I started stammering again and couldn't finish. Mr. Kimmel came up to me and handed me a nickel.
"Go buy yourself some ice cream," he said.
I threw the nickel in Mr. Kimmel's face and ran out.
I cried in bed that night and wanted to die. I thought, "If there's nobody ever on my side that I can talk to I'll start screaming." But I didn't scream.
A week later the family including Mr. Kimmel went to a religious revival meeting in a tent. My "aunt" insisted I come along.
The tent was jammed. Everybody was listening to the evangelist. He was half singing and half talking about the sinfulness of the world. Suddenly he called on all the sinners in the tent to come up to the altar of God where he stood—and repent.
I rushed up ahead of everyone else and started telling about my "sin." 
"On your knees, sister," he said to me.
I fell on my knees and began to tell about Mr. Kimmel and how he had molested  me in his room. But other "sinners" crowded around me. They also fell on their faces and started wailing about their sins and drowned me out. I looked back and saw Mr. Kimmel standing among the nonsinners, praying loudly and devoutly for God to forgive the sins of others.

At twelve I looked like a girl of seventeen. My body was

developed and shapely. But no one knew this but me. I still wore

the blue dress and the blouse the orphanage provided. They made

me look like an overgrown lummox.

I had no money The other girls rode to school in a bus. I had no

nickel to pay for the ride. Rain or shine, I walked the two miles

from my "aunt's" home to the school.

I hated the walk, I hated the school. I had no friends. The pupils

seldom talked to me and never wanted me in their games. Nobody

ever walked home with me or invited me to visit their homes.

This was partly because I came from the poor part of the district

where all the Mexicans and Japanese lived. It was also because I

couldn't smile at anyone.

Once a shoemaker standing in the doorway of his shop stopped

me as I was walking to school.

"What's your name?" he asked me.

"Norma," I said.






Keith  Hunt

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