Born In Defiance

Ru Otto

© Copyright 2019 by Ru Otto

Photo of sunset.

This is the first vignette in my ongoing, but as yet unpublished, autobiographical book, Signs of Life. Coming of age in the 40’s and 50’s was hard enough for a girl without the added challenges of poverty, disability, and alcoholism.  But I became like tempered steel in this intense environment, fired to a shining resiliency in the heat of human passions.

I was one of the first souls to ride in on that celebratory wave of Boomers that began to flood America after World War II was over, and life was precious once again.

My mother was five months pregnant when she married my father, in 1946. I don’t know what the time lag was about, but I suspect he ran. That was just her luck. Not that she wasn’t good looking or a lot of fun, and I know he loved her, but still, a man has his fears. My dad had a lot of them. And I think, one by one, they all came true.

My father was a brown-eyed, good looking country boy, just two generations off the boat from southern Germany. His schooling was sparse and unimportant to him as a young man. Restless and eager for adventure, he had joined the army as soon as he legally could, went off to fight the ”War to End All Wars,” with his friends, lost quite a few, and came home wondering about it all, his memories preserved by his family in musty black boxes filled with medals, ribbons, and reams of old black and white photos of him and his pals. In the photographs, they seemed to be taking their war very well, lounging around the bivouac, laughing and posing. Their young faces carved down to the barest muscle and bone from the rigors of combat, but still clowning for the camera; young boys, showing off for their favorite girls.

The newly married couple settled in Defiance, Ohio, a river town located in the far northwestern corner of the state, straddling the muddy banks of the Maumee River. They lived first inside the city limits and later, out near Brunersburg, where the lay of the land is dead-level flat atop underground rivers of stinking, sliver grey sulphur water. The only restriction as to how far you can see in all four directions is determined by the strength of your eyes.

Whether or not I was a wanted baby was a moot point. Choices were rare for a woman in 1946. The end of the war and the establishment of the G.I. Bill of Rights paved the way for young couples to marry, buy a house and settle down, secure in the American Dream. My brothers and I have fourteen cousins scattered around Defiance county, all close in age, so it’s easy to conclude that having babies and raising families was everyone’s main occupation for the next twenty years.
We moved often, but always stayed within twenty miles of both sets of grandparents, whom we visited regularly on weekends. There were three of us kids, stair-stepped in age by two--year increments, restless and argumentative, jostling for dibs on the backseat car windows. The loser would usually curl up into the back window ledge, which was surprisingly spacious, and sneak pinches to the winners’ necks, whenever possible.

If it was nighttime, and especially on warm summer nights, the boys would fall asleep, and wrapped in the soft hypnotic purr of the engine, I would lean my head on the window sill and watch the flat, quilted acreages swirl out before and behind us, and the great round moon, as she followed us home.

These were times of peace and melancholy, listening to the noisy sounds of a buggy summer night, barking frogs and the roar of katydids. I can remember being carried to my bed and the hushings of our parents as they undressed us and slid us under the covers, limp and sweaty from a day of playing with cousins and sleeping so compactly in the back seat of that old green Packard.

In those days, a car ride in the country was cheap entertainment, and my father often employed it to give my mother some child-free space. He liked his beer in brown, long neck bottles, and hot summer nights were a favorite time for him to get out of the house. He’d pile us three into the car, and then he’d slowly wander the wildflower strewn country roads, one arm relaxed across the wheel and the other lifted at a 45-degree angle, gulping the beer as he drove, his Adam’s apple jerking with each swallow, his profile framed in the driver’s side window and sharp against the sunset. He would stop the car at some point, open another beer and light a cigarette, lean his lanky body up against the car door and watch, as we ran through the fields ripping up wild flowers and gathering them into huge, sloppy bouquets of Queen Anne’s Lace splashed with Black Eyed Susan and wild Sweet William, to take home to Mom.

I’m told that I walked at seven months, and I believe it, because my own youngest daughter stood up at that age and lurched her way across the room, leading with her head, until she finally had run into the wall and furniture so many times that she had a ring of black and blue marks like wreath around her forehead. Only polio could stop me, and it did, in the last epidemic of 1948, when I was two. Polio was rampant in the Ohio Valley, and I succumbed. I’m told it’s a painful disease, with fevers and cramping, but I remember very little. However, one memory persists and has, over the years, become all my memories of this time in my life.

I was quarantined with other children, behind a locked door, for the first month. I remember a darkened room filled with rows of brown metal cribs. The cribs have side bars that go up and down with loud metal on metal scraping noises when ever the nurses or doctors attend to us. The fact that I am confined in a roofless cage doesn’t bother me because I am so tired and can’t move anything on my body. I am paralyzed from the neck down and I don’t even have the strength to cry. This bed is all I know, and it feels safe. The sounds of the other children in the room are a backdrop of moans and cries, but not very loud. Every sound seems muffled, and mostly it is the sounds of the nurses, staunch ships in the gloom I pay attention to, their starched whites rustling through the wards, their soft, sweet smelling hands flitting through the dimness like pale moths.

A group of nurses comes close and I see one is pushing a square metal box on wheels. It looks like a gleaming white ice-cream cart, but when she opens the top, a cloud of steam floats to the tiled ceiling. Long silver tongs flash in the dimness as she brings up a hot square of bright red felt, and the other nurses carefully spread it across my leg. It burns a little. Another steaming patch is retrieved, this time it’s yellow, and my foot is covered. Next a green square is put on my hip. The nurses bending over me are talking and encouraging me with sweet words, mother-sounds, as they continue to cover me in this way. Soon I am a pile of steaming colored rags. The warm wraps feel good and my cramped legs and back slowly relax as the heat penetrates, turning rigid muscles to warm pudding, as I slip from consciousness into blessed sleep.

When I was taken out of quarantine, I was placed in a special Shriner’s hospital for children in Toledo, Ohio. Almost all the children there were in some stage of polio recovery. There were three or more children to a room, and we spent the time playing and eating and taking naps, just as other children did, except we rarely left our beds. It was a child’s world, then, populated only by children and those whose job it was to care for us and keep us entertained. There was no television, and parents were only allowed to visit on the weekends. The forty-mile bus trip from Defiance, insured that my mother came only once per week, that usually being on Sunday. My father came a few times, but I don’t remember him being there much.
Even though I can’t say I was unhappy in this place, especially during the highly structured weekdays, I was very attached to my mother, and I would wake early on Sunday mornings with such feelings of joy and anticipation, I felt as though my head would explode with the concentration I employed watching the door, alert for any approaching footsteps, lilt of voice, and breath of perfumed air that meant she was coming.

Finally, she would burst into that sterile setting, carrying crackling paper bags filled with tiny dolls, games, stuffed animals and candy. Sometimes there would be a new dress or nightgown and silk ribbons for my long brown hair.

My mother was a pretty woman. Her own hair was dark and shining, pulled up into a roll at the crown, a style fashionable in the 40’s. It set off her green eyes, deep set and gold flecked and often blazing with some secret amusement. The nurses and the doctors and even the resident priest came a little more alive in her company, laughed a little more, left smiling. She always smelled so good to me, Avon Products, warm and familiar, heavy breasts, so inviting, bobbing softly under sweaters pulled smooth and tucked in at the waist. I wanted only to lay in her arms, my head resting between the two, snuggling into her full curves, listen to her heartbeat, our heartbeat, breath her essence, seep into her body, go back to the safety and joy of physically being a part of her. I wanted to drown myself in her. Her appearance always brought with it a longing for the forgotten smells and sounds of a world beyond the hospital walls and the indefinable soul connection that is family.

And so, each Sunday evening, when dinner platters rattled outside the door of my room and the long, lacquered halls were filled with the savory smells of warm supper, my mouth would begin to water as much with hunger as with loss, and happiness would vie with great sadness for upper place in my chest. I knew that soon, too soon, she would be gone. And promptly, at 5:30 PM, the visitor bells would always ring, and she and all the other parents would be herded out the huge oak double doors, and no matter how hard I tried to be a good girl, I would cry, as my institutional complacency was shattered once again.
By the time I was sixteen I had had seven orthopedic surgeries, two of them spinal fusions. I’m not sure how my parents paid for all these hospitalizations but I’m sure March of Dimes and the Shriners in their funny hats made it possible for me to get all the surgeries and rehabilitation I needed. We were poor, but my father was energetic and restless, always looking for the answer to our financial problems.
Once, in the early 50’s, his restlessness took us all the way to San Diego, CA. My mother, alpine-phobic, complained all the way across the Rocky Mountains. We were in a station wagon, pulling a silver bullet type trailer. There were three of us children, and we took turns jumping up and down on each other in the back seat, shoes off and my braces flung to the floor. Two of us would stand up, holding on to the back window, while the third was held down and ticked mercilessly with our bare toes, hands, or anything we could wriggle. Scrawny legs and arms tangled and writhed while we screamed with glee. My mother, terrified of heights and mountain roads, moaned and sucked her teeth in terror each time we took a hairpin curve, and my father yelled at us all, intermittently, “Shut the hell up!’

It was a very noisy trip that did not, however yield the hoped for ‘good job’ my father was expecting. Six months later, we returned to Ohio, driving across those same terrifying mountains, moaning, tickling and complaining the entire way. We moved back to Henry county, and like Jesus of Nazareth, my father never again left the thirty-mile radius of the land he was born to.
After my father went back to work at the General Motors plant, his restlessness took the form of building houses with his two brothers. Together, they would buy the vacant lot next to our house and begin to frame it out on weekends and after work. The plan was to buy cheap, build cheap, sell and make a profit to be shared among the three. This scheme never worked. The new house would be only half finished when the money ran out, so my father would sell the finished house we were living in and use the money to complete the new one. We would move in to the partially completed house and make-do. It seemed like we always lived in a construction zone, sometimes lacking interior walls. Evenings featured huge bonfires made of building refuse, crackling sparks racing up to heaven with dogs and men circling the fires, drinking, talking, and laughing loudly.

We all hated the outhouse and the spiders we had to cohabitate with when our pants were down, but my mother hated it all. Overweight and sullen with three skinny children clustered around her, she would stay in the house on these nights, watching from the kitchen window, , her eyes accusative and bored with this man, with this life, worried for these children, half wild now, like the dogs, like the men, like my father would have liked to be.

Often, late at night, after everyone had gone home, there would be shouting and verbally violent fights. It would start with my mother’s voice, jabbing, cold sarcasm, then my father’s voice, whining and trying to placate her with flattery and offers of affection. This would soon escalate into the loud, cursing insults that typify one of these lose-lose situations. Our bedroom was separated from them by a thin curtain. Frightened, and worried, I tried to block them out by straining my ears in the direction of the hollow echoing of the black and white television in the living room.
During the day, I would lose myself in nature. By the time I was four years old, I had the full package of Minnesota body braces: a cloth back brace supported with metal stays, and leg braces foot to thigh made of steel and leather. Plastic had not yet been invented. My arms remained surprisingly strong, and the braces didn’t seem to slow me down too much. We were country kids, picking wood ticks out of our hair and playing in the lumber sawdust from my father’s recent house building project. I could spend hours in our weedy back acre, creeping around, building huts, talking to fairies and waiting for foxes to show their black snouts. I would often gather myself a little nest and pretend I was a baby deer resting in the buzzing fields of mid-summer. Being roughly the same height as a healthy weed and needing to lie down quite a bit while playing, I had time to examine all of nature’s Lilliputian marvels. I can still almost feel the prickly grasses on my face and bare arms as I lay in these little nests, the sweet smell of crushed wild grasses beneath me and the pungent carrot smell of Queen Ann’s Lace filling my nose. Sometimes I would fall asleep, lying on my back, watching the tree branches above me weave and whisper in the wind.
When I was eight years old and my brothers Larry and Jim were six and four, my father decided to start an edible bird farm. We had an assortment of ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. The ducklings were my favorites. I would gather up a basket of them and take them to the little woods in the back of our house for picnics. I loved their yellow softness and I was filled with the contentment of motherhood watching them roam and nestle in my blankets, nibbling small pieces of bread. They were my first pets. I adored them.

My father never understood the pet theory. To him, even dogs had their job: to hunt. And even pets must be kept outside with the rest of the livestock. My ducklings also had their purpose in life, and that was to be someone’s dinner.

As my duck children matured, they became less civilized and less eager to attend my picnics. I became at the same time, less able to get the large, flapping creatures into my basket. As they lost their pale-yellow fluff and became a uniform white, they also lost their individuality and became just a bunch of quacking birds who left smelly poop messes everywhere they went. Luckily, I detached emotionally.

I say ‘luckily’, because when I stepped off the school bus one crisp fall day, almost Thanksgiving, and had to walk to the house passing a clothesline of turkeys, ducks and a few chickens hanging from their feet like circus acrobats, but with slit throats, and a circle of blood soaking into the earth under each, I was shocked and amazed, but couldn’t recognize my Donald or his friends. I walked on, averting my eyes and my thoughts.
The edible bird farm was a family owned business and that meant child labor. Even my brothers, young as they were, were set up next to the cauldron of boiling water out in the yard and given a bird to pluck. Dip and pluck, dip and pluck. The smell of hot wet feathers on a dead bird, is a facet of animal husbandry you never forget. The skin is strangely rubbery, but the feathers come out easily and quickly for those fleet of hand and quick of finger, which I was. At least there was no blood involved. It had all dripped out while hanging on the clothesline, so it wasn’t as bad as some of the jobs at our house.
My brothers never had a problem with helping slaughter the birds. especially with the promise of a good meal resulting from their efforts. My youngest brother, Jim, five years old at the time, was a zealously precocious killer due to a vendetta he had against the turkeys.
My father had bought several dozen birds in early spring, and for weeks our living room was filled with boxes of cheeping, squeaking little entities under heat lamps. As they matured, and the weather warmed, they all moved, box by box, into the newly built coop. Our job and our pleasure was to feed all the babies while they lived in the house. This naturally progressed to feeding all the maturing chicks, mornings and evening, in their new pen out back of the house. Soon, it became a competitive sport among the three of us kids to see who could get up the earliest to feed the turkeys, chickens and ducks. Every morning we dragged our small bodies out of bed earlier and earlier, but Jim, the youngest, seemed always to be a few minutes ahead of Larry and me.

I don’t know what drove us to be so competitive about a work task, but there was a sense of power in throwing the feed, handfuls upon handfuls of golden seed and corn, arcing into the morning air and raining down on twenty-five huge birds while they scramble and fought each other for their food. It was very exciting. The turkeys, especially, had grown to be alarmingly large and aggressive. They could almost look Jim in the eye.

On one particular morning, Jim’s eyes weren’t what most interested the turkeys. Usually, Larry and I would come running out of the house, still in our pajamas, ready to join in the feeding frenzy, and Jim would be there, surrounded by his loyal flock, all the bird food gone, and his freckled face smug with satisfaction. He had once again cheated us out of our fun. We hated him.
But this morning was different, way different. In the grey of pre-dawn, we woke to screams, coming from the back yard. The whole family was up and out the door in a second. The turkeys were gobbling ecstatically in a feathered pile over by the shed, and that’s where the screams were coming from. My mother called out, and at the sound of her voice, Jim erupted out of the pile of white birds and projectiled himself toward us, mouth wide open in terror. His union suit jammies, hand-me-downs to the point of being frayed and riddled with holes, were bloodied in front where his little uncircumcised pecker had shown its head to his painful disadvantage and had been immediately attacked by the hungry turkeys who thought it was a juicy morning grub.
Well, that put an end to our little game. Jim lost heart, as I said, except when it came to the butchering, and Larry and I became wary of the feathered behemoths, preferring sleep in the mornings to the savagery of the pen.

The arrival of Fall was also the arrival of the school term. There were no special schools for the handicapped anywhere close, so my mother just registered me for kindergarten like any other kid. I enjoyed school, but didn’t have any friends, and I think I might have been a bit too weird for the other children to relate to. My main playmate at school, was the wind that blew through the school yard on sunny days. I would let it push me around using my dress as a sail and imagining my legs as fairy light and not steel encased. On inclement days, my best friend was a supporting pillar in the school basement where we ate our lunches. I would cling to this pillar like a lover and twirl around it until I fell to the floor with dizziness. This whirling dervish behavior did not endear me to the other students and they kept their distance.
One March afternoon, while being blown about the playground by my friend, the wind, I noticed several of my classmates gathered in a noisy circle around something on the ground. When I went over to investigate, I saw they were throwing stones at a baby bird that had fallen. I immediately started to yell at everyone to quit, and protectively scooped up the bird and held it close to my chest. This action put me right in the middle of the maelstrom and the children all began throwing stones at me and even punching me a few times, for good measure. I fell, tore my dress, and was still crying when my mother picked me up to take me home.

That was my last day in the Brunersburg elementary school. Although neither my mother nor my father went to church much, I was quickly enrolled into Saint Paul’s Lutheran Parochial School, where the children feared God enough to never pick on me, againWhen I was nine, money problems forced my mother to start waitressing in a Defiance, Ohio, bar. They were called ‘beer joints’ by the locals and had a strong German influence. Tom’s Bar had peanut shells on the floor and was open to families every day from 10 A.M. until 2 A.M. My father took care of us kids on the nights she worked late.

One night, after he had been drinking heavily for about a week, he called me over to where he was lying on the couch, very drunk, and wearing only baggy white briefs. He wrapped his long, sad arms around me, I could barely tolerate the smell of his sour breath, and he whispered, “Princess, you are the only one in this family, who loves me.”

I could only nod, I was so confused and embarrassed. I wasn’t afraid of him physically, but I was afraid of him emotionally. He seemed like he was in a deep, dark, emotional hole and wanted me to join him there in his abject misery. It was an awful place, and I just wanted to get away from him before I got sucked in. I wriggled away and hurried to my room, safe behind my curtain.

The next day, I got on the school bus with my brother, Larry, like we always did. Jim was still screaming and crying because he didn’t want to go to kindergarten. He never wanted to go, and sometimes, he got spanked and was forced to go, literally dumped at the door, because my mother had to work that day, and there was no one to watch him. She seemed especially upset that he was being so obstinate.

My father was staying home, still in a drunken funk. My mother didn’t want to leave Jim home with him because she knew a lawyer would be serving him with divorce papers that day, while she was at work. Finally, she found a neighbor who agreed to take Jim for the day.

I was singing “Beautiful Savior” with the choir when they came for me. I’ve always loved that song, and I was lost in the spiraling harmonies of the piece, my eyes following the sunbeams dancing across the stained-glass windows of the church rectory. I felt confused when the principal singled me out, his face serious, even for a Missouri Synod Lutheran.

Come with me,” he said kindly.

My first thought went to the fight I had heard the night before, and I knew he had killed her, finally. I knew it was coming. My scalp prickled icily and my lips went numb. I could hardly get the words out.

Is my Mom ok?”

Yes, yes, she’s fine,” he assured me, eyebrows pinched into a deep ridge between his eyes, “Your grandfather is here to take you and your brother home.”

Grandpa was silent and distracted as he drove us to his house, a few blocks away. When we arrived, I went to Mom and blurted, “Mom, what’s going on?”

She turned to Grandpa, visibly gritting her teeth and furious, ”You didn’t tell them?”

He just stood there for a minute, head bowed, looking at the floor, “I couldn’t,” he replied so softly I could hardly hear him.

My mother had turned to tempered steel, still hot from the forge, her core blazing, while the outside cooled smooth and cold as ice. She was pissed, and she cut through any momentary feelings of safety in the world I might have been harboring, when she said through tight lips, “Your father is dead. He killed himself.” The last word, ‘himself,’ came out in a hissing gurgle of disgust.

I don’t remember anything after that. I don’t know what she said to me or how she explained to a nine-year old and a seven-year old that their father, drunk, and sitting on the couch in his underwear, had put a shotgun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

The funeral was so close to my birthday that I lost hope of ever being normal again. I thought, “Nice birthday present, Daddy,” and joined my mother in her disgust.

The Lutheran church we had been attending for four years refused to conduct the funeral service for my father because he was a suicide. His parent’s Catholic parish also refused us. It fell to my grandfather’s church, The Baptist’s, to try and say a few healing words over the open casket.

My father was the first dead person I had ever seen. He looked amazingly lifelike, his face untouched. I kept having the feeling he was just about to sit up and look around in amazement, and then I would break down in tears of grief for our family and guilt for myself, because deep in my heart I knew I had never loved him. I had to be escorted outside several times during the viewing and the funeral because of my loud sobbing. My brothers seemed oblivious to what was going on and played out in the funeral home’s grassy front yard, chasing fireflies and each other.

The Otto’s, my father’s family, gathered and grumbled on the far side of the room. They glared at my mother, faces glowing with hatred and blaming. My father’s mother, Dorothy, was not able to contain her blistering rage and her blazing contempt for my mother. She confronted our family as we left the funeral home on the last night of viewing. Her hair, pulled back in a tight knot, was as black as her dress. Her mouth, a thin rigid line of judgement, hissed at my mother.

You whore! You killed him with your whoring!”

My mother just kept walking toward the door, her eyes staring straight ahead, her arm rounding up us children, as we moved forward, a gaggle of skinny youngsters, the boys oblivious and confused, and me, almost blind from crying. She pushed us through the door, into the warm spring night, and the last thing I ever heard from my Grandma Otto was, “I’m going to make sure the authorities know about you. You are not a fit mother. Those children belong in the Home, and I’m going to make sure they are taken away from you and put there, where they’ll be safe from your whoring!”

I didn’t know what a ‘whore’ was, but I knew exactly which ‘Home’ she was talking about. The gigantic red brick Children’s Home, in Defiance, Ohio. Though I had never been inside, I was very familiar with its’ massive entrance way and white cement steps. We often sat on those steps while visiting three of my cousins who were already there. They had been living there for a year, now, since my Aunt Pearl left them with the babysitter and disappeared to another city with the man who lived downstairs from her. They were about the same age span as we were, and we brought them hand-me-down clothes, and candy, and presents for Christmas. I didn’t think much about them being abandoned in such a place. I, myself, had spent one third of my life in hospitals forty miles away, so I was no stranger to institutionalism, nonetheless, the possibility that my brothers and I might end up there was terrifying.

We never did go back to the house in Brunersburg. We stayed with my mother’s parents, in Defiance for the next few months. We tried to go back and gather up our things, and even tried to spend the night. My mother acted nonchalant about staying in the house after dark, but it was obvious that a shotgun had exploded in the living room. Buckshot wounds bloomed on the linoleum floor, the walls, and especially across the front of the huge fuel-oil stove that sat opposite the couch. So many reminders, so many ghosts. We endured only one dream filled nervous night there, and my mother packed us up, and back to Grampa’s house we went.

Ru Otto is a 75-year old power chair deva, writer and community organizer/resident artist living and working in her studio loft at Artspace Everett Lofts, Everett, WA.

She is a lifelong visual artist and writer, and attended Ohio State University majoring in Art & Education from 1964-1968. She has spent her life traveling the U.S.A., Europe and Spain, visiting and living in rural women-only communities. She spent several years in the Ozarks teaching rural skills at Dragon Women Outpost, a shelter for battered and disabled women.

She was married to Mary Jane Whited for twenty-three years, and widowed two years ago. She has an adult daughter, married with one fourteen- year old grandson who live 20 minutes away. Her eldest daughter lives in St. Augustine, FL.

As she has become less mobile through the years due to the late effects of polio, she has retired her maps and now ambulates the city streets, exclusively, in a Quantum Edge powerchair.

Contact Ru

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by Ru

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher