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The Last Great American Childhood
 
Do you recall the days before color television, PCs and video games? Before microwave ovens cooked our ready-made meals and houses were still heated by stand-alone gas stoves? Can you remember hot summer days spent near water-cooled window units and fresh fruit and veg that came from our own gardens? Yes, there was once a time when children still chased fireflies barefoot on summer eves and read books for entertainment when the cold winds blew through the naked trees of winter. In the 1960s, in a small Texas town called Cisco, there lived three such children. These were the Blessings: Alice, Daniel and Matt.
 
Prologue
Spring 1996
 
     The woman who had once been Alice Blessing walked sadly and somberly through the old house that had been her childhood haven. No furniture remained, leaving the place feeling as lifeless as she had felt since her grandfather’s death two months earlier. The final blow had come upon hearing that the house would be sold, the profit to be shared equally between her mother, aunt and the woman her grandfather had married only months after her grandmother’s death. Though his rapid remarriage had shocked and surprised the entire family, Alice knew that without Margaret, her grandfather would never have outlived her grandmother by nearly 20 years. In those first long weeks on his own, Alice had watched her grandfather begin to deteriorate.
     Margaret hadn't been the only widow to set her sights on Grandpa. There had been two others from the First Baptist Church, which Grandpa had faithfully attended every Sunday morning for as far back as Alice could remember. One of the women – Alice couldn't even recall her name – had been just a bit too old and decrepit even for Grandpa, who was still a young 69 at the time. That one, a good 10 years his senior, had dropped out of the running early on when she saw she wouldn't be able to keep up with the younger competition
     The other had been Annie Wheeler, a teachers' aid from Alice's primary school days. As Alice recalled, Annie had been a flame-haired grouch with thick pop-bottle glasses that magnified her eyes to horror film proportions. To top it all off, those eyes had been overshadowed by equally magnified bright blue painted lids. Alice prayed silently that “Missus” Wheeler did not become her replacement grandmother. Those prayers were soon answered when, indeed, Annie fell swiftly to the wayside to make way for Margaret Bell who blasted in and took over the show.
     In the beginning, Margaret seemed quite meek towards the family. Friendly, gracious and sweet, she would waltz in with delectable home-cooked meals for Grandpa, and in no time, she was doing his laundry and cleaning the house. Like Grandma, she was two years younger than Grandpa, and having been a widow for 30 years, she was an expert on the lonely existence that came after the death of true love. Thirty years alone, it seemed, had finally been enough for Margaret.
     Six months after Grandma was buried, Margaret became the second Mrs. Blessing. And now, the second Mrs. Blessing had outlived the one and only Mr. Blessing, and everyone was up in arms over it. Like Alice, however, they all knew Margaret had sacrificed nearly 20 years of her own life to put up with an old man who at times could be very difficult to live with. And in doing so, she had gifted the family with another 20 years of his presence.
     Shortly before his death, Alice had taken her turn as vigil and spent one night with her grandfather in the hospital in the empty bed beside him. She hadn’t known he had already been sentenced to death, nor did she know when she left the following morning that she would never see him alive again. At his own request, he was a “no resuscitate” patient. His kidneys were failing, and the medication he was given to keep them functioning caused fluid to build up on his heart. Either way, he didn’t stand a chance. Two days later and 235 miles away, Alice received the call that he was gone. The return drive to Cisco had been the longest, hardest journey of her life during which she tried to pretend Grandpa was in the passenger seat saying all would be okay. Several times she had pulled over when the tears became too much. 
     The night before the funeral, the family stayed at the house, and an argument ensued over which music would be played at the funeral. Alice’s aunt wanted Elvis. No one else seemed to have a say, and just as things got heated, there was a sudden BANG on the back door. Everyone jumped, and the room went instantly silent. Alice had been sitting in a chair by the door when it happened. After a moment, she quietly rose, turned on the porch light and opened the door. The air was still, the night silent. Nothing moved in the yard, not even a cat. She shut the door and turned back to see everyone staring at her with pale faces.
     "He's here," she announced.
     Alice knew it had been her grandfather telling everybody to just shut up. Everyone else seemed to feel the same. Not another word was spoken about the funeral music, but the following day, Elvis crooned through the sound system that had been set up for the graveside service. At the end of the service, the coffin was opened for all to parade past and pay their last respects. Alice hated it. They had put Grandpa outside the tent, and in the light of day, he resembled nothing that had ever been alive and human. He was the color of paste with thin, paper-like skin stretched across little more than the bones that had served as the mere foundation of his being. His glasses had been propped up on his nose because that's how everyone was used to seeing him, but now they seemed out of place. Grandpa would never sleep with his glasses on!
     When all was said and done, it was the loss of the family homestead that brought the greatest sorrow to Alice. The house and grounds had been in the family for years; even her own mother had been born within its walls. If the money had been in Alice’s grasp, she would have bought it herself. She knew though that she could never make a living and survive in such a small town. She’d been a city girl with a career for years now.
     The sun was slowly setting and shone through the windows of the house as it had always done during that time of day - bright light in the rooms with windows that looked to the West; soft shadows in those that faced East. She noticed cracks in the walls that had been hidden by various pieces of furniture and curtains for years, but what most surprised her was the haunting emptiness. Though her grandmother had been gone for years, Alice thought she might at least still feel Grandad’s presence moving through the rooms with her. It felt as dead and silent as the cemetery beyond the field where she and her brothers had once flown kites.
     The light was fading quickly now, and she still wanted to walk through the yard and touch the trunks of the pecan trees one more time. It was the beginning of new spring, and the trees were budding. New leaves burst forth from grape vines that once supplied the precious ingredients for Grandma’s jelly and Grandpa’s mad wine. The house had been sold and now belonged to someone else. All would be gone soon.
     This was to be her last visit to the place she had come to know as her retreat. When all the world, all the tribulations of adulthood became too much, this place had been her therapy. She would have given anything to go back in time and relive those younger years. If at the end of her life, she could choose her own personal heaven, those years with her grandparents would be it. Happily, she'd relive them over and over throughout eternity.
     She went out through the back door, carefully locking it behind her. There in the back yard still sat the swing set her grandfather had lovingly welded together for them using pipes and chains. Its gray paint lay worn and rusted in places, and she had to resist the temptation to sit and swing just one more time. How high she used to go! No doubt the new owners would have it hauled away as junk. They'd have no memories, of course, of the laughter and wonderful times spent upon it soaring high above the ground.
     Alice walked to the rust-clad gate that led to the drive, pausing for a moment beneath the old pecan tree she used to climb. There was the limb she used to jump up and grab hold of to swing her legs up and over the trunk. Again, she had to resist temptation. She’d been a tomboy through and through, and trees had been her downfall on more than one occasion.
     She thought of a visit last summer when her grandfather was still alive. It was a warm summer night, and the moon was full. She wanted nothing more than to just sit outside and stare up at the moon, see if she could spot a firefly or two darting in and out of the honeysuckle. After a while, she had given up the hope of seeing any fireflies at all and walked to the end of the drive. Though the moon was bright, she could only see so far across the field that lined the road in front of the house. She saw something move in her peripheral vision and turned. She could just make out a small, dark figure ambling slowly across the front yard towards her. A moment later, another similar figure appeared a few feet behind the first.
     “Here, kitty, kitty,” she called as she began to walk towards the little animals that came to greet her. A moment later, the first figure passed beneath the light of the gas lamp that burned in the front yard. Oh, shit!
     She paused for only an instant as she made one of the most important and impulsive decisions of her life. Faster than a speeding bullet, she bolted down the drive, kicking up gravel higher than she stood. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw that both animals - skunks - were now hot on her heels. She didn’t look back again. In through the gate and into the house she ran, gasping for air.
     She laughed aloud at the memory. Her grandfather and Margaret had laughed when she caught her breath enough to explain. She had laughed then, too, but only when she was safely inside with the doors locked.
     Now she took that last sorrowful walk along the darkened path between the old garage and the wire fence drenched in honeysuckle. As she walked, she ran her hand across the many nails she had hammered into the old weathered boards as a little girl – some bent, some deeply embedded, some perfect. An exercise in futility, she thought. A girl with a hammer, nails and nothing to build.
     And finally, she reached her grandfather’s garage. The floor simply consisted of dirt that had been tread upon so much that it was little more than a fine dust - a haven for doodle bugs who loved to make their little swirly pits in the dirt. It was the first time she’d thought of doodle bugs in years, but it made her smile and cry at the same time. She knew this moment would finally have to arrive, the moment the tears came and would not stop. It was okay. No one would hear her now. She needed to let them out; they had been locked inside for far too long.
     It seemed she cried for the longest time before climbing into her car and starting up the engine. There was one more place she had to go before leaving town, and she could see it in the rearview mirror as she backed the car out of the long, gravel drive.
     It took only a few moments to get to Oakwood Cemetery. She had spent so much time there as a child that she could probably still find the graves of every relative blindfolded - quite a task, as Oakwood was a very big cemetery. As a child, she had spent many a morning and afternoon with her grandmother going to the immediate family plot to keep it tidy. She would play and sometimes help while her grandmother pulled weeds and trimmed rose bushes. On one side of the large granite family stone lay her great grandmother and grandfather and a great uncle, all on her grandmother’s side of the family. On the other side rested her beloved grandmother and grandfather. Since her grandmother’s death when Alice was only 14, she had always paid visits to her grave to “sit and talk.”
    
As she got out of the car now and headed over to the tree that she always sat under, she was all too aware of the pile of dirt that had not yet settled on the new grave, her grandfather’s. This was the first time she’d been back since his funeral, and having two graves to “talk to” now instead of one was a bit daunting. She soon remembered though that these were the folks who had loved and raised her, and in no time, she was chatting away. From a distance, onlookers would have thought her quite mad, but the cemetery was empty with the exception of one red car that was so far away she couldn’t even make out the model. Parkers, she thought. It was getting dark.
     The desolate cry of a cemetery bird broke the silence of the twilight. Why do those damned birds always seem to be only here, she wondered. They were blackbirds, of course, but she had always thought of them as “cemetery” birds. The tea roses that her grandmother had planted a lifetime ago were budding. Soon the pale pink petals would open, but no one would be there in the autumn to cut them back. They would be left to their own devices now, as Alice, too, had been since February. She looked out across the field and back at the house as she said her last goodbyes on the gentle breeze that rustled through the oaks and cedars and elms.
     The sun was gone as she drove threw the sleepy, little Texas town. As she passed the city limit sign, she cried the very last tears for the death of a childhood that had been as happy and rich and full of wonder as any childhood had ever been.
 
Chapter 1: Three Little Blessings
Kite Season, 1966
 
     Still hung over from the long winter just passing, the field beyond the house stood its vigil uniformed in varying shades of brown and gold. The sun above, however, shone with the glad brightness of heaven, and the wind blew spectacularly on a mid-March day that would guarantee glory for even the most amateur of kite flyers.
     Three children – the last generation whose childhoods would never be tarnished by video games, home computers and DVDs – played merrily with their new kites in the field that divided the living from the dead in a cemetery that had existed longer than the town. Behind the cemetery ran the railroad track and, in the distance, barren hills of gold speckled with the black outlines of skeletal trees and meandering cattle dotted the landscape. Spring would soon arrive bringing with it the lush greens that had been lost to the land for months.
     The echoes of the children’s laughter floated away on the wind and were carried back to a well-loved grandmother who hung fresh clothes on a homemade wire line. In fact, just about everything outside that was usable had been proudly created by Grandpa Blessing, the Michaelangelo of welders. From the swing set to the garden chairs and picnic table to the BBQ pit made from an old oil barrel, Grandpa Blessing had done it all.
     Grandpa Blessing was a handsome man of 58. When he was outdoors, you would always find him wearing a cap of some sort, either to hide or protect his bald head. His nose was quite big, which he always attributed to one of his younger brothers who used to “poke” Grandpa's nose when they were growing up. Grandpa was concerned with his appearance and kept Grecian on his mustache and the bit of hair he still had left around his head. His eyes shone clear and blue through the lenses of his glasses, and with the exception of a partial plate, he still had most of his own teeth.
     In the adjoining field, he now ambled along briskly while his most prized possession, the “best bird dog in the county,” ran free sniffing out rabbits and quail and dove. She was a Brittany Spaniel named Alice. Grandpa Blessing had named her Alice after his beloved granddaughter, the oldest of the children now flying kites in the field beyond. He loved the dog almost as much as he loved the little girl.
     There were three houses facing the dirt road that ran between the field and the little town of Cisco. The first one was the Blessing house. A gravel drive ran between the storm cellar and house on one side and an orchard of pecan trees, grapes and various fruit trees on the other. This place had become a haven for three lost children.
     Great piles of fresh, dark dirt – leftovers from the cemetery - dotted the field where Alice and her two younger brothers played. The children had known this place all their short lives, and the cemetery had become a playground rather than a place of sorrow to be feared.
     With hair pulled up in a pony tail, Alice Blessing stood atop the greatest of the piles and stared up with her grandfather's blue eyes at the black, plastic bat kite that dived and darted on the wind high above. Slowly, she unwound the string and let it slide loosely through her fingers, watching the kite rise higher and higher. Her younger brothers, Daniel and Matt, had given up, their kites lying forgotten like broken toys on the desolate field as they now turned their attention to war games. Great clumps of dirt flew back and forth through the air, sometimes hitting their targets, but mostly missing. The bath water would most certainly be dirty tonight.
With white hair blowing in the wind, Grandma Blessing carried the empty clothes basket into the house and started a simple but hearty lunch of tomato soup and cheese sandwiches. Her life was lived to care for her husband and grandchildren, and she would have had it no other way. She was tough when she had to be, but beneath it all was a woman whose love was great and a heart as big as Texas.
     Grandpa Blessing called to his dog and headed for the house. “Alice!” he shouted toward the children, into the wind. “Get the boys and get washed up for lunch.”
     “In a minute,” Alice called back. But Grandpa Blessing didn’t hear the words as he walked across the road with his back to the field. He was keeping an eye on Alice the dog.
     Meanwhile, Alice the girl had spotted a patch of water in the ditch along the road, remnants of the gulley washer that had come two days before. Previous experience had taught her that there was probably something interesting in that water...a tadpole or two at the very least. She looked over at Daniel and Matt who were oblivious to everything but their current game of dirt-flinging and decided she would explore a little further.
     She crouched down beside the dark water that stood still except for the little ripples caused by the wind and stared with the eye of a mad scientist into its depths. There! She had seen something move; she was sure of it. And there again! She got down on her knees, not caring for one moment about the mud that soaked through her corduroys, and peered closer. She could see something moving very slowly, but she still couldn't make out what it was. Dare she reach in and grab it? She did not hesitate.
     As her hand came out of the water, she saw that she held the biggest crayfish she had ever seen. It's legs moved methodically as she held on for dear life, but she wasn't afraid. Not Alice! At that moment, Daniel and Matt ran up. “What is it?!” Daniel asked excitedly.
     “Can't you see, stupid? It's a crawdaddy.” Alice stood victoriously and pushed the creature into Daniel's face. He jumped back with a little howl, almost tripping over Matt, the youngest and smallest of the three.
     “What are you gonna do with it?” he asked. Alice enjoyed the fear that flashed in his eyes as she stepped toward him again. “I'm going to show it to Grandma,” she said defiantly.
     They marched, single file, back to the house with Alice leading the way. As they approached the back gate, Alice made the decision to surprise her grandmother and turned abruptly on the boys. “Through the front door. I don't want them to see it yet. I have an idea.”
     “Shhhhhh,” she said over her shoulder to the boys as she quietly opened the door. “Don't you let it slam, Matt!”
     They could hear Grandpa and Grandma in the kitchen chattering away. Daniel and Matt followed Alice into the bathroom, to the big, white porcelain tub. She motioned to Daniel to shut the door.
     “What are you doing?” he asked. “I thought you were going to show them.”
     “Just hush your horses!” Alice whispered. She put the plug into the drain and ever so quietly turned the cold water on. It was little more than a trickle. The crayfish was wiggling wildly in her hand now, and she set it down into the little stream of water that poured from the spout and turned to snicker at her little brothers. Their eyes were as big as saucers, and Daniel pointed toward the tub.
     “Look!”
     Alice turned back to the tub in time to see hundreds, or was it thousands, of tiny little creatures dispersing into the water. She screamed. Matt screamed. They all ran from the bathroom in time to be caught in Grandms Blessing's arms.
     “Goodness gracious, what's going on?” she asked peering beyond the children into the bathroom. They couldn't answer. They didn't know. “Stand aside,” she said firmly. The children parted as she made her way to the tub. A few moments passed while she stared into the water, and then she let out the biggest, longest belly laugh the children had ever heard. “Grandpa, come here and see what these kids have done now.”
     It took a moment for it to register, but then Grandpa Blessing joined in the laughter. “Alice, Daniel, Matt, come here,” he commanded.
     The children slowly ambled over to their grandfather. “Do you see all those little things swimming around in the water?” The children nodded their heads, fearing they were in big trouble. “They're babies. Didn't you see them or feel them when you were carrying her around?” The boys remained motionless while Alice shook her head, instantly giving away that she had been the instigator in this latest plan.
     Grandma leaned over the tub and pulled the plug out of the drain. “Well, there's nothing we can do now,” she said. “Can't possibly catch them all. She'll just have to start over again.”
     The three little Blessings watched as the little crayfish went down the drain in droves. Grandpa Blessing picked up the mother crayfish and handed it to Alice. “There you go, darling. The three of you take her back where you found her, and be sure to tell her you're sorry.”
     Single file, they departed the house as they had arrived, with Alice leading the parade. As she knelt down and released the crayfish back into the water, Daniel gave her a little shove, almost knocking her in. “I bet we're going to end up paying big for this,” he said angrily.
     Alice rose, still staring at the water. The mother crayfish had disappeared once again into the murky depths. “No,” she said. “They know it was me.” She pointed into the water, “And she knows it was me, too. I'll be the one thinking about all those dead babies tonight when I'm trying to fall asleep.”
     Alice Blessing was wise beyond her age. She knew this was just another of those life lessons her grandmother so often spoke of. One thing was sure though - she'd never stick her hand into those waters again. Mama Crawdaddy would be waiting for her revenge!