I didn't grow up thinking that my dad could beat any other dad on the whole block, a claim often made by adoring yet naive offspring. I only knew he was the best. I wanted to be just like him. So, in a kind of education by osmosis, I absorbed the values he deemed essential in the absolute development of the human character. One of the most significant of these was a sense of personal initiative.
" "So-and-So' has a lot of initiative," he'd say. "It'll take him a long way in this world." And I grew up not quite knowing what initiative meant, but positively believing that if I wanted to be like "so-and-so" and go a long way in this world, I had better do as he had done and develop a lot of initiative. The full impact of Dad's philosophy did not really get through to me, however, until our family suffered a crisis the summer I turned 13.
My sister June, several years younger than I, had become ill with rheumatic fever and my mother, her hands full with the care of her younger daughter, was no longer able to give me the attention she previously had. I felt abandoned. I missed the many occasions when she would read the stories I'd written, praising a word here, a sentence there, and suggesting where I might improve a passage or two. It had all stopped with the illness of my sister and I could do nothing but wait for her to recover for a return to the status quo. Toward this end I prayed daily and as each passing week saw June no better, I threw in the rider that if God wanted to cure her suddenly, such as in an overnight miracle, that was all right with me. He could do it that way.
One Saturday morning I came in from playing outdoors and shouted out the good news, "Mom, I'm home!" And my mother's voice answered. "In Junie's room, dear."
I trudged up the stairs and down to the sickroom where I stood in the doorway watching my mother give June her medicine.
"Hi Mom," I said, and then, with some reluctance, I said hello to June. Forlornly, and surreptitiously, I inspected my sister through the fringe of my bangs _ too long now since mom had not had time to cut them _ and I saw no sign of the miracle I'd been praying for. She looked as sick as ever.
And then I saw my writing table. "Mom," I groaned, "what's my desk doing in here?" Mom tucked the medicine bottle carefully into her pocket and said, "I needed something just this size for Junie's wash basin and her toilet things. It'll save me countless trips to the bathroom if everything she needs is right here. Don't worry, dear, I'll put it back once Junie's well again. Now, sit and visit with your sister while I fix some lunch."
I didn't know what to say to this sister who had disrupted my life and now had taken over even my desk. Then I thought of the game "Do you Believe?," a contest in which each player tries to outdo her opponent by topping the incredulity of the other's example. I tossed off a few to give June the hang of it: "Do you believe that if you look cross-eyed you'll kiss a fool?" and "Do you believe the stuff inside a golf ball is the same stuff that's inside you'?" Junie caught on very quickly. "Do you believe that on the last day of the world, the water in Lake Ontario is going to turn to blood and all the sinners in Toronto and Buffalo (we lived in Toronto) will have to swim in it?"
My mouth agape, I floundered with this gruesome first effort from my little sister but was saved from having to top it by mother who came in just then with June's lunch. "I'll sit with Junie while she eats, dear, and I'd like you to go downstairs and put those parcels in the hall out on the porch. The people from the Salvation Army store will be picking them up. I hope I haven't forgotten anything'." She looked around distractedly and when her eyes fell on me, I took an involuntary step backward. "No," she said, "I guess not. Just put those things out for me dear, and your sandwiches and milk are on the kitchen counter." I went downstairs, put the parcels on the porch and then took my lunch out and, sitting on the top step, ate by myself.
As I munched the last bite my dad pulled into the driveway and I tore down the steps to meet him. "How's my girl?" he cried, swooping me up to his chest in a bear hug. "Dad, can I talk to you before you go into the house?" I asked.
"Yes, of course; what's up Jo?" and he sat on the bottom step while I perched timidly on the top one. I didn't know quite what I was going to say to him now that I had his attention and so I stumbled in with,
"I hate having June sick!"
He looked at me somberly and saids "We all do."
"Me, most of all," I mumbled, and started to cry. He reached an arm up and drew me down beside him and I knew instinctively that he sensed my special disappointment.
"I know it's hard on you not having much of your mother's attention right now but Junie has been very sick and needs more care than you do. Once she's better, things will get back to normal. We'll just have to do our best until then."
"Well, did Mom have to move my writing table to June's room? Couldn't she have found a table somewhere else? How am I supposed to write my stories if I don't have a place to write? Not that mom has time to read them anymore," I threw in for good measure. "I can't use the dining room table because the sewing machine's on it. Mom's making Junie some hospital nightgowns. I can't use the kitchen table because it's covered with things she's fixing for Junie's special diet. There isn't anyplace I can write anymore." And I wailed in frustration.
"That's not true," my dad countered. "You're expecting somebody else to provide you with a place to write. If you really wanted to, you'd find a place on your own. Don't give yourself the excuse that you have to have certain conditions in order to write."
I sniffed and made a swipe at my wet cheeks with the back of my hand.
"I've known people who said they could write a novel if only they lived in a big city or in a small village or up in the Adirondacks or down in Key Largo. It's a lot of nonsense. If they did manage to get to any of their ideal settings, they'd find some other excuse not to write."
As he spoke, I thought of something I'd heard my parents discuss from time to time, my dad's failure to finish the law degree he'd begun before going off to war. "How come you never went back to university?" I asked, figuring I had him.
"Well, perhaps I'm guilty of the same trap I'm warning you against. I made excuses for myself. I had a wife and child, and then another when June came along; I was doing well enough where I was working in the background of a law concern; if I went back to school it would work hardship on all of us, and so on. Before long, I became reconciled to things the way they were. I lost my initiative." And cupping my chin in his hands he looked at me sadly and said, "I told myself I had no place to write."
I wanted to cry again, this time for him.
"You know, Jo, you're just a little girl with a whole lifetime ahead of you. You're developing habits now that you'll keep for the rest of your life. Make sure they're the right ones. A little inconvenience and even hardship never hurt any writer. Junie will get better with time, and if you really want to write, you'll find a place to do it." He was right. She did. I did too.
Joan Rutledge, 73, a retired Canadian school teacher, is now a freelance writer living in Clearwater.