|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
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With Love from Karen
By Marie Killilea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1963 Marie Killilea
All rights reserved.
The house was spacious and shabby and it had that air of pitiful loneliness peculiar to neglected houses built almost a century ago. It was elevated above its neighbors, set cater-corner on a plot hedged in by high, untrimmed privet. Its three stories were topped by two chimneys and an assortment of cupolas. Around it great oaks, elms and maples stood protectively, helping to preserve the dignity of the Victorian era when houses were built in which children could romp or curl up on window seats on a rainy afternoon. There was a wide porch around the bay front, and a story above, a widow's walk from which one could scan the shore of Long Island, five miles across the Sound, and pick out Execution Light, that infamous Tory prison of Revolutionary days, standing harsh and solitary on its island of rock.
A small breeze brought us the smell of salt and whispered among the still leaves of rhododendron and laurel. High above seagulls swirled and floated like lazy snowflakes.
This was the end of years of searching for a house that offered all we wanted in a home — proximity to the water, trees, a porch, ten large rooms, a farm kitchen complete with coal stove, fireplaces and, most important of all, a room on the ground floor with its own private entrance and bath for our twelve year old daughter, Karen.
We stood gazing with varied emotions at the dingy, peeling façade. Karen, who has cerebral palsy, balancing on her crutches, leaning a little against the side of Shanty, her big red Irish Setter. "We" also included: my husband, Jimmy, our adopted twenty-two year old daughter, Gloria, a friend, Russ Lea, our fifteen-year old Marie, Joe Bardinella, slender, handsome, just a year older than Marie, and our son Rory, a mercurial seven.
Looking back I marvel that our gratification, anticipation and excitement were undimmed by the enormous job of repair and restoration that faced us, for our hideously beautiful (well-mortgaged) house had been undisturbed by workman or painter for many, many years and our present financial state dictated that we should do most of the work ourselves. Perhaps our placid acceptance of the situation stemmed from the fact that we had always done our own painting, papering and plumbing, and our children had practically been weaned on paint brushes and turpentine. Our friends Russ and Joe had started later but were quickly trained and had become invaluable. Russ, a towering six feet three inches, was ideal for hanging wallpaper, while Joe painted expertly and was equally valuable when I needed advice on design and color. So, for that matter, was Rory.
In September we installed our equipment, donned what was to be our uniform for the next three and a half months — sneakers, old dungarees, old shirts, painters' caps, and began work. Word of our mad purchase was noised about and friends dropped in to gawk with mingled awe and amazement. We proudly showed the plot plans for the house, signed by one Frank E. Towle, dated, August 1873, at which time there were only 36 states in the Union. The country was then in the throes of Reconstruction; the telephone had not yet been invented; and 14 million buffalo still roamed the Plain States.
In all these years, there had been only three changes of ownership, and we discovered that one summer Mary Pickford had lived in it.
A few people with vision enthused over "possibilities"; others were guarded in their remarks. One friend, who loved us especially, walked through the house in what rapidly became a somnambulistic state. She positively blanched at the festoons of wires, like a Rube Goldberg contraption, that reached all sections of the kitchen from one outlet set directly in the middle of the ceiling. She grew glummer and glummer as she proceeded from one stained dark brown room to the next. (I think originally, say a quarter of a century ago, they had been "buff.") To distract herself from the depressing dinginess she walked to a window to find solace in the view but quickly withdrew as she saw that the putty had broken off around the panes and the frames were weather-rotted. She was appalled by the plumbing which did not boast one foot of copper and positively staggered when she discovered one bathroom had a deep tin tub, painted a violent blue and set in wainscoting, and a toilet with a water box hanging on the wall like a metastasized mushroom, eight feet above the floor. What she couldn't know was that both were to become a status symbol for our seven-year old for no child in the neighborhood (and very few adults) had ever seen the like. This was too much for our friend and she left us in tears. Her letter the following week said in part: "I know Jim Meighan, who is an authority on real estate, says the worst house on the block is a good investment, but did you have to buy the worst house in Westchester?"
I felt I should take time from painting, and everything needed three coats, to write a condolence letter in which I assured her that before we bought the house we had Morford Downes, builder extraordinary, go over every inch. He examined it from cellar to attic and at intervals jabbed an evil-looking penknife into the wood in the most obscure places. I assured my friend that Morf had found the house sound and sturdy and if we decided not to buy it, he would — as an investment.
I think the Smithsonian Institute would have been interested in the furnace. It was hard to find a heating engineer who was. As the weather grew colder and repairs to the furnace were proceeding at a lame snail's pace, we added to our uniforms woolen underwear, socks, heavy sweaters, gloves and ski caps with ear flaps. How lucky we were, we told each other through chattering teeth, to have the fireplaces and the coal stove.
Early in December, we dismantled our scaffolding, collected our paint cans, cleaned our brushes, capped our turpentine and paste, burned tons of newspaper, washed fifty-nine windows, scraped the last of the plaster drippings off the floors, cleaned from attic to cellar, started the furnace — kept it going — lost of chilblains, borrowed Sherburne's truck and moved in.
The pulsing beauty of the carillon, spilled over water, rocks, trees, roof tops, and rose to melt the cold, dark stillness stretched tightly above:
"Joy To The World!"
Happily, Russ, on leave from the Air Force, could be with us this Christmas Eve. He and Jimmy were hanging the tiny ornament at the top of the tree while Glo, Marie, Joe and Rory strung tinsel through the wide lower branches. Karen, using Shanty as a back rest, sat on the floor surrounded by more than a dozen large boxes from which she carefully took the ornaments and unwrapped them.
I glanced at the clock and sent Rory, protesting, to get ready for bed.
When he was pajama-d he came back into the living room for night prayers. I went to the crèche and picked up a lamb. It was Rory's. According to the virtue displayed during the day, the lamb advanced to the stable, it being my son's pious hope to be good enough to have his lamb by the manger on Christmas Eve. "Well — you've made it," I told him, placing the figure and banishing any doubts I might in justice entertain. Rory cheered in most unliturgical glee and Karen praised him with all the patronage of her twelve years.
All of us knelt in front of the crèche and prayed for relatives, benefactors, friends and enemies. Rory extended the recital: "God bless all Americans and make them good so if a bomb comes — pfft! they'll go right to Heaven."
The younger children were bedded down with visions of holsters dancing in at least one head and Joe, Russ, Glo, Jimmy and I finished the tree. It was twelve feet tall and we had placed it in the five-windowed bay. As I hung the last ornament Jimmy turned off the lamps and Russ plugged in the tree lights. Brilliance was multiplied by the window panes and flung into the night.
I took Jimmy's hand. "It's the most beautiful ever."
"You say that every year," he chided kissing me. "But this year I think you're right."
The ornaments seemed to dance liquidly in the shimmering rays from lights and silver.
Jimmy assigned everyone a closet or nooks and crannies in the cellar and we prospected for the packages that had been buried for weeks. Karen's were wrapped in blue paper, Rory's in red, Glo's in green and Marie's in white. When the last parcel had been added to the tottering heaps, we placed in front a most special present — the work of all the family save Karen, for it was for her. We had gotten her new crutches and although the wood was lovely we decided to make them feminine. In secrecy and stealth they had been painted and designed and initialled and varnished, and they were pretty and dainty and lady-like.
"Let's open our presents now," Gloria jumped up and began extracating parcels from the tops of things where they'd been safe from Rory. She had fixed a stocking for Jimmy and me. There were all kinds of treasures, lipstick, perfume, silver pen for Jimmy and delightfully silly things. Jimmy was down to the toe of his and pulled out a small flat package.
"It looks like three match books wrapped up," I observed.
Jimmy undid the wrapping and there were two tickets to a Broadway show and hotel reservations for a week-end in New York City. I was so happy that of course I wept. Not only because we hadn't had a week-end or a show in years, but because I knew how much loving and going without had gone into this gift.
"Thank you, Gloria," Jimmy said huskily as he kissed her.
"Thank you — again," I hugged her. The "again" was for all the selfless, loving things she had done for all of us since she became our daughter at the age of fifteen. I watched her as she undid her gifts — her eyes, now blue, now green, her swift smile and deep dimples. She was slender, dainty, beautiful, good. "Thank you," I whispered to the Child in the manger. "But then, I have so much to be thankful for."
Russ and Joe had left and Gloria had gone to bed. Jimmy and I sat admiring the tree and our decorative efforts. It occurred to me that we probably used more boughs, pine cones and Christmas ceramics than anyone but Macy's.
This Christmas we had to count a veritable flood of blessings.
We had our house.
Russ had gotten home for Christmas.
No one was in the hospital.
Marie and Gloria, thanks to Dr. Grundy's treatment of their asthma, could now sleep in bed from May to October instead of upright in chairs so they could breathe.
We didn't owe one doctor's bill for the first time in twelve years. "Te Deum laudamus" I muttered cringing at the memory of our financial burdens and marvelling that Jimmy had kept his sanity and his sweetness and his patience.
Karen, a book I had written about our family had been published and become a best seller.
Jimmy stretched and failed to conceal a wide yawn. "Time for bed, Sweetheart, your son will have us up before the stars have set."
"I'll be along shortly."
He kissed me. "Be sure it's shortly, you look exhausted."
The cold stillness of the night was warmed by the vibrant sweetness of church bells heralding the Hour of Birth. I thought of previous Christmases and the twelve difficult years that lay between — the years after we found out that Karen was born with cerebral palsy. Years when she couldn't sit, crawl or stand, and had very limited use of her hands. Years of searching for help, of hope and its annihilation; of near despair; of hope surging again and finally a line of action. In the last nine years Karen had averaged six hours of therapy a day of one kind or another. Wearing braces and using crutches she could now walk, albeit very slowly and with difficulty. She could use her hands moderately well and was advancing in reading, writing and arithmetic with a teacher who came to the house several times a week.
So many problems had been solved, so many heartaches eased.
But our life was like the summer's sea — its shimmering surface radiated warmth and brilliance, yet below the surface it was dark and cold and there were some fearful unknowns. We now faced unpredicted and seemingly unanswerable difficulties and the light of Karen's greatest victories was quenched by failure.
When first we had tried to enroll Karen in school, we had been told: "We cannot take her because she cannot walk." Now she was walking, and doing well in her studies with a home teacher sent by the public school. With but small uncertainty I again went to enroll her. Public, private, parochial — none denied her fine intelligence — but all rejected her. Their reasons were varied and in some instances a ludicrous deceit, for the truth was they wanted only children sounder of limb.
Attending regular school had been Karen's major motivation during these years of superhuman effort toward physical improvement. She had conquered — to fail. School represented a normal way of life in association with her peers, and sufficient teaching hours to appease the appetite of her intellect. She was consistently denied.
Her dark discouragement in the face of this defeat was heartbreaking but I had felt that more hours of home teaching would lighten it some. Supported by the report of her teacher, that Karen could profit greatly by additional instruction time, and that he had the time to give, I had appealed repeatedly to our Superintendent of Schools and our local Board of Education. There were in existence the legal statutes enabling them to grant my petition. The last time I had gone to the Board meeting to renew my request, one of the women members had asked: "Are you pleased with Karen's present teacher?"
"You know I am. I have so stated time and time again."
"You wouldn't want more time with a less able teacher, would you?"
It wasn't even a concealed threat.
We had thought nothing could dim the brightness of our happiness when Karen had conquered so many of the difficulties with which she was born. We had not reckoned with the unknown. As a young child her hips had been x-rayed. The plates showed them to be perfectly normal. Now both were dislocated and there was good reason to believe that this could have been avoided if certain medical procedures had been followed.
Present problems were numerous. She endured being thirsty a good deal of the time for Dr. Temple Fay had limited her to nineteen fluid ounces a day. We found that this reduced her spasticity about thirty percent. In addition to this discomfort she had running pressure sores from the braces. Twice a week we took a fifty-mile drive for adjustments but it seemed that pressure could not be relieved on one spot without starting it on another. Since she wore braces all night as well as during the day, her sleep was constantly interrupted. Recently we had been applying tincture of benzoin to toughen the skin and this seemed to be helping. But sores were not all that plagued her days and nights. She had muscle spasms that were excruciating in their intensity. During the day I knew when one started because I could see the sweat break out on her forehead and her face grow pale. And yet, she never complained. A large statement — of a large truth.
I rose slowly and turned off the gas fire. Uppermost in my mind was a question that beat unceasingly against every waking hour — where do we go from here?
I went to extinguish the candles burning in the windows and beside the crèche. I addressed myself to the three central figures. "And lest I become obsessed by Karen's problems, it has been arranged that at this time Jimmy should develop a severe hearing loss, and Gloria should face the anguish of a problem that seems beyond resolution. She's so gay that no one suspects, and yet her heartache is constant." I extinguished one candle. In the remaining flicker of light, the Babe's eyes seemed to be closed in the sweet sleep of infancy. "Help them all," I pleaded, "and I might respectfully remind You, it is seven Christmases that we have been waiting for another child."
I snuffed out the last candle. "Fear not ?" had been the angels' greeting the first Christmas. In the darkness I couldn't see the figure. But I knew He was there.
Excerpted from With Love from Karen by Marie Killilea. Copyright © 1963 Marie Killilea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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