Sneak Life By Pamela A. Karanova
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” – Anne Lamott.
I grew up in a small town in Iowa called Cedar Rapids otherwise known as “The City of Five Smells.” Burnt corn, stale, rotten garbage, and overcooked oatmeal are combined to make a nasty stench that covers the city. I will never forget that smell! It’s the home of the largest cereal plants in the world, General Mills and Quaker Oats. Cedar Rapids is also known for being the largest corn producing city in the world. I remember wonderful parks where I spent a lot of my childhood.
In the summer of 1979, on a hot and humid morning, my five-year-old self moped down the creaky wooden stairs somberly to the living room in the big grey house on 13th street. My hair was a sandy blonde, messy from just waking up. It was 7 AM on a Saturday, and everyone was still asleep. It was quite and peaceful for a change.
I always went to bed at night before everyone else and seemed to get sleepy earlier than your average kid. This allowed me to get up earlier most of the time while everyone else was sleeping soundly. This was a magnificent thing because I could watch a few minutes of Saturday morning cartoons, which was rare. If I was lucky, I could also sneak outside for a little bit of freedom.
The living-room coffee table overflowed with papers, pill containers, magazines, and old and half-filled empty Pepsi cola bottles. Old newspapers, mail, coupons that needed cut, and magazines took up half the couch, and clutter surrounded the area allowing for a tiny sitting space—a full cigarette ashtray sat waiting to be emptied. Boston ferns hung in front of the windows, in desperate need of watering.
I walked into the kitchen to find the usual clutter, dirty dishes piled up and old food, and junk covering the countertops. The garbage was overflowing with a stinky odor filtrating the morning air coming through the windows. Full eight packs of Pepsi bottles lined the baseboard along one wall for my mom’s pleasure. On the other side of the wall sat the empty bottles of Pepsi that I would walk up to the 7-11 gas station to trade with a note from my mom. The gas station would return .10 cents for each empty bottle taken back. The note would say, “Please allow my daughter to trade two eight packs of empty Pepsi bottles for one pack of Marlboro Light 100s. Thank you!”
I will never forget my five-year-old self walking up 13th street carrying two eight-backs of empty Pepsi bottles. They were heavy, and I was alone, but I was brave and didn’t scare easily. I would stop and take breaks when I needed to. It was about a five-block walk. I would get Patricia her pack of cigarettes with the note and walk back home. We didn’t have enough money for a car, so walking or taking the city bus was a regular event.
To enjoy the rare luxury of watching Saturday morning cartoons, I managed to jump up on the counter to grab a bowl to enjoy some cereal before everyone else woke up. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the good kind with sugar; it was plain cheerios or wheat crisps. But, of course, I had no problems finding the sugar and pouring as much as I wanted into the bowl.
The big grey house was where some of my first childhood memories were. I lived here with my mom, Patricia, and my sister, Melanie, until approximately 9. Both Patricia and Melanie were night owls, and I was the opposite. I was known as the sleepy head of the family and didn’t appreciate late nights and sleeping half the day away. It was a regular occurrence that dinner not be served until 9 or 10 PM if it was served at all. I got sleepy most of the time and wandered off to bed without eating dinner because it never seemed to be ready at the usual dinner time. It wasn’t odd to me because it was all I knew. This was just the way it was.
I don’t have any memories of my parents being together, but I believe that’s because they divorced when I was one year old. My sister, Melanie, was 11 months older than me, so we were almost like having twins. I do have one photo of my parents being together before the divorce. When I look at the photo, it’s hard for me to believe that they would divorce less than a year after the photo was taken, and that was the end of their marriage. Why would a marriage only last a year or two?
After the divorce, my dad, Thomas, moved over an hour away to Dunkerton, Iowa. He remarried my stepmom, Laura. Laura had three sons of her own, named Mark, Max, and Mike. We saw them every other weekend, on some holidays, and for a summer vacation. My sister, Melanie, and I stayed with Patricia full time between the visits with our dad.
Patricia was 33 years old, and she had brown hair and she stood about 5’1 tall. She was going to school to be a Registered Nurse and this was a lifelong dream of hers. She loved soap operas, watching figure skating, and lavender smells, and her favorite color was blue. She enjoyed baking holiday treats and having her family over for festivities. She also loved plants and flowers. She was single as long as I knew her. She would read us bible devotionals and take us to church on occasion. Patricia wanted to be the center of everything, and in all conversations she had with people, she was the dominator so she could be the center of attention.
She didn’t work the earlier part of my life, but instead, we received public assistance, food stamps, welfare, and child support from my dad to make it by. Things were always tight, and we never had extra money for anything other than the basic needs.
The house on 13th street was rented to us with Title-19, a program for families to receive assistance with their rent. I’m confident that’s the only way we could afford to live at this house because it was gigantic and it had to be expensive, especially for someone not working. However, even as big as the house was, it only had two bedrooms, so Melanie and I shared a room.
Polk Elementary School was two blocks away. So if we came out of or front or side door and turned left, we walked straight down the alley two blocks and ran into the school playground. I was not too fond of school, and I never did well in it.
If we came out of our front door and turned right, made another right at the stop sign, and walked about five blocks down, we ran into Helen and Leo’s house. Helen was an 81-year-old lady who used to babysit us while Patricia was in school to get her nursing degree. Leo was 92, and he was Helen’s husband. So we spent a lot of time at Helen and Leo’s.
Their house was old, musty, and dark. However, the backyard did have a swing set, and we were on it as much as possible. The basement was better known as the “Dog house!” and we spent much time there. What would get us thrown in the dog house? Being rowdy, rambunctious, not listening, or misbehaving in some way. And sometimes, nothing would get us sent to the dog house; we were just ordered to go!
The doghouse was filled with old books, unfinished rooms, and an old school laundry room, and it felt like doom. The floor was concrete and cold. Leo made a habit of seeing me and kicking me in my ass and shouting, “little bastard!” This was followed by a mumble of “get out of my way!” It was no secret that Leo was grumpy, and we needed to stay out of his way. He would send me straight to the dog house if I didn’t move quick enough or if I crossed his path. Thankfully he was just a mean old man and not a dirty, mean old man.
Helen was about her business. She wasn’t warm or grandma-like, as you would think. Sometimes she would forget we were down in the dog house, so we would stay for a long time. We better not come out of the dog house without being excused first. And sometimes, Patricia would leave us at Leo and Helen’s overnight or for several days at a time. So Helen would put blankets on the living room floor, where we would sleep until Patricia eventually made the call for Helen to send us to walk home. Patricia was supposed to pay Helen for babysitting us, but she rarely gave her the money she was owed, and she still kept sending us anyway.
We passed several houses with Dobermann Pinschers chained to the front porch as we walked back and forth. That was the primary way to secure your home and belongings when I was coming up. I will never forget walking the five blocks back home from Helen’s, and one particular day a man called us to his car window. We walked over, and he was sitting naked, masturbating himself. I was with a cousin at the time, and we both screamed and took off running all the way home to the big grey house on 13th street. We told Patricia and the cops were called to the car where the gross man was.
Patricia slept a lot, and she was always taking naps. I didn’t know what depression or mental illness was as a child, but I do now. She was severely depressed due to the divorce, and she felt like a failure as a parent. She would sleep late in the day most days because she stayed up late at night. During school days, I remember waking myself up and getting myself ready for school most days while she slept half of the day away. Anytime she took naps in the day or evening, it was a perfect opportunity for me to sneak off and run wild; it was my way of life!
My Saturday morning cereal and cartoons were an unusual treat in the big grey house. Sometimes I would put clothes on and sneak outside to play until I heard the dreaded yell. Being outside was a great escape for me, and I would try to sneak out as much as possible. I would do wild and crazy things because I was a daredevil. I would climb trees to the top and climb on the rooftops to hang out. I was a tomboy and grew up feeling invincible.
I have memories of all the neighborhood kids daring me to jump off the roof of the big porch of the grey house and jump down to the ground when Patricia was gone one day. But, of course, I wasn’t scared, and I did it with great pride. I almost felt like I should have won an award for being so brave, but several claps followed by hemming and hawing from all my friends would do.
Of course, I was not supposed to be outside when Patricia was gone; however, sneaking outside was a full-time job for me from a very early age. I was the queen of sneak. But it was all over as soon as she came back home, and I would hear her shout out the front door, “Pammy, get back in this house!” I knew I would get in trouble, but I didn’t care, so I pretended I didn’t hear her. I continued to sneak anyway, proudly.
I would hear her yell again a short time later, but I would ride every second of freedom out to the fullest. I didn’t want to go back inside because I knew I would never be allowed to come back outside again. Sneaking was the only option for me. Finally, after hearing Patricia yell for me a second and sometimes a third time, I would mope back inside with a sorrowful aura about myself. The escape to freedom was over. But make no mistakes, I was already planning my next escape adventure!
But for now, onto the constant and never-ending task of catering to and caring for Patricia. “You know better than to go outside without permission!” yelled Patricia. The reality was that I could never go outside, even with permission. This is why I made a run for it any chance I could! Getting in trouble was worth it to get out of the house for a short time.
I remember walking up to First Avenue to fetch Patricia’s medications from the pharmacy many times as a little girl. As young as six years old, I would cross the busiest street in the city. I guess Patricia’s medications were that important, and it was my job to make sure she didn’t run out of them. One particular day, I was walking home, and my classmate Manuel Gonzales came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I walked to the pharmacy to pick up my mom’s medication. He asked me to give him one of the pills, and I did.
He wandered off, and I was stopped by a police car within a few minutes. The officer got out and asked me my name and where I lived. I told him my name was Pamela, and I pointed down the street, and he proceeded to ask me to get in his car so he could take me home. I didn’t understand why; however, Manual ran straight over to the fire department a block down the road and let them know I had given him a pill and that I was walking home with them now.
We pulled up at the big grey house, and I knew I would get into trouble giving Manual one of Patricia’s pills. The police officer called Patricia to the door and handed her the medication bag. He scolded her for allowing me to cross the busiest street in the city at my age, and he strongly disagreed with her having me pick up her medications at that age. He also said I was carrying the narcotic diazepam, otherwise known as Valiums. The cops gave her a warning, and my ass was grass once they left. That was the last time I ever walked to pick up Patricia’s medications.
When I didn’t have school, as soon as Patricia was awake for the day, it was time for me to get busy. She created a chore chart the size of a 22×28-inch poster board. Each entry of a chore was a 1/4 of an inch, and the poster board was full of chores. From top to bottom! A few of the tasks were everyday chores most kids can relate to doing, like taking the trash out and making your bed up. Others were strange things like rubbing and massaging Patricia’s back, feet, and legs using lotion, running her bathwater, brushing her hair, and making her bed up. She made me give her enemas while she lay on the bathroom floor, and she would also make me pop all her pimples. Talk about disgusting. Were other kids doing this, I wondered?
In addition, she wanted us to cut coupons for days, file papers in her filing cabinet, and handle other miscellaneous tasks most kids don’t do. We were always in charge of helping her clean piles of clothes and trash off her bedroom floor, changing her bedding, and dusting her bedroom and the whole house. Cleaning and caretaking were embedded in me from a very young age.
The reward was the star sticker system. Each chore was a one-star sticker, and if we got 25 stars, we got a popsicle or a nickel or a dime. The chores were never done, and as soon as we thought we would be close to getting them done, it was a new week and time to start them all over again. Once it was time to give us the little bit of change that was owed to us, we never had the money and bills being due was the reason.
Patricia was a professional at getting people to feel sorry for her, especially churches. As far back as I could remember, we had churches helping us pay our bills and donating us food when we had little to eat. She knew how to turn on the tears at a second’s notice and did a great job telling the story of her husband leaving her for another woman, and she’s a single mother raising two kids with no help or assistance.
The basement was problematic; it was continuously flooded with water, and water bugs were everywhere. We cleaned up all the rotten wood from a failed attempt to create a floor. The wooden floor was created so we could put our toys on it to stay safe from the water, but the water rotted the wood in no time. Our toys were mixed with the mess, so we bagged most of it, hauling them off to the trash.
If I ever thought my chores were almost done so I could go outside and play, Patricia would insist I entertain her wants and needs. “Pammy, go get me a Pepsi,” and “Pammy, go run my bathwater.” “Pammy, come watch figure skating with me, and you can work on your workbook.” It was never-ending all about her. If getting paid to fetch her Pepsis and massaging her body was a job, I would be a millionaire.
Spending time with her wasn’t my kind of fun if I had any “fun.” It was her kind of fun. We would watch Lawrence Welk, old-timer television shows, and play Kings Corners. I would help her get her flower beds ready and pull weeds out. She would talk non-stop sharing stories about her life, her family and her childhood. She also spent a lot of time bashing my dad, Thomas and his new wife, Laura. It was clear she held a lot of resentment about the divorce and him and Laura.
I longed to be a regular child who could go outside and play with friends without sneaking and getting in trouble. I would have given anything to be able to have friends over to stay all night, but that was always out of the question. I don’t think I ever had one friend stay all night in all my life, and I can count on one hand the times I stayed at a friend’s house all night.
One evening when I was five years old, I watched television with Patricia, and we saw a woman giving birth to a baby. “Did I come out of your tummy like that, Mommy?” Her answer would forever change the trajectory of my life.
She said, “No, honey. You were adopted. That means you came out of another woman’s tummy. She loved you so much, but she couldn’t care for you. She made my dreams come true to be a parent. I will always love her because of her selfless decision.”
I remember the feelings of total confusion that came over my life. I said, “Who is she, and where is she?” Patricia said, “I don’t know who she is or where she is. The adoption was closed, so all of that information was kept private. I know your birth mother loved you so much, and she wanted you to have a better life.”
After this, I didn’t ask any more questions, but my brain would not stop thinking about my “birth mother.” My thoughts were, “So you mean you aren’t my real parents and my real siblings?” I was blown away at the news of being adopted. I stuffed my feelings out of respect for Patricia’s dreams coming true, but my life would never be the same.
I wish I could share that Melanie and I had a close relationship growing up, but we didn’t. It seemed like Patricia and Melanie were constantly fighting, and with no choice of my own, I was stuck in the middle, left to be the comforter to Patricia. She had constant outbursts that created a living hell in the big grey house. This created an automatic wedge between Melanie and me for as long as I can remember. Things were manageable during the peaceful times in the big grey house, but when all hell broke loose, all hell broke loose.
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