Animals, Debbie Reynolds and Me
Our first home in Seattle was a tiny garage apartment in the back of a large house near Greenlake. I began my American education in a grade school that was right across the street, and felt very special when the teacher sat me on the floor in the middle of a circle of my classmates and they asked me questions about Norway in a language I could barely understand. School was mainly arts and crafts and recess so I got along fine. Play is play in any language. That first summer in Seattle was very warm and my father and I used to walk down the hill to the lake and swim in Greenlake. The first time we went he told me to go out into the deeper waters and swim; no lesson, just do what he did. I followed his instruction and managed to stay afloat. We rented a bicycle in a rental shop nearby and he told me to get on it and ride. He never taught, never held on to the bike or considered that I’d never done it before, and since he expected it, that’s what I did. I rode like I’d been doing it forever. His motto was just do it. He had Nike beaten by a few decades.
I had barely started making headway with my English at my school when we moved to a house so small it could barely hold the four of us. And then moved again to the home where I ended up attending the grade school where I started my show business career. My sister was very shy and, like me, barely was able to speak or understand English. She decided that she would rather work than go to school and found a job at Sears, wrapping packages in the mail order department. She briefly joined the Salvation Army and bought herself one of those huge bonnets you only see now in productions of Guys and Dolls, thinking that this would be the center of her social life. She was disappointed to find out that in America, the Salvation Army is not an organization of Christian young people like in Sauda but mainly people who pick up furniture and other belongings to sell in their stores to help the needy.
My father worked at Hostess Cupcakes and my mother at a sewing factory. Since we didn’t have a car, both my parents took several buses to get to work. They had to get up early in the morning, stand at the bus stop in the cold and rain every day, while my school was close enough for me to walk. In those days, no one worried about kids getting snatched by perverts. I walked up 45th Street from Stone Way, a very busy street in the middle of the city, several blocks to Interlake Grade School and no one thought anything of it. Some of my friends walked twice as far. On our way home, we stopped by the pet store to snuggle with puppies, by the fire station to talk to real fireman and spent any change we might have at the candy store which was filled with a myriad of tasty delights.
So far, I knew for a fact life in America was not better than Norway. Not by a long shot. My parents left Sauda for this grueling (for them) existence? The house we finally ended up in (these days called a Mid-Century Craftsman and very expensive) was in a lower middle-class neighborhood populated with Norwegians, Ukrainians, Italians, and Jews. All of us were house-proud and all of us kept our properties up immaculately. None of the families had much money but the neighborhood was lovely. These days, in the Wallingford area, dandelions and other weeds sprout up on everybody’s property unimpeded. Back then, that would have been unacceptable.
My parents worked long, hard hours and sacrificed a lot to be able to buy that house and to support my sister and me. Inevitably, wherever my father found work, the union would go on strike and he would have to move to another job. Finally, he found work as a carpenter/handyman at Northwest Steel Rolling Mills, where he stayed until he retired. Whenever the steel-workers’ union went on strike he would work temporarily as a longshoreman and if he was laid off from that job, my mother would carry the whole load doing piecework as a seamstress in a sewing factory. Life for my parents in our new country was grim for the most part but they did find time for car trips in the summer and to get together with Norwegian friends and enjoy life a bit. But my mother was far away from her family, my father’s dream of higher education or being a musician died during the war, and, because their new religion demanded they be constantly reminded of imminent hell and damnation if they strayed off the path, their existence was far from happy and carefree.
I wanted in the worst way to try out for our grade school play, The Princess and the Pea, but I couldn’t do that because my parents had told me being in plays was a sin, even if you were just nine years old and had only vague notions of what sin was. I knew drinking, smoking, dancing and going to movies was very bad but having fun pretending to be someone else in your own school with your own friends? I didn’t get it. After the auditions, the role went to the daughter of the president of the PTA (nepotism is everywhere). I snuck in at lunchtime one day to watch a rehearsal and was again terribly offended by the lack of acting professionalism in my schoolmates. The girl who played the princess didn’t bring one ounce of believability to the role, and to my complete horror, instead of actually crying, merely said “boo hoo, boo hoo” when she was supposed to be crying. “Boo hoo?!” I covered my face with my hands and agonized over the unfairness of it all. She did not deserve this starring role, but why should it affect me so? I was not even in the running to begin with.
Dancing was, of course, strictly forbidden, as it could lead a young girl directly down the road to ruin (where was that?). So when all the other kids trooped down to the gym for an hour of square dancing, I was left behind in the classroom to sit alone wondering how my parents even found out about the dancing in order to tell the principal I couldn’t partake in this particular sin. Except for my mother, who came once, they never visited the school. After my sister married, she and her husband Jim came to school and played my surrogate parents on visiting days. But somehow my parents managed to nose out the disgraceful square dancing and make sure I spent that hour alone, appreciating the fact that I was not committing an offense against God by stomping around the gym to country music, laughing and having a good time like everybody else.
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