If I had known, when I turned sixteen, that during the next year my father would die, I would have done so much so differently, but I was just sixteen and could not know, or even imagine, he would be killed.
That year of my life began so normally, I have little recollection of it. I can’t even remember if I had a birthday cake that year, and baking and decorating cakes was my mother’s passion. I think it was that winter that my father began getting up earlier than he needed in order to come downstairs and spent a few moments with me before I went to school. At the time, I wondered why he did it. It was my only private time and, here he was. We didn’t talk about much, there wasn’t time. Only several decades later did I realize he did that just in order to be with me. I’d not thought I was very important to him.
That spring I had two experiences I can only call mental breakdowns. My perceptions became disconnected to physical reality. It was extremely difficult for me to focus to tie my shoes and get ready for school in the mornings. At school, I struggled to find my way through the halls and get to the proper classroom at the proper time. The walls of the halls wove back and forth as I tried to walk them, and they changed colors. After several days, or a week of this, getting off the school bus at home, while walking through the front yard to the house, my attention was caught by the wind in the evergreen trees in front of the house.
These huge, old trees, some white pine, some red cedar, formed a circle. The soothing sound of the wind pulled me into their embrace. I laid down, or did I collapse, in the middle of them. The soft, whispering wind put me to sleep. I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up the world was the same as it had been before the episode started. I was able to function again.
Several weeks later, I sensed a second episode starting. Immediately, as soon as I could, I went to that circle of trees, laid down in the center and took another nap. When I woke up, again, I was fine. For various reasons, I told no one about either of these experiences.
Conversation was not encouraged in our house. Our mother was the one who was allowed to talk. The role of the rest of us was to listen and comply. She would talk to us directly only when she wanted something done, these were commands, not requests. Giving information to her was perilous. If she didn’t like the information, she would likely verbally explode. It was safest to keep interactions to a minimum.
If any of us kids tried to talk to each other, and she was within hearing distance, she would demand that the speakers come into her presence and have the conversation there so she could monitor it, and of course comment and critique something about it. We kept quiet unless we were far away.
I say “we” when that didn’t apply so much to me. When she was pregnant with her third child, I was four and my sister was two, she ordered me not to speak to her unless I had something important to say. To a four year old, nearly everything is important. But, even then, I knew she meant something important to her. How would I know what that might be. And, if I couldn’t share mundane things with her, how could I trust her with something important? As a result, I stopped talking. This had a serious negative impact on my social development. Only as an adult, did I begin to realize how utterly overwhelmed my mother was at simply being an adult.
When I finally learned to write, and needed to convey information to her, I began to leave her notes on her pillow where she would surely see them. When I had left them in other places, she wouldn’t notice.
If I had known my father would be dead that summer, I would have spent more time with him. I liked him and he was nice to me, but we had little in common. He was a farmer which I did not want to be. I farmed with him, because that was expected, but I really wanted to do almost anything else – though not housework or child care, I’d been doing that since I was two and a half. I wanted to write. But, that did not satisfy any of my mother’s needs, or whims, so it was forbidden. Even the one day she took us to a park to, “do whatever you want to do,” she took away my paper and pens so I could not write.
Farming with my Dad usually meant working in different fields. None of the work was side by side, not even baling and loading hay. He drove the tractor pulling the baler and wagon, I was on the wagon stacking the bales of hay. Granpa would mow the grass in the morning. I would rake it twice right after lunch. By late afternoon it would be dried enough to bale. I liked that all three of us were doing the job “together,” but each task was done individually and separately. It was the only thing we did together.
I might have gone to the machine shed to try to help when he needed to repair some equipment, he repaired nearly everything himself. One time I had asked him if he knew how to “fix everything.” He replied that he did not, but he knew he was not stupid and could figure it out. And he did. When he bought his first combine, he took all the pieces apart. My mother was shocked. He explained that he did it before any part broke, so he would know what each part looked like, where it fit, and why. He knew his machines and admired the way they were made. He had grown up farming with mules. He preferred machines. I did not.
I wanted to write, but there were many obstacles. Not only was that forbidden by my mother, who insited I be an extention of herself in doing housework and caring for the younger children, but my brain did not cooperate. I had severe difficulty learning to read. Only when my youngest son was diagnosed, did I learn I also had dyslexia and ADHD. To me, that was “normal.” The struggle with my brain was all I knew.
I only learned to read because of an aunt who suggested I be tutored by the retired school teacher who lived a mile down the road. She agreed to take me on, so the summer after second grade, I walked that long, hot mile to her house. She used her flash cards and taught me phonics. There was no other activity in the room to distract me. She would show the paper with a squiggle on it, make a sound with her mouth and expect me to make the same sound to correspond with a specific squiggle.
I thought she was crazy!
But she was sincere, and patient and gave me a reward for trying. I wanted to please her, and I certainly wanted that big cookie at the end of the lesson! Because of that – I learned to read.
Being able to read has given me a functional life. Learning to read was the first step in being able to write. I was never able to write anything to show my father. I have no idea what he would have thought. So many things were left undone.
He was spraying brush one day with a new, small tractor. It was a toy for him for little jobs. He was so pleased with it. The spray got the tires wet as well as the legs of his pants. He bought straight cut pants, so there was excess fabric at the bottom of the legs. I don’t know how it happened, but that wet fabric became caught by the tire which pulled him off the tractor. He landed and saw that the tractor was going to crush him down the middle. He was able to move a little so it only crushed a leg and his pelvis. The tractor drove off without him until it became stuck in some mire. He laid in the hot sun until a neighbor heard the tractor trying to move, then came to investigate.
Dad was in the hospital for I don’t know how long. He was healing fine and the doctor decided to release him in two weeks to finish recovery at home. The doctor had planned a family vacation. My father told him not to cancel, he believed he would be fine. He was not.
In the middle of one night, the phone rang. That never happened. My mother answered. Then she did something very, very strange which indicated that something was not right. She called the brother-in-law she despised and asked him to come immediately to our house. The world was seriously out of balance. How little did I knew.
The ringing of the phone had woken me up. When Mom came back upstairs, I asked her what was wrong. All she could say was that my father was a very sick man. Only many years later did I learn the content of that phone call: “Mrs. Herrmann? Mr. Herrman died.”
The next morning I awoke thinking I’d heard someone call my name, but the house was dead quiet except for my sleeping siblings. My first thought was, “Daddy died.”
Then I looked outside and saw, coming to the house, my father’s youngest sister and my mother’s father, a combination of people that NEVER had occurred before. Something was VERY Wrong.
They came in and my aunt told me that Daddy had died. I stood on tiptoes to lean down to her shoulder and cried a little bit, then went calmly upstairs to my room. Shortly after that, my sister woke up and went downstairs. Soon she ran screaming back to her room. “She knows,” I said to myself.
Our lives were never the same again. I was mostly numb the next year. I did graduate high school, then left home for college to begin my own struggle in the world. Now, I’m retired and can finally write.
2 thoughts on “If I Had Only Known by Duane L. Herrmann”
Duane – excellent piece; I always enjoy your writing but this was particularly evocative and clear. Thank you for posting it. Explaining the death of your father; your mother’s attitude; your “spells” – all felt by the reader.
Thank you. His death was the dividing moment in my life. I’ve been trying to understand it, make sense of it, for the past five decades. I’ve missed him in new ways as my life has changed. That has been a surprise.