His Mother and Father Said What a Lovely Boy! We’ll Teach Him What We Learned, Oh Yes, Just What We Learned!

Sean was born with congenital talipes equinovarus–clubfoot–on both feet. Clubfoot is a birth defect that causes the foot to be twisted so the sole of the foot can’t lay flat on the ground. People with untreated clubfoot walk on the sides of their feet, maybe even on the instep, depending how severe the twisting is. It may look like their feet are turned backward or upside down. Left untreated, the condition will cause pain in the feet, legs, hips, and back. It’s a fairly common birth defect that tends to occur more in males than females. About half of babies born with clubfoot have it in both feet.

congenital talipes equinovarus in both feet

Fortunately clubfoot can be treated, and usually without surgery. First, the feet are moved closer to the desired position and put in a cast. Every week the cast is taken off, the feet moved closer to position and a new cast is placed. Once the feet no longer bend inward, physical therapy stretches the tendons and strengthens the muscles. Sometimes the achilles tendon is cut and allowed to regrow in a stretched position. After that a brace is worn. At first the brace is worn 23/7, but after about 2 years, it’s only worn at night and nap time and hopefully around age four, the brace can be forgotten. Sometimes bracing continues up to age 9, sometimes further surgery is needed.

Denis-Brown Brace

Sean seems to have responded well to the treatment; I don’t remember him wearing the brace by the time he entered kindergarten. I do remember the brace because it hurt. I don’t know if it hurt Sean, but it hurt anyone carrying him.  Tonia and I used to sneak him out of his crib. This involved one of us climbing into the crib with him and handing him down to the other sister waiting below. I remember getting bonked in the head with the brace as well as getting clipped in the shins. 

As many braced babies do, Sean learned to crawl with the braces on, and he was fast. If you picked him up to get him away from something, he’d flop around like an angry fish and the brace became a deadly weapon. He also figured out a way to walk with the brace on, and once again, he was fast! It all just seemed to make his legs stronger and faster and if he managed to escape while the brace wasn’t on his feet, he was damned hard to catch. 

Perhaps because his feet were never naked for the first three years of his life, Sean couldn’t stand to be barefoot. He never wore sandals and wore socks constantly, even to bed. Joyce claims Tonia and I would come tell her Sean was trying to take a bath with his socks on. Again. Bath time was prime escape time for Sean and if you didn’t keep close watch, he’d go tearing out of the bathroom, hit the front door running, and take off down the street, naked as the day he was born, except for the socks on his feet.

Sean, Tonia, Me

Tonia and I treated Sean like a living baby doll, dressing him up until he cried and ran away, carrying him around until he fought his way free and ran away, playing with his hair until he tore out the hairpins and ran away. Sometimes he let us play with him happily; other times he struggled and cried to get away from his bothersome older sisters.

As we got a little older and Sean got a little stronger he was no longer our doll. But he remained our baby. Sean was a sensitive kid, very empathic. He was always aware of the moods around him and he didn’t like conflict. He just couldn’t deal with it. He wasn’t really into sports, much to Larry’s dismay. Larry really wanted Sean to be a football player and I remember Sean having a lot of football-related toys. But strangely enough, Sean was very small, like his sisters. He was small for his age, and always slight. He was by no means weak, and boy could he run. But even after the brace came off, Sean was very pigeon-toed. He could sprint, but running around his own inward-pointing toes was tiring and he couldn’t run at speed for very long. He had a wiry strength, but no mass to put behind it. And he wasn’t great at throwing or catching.


None of this stopped Larry from trying to make Sean a football player. They’d go out back and toss the football and Sean’s lack of improvement would soon piss off Larry and he’d start shouting at Sean and calling him names for not practicing enough, for not paying attention, for not trying. Sean was not an aggressive person–ever. He didn’t have Tonia’s defiance. Larry shouting and belittling him brought Sean to tears and then he’d be sent to his room for being a baby. And babies go to bed early so he should just stay there.

Sean wasn’t safe from Joyce, either. He had dyslexia, which wasn’t discovered for far too long. Dyslexia wasn’t accepted as a ‘real’ medical diagnosis until 1978, when Sean was 8.  Prior to that, it was considered to be a pseudo-medical diagnosis used by middle-class parents to explain their children’s poor performance in reading. Even after it was deemed to be real, it wasn’t tested for. So Sean was a slow reader. Joyce would ask him why he couldn’t be more like me: she claimed I taught myself to read at 3. (This was untrue; I have a clear memory of the lightbulb going off in my brain in 1st grade. These letters-the ABCs–if used in a specific order, spell a word and words make sentences! I understood “Come here” and I haven’t stopped reading since.)

However, those lines and squiggles on paper didn’t make sense to Sean so he struggled, in his quiet way. Joyce thought it was strange that Sean wasn’t loud or into rough-housing like boys are supposed to be, and would tell Tonia and me to leave him alone; we were making him a sissy. She would tell him to grow up when he cried. Sean’s sensitive, unaggressive nature made him a target for both Joyce and Larry and it became my and Tonia’s mission in life to protect our Sean at all costs. Tonia and I would have roaring fights between us, but we never fought with Sean. And woe to anyone who messed with our baby; we’d go to great lengths to protect him. 

We thought Sean needed lots of protection. Before he started kindergarten, he had stitches in the back of his head from the bed-jumping incident, stitches in his temple from falling out of the truck bed, stitches in his forehead from being hit with a metal dustpan by a playmate. When he was learning to ride his bike, he ran into a parked car and had to have stitches on his arm. He was fascinated with matches and would hide and light them. We put out smoldering carpet and blankets too often.

Larry took us hunting snd set up camp by a stream. Joyce pulled out her lawn chair and began sunning as soon as Larry left camp. Tonia, Sean, and I began climbing the mountain across the stream. Sean grabbed a rock for a handhold; the rock came loose and Sean tumbled head over heels back down the mountain. We used to go fishing for rainbow trout off of a dam in or near Great Falls. From looking at pictures now, I think it may have been Black Eagle dam, but it was long ago, so maybe it was some other dam that looks similar. 

Black Eagle Dam, Great Falls, Montana

Fishing off the dam was terrifying for me. I don’t know where Joyce was–home in bed sleeping in her undiagnosed and untreated depression? Sunning in a lawn chair? Fishing with Larry? But I was the one holding on to Tonia and Sean. On one side of the dam, the calm but unfathomably deep water everyone was fishing from. On the other side, the violent fall of water from the sluices plunging to the rocks far below. Larry told me there was nothing to be afraid of; there were rails on each side to keep you from falling in. But I know then, just as I continue to know now: those rails are built to keep average sized adults safe. Even now, I know I could trip and fall right through or under those rails.  Way back then? We were so small. It’d be nothing at all for one of us to slip past the rail.  

And Sean loved to run and climb. And he was fast. And he was clumsy.

And Tonia was probably wearing sandals, which we all know by now was dangerous for her. But even if she wasn’t, Tonia loved to jump off things and she rarely stuck the landing. 

View of the damn dam from the top where the fishing took place.

I spent my time on the dam in mortal fear of one of my siblings falling into the water. I’d hold them both by their collars until they screamed so much Larry made me let them go. Then I’d drive myself crazy trying to keep eyes on both of them at once.  I don’t know why we quit going to fish off the damn. Maybe it was illegal or became illegal. Maybe the fishing wasn’t great. But I have never missed it. It was a huge relief that we never went back.

Tonia was Joyce’s favorite. I was Larry’s favorite. Sean belonged to no one. It didn’t help his loneliness that Tonia and I were so close. We shared a bedroom, a bed, toys, clothes, shoes. We told each other everything and went everywhere together. Sean being a boy meant a separate room, different clothes and toys. Sometimes we’d sneak Sean into our bed so he wouldn’t have to sleep alone. But Joyce and Larry were infuriated when they’d hear us talking in bed and they’d come charging into the room, belt in hand, and whip us for not going to sleep. And if we cried, they told us to stop crying or they’d give us something to cry about. Which I always thought was such a ridiculous threat. You ALREADY gave us something to cry about; that’s why we’re crying. So you want us to stop or you’ll give us another reason to cry. I’m confused; do you want us to cry or stop crying?

Also? Why are you so furious that we’re talking in bed? Just give it another 15 minutes and we would have drifted off, but NO, you made a BIG SCENE about it and now everyone is wide awake.

Tonia, Sean, Me


Tonia and I stopped sneaking Sean into our bed because we didn’t want him to get whipped, too. So poor, sensitive Sean had to sleep in his own big bed in his own dark room surrounded by boy clothes and boy toys. Soon enough our protection of Sean wasn’t limited to just keeping him from being whipped at night. We helped him practice with that stupid football and found ways to interrupt Larry’s ‘teaching’ sessions. I hate football to this day. We read to Sean and helped him clean his room so he couldn’t get into trouble for those things. We tried not to exclude him from our own play and took any punishment before he could get in trouble.

Still, Sean grew up seeming to believe that everything was his fault and he could fix it if he’d only try harder. He learned to hide his emotions so he wouldn’t be mocked for having them. But stifling emotions doesn’t get rid of them. Instead, they get dammed up inside your head and your heart. If something triggers an emotion, then all the things associated with that emotion struggle to get past the blockade.

Poor sensitive Sean should have become a musician, or a poet, or a writer. Instead he became our memory. For the rest of his life, Sean remembered everything that happened to us. No matter how hard he tried, he could never outrun or forget anything. And at the same time, he’d stifled his emotions so much, he couldn’t share anything either. 

Oh what a lonely boy.


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