I think about Joyce deciding to leave and I can’t help but admire her. It takes my breath away. She was far far away from her family and any support network. All of her friends were Larry’s friends. She’d grown up on the sunny beaches of Florida, spoiled by doting parents, and was taking her first step out on her own in frigid North Dakota. She had an almost-full time minimum wage job. She looked around at her life and jumped.
Joyce had me, Tonia, and Sean empty our bank accounts and give her the money and I’m not even angry about it. It was a brilliant move. I wonder if she used it as a deposit on a tiny little apartment. In the months following her dramatic exit from our house, I would imagine her in a tiny, dark apartment, reading her trashy romance novels, watching a crappy little black and white TV, and I wondered why she’d leave us for that. It took a while for me to accept that she was likely living with Jerome in that little apartment. And you may not think it was especially brave of her to leave one man for another, but Larry had always been around, always, and so he’d been the safe choice. All of their parents had always been there to back them up. Joyce was just a child when she married Larry, and she’d been unwell–she didn’t even remember marrying him.
Leaving Larry meant she was risking losing a lot. Richie and Nora would surely not be on her side. Nita might not either. Joyce and Nita weren’t close; she hadn’t even told her mother what she was planning. And Nita had stayed with Jesse for decades; Joyce really didn’t know what she’d think of Joyce giving up on her marriage so soon.
Joyce was giving up her kids, too–not forever, but she was giving up being in their daily lives. She and Larry had agreed that we kids would stay with Larry on base, so we could stay near our friends, in our schools, in our familiar bedrooms. So Joyce really was stepping out into a new life. I can imagine she felt hopeful as she made her plans to leave.
But her departure from the family didn’t go at all as planned. Larry had told us kids without her, setting her up to be the bad guy as soon as she came into the house that day. Of course it backfired on Larry, too. He ended up tossing anything of hers he could grab out of the house and into the slushy, muddy front yard. We kids saw he’d broken her ‘good’ dishes, he’d ripped up the blanket she was making. Her yarn and books were ruined, soaked in muddy water. We weren’t impressed that he’d ruined her things. We weren’t impressed that he refused to give her anything she hadn’t taken with her that night. And when he caught us trying to pack up some of Joyce’s things to take to her, he took them back and said he would take them to her. She says she never got them and I believe her. Because his behavior toward her never got better. It was as if he’d bought “The Big Handbook of Divorce Cliches” and followed it to the letter.
Larry called Nita and tattled to her about what Joyce had done: leaving him and her kids for some guy she barely knew. He asked Nita to come to Minot and help him get Joyce back. I’m not sure he wanted Joyce back because he loved her–he’d had too many girlfriends for me to ever believe that. I think he was insulted that she would have the audacity to leave him. I don’t know what he told Nita to get her to come, or what Nita’s intentions were in accepting his invitation.
I knew even as a naive thirteen year old that Joyce wasn’t going to listen to anything Nita had to say. Joyce didn’t even like Nita. I didn’t know if she ever had. Joyce and Larry had made fun of Nita in front of us kids for as long as we could remember. Joyce had told us how mean Nita was to her when she was a kid, and she let us know how stupid she thought Nita was. As a result, we didn’t like Nita either. But here she was in our house, cooking food we didn’t like, insisting we eat it all, laying down new rules, and just generally being not very helpful.
Tonia, Sean, and I had been basically raising each other by that point; we were left at home alone more often than not. We didn’t react well to Nita trying to set rules and curfews, insisting on seeing our homework, telling us we had our own beds and had to stop sleeping in each others’ rooms. She cooked southern foods we’d never had, like okra and collard greens. She thought I read too much and would send me outside. She thought Sean didn’t read enough and kept him inside. It didn’t help that we were military kids and we didn’t know her beyond a few weeks in summer that we mostly spent in Buddy’s pool. It didn’t help that she’d arrived during the absolute worst year of our lives, after our world had been turned upside down. We bitched about her to Larry a lot.
I had waist-length hair with hopes of growing it down to my shins. Nita told me she wanted to trim my split ends and then cut all my hair off to chin length. I locked myself in my room and cried. That was when Larry finally told her she had to leave.
Next to arrive was Nora and Richie. You see, Larry had a plan. He and Joyce were divorced by now or at least about to be. Larry went to his squadron commander with the divorce papers and told him his wife had left him with the three kids. He couldn’t take care of three kids on his own. Never mind that neither he nor Joyce had been taking care of us at that point. We did all the laundry, cooking, cleaning. We helped each other with homework and put ourselves to bed. I got Sean and Tonia up in the morning; I got everyone off to school. As I said, we’d been alone more often than we’d been with either parent.
But Larry told his commander he couldn’t parent alone. He asked for a hardship transfer to Eglin Air Force Base, just half an hour from Holt, where Nora and Richie had lived since Richie retired. The transfer was approved; Larry was to report to Eglin in September, less than four months away. So Larry asked his parents to come get us and keep us with them in Holt over the summer. That way he could get everything settled and ready to move while we were safe with them. He didn’t tell me, Tonia, or Sean that he had orders or that we were spending the summer with Nora and Richie. He certainly didn’t tell Joyce.
When the school year ended and it was time to pack our clothes for Florida, Larry told Joyce and us we were just going to go to Florida for a month for a vacation. So we visited Joyce for a weekend to say bye and we packed our summer clothes. We got in Nora and Richie’s car with very few belongings–we were only going for a month, so we only packed a month’s worth of summer clothes. There were no friends to say goodbye to. Steve and Tom had been gone since just after Halloween. Nancy, Babbette, and Stuart had moved into town over Christmas break. We took Midnight, one suitcase and one pillow each, and the quilts Joyce had made for us. And we drove down to Florida.
I don’t know if Nora and Richie were in on the plan of spiriting us away. I don’t think they ever thought we’d stay with them as long as we did. But they tried to make the trip fun. We only stayed at motels that had pools on the drive down, and we stopped driving early enough in the evening to have a meal at Shoney’s or Big Boy and then swim all evening. Sean almost drowned in the motel pool one night. Nora and Richie were watching, but didn’t realize Sean was in distress. I think it never occurred to them that we couldn’t swim like our parents. But I saw Sean was in trouble and dog-paddled over to him to help. Sean was in a blind panic and as soon as I reached him, he started climbing up on me, pushing me under. I was trying to fight him off while keeping hold of him and staying afloat in water over my head. I went under several times, but finally got us close enough to Tonia that she could grab Sean’s arm and pull him to safety. I think Nora and Richie thought we were rough housing, but I still remember the silent desperation of those moments, and not being able to get a breath to call for help.
Elnora and Richie moved back to Holt when he had to retire because of his eyes. He had macular degeneration and went legally blind when he was around 55 years old. They bought this little 3 room shack on several acres and Richie started improving it. He added an indoor bathroom (and left the outhouse standing!) and a giant living area. He modernized the kitchen and built a carport. When we moved in, the house only had the subfloor-he hadn’t put in the floor yet. He added a large bathroom/laundry room. There was a spacious shower with a heating lamp in it, and 2 walk-in closets. Sean slept in Richie’s walk-in closet when we lived there. Tonia and I had the second bedroom and once again we were sharing a bed. We didn’t get whipped for talking in bed any more.
Richie built himself a workshop and that’s where he built everything for the house. While we were living with them, he paved the carport and added a cement sidewalk between the house and the workshop. He built us a treehouse. There was a big ol’ tree in their front yard and he built a compost bin around it. Elnora had her garden beside the house and she planted roses along the carport on trellises Richie built for her.
When the month was over, Larry told us he had orders for Eglin, so we were just going to stay with Elnora and Richie until he got there in September. Nora took us to Crestview to buy school clothes and enrolled us in school. Holt school only went to 4th grade, so Sean was enrolled at Holt School while Tonia and I went to Baker school, an all-grades school 10 minutes away. We all rode the bus together. When Larry finally arrived, he slept in our little camper in Nora and Richie’s side yard.
Larry said since we’d already started school , he wasn’t going to apply for housing at Eglin AFB and make us move again. But Nora and Richie’s house was too small to hold all our belongings, so our household goods stayed in storage. For a year, Sean slept in Richie’s closet and we had none of our things. All my books were in storage, all our barbies, all Tonia’s dolls, all Sean’s cars.
As soon as Joyce found out what Larry had pulled, she began trying to get custody of us kids. But before she could do anything about custody, Lynne arrived in Holt.