Hey. Did You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World?

And if you did, was she crying?

Before Tonia came home from the hospital in a wheelchair, my Aunt Cheryl came to stay with us. Cheryl had been married just over 2 years ago, when she was 18, and had a son who was exactly 1 week older than Sean. When I asked her where her husband was she said she didn’t bring him because he was mean. That was fine with me. I thought Aunt Cheryl was beautiful but I thought Uncle Hugh was very ugly and he scared me. 

Tonia’s accident left 20-year old Joyce with a daughter in a wheelchair, a son in an orthopedic brace, and another child needing to be walked to school, but provided Cheryl with a perfect excuse to take her son Ricky away from a crumbling marriage and travel to Montana to help her brother’s family out.  Cheryl divorced Hugh sometime after she arrived in Great Falls.

Cheryl moved into the little bedroom. Tonia and I each had a twin bed in the middle bedroom while Sean and Ricky slept together in the crib in the same room.  Tonia and I were often mistaken for twins; we were pretty much the same size as each other our entire lives. Sean And Ricky could’ve been twins: platinum blonde hair, the same size. But Sean was quicker and more nimble than Ricky and would climb over Ricky to get out of the playpen and snatch toys away from his older but more placid cousin.

My memory of Cheryl is that she was tall and slender with long brown hair and elegant spectacles. She moved quietly and gracefully; her voice was very soft and quiet with a pronounced southern drawl. She seemed to be eternally calm and I wanted nothing so badly as I wanted to be just like my Aunt Cheryl. 

I honestly don’t know when Joyce and Larry started bringing home what I came to call strays. Were they doing it in Missouri? I just have so few real memories of Missouri. Maybe the first ‘strays’ were just young men Larry worked with, brought home to meet Cheryl. Maybe the strays were always present and I just started paying attention to them because I decided one of them was going to marry Cheryl.  Maybe the first strays weren’t strays at all, but men who were logical friends of my parents because they were all the same age, and it just felt weird to me later when the strays were still kids and Joyce, Larry, Jerome, and Lynne were grandparents. The strays I remember from the time Cheryl lived with us were low-ranking airmen, away from home for the first time. I remember Jake, Andy, and Midget. 

Midget’s real name was Mike and he had a bird tattoo on his wrist that stood for his last name. He was apparently the shortest man in the squadron, hence the nickname Midget. He lived with us for a while, sleeping on the couch in the basement. I don’t know why; airmen always have room in the barracks. Andy may not have begun coming around until after Jake was out of our lives. There may have been more than just Jake, Andy, and Midget, but I don’t remember them; I have specific memories of these three men. Like I mentioned, Midget had the bird tattoo and that nickname. I didn’t even know what midget meant until after he moved out and I thought to look the word up in the dictionary. I wonder if he minded being called “Midget” by a bunch of kids? I actually thought it was his name until I asked about the tattoo and he told me it stood for his name: Mike —–. I remember that conversation and his room set up in the basement and missing him when he was gone.

I remember Andy because he called one day when Larry was at work and Joyce was visiting with a neighbor 4 doors over. I answered the phone and asked him to wait while I went to get Joyce. I ran all the way over to Joyce, screeched to a stop, exhaled sharply, and announced, “Andy’s on the phone!” Joyce laughed and replied, “Handy? Handy’s on the phone? Who’s Handy?” I said it again, clearer this time: “Andy. Is. On. The. Phone.” Joyce told her friend, “I’ll be right back. I need to go see what Handy wants.” And they laughed together. I was unamused. Making fun of me because I ran over and was out of breath? Fine. Next time, I won’t run to tell you. But Handy he was, and Handy he stayed. So I remember him because of the nickname I never intended to give him. And my indignation at being willfully misunderstood.

Jake I remember because Jake was my favorite. Jake never seemed to get tired of giving us kids piggyback rides and shoulder rides, and swinging us by our arms or pushing us on the swings. He’d gamely play hide-n-seek or tag with us, or if it was bad weather out, he’d play board games with us. In short, he seemed to love doing all the things that slowly drove me crazy when I myself became a parent of small children. I have no recollection of what Jake looked like, just hazy impressions of dark unruly hair and stubble–he’d threaten to give us whisker rubs when he was finally tired of playing with us.

Even as a little kid I could tell there was a real affection between Jake and Aunt Cheryl. I remember him begging her for a kiss once and her giggling and declining. He always seemed to find a way to sit near her and she didn’t seem to mind. Honestly I’m not sure how much actual romance there was between them although I could tell they enjoyed each other’s company. I loved Cheryl, and I loved Jake; it was obvious, at least to me, that they should get married.

Joyce and Cheryl started sewing. I don’t know if Joyce taught Cheryl, or if Cheryl taught Joyce, or if they learned together. Maybe they both already knew how and finally had the time. It was the year of the Hotpants. For a brief time around 1970, extremely short shorts were part of everyday fashion for young women. Hotpants had an inseam of zero to 3 inches, just skimming below the wearer’s backside. They were often worn with long tops to accentuate how small the hotpants were, and the preferred coordinating footwear was gogo boots, kneesocks, or sandals. Joyce and Cheryl were just barely into their twenties, having fashionable clothing was likely important to them. But with three adults and four kids living on one airman’s salary–even living in base housing–there probably wasn’t a lot of money to spend on luxuries.

So Joyce and Cheryl started making their own outfits. The outfit I remember most were the hotpants and backless shirt ensembles. The ‘backless shirt’ was actually a halter top with a long ‘skirt’ attached to the bra top. The two women only had the one sewing machine to share between them, so the assembly of the hotpants and backless shirts took a while. When they were finally done, Joyce and Cheryl debuted them at the same time, wearing the outfits to a barbecue in the backyard.

After the meal everyone sat around in the backyard, the adults talking and drinking, while Ricky and Sean played with boats in the kiddy pool and Tonia and I played with our Barbies in the grass. Larry and Jake started teasing Joyce and Cheryl about how long it had taken them to make the outfits, when there was barely anything to them–they were wearing what? A yard of fabric? Jake said if the clothes got wet, they’d shrink up to nothing at all. Cheryl informed him they wouldn’t shrink at all, as they were made out of double-knit polyester and polyester doesn’t shrink.

I remember listening to them all arguing good-naturedly, and Jake asking if Cheryl was sure polyester didn’t shrink. When she told him she was sure, he jumped up and lifted her out of her lawnchair, saying he had a way to test it. She was laughing and telling him to put her down, but he walked over to the kiddy pool and held her over it, asking her what she was going to do? He was going to drop her in the water and watch to see if her new outfit shrank. She kept telling him, “Don’t you dare!  Don’t you dare!” 

And he dropped her.

I will never know if he dropped her on purpose, or if her struggles to get free made him lose his hold. Cheryl dropped straight into the pool on her back, her long hair and long legs flying up as she fell down. No one was laughing anymore. Cheryl sat up and looked at Jake with a world of hurt in her eyes. Then she rose out of the water in her graceful, elegant way, and walked inside. As the door shut behind her, Jake started apologizing. She did not come back out. The party was over. 

Jake and Cheryl never got married. I think she went back home not too long after being dropped in the pool. Tonia was healing up and the house was crowded and winter was coming on. Or maybe she stayed longer and the strays quit coming around for a while so I forgot. It wasn’t long before we had another houseguest; maybe Cheryl and the strays left so he could come.

Nita had finally had enough of Jesse and filed for divorce. She got the house and Scott and Jesse got to come live with his daughter Joyce in Great Falls.

Halter dresses and hotpants

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