As I have said before, I was the last of five children. Both of my parents worked at a time when most moms were still on site. My mom tired to make it home before me, but that did not often work out. All I had to do was let myself into the back yard, pat the slobbering basset and get the key off the back porch. Even when my mom did make it home, she was generally tired and took a nap before making a big family diner.
We had a system of sorts that made the older children responsible for the younger ones. The older you were the more power you had over those below. But the younger you were, the less responsibility you had. The system worked. All of us girls… four of us… looked after my brother. We cleaned his room, did his laundry and if he was hungry, we fed him stuff. He was responsible for the yard work, unless he was in training for whatever sport he was playing. Then that became girls work too. Clearly he was the prince. But he was a good brother too. I have no complaint about him.
The worst thing about being the last of five is that my parents were tired and busy. When I would whine about wanting to learn this or that, my father hired someone. Art lessons, music lessons (I was awful at music!), YWCA, Red Cross swimming lessons. Or there were the do it yourself lessons. My dad was fond of that vein. So when I looked at my older sisters… who all three had matching Hercules 3-speeds and my brother with his goose neck bike, I whined that I wanted a bike. I wanted to learn how to ride one.
I knew how that was done. You got on a bike and your dad ran along next to you until you could cruise away on your own. My dad said… "There are three girls’ bikes out in the trash yard doing nothing. Use one of those." I looked at them, laying in a tangle half leaned against the trash yard fence. All the tires were flat. I reported back the bad news. He handed me a tire patch kit and told me to use the air compressor.
They were full of cobwebs so I picked one and gave it a bath. I lucked out when the tires stayed up after adding air. Back I went into the house to report that the bike and I were now both ready for the lesson. My dad lowered his paper and looked at me. “Well, go figure it out.” He said, snapping his paper back open and getting back to the news.
It took me all day to get to the point where I could stand up and pedal. I had to stand up. The seat was too high. I fell down fairly often, but was good at laying the bike down as I went to minimize damage. Then came the magic moment when I not only wobbled along, but got to speed up. I was flying!
The first corner was scary, but I managed to get around it with only minor correction. I flew down the back side of the block with the wind tossing my hair. I was congratulating myself on learning how to ride in just a day, when Mrs. Wynn walked out her door and stood at the corner, waiting for traffic to clear on Whison… one of our busiest streets. Mentally I willed the cars to vanish and urged Mrs. Wynn to get a hustle going. The cars continued and the old gal didn’t budge. Crap! I gripped the hand brakes and squeezed for all I was worth, teeth gritted and bared.
Nothing. It had never occurred to me to check the hand brakes. Never. I hadn’t really needed them when all I was doing was starting and falling down. Well shoot… time for a quick prayer before impact. Miracles do happen. It felt like one when the traffic cleared and Mrs. Wynn stepped off the curb. I jerked the handlebars left and whizzed around the corner, safe. This was the short end of the block. I stopped pedaling and cruised, navigated the last corner and continued to slow as I did the last long side of the block toward home. When I got to my house, I let the hill of grass in front slow me more… jumped off sideways and hit the ground running. The bike fell on its side and the rear wheel continued to spin, as I caught my breath and silently thanked God that I’d made it back safe.
I reported my progress to my old man. My mother beside him said “George, get those brakes fixed tomorrow.” My father nodded and went back to his paper with a sigh. Satisfied, because my father always did what my mother said, I began the climb to my room up the stairs.
“Rebecca…” My dad peered at me over the top of his paper. “I better not find that bike lying on the lawn.” I tromped back down the stairs and opened the door. “You can bring it up on the porch, but don’t leave it where someone will fall over it.” I nodded and he stopped me again. “I’ll make you a deal. You get straight ‘A’s on your summer school report card and I will buy you any bran new bike you want.”
My dad had a way of making me work hard at things. Teaching myself to ride the bike was not a bad thing. I developed confidence and found out the value of being tenacious. Using it to motivate me in school was a master stroke. I was a very stubborn child. I did get all A s on my report card that year. I lost my report card on the way home from the last day of summer school. I cried when I got home and told my mom I’d lost it and dad would never believe me. Okay, so he didn’t automatically believe me, but he called the principal who gave him the good news and he came immediately home, taking time off from work to keep his word. Summer school ended at noon. By 2:00 I had my bike and it was beautiful.
“I don’t ever want to see it laying on the lawn and you keep it clean or you’ll lose it.” He told me as we pulled into the driveway. That bike sparkled until I gave it away when I started high school. I used to think at the time that he was mean as dads went. Not big on affection. But looking back I see he made his choices with me according to my personality and what worked on that stubborn kid. I think he did alright. He certainly fed my dreams and helped me to become strong enough to handle what life has thrown my way.
Teach Your Children 1977-