I was born on December 15 1966 in a small town in rural Illinois, about 100 miles outside of Chicago. Surrounded by corn fields to the South and West and the Illinois and Vermilion Rivers to the North and East, Oglesby was a small ethnic community with one main street that maybe stretches a mile long.
My mother was from England and my father was from the little town where I would begin to be raised. They met when my father was stationed outside of Bradford, in Yorkshire, where my mother was born and lived the beginnings of her journey. I have few if any real memories of the first ten years of my life. I have feelings that are invoked as I try to focusedly think back on that time, but no real specific moments in time with any faces and bodies and connection and definitely no memories of ?*.
I went to the towns Catholic grade school, Holy Family. I guess I remember as much as I can about the experience. We were middle class, I suppose, but I remember always feeling like we were much poorer than the other kids at school. I don’t know if it was because we lived in an apartment, the whole top floor of a building my grandfather owned in town, or because it seems to me that I was never really allowed the new and trendy things that all the girls around me had. My mother sewed, I remember that, and she made a lot of our clothes. From pictures I know that my sister Shannon and I were often made matching outfits by my mom which it seems was fairly commonplace in that day and age, especially for the children of mothers who sewed their clothes. I think my mom really loved to sew, I remember her with a sense of great pride when I think back to that time, not a feeling I can say I attach to my mother with many other things in the life, or should I say journey, I experienced with her. There was a group of us at Holy Family that I always seemed to be just on the fringes of, hanging on in ways that you hear about in today’s open communications about what the world is like growing up and being a kid. We didn’t have that open thought. Waiting for the party invite or the sleep over call, trying so desperately to be included. This was definitely true for me and I very much empathize with any and all young people, and old I suppose, who have that feeling of trying to fit in. I was different though, I guess that that is as well something I knew, could feel, from a very young age.
Kids were kids even then. Not quite being a part of the group was emphasized by being picked on and called names. Frog Eyes and Fog Horn and Ape Arms still give me a little twinge inside. My eyes were big, when I coughed, which I did fairly often as my chest was my weakest health link, it was deep and rough and still to this day sounds like a fog horn, and the amount of hair I had on my arms as puberty set in was extreme (now I am happy to see that hair still growing because it shows I have the testosterone needed to have a great sex life :)), they were the reasons for these names. The worst of these tortures though, and I know there’s worse out there but it was still devastating, was the deliberate contortion of my last name. KISS BUTT!!, KISS BUTT!!, was a regular chant. It would make me cry and bring me so much pain I, and I’m sure everyone ever with that name had to go through, it was simply aweful. There was one family, the Safranski’s, who were unrelenting with the abuse, They lived a block behind us on 1st street and in that small town of 2000 people many of us had to walk to and from school. We did, we always did, my parents wouldn’t pay for us to ride the Holy Family school bus, which was driven for many years as I recall by a man named George(just remembered that), so I was ever determined on finding routes to and from school that would not put me on the same path as the Safranski’s. Do you know how hard it is to retaliate against a name like Safranski when your last name is Butkus! IMPOSSIBLE! I remember I used to try and use the argument “No you’re not pronouncing it right. It’s BOOoooT KUSS not BUTT KISS” trying to appeal to the ethnic roots of all of us in this small community in the middle of the corn fields. They would just laugh as kids do and continue with the torture as they received exactly the reaction they wanted, my tears and obvious pain.
Remembering back the thing that had the most effect on me is the difference I felt from all of the others because of my mothers accent. It’s so funny how when you have a parent of non-American origin you yourself don’t hear them as the rest of the world hears them. I don’t remember when I recognized that my mom was from a different country, I guess because we traveled to England as young children and she was just my mom, I never really thought about it, but I do remember when everyone else realized it and they were unrelenting. In the small, all white town that was ironically made up of so many different ethnic backgrounds, Poles and German, Lithuanian and Italian, you stood out like a sore thumb if you weren’t one of them. It was when my mother would come and volunteer at Holy Family in the library. The kids automatically picked up on the difference in her accent and they tortured me with it. She was different, she wasn’t American, they would mock her and I just remember not knowing what to do. I remember it wasn’t just the kids in my class of 15 or 20 students it was the older kids as well, especially the boys, and I still feel that pain to this day. I think I still feel the pain because we as a society are so quick to assume the differences in people, the negative differences, instead of the commonality of our light and our spirit.
I don’t remember ever receiving any comfort from anyone about any of these things. I remember one time in maybe 4th grade we were learning about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims and I asked the teacher “So the first people in America were from England” and she of course said yes and I replied “so we all have English blood in us” I very clearly remember the feeling of vindication I felt in that extremely young and naive moment and it still to this day makes my heart smile knowing I gave myself that moment of comfort.
This feeling of difference remained throughout my time at Holy Family. It’s actually remained throughout my whole life. My parents’ divorce when I was in 5th grade was one of the very first in the school and I felt like even the parents, most of whom carried the same prejudices as their children about my mother, and my father I think, all looked at me differently. It was a catholic community, it was the 70’s and to be honest we were different.
Holy Family was no different for me than probably for any other kid who had circumstances in their lives that were different from what is thought to be the norm. It was the beginning of my journey and I am not at all complaining or have any regrets, those things are counter intuitive to what I know now to be true. I had my best teacher ever there. Mrs. Marzano. She is a memory of comfort, and the girl and her family whom I consider to have been my best friend, Mindy. They were the people in my life that I believe gave me the sense of family that I have built upon to get where I stand about it today. There is a great fondness that I have when I think of them. The memory is like in a movie and I am standing and looking through a window at a mother and father and their four children sitting down to dinner and everyone is smiling and eager to discuss there day and there is a light that glows above as if it is holding them all in tight and safe and together. That is how I remember their family. It too is a memory of comfort.
There were other things that happened during this time, a whole life was beginning to be lived with many other characters, I will write what I can remember in the next chapter, I will try hard to remember.