Saturday, August 23, 2014

Once Upon a Yellow Umbrella: A Memoir

Beneficence also known as Benny
Photo credit: my sweet friend,
Lori Stephenson
Many of my favorite childhood memories were made during the mid-1970's while running amuck on a college campus with my younger brother and sister. At that time, my dad was attending Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and we lived in "married student housing" - a trailer court adjacent to the campus. My mother worked as the secretary to the dean of students which I thought automatically qualified me as Sort of Cool. None of my classmates concurred.

It is now clear that I suffered from Coolness Confusion Disorder - a condition characterized by the level of one's familial pride and enthusiasm being disproportionate to the level of interest and appreciation demonstrated by fifth-grade peers, resulting in the over-communication of information concerning the sufferer's mother's job-related celebrity encounters and campus involvement (i.e. Alex Haley, Watermelon Bust), followed by bored stares, covert eyerolls and abrupt changes of subject, thus leading to further confusion on the part of sufferer.   

Fortunately, CCD did not run my life. There was too much fun to be had living at Ball State. The combination of having a working mother and growing up in a less fearful era gave Tim, Jo-el and me plenty of opportunity to wander the campus like joyous waifs. The three of us made pests of ourselves on the sports field, loitered in the elevators of dormitories, invaded the art gallery and clamored all over the beautiful memorial to the five philanthropic Ball Brothers. And we were barefooted the whole time. It was like having a personal King's Island right in our own backyard.

Sorry, Ball Brothers.  I love your jars. 

However, as with all childhoods, not every memory is heartwarming. Some memories, while perhaps entertaining, are tinged with guilt.

Here is the cast of one such guilt-producing memory from my years at Ball State:

Me - fifth grade Platters fan,
homework-ignorer and, as my brother often pointed out,
"not the boss."

Hard-livin' first grader,
Tim "Question Authority" Parker
(also known by his then secret
code name: Mit Rekrap)

Kindergartner, Jo-el Parker -
She might look like an angel but she was
already perfecting her biting wit.

My fifth grade year was the only year that Tim, Jo-el and I all attended the same school. Every day after school, I was expected to wrangle a six-year-old anarchist and a mini-Joan Rivers along a maple-lined residential street, around a dormitory and across a campus avenue to our trailer court.

And on one particular afternoon the rain was coming down like crazy.

Luckily for me, I was carrying my brand new, ultra-groovy, clear plastic, yellow bubble umbrella. It was with the opening, nay, the blossoming of this glorious device that the clouds of Coolness Confusion Disorder lifted. With my head inside the bubble, peering through the plastic at the golden-yellow world, there was no doubt -- I WAS cool.  

Other than the delight I felt gazing through the sunny dome of my bubble umbrella, the only memory I have of walking home with my siblings on this particular day is the moment we were preparing to cross Neely Avenue, right outside of a dorm building.  The rain was coming down hard and I had to yell to be heard.  Either that, or I was just an out-of-control tyrant as my brother claimed. I was yelling instructions, while keeping an eye on the cars splashing by, assessing the traffic for a safe moment to dash across the road.

My little sister was holding something over her head. I think I had given her my brown plastic raincoat while we were walking home.  That was as nice as I could be as a big sister. I wasn't about to give up the bubble umbrella. 

As we stood on the curb waiting for a break in the traffic, I yelled, "Nobody move until I say 'Go!'" At that very second (without waiting for the referenced subsequent "Go!" but on the original preparatory "Go!"), Jo-el shot out into traffic while holding the raincoat up over her head. 

Thank God, "traffic" at the moment was pretty much only one car and, thank God, the car reached their meeting spot first, so that Jo-el just barreled into the driver's side of the car and bounced off. Still...drama ensued.

I remember letting go of the yellow bubble umbrella which sailed off down the road, whisked away by the winds, never again to cast its golden glow on my world. I also remember rushing recklessly out into the road to my sister. (The umbrella was gone, therefore, so was the Cool.)  The driver, a freaked-out mom with a little kid in the back seat, jumped out of the car. She and I both started to pick up my sister who was now screaming her little kindergarten head off.

A college student who had been walking down the sidewalk also ran out into the road to help.  He took charge and reminded us that we shouldn't be moving Jo-el yet.  He checked her out for broken bones, then scooped her up. The driver had jumped back in the car to drive Jo-el to the hospital, but the college student told her to move over. 

With the college student behind the wheel, the mom sat in the passenger seat, holding Jo-el in her lap. Jo-el was screaming, "I hate this lady! I hate this lady! I want my sissy!" Meanwhile I stood by the side of the road just staring, my hair soaking wet, water streaming down every part of me. The college student leaned across the mom and yelled to be heard above the sound of the pounding rain, "Are you her sister?" Dumbstruck by the entire situation, I just nodded. 

"Then get in the car!"

I did and we sped off. 

And left my little brother. 


In the pouring rain.

And I had the house key.

My poor brother had to break into his own home to get out of the downpour that afternoon. Fortunately, his life of hooliganism at an unusually young age had prepared him for this moment.

My sister was fine.  No broken bones, no concussion. I don't think she even had a single scrape. 

Regarding the driver mom and the college student -- as a fifth grader, I always liked to imagine that she was a widow and that the two of them fell in love, sort of Brady Bunch style. 

As for me, well, I've always felt a little responsible for the entire incident. I figured my sister probably wouldn't have been hit by a car if she had been carrying my umbrella with its high level of crisp, cheery visibility rather than hunching over like a tiny, blonde Quasimodo blinded by a cumbersome, brown raincoat flapping in her face. 

I have a pang of guilt every time I remember abandoning my curly-headed little brother in a rain-filled gutter. I should've spoken up when the college student told me to get in the car. I should've said, "My brother's coming with us!" But I think, in the trauma of the moment, I forgot I even had a brother. 

Of course, none of it would've happened if I hadn't greedily insisted on clinging to the bubble umbrella, falsely assuring my status as Cool.  

Later in life, I abandoned, perhaps as penance, all aspirations of coolness. I never strove. I never hoped. I never pretended. I know now that I was never meant to be cool and any affectations of such only bring about grave consequences.

And yet, I find this memory - the memory of the traumatic day my sister got hit by a car, for heaven's sake - highly entertaining. What can that mean

I suppose it means that, in a way, the yellow bubble umbrella is still with me, tinting my view of the world.

Author's note: This memoir is entirely factual, except the last three paragraphs which descend into utter nonsense.

1 comment:

  1. "Oooooh I laughter in the rain" I am glad everyone made it out of this situation safely. Whatever happened to that umbrella? Was it ever recovered? I wonder if the umbrella found another soul to afflict with Coolness Disorder?


Do be nice to everyone.