March 12, 2005

"Something Left Behind" The Letter. 'Kiss My Babies for Me'

I remember the overwhelming loneliness even for a 3-year old little girl. I remember feeling the wet tears on my face as I peered out the window of the noisy 18-wheeler as it rushed down the highway away from the bright lights of New York City. Where was my mother? I felt sure she would return to get us and we wouldn't be there. Was she looking for me and baby sister now?

As I watched the stars throughout the long dark night and covered baby sister with a blanket, I knew our mother was in every car that passed by, in every light that blinked in the sky and standing in every window of every house along the way. I felt that somewhere in the darkness she was looking for me. And I was right!

It would take almost 40 years to discover a letter our mother had sent to the orphanage addressed to Linda and Sandra Brantley. We could not remember that someone had read the letter to us when we were just babies. In it she said she had to go away for awhile but she would return. "Whoever is reading this to my babies, please give them a kiss for me and tell them that their mother has not forgotten them".

I didn't understand then of course, but our grandmother, Carolyn Mascunana, had arranged for our truck driver uncle get us from the St. Barnabas Orphanage in New York City and include these two babies in his weekly "load" from New York City to Tampa, Florida.

No one knew what had happened to our mother, Dorothy Brantley, but she had disappeared leaving her 4 children alone there in New York City. Our father, Robert Brantley, was in the Navy cleaning up from the Korean War. We lost contact with our two older siblings. No one knew where either of our parents were. No one knew about the pink envelope tucked away in the orphanage file!

I didn't want to leave the orphanage. I begged to stay and wait for our mother. It was not until our grandparents gave up hope of either of our parents returning and it looked like I might be adopted out, that they sent for the two of us. My screaming rages at being separated from Sandra had prevented my adoption so far.

The trip remains nothing but a blur of bright lights that I concluded were search light from my mother. When we arrived in Tampa, there was some disagreement over who was really suppose to get us. Uncle Harvey and Aunt Tina Kruse were on record as adopting us, but that was the first of many underhanded things our grandmother did to keep us away from our parents and other family members for many years.

The sweetness in the family came from our grandpa, Jorge Mascunana. He was grandma's second husband and actually no blood ties to us, but he was longsuffering and patient when grandma was in a rage. He was kind when she was cruel. He was polite and gracious when she was mean and spiteful! He was small in stature. She was a giant of a woman. Everyone eventually left us all alone with this evil woman.

My sister and I were often afraid. The years that followed were spent being pulled from one place to another. Grandma would sometimes become a screaming maniac who would whip us until blood ran down our legs as she threatened to send us back to the orphanage. We lived in rat infested rooms and cold filthy trailers. We lived in cave-like places near Chattanooga, Tennessee and half build shacks in Missouri. We clung to each other and grew in our love and dependence on the other.

Each of us developed the innter strength to survive - each in opposite ways! I have a strong belief in a Higher Power and Sandra has strong belief in herself. I collect angels. Sandra collects witches. I'm devoted to taking care of others. Sandra takes good care of herself and others. I spent a lifetime of taking care of grandma until she died at over 100 years old! Sandra never forgot what grandma did to us but she accepted grandma's apology near the end of her long life.
When I was 13, I was a barefoot girl chopping firewood to keep us warm from the cold Missouri winter. We lived in a half-build house along a winding creek deep in the woods about 100 miles south of St. Louis. We had no electricity or running water. We bathed in the creek and gathered food from the woods. We probably would have died had it not been for the friendship and kindness of the few mountain people who lived within walking distance along Carver Creek near Annapolis, Missouri.

We still keep in contact with Grace and Albert Jordan of Carver Creek. Albert provided firewood from his sawmill. He shared milk from his cows and eggs from the chickens. Gracie canned jars and jars of vegetables every summer. We enjoyed playing with their little sons, Randy and Roger.

We still speak fondly of Lilly Jordan who taught us what wild plants were best to pick from the forest floor and what mushrooms were ready for the plucking after a summer rain.

The pets, it seemed had better living quarters that we did. The cat and dog shared and old weatherworn doghouse while Sandra and I wore threadbare coats to bed and huddled together to keep warm during those bone chilling 40 below winter nights. We knew that if it snowed during the night, we would wake to find tiny threads of snow on our bed that came through the cracks in the walls.

Grandma, stout and tough, would pile her bed high with old clothes and rags and snore the rafters loose! Grandpa refused to endure the cold winters and remained with his large Spanish family in Tampa.

We were cut off from the world. When kids our age were screaming over the Beatles, we were chopping firewood and emptying chamber pots. When "Lassie Come Home" was a family show, we were husking corn and picking out the worms. When Country Music was really country, we had no radio or TV.

One day in 1963, grandma told us that the president of the United States had been shot and killed. We didn't know who the president was! Our friends were orphaned wild animals. Our toys were Indian arrowheads and pretty stones from the creek bed. Our schooling was grandma on a "good day". Raging creeks and flat tires regulated our rare trip to "town".

Grandpa knew we needed his love and support. He sent large packages of toys and pretty clothes to cheer his two adoring adopted grandchildren. (They had adopted us by then.) Every day, Sandra and I would run the mailbox by the edge of the road and watch for the tiny dust trail that signaled, "Johnny the Mailman" and a quick break from grandma's backbreaking garden. For many years after we left there, I sent a Christmas card to "Johnny the Mailman" at Annapolis, Missouri. I never knew his name. I wonder if he knew how much we loved him!

Family and friends didn't ever come to visit, but they did send care packages. Our relatives never knew that grandma didn't let us keep the gifts they sent. She said we needed to share with "those less fortunate". She told us that she sent our precious treasures across the sea to the poor children of China.

In Missouri, we were often sick with raging fevers and lung wrenching coughs. Grandma's remedy for a bad cough was a teaspoon of Kerosene on a spoonful of sugar. Earaches were treated with warm onion juice poured down the ear. A pain in my side called for an over night lemon juice poultice. Sore throats got wrapped with wool and plastic for a day. Deep cuts were sewed together with needle and thread! We grew up thinking this was normal.

In the Springtime, Sandra and I would dance with delight as we hunted barefoot in the thick woods for Springly mushrooms and tasty greens. The angels must have been busy protecting us two little girls running around deep in the Missouri woods alone and barefoot! On the small wood-burning stove, grandma would fry the mushrooms in her unique but tasty bug-infested batter and she would steam the greens with a little butter. Sometimes we got to eat some of the warm corn meal mush she cooked for the dogs.

The Missouri summer storms sent us cowering together in fear; not only of the lightening but that the creek would wash our house away! Carver Creek curved its way around our house and across both ends of the gravel road to our section of the Ozark Mountains. When the creeks came up, no one went out or came in until the floodwater receded!
We learned how dangerous our creek could be when our good friend, Norman, tried to cross the raging water on his John Deere tractor. The tractor was washed away and he was drowned.

The Missouri Mountains may be a great vacation place for some, but Sandra and I knew its monstrous secrets. There were Rattlesnakes on the path to get drinking water from the spring deep in the woods. Water Moccasins lay sunning on the over hanging branches and dropped down beside us as we bathed in the creek. Leeches stuck to our legs or slid into tiny body openings if we lingered too long on a warm summer day.

Sandra and I would argue over whose turn it was to carry the water bucket from the insect-filled spring, but we didn't ague over who would go because neither of us would travel those paths alone! It seemed we could never get the bucket full enough not to splash on our already cold, blue legs, or full enough to please grandma!

Our ankles were swollen and red from constant flea bites. Mice ran across our bed at night and ate any treats we tried to hide from grandma. Each morning we would scramble to help each other untangle cockroaches from our hair! We tried to ignore the cooked worms and weevils in our food. I learned to eat without getting sick by setting aside a bit of food on my place and pretending that it contained all the insects that had been in my food.

To celebrate becoming a teenager, I planted my own little flower garden. I broke up the ground with a heavy old railroad pick! I had already learned how to change tires, mend fences and carry 50-pound bags of feed to the old barn for my pet goat that I milked twice a day. We cooked, sewed, cleaned, canned food and tried to study from any book we could find.

One summer day, a strange car did indeed stop at our house. It was our dad! Grandma didn't seem surprised to see her son. I knew it was my dad the moment I saw him even though I hadn't seen him since I was an infant. Grandma let him drive us to town for commodities and we went swimming and had a picnic.

But our dad only stayed a few days. He was there to offer us a nice home and a new mother!

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