Sharon Lee Sherman was born October 24, 1938, the same week that Orson Welles caused panic in the U.S. when he broadcast a realistic radio drama on CBS that made listeners think the world was being invaded by Martians. Hitler was causing trouble in Europe, but things were peaceful on Huttig Street where no one was concerned about world events, and two year old Judy and four year old Dale were focused on the brown eyed newborn that mom had brought home. As a child we called her Sherry.
Mom was not well when she was carrying Sherry. A neighbor lady said mom’s skin had a greenish tinge and worried that she might be anemic. Uncharacteristically tired and out of sorts she worried that it might affect Sherry’s “disposition,” as she put it. Mom started taking some kind of iron tonic, probably purchased from the smarmy looking little Watkins’s salesman that routinely showed up on a red three-wheeled scooter with a box full of product on the back.
He would sell mom sewing needles, buttons, vanilla extract, and always a small can of Watkins’s liniment that she used to treat the psoriasis on the back of her hand.
The sinister looking Watkins’s Salesman once gave me a ride home when I was in first grade on his three wheeled company scooter, probably thinking he could wheedle mom into buying more product. I straddled the box of product that sat behind him, and when he didn’t seem to be slowing down at our house I assumed he was not only smarmy but a kidnapper, and I bailed out in front of the Holy Roller Hickman’s house. There was a lot of gravel there close to the road drain, and a lot of it ended up embedded in my forearms when I tried to slow down my head long skid.
The salesman’s tonic might have helped mom’s lethargy a little with its alcohol content but I think mom’s sickness was probably a message Sherry was sending her that she didn’t like tight spaces and needed more room in the cramped womb. Personal space was a cherished thing for my middle sister Sherry. As it turned out, there was no need to worry about Sherry’s temperament (disposition) being permanently affected. According to mom Sherry arrived in this world a “very happy baby!” In her notebook she adds:
“She woke up with happy sounds, and went to sleep cooing. I called her baby dumpling.”
Mrs. Hickman, mom’s close friend and Holy Roller neighbor, called Sherry applesauce. She said she picked that name because Sherry was so sweet. There is one little feature in Sherry’s make-up now that I think about it, that seems incongruous for someone so sweet and friendly that a neighbor would nickname her “applesauce.” There may have been a trace of tart Granny Smith Apple in that sauce.
One instance of Sherry’s not so sweet behavior is when she was a very young pre-schooler. Sherry evidently liked having her own personal space and she erected a little imaginary perimeter fence around her domain, and protected it fiercely.
Mom writes this:
"Judy was delighted to have a little sister, and smothered her with attention. Sherry finally resorted to biting Judy to be able to be free of her attentions awhile. This went on for awhile. I tried to talk to Sherry and Judy to set things right again. One day, while I was on the phone, Judy came to me with tears in her eyes and showed me a big bruise on her arm where Sherry had bitten her. I told her I just didn’t know what to do – that I guessed she would have to bite her back. Then she (Judy) really started crying – “I can’t, I love her too much!” Sherry was watching big-eyed, all this time, and to my knowledge she never bit Judy or anyone else after that.”
The second example of Sherry’s personal space requirements comes a few years later, when Sherry and Judy were around five and seven. Sherry had broken both bones in her forearm when Dale tried to flip her over a clothesline with his feet at Grandpa Sherman’s house. In a letter to Leonard, my mother writes this:
“Judy follows Sherry trying to find something she can do for her, until Sherry gets provoked and says ‘quit that following me around!
Sherry cracked mom up repeatedly with odd little sayings she would blurt out. Mom couldn’t remember them later on, probably because they were so off the wall and preposterous. Later in life mom writes this about Sherry.
“Sharon Lee was the most original in the cute things she said, I thought I never would forget them, but I have!”
Mother had forgotten she had written this little jewel I found in one of the letters she wrote to Leonard in 1944.
“Sherry was asking Judy if she needed teeth this morning, said if she did, she’d plant her some seed for some false teeth.”
There was another one I unearthed but buried again on my desk. A neighbor was rebuilding his house after a fire, and Sherry asked mother if he was re-building his house so he could burn it down again?
There are little glimpses of Sherry’s childhood world in the letters my parents exchanged in 1944. Sherry would have been five, and in kindergarten. Here are some snippets from Leonard’s letters: “Hello Sherry, my, I bet you will make a good farmer and housekeeper too, helping mama and taking care of Danny and cooking.”---- “Dear Sherry, I hope your arm is all well and strong the next time I see you. Did you pass in school?”
These are bits and pieces from mom’s letters that show Sherry’s ambivalence to school. “Sherry cried, and wouldn’t go to school today but felt good as soon as the danger of school was over.”
This opposite attitude about school is in another letter: “Even Sherry is in school, she cried until I let her go.” “Sherry and Judy took their lunch today. The magician is coming again, 15 cents each.” “Sherry still says a lot of funny things!”
Mom wrote this later in life about Sherry’s helpful nature, when she was five or six.
“I had a corner cabinet with nice cups and saucers, each one different. Little Sherry loved to dust and arrange them. Our floor in the dining room was not real level and the corner cabinet toppled over.
Many of the cups and saucers were broken or cracked.
Sherry turned so pale that even her lips lost color – I was afraid she was going to faint and held her to me and tried to comfort her. Finally I told her that she would probably get me lots more when she grew up.”
While I was known for upchucking explosively if I saw something disgusting, or if I caught a glimpse of someone else upchucking, Sherry was a legendary fainter. When Dr. Hink cut the cast off her arm, she fainted straight away, evidently imagining that the saw was taking off more than the cast. Evidently a career in nursing was not on the table.
As a kid Sherry seemed to be willing to help with any request her big brother Dale proposed, even after his attempt to flip her over the clothesline with his feet. Sherry seemed to be the “go to” when Dale needed a partner for a circus stunt, or a victim to test an untested theory on.
One day Dale gave Sherry detailed instruction on how she could catch a bumblebee in her hands without getting stung, an experiment they carried out near the gas meter on the driveway side, where mom had planted some flowers in the false hope that they wouldn’t be trampled. I imagine Dale was standing behind her as the bumblebee hovered and buzzed above one of mom’s flat blossomed purple zinnias. I can hear Dale say “When you cup your hands around it Sherry, make sure the bumblebee is completely in the dark. If it sees any daylight he’ll sting you.” The results of the experiment came out as you might expect.
After the above paragraph was written I visited Sherry in Independence and she said she had caught five or six bees in the grapevines on the other side of the driveway without being stung so the, experiment was initially successful. I was also surprised to hear that Dale had successfully flipped her over the clothesline with his feet successfully numerous times and Sherry would run back and beg for him to do it again! It was only when she landed on a rock that things turned bad.
Dale compensated Sherry by taking her with him to the clay bluffs that bordered the Missouri River just a short distance north of our home. They would set up lines of old bottles as targets.
Sherry said she got to be such a marksman that she could shoot the necks off the bottles. I would have willingly volunteered for some of Dale’s experiments in exchange for shooting his rifle. I was often in the willows and sumac at the river with a Daisy BB gun, but never with Dale and a real rifle.
Sherry told me this little anecdote about our crabby neighbor with the short fuse. She told it with such pleasure, that it might make you question her sweet nature. Two doors down toward Blakeley’s corner grocery stood a large house on a large lot, owned by a man seldom seen. He hated children, and they must have been in school the day he bought the house, not suspecting that when the last school bell rang the neighboring yards would overflow with unpredictable and sometimes destructive children. Counting the six or seven homes that were the closest to him I can name fifteen children.
He hunkered down in his big house, and even nailed a no trespassing sign on the tree where you entered his long curving driveway. We ignored the sign and used the drive frequently. The drive had a nice dip and curves in it when we rode our bikes down it, then we’d coast all the way around to the back to where his garage sat. It was also good for sledding.
He wouldn’t answer the door bell when kids like me were collecting for the March of Dimes, or selling scout tickets and Christmas holly, etc. He must have had one of those little eye holes in the door to screen out small salesmen. His first option was to call the police when we trespassed.
Sherry said she and some neighbor friends filled a paper sack with some cow dung, placed it on his front porch, set a match to the paper sack, rang the doorbell, then ran and hid behind the bushes. Squinting with one eye through his little peep hole and seeing no one he might have marked it up as just another harmless prank to irritate him, until he saw a whisper of black smoke rise from his porch. Alarmed, he unlocked the door, opened it and saw the burning sack. He vigorously stomped out the fire wishing no doubt he had bought a house in a quieter area with no school nearby. We were an inner-city neighborhood with a few chickens but no cows, which brings into question the origin of the shit in the sack. We had a surplus of mixed breed dogs. I’m sure that whatever animal contributed the poop, it was on the cranks shoes or slippers as he tracked back through the house to the phone, where he immediately called the police.
Sherry, not one to flee the scene of a crime, says that when the policeman arrived, probably one from the nearby city of Sugar Creek, where they had a lot of real crime. This cop probably had kids of his own, and annoyed by the misanthropes’ frequent calls, whispered to her and her friends, as he left the crime scene, and passed them hiding behind the shrubbery. “Good job kids!
Since Sherry was Dale’s “go to” when they were young, it was again Sherry that Dale went to in High School when he needed a note signed from the principal. A tidal wave of correspondence inundated our mailbox from the principal’s office at Northeast High School, all regarding his chronic absenteeism. Dale and his buddy Wally would skip school and spend the day at the pool hall next to the barber shop in Fairmount.
Sherry improvised novel works of fiction in response to each of the letters, and forged mother’s signature. Evidently she penned our mother’s signature so accurately it would have taken a hand writing expert to detect a difference. Sherry had graduated from simple compliance to Dale’s youthful requests to aiding and abetting his hooky playing.
Sherry’s big reward for the forgeries came later, after mom found the mound of letters when she was doing a routine flipping of Dale’s mattress. Soon after the discovery mom took Dale to the Navy Recruiting Station in Kansas City, and he was soon boarding a train at the Union Station headed to San Diego for boot camp. Sherry says Dale left his car in her care, and let her drive it to school her senior year when she transferred to Van Horn. It wasn’t the 32 Ford Coupe with a rumble seat, or the big gas guzzling Chrysler he bought for less than a hundred dollars. It may have been the 1939 straight eight Oldsmobile. I’ve lost track of which one it was, but it had a stick shift.
Sherry couldn’t wait to earn a little money of her own. She says she was never overly fond of schoolwork. At a young age she started babysitting for our next door neighbors two boys, Kenny and Johnny Musgrave, and then any other neighbor kid that Judy wasn’t already babysitting. She snagged a job at the five and dime in Fairmount, and worked there for two weeks helping with inventory and neatly stocking the shelves, with praise from the owner, until he found she was only 14 and too young to be legally working. She found a job soon after working at the Byam Theatre, possibly with a recommendation to Mr. Byam from Dale, who had been a dependable worker at the Byam Pharmacy cleaning up and delivering prescriptions on his bicycle. I can’t confirm whether Sherry gave Mr. Byam her true age.
At Northeast High School, in her junior year, Sherry found a regular part time job at a plastics factory in the Italian district, near the industrial west bottoms of Kansas City . Every day of the school week she would board a city bus to school that entailed several transfers, then after school she would board a bus to the job. Following work she would again climb aboard one of those big cloud belching yellow city buses for the long ride home. I imagine that even with a short three or four hour shift it was dusk or dark by the time she changed buses at Mount Washington depot for the last transfer before she got off in Fairmount, and walked down Huttig in the dark to our home.
Sherry says mom was a terrible driver, and would get mad when Sherry told her she was driving too close to the edge of the road. I remember mom telling me that her dad Wilford was a terrible driver, and would drive too close to the edge. She said if you criticized him, or tried to warn him of a train, or some obstacle in the road, he would just slam on the brakes with no concern about who was behind him.
Even though Sherry never had a car of her own as a teenager, the driver’s license paid dividends. At sixteen she responded to a newspaper ad for a couple needing help driving to California with their small child. Whatever unknown situation prompted the couple to place the ad, Sherry ended up doing most of the driving. When they arrived in California the couple bought her a train ticket and sent her back home to Kansas City. That’s a mega dose of self-assurance for someone so young. (This must have been between her junior and senior year in high school.)
Another major revision is in order here, again the result of my visit with Sherry last week.. Sherry was not responding to a newspaper ad but there to a note in the church bulletin, and the couple were well known people . The man held a high office in the church. Sherry says that mom would have never let her go with a couple known only from a newspaper ad. Also the notes I had said it was a 3 year old child. Evidently the one was left off the writing I had and it was actually a thirteen year old girl (a niece of the couple) and they thought she would travel better with a companion. close to her age It also appears that Sherry had an additional motive for the California trip. Her boy friend Vernon was in California for some reason and he travelled back with her on the train. If I have this wrong I will have to make a revision of the revision..
Sherry was popular and pretty, and she dated early. She was active in Gudgell Park’s Zion’s League, a church youth group that our dad’s only sister Joy was in charge of. It was on the far side of Independence, but boys from the league started coming by the house. First Dennis Chapman, and then Vernon Sperry, and some I don’t remember. Vernon gave Sherry a hope chest, but as far as I know he didn’t give her an engagement ring. Maybe he had bigger marriage plans than he had adequately explained to Sherry. He had a mile wide jealous streak, and was upset when Sherry made plans to attend Graceland College in Iowa. He said she was just going there to meet boys. Vernon came to the house, along with his mother for back-up, and they angrily took back the hope chest he had given her.
Yet another revision from additional information from my sister Sherry. Vernon had actually given her an engagement ring, and Vernon and his mother not only retrieved the hope chest but all the contents that were in it. Evidently they had been given engagement gifts in preparation for an impending marriage at some point. Vernon, in my opinion, would have been a very bad choice.
That same senior year there was Roy Cawley, a church friend of Dales who he met in the Navy. Roy escorted Sherry in her formal to an inner-city school orchestra event in Kansas City, where Sherry was playing the cello. That evening turned tragic when Roy left the road on his return home was killed on his return home to Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was rooting for Roy, who unlike Vernon, had a great sense of humor.
There are a number of interesting little bits and pieces of information I have written down about Sherry that I can’t thread together in any coherent manner.
Sherry’s favorite meal at Fairmount Elementary was cornbread and beans with vinegar.
Sherry remembers a female high school science teacher who had the mannerisms of a man. She wore an ill fitting wig, and while lecturing she would sit on the edge of her desk constantly adjusting her girdle and pulling up her bra. When the students learned she was allergic to roses they would bring them, and she would place them on her desk instead of throwing them out. Then they would have a substitute teacher for several days until she recovered.
Despite all the mischievous behavior that we Sherman Kids seemed to be drawn to, it was effectively counterbalanced by the constant shepherding of our mother. She made sure we attended Sunday Services at the Mount Washington Reorganized Latter Day Saint Church, and we often attended the Wednesday night prayer meetings. Every July we attended a church reunion at Lake Doniphan in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, where we lived in tents and attended daily services in a big circus tent on the hill.
In addition, our mother set up a little altar in our living room where we prayed for neighbors who were sick or had family problems. A major example of the power of prayer was the healing of Frank Powers, who we once witnessed being dragged home dead drunk from the Calico Cat Bar in Fairmount. He eventually lost all desire to drink, and as a result other neighbors requested to be put on the prayer list, including the Holy Roller Mrs. Hickman when she was deathly ill, and a young Catholic couple who were having marriage problems.
A few years ago my sisters visited me here in Bella Vista, Arkansas.. A sudden change in temperature had caused frost flowers to erupt in the old abandoned homestead at the bottom of the hill. It made me reflect on the fleeting nature of our existence, and that we were no longer children but at the other end of that spectrum called life.
In the hollow at the bottom of our hill
Frost flowers are blooming
Around the abandoned farmhouse
Around the base of every
Ironweed and Joe Pye-Weed stem
Cotton-candy ice is spinning through fissured stems
Translucent ribbons of curled petals
Blooming about us
In long unbroken strands
My sisters and I stand in the middle Of this weed garden of Frost flowers
Stunned by the beauty of it
This little epiphany of
Momentary art that none of us have
Witnessed in all our combined years
At length the long tongue of the sun
Reaches through the bare branches
Into the hollow
Stroking the curtains of cottony ice
With a brush of warm light
Dripping rainbow ice petals onto the ground
I realize we are all frost flowers
Impermanent and fragile
Waiting in the hollow
Strangely I am not saddened by this