Before all that happened though, Ellie was diagnosed with a heart defect. As heart surgery was relatively new and skilled heart surgeons rare, she had to wait until she was three years old for her operation. Until then, her family limited her physical activity, directing her into intellectual, artistic and sedentary activities. She broke out a few times. She remembers climbing out of her crib, running out of the house and crossing the road to a neighbor’s yard. She loved the yard because it was surrounded by huge flowering bushes. She hid among them for a long time (to her) that was probably less than an hour.
Ellie and her family planned for her surgery. The community sponsored blood drives and prepared as best they could. Ellie herself has just two memories of her surgery. The first is being in a crib near a big window and reaching up to be lifted out. The second is walking down a long white hallway while holding the hand of a “white” woman (obviously a nurse in uniform). From stories and newspaper articles, she knows that she took her Raggedy Andy doll to the hospital and that he went through the process with her, getting his own IV and bandages. Her surgeon was smart enough to minimize her scarring by using an incision running from the center of her chest, under her left arm and around to the center of her back. As she grew older and developed breasts, she lost the scarring across her chest and under her arm. Later, a friend who’d had heart surgery when she was 5 years old and then an emergency appendectomy was left with zipper scarring from her breastbone to her pelvis.
While Ellie was sure she played with her sister Amy, she doesn’t really remember her before she herself turned 6 years old. Ellie didn’t get to go to kindergarten at Wallace Grade School. Since only her father and grandfather drove and she was unable to use the bus for a half-day class, she stayed home. Every morning after her dad left for work, her mom went back to bed and Ellie went with her. She crawled in on her dad’s side, slid up behind her mom as she lay on her left side, threw her own right leg around her mom’s waist, and cuddled into her back. They both smile whenever one of them brings it up.
The school bus stopped on the corner just outside her fenced yard. Her dad and grandpa built a simple plywood shelter that she shared with other neighborhood kids. Initially, she was on her own and her mom often walked out and waited with her. Later, her neighborhood changed and more families with children moved in.
In a sunny first floor classroom ruled by petite, grey-haired, Mrs. Schott, she quickly became teacher’s pet. She was always well-behaved, largely due to shyness. She liked to draw and make things, but she loved learning to read. Dick and Jane had a dog named Spot in her classroom. Once she got the basics down, trips to the school and public libraries became ready bribes for teachers, families and friends. Later, as a sixth grader, she tutored first grade readers who needed some additional help during part of the school day. By then, Ellie was reading at a twelfth grade level.
First grade contained other landmarks, mostly adverse. While waiting in line one day, Ellie wet her panties because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself by asking for a bathroom pass while the teacher was talking. She also contracted German measles, staying home until the spots were gone. Finally, she fell in the concrete-floored playshed one rainy day, giving herself a significant goose egg and a concussion.
Sometime in the early years, Ellie’s parents arranged to have a family friend visit as Santa Claus. Ellie has always loved giving presents as much as, if not more than, receiving them. She rarely took into consideration whether or not she’d get return gifts. At the time, the family was living in a small trailer with propane tanks at the front end. She and her sister shared a small area at the beginning of the hallway with overhead storage and just enough to put two small beds underneath on each wall, leaving a narrow walkway between.
Her parents tell a story about a propane accident. As a toddler, Ellie liked to play with the pots and pans which were stored in the small cupboard under the sink. When the cupboard door was open, it covered the oven door of the nearby stove. Apparently, something caused a small explosion that the door protected Ellie from. She wound up inside the cupboard with the pots and pans.
The summer between first and second grades, Ellie rescued an elderly male collie who was bigger than she was at the time. She brought him home with her from playing in the empty field at the end of her block. She was always rescuing something: broken butterflies, stunned birds, and discarded cats and dogs. She named the collie, Sam. He lived in the country with her grandparents where she could visit him for several more years.
In second grade, she changed hallways in the school building but remained on the first floor. Her new teacher was young and single. During the school year, she married and invited all the students in her class to attend. Ellie attended with her grandparents. Her dad’s parents lived next door to them and only her dad and grandfather had a driver’s license.
Third and fourth grade on the second floor are somewhat blurred for Ellie as she was in a classroom that included both grades and she often completed work above her actual grade level. During this time, she and the other students were encouraged to keep busy while the teacher engaged the various groupings. Ellie wrote for extra credit. She wrote stories about horses. She read all the stories about the Black Stallion and many other stories, including all the Sunnybrook dog stories by Albert Payson Terhune.
Some family friends lived on several acres outside Castle Rock. They had a gentle mare, a young stallion and a bunch of cats and dogs. Joanne, the owner, took her for rides on the mare a few times and her kids were on and off the mare bareback constantly. Ellie was forbidden this freedom. Her parents and grandparents remained protective of her despite the heart specialist releasing her without need of further followup. She missed many experiences that other children took for granted.
She also had a bunch of typical experiences. Ellie loved going barefoot, especially in summer. The minute she got home from school, she kicked off her shoes. Her soles were tough enough to go barefooted (carefully) even on gravel. At least once a summer though, she would step on a bee. She was allergic, but not dangerously so. Her mom or grandma would pull out the stinger and apply a paste of baking soda. The whole arch of one foot disappeared after a particular bad sting and she tried to avoid bees and wasps, but they seemed drawn to her. In many ways, stepping on a frog in the grass under her weeping willow was way worse. She liked frogs and would gather them from the gardens, shrubs and flowers to play with. She made elaborate house for them in boxes and jars with miniature gardens and playgrounds. After a few hours, she would turn them loose again. The frog also squished and stuck underfoot.
Ellie loved fifth and sixth grade. She and her best friend Mary would get big rubber balls, find the janitor to have them inflated when they got low, and play dodge ball on the playground. Ellie had crushes on two boys who were best friends, one dark-haired and one blond. Many years later, she found that the dark-haired boy was abusive to his wife and the blond was successful but rather stuck-up.
The summer after sixth grade was the best of times and the worst of times because Ellie was excited about starting junior high school and going to start without her best friend.