Carol “Busybus” Powers
The stories I loved most when I was growing up were the bedtime stories my mother told us about when she was a child.
There was the story about “horse mittens,” the time that my two uncles, aged 4 and 6, had slipped away from the house without their mother knowing, and trekked to the one-room schoolhouse where my mother and my Uncle Lewey watched, amazed–(Lewey was amused, my mother was not)–as they took the floor and proudly showed their most treasured Christmas present to the class, clapping their hands together in time and announcing boastfully, in unison, “WE got GEN-U-INE HORSE-HIDE mittens!!”
There was the story about how my mother and her brothers had managed to outwit Napoleon, the aggressive gander that terrorized them every day when they returned home from school, grabbing him by the neck (“Up close to his head, so he can’t turn around and bite you,” my grandmother advised them), and sticking his head into a snowdrift, then making a frantic run for the safety of the house.
There was the time my great-grandmother–“the rady with the rame reg” to my four-year-old mother, who couldn’t yet pronounce her l’s–made a miraculous recovery as a Midwestern storm approached, scurrying down into the root cellar with the rest of the family, in search of cover. (“It took her a lot longer to get back out,” my mother always said.)
“Tell us horse mittens!” we would cry. “Tell us about Napoleon!” “Tell us about the rady with the rame reg!”
The “rady with the rame reg” was also the one who would bring my inseparable uncles Jim and Dave, the babies of the family, to her side by calling out “Jim-Dave!” “Which one you want, Grandma?” one of them would call back. “You both come here, and when you get here I’ll tell you which one,” was her imperious reply.
As we were always hungry for more, my mother reached as deep as she could into her memory, and pulled out whatever she could to satisfy that hunger. Some of the stories she told were really not stories at all, just wisps of anecdote, or sketches of minor characters. Like Charlie, the hired hand with “dog teeth” (so named for some mysterious reason by my Uncle Dave). And the neighbor, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, who mystified everyone for a time when she referred repeatedly, and excitedly, to the coming of “elekalikaly” to the neighborhood, until they figured out she was referring to electricity. Or my Uncle Dave’s way of picking up his boot and banging it on the upstairs bedroom floor in a vain attempt to make my grandmother, who was below him in the kitchen, believe he was out of bed before he actually was, in those winter mornings when leaving the coziness of his warm bed for the frigid air outside his sheets was such an unattractive prospect.
Then there was the story of Carol Busybus Powers. That was a story about my mother and her father, a man who strongly believed in, and practiced, corporal punishment.
My mother’s name was Carolyn Elizabeth Powers. One day, when she was about three years old, she was playing outside as her father worked on the roof. Seeing the ladder leaning against the house, she decided it would be fun to climb up, and so she set about doing so, ascending several rungs before my grandfather noticed what she was doing. When he did, he warned her in a stern voice to get back down, right away. “I don’t have to get down,” she called back up. “I’m Carol Busybus Powers!” “You’d better get down, and right now,” was his reply. And knowing that a spanking was being threatened, she did.
I loved that story because it represented to me the spirit of adventure and independence my mother must have had before much of it was beaten out of her. I did not think of my mother as a very adventurous person. To me Amelia Earhart was an adventurous woman. Nineteenth-century women writers like Julia Ward Howe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose biographies I devoured in the Childhood of Famous American Series, were my heroines. And then, especially after President Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy, whose glamorous life and gracious style fueled the direction of my dreams, and provided me with a role model distinctly different from the one provided by my own mother.
My mom, on the other hand, was “just” a nurse, and a mom. When I was young, I didn’t know how much courage, initiative, and determination it had taken for her to get herself out of the small-town farming community where she had grown up, to the suburbs of St. Paul, where we lived for the first few years of my life. I didn’t know that from her teen years she had ventured much farther out into the world than most people where she came from: working as a maid for a summer at a resort hotel in Yellowstone Park; signing up as a cadet nurse during the war; volunteering during the polio epidemic. I didn’t know that a spirit of adventure had also been required for her to meet with enthusiasm the prospect of moving our family “out East,” to Ohio, leaving all her friends and family behind, which we did when I was five years old, so that my father could take part in one of the greatest adventures of the twentieth century: the Apollo project that took men to the moon.
It was only much later, after she died and I was sorting it all out, that I began to realize how far she had ventured from the safety and comfort of her world. But then I remembered that one day she had told me about a boyfriend she had had before she knew my father. He had wanted to marry her, but she had declined. “He was nice,” my mom said. “He was very nice. But he wasn’t going anywhere.”
My Mom wanted to go somewhere, and with my Dad, she did.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Each summer she teaches a literature course in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY (“Paris: A Literary Adventure”). She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and writing workshops in the Champagne region of France. This is an excerpt from her work in progress, “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.” She also wrote a tribute to her mother on Mother’s Day 2009, here.