Janice and Galen lived a few blocks from the hospital on Elm Street. I stopped and told them of the birth. I gave Karen and David pink bubblegum cigars, pocketing the blue ones. Then I made the trip over the mountain to Maugansville. I had told Doris I would come back in the evening after making some phone calls and getting some sleep but I was so exhausted when she called me from the hospital at around 10 pm I was still sleeping. I could not make it back until the next morning, which was Sunday.
I was certain of a few decisions that I had made about raising a child. I wanted her to be happy and free. I wanted her to think for herself as she grew up and I wanted to be sure that I was willing to accept and support her choices. I wanted her to know that she was not born to please me and I would not project expectations onto her. She witnessed my weaknesses and failures. Maybe, as she grew, I was more a cautionary tale than role model! My parents had the Mennonite rituals and beliefs that even then, as an adult, they were still pressuring me to accept. I felt that I disappointed them. I never wanted Nicole to feel that I was disappointed with her. My parents generally did not overtly try to interfere with my relationship with Nicole. The only time I recall intervening was once when Mother was holding Nicole and singing a little Sunday school song. I was mostly OK with those songs until she started singing a song that went, "He sees what I do, He hears what I say, My Lord is writing all the time". It was songs like that in my childhood that created anxiety and guilt. Was God watching everything I did and said, and was he writing it all down in the “big book of life” that would be used as evidence against me? I remember the confused look on my Mother’s face when I stopped her and said, “Don’t ever sing that song to her.”
That summer in 1973, we worked out our schedules. I worked mornings and most evenings and took afternoons off to be with Nicole while Doris worked. I sat and held her and watched the live broadcasts of the Watergate hearings. That might have been the beginning of news as entertainment. I was mesmerized with the proceedings. I remember kidding that Nicole might grow up to think that Senator Sam Ervin was her grandpa.
For two years, Doris and I worked different schedules and switched off spending time with Nicole. When she first began to speak, for a while she called us both, “Mommy Daddy.” I liked that. We watched her with pride as she developed skills early. We shared “three-buddy” kisses and sat on the floor with her, playing with her simple toys!
I had learned guitar chords and was creating simple songs in the folksong tradition. I mostly just sang and played for my own entertainment but I also played some at church-related gatherings.
In the evenings, Doris and I often had employees close the store while we went to movies. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a great time for movies.
I wanted to sell the store and do something different. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just wanted out of the routine the store had become. We also wanted a house. Doris had long wanted to move but we had never seriously started the process of looking at real estate.
The store was comfortable in some ways. I liked the people who worked for us. I liked being manager and self-employed even though I worked long hours and was not very successful. I knew all our customers and many seemed like casual friends. A mentally handicapped man who lived in Maugansville rode a bicycle and wore a fireman’s helmet. He spent time between the fire hall and our store. Whenever I went to Hagerstown to pick up supplies or made deliveries, he often rode along.
For years I had made photographs with point and shoot cameras. I experimented by taping magnifying glass over the lens to do close-ups. I tried shooting without flash in varied lighting. It was all very unscientific. After completing a roll of film it was a week or more before I would see results. For instant results, I shot with Polaroid cameras. In 1974, I bought my first single lens reflex camera. I primarily photographed Nicole and actually worked at learning the camera. I met a friend who had experience with the SLR camera and was more academic in his procedures. He was working as an auto mechanic for my childhood friend Ed Brewer across the street from the store. He would go on to get his Masters in photography at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. For several years we were close friends and shared photographs. I learned basic camera skills from him. He was a few years younger than me. He was the Conscientious Objector that I learned to know who had made the choice without church affiliation. The FBI had come to his house and taken him to prison because he refused the draft. We had some common interests and he became my first trusted, non-Mennonite friend. He was a big proponent of smoking weed and I tried it first with him. We went to camera club meetings and would go outside and share a smoke during the coffee break. I was writing and doing some painting but the camera became my art form of choice.
I read a newspaper story about a local state institution for the severely mentally handicapped. The story stated that they were looking for volunteers. I decided to go once a week to help. After a quick background check I was accepted. Most of these people were nonverbal and confined to chairs or had difficulty walking. I quickly realized that we live our lives mostly unaware of these people who have a completely different existence. I may have been helpful but the people who work with the handicapped are skilled and efficient. It’s a different kind of compassion than I was used to. In some ways I felt like I was in the way. I helped with feeding at lunch and took walks with one young woman who become attached to me. I made a few beds but in the end it was such a specialized job and so different than what I expected I only continued volunteering for a short time. I was generally uncomfortable. I finally resolved that it was better to give money and goods if possible and leave the hands-on work to people with skills.
A book titled, “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” was published in 1969. I read the book when it became a popular meme. I learned about a therapy called “Transactional Analysis.” Maybe it was pseudo-psychology but it got me thinking that it could help me separate myself from the messages I had in my head. I was still rebelling against the restrictive and guilt-filled messages about religion that were instilled by my parents and the church. I was rebelling, but not resolving those ideas. I was struggling to become a healthy, independent person with my own ideas that would give me a sense of freedom and confidence. There was an older and good friend at church who understood my struggle because he had a similar background. He was a medical doctor. He and his wife were training to use the Transactional Analysis method in his medical practice. When a nationally recognized trainer held a workshop in Hagerstown, I decided to attend. It was a two day workshop and it began to open a lot of issues that I had buried within my mind. By the end of the second day when the workshop was over I was so excited and physically tense that I could not pee. I had been drinking coffee and I had to pee but my body would not release it! It was painful. It took several hours at home until I was relaxed enough to pee. In retrospect, it was rather funny but indicated how much I needed to work on myself! Work that I eventual had some success with.
In 1974 Nicole was one year old and growing. Doris was still working with Daddy in the insurance business. We still lived in the mobile home behind the store. I wanted to sell our part of the store and began sending out information. I talked with interested parties but there were no solid offers. We did not find a buyer. I think Daddy understood my need to make a change. He offered to take the business back and I was grateful! A few months later Daddy found a buyer who was not successful with running the business. After buying the store back a second time, Daddy made the decision to close it. He sold the property to Ed Brewer who had a car (Saab) dealership in his Dad’s old garage across the street. Ed rented out the house with the upstairs apartment my parents had made, he turned the store into a showroom, offices and parts department for the dealership and rented out the two mobile homes at the back.
I was so disengaged at this time that I did not even go to the auction that was held to sell off all the store equipment and miscellaneous items. We had already moved. I don’t know what I was doing that day. Mother and Daddy also sold a lot of their personal things at another auction. I remember being there for part of that auction. They moved to a new house a few miles away. It was a modular house that was delivered in two major pieces and craned into place onto a concrete block foundation. I took Nicole to watch the house being set into place. The new house was just outside of Maugansville on Martin Road (now Shawley Drive) and had sufficient land for Daddy to build an outbuilding that served as a garage for his car and barn for his goats. There was a small pasture for the goats to graze.
When Daddy took over the business, we started looking for a different place to move. It didn’t take long for us to find the house at 1341 Jefferson Blvd. in Hagerstown. We used the money from selling the store to make a down payment and another loan from Daddy to buy the house and do initial improvements. We did not need a bank mortgage.
After taking out a wall between the kitchen and a sunporch and installing a supporting beam, we remodeled the expanded kitchen. We moved in and soon started working on the rest of the house. I was happy to be a full-time parent while Doris seemed happy to pursue her career in insurance. I was the, “stay at home” Dad, while working on the house. I enjoyed being home with Nicole while Doris went to work, however, I was unfamiliar with the idea of a father being full-time caregiver for a child. It was not popular at the time. I was so naive, I remember asking our doctor friend if he thought there was a chance it would cause sexual identity confusion for Nicole. He wisely reassured me there was no reason for concern. At one point in the mid 1970s an uncle with a big grin said, “So Donnie, I hear you’re the babysitter.” More than one of my male friends said, “I wish I could do what you are doing.” I didn’t know how to respond but I wondered why they did not do it if that’s really what they wanted. It takes a certain amount of courage to be different and society will make sure you pay a price! At the time, I did not think much about the eventual consequence of being a stay at home “mom/dad” and pulling out of the job market for several years. Again, I believed in my ability to work and to be creative. When the time came, it turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated.
We employed Galen to come help with the remodel of our house. As Doris’ salary increased, the project grew. We studded the walls, insulating, installing new plumbing and wiring, finishing with new drywall and trim work. It was a new house inside a Civil War era brick house. We even had the dirt floor basement dug out, cemented and the limestone walls repointed. My perception is that Doris initiated the remodeling and I agreed. Some of the work was done by subcontractors and some I did myself. It was difficult living in the house while the work was being done but when we finished, it was a nice house for a young family.
Nate and Kathy were living in Adrian, Michigan. They had three children, Jeffrey, Roderick (Rick) and Natalie. In 1975 Rick, who was fourteen, suddenly became ill. He was taken to the Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor and diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. He died several months later in the hospital. This event had an enormous impact on their family. Kathy was working at the Adrian College and Nate was running a nonprofit that he and Kathy had started. It was a residence for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. I went to Michigan several times to help with the house while Nate and Kathy made trips to the hospital. I only visited Rick once in the hospital and he was very weak. Rick had been interested in photography and had set up a small darkroom. After he died, I went back several times to spend time with Nate and Kathy. Rick’s death presented a lot of questions about God and the random cruelty that life can deliver. This tragedy was also traumatic for their other two children Jeff and Natalie. They had a memorial service for him at the large house that was their residence and the shelter for the people they were helping. I don’t remember much of the service. I took a lot of pictures with my camera.
By 1976 we were settling into a routine. Doris got up early and prepared for work. I got Nicole up and dressed. After Doris went to work, Nicole and I had breakfast and we would start our day. We drew pictures, read books and played outside. We would go on excursions to the library, the city park or to visit the grandparents. As she grew older, at Halloween I made costumes. One year she walked in the Mummer’s parade as a performing monkey and her middle school friend was an organ grinder. She and the same friend went to a middle school dance as Ghost Busters! I had some housekeeping chores to do, grocery shopping, yard work and cooking. Doris would often work ten hour days and had evening meetings. When she came home, dinner would be well underway. After dinner, Doris would usually do bath and bedtime with Nicole. On late evenings or weekends she would do laundry.
One day the city water was shut off unexpectedly. I decided that Nicole and I would go out and run some errands. For some reason the bathtub faucet was left on and the water came back on while we were out. When we came home the tub was overflowing. Water was running down the steps and the kitchen ceiling was drooping under the weight of the water that was leaking through the bathroom floor! It was an embarrassing mistake and required a lot of clean up and repair! It was on occasions like this that I was aware of how easily distracted I could be. It was not unusual for me to neglect regular maintenance of vehicles and equipment. I sometimes would run out of gas because I neglected to stop and fill-up. It was not unusual for me to lose my keys or wallet.
On a vacation to Florida, when Nicole was eight or nine, we took the auto train. I have some fond memories of that vacation, however, on one afternoon we somehow ended up at one of those roadside tourist traps with a few caged wild animals. My memory was that there was tension not about anything specific, just tension. While we were in the venue, it started to rain. It was absolutely pouring when I went to get the car to drive up it the entrance so Doris and Nicole would not need to run through the rain. When I got to the car I realized that I had locked the car with the keys inside. I ran back through the rain and told Doris what I had done. The tension escalated! I borrowed a wire hanger and went back out into the rain to try to jimmy open the lock. A stranger, a few years my senior came out into the rain and stayed with me attempting to help. All I remember is that I was angry with myself and I was doing a lot of swearing as I worked with the wire hanger. Somehow with perseverance and all the foul language I finally got the door unlocked! The stranger and I were soaked but elated. I was truly grateful to him for sticking by me. I thanked him profusely. Standing there in the rain before going back in we shook hands and introduced ourselves. That’s when he told me he was the pastor at the local church. It was a bit awkward but kind of funny. He was a great guy!
After many years of frustration, I eventually overcame many of these issues of absent- mindedness and distraction. I learned to establish habits and procedures that addressed the problems. It seems that in the process I applied my obsessive tendency to these issues. My keys are now always in the same place. I now often go back and check a door lock, even if I have a memory of locking it. I make lists and check them repeatedly. I keep a calendar that has every activity, even those that regularly occur. I still sometimes have trouble finding something I want, like a specific book. I will go though all our bookshelves and closets until I find that book! I keep meticulous lists and spreadsheets. Writing this memoir is my way of organizing my memories and putting them in a place where I can be sure I will be able to find them. I have worked hard at being a careful person. I now sometimes think I have become too obsessive but I am more content.
One fall weekend I picked the grapes that grew outside the kitchen door and rented a press to make wine. I had all the equipment and was in the process when Mother and Daddy stopped in. I expected it to be a little awkward since they were opposed to any drinking of alcohol but they pitched in and started helping. I never figured that one out. Maybe they decided that if they stopped in uninvited they could not criticize what they discovered. On another occasion the house smelled of pipe tobacco smoke and they did not comment.
The women at church arranged play dates for their kids. Nicole and I were included so sometimes we had three or four children all morning and through lunch until the mothers would come and take them home for their afternoon naps. I was pleased that they trusted me with their children. They were close in age to Nicole and were her friends for several years when we were church members. I remember how honored I was the first time one of our friends left an infant in my care.
We had a big yard behind the house that extended down a long slope then flattened out and ended with a steep bank at the historic Antietam Creek. The creek was shallow most of the year and it rippled over the rocks. For a few years I kept a small garden but soon it was just a large yard with a treehouse and small outbuildings for Nicole to play in and explore.
Every few weeks on a Sunday, we had a big family dinner at the Cordells. The table would be stretched out and Beulah would cook an amazing meal. She made baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on top and mashed potatoes in the same meal. There were oyster casseroles in season, turkey with stuffing, ham with pineapple and brown sugar. There was creamed corn that had been grown in the garden and frozen, green beans that had been canned. It was hard to sample everything without stuffing yourself! Then there were pies and cakes for dessert. Often we were celebrating someone’s birthday. I remember one year she bought a special cake for Nicole’s birthday. The cake was shaped like a dome which was decorated like a fancy lady’s dress. There was a Barbie in the center. As she began to slice pieces of cake, the dress was being removed revealing a naked Barbie. I was laughing and when she discovered the effect, she picked up the cake and dashed into the kitchen where she removed the Barbie and cut the cake into pieces.
Merle and Beulah had a house full of plants and ceramics. Beulah had a kiln in the basement and shelves of ceramics that she poured, painted and fired in the winter months. In the summer, she tended her large lawn and garden filled with flowers and vegetables. Merle had fruit trees and helped in the gardens. He also studied and worked on church activities. He performed weddings, funerals, and led regular, as well as special services. He also counseled church members.
Holidays were a big affair at the Cordells. While many Mennonites did not decorate for Christmas, the Cordells had a decorated tree! There was a big feast and lots of gifts on Christmas Eve. I remember several Christmases when it was snowing and we had difficulty making the drive back home. We always made it home and then a few hours later, it was Christmas morning!
I sometimes took part-time jobs to help with finances. I did not do the banking, pay bills or pay any attention to our income. Doris was in charge of the money. I had a checkbook that I used to buy groceries and for paying for other necessities. I mostly wore blue jeans and T-shirts in summer and turtlenecks and sweaters in the winter. Doris dressed in a professional style. She liked clothes and dressed well. She did most of the shopping for Nicole as well. For a short time, I worked for a friend in the carpet and flooring business a few evenings a week in showroom sales. On a few occasions I helped install wall-to-wall carpet that was popular at the time. I worked part time in construction with Galen. I would get up at five in the morning, get Nicole up and dressed and drive the 40 minutes to Frederick. I had a white Ford, window van. At that time we did not use seat belts or airbags! We would cross the mountain and head into Frederick as the sun was coming up. Janice kept Nicole and I worked with Galen building houses and doing renovations. We would get back home around 6 PM. I don’t know why we did that. It was always temporary but I guess the money helped out. I liked working with Galen but I have no memory what he paid me and it didn’t seem to matter to me.
I liked the days Nicole and I were home together during her preschool years. We got breakfast in the morning and planned our day. If we stayed home she played while I did chores or we did an activity until lunch. We painted, made little books and played games. A neighbor boy enjoyed playing outside with her and would make a birdlike call. That was a signal that he wanted her to come out. She would stop whatever she was doing and head for the door. After lunch she would have a nap. To prepare for the nap, I would read her a book and we would sing five or six songs. She insisted on a strict routine of reading a book and singing those songs in the same order. She learned the books and could recite them word for word as if she was reading. When I laid her in the crib I had a Fisher Price, wind-up radio that played the tune, “Raindrops Keep Falling on Your Head.”
While she napped I had free time. I had built a gallery wall around a small desk area in the front room opposite the dining room. I had books, a stereo and guitar. Also, a typewriter that I did not use much. I wrote longhand in journals and notebooks. I composed songs and poems. Sometimes Doris would type my poems for me. I don’t know why I didn’t learn to type. Maybe it was because errors were difficult to correct. I learned to type in my own method years later with the computer.
After a nap, Nicole had a few Public Television programs she liked to watch while I started dinner. After dinner, Doris did the night activities, a bath, stories and songs before bed.
Sometimes Nicole and I would just talk during our time together. When we went to the bank the teller at the drive-through window would always give her a lollypop. One day she got a lollypop just before lunch and I told her that she would need to wait until after lunch to unwrap and eat it. She sat there and stared at it on the drive home. When we pulled into the driveway and I turned off the motor she said, “I feel like I want to hide somewhere and eat this now.” I remember thinking that I could relate to that! I sometimes wanted to hide somewhere and break some rules.
We talked about religion and other important ideas. She asked, “If God is our friend, why doesn’t he come to see us?” I tried to avoid giving dogmatic answers to questions of religion. I would tell her about the different opinions and beliefs that people held but did not talk much about what I believed, partly because I was unsure of what I believed and thought she was well qualified to eventually make her own decisions regarding religion and personal values. One day, with some disappointment she said, regarding the song, Wish Upon a Star, "Sometimes when you wish upon a star, your dreams don’t come true.” I had to agree with that, however, at that time we both seemed mostly content.
I had some of the best times with Nicole in the winter. The big hill in the backyard sloped down and leveled out before reaching the Antietam Creek. When it snowed, we would sled on the hill. The winter was a great time to take pictures. We made snowmen and forts with her little friend Ricky Stouffer. Once we made a real igloo. It was tiny but they could crawl inside! I took lots of pictures of Nicole and she was a patient model! A favorite story is the time we had a very deep snow. I wanted to sled on the hill and she insisted that it was too deep. I showed her how to walk through the snow and tramp it down, making a track for the sled. After walking back and forth I decided it was time to demonstrate the “run and throw down the sled and jump on it” technique. I ran and jumped on it, belly flopping style. The sled did not move but I went sliding head first into deep snow. So much for that lesson. Nicole thought it was hilarious!
One summer night we put a blanket on the ground and stayed out late, waiting for a predicted, lunar eclipse. It was a beautiful, clear night with a sky full of stars. The eclipse occurred after midnight. I took some pictures but decided not to wake Nicole.
After selling the store, I had even less interest in money, if that was even possible. It seemed like we had enough and most decisions that involved spending, like taking a vacation or home improvements, were made by Doris. I don’t know how much money we had. Back around the same time Daddy bought the grocery business back from us, he suddenly sold his insurance business. We had not discussed that the obvious person to take over the business may have been Doris. I suspect Daddy may have been concerned that if Doris took it over he may still be involved to some degree. Selling to a buyer outside of the family was a clean break. Doris continued working at the business but became increasingly unhappy. Even though she was unhappy with the new owner, she did not want to be looking for a job behind his back, so she told him she was giving her notice. She said she would continue to work while looking for another job. He told her to get her things and leave. I guess that was her introduction to the unkindness of some people in the world of business She was very upset with him and it did not help that he was now attending “our” church. I believe that’s when I started doing some work with Galen to help keep some income stream.
It was a stressful time, but Doris was soon employed by another agency, Charles S. Gardner, and had a new company car. She moved up from that company to an agency that was a two man partnership, The Stine Tischer agency and she was offered stock. Eventually, Stine was bought out and she became a significant partner and stockholder with Tischer. After about fifteen years, in 1996, she left that agency surrendering stock for a considerable amount of money. How much? I do not know. I just remember that she told me that she put money aside for Nicole’s education. That is when she joined the Cochran Agency and became a partner with Ed Cochran, in business and eventually in personal life.