Born In Defiance
Copyright 2019 by Ru Otto
is the first vignette in my ongoing, but as yet unpublished,
autobiographical book, Signs
of Life. Coming of age in the
40’s and 50’s was hard enough for a girl without the
added challenges of poverty, disability, and alcoholism. But
like tempered steel in this intense environment, fired to a shining
resiliency in the heat of human passions.
was one of the
first souls to ride in on that celebratory wave of Boomers that began
to flood America after World War II was over, and life was precious
mother was five months pregnant when she married my father, in 1946.
I don’t know what the time lag was about, but I suspect he ran.
That was just her luck. Not that she wasn’t good looking or a
lot of fun, and I know he loved her, but still, a man has his fears.
My dad had a lot of them. And I think, one by one, they all came
father was a brown-eyed, good looking country boy, just two
generations off the boat from southern Germany. His schooling was
sparse and unimportant to him as a young man. Restless and eager for
adventure, he had joined the army as soon as he legally could, went
off to fight the ”War to End All Wars,” with his friends,
lost quite a few, and came home wondering about it all, his memories
preserved by his family in musty black boxes filled with medals,
ribbons, and reams of old black and white photos of him and his pals.
In the photographs, they seemed to be taking their war very well,
lounging around the bivouac, laughing and posing. Their young faces
carved down to the barest muscle and bone from the rigors of combat,
but still clowning for the camera; young boys, showing off for their
newly married couple settled in Defiance, Ohio, a river town located
in the far northwestern corner of the state, straddling the muddy
banks of the Maumee River. They lived first inside the city limits
and later, out near Brunersburg, where the lay of the land is
dead-level flat atop underground rivers of stinking, sliver grey
sulphur water. The only restriction as to how far you can see in all
four directions is determined by the strength of your eyes.
or not I was a wanted baby was a moot point. Choices were rare for a
woman in 1946. The end of the war and the establishment of the G.I.
Bill of Rights paved the way for young couples to marry, buy a house
and settle down, secure in the American Dream. My brothers and I have
fourteen cousins scattered around Defiance county, all close in age,
so it’s easy to conclude that having babies and raising
families was everyone’s main occupation for the next twenty
moved often, but always stayed within twenty miles of both sets of
grandparents, whom we visited regularly on weekends. There were three
of us kids, stair-stepped in age by two--year increments, restless
and argumentative, jostling for dibs on the backseat car windows. The
loser would usually curl up into the back window ledge, which was
surprisingly spacious, and sneak pinches to the winners’ necks,
it was nighttime, and especially on warm summer nights, the boys
would fall asleep, and wrapped in the soft hypnotic purr of the
engine, I would lean my head on the window sill and watch the flat,
quilted acreages swirl out before and behind us, and the great round
moon, as she followed us home.
were times of peace and melancholy, listening to the noisy sounds of
a buggy summer night, barking frogs and the roar of katydids. I can
remember being carried to my bed and the hushings of our parents as
they undressed us and slid us under the covers, limp and sweaty from
a day of playing with cousins and sleeping so compactly in the back
seat of that old green Packard.
those days, a car ride in the country was cheap entertainment, and my
father often employed it to give my mother some child-free space. He
liked his beer in brown, long neck bottles, and hot summer nights
were a favorite time for him to get out of the house. He’d pile
us three into the car, and then he’d slowly wander the
wildflower strewn country roads, one arm relaxed across the wheel and
the other lifted at a 45-degree angle, gulping the beer as he drove,
his Adam’s apple jerking with each swallow, his profile framed
in the driver’s side window and sharp against the sunset. He
would stop the car at some point, open another beer and light a
cigarette, lean his lanky body up against the car door and watch, as
we ran through the fields ripping up wild flowers and gathering them
into huge, sloppy bouquets of Queen Anne’s Lace splashed with
Black Eyed Susan and wild Sweet William, to take home to Mom.
told that I walked at seven months, and I believe it, because my own
youngest daughter stood up at that age and lurched her way across the
room, leading with her head, until she finally had run into the wall
and furniture so many times that she had a ring of black and blue
marks like wreath around her forehead. Only polio could stop me, and
it did, in the last epidemic of 1948, when I was two. Polio was
rampant in the Ohio Valley, and I succumbed. I’m told it’s
a painful disease, with fevers and cramping, but I remember very
little. However, one memory persists and has, over the years, become
all my memories of this time in my life.
was quarantined with other children, behind a locked door, for the
first month. I remember a darkened room filled with rows of brown
metal cribs. The cribs have side bars that go up and down with loud
metal on metal scraping noises when ever the nurses or doctors attend
to us. The fact that I am confined in a roofless cage doesn’t
bother me because I am so tired and can’t move anything on my
body. I am paralyzed from the neck down and I don’t even have
the strength to cry. This bed is all I know, and it feels safe. The
sounds of the other children in the room are a backdrop of moans and
cries, but not very loud. Every sound seems muffled, and mostly it is
the sounds of the nurses, staunch ships in the gloom I pay attention
to, their starched whites rustling through the wards, their soft,
sweet smelling hands flitting through the dimness like pale moths.
group of nurses comes close and I see one is pushing a square metal
box on wheels. It looks like a gleaming white ice-cream cart, but
when she opens the top, a cloud of steam floats to the tiled ceiling.
Long silver tongs flash in the dimness as she brings up a hot square
of bright red felt, and the other nurses carefully spread it across
my leg. It burns a little. Another steaming patch is retrieved, this
time it’s yellow, and my foot is covered. Next a green square
is put on my hip. The nurses bending over me are talking and
encouraging me with sweet words, mother-sounds, as they continue to
cover me in this way. Soon I am a pile of steaming colored rags. The
warm wraps feel good and my cramped legs and back slowly relax as the
heat penetrates, turning rigid muscles to warm pudding, as I slip
from consciousness into blessed sleep.
I was taken out of quarantine, I was placed in a special Shriner’s
hospital for children in Toledo, Ohio. Almost all the children there
were in some stage of polio recovery. There were three or more
children to a room, and we spent the time playing and eating and
taking naps, just as other children did, except we rarely left our
beds. It was a child’s world, then, populated only by children
and those whose job it was to care for us and keep us entertained.
There was no television, and parents were only allowed to visit on
the weekends. The forty-mile bus trip from Defiance, insured that my
mother came only once per week, that usually being on Sunday. My
father came a few times, but I don’t remember him being there
though I can’t say I was unhappy in this place, especially
during the highly structured weekdays, I was very attached to my
mother, and I would wake early on Sunday mornings with such feelings
of joy and anticipation, I felt as though my head would explode with
the concentration I employed watching the door, alert for any
approaching footsteps, lilt of voice, and breath of perfumed air that
meant she was coming.
she would burst into that sterile setting, carrying crackling paper
bags filled with tiny dolls, games, stuffed animals and candy.
Sometimes there would be a new dress or nightgown and silk ribbons
for my long brown hair.
mother was a pretty woman. Her own hair was dark and shining, pulled
up into a roll at the crown, a style fashionable in the 40’s.
It set off her green eyes, deep set and gold flecked and often
blazing with some secret amusement. The nurses and the doctors and
even the resident priest came a little more alive in her company,
laughed a little more, left smiling. She always smelled so good to
me, Avon Products, warm and familiar, heavy breasts, so inviting,
bobbing softly under sweaters pulled smooth and tucked in at the
waist. I wanted only to lay in her arms, my head resting between the
two, snuggling into her full curves, listen to her heartbeat, our
heartbeat, breath her essence, seep into her body, go back to the
safety and joy of physically being a part of her. I wanted to drown
myself in her. Her appearance always brought with it a longing for
the forgotten smells and sounds of a world beyond the hospital walls
and the indefinable soul connection that is family.
so, each Sunday evening, when dinner platters rattled outside the
door of my room and the long, lacquered halls were filled with the
savory smells of warm supper, my mouth would begin to water as much
with hunger as with loss, and happiness would vie with great sadness
for upper place in my chest. I knew that soon, too soon, she would be
gone. And promptly, at 5:30 PM, the visitor bells would always ring,
and she and all the other parents would be herded out the huge oak
double doors, and no matter how hard I tried to be a good girl, I
would cry, as my institutional complacency was shattered once again.
the time I was sixteen I had had seven orthopedic surgeries, two of
them spinal fusions. I’m not sure how my parents paid for all
these hospitalizations but I’m sure March of Dimes and the
Shriners in their funny hats made it possible for me to get all the
surgeries and rehabilitation I needed. We were poor, but my father
was energetic and restless, always looking for the answer to our
in the early 50’s, his restlessness took us all the way to San
Diego, CA. My mother, alpine-phobic, complained all the way across
the Rocky Mountains. We were in a station wagon, pulling a silver
bullet type trailer. There were three of us children, and we took
turns jumping up and down on each other in the back seat, shoes off
and my braces flung to the floor. Two of us would stand up, holding
on to the back window, while the third was held down and ticked
mercilessly with our bare toes, hands, or anything we could wriggle.
Scrawny legs and arms tangled and writhed while we screamed with
glee. My mother, terrified of heights and mountain roads, moaned and
sucked her teeth in terror each time we took a hairpin curve, and my
father yelled at us all, intermittently, “Shut the hell up!’
was a very noisy trip that did not, however yield the hoped for ‘good
job’ my father was expecting. Six months later, we returned to
Ohio, driving across those same terrifying mountains, moaning,
tickling and complaining the entire way. We moved back to Henry
county, and like Jesus of Nazareth, my father never again left the
thirty-mile radius of the land he was born to.
my father went back to work at the General Motors plant, his
restlessness took the form of building houses with his two brothers.
Together, they would buy the vacant lot next to our house and begin
to frame it out on weekends and after work. The plan was to buy
cheap, build cheap, sell and make a profit to be shared among the
three. This scheme never worked. The new house would be only half
finished when the money ran out, so my father would sell the finished
house we were living in and use the money to complete the new one. We
would move in to the partially completed house and make-do. It seemed
like we always lived in a construction zone, sometimes lacking
interior walls. Evenings featured huge bonfires made of building
refuse, crackling sparks racing up to heaven with dogs and men
circling the fires, drinking, talking, and laughing loudly.
all hated the outhouse and the spiders we had to cohabitate with when
our pants were down, but my mother hated it all. Overweight and
sullen with three skinny children clustered around her, she would
stay in the house on these nights, watching from the kitchen window,
, her eyes accusative and bored with this man, with this life,
worried for these children, half wild now, like the dogs, like the
men, like my father would have liked to be.
late at night, after everyone had gone home, there would be shouting
and verbally violent fights. It would start with my mother’s
voice, jabbing, cold sarcasm, then my father’s voice, whining
and trying to placate her with flattery and offers of affection. This
would soon escalate into the loud, cursing insults that typify one of
these lose-lose situations. Our bedroom was separated from them by a
thin curtain. Frightened, and worried, I tried to block them out by
straining my ears in the direction of the hollow echoing of the black
and white television in the living room.
the day, I would lose myself in nature. By the time I was four years
old, I had the full package of Minnesota body braces: a cloth back
brace supported with metal stays, and leg braces foot to thigh made
of steel and leather. Plastic had not yet been invented. My arms
remained surprisingly strong, and the braces didn’t seem to
slow me down too much. We were country kids, picking wood ticks out
of our hair and playing in the lumber sawdust from my father’s
recent house building project. I could spend hours in our weedy back
acre, creeping around, building huts, talking to fairies and waiting
for foxes to show their black snouts. I would often gather myself a
little nest and pretend I was a baby deer resting in the buzzing
fields of mid-summer. Being roughly the same height as a healthy weed
and needing to lie down quite a bit while playing, I had time to
examine all of nature’s Lilliputian marvels. I can still almost
feel the prickly grasses on my face and bare arms as I lay in these
little nests, the sweet smell of crushed wild grasses beneath me and
the pungent carrot smell of Queen Ann’s Lace filling my nose.
Sometimes I would fall asleep, lying on my back, watching the tree
branches above me weave and whisper in the wind.
I was eight years old and my brothers Larry and Jim were six and
four, my father decided to start an edible bird farm. We had an
assortment of ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. The ducklings were
my favorites. I would gather up a basket of them and take them to the
little woods in the back of our house for picnics. I loved their
yellow softness and I was filled with the contentment of motherhood
watching them roam and nestle in my blankets, nibbling small pieces
of bread. They were my first pets. I adored them.
father never understood the pet theory. To him, even dogs had their
job: to hunt. And even pets must be kept outside with the rest of the
livestock. My ducklings also had their purpose in life, and that was
to be someone’s dinner.
my duck children matured, they became less civilized and less eager
to attend my picnics. I became at the same time, less able to get the
large, flapping creatures into my basket. As they lost their
pale-yellow fluff and became a uniform white, they also lost their
individuality and became just a bunch of quacking birds who left
smelly poop messes everywhere they went. Luckily, I detached
say ‘luckily’, because when I stepped off the school bus
one crisp fall day, almost Thanksgiving, and had to walk to the house
passing a clothesline of turkeys, ducks and a few chickens hanging
from their feet like circus acrobats, but with slit throats, and a
circle of blood soaking into the earth under each, I was shocked and
amazed, but couldn’t recognize my Donald or his friends. I
walked on, averting my eyes and my thoughts.
edible bird farm was a family owned business and that meant child
labor. Even my brothers, young as they were, were set up next to the
cauldron of boiling water out in the yard and given a bird to pluck.
Dip and pluck, dip and pluck. The smell of hot wet feathers on a dead
bird, is a facet of animal husbandry you never forget. The skin is
strangely rubbery, but the feathers come out easily and quickly for
those fleet of hand and quick of finger, which I was. At least there
was no blood involved. It had all dripped out while hanging on the
clothesline, so it wasn’t as bad as some of the jobs at our
brothers never had a problem with helping slaughter the birds.
especially with the promise of a good meal resulting from their
efforts. My youngest brother, Jim, five years old at the time, was a
zealously precocious killer due to a vendetta he had against the
father had bought several dozen birds in early spring, and for weeks
our living room was filled with boxes of cheeping, squeaking little
entities under heat lamps. As they matured, and the weather warmed,
they all moved, box by box, into the newly built coop. Our job and
our pleasure was to feed all the babies while they lived in the
house. This naturally progressed to feeding all the maturing chicks,
mornings and evening, in their new pen out back of the house. Soon,
it became a competitive sport among the three of us kids to see who
could get up the earliest to feed the turkeys, chickens and ducks.
Every morning we dragged our small bodies out of bed earlier and
earlier, but Jim, the youngest, seemed always to be a few minutes
ahead of Larry and me.
don’t know what drove us to be so competitive about a work
task, but there was a sense of power in throwing the feed, handfuls
upon handfuls of golden seed and corn, arcing into the morning air
and raining down on twenty-five huge birds while they scramble and
fought each other for their food. It was very exciting. The turkeys,
especially, had grown to be alarmingly large and aggressive. They
could almost look Jim in the eye.
one particular morning, Jim’s eyes weren’t what most
interested the turkeys. Usually, Larry and I would come running out
of the house, still in our pajamas, ready to join in the feeding
frenzy, and Jim would be there, surrounded by his loyal flock, all
the bird food gone, and his freckled face smug with satisfaction. He
had once again cheated us out of our fun. We hated him.
this morning was different, way different. In the grey of pre-dawn,
we woke to screams, coming from the back yard. The whole family was
up and out the door in a second. The turkeys were gobbling
ecstatically in a feathered pile over by the shed, and that’s
where the screams were coming from. My mother called out, and at the
sound of her voice, Jim erupted out of the pile of white birds and
projectiled himself toward us, mouth wide open in terror. His union
suit jammies, hand-me-downs to the point of being frayed and riddled
with holes, were bloodied in front where his little uncircumcised
pecker had shown its head to his painful disadvantage and had been
immediately attacked by the hungry turkeys who thought it was a juicy
that put an
end to our little game. Jim lost heart, as I said, except when it
came to the butchering, and Larry and I became wary of the feathered
behemoths, preferring sleep in the mornings to the savagery of the
arrival of Fall
was also the arrival of the school term. There were no special
schools for the handicapped anywhere close, so my mother just
registered me for kindergarten like any other kid. I enjoyed school,
but didn’t have any friends, and I think I might have been a
bit too weird for the other children to relate to. My main playmate
at school, was the wind that blew through the school yard on sunny
days. I would let it push me around using my dress as a sail and
imagining my legs as fairy light and not steel encased. On inclement
days, my best friend was a supporting pillar in the school basement
where we ate our lunches. I would cling to this pillar like a lover
and twirl around it until I fell to the floor with dizziness. This
whirling dervish behavior did not endear me to the other students and
they kept their distance.
while being blown about the playground by my friend, the wind, I
noticed several of my classmates gathered in a noisy circle around
something on the ground. When I went over to investigate, I saw they
were throwing stones at a baby bird that had fallen. I immediately
started to yell at everyone to quit, and protectively scooped up the
bird and held it close to my chest. This action put me right in the
middle of the maelstrom and the children all began throwing stones at
me and even punching me a few times, for good measure. I fell, tore
my dress, and was still crying when my mother picked me up to take me
was my last day
in the Brunersburg elementary school. Although neither my mother nor
my father went to church much, I was quickly enrolled into Saint
Paul’s Lutheran Parochial School, where the children feared God
enough to never pick on me, againWhen I was nine, money problems
forced my mother to start waitressing in a Defiance, Ohio, bar. They
were called ‘beer joints’ by the locals and had a strong
German influence. Tom’s Bar had peanut shells on the floor and
was open to families every day from 10 A.M. until 2 A.M. My father
took care of us kids on the nights she worked late.
night, after he
had been drinking heavily for about a week, he called me over to
where he was lying on the couch, very drunk, and wearing only baggy
white briefs. He wrapped his long, sad arms around me, I could barely
tolerate the smell of his sour breath, and he whispered, “Princess,
you are the only one in this family, who loves me.”
could only nod, I
was so confused and embarrassed. I wasn’t afraid of him
physically, but I was afraid of him emotionally. He seemed like he
was in a deep, dark, emotional hole and wanted me to join him there
in his abject misery. It was an awful place, and I just wanted to get
away from him before I got sucked in. I wriggled away and hurried to
my room, safe behind my curtain.
next day, I got
on the school bus with my brother, Larry, like we always did. Jim was
still screaming and crying because he didn’t want to go to
kindergarten. He never wanted to go, and sometimes, he got spanked
and was forced to go, literally dumped at the door, because my mother
had to work that day, and there was no one to watch him. She seemed
especially upset that he was being so obstinate.
staying home, still in a drunken funk. My mother didn’t want to
leave Jim home with him because she knew a lawyer would be serving
him with divorce papers that day, while she was at work. Finally, she
found a neighbor who agreed to take Jim for the day.
“Beautiful Savior” with the choir when they came for me.
I’ve always loved that song, and I was lost in the spiraling
harmonies of the piece, my eyes following the sunbeams dancing across
the stained-glass windows of the church rectory. I felt confused when
the principal singled me out, his face serious, even for a Missouri
me,” he said kindly.
went to the fight I had heard the night before, and I knew he had
killed her, finally. I knew it was coming. My scalp prickled icily
and my lips went numb. I could hardly get the words out.
“Is my Mom
she’s fine,” he assured me, eyebrows pinched into a deep
ridge between his eyes, “Your grandfather is here to take you
and your brother home.”
and distracted as he drove us to his house, a few blocks away. When
we arrived, I went to Mom and blurted, “Mom, what’s going
Grandpa, visibly gritting her teeth and furious, ”You didn’t
just stood there
for a minute, head bowed, looking at the floor, “I couldn’t,”
he replied so softly I could hardly hear him.
mother had turned
to tempered steel, still hot from the forge, her core blazing, while
the outside cooled smooth and cold as ice. She was pissed, and she
cut through any momentary feelings of safety in the world I might
have been harboring, when she said through tight lips, “Your
father is dead. He killed himself.” The last word, ‘himself,’
came out in a hissing gurgle of disgust.
remember anything after that. I don’t know what she said to me
or how she explained to a nine-year old and a seven-year old that
their father, drunk, and sitting on the couch in his underwear, had
put a shotgun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
funeral was so
close to my birthday that I lost hope of ever being normal again. I
thought, “Nice birthday present, Daddy,” and joined my
mother in her disgust.
we had been attending for four years refused to conduct the funeral
service for my father because he was a suicide. His parent’s
Catholic parish also refused us. It fell to my grandfather’s
church, The Baptist’s, to try and say a few healing words over
the open casket.
father was the
first dead person I had ever seen. He looked amazingly lifelike, his
face untouched. I kept having the feeling he was just about to sit up
and look around in amazement, and then I would break down in tears of
grief for our family and guilt for myself, because deep in my heart I
knew I had never loved him. I had to be escorted outside several
times during the viewing and the funeral because of my loud sobbing.
My brothers seemed oblivious to what was going on and played out in
the funeral home’s grassy front yard, chasing fireflies and
father’s family, gathered and grumbled on the far side of the
room. They glared at my mother, faces glowing with hatred and
blaming. My father’s mother, Dorothy, was not able to contain
her blistering rage and her blazing contempt for my mother. She
confronted our family as we left the funeral home on the last night
of viewing. Her hair, pulled back in a tight knot, was as black as
her dress. Her mouth, a thin rigid line of judgement, hissed at my
You killed him with your whoring!”
mother just kept
walking toward the door, her eyes staring straight ahead, her arm
rounding up us children, as we moved forward, a gaggle of skinny
youngsters, the boys oblivious and confused, and me, almost blind
from crying. She pushed us through the door, into the warm spring
night, and the last thing I ever heard from my Grandma Otto was, “I’m
going to make sure the authorities know about you. You are not a fit
mother. Those children belong in the Home, and I’m going to
make sure they are taken away from you and put there, where they’ll
be safe from your whoring!”
what a ‘whore’ was, but I knew exactly which ‘Home’
she was talking about. The gigantic red brick Children’s Home,
in Defiance, Ohio. Though I had never been inside, I was very
familiar with its’ massive entrance way and white cement steps.
We often sat on those steps while visiting three of my cousins who
were already there. They had been living there for a year, now, since
my Aunt Pearl left them with the babysitter and disappeared to
another city with the man who lived downstairs from her. They were
about the same age span as we were, and we brought them hand-me-down
clothes, and candy, and presents for Christmas. I didn’t think
much about them being abandoned in such a place. I, myself, had spent
one third of my life in hospitals forty miles away, so I was no
stranger to institutionalism, nonetheless, the possibility that my
brothers and I might end up there was terrifying.
never did go back
to the house in Brunersburg. We stayed with my mother’s
parents, in Defiance for the next few months. We tried to go back and
gather up our things, and even tried to spend the night. My mother
acted nonchalant about staying in the house after dark, but it was
obvious that a shotgun had exploded in the living room. Buckshot
wounds bloomed on the linoleum floor, the walls, and especially
across the front of the huge fuel-oil stove that sat opposite the
couch. So many reminders, so many ghosts. We endured only one dream
filled nervous night there, and my mother packed us up, and back to
Grampa’s house we went.
Otto is a 75-year old power chair deva, writer and community
organizer/resident artist living and working in her studio loft at
Artspace Everett Lofts, Everett, WA.
is a lifelong visual artist and writer, and attended Ohio State
University majoring in Art & Education from 1964-1968. She has
spent her life traveling the U.S.A., Europe and Spain, visiting and
living in rural women-only communities. She spent several years in
the Ozarks teaching rural skills at Dragon Women Outpost, a shelter
for battered and disabled women.
was married to Mary Jane Whited for twenty-three years, and widowed
two years ago. She has an adult daughter, married with one fourteen-
year old grandson who live 20 minutes away. Her eldest daughter lives
in St. Augustine, FL.
she has become less mobile through the years due to the late effects
of polio, she has retired her maps and now ambulates the city
streets, exclusively, in a Quantum Edge powerchair.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Ru
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