Remembering Sandra, Part 1

It’s November 19, 1945. A gallon of gas runs 21 cents, Harry James, Tony Bennet, and Dinah Shore are top of the pop charts, World War II has just ended, and Sandra Summers (Shumskis) is born. Her mother, the daughter of the wealthy Nacarado family, receives her with great joy. This is her second daughter, and Sandra is a mirror image of her except for her bright blue eyes. These she was given by her father, Bernard Summers (they changed their name from Shumskis), the son of poor Lithuanian immigrants. When they met dancing one night, they fell in love. The Nacarados disowned Lucille for this. She was to marry another well-to-do Italian man, a Catholic of course. Instead, she married this poor nobody whose parents were Russian Orthodox.

I wish I could say she never lived to regret this choice. Sandra told me of the many times her mother came to her and her sister’s room crying, holding a suitcase, climbed into bed with them, and swore they were leaving in the morning. But she never left. After over a decade of being shocked by Bernard’s infidelities, she passed away of an aneurism. Sandra was only 10.

Catholic school had been a refuge for Sandra, though the nuns were strict and used corporal punishment. She dreamed of being a nun someday, but she was told nuns had to be smart, and her marks were dismal at best. She loved to sing in the choir, but the nun directing did not like her voice and instructed her to lip sync. Perhaps this is why, as an adult, Sandra sang loudly and unabashedly at every chance, whether in tune or not.

When her mother died, she, her sister, and her father moved away from Cleveland to California. Sandra entered public school in the Watts area. She was very, very white, and most of her schoolmates were very, very black. She was bullied and sneaked her knitting needles up her sleeves to school as weapons. She was terrified of the girls who ran after her with razor blades in their hair. One larger girl defended her, and soon the bullying stopped entirely.

With no mother to comfort her in these times, and with her father often working or drunk, Sandra turned to food and television. These were to become her doom later in life, but for now, they were the numbing distraction she needed to survive. Her father remarried a cruel woman. Sandra became Cinderella living with a step-mother who hated her and two horrible step-sisters. In later years, whenever Cinderella was on, she related the stories of her sufferings repeatedly, laughing that she was just like poor “Cinderelly.”

Sandra’s sister, at age 14, was sent away for a while as she had been found in an embarrassing position. Her child was put up for adoption, and she was not welcome back home once she returned. She was on her own. When their mother passed away, the Nacarados offered to take Sandra into their care, but not her sister. Sandra liked this not at all and chose to stay with her father. However, Sandra likewise found herself kicked out at age 15 at the dawn of the ’60s. She dropped out of high school and never went back.

She and her sister found some interesting places to rent – screened in front porches and creaky attics – grumpy landlords in all. Sandra enrolled in beauty school, rubbing shoulders with acolytes of Vidal Sassoon and the like. It was a very swinging time, and Sandra began to enjoy her new-found freedoms, perhaps with the little wisdom one might expect of her young age. She never touched drugs, but she danced and drank and had many loves – an African American young man, a widowed man with children who wanted her to marry him, and a man who left money for her in her toaster. She was a tall, curvy young woman with no lack of suitors.

With no guide in this new world so different from that of her parents, Sandra was left open to victimization, and this happened numerous times. On one occasion, she was drugged and woke up tied to a bed. Somehow managing to crawl out of the house and into the street, she was rescued by some passersby. She always warned young women not to trust a handsome face. The good-looking man in the leather jacket in the store may have just been released from prison, which was exactly the case with the incident above. Sandra may not have been book learned, but she was becoming street smart.

She told of a man who tried to evangelize to her every day when she was headed to work. She found a solution – pretend to be deaf! After one encounter with her mock-signing and pretending not to understand him, he let her be. Sandra was master of unconventional responses and often told such tales on herself. She knew how to have a good laugh at her own expense.

In her mid-twenties, after years of being on her own, all Sandra wanted was to find a nice man to settle down with and have the loving family she never got to experience.

One day, she was walking to get lunch in her smock. Passing a mechanic shop, she drew the attention of a young man working there named Robert Snyder. He thought maybe she was a nurse because of her smock, but she explained she was a hairdresser nearby. Robert was nothing like Sandra’s type. He was a few years older than her, hairy as could be, and something of a momma’s boy. But Sandra was ready to take a chance on someone different, and they quickly fell in love. He had his rough edges to be sure, but he was also very kind and a good provider. He had been taking care of his mother and younger sisters for years, and he was very attached to all of them.

Soon Sandra moved in with Robert and his roommates which was quite a shock to the other young men. And not long after that, Sandra was pregnant. They were hastily married by a motorcycle preacher. Sandra’s sister only had time to whipstitch the dress together, and some of it was falling apart during the ceremony! But still, they began their married life frayed edges in all.

Robert’s mother, for her own part, never liked Sandra and accused her of cheating. Sandra was overjoyed when their firstborn son was born in Downey, California looking exactly like Robert! He was named, of course, Robert Jr. Sandra had never been around babies, and she had no mother of her own to ask questions. This was long before the days when a young parent could Google any pressing questions. Little Bobby was premature. His doctor told Sandra to put a little cereal in his bottle to help him sleep more. She took him at his word, widened the nipple holes on his bottles, and began feeding him Wheaties! Well, Bobby survived this treatment just fine and grew into a hearty and healthy boy nonetheless.

In a few years, another son was born named David, and the family moved to a small town called New Plymouth, Idaho where they bought a house. It was styled in the fashion of the early 70s – green shag carpet, a woodstove, and wooden banisters separating the dining area and living room. Sandra set up shop in one of the bedrooms, and Robert was hard at work at Champions. The small family was very poor, and it was difficult for Sandra to adjust. She had been used to men buying her lots of expensive and nice things. One time, she bought a nice rocking chair for the house. Robert came home and was furious. He made her take it back.

Robert Jr. remembers fighting with his brother over food, but also remembers running wild over the neighborhood with the other boys and their cousin who lived across the street. These were different times! And aside from that, Sandra was often depressed and stayed in bed much of the day. In these same different times, only “crazy” people saw therapists, and the field of trauma research was just beginning to bud. She found ways to survive her pain, mostly through food and a close friendship with her neighbor that was to last until the very end of her life.

She and Robert both had big personalities and were accustomed to speaking their mind. They were loud, and they fought often. But just as often as they fought, they were likely to laugh about it immediately after, especially when they realized how ridiculous they were being. Robert Jr. remembers being puzzled once as a child when Mom and Dad were angrily throwing eggs at each other only to stop suddenly and begin laughing uproariously.

As the boys grew, Sandra had the joy of seeing them both her sons become good workers and do well in school. Bobby went off to college, but he did not stay long. Robert’s health had begun to decline, and he suffered a heart attack. Sandra was glad when her oldest son came back home to be close to them during that time. He and Dave both worked at Wendy’s in Ontario, Oregon. It was there that Bobby met the love of his life, Tricia. At first, Sandra was skeptical of the “divorcee” with two children of her own, but she came to see how much Bobby loved her and how much she loved her son. She welcomed Tricia and her two boys into her family and stepped into the role of grandma, becoming Grandma Snyder.

They were married, and then Sandra had even more joy when her first granddaughter was born. She had always wanted a little girl, and now she had a grandbaby to love and spoil.

That granddaughter was me.

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