When I was a little girl, Mom brought home a little brother she and Dad named John Ellis: the last of nine, the third boy. Well to be honest, I was not such a little girl anymore; I was 14, and in 7th grade. My little Johnny was a bit like a puppy who I could cuddle and love and talk to endlessly, a sweet oasis in my otherwise tumultuous life. John gave me a reason to stay a child a little longer, and helped me appreciate life.
Seventh grade was a mixture of fun and heartache: On top of adolescence, I had 60 city kids join my 30 country classmates; I had more than one teacher, all of which I’d never seen before; I fell in love with Arthur, one of the city kids, who broke my heart; and President Kennedy told school kids to get in shape, and then he was assassinated. Amidst all that, there was my Johnny, a sweet bundle of pure joy —Well, almost.
John needed lots of attention because he had severe allergies which affected his skin and gave him asthma. Twenty minutes, every two hours, according to doctor’s direction, I helped bathe John in Balnetar bath oil, which helped relieve his itching. Then I greased him up in Crisco, which Dr. Cookingham, the specialist, said was the best skin moisturizer around. John went without a diaper, again Dr. Cookingham, but sometimes I thought this was a practical joke from the doctor, because John peed all the time, and his bottom was the only skin clear and soft as a, well as a soft as baby’s behind. Mom made John thick mittens out of flannel and the tops of old socks which I pinned, high up on his shirtsleeves and pajama-legs, so he couldn’t scratch in his sleep. Most people smell talcum powder and think of babies, for me it’s pine tar and shortening: what a sweet smell.
There was a whole bunch of stuff that John stayed away from: wheat, milk, soy, eggs, chocolate, barley, dust, dander, pollen, mold—including anything with a fermented ingredient—no bologna, no mustard, no catchup, no cheese; you get the idea, I’m sure. We had to replace a real Christmas tree with a plastic one, we carefully spaced any baking with eggs, absolutely no frying of an egg, and we could only cook a tom turkey for Thanksgiving dinner because of John’s egg allergy. Once he had an asthma attack because Mom switched from Gerber to Beechnut rice baby cereal; it turned out Beechnut added coconut oil; that was before food labeling requirements. Once when he was a toddler, he got his hands on an oleo wrapper and collapsed on the floor. No EMTs, no ambulances, Mom rushed him to the hospital, 30 minutes away, for an epinephrine shot.
In those days, every child got a smallpox vaccination; not me. That was too dangerous for John: he was at risk of contracting the disease. When he was still a baby, not talking yet, Mom gave him a his first haircut, which led to a skin infection over his entire body, yet another rush to the hospital, this one the most serious of all. Mom came home one day and told me John might not make it, the infection was so severe, the doctor had John packed in ice. My little Johnny stretched out his hand and said his first word, ” Mamma” to a mother, who I could see, even through all my teenage angst, felt absolutely powerless to help him.
What my little Johnny gave me was lots of storytelling time while I bathed him, some of which was about my woeful teenage life, because he didn’t care; permission to still play like the child that I almost wasn’t anymore; lots of experimenting with wheatless, eggless, milkless recipes; and of course lots of laughs.
John ate Rice Krispies and 7-up for breakfast, had his own drawer of special cookies, and he didn’t have to eat anything “that makes my throat itch.” Believe me, he learned to work that one.
Mom had a special song for John:
Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, Heavens above,
Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,
You make my sad heart jump for joy,
And when you’re near I just can’t, sit still a minute.
He loved that song. I had one, too:
Johnny get ang-ery, Johnny get mad.
Give me the biggest lecture, I’ve ever had.
I want a brave man, I want a cave man.
That made John ball up his fists, bare his little, baby teeth and hiss at me, then we both laughed, a wild abandoned laugh.
Mom always told us to eat our spinach (or green beans or tomatoes, or whatever) and we would grow hair on our chest like Popeye. John, ever the puzzler, asked Mom, pointing to his crotch, “What do you have to eat to grow hair down here?” Deanna, Bonita, and I covered our mouths to stifle our shy teenage giggles.
John stayed my buddy, he even offered to be my ring bearer when I got married. He joined the wrestling team in high school, he took his date to the prom in a vintage Mustang, and he let a greased pig go in the middle of the high school, and married a beauty who is his best friend. He doesn’t remember that much about me, because I was grown and he was growing, but thanks to Mom, I kept up with my little Johnny.
I still love talking to him, except now it’s much better, because it’s a two-way street: what he says is as important to me as his listening skills.
Many years ago, when he was remodeling the old farmhouse he and his family now live in, he asked me, “When will people stop thinking of me as the baby? No one listens to me.”
He paused, considering what he wanted to say next. “Loren says the exact same thing I do, and people listen to him.”
“Loren’s got one thing you don’t, John.” I told him. He looked at me with his clear steady eyes, just like our father’s.
“He’s got grey hair. Just give yourself a little time.” I said. You’ll be surprised how much more people will listen when you have a little grey in those curls.” John’s pulled on his chin and looked far away like he was thinking through a riddle, then he raked his fingers through his hair, and a smile started up one side of his face. “You could have something there.” he said.
Of course I was right, I always have been a pretty smart cookie. The house turned from a ramshackle ruin to a beautiful home, then John took another risk and started his own business. He’s everyone’s go-to guy in a psychedelic electrician’s van. Still and all, he’ll always be my sweet little Johnny.
Shhh… help me keep that last part a secret.