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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Reflections on My Beloved Brother James
by Donna Dunn Livaudais

My earliest memories of life in the Dunn household included Jamie. I was only eighteen months old when he came along so I don’t remember life without him. I remember Mama being very upset because she was walking with him when he was a toddler and tried to lift him over a puddle with one arm and felt his shoulder pop out of socket. It didn’t really hurt him because he didn’t weigh much at the time which would be a lifelong trait. It was just one of those little snatches of memory that made an impression on me. We were both babies at the time.

We lived in a three room shack that had no indoor plumbing which hereafter will be referred to as the ‘old house’. I was still sleeping in a home-made crib that had been constructed from one by two’s and window screen. It actually had a locking mechanism, like a chicken coop so the baby could be secured. [We called it the “kiddy coop”. It was screened because we had no window screens. Mama and Daddy sprayed the house with Flit every night for mosquitoes.] It was probably mounted on ceramic castors and I suspect that Uncle Willie built it as he was a carpenter. The door which ran the length of the crib was hinged on the bottom and was always open. I suspect this furniture was passed down from Aunt Cleo to Mama because the youngest Savario cousin, Rosemary was a year or two older than our oldest child, Sharon. I’m also guessing that I graduated to the crib when Jamie was born. Jamie no doubt occupied the wicker bassinette, which was probably a hand-me-down from Aunt Cleo as well. Sharon and Danny, having once occupied the bassinette and crib in turn, now shared a pullout sofa bed in the living room. [Danny and I slept in the lean-to bedroom on a cot when Jamie was born. We got the sofa bed when Jamie was a baby and Daddy finally got a secure job at Gulf States Utilities, where he would retire 30 years later. The first thing he and Mama bought was a refrigerator. Before that, they had an icebox. Their next major purchase was a Naugahyde sofa bed. Danny and I moved to the sofa bed; Donna and Jamie took the cot; Valerie took the kiddy coop after she outgrew the bassinette. Rex was the only one born in the new house. He never slept in the kiddy coop because the new house had screens.]

Young DonnaYoung James

The old house had a front porch with a porch swing, a living room, a kitchen complete with a cold-water faucet, one bedroom, a tiny little nook that ran parallel to the front porch and served as a second bedroom that held a small cot which Jamie and I would share once Valerie came along. The house also had a back porch where we kept two chamber pots, a large one for Mama and Daddy and a small one for the kids, and Mama’s prized possession, a wringer washer.

We also had a number two galvanized tub which we used for family bath time. Bath time for us kids was always fun because it was an event. It only happened about once a week. Mama had to boil water to heat the bath so it was a real project to bathe a family of seven. It was during one of these family-bath times that Jamie revealed a certain racy wit which would become his signature. Mama, then a voluptuous young mother was the first to bathe. When she entered the room looking like a lovely pink Venus, Jamie having been recently weaned due to Valerie’s arrival, impishly blurted, “I want to suck your titties!” This shocking outburst seemed audacious to me but he brought the house down. [Donna forgot what Mama said, which was, “OK.” That’s one of the few times in his life Jamie lost his nerve. Mama shocked me more than Jamie did.] [I just realized I should clarify something. Daddy did not participate in family bath time, except to help out. He was a modest man and always showered wherever he worked. Mama didn’t have that option.]

Sharon, being the oldest, was often left in charge of the younger siblings while Mama was painting signs in her shop next door. She supervised games to keep us occupied. One day, we were playing hide and seek in the old house. Sharon was very tricky. It was Danny’s turn to find everybody. Jamie was wearing a pair of green overalls and he had a cut on his foot which had recently been medicated with iodine. She had Jamie and me to change clothes. I put on his overalls and Sharon painted my foot with iodine and “hid” me behind Mama and Daddy’s bed, kneeling with my head down and just my behind and feet barely visible. When Danny came into the room, he immediately spied the green overalls and the medicated foot and said, “There’s Jamie!” Ha! We were delighted that our cunning plan worked so well.

A major milestone for our family was moving into the new house [built with our parents’ four hands]. We had really arrived. We had three bedrooms, a modern kitchen, and a bathroom. It wasn’t long before we got our first television. We had joined white bread America.

Though we all had our ups and downs at school, Jamie had the hardest time of any of us. For starters he had ADD before it had a name. He was also dyslexic and phonetically tone deaf. In those days, any child with learning disabilities just had to wing it because there was no intervention available. They were basically considered slow or lazy. His sixth grade teacher was a hateful woman who assumed that Jamie’s failures were due to his attitude. She was constantly sending notes home to Mama complaining about his behavior. When Mama questioned him about it angrily, he completely broke down. He sobbed pitifully that he didn’t know why she hated him so much. He told Mama that she asked him, “Why do you always have to be different from everybody? If everybody in the world is eating rice, you’d be eating oak leaves!” Who talks to an eleven year old child that way? Mama was bewildered. She struggled with Jamie every night for years. She would make flash cards for his spelling. The only way he could pass a spelling test was to memorize the shape the letters created. He never managed to learn how to read. He spent his entire life compensating for this disability. As a consequence of his unique learning strategy, he developed skills that the rest of us don’t possess. Though he couldn’t read a book, he was a mechanical wizard. He spent his adolescence under a car. That’s the environment that he understood and loved.

With this level of difficulty in learning, I secretly thought, “poor Jamie, he’s such a loser.” For me, in my limited understanding of the world, the only indicator of success was making straight A’s in school. Then something happened to Jamie that made me view him in a different light. At a certain point in high school, I noticed he had become one of the guys the girls liked. That was a real shocker to me because I thought of him as the annoying little imp who could never sit still and stop making those stupid monkey noises. Yet he was actually dating East Ascension High “A Listers.” He had suddenly become something of a catch.

After high-school, I went off to LSU and became sophisticated. Meanwhile Jamie was following a different path. He attended a trade school where he learned the skills that would eventually define him as a master machinist and support his family. I eventually moved to Salt Lake City with my sophisticated boyfriend and started my adult life. I was 22 years old and felt like a real grown up. Jamie would follow me to Salt Lake a few months later and crash on my living room couch. I had mixed feelings about having him parked in my living room but I had been very lonely and was also glad to see him. The first night he got to Salt Lake, he located the Mormon Church and went to a dance there. That night, when he got home, he introduced me to Trish, the most gorgeous California girl I’d ever laid eyes on. He let me know that she would be staying with us too.

Well I can tell you that this new development made me a bit uncomfortable. Trish was every normal woman’s worst nightmare. Drop-dead beautiful with tousled platinum blond hair down to her waist, enormous blue eyes, a perfect body and all the mannerisms of Marilyn Monroe. I protested that they were too young; they didn’t know each other, and bla-bla-blaaa. It fell on deaf ears. Jamie was totally smitten. They were inseparable from that first night and were planning their wedding within a matter of weeks.

You know the rest. Jamie and Tricia had their struggles. But one thing is certain. They had a love that endured. And Tricia, forgive me for those moments of envy when I doubted you. You were the light of Jamie’s life and for that I love you dearly.