Doing Errands

Daddy’s strong hands lifted me gently in the air and landed me on a bar stool. Bright morning light gleamed off the polished floor boards of his favorite pub near our home in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Bubbles rose through the pink-tinged soda of my Shirley Temple, served to me in a tall, thick-bottomed glass. The smiling bartender pierced three red cherries and a thin slice of orange onto a wooden pick. He balanced them over the rim of my glass, then plunked down a small bowl of peanuts between my fancy drink and my father’s tall beer.

On those pre-school pub mornings–also called “doing errands”–my father taught me about water tension. He asked the bartender for two small glasses of water, then slowly over-filled one with the other.  See, he told me, the container can hold more liquid than the space inside it. It pulls on itself to keep from spilling over!  I watched, transfixed, as water rose above the rim, holding onto itself in a rounded puff. But one more drop broke the surface tension, sending the liquid down the side of glass and onto the shiny wooden bar.

Another day, Daddy showed me how to create air pressure inside a plastic straw by holding my finger at the top and pushing the straw down into my drink. When I let go, the pink concoction lifted high into the straw, above the horizon of the glass. I watched bubbles sit inside the clear tube, then lifted my finger and let them fall. I soon became adept at lifting Shirley temple sips to my mouth in straw lines while my father savored his glass of beer.

On our morning outings, he piloted the off-white station wagon with its back seat littered with paper grocery bags and magazines. I sat at next to him, alert to our next adventure. He tuned his radio to a country station and laughed as he sang along, Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers, bony fingers!  Once, we stopped to save a box turtle trying to cross Suitland Parkway, that fast-moving pavement between stands of deep Maryland woods. We often pulled over to pick up trash that had been left along Oxen Run, stashing aluminum cans in the way back to take home and mash flat with a brick. After we stuffed the compacted circles into a bag for recycling, we swept reddish clay dust off of the driveway.

I watched my father tap small white chunks of old mortar off scavenged bricks, and I helped him pile the best ones in the back yard. In a wheelbarrow, we combined water with gray cement mix, then used a hoe and a trowel to chop it into a smooth goo that smelled like summer happiness.  As Daddy slopped wet concrete into a smooth layer on top of one brick, I waited with the next one in my hand. Restlessness sent me running along the connected back yards of our neighborhood, but when I returned, the base of a barbecue grill had taken shape under his hands.

When the kitchen sink sprang a leak, I shone a flashlight beam on the suspect pipe and handed Daddy a rag, then a wrench. He pulled his head out from under the sink and sat back on the checkered tile floor to consider his next step, sending me to fetch him a can of Stroh’s from the basement fridge. If a bathroom door hinge or a broken dresser handle had lost a screw, we drove to the hardware store in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, a few doors down from the store-front library. We scrutinized various replacements, pulling out small plastic drawers until we found a screw with just the right size and shape and pointiness to hold together what had come apart. The man behind the counter put our treasures into a small envelope that he traded for a rumpled bill from Daddy’s wallet. As we stepped out of the door hand in hand, the chime of a bell silvered the air above our heads.

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Dad in a later era, doing work at the Indiana Dunes

So Are the Days

It’s a cool spring morning, and I’m lying on a sunbathing chair in the back yard, being very still. What brought me here? Small, I live in the expanding whorl of new day into longer day; moving slowly into night, then–miraculously!–to day again. In this open yard, time holds without exhorting.

A robin lands on the metal swoop of chain link fence. The bird’s eye is hard and clear, circled by white feathers, and shining black at me. In its velvet vest, the robin hops down to the grass, watching me be as still as a statue of a little girl alone can be. We hold each other’s gaze, and I feel myself become a bird. This fellow being has come to show me what I am, to remind me that I can fly. The robin has a family, too, and I am part of it.

Inside, Mamma and I are alone together. I want to go to school like my sisters do, but I’m not big enough. I learn waiting. Mamma gets ready to shop, snugs her skirt over her hips, and carefully hides her slip above her hemline. She examines her face in the bathroom mirror and doesn’t like something. She squints, tweezes. She adds eyebrow pencil, mascara, and red-brown lipstick to her face, making her beauty more alert. She blots lipstick onto a white kleenex, then glides another round of color onto her mouth, pressing her lips to paper once more. The metal lipstick tube clicks closed. Haphazard tissue kisses rest in the trashcan day after day.

I sit on her bed as she pulls up the long zipper of her high heeled boots. She turns in front of the full-length mirror and pulls her shoulders back, then smiles at me in her reflection. You look so pretty, I say. At the grocery store, she is deep in thought, turned toward cans of green vegetables and hunks of beef tongue. We walk past piles of potatoes and packages of chicken gizzards to the fish counter. Looking at a flounder, stranded on its icy bed, its lopsided eyes cloudy and vague, she says, That doesn’t look very fresh, does it?

Home again, I see the “I’m not here” look on my mother’s face as I watch her watch TV. I practice being quiet so I won’t have to go to my own room and nap. Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives, the man says, at 2 pm on channel 7. We have hurried home from the grocery store to watch. Mamma is smoking, breathing in, breathing out.

Now she has left the room, disappeared to laundry or tidying or a telephone respite with a friend. The click of the linen closet door, then the crispness of her voice lilting into the kitchen phone threaten to float me to sleep, but I fight to stay above the surface. Her forgotten cigarette sends a line of smoke up through the white lampshade to the ceiling. The still room is bisected by a horizontal cloud, and I lie underneath it. I reach over and push the butt into the ashtray, saving it from falling onto the table. With my movement, whorls of grey mix with clear air above my head.

When I am finally big enough for school, I will jump out of bed and stand in front of my closet, stifling a yawn. I will wear a green skirt to kindergarten, my hair combed back and tied with a ribbon. I will stare in amazement as a classmate cries, missing his mommy. When I am nineteen, and half a continent away from my mother, I will harness all of my depressed will and apply to the local university. After classes, I will change into fancy clothes, adjust my slip, and hostess at an elegant restaurant. Twenty years later, at 39, I will earn my second master’s degree and become a therapist at the same university’s counseling center. I will wear patterned skirts and stylish heels. I will mascara my eyes and tint my lips before I go to see clients. Listening, waiting, I will sit with them in that open space, as the mystery of time re-weaves all our lives.

 

back yard chair

Nothing Bad Happens

Martha and I are asleep in our room with yellow curtains the night that Mamma wakes us up to meet her new friends. Dreams may be happening when I start to hear talking and music, but I don’t always know the difference between dreams and daytime. I know how old I am and can show you on my fingers–this many:  four. I don’t know what the sixties are or that they just ended. And I don’t know where my Daddy is tonight.

I am the baby of the family. My other big sisters are sleeping in their own rooms downstairs, but I share with Martha. She is five. Sometimes she will sing to me at night and I will feel myself float up up up in the air with her pretty voice.

Before bedtime, if I stand on my tippy toes, I can look out my window and down into the shadowy back yard. When I am twice as old, when I know what the 1970’s are, and that I am in them, I will jump out of that window to show that I am big and that I won’t break my leg. On that day, I will perch on the narrow window sash and my mind will freeze, stuck like the tip of a knife in bone. Martha and the bigger neighborhood kids will have gotten bored looking up and watching me be scared. They will be gone when I finally bend my shaking knees and stop looking down at the grass. So no one will see me when I push off into space and land with my thighs shoved into my chest. No one but me will hear my teeth clack together as I hit the ground. Everything will hurt when I land. But I won’t break my leg.

And, with no audience, I will practice how to not to let fear stop me. My sweaty hands will will grip the window frame just long enough to prepare for landing by bending my body into the leathery shape of a bird’s feet. I will leap and land, then walk through the back yard and into the house through the dining room’s shining glass doors. I will saunter through the kitchen, wishing, as always, to be seen. I will want Mamma to notice what I have done and to say, Jenny Lynn! I thought you were in your room! How did you get here? But that day, the kitchen will be empty.

Tonight, when Mamma comes to wake us up, I’m still little. She opens the door, sending a crooked line of light across the floor. I roll onto my side, away from the brightness. Voices I don’t know creep in from the hall.

I feel my bed tilt as Mamma sits down beside me and touches my shoulder. My nose wrinkles at the smell of grown-up drinks and smoke on her skin. Jenny Lynn, wake up! Come and meet my friends! I push my eyes half-way open and see her hair loose around her face. My eye lids fall closed again.

I hear Mamma’s crooked, late night way of walking as she goes over to Martha’s bed. Wake up and come see my friends! My beautiful girls. Come on, get up for Mamma! Her voice is sticky like pink candy.

She pulls us to our feet, wrapping a warm arm around each of us. We lean into her sides and stagger together down the hallway. Two men sit on our long, gold-colored couch. They look fuzzy in their blue jeans and straight brown hair. There wasn’t a dinner party, so I don’t know why there are ashtrays and drinks and strangers. Martha and I stand next to each other in our nightgowns, blinking at the bright lamps Mamma has turned on. Light from the kitchen ceiling bends over our heads to the top of the dark basement stairs. See? These are my little girls!

We start to smile at Mamma’s new friends. I know I am supposed to be cute and sweet.

Aw, Ragna, you didn’t need to get them out of bed! one of the men says. His smile to us is real.

The other man says, Look how sleepy they are! What cutie pies!  He looks from us back to Mamma, who tilts her head and grins.

Say hi to my friends! We obey her and give a little wave. She tells us to go back to bed.

Those two are my babies, we hear her say as she turns back to the party that came out of nowhere. But you know, I have seven children! The words of the men melt away as we close our bedroom door.

Martha and I go back to our beds and our dreams. I don’t remember anything about the next day, but my mornings were joyful–I woke up happy, and I woke up knowing I was loved. Only decades later did I paint that night in dark colors. I write the story and recoil at my old certainty that my mother had been so horribly wrong, when nothing bad happened. I loved her and loved that she was proud of us. I jumped at the chances she gave me to be seen.