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by Jeanine Malarsky
Category: General Nonfiction/People
Description: Plagued by religious friction, violent fights and a belief, "the grass is always greener", my peripatetic parents dragged us five children in search of the next good farm deal. From upstate New York to the Mississippi Delta, to the hills of Ohio and West Virginia their dreams led us forward to disillusion and defeat. I was the middle child, unwanted from birth and over-looked while growing up. Though all five of us are deeply scarred, sometimes being the least loved can be your salvation.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, 2008 ebook
eBookwise Release Date: February 2008
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [503 KB]
Reading time: 332-465 min.
A Bad Dream--1981
The kitchen is dingy. It's evening. My older sister Anita is frying potatoes on an old black stove. Daddy is slouched at a side table, and Sheila, my younger sister, is standing on a chair beside him, sneaking sugar from the sugar bowl. Mother is sitting center stage at a large round table with Dennis and Darel, my two brothers, who are barely visible in the shadows. (I can smell the faint odor of cow manure on their barn clothes.)
The radio is broadcasting a news bulletin about thousands of people dying. The city is in chaos because someone dumped ground glass in the municipal water supply.
"I know who did it," my mother says looking straight at me. Her black eyes pierce through my skin like they did when I was a kid. I'm condemned.
"I didn't do it," I say softly, trying not to sound defiant.
"Don't lie to me!" She spits her words through clenched teeth. She drops her poisonous gaze to her lap, slips her left hand into the pocket of her faded chenille bathrobe, draws it back and flings something shiny through the air. The small blades catch the light of the flyspecked ceiling fixture. I feel a searing pain in my arm.
Like a robot, I extend my right arm and turn toward my father to show him the knife buried deep in my wrist. "Look what your wife did to me," I say calmly. He sits there. He doesn't say a word. He doesn't even look at me.
I stand still, observing the tableau of my family. A wall of glass descends from the ceiling, dropping down in front of me, shutting me off. Silence. I'm standing alone, gazing through that clear wall between my family and me.
I wake in a sweat, shivering as a chill creeps up my back.
"Look!" I cry out groping in the dark for my husband's shoulder. "Wake up!" He groans and rolls over to switch on his bedside lamp.
"What do you want?" he asks, groggy with sleep and irritated at being awakened. "It's 2:30 in the morning."
"Look at this!" I stick my right hand out pointing to my wrist. "Can you see it?"
"See what?" he asks, closing his eyes against the light.
"Turn the light up brighter and look closer," I beg him, thrusting my hand in his face. As his eyes adjust, he peers down at my thin wrist defaced by a ragged scar.
"Where'd you get that?" he asks, fully awake. "When'd that happen?"
"Have I ever shown this scar to you before?"
"Have I ever talked about it before?"
"No. Never." He turns my wrist to study the faded white scar. "How did you get that?"
"I don't know!" I say softly, somewhat in awe of my own injury. "I have no memory of it. But somehow it seems I've known it was there. I just had the most horrible nightmare."
He packs two thick pillows behind his head and takes me into his arms. "Tell me."
When I'm finished telling my dream, my husband asks, "Do you think that really happened?" He turns off the light.
"No, I don't." I ponder this strange idea as we both slide down under the covers. "And it's odd because children in families get hurt and the stories get retold over the years, like Darel's burns and Sheila's cut from the Ketchup bottle."
"You can be damned sure somebody in your family knows what happened. Ask your mother about it."
"I don't think she'd give me an honest answer," I tell him. "Even if she knows the truth, she'd probably lie about it."
"She's afraid of you," he says. "She wouldn't come near us at Sheila's wedding last month."
"She's intimidated by you," I said. "She doesn't dare say one word to you."
"No, Jeanine," he argues back. "She's scared of you because she fears that someday you'll lash out at her and get even for all the despicable things she did when you were a child. She knows she deserves your revenge. Your peaceful manner only serves to increase her terror."
Why is my mother afraid of me? I was always scared of her, her vicious temper, and her punishments. Perhaps if I think back I'll understand. Maybe if I begin at the beginning. * * * *
When I Was Three--1947
A killdeer rose into the air from the edge of a nearby field filling the late summer afternoon with its plaintive call, "Kill-deee, kill-deee." From my seat on the warm stone steps, I followed its swift flight as I listlessly ran my small hands over the gold and scarlet crushed velvet piano scarf lying across my knees. Packing took forever.
"Neenee!" Mommy yelled from the driveway. "Come on. We're leaving." Finally. I threw the tasseled scarf over my shoulders and dashed for the car, hoping if I got there first, I could ride in front.
"I'm riding in front," Anita yelled in her five-year-old voice of authority.
"I got here first," I yelled back, not moving.
"You can't even open the door," Anita said as she reached over my head for the handle.
"You go on over, Janice," Daddy called from the back door of the small, empty farmhouse. "I'll follow with Dennis in the truck."
Mommy slammed the trunk of our car and said, "You girls can both ride in front. It's the only space left."
Confident she wouldn't lose her place, Anita pulled the car door open and stood back to let me climb in first. With a helpful boost from Anita, I settled in the middle, my legs sticking out straight, my toes almost touching the dashboard.
Anita scrambled in beside me, talking as she tugged the door shut. "You won't believe how big our new house is. It has eighteen rooms, more than we'll ever need."
"It's not so new," corrected Mommy, starting the car and shifting it into gear. "It was built in the late 1800's so it's rather old." She checked for traffic and pulled onto the road, leaving behind the little farm on Grove Street where she and Daddy had begun married life in 1939, eight years before.
"It's new to us," countered Anita, making her point as usual. "We've never lived there before." Mommy cast Anita an admonishing glance, but Grandma Collins's house came into view, causing Mommy to return her eyes quickly to the road ahead.
Grandma's low, white, two-story house looked innocent enough, resting there peacefully above its sloping front lawn, next to the Union Springs Cemetery. A huge shade tree guarded the house from behind, branches of its dark green canopy resting gently on the orange tin roof.
Muscles tightened in Mommy's jaw reminding me that Mommy hated Grandma. But I liked visiting on Sabbath afternoons when my aunts took pictures of me beside tall pink and yellow gladiolas.
We sped by old Mrs. Monday's house with its white shingles and dark green shutters. Old Mrs. Monday is crippled because when she was little, some kids put her in a baby carriage and pushed it down the long hill in front of Grandma's house and she fell out and got hurt.
Farther down, at the old stone mill, Mommy took a sharp left turn uphill. I squirmed around backwards in the seat for a fleeting look at the faded water lilies in the shadowy over-grown millpond and hopefully a glimpse of Cayuga Lake, way back through the trees. Eager to spot our new house first, I turned back around and pulled myself up on my knees to see over the dashboard.
"There's Millie Smith's house," Anita said, pointing to a dark green farmhouse on her side, just past the Union Springs Seventh-day Adventist Academy. "Millie missed Sabbath School last week."
"Where's our house?" I asked. I didn't give a hoot about Millie Smith's house.
"Not far," Mommy answered. "You can almost see it from here." I leaned forward, resting my hands on the cool chrome of the dashboard, just above the radio knobs. "Sit back," Mommy warned. "You'll hit the windshield if I stop fast." I leaned back, just enough to satisfy her.
"See?" exclaimed Anita. "That's it! Right past those trees on the corner." I strained forward again, keeping one eye on the trees ahead and one eye on Mommy. "You'll see it in a minute," Anita said as the road leveled off. "It's huge."
Hidden behind two giant pine trees sat an old tan Victorian farmhouse, its dark windows staring blankly out on the empty porches that clung to its sides. Mommy circled the double garage and pulled into the driveway, passing a large weathered barn with its small milk house and stained cement silo.
Mommy parked beside the wide back porch and turned off the engine. Like a deflating balloon, Mommy released a weary sigh and wilted in her seat, letting her tired arms droop at her sides. From the back seat our baby brother Darel let out a loud wail.
"He's probably hungry." Mommy groaned as she slowly climbed out of the car. "Anita, you can unload small things from the trunk. Jeanine, you stay with Anita and don't wander off while I nurse Darel." * * * *
For days I followed Mommy and Anita all over the house, upstairs, downstairs, even to the cellar where Daddy stored bushels of new apples from our small orchard.
Finally Mommy put her hands on her hips and declared to Anita and me, "We're settled. Or as settled as we can be until I get some papering and painting done." Then she plunked herself down in Daddy's Morris chair and said, "I'm not moving again. Ever!" * * * *
November winds brought cold temperatures to upstate New York but only a dusting of snow. While Mommy washed the breakfast dishes and Anita dried them, I sat at the kitchen table, drawing a picture of our cat Tillie sleeping next to the stove. A blast of cold air sent shivers down my back as Daddy entered the kitchen. Tillie stretched her big paws straight out, nearly touching the warm stove, then curled back into a blurry gray and black circle, tucking her head into her furry chest. "Now you've ruined my picture," I told her. She swiped a lazy paw across her whiskers and fell back to sleep.
Daddy hung his winter jacket on a hook near the door and asked, "Did Ward call? He wanted me to go to the cattle auction with him today."
I studied my interrupted picture. Tillie was missing one ear and her head was as big as the stove.
"No, he didn't call," Mommy said applying more elbow grease to the frying pan. "I need the car today. I've made up my mind. As soon as I'm done with these dishes, I'm buying paint for the kitchen and wallpaper for the living room. So tell Ward O'Hara he can pick you up here."
"You're not buying anything right now," Daddy said as he took a cup from the cupboard, spooned Postum into it and reached for the kettle. "Why isn't this water hot?" He set the kettle back on the stove and fired up the burner.
"Because it's cold," Mommy said turning from the sink and propping her dripping hands defiantly on her plump hips.
"Esther always kept a kettle of hot water on the stove," Daddy said, sitting down at the table to wait for the water to boil.
"Then why don't you go back home and live with Essssther?" Mommy said in a snotty tone. She grabbed a clean diaper and a tiny white undershirt from a stack on the counter and walked over to lift Darel from the playpen. "I'm painting the kitchen bright yellow," she continued, laying Darel on the kitchen table to change him. "Go upstairs and get me a clean outfit, Anita."
I pulled my drawing out of the way and slid off my chair. Darel smelled.
"We can't afford to fix up this place yet," Daddy said as he poured steaming water into his cup and set the kettle back on the stove. "You can live with this kitchen a while longer." He added some milk from a small pitcher, left on the table since breakfast, and settled back in his chair.
"Kitchen!" Mommy cried. "You call this dump a kitchen?" She jammed a safety pin into Darel's clean diaper, leaving the other pin clamped between her lips. "Look at these dingy green walls." She snapped the other pin from her mouth and jammed it into the diaper. "Look at the pipes sticking out of that wall." Her voice grew shriller. "It's as dark as a dungeon in here!" She rolled Darel's dirty diaper into a ball and exchanged it for the clean outfit Anita handed her. "Go clean that off in the toilet," she instructed Anita. Darel grinned up at Mommy and gurgled, releasing a pool of drool all over his clean undershirt. Mommy grabbed him up from the table and held him over her shoulder, unwilling to share the joy on his cherubic face.
"You promised," she continued, lowering her voice and speaking slowly with emphasis as though addressing a school child. "You promised if I would go along with buying this monstrosity, we could paint and paper the downstairs rooms this winter."
Daddy straightened up in his chair and looked her in the eye. "I am buying cows so we can produce milk to sell so we can eat!" He could educate too. "Right now there's no money to waste on decorating frills."
"Frills!" shrieked Mommy. "Waste on decorating frills?" she shrieked louder.
"God-damn it, Janice," Daddy yelled. "Shut up!" He slammed his fist down on the table so hard his Postum splashed out of the dancing cup and Tillie rushed out of the kitchen, her tail held low.
I ran after Tillie, but she disappeared around a dark corner. So I settled for inspecting the big radio in the living room where lively music sprayed out into sunbeams on the smooth oak floor. I carefully laid my unfinished drawing on the blue davenport and walked over to stand in front of the floor radio with its carved wooden facade backed with bronzy fabric. I looked up at the ivory knobs but resisted touching them. I'd gotten my hand slapped last time I'd disobeyed.
Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, wafted from inside the radio. Once again I walked around to the side of the radio and wedged my small blond head between the sharp edge of the radio case and the water-stained wallpaper. I closed one eye and squinted. I could almost make out the tiny people in the orange glow of the tubes, but blackness near the base of the tubes seemed to swallow them up.
Farther along the wall, just past a bright sunbeam, the curtain moved and I saw Tillie's tail sticking out. I pulled my head free and sneaked around the radio to see why Tillie was hiding. Within inches of her tail, I heard her squirting sounds and saw the spreading pool of dull green mess as it flowed out from underneath the curtain.
"Mommy! Mommy!" I yelled as I raced toward the kitchen. "Tillie's messing under the curtain!" Darel was back in his playpen and Mommy was wiping her blotchy red face with a damp dishtowel. Daddy's chair was empty, his cold Postum still pooled around his cup where he'd splashed it.
"Where is she?" Mommy asked, instantly alert and eager for combat.
"She's in the living room, near the radio," I called to her back, running after her as fast as I could.
Like an owl on a rabbit, Mommy swooped down on Tillie just as the cat made a mad dash for the front hall. "Oh no you don't!" Mommy said as she snatched Tillie off the floor. "Not this time you don't." The cat twisted in Mommy's grip but she was no match for her captor. Trapping Tillie under her elbow, Mommy grabbed Tillie's head and pulled her ears back, distorting Tillie's face into a gruesome grin. "This'll teach you." Mommy stooped low and dragged the cat's face back and forth through the pool of cat manure. "Shit in my house again, will you? How do you like this?"
One more sweep through the mess and Tillie's toothy grin was lost underneath dripping green blobs. Mommy yanked the door in the front hall open, pitched Tillie out into the front yard and slammed the door. "Stinking filthy cat," Mommy fumed as she headed back to the kitchen for some rags. I held my nose and returned to the window near the radio to watch Tillie push her face along the frozen grass in a vain attempt to wipe off her own manure. With a hateful glance toward the house, Tillie slunk off around the corner.