Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Splinters

My childhood was played out in front of the backdrop of a large farm in Kennedyville, MD. The house was old and rambling, a white three-story maze with wooden floors and rusty faucets. My sister Kate and I bloomed there, learned things we were too young to know there, built the foundation of who we later became on that sprawling farmland, upturned by plows and overheated dogs.

When my mother was there, which was on and off for a number of years, the farmhouse would be alive and pulsing with her attempts at familiarity. She would cook huge dinners, and if it was summer, we would sit on the screened-in porch on the side of the house, eating fried tomatoes and baked chicken, Kate and I listening to her and Dad’s easy laughter, laughing along even when we didn’t know what it was for. We were so eager to be a part of their shared happiness, since seeing it seemed foreign and very much a novelty. I would sit, my legs Indian-style in a lounge chair, watching as they brushed against each other, Dad complimenting Mom on her fried tomatoes. I’d look down at the ones on my own plate, slicing into the sugary crust on top and savoring each bite as I rolled it inside my mouth.

When my mother was absent, which was most of the time, it would just be Dad, Kate and me, and for the most part, we’d entertain ourselves. Dad would read, till the garden, or fish. Kate and I would climb the huge oak tree in the back yard and perch like wrens in our tree house, sweating and shrieking and keeping watch over the land. At night, Dad would grill ducks or geese outside, Motown music swirling through the air from an open window. Kate and I would stand on the picnic table, stomping our feet on the wooden slats and clapping in time, singing along, “Ain’t too proud to beg, sweet darlin’, please don’t leave me girl…”

Once, as I was dancing with abandon on the picnic table, barefoot and twirling, I felt my feet begin to sting, hot like after walking on summer asphalt. I jumped from the table and sat on its bench, pulling a foot onto the opposite knee for inspection. I gasped and winced at the sight before me. The bottoms of both of my feet were covered in splinters. In my frantic dancing reverie, I hadn’t noticed the sharp wooden spears making their way into my skin. As soon as I saw the splinters, they immediately began to sting like I’d stepped on a nest of hornets. I hobbled dramatically over to Dad as he manned the grill, whimpering and pointing at my feet. He lifted me up and pulled my foot up to his face, squinting in the fading light, straining to negotiate what he was seeing into something that made sense. Once he realized what he was looking at, his eyes grew wide, his mouth became a grave line in the middle of his face, and he shook his head slowly.
“Looks like we’re gonna have to do a little surgery,” Dad said in a serious voice.

He took me into the house, the humid air making me instantly sticky as we walked through the screen door and into the kitchen. He carried me like a baby into the living room, and laid me on the coffee table, on top of the Newsweek and Time magazines that covered the top surface. Dad ran upstairs and grabbed tweezers and Bactine, and pulled a chair up to the end of the coffee table, his body hunched over to begin his work on my feet, which looked tiny in his hands. He began pulling each splinter carefully from my feet, dabbing the Bactine on the hole that was left after each one was removed. I stayed completely still, paralyzed by the pain running up my ankles and into my calves. I focused on the round light fixture above where I was laying, my eyes blurry with tears that ran from my eyes, across my temples, and into my hair. He worked solidly for an hour or so, making calming sounds when he heard me suck in a breath in surprised agony.
“Almost done here, Meggers,” he said, his eyes inches away from the soles of my feet as he scoured them for any lasting remains. His brows were drawn together with concentration and care as he tended to the many tiny slices the wood had made.

Finally, it was over. The wet heat from the summer’s humidity had formed a tight bond between my body and the magazines beneath me. As I sat up, I could feel my skin stretching as I peeled myself from the slick magazine covers. Dad had wrapped my feet in gauze and I squealed a little as I stood, the pain shooting like flames up my legs. Dad saw my struggling limp, and scooped me up again, taking me out to the screened-in porch, placing me in my favorite lounge chair. As he settled in on the seat next to me, Kate came in from the yard, and crawled in beside me, lightly touching my bandages, a solemn look in her eyes as she placed my feet in her lap protectively.
“Storm’s coming in,” Dad said, pointing at the clouds cloaking the starry sky. We turned our chairs to face the field outside the porch, and got ready to watch the evening’s entertainment together.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Crabbing

Dad would wake us up before dawn on the days we went crabbing in the summer. We'd layer our clothing, bathing suit, shorts, pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, for the cold temperatures before the sunrise. The feeling of being up before the sun felt strange and almost alarming to me, giving me an anxious feeling that balled up in my stomach and sat there until I could see the reds and oranges of the sun rippling across the water. We'd put the boat in the water and off we'd go, Kate and I huddled together to fend off the cold wind in the bow while Dad manned the wheel, confidently navigating the waterways that spread out like a maze around us. Once Dad found the right spot, which came to him as a feeling, we'd start the process of dropping in the trot line, a long spool of twine with salted eel pieces tied to it in two or three foot intervals. Each side had a weight that would hold it to the bottom of the river attached to a buoy, usually an empty detergent bottle, that floated at the surface to mark the trot line's position in the water. After the trot line was placed in exactly the right spot, crabbing would begin. Dad would pull the beginning of the trot line out of the water and over a reel that hung from the side of the boat in the stern. As we moved at a very slow speed, the line would come out of the water and over the reel, then back into the water behind us. Hopefully, crabs would be attached to the eel as the line came, and as they were about to surface, the person dipping the crabs would scoop them up with a dipping net. This would happen again and again, with each apprehended crab going into a bushel basket that sat in front of where the dipper stood, wedged between the side of the boat and the console, where Dad stood as he steered.

Kate and I would take turns dipping, quickly jabbing the dipping net into the water and under the crab, catching it as it dropped from the line as it saw the reflections on the surface. If we missed one, Dad would heckle us, saying "That was the biggest crab I've ever seen! How could you let that one get away?!!!" He'd laugh and shake his head, making exaggerated motions with his hands to show how incredibly huge the escaped crab had been. Crabbing would go on from sunrise until the afternoon usually, unless we did exceptionally well in the morning. When we weren't dipping, Kate and I would take turns napping on the bow, a sweatshirt covering our faces to block out the sun.

Sometimes, when things were slow, I'd play with my Barbie, Maxi, on the bow, strutting my prized doll back and forth in her purple ruffled bathing suit. Once, as I was holding her close to the edge of the boat, I got the idea to take her for a swim. I leaned under the railing and bent towards the water, letting her glide like a mermaid back and forth in my hand. She dove deeper, then broke the surface, her long blond hair flowing like a sheet of silk through the brackish water. I bent a little further down, holding the front railing with my hand extended backwards behind me, wanting to let her swim deeper, wanting her to commune with the fish and crabs and plant life.

As I became more and more engrossed in Maxi's underwater escapades, I let go of the railing, and felt myself slip, my face now inches from the water. Just before I fell from the bow completely, I grabbed the base of the front railing with my feet, wrapping them around in a desperate attempt not to fall in. The boat was slowly moving forward, and in my panicked state I was struck speechless, unable to call for Dad or Kate, who were busy untying knotted trotline in the stern. I tried to arch my back far enough to grab hold of the rail, but I was too far away no matter how I contorted myself. My legs began to get tired, and I could feel my feet pulling away from the railing as my canvas slip-ons began slowly easing the rail between their grip. My hair was now trailing in the water, and I knew I was about to fall in. All I could think of was how many times I'd been warned against doing what I had done to get myself into this position. I knew that when I fell, the boat would immediately run over top of me and the propeller would chop me up, slicing through my skin like a machete. I silently struggled to right myself, twisting and reaching, Maxi dropping from my hand and under the boat. I envisioned her suffering as she ran through the fan of the propeller, her legs getting sliced into little Barbie logs that bobbed like pieces of hot dog behind the boat. My feel were holding on by only the tips of my shoes, and my face began plunging into the water unless I arched my back completely, hanging like a distressed figurehead on the prow of the boat, my arms flailing behind me, searching for anything to grab onto.

Just before I finally let go completely, I felt my father's hands grab my ankle and wrench me into the boat, my body banging the railing and the deck as I came back from the water and into his arms. He squeezed me against him, protectively clutching me, my face buried into his navy blue sweatshirt as I found my voice again and immediately began to wail in postponed agony and fear. He yelled, "What the hell were you thinking?!" and "You could have been killed!", his voice raw and emotional, keeping me pulled close to him as he berated me for my stupidity. Kate was standing next to us, her face a mixture of shock and soft concern as her little eyebrows wrinkled upward. Dad sat on the cooler in the bow, still holding me to him, my ear pressed to his chest. I could hear his heart beating so quickly, like the sound of a pocket watch counting off the quarter seconds. When I finally stopped crying, my sobs turning to stuttering breaths, I looked into Dad's eyes, so sorry for what I had done to put myself into such danger. I wanted to say something meaningful, to let him know that I would never be so foolish again, but all I could muster was a soft, "Did Maxi make it?"

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bath Water

Mom loved to take scalding hot baths when I was little. She would run the water very slowly, almost at a trickle, to keep the hot water from running out. It would take almost a half an hour to fill the tub, a deep claw-foot bathtub, and the water would be almost to the point of spilling over, steam crowding into the room and creating a veil-like vision of everything. Then, with Kate and I sitting in the bathroom, Mom would drop her robe and slowly slide into the water, sucking air between her teeth at the burn of the water on her skin. She would go in inch by inch, her descent marked by whispered curses as her skin reddened from the heat. Once she was settled in, her head resting on the back of the tub, she would let out a relaxed "Ahhh," and motion with her dripping hand for one of us to hand her a washcloth. She would wipe her hands, drying them, then motion for her pack of cigarettes in their leather snap-case sitting on the sink. I would hand her that, and hold the case while she lit a Virginia Slim 100, inhaling and then exhaling glamourously, holding the cigarette between the tips of her first and middle finger like a movie star, her long red nails shimmering with beads of water. We would sit with her, hanging on her every word, watching as her breasts bobbed to the surface as she lay reclined in that tub. Her make-up would fall beneath her eyes, making large black semi-circles that dripped down her cheeks, and still, I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Once, I don't know why, but as she ran her bath, I walked in after she had left the bathroom, and poured an entire bottle of baby oil into the water. It sat on top, large slicks bumping into eachother as the water neared the top of the tub. I knew what I had done was going to make Mom get mad. I tried to scoop the oil back out of the tub, but it slipped through my hands, escaping and forming new slicks on top of the water. When Kate walked in, I pretended nothing had happened, afraid that she would tell on me. Kate sat on the floor in front of the sink, waiting for Mom to come in, waiting for the bath time ritual. I didn't know what to do. I knew I was going to be in trouble, but I had no way out. I had to sit there, frozen, looking at Kate across the haze, the air thick and hard to take in. Mom walked in, and when she went to put her hand into the water to check for maximum heat, she noticed the oily film beading around her hand.
"Who did this?" she asked, her voice screechy with annoyance and anger. "Who did it?"
I said nothing. I was terrified.
"Someone better say something," she said, her eyes starting to bulge like they always did when she was about to scream.
I wanted to talk, wanted to take the blame, but I had no words. I knew I was going to get spanked. Kate's eyes met mine and lingered, almost like a conversation. Her eyes were asking me what was going on, and mine were telling her that I was petrified, and guilty.
"Tell me, who did this?" Mom shouted, her voice getting deeper, as she stood with her robe falling off of one shoulder, her hands squeezing her leather cigarette snap-case.
I inhaled deeply and put my head down, ready to take the blame. My mouth opened, prepared to make a confession.
"I did it," Kate said, looking at Mom.
I sat there shocked, a sense of incredible relief and guilt at the same time, as Mom began yelling at Kate, screaming that she didn't know what was going through her head, that she was a disrespectful daughter, that she was getting a spanking. Right in front of me, Mom spanked Kate, spanked her bare bottom until she cried. I wanted to run and make her stop, wanted to help Kate, but I knew it was too late. Mom sent Kate to our room, and drained the tub, shaking her head and sighing with exasperation. I could hear Kate crying from across the hall.

I carried the guilt around from that night for over a decade, until I was nineteen. Kate and I had never spoken about it after it happened. When we were together on a long car ride, just the two of us, I finally brought it up. I told her that I was sorry, that i had felt horribly guilty afterwards every time I thought about it. She didn't even remember it. She thanked me for the apology, but couldn't remember anything like what I was describing. I still think she is repressing it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Fight

In elementary school, Kate and I would walk everyday after school to the public library about a block away. Our father, along with many other students' parents, used the Kent County Public Library as a free after-school program, instead of expensive daycare or a babysitter. We would stay there, playing outside, reading inside, or entertaining ourselves semi-quietly while the librarians glared in our direction until Dad picked us up once he got done work, between five and six o'clock each week night. Many of the other children who joined us each day were rough and tumble characters. These children, in a good deal of cases, were trouble-makers of the highest degree, antagonizing anyone who dared talk back to them, and never retreating from a potential fist fight. Kate and I just kept our heads down most of the time and ignored any comments or advances from these kids. One day though, Kate had finally had too much.

As we walked to the library after school on this particular day, Kate was fuming. She stomped along beside me, her mouth set in a tight frown. From what she mumbled to me, I gathered that another one of the library kids had stolen something from a friend of hers. Autumn Whitmire was her name, and she was, hands down, the most vicious and scrappy girl in the fourth grade. Kate was so angry she was gritting her teeth. We had barely made it a half a block when Autumn caught up to us on the sidewalk. Kate, her hands on her hips, looked right at her and said, "You stole my friend's scrunchie," accusing Autumn right to her pinched and permanently scowling face. Autumn, in response, let flow from her mouth a torrent of expletives which the likes of have never been heard again by my ears. Kate stood tall, stoicly listening without so much as a flinch as the tirade went on and on. Finally, after at least two minutes, Autumn stopped. I thought Kate would turn and walk away, looking at her feet and hoping that Autumn was satisfied with her ultimate cuss out. Instead, she stepped forward, leaned toward Autumn, and said, "I don't care what you say, Autumn. You are like the piece of paper I wipe my butt with!" The forming crowd of kids laughed at Autumn. Kate crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her face slightly upward, a sure sign of confidence.

I couldn't believe it. Kate had counter-attacked! She had, in one short sentence, outdone all of Autumn's lackluster cursing. I felt immense pride for Kate, her heroic words resonating in my head. But as I looked on, I could see things about to take a dire turn. Autumn's face looked like she was hanging upside-down. The blood was seeping upward, reddening her face, then turning it to a purple-ish color. Her lips began to quiver and tense. Kate, the thrill of verbal victory still coursing through her veins, yelled out, "Fifty-cent girl!" She seemed not to notice Autumn's angry hue. Before Kate could see what was happening, Autumn was on her, slapping and scratching, her teeth bared and clenched. Kate began to fight back, grabbing at Autumn, smacking at whatever she could make contact with. The crowd was whooping and cheering, and I, frozen in the front of the ring of people, began to cry, frightened by the assault in front of me. Kate and Autumn looked like a ball of legs and arms and flying hair, now on the ground and rolling from side to side, the sound of palms hitting flesh and shrieks of pain and exertion emanating from the scuffle. As I stood uselessly crying, I heard Kate yell, "Help me , Meghan!!" I was paralyzed with fear. All I could manage was, between sobs, wailing "Don't hurt my sister, don't hurt my sister!" I wanted so badly to jump in and save Kate, to run with her until we were far away from Autumn and the library kids and the shrieks and slaps, but I just kept repeating "Don't hurt my sister," a futile and begging attempt at protecting her. I looked down, and Autumn had Kate by the hair, and Kate had scratched Autumn's face, and it was bleeding, and everything seemed to be spinning as they wrestled and flopped below me.

Suddenly, a woman in a Volvo Station Wagon screeched to halt next to us on the road. She bounded from the driver's seat, ripping Kate and Autumn apart, their arms and legs continuing to flail until they realized what was happening. "What are you doing to each other?!", she exclaimed. Kate and Autumn immediately began crying, and I cried with them, ashamed that I hadn't rescued Kate from the fight, but also relieved that it was over. The crowd broke up, bored the instant that the action stopped. Once the woman was sure that there would be no more punches thrown, she slid back behind the wheel of her Volvo, and with a final disgusted shake of her head, she slammed her door and drove away. Kate and Autumn stood looking at each other, still crying as they turned and walked together to the library, shuffling along as I followed a few steps behind.

Once we reached the library, the three of us perched on the brick steps outside, and I sat wiping at my eyes and sucking in jagged breaths as Kate pulled clumps of loosened hair from her head, her breath slowing as her adrenaline ebbed away. All of us were traumatized. Autumn watched Kate removing fistful after fistful of her sandy colored hair, and I could see her realize the horror of what she had done. Her eyes widened, and then her head dropped, and she stared at her hands in her lap, sporadically blotting at her wounded face with the back of her hand. All of the anger between them had drained away, and I could tell by their slack shoulders and down-turned glances that the only thing either of them felt was sorry. I felt the same way. When Kate turned to me and asked, "Why didn't you help me, Meghan?", all I could do was look at my shoes and choke back tears. I wished so much that I had helped.

To this day, I still wish I had.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Breakdown

Mom had a mental breakdown when I was seven. Kate and I were staying with her for the weekend at her friend Carlos's house, which was somewhere in Chestertown. I was sitting on fuzzy rug in the living room with Kate, watching the movie Shag, when the meltdown started.
Mom, in only a t-shirt, came running into the living room, dancing and singing to the music coming from the movie Kate and I were watching. At first, I thought Mom was so funny, dancing around, twirling and yelling the words to "Sixty Minute Man". Kate and I got up and danced with her, laughing as she hopped around the room. Soon though, I began to notice the frantic movements she was making, and the blankness in her eyes. She seemed to be moving almost mechanically, like something inside of her was steering her sleeping body. I looked to Kate, and I could see her noticing the same things. Her face went from a smile to a questioning scowl, like she was listening for something. I stood next to Kate on the rug, both of us watching silently as Mom continued to bounce and cackle and sing. She ran across the living room, flashing us both as she raised her hands above her head, whooping and singing, seemingly unaware that she had no underwear on. She climbed the stairs and slid down the banister, yelling "Come on, Meghan, come on, Katie!!", beckoning us to follow her, to slide down with her. Kate's face had drained of any signs of laughter or amusement, and she turned to me, saying, "We should call Dad," and I knew she was right.
Kate called Dad as I continued watching Mom, a mixture of fear and confusion blanketing my insides, giving me that feeling that something was wrong, out of place. By the time Kate came back into the living room, Mom was crying and murmuring to herself as she spun in circles to the music of the final credits. She looked at me, mascara trailing down her face, her nose red and raw between the nostrils, and said, "I can't stop. I don't know how to stop." I didn't know what to say. I just put my hand on her back as she walked, stooped and saddened, to the couch and sobbed. She was muttering and snorting, her shirt soaked in sweat.
Dad came and picked us up, Mom refusing to see him, closing herself in a bedroom. Kate and I didn't talk about what had happened, but I knew that she was as scared as I was about what we had seen. The next morning, Dad sat us down in the kitchen of our farmhouse, the oven turned on and opened to keep us warm. "Your Mom was taken away last night," he said. "She ran her car into the side of a building, and then ran from the police. They found her in the woods outside of town, and they found cocaine in her car. The police arrested her, but she had to go away again after that. She had to go to a mental hospital," he said, his eyes brimming over with tears.
"Is she crazy?" I asked.
Dad nodded, then hid his face in his hands.
Kate and I didn't go to school that day. We stayed at home with Dad, quietly talking about what had happened. To this day, the vision of her sliding down that banister still makes me feel like a scared child.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sledding

My family regarded snow as a miracle, every single time, when I was little. It wasn't just Kate and me getting excited as the flakes started to fall, it was my older sister Sherri, my dad, and when she was there, my mom. All day we'd tromp around the farmyard where we lived, hopping into drifts and making snow angels. We'd have snowball fights in which I'd inevitably get hit in the face and end up crying, the snow still stuck like an icy wound on my forehead. Dad would make his spicy chili, and we'd all enjoy winter together. NIght time, though, was the best time. After a dinner of soup or chili, Dad would put his winter coat back on, and Sherri would stuff Kate and me into our snowsuits again before finding her ow winter wear to keep warm. All of us would follow Dad's flashlight as he navigated our way to a hill about a quarter of a mile from our house across a big field. The hill was steep and led into a pond that held rain drainage that came rolling off of the corn and soy bean fields. This is where we'd sled.
One winter, we walked out to our normal spot, Mom, Dad, Kate, Sherri and I all bundled and laughing. Dad had brought a few different sleds, an innertube and a metal disk sled, and a few others. He and Mom were joking, and playfully tossing snowballs at eachother, kissing and drinkinng shnapps from a thermos. Dad and Mom sat down on the innertube sled and made the first trail down the hill, and I watched as they slid into the darkness below, disappearing except for their screams and then the sound of their sled gliding across the ice of the frozen pond. Sherri and I went next, on the metal sled, after Mom and Dad had reached the top of the hill again, Mom lighting a cigarette that looked like an orange lightning bug as she inhaled from it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lunch

In the elementary school cafeteria, I definitely stood out for my lunches. I sat among a group of children who's lunches I'd stare at longingly, filled with bologna sandwiches and plastic cups of chocolate pudding. Their lunch boxes would be a source of envy as well, with their Muppet themes and matching thermoses. I'd watch the other children eating their Handi-Snacks and wish I was one of them, with a mom at home, lovingly folding a napkin or adding extra cookies to share. I'd pull out my brown paper shopping bag, an utter embarrassment, and inwardly wince as the kids around me snickered. I'd reach in, hoping each time for a peanut butter and jelly or a turkey sandwich. Inevitably, I'd pull out something mortifying, like a steamed crab with a knife, or a goose leg in a sandwich baggie. My surrounding classmates would stare at whatever I had in front of me, at first in a state of shock, their mouths gaping. Then the table would be buzzing with whispers and looks of revulsion. I'd sit looking down at my lunch, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, quickly eating whatever it was that Dad had packed me. I loathed lunchtime because of it, dreading the stares and insults.
A girl named Deborah Jo sat next to me for much of the time at the lunch table, always eyeing whatever was in my lunch and then shouting out how disgusting I was for eating it. She had a face full of orange freckles that connected and created patches of color across the brige of her nose and on her sharp cheeks. Her eyes were orange, too, and always seemed to be scowling, even as she laughed. She was tiny, much shorter than anyone else in the third grade, and because of it, she was extra tough, extra mean. She had even spit on a girl once for no reason, and she had already been suspended for stealing at the age of eight. For weeks I absorbed her taunting, keeping my head down as I stuffed the last of the sardines Dad had packed me into my mouth, hoping she would take pity on me and be quiet. One day, as she scoffed loudly over my homemade venison jerky, I had had enough. I felt my face get hot, not from embarrassment this time, but from anger. At that instant, I hated her. Deborah Jo became all of the children that had ever slighted me, ever made me feel less than, ever laughed at me. All of the kids in the cafeteria who had trash-talked my crude lunch bags rolled into one, giant, mean leader, the head of operations, and that was Deborah Jo. Finally pushed to the edge of my sanity, I pulled my lungs full of air, ready to tackle this girl. I raised my hand to dole out the first of, I was sure, many blows. Then, just as I closed my little hand into a fist, I heard from the next table over, "Hey Meghan, I'll trade you my pudding for that jerky." It was Justin Harris. Everyone loved him. He was one of the cool kids. Even teachers were drawn to Justin for his third-grade charisma. I froze, my hand above and behind my head. The room went silent. Deborah Jo had a look of disbelief and fear on her face as I lowered my hand and slid off of the bench where I was sitting to walked over to Justin's table, relieved that he had thrown me a line before I had actually hit her, honored that he even knew my name. He handed me his pudding for my venison jerky, and I cradled it like a newborn kitten, standing still beside Justin, staring down at the rich chocolate, loving it, loving him for saving me. He invited me to sit next to him, scooting sideways on his bench, and I looked up to see Deborah Jo whispering to her neighboring eater, but a jealous flash was pulsing from her eyes, and it felt like heaven to me. I sat down, digging Justin's plastic spoon into the pudding, hoping he wasn't repulsed at the jerky, surprised when he actually liked it.
That day marked a change in my life. I stopped being embarrassed by my father's lunches. I stopped sitting next to Deborah Jo, stopped allowing myself to be tortured. She still would, every now and then, try to insult whatever I was eating, but it didn't matter anymore. I had someone on my side in the cafeteria. And he happened to like goose legs.