Friday, September 24, 2010

Because It Is Late (and the writing is terrific : -)

The Matronly offering today is long -- long. Long. You can click away now. By blog standards, this is a novel. It's actually the first chapter from one of hers and she hopes you enjoy it! But if you decide to stay for ten minutes, grab that cup of coffee (before noon) or adult beverage (after noon).


My memories are of things that fall from the sky to destroy you. The wind and thunder erupt when I’m six. One minute, I’m outside playing under a tree, the next I’m swept into the basement and thrown under a mustard colored rug. We hear the wildness after Mama lies on top of us. Don’t move, she whispers. Or does she yell? There’s too much noise—the wind rockets through the windows and burns toward children, light and easily lifted and spirited away. The cement floor cracks apart and somebody cries when the glass breaks over our heads. I peek into the sparkling mist of shattered windows falling, beautiful, snow shining in the sun. Run, screams Mama. We race into the storm.

How do you carry three children? My mother tries. She drops Christina every few feet and ends up dragging her by the arm. We’re going to be fine, she yells, pulling us into the sting of sirens and thunder and rain. Mrs. Moore’s blue door flies open, the yellow knocker rattling across the sidewalk. Flashy, Mama used to say, as if she approved. We shoot into a dank basement, blinking in the instant strange stillness. Children eat Oreos on a musty pool table until the wind shakes itself dry and disappears. My mother says she’s still not sure we’re alive. Everything in our house—walls and roof and floor—wrenched from its roots and tossed into the sky, yet by God’s grace we’re breathing with Oreos in our hands. Mama marvels: how did I carry three children this far?

Nights when the dusk red clouds fade calmly into darkness, I wonder if these memories of destruction are real. The tornado is only the first. The ones that come later can’t be charted on radar and require a different, stronger kind of shelter. Yet everything eventually disappears—people move on and houses span the old fields, the trinkets and scraps of childhood sleep in the attic or basement or a closet unused for years. All that remains is memory, written through me as a warning: the soaked dead heat and summer quiet settle into my stomach long before the weather report predicts a storm. When I have children of my own to protect, I will have two. One for each arm.

People always want the facts: when did the first storm come, did the police take your father, did your mother actually stay in bed that whole winter? I can’t answer in the yes or no way they expect. Memory has a truth separate from facts, and this is what I live. Ask Christina and Sebastian, and they will tell you their own, different, stories. Ask Mama. She will tell you something else entirely. Me, I no longer try to prove the accuracy of my vision because I’m looking into places most people never get to see. After all, I can close my eyes and dream and tell you whose heart can be trusted. This is the mystery of faith.

Chapter One

Mama must’ve been expecting the police. When a half dozen doors slam in the driveway and men rustle toward the house, she doesn’t even get excited. We hear the shouts—go round the back, cover the driveway. Heavy feet slide through the bushes along the four corners of the neat white stucco we live in. Mama turns off the coffee and calmly points us toward the couch.

“You three sit here,” she orders.

We scramble on as the not-so-polite pounding begins. Open the door, and the police barely pause long enough to wave a handful of papers at Mama, who backs off and gets out of the way.

“Go ahead,” she sweeps her arm out, an invitation that tense uniformed men don’t need.

They barrel from one end of the house to another, bursting through doors and circling each room. A wiry, flushed man plants himself next to Mama. Her face is smooth and unreadable to strangers; if you know her the way we do, you can see the rage roll off her shoulders. She lights a cigarette and ignores the chaos by watching the smoke snake out the kitchen window. The wiry man monitors his men: they come out of each room, disappointed.

He tells Mama sternly, “I’d like to know where your husband is.”

“Me, too,” she says, voice and eyes as steady as his.

Suddenly, our presence becomes important. He marches to the couch. I tuck an arm around Christina and Lovie, so that we slide, smaller, into the deep cushions. He should realize how little and unimportant we are. He doesn’t. As he creaks to his knees, he lets his slippery face transform into something soft enough to trick children. Go right for the oldest.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

I look to Mama for a cue. Before she returns to her window vigil, she shakes her head the tiniest bit—no.


“Rose? Same as your mom’s, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, Rose Junior, do you know where your Daddy is?”

“No, sir.”

“When did you see him last?”

A long time ago—Christmas? He gave me a book and a silver ring shaped into the word love. “I don’t know.”

“Come on, you can tell me. Was he here today? Yesterday?” His scrawny face twitches a fake smile: tell me, please.

I shrug. Even if I was the sort of girl who’d say—here, take my father—I wouldn’t be much help. I don’t remember the last time I saw Daddy. Sometimes when I’m in bed, I think I hear the screen door slam and a new tread weave across the floor. Maybe I hear his voice, then Mama’s? Their conversation starts as a murmur, then spirals and spreads wide, until voices spill into my sleep and the hot noises rain into our room. Christina crawls into bed with me. That was only a dream, Mama will say each morning. We all just dream it together.

“I don’t remember,” I say.

He stops pretending to be nice and stares at me a long, mean minute before he decides to try his luck again with Mama. She doesn’t turn her face from the window, not even when he rattles those papers in front of her. She won’t say a thing, and I know now that nobody will find what they’re looking for. The rest of the policemen slow their search into something calmer, poking through corners and drawers and closets.

I can’t help Mama, so I read Dumbo to stop Lovie from bouncing on the couch. He’s thrilled to have policemen rifle through his house the way they do on TV. Christina is nervous since she knows better. She focuses on the men milling around Mama in the kitchen, where the wiry red boss talks in a voice so low we can’t hear. Lovie hikes up onto his knees to jiggle and crane for a glimpse of a gun.

“Lovie,” I say sharply, “Settle down and listen.”

Lovie’s real name is Sebastian. Ask Mama, and she’ll tell grim stories about the saints we’re each named for. Sebastian was God’s soldier—he could heal the sick simply by signing the cross above their foreheads. After he converted a whole slew of heathens with a few swishes of his finger, a mob of non-believers shot him with an arrow. Left for dead, he survived to preach again. Next time, the sinners used fists and got their job done right. Even though God gave us an exciting story about His Sebastian, Christina and I found a better name for our brother on TV. We named him after Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. We tested the name out once—the sound rang out around him, and he looked up, new. Lovie. He’ll always be the baby, pink-soft and helpless like Mrs. Howell, with wispy white air and a ratty blue blanket he drags everywhere.

Christina’s seven and I’m ten, so only I remember the day he was born. The day Mama called every phone number Daddy gave her. The day she realized there wasn’t an office or a secretary, probably not even a job. Nobody knew a Rob Augustine or wasn’t telling. The day she did what she hated to do, calling Grandma, who hurried over as usual and whisked Mama off to the hospital in a taxi. Grandma braided our hair and told us stories about her family while we waited. Hubers, she informed us, never write bad checks or drive stolen cars or anything else we’re used to. When the call finally came, she said, thank God, thank God; she held her hand over the phone and laughed: “You have a brother!”

What happened next became family legend. I threw one of the great temper tantrums in human history: pummeling furniture, screaming, and stomping for an hour. Poor Grandma had to toss down that phone to chase me. Legend has it that I wanted a sister so that my status as leader could remain unchallenged. Get Grandma going on this story, and she’ll laugh and use the word usurp. I know what she’s getting at—I can use the dictionary and listen better than most people realize—but her interpretation isn’t quite right. Even then, I knew that Mama would love him best. Now, I know why he’s special: one day he will leave us all and thank his lucky stars for such a clean escape. Sometimes when I look at Lovie, I hate him for that. But jealousy is a sin, and besides, how can you stay mad at a boy who names his blanket Baby Blue and lays his head across your knees when he wants a cuddle?
We read on the couch for a long time. The commander tries to wear down Mama. His men grow bored. They pace the floors and peer into magazines and framed pictures. They lift up cushions and kick aside rugs unhappily, sensing failure. Once in a while, some crackle or peep will send them leaping down the hallway or toward the basement, as if they might catch Daddy dashing out of a doorway at the last minute. We peek over the top of the book to Mama in the kitchen, answering questions as if she’s as bored as anybody else. Although I can’t hear what she’s saying, the casual loop of her arms and her relaxed face makes me nervous; I can’t tell whose side she’s on.

The sweep through the house takes so long that Lovie yawns and rests his head on my shoulder, rubs a thready seam on Baby Blue. I read the elephant’s story over and over. Nobody listens. Finally, the wiry man wipes the sweat from his forehead and says, let’s go. The police file out with suspicious sideways glances, hands alert on their heavy belts. Mama slams the door shut and flips the lock.

“Well,” she says, “What would you like for dinner?”

We never share the dream about Daddy again.

Mama starts packing the next day. I step into the bright morning kitchen, only to stumble over the maze of half-packed boxes on the floor. Every cupboard and drawer is open. Canisters of flour, sugar, and oatmeal line the counters, where Mama’s dumping their contents into plastic bags. She still wears the same clothes she had on yesterday and the same unreadable face. Only her eyes are different, darker, with a neat tired pocket underneath each. Every phone book we own is by the telephone, all opened to the blue and yellow business pages.

Christina and Lovie are already eating Lucky Charms at the kitchen table, in the middle of all that mess.

“We’re moving,” slurps Lovie through his milk.

Mama turns toward the table. “Sit down, Rose.”

I can barely breathe, let alone pull up a chair and sit calmly. I remember the last time we moved and the time before that one, too. I fold my arms and stay put in the doorway.

Mama is the one who sits, sighing. “I was going to wait until the end of the summer, but, well, things are happening a bit more quickly. We’re moving to a smaller city, Mankato, where I started college. I’m going back to the university there to finish school and get my teaching degree.”

She pauses as if this is real good news. All I want to know is: where’s Daddy?

“Money will be tight, not a lot of extras. I’ll be busy—working and taking classes. However, I’m sure if we pull together, in the long run, this will be the best thing for our family.”

“Will there be boys close by?” asks Lovie. Sometimes I think he gets lonely with just sisters.

“Let’s hope, okay?” Mama tries to be cheery, but you can tell the last thing she wants to do is slope around a table and chat. She eyes the telephone, tapping the pencil in her hands.

“Is Daddy going to jail again?” asks Christina, always practical.

Mama pretends to think this is funny. “Where did you get such a silly idea?” she smiles.

“What about the police?”

“Everybody makes mistakes, even the police. Where we’re going, police don’t get addresses wrong. I hear Mankato has the best schools in Minnesota, and I bet everybody on our block is waiting for three new kids to move in.”

Christina doesn’t know when to stop. “Is Daddy coming with us?”

The round corners of Mama’s eyes narrow into something final. “If anybody asks, your father is dead.”

He’s not dead. When Grandpa died there was a big funeral packed full of old people I barely knew. The great-aunts hummed rosaries and the great-uncles lit candles. Somebody even paid money to have nuns pray for Grandpa every Sunday for a whole year. There hasn’t been a thing for Daddy, not one single Mass. Whenever there’s a crisis, fat old Father Gregory shows up after we’ve gone to bed. He hasn’t visited our house in weeks, let alone comforted anybody’s widow.

“Daddy’s not dead. Grandpa is.” I can’t help myself.

“As far as this family is concerned, your father doesn’t exist. If you need to, pretend that Grandpa was your father. Then you can say he’s dead without lying.” Mama picks up the phone book and notepad and sails onto the front porch to let us know that the discussion is over.

Christina asks me, “Do you know if Daddy’s coming home?”

I could say no, never. Look in Mama’s eyes and you see him slipping farther away from us everyday. But we’ve lost Daddy before and he always builds a path back.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her, “he’ll find us in our new town.”

“Maybe you’re right,” she says. I can’t tell if my answer made her happy.

We pour Lucky Charms in milk, stirring the soft swirls of color onto our spoons and sucking them up until our teeth are sticky. I circle my spoon into the puddles of sugar and pray silently: Saint Jude, hope of the helpless, aid me in my distress. You’re supposed to reserve Saint Jude for desperate cases. Now that I’ve promised Christina her father will appear, I have a responsibility to boost the odds in favor of his return. From the looks of the policeman and Mama, I have my work cut out for me. Christina and Lovie map out their day of play while I secure their future with a few Hail Mary’s. We haven’t moved from the table by the time Mama comes back with an armload of boxes.

“What are you three still doing here?” she asks. “From now on, the kitchen is a work zone. Go outside and play.”

Open the back door, and summer blooms as if there’s nothing new. Daddy picked this house so his children could enjoy the one wild green pocket of the city. Even though there’s a busy street at the end of our driveway—a dirt drive barely wider than a hiking path but long enough to keep the world away—we’re as isolated as if we lived in the country. Mama keeps the grass right around the house neatly mowed. The rest of the yard is a tangle of huge trees, hills, and stretches of flowering weeds that grow over our heads. Mama used to joke that if had to live on an edge, at least God granted us one that was beautiful.

When you’re shoved outside, nothing seems appealing. We kick around by the back door. Lovie surveys the pond he dug yesterday—a sloppy shallow hole in the center of the yard.

“Mama promised to fill this with water,” he says gloomily.

“Don’t even ask,” warns Christina.

“She said she’d haul sand to make a beach, even.” Lovie works himself up into a full-fledged pout.

We stand and stare at the first construction site Mama ever abandoned. She’s not like other mothers we know, who wear crisp pantsuits and careful hair, too prim to play Frisbee or whip mud. Ask Mama to catch a frog, play tag, or build a village for Barbies, and she snaps her beautiful black hair into a ponytail, rolls up the sleeves of a football jersey, and says, let’s go. Work hard, play hard, was Mama’s motto. She always saved her play for us. The rest of her life belonged to Daddy.

“Weed house!” I holler. We run.

Since we have little grass and so many weeds, Mama grunted with the lawn mower through the overgrown field to make a tangle of mowed-out paths and our summerhouse—huge flat-grass rooms with weed walls and a sky ceiling. We disappear into the browning field to race through paths and lounge away the cool morning on lawn chairs inside the weed house, hidden. Adults hardly ever come here. Once in a while, Daddy used to lather up with baby oil and tan in the living room since the fields are the only place in our yard without shade. Don’t tell my friends, he’d joke behind his dark glasses. Today, Christina and I twist reedy tree branches into necklaces in the kitchen, while Lovie builds wobbly rock towers for the beetles that share his bedroom.

When we tiptoe inside at lunchtime, we see that Mama’s made lightning progress. Half of the kitchen is piled in boxes. Three lukewarm bowls of noodle soup sit on the table next to a box of saltines. Mama is nowhere in sight. Christina and Lovie know what to do. They yell. They screech their chairs across the floor. Christina clanks her spoon against a bowl while Lovie pretends he’s Bat Man. They make enough noise for three. In important situations, I’m the spy. Under their noisy cover, I slink down the hallway to the half closed bedroom door. Our plan is so efficient I can hardly hear Mama underneath all the whooping. I slide on my stomach and place my head against the door.

Over the next three days, I spend a lot of time lying on that floor or tucked behind the back door, if Mama’s in the kitchen. I learn that all hell broke loose somewhere, and somebody’s going to snatch everything we own—which isn’t much because nothing we’re sitting on has been actually paid for. Mama doesn’t know where Daddy is and she doesn’t care, or so she tells Grandma. Mostly, she spends her hours on the phone trying to borrow money from Grandma and her brothers, who have done that before and need lots of convincing tears to take one more chance. This will be a fresh start, Mama promises.

In the safety of the weed house, I dutifully report the details to Lovie and Christina: we’re moving into a townhouse. The rental truck will be here on Thursday. Mama’s worried about something called financial aid. Only one brother will give her money this time. We spend so much time in the simmering field that our noses burn and shoulders peel. After the sun peaks, we swing toward the oak trees surrounding the trimmed lawn until the pale evening clouds arrive. Nobody has to tell us twice to steer away from the house. There’s always a mood around Mama these days and if you’re not careful, it will pull you in, too.

The day before we leave, Mama makes us stay inside. “I’m not lugging clothes that don’t fit halfway across the state, so we’re going to try on pants and shoes. Here’s the box for anything too small and other garbage.”

We spend the morning half-naked in the living room, wriggling into last year’s jeans and tennis shoes for her to inspect. Anything questionable, she says, toss. The first time I drop an item in the box—my favorite, perfectly worn pair of purple tights—I see Daddy’s stuff at the bottom. There are pictures, certificates from college, a baseball, loud ties, a compass, and a rock that we painted into an orange paperweight for Father’s Day last year. The faded purple tights float on top of his treasures.

A strange new Mama sits on the couch and watches us model. All business, she pulls at questionable hems and fingers old patched jeans to see if the work is still strong. She doesn’t laugh when Christina pretends that a string of tied t-shirts is a feathered boa. She doesn’t joke or tell stories or offer anybody a snack or a break, not even when Lovie complains that he’s hungry.

“We have to get through this,” she says. She does let him rest on her lap, though.

“What about these Mama?” Testing the degree of trouble we’re in, I hold up my first pair of black patent leather shoes—sweet tiny things that made the cut in all the other moves.

“Probably time for those to go,” she says quietly.

I put them in the box, suddenly afraid.

When we’re finished, she sends us to our stark, stripped rooms to finish packing our personal belongings. Christina and I prowl through boxes for last minute additions to the canvas bags we’ve already prepared. Christina’s is filled with knitting needles and bright balls of yarn. Grandma taught her to knit in the spring, and she spends her spare time purling and stitching the same sloppy square. Now she’s adding paper dolls and old peppermint sticks that we found in our dresser.

“Where’s that picture of Ethel?” she asks, searching in a sack for a photo of our gray and white striped cat.

My bag holds more important things: six dollars, Daddy’s silver ring, a notebook, pens, a pink plastic rosary that I got for my First Communions, a flashlight, two batteries, and three books. Two of the books Mama approved, the other I sneaked in. Mama gave me Where The Red Fern Grows, which I’m reading now and makes me think we should trade in Ethel for a dog. Gone with the Wind, I found in a moving box. Mama had to flip through the pages and think a while after I asked to take it. Finally she told me she was making a borderline call—go ahead and take it, she said, you might learn something useful.

The book I’m hiding is The Exorcist. The dark cover looks evil, black and blood red with a warning about the dangers inside—a young girl possessed by Satan. Simply touching the book gives me the same pleasant shot of nerves I get during certain movies before Mama realizes her mistake and turns off the TV. But the Devil’s no Monday night movie: you can’t be too careful where he’s concerned, so I wrap the rosary around the book and shove both down deep in the bag.

I bide my time until Christina finds her photo and trots off to help Lovie, who’s hollering from across the hall. Then I write my letter to Daddy. I don’t bother making things up about Mama missing him. I stick to the facts: when we left, where we went, and how we’re all doing. Everybody’s fine, I write at the end. We hope you are too. My only problem will be selecting a spot where Daddy can find the letter without Mama noticing it first. I spend a few quiet minutes asking God for the perfect place. He’ll point me there.

Lovie bursts through the door. “Grandma’s here for the party.”

We greet her on the steps. Grandma is much shorter than Mama, and gray. They share the same crystal blue eyes, delicate cheeks, and thick hair. We three kids were all unlucky enough to inherit the limp blonde Augustine style and—except for Lovie—Daddy’s muddy hazel eyes. Height singles me out from my tall siblings. Some gene from Grandma zapped me as tiny as she is. Three years apart, Christina and I stand shoulder to shoulder.

“Hi sweeties,” says Grandma. She pats us absently and marches straight for the kitchen. We know who she came to see. Mama empties the freezer.

“What’s this?” asks Grandma, hoisting a large bag onto the counter. The table is filled with TV dinners, turkey potpies, lasagna, pizza, peas, and corn.

“Dinner. I can’t take frozen food on a long car trip. Consider this a feast,” replies Mama, in a tone that isn’t the slightest bit festive.

“Hmmm,” says Grandma, surveying the stacks ready for tomorrow’s move. “Need a hand?”

“I’ve already told you what I need.” Mama concentrates on tinfoil and containers.

“Fine. Kids, these backpacks are for you to take to your new schools. Sebbie, you’ll need one too. What do you call that place you’re sending him, Rose?” Grandma talks loudly into the ceiling while she distributes blue backpacks.

“Day care.”

“Well, you’ll have to haul stuff, Seb. Change of clothes, maybe a toothbrush, depending on how long you’re dumped there,” sniffs Grandma, who frequently makes important points meant for Mama to us, to God, or into the air.

Mama changes tactics. “Sebastian, show Grandma how well you’re reading.”

Everybody calms down while Lovie shows off one of his gifts. He was barely three when Mama asked Christina to spell ball and Lovie did it instead. Teaching Lovie to read became a family pastime that didn’t prove much of a challenge. Now when we read the back of cereal boxes, Lovie breezes down the panels as quickly as Christina.

He trots through a baby version of Peter Pan, no problem. “Wanna see me add?” he asks hopefully at the end.

“Certainly,” beams Grandma. “I only pray that daycare doesn’t diminish this talent. I hear those places pile in the kids, toss them a few toys and hope for the best. I can’t imagine that any child gets quality attention, let alone one whose spot is government subsidized. Pray that there isn’t some caste system among preschoolers.”

Lovie looks nervous.

“Kids, go outside and play.” Mama points. We can’t open the door quickly enough.

I don’t bother spying through one more fight. We play Lost in Space on the tall blue striped swing set. Feeling generous, I let Christina be Judy, the beautiful sister. Lovie is always the robot. He flaps his arms and shouts, danger, danger.

Mama finally opens the back door. “Dinner!”

The house is thick with the heavy smell of winter food—baked turkey, lasagna, buttered peas, and mashed potatoes. The sun beats into the oven hot kitchen where Mama and Grandma sit at a steaming table, sweaty and tired.

“Rose,” says Grandma, “I can handle two pot pies in a pinch. Pass one more over.”

Nobody sighs or stomps or pleads with Jesus during dinner, so we know that they’ve made up at long enough to say good-bye.

The feast is short. Christina makes a point of tasting everything that’s yellow. Lovie only eats pizza. Mama dips her finger in turkey gravy for Ethel and nudges her lasagna without taking a real bite. Lots of food goes to waste despite our best efforts, because who can have a hearty appetite the day you leave Grandma?

She blows her nose and wipes her eyes at the door. She hugs each of us a little too hard. “Expect to spend every vacation at my house, okay? We can have lots of long sleepovers.” Grandma wants to cry, but won’t. “I can’t believe that my grandbabies are leaving.”

“We should get going on these last boxes,” Mama steps in. They hug cautiously.

“Good-bye,” sniffs Grandma.

Mama says, “I’m sorry.”

We wave until Grandma’s car turns past the trees. Nobody cries, even though we all want to.

Another car pulls into the driveway much later, during a bedtime snack of taters tots and ice cream. Mama stops scooping and follows the sounds carefully. She walks slowly to the front window, peeks through the half-closed curtain.

“Who’s that man?” asks Christina, already at Mama’s side.

Mama’s back squares and straightens. The spoon she’s holding clatters across the counter. In one strong swoop, she bolts the door, shuts the curtains, rips off her watch, and grabs Christina. Mama presses the watch into my hands and squeezes me so tightly that I’m forced to pay attention. She doesn’t look toward the door or pause to listen again when a car door slams shut. All she sees is me.

“Listen carefully. Do exactly what I say. Go out the back door and take your brother and sister to the weed house. Run behind the side yard trees, not in front. If I don’t come and get you in fifteen minutes, you three hold hands and run as fast as you can to Mrs. Nelson’s house. Tell her to call the police. Fifteen minutes. This is very important—do you understand?”

I can’t talk. I do understand. This has happened before, strangers and running and Daddy taken away once, too. We drop our bowls and rush to the door.

As Mama pushes us outside, the knock explodes. My last quick look at her surprises me so much that I almost stop moving. She’s glad he’s here. Hate and purpose pour through her, and she’s as angry as she is scared. There’s a terrible, cruel face on Mama and she’s free, happy to be feeling it. Then she shuts the door. We’re cut off, running behind the oak trees until we’re breathing hard in the middle of the weed house, surrounded by live swaying walls and the pale evening sky. The watch says 8:43.

Christina and Lovie strain for a view over the top of the weeds. I distract Lovie by shoving a rusty toy bulldozer in front of him. Mama said we left too many things in the field, and I guess she was right. 8:45. My clenched breath makes everything spin a little, the green walls wobble dangerously and dusky clouds tilt and wave, I push hard into the ground and review: at 8:58 I’ll take their hands and dash back behind the raspberries—we’ll be very, very quiet yet fast—over the lumpy trail through the trees to Mrs. Nelson, who will be on the phone so quickly that the police will be with Mama before we can even catch our breath.

I hate Daddy. Because of him, nobody good except Grandma comes here. Once some of his visitors drove Mama to the weed house, too. I can’t wait to rip the letter I wrote to him into garbage. Even the thought of looking at the watch makes my breath tighten and heart pound through my head—until I finally force myself and am sick all over again to see that there are five long minutes left before I can save Mama. Christina is crying in tiny tight hiccoughs and Lovie rocks blankly back and forth with his bulldozer. I imagine Mama lying in the kitchen, dying, while he sneaks out into the yard to search for her children. Wait—I hear a steady swish-swish through the weeds. He’s coming! We should never mind what Mama said and run—run now while I can still think clearly. I hold out my hands and scream to Christina and Lovie.

Here’s Mama. I break apart to see how beautiful she is, whole and unharmed. She kneels at the weed house door.

“Come here, babies,” she whispers.

It doesn’t matter anymore if I die, because now I know what the nuns say Jesus felt, going Home. There’s the crackle of a car driving off in the right direction. Mama’s hate shines until all we hear are bugs whistling across the weed house.

I’m so tired that I trip when we stand up.

“I’ll carry you,” says Mama. She lifts me and brings me to my bedroom, with Christina and Lovie tugging at her elbows and tripping along her side.

“Stay with me,” I ask her.

I don’t know if she spends the night, but after I fall asleep with her eyes on me, I dream as if I’m alive for the first time. She’s not with me now. My travels start with the flat air before wind begins—nothing moves except the sheets of gray covering the sun. I’m under a tree when the cold creeps across my skin. Am I dreaming? I can’t be certain at first, because the storm is a memory, too. But when I drop into the basement, the story changes. I’m alone on a floor that cracks into holes—scream for help—nobody comes! The holes melt into doorways, spilling me into the funnel’s murderous heart. The tornado is real! I’m carried and churned, wet, snapped sharply against the wind. Dirt stings my eyes and gags me, I need to spit and can only cough gray wet breath as the heavy soot blanket takes hold and spins me farther away from the shadows of the other people falling beside me. I can’t see, simply sense the hard break of ground ahead. I’m choking.

The landing lurches me awake. I sit up, coughing, gripping the mattress until I realize that the room isn’t spinning. Moonlight traces Christina spread out softly in her bed. Boxes sit solidly along the wall. A stuffed Eyore, ready for the truck, stares at me from one of the corners. Inside, I keep falling. I lie down again and close my eyes without sleeping, listening to the crickets and night birds sing.

We leave early the next morning. I’m tired, what with barely any sleep and Lovie playing Tarzan at the crack of dawn. Mama loads up the station wagon with things we’ll need for the drive and gives us chocolate doughnuts to fight over in the car. The day is new and wet and dim when we say good-bye to the white stucco house with shining floors, good-bye to wild daisies and the weed house. Halfway down the driveway, Mama slows down. “Whoops—better make a last call for the bathroom.”

Nobody needs to go except me, and she’s only a little grumpy about pulling back up to the house. I run inside and use the bathroom, wash my hands with water and dry them on my shirt. Before I can change my mind, I take Daddy’s letter from my pocket, stick it on the cool white toilet rim and gently close the seat on top. A St. Jude prayer and we’re on our way.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Actual Conversation

The Matron is happily making breakfast on a Wednesday morning full of dew and sunshine. The older children have been carried away on various buses. The dog has had his four mile run (and the Matron, too). She's prepared for the workday, all papers graded and lessons ready. The bathrooms are cleaned. Bacon is simmering and the eggs are ready to go. She has the rare sense that all is right in the world. Then, Merrick, whose school day starts significantly later than the others, appears in the kitchen.

Merrick (with urgency): "Mom!! Can I have youw cell phone?"

Matron: "Merrick. Good morning to you, too."


Matron: "Why?"

Merrick: "Actually, I need my own cell phone!! I need to check my email wight away."

Matron: "Email? You have email?"

Merrick: "Don't you know? I have a LOT of email evewy day. I'm stwessed about checking my email."

It turns out that Merrick established an email account (he's mastermerrick online) about six months ago. HWCBN and Scarlett sign him in and out and are in charge of passwords. But Merrick takes his electronic life seriously. He is seven.

Merrick: "What's spam, Mom? And can I send email to all of Scawlett's fwiends? Nobody else in my classwoom has email. Can I have a cell phone? How about a laptop? What does 'weply all' mean?"

Life in the 21st Century--and the timeless story about keeping up with the big kids.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stage Mother

Stage Mother is about to implode.

The actor child has rehearsals and performances booked through January 23, 2011. This would be every, single day (okay, a very few exceptions, considering there's Christmas, Chanukah and all that--oh, and maybe Oprah's birthday? ) of driving, monitoring the missed school and unusual homework needs.

Scarlett will miss a solid six weeks of school. Oh -- did the Matron mention that during those six weeks there will be driving obligations? With a three hour rehearsal or performance gap and then driving again? Said transportation requirements extend to midnight on weekends -- a mere 10:30 pm on school nights.

Yesterday, this child required six hours of special attention. There was a commercial audition conveniently scheduled during the middle of the school/work day and then the Iveys (local theater awards gala) at night.

Scarlett: "But Mom, Dad, I will DIE DIE DIE if I miss the Iveys!!!"

This wouldn't be so bad if many days didn't involve three to six hours of driving, resume building, agent emailing, hand-holding, waiting, and more.

This is what bothers her most.

Matron: "Merrick, what are you doing?"

Merrick: "Watching TV."

Matron: "HWCBN, what are you doing?"

HWCBN: "Playing a game on my computer."

So the other two stagnate while Scarlett is off to another big screen endeavor.

Say it ain't so, Joe.

On the other hand -- how do you say no to a dream? Not your own dream or desire or even goal --but the genuine, heartfelt love of a child who wants nothing more than to live on stage or screen. This is what keep the Matron going -- gets her into the minivan for the driving, waiting and hand-holding (and the latter would now be in regard to algebra and not acting).

So for now she's putting in the hours (like a soccer or hockey mom, although she hates those monikers) and trying to see --somewhere? -- that bigger picture.

But Stage Mother? Over-extended.

But potential big blog fodder: she has to decide whether to depart for LA for 8 weeks for pilot season and is waiting to hear what happened with an audition for a lead in a Disney film.

Could be BIG BIG blog juju ahead. . . but let's say the next five months of driving are sufficient. . ..

Monday, September 20, 2010

Welcome to Autumn in the Northland

The brisk September has offered the Matron and her family its usual bluster and blow: crisp mornings and cold houses, rooms that were once hot now requiring slippers and long sleeves. The month also introduces the entire state to the Head Cold (aka Cough or Sniffles) who will never quite leave until April, simply changing form and crouching in dark corners, waiting to retool and leap again. Head Cold is a seamless entity -- if not nestled solidly in your own house, he is visiting the neighbor until it is time to cross the street and slip through your window, again.

Head Cold has its fingers on the Matron's face (sinuses, chest, bleary eyes) and is threatening to take the shape of Cough for awhile; he (because Head Cold is definitely not a woman) is also toying with Scarlett and delicately dancing around Merrick's pale frame. The Matron imagines Head Cold a thin veil, spread between her family, in various stages of advance and retreat for the next few months.

Head Cold, in honor of your annual autumn arrival, one of the Matron's favorite poems:

Life With Sick Kids

One child coughs onnce
and is sick for nearly eight weeks, then the other child coughs so
hard he nearly vomits, three weeks, and then
stops and the first child cuoghs a first cough,
and then the other delicately and dryly begins to cough,
death taking them up and shaking them
as kids shake boxes at Christmas. So in bed on the
third day of the blood when it would be
almost safe to use nothing,
just a tiny door left open for a resourceful child,
I cannot see or feel or smell you, I keep
thinking I hear the unconceived one
cough a little introductory cough.

Sharon Olds