I was definitely the wrong height for The Middle Ages. The stairs spiraling down into the underground well were more like widely-spaced, shallow platforms, set apart at about one and half my natural pace. Every few steps, I had to shuffle up and reset my footing. If I were taller, like the boys, I could have taken all 248 steps in 248 smooth strides. If I’d been shorter — and with smaller feet to match! — I could have doubled up on each tread.
The boys were already at the bottom. The echoes of their gambolling and roughhousing on the tiny footbridge bounced off the walls of the open-air central shaft and drifted up the double helix staircases. I’d fallen back almost from the start, refusing to rush or be rushed through yet another “old building full of more old stuff.” Now, playing this maddening shuffle cycle game with the bizarre architecture of the stairs, I was both well behind them and growing tired.
Stairs can be murder on my leg. Really amazing but whackjob stairs apparently designed by a bunch of Renaissance monks who’d been smoking the funny sage down in the cloister were proving to be my undoing.
Our class was the only group in the building. It was neither the season for vacationing in central Italy nor was vacationing anywhere in Italy particularly en vogue. Although I wouldn’t appreciate it to its fullest extent for many years to come, I lived in and toured Italy in a time when Paris or Hong Kong or Kenya were the destinations au courant. I stood inches from David, and without any barriers between us. I wandered Etruscan tombs without a guide, and was allowed to touch the things I found deep down in the ruins. I would walk these 248 steps down and 200-40-freaking-8 steps back up Il Pozzo di San Patrizio at my own trudging pace without anyone shoving at my back or pressing to get around me.
Well, except for the boys, but they seemed satisfied — for as long as 15- and 16-year-old boys can be — to make idiots of themselves, whooping and running around on a high of boydrenaline and a proper Italian breakfast of mud-thick coffee.
I dropped my hand from the unbroken outer stone wall of the well. I’d been hugging that side of the passage to keep balance the whole way down. I crossed to one of the arched open windows and sat on the ledge. There was no screen, were no bars, nothing but air and a weak cylinder of sunlight separating me from a brief but wicked fall to the green puddle of water below. Sure enough, the boys were playing tag back and forth over the narrow bridge. I did a rough count of windows, and found I was only one full turn of the spiral and a bit more above them.
A twist of mischief turned the corners of my lips, and, before the boys spotted me, I stood and stepped away from the windowed side of the staircase. I may be slow, but I can also be dangerously quiet. I was going sneak down the last few steps and scare those boys.
For the month of April, I am participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge. My theme is “Memories.”
This post is not family-friendly.
Please be asleep. Please be asleep. Please be asleep. I repeated the mantra over and over in my head as I passed through the gate and crossed the concrete yard of the ugly, flat-roofed ranch house we rented. I stood in the shallow alcove of the front door, key poised at the lock, willing Richard to please, please be asleep.
The door caught high up in the frame and ground out a low rumble of wood rubbing wood. I pulled up on the handle, shifting the door just enough to clear the uneven spot. Stupid. That was stupid. Pay attention to what you’re doing, Stupid. I stepped around the door, turned, and shut it, still pulling up while also holding the handle spun so the latch remained open.
Inside was remarkably cooler than outside. I stilled and listened to the house. Silence. My mother, of course, wasn’t home from work yet. Wherever Richard was, he wasn’t making any tattletale noise for me to track. No TV. No shower. No snoring, either.
Maybe he wasn’t home? Did I even dare hope that? No. Where would Richard go, anyway? He wouldn’t. He slept all day, every day. I came home and did chores. I came home and made dinner. I came home and did homework (okay, when I felt like it). He jumped up half hour before Mom was due home, and shoved me out of the way so he could finish making dinner. So he could tell her he’d made it. So he looked like he’d done something other than sleep all day. That was normal. Richard actually starting up the raggedy Pinto and going somewhere… Not normal. I wouldn’t hope.
Be asleep. Just be…
Richard appeared in front of me, blocking my path to the hall and the peaceful seclusion of my bedroom beyond. He was bare-chested, his man boobs sagging over his barrel belly like two sad weasels. He had wiry black hair everywhere, even on his shoulders and his back; it made me gag. His arms hung out and away from his body, restricted from falling into a more natural position by the rolls of meaty chub in his armpits. Maybe it was an illusion from the weight he’d put on, or maybe it was just him, but he seemed to take up more space in the world than he should have.
"It is exactly 4:17pm right now! Where the fuck have you been?!" he asked.
I made my face blank out, giving him nothing — no emotion, no reaction — to claw into. I never knew what might set Richard off, or would ramp him up once he was already going. I could show him a face of respect (faked, sure, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right?) and get belted for it just as quickly as if I showed him contempt. “I had practice,” I told him.
"LIAR!" Richard bellowed. "You said that yesterday!"
"I had Madrigals practice yesterday. Winter musical today," I told him.
I saw the blow coming too late to brace for it. If I hadn’t gone quite so blank, if I’d watched him instead of that distant spot slightly off to the side, maybe I’d have seen it in time. Richard backhanded me. I stumbled and caught myself in the corner where the wall of the entry met the frame of the front door.
"Tomorrow, I don’t have anything after school. I’ll be home on the regular bus tomorrow," I assured him in a rush. Maybe he’d bite that hook. Tomorrow was soon. It was tomorrow, after all. Duh. And I would be home at the normal time, an hour earlier than today, to do his bidding.
Richard sneered at me, a heavy shelf of brow skin hooding his eyes as he drew his lips into a grimace and his nose wrinkled up. “Winter musical,” he mocked me in falsetto. “Chamber choir. Madrigals… What the fuck is a goddamned Madrigal, anyway?”
That was definitely not a prompt to answer him. I’d learned the rough way that Richard asked lots of questions he didn’t actually want answered.
"You know what I think?" Richard asked. "I think you’re so full of shit, your eyes are brown." He smiled at his own little joke, despite that it made absolutely no sense; my eyes are just as green as a Louisiana bayou. "I bet if I called that school, they’d tell me there is no musical or fucking Madrigals, or if there is, you’re sure as hell not in ‘em. I think you’re off galavanting around with those dumbass friends of yours, and you’re making shit up to get away with shit. Do you think I’m stupid?"
As tempting as that nugget looked, I didn’t for a second imagine answering it. There is no right answer to that one, anyway. Not with Richard. If I said, “No,” then he’d say, “Why do you treat me like I am?” and punctuate it with another smack or a punch. If I said, “Yes”… Well, God have mercy on me because Richard sure wouldn’t if I said that. Truth is, I didn’t think he was stupid at all; I thought he was nuts… psycho… looney-tunes. Like, he needed a quiet room and quality time with some serious drugs crazy.
For the month of April, I am participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge. My theme is “Memories.”
I sat cross-legged on the blue rubber mat. The floor beneath my bottom was flecked tile, and the coolness of it leeched through the mat and licked up my bare legs. I couldn’t understand how Teacher expected any of us kids to take a nap on these awful mats. They reminded me of the no-slippy, many-suckered mat in the bottom of the bathtub. Sure enough, though, as I stole a glance around the room, about half my classmates were asleep. The rest, an even mix of seated and reclining three- and four-year-olds, watched me with rounded eyes.
In my lap, I held my favorite book: The Velveteen Rabbit. This copy belonged the the school, and it had more pictures and fewer words than the one I had on my shelf at home. So strange, I thought, and not for the first time. Shouldn’t the same book contain the same story inside? I shook my head, cleaning out all those extra thoughts, and took up the tale again.
“‘She was quite the loveliest fairy in the whole world. Her dress was of pearl and dew-drops,’” I read, being sure to emphasize the special describe-it words, and peeked, briefly, over the edge of the book at the children. I made wide-eyes at them so they really, really got it. “‘There were flowers around her neck and in her hair, but her face was the most perfect flower of all. She came close to the little rabbit and gathered him up in her arms, and kissed him on his velveteen nose that was all damp from crying.’” Again, I weighted certain words — kissed him on his velveteen nose — so the kids could feel the importance of those words within the story. I turned the book to show my classmates, and tapped lightly on the picture of the fairy hugging the bunny.
I didn’t go to the Montessori preschool very long — just part of the fall that I was three and spring that I turned four. I know Teacher and Mom tangled about my naptime reading circles, but I don’t believe that’s why I didn’t return for that last term before Kindergarten. I think everyone just quietly agreed that I was a runaway rollercoaster car. It had taken just a bit of a push and pull to get me over that first hill, sure, but by four, I was roaring down the tracks all on my own and at impossible speeds… Speeds at which even the kind and generous folks of a Montessori learning environment couldn’t accommodate.
Sometimes, I wish I’d been able to throw on the breaks.
For the month of April, I am participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge. My theme is “Memories.”
The defining edges of the long, dappled shadows of the pear trees dissolved as color bled from the back yard. I stood in the grass, just off the slate path to the back door, my eyes trained on one spot; I wanted to see the exact moment the sun disappeared and the grey took over. Most people don’t watch for those moments. The moments just happen, and folks say, “Oh, it’s dusk already!” or “Gosh, night sure came quickly. Where did the day go?” But I watch. I like seeing it, even if I’m the only one who sees.
Nana waved the hose back and forth in a tidal rhythm over the Gladioli growing in thick rows under the windows of the Florida room. She had her back to me as she worked, but she knew where I was in the yard, even as I drifted across the soft warm grass, stirring just the faintest shush-shush with my sandaled feet. I never saw any eyes in the back of Nana’s head, not even when she had all her hair separated into neat bunches and rolled up tight in curlers, but she must have had something extra back there. Nana saw everything.
Something had blinked out there, under the heavy, bent boughs of the Magnolia tree. It was dusk all around me now, no shadows at all, but under that big old tree, it was almost full dark.
There it was again! What was blinking? There couldn’t be Christmas lights under there.
"Nana! Nana!" I skipped on one foot back to her.
"Nana turned the little handle on the hose and set it aside. "What, doll? What?" She was grinning. I was always bringing her gifts from the garden, usually flowers or butterflies both plucked with the same care and patience that stilled me enough to watch the falling dusk. She knew I’d found her another present.
I held out my hand, loosely fisted around the most wonderful thing in the world. “Look at what I found!” I said. Nana knelt in the grass beside me, and when she was settled, I slowly uncurled my fingers. In my palm lay a dull grey and washed-out red beetle. At a glance, he looked like a sunflower seed with legs. “I think I spooked him,” I whispered, “but watch. He does tricks.”
"Tricks?" Nana said, impressed. She whispered too. "My, my."
Slowly, the beetle’s tummy began to glow, brightening to a pale yellow-green that lit my hand and reflected on our faces. Them, just as slowly, the glow dimmed and went out.
I smiled at the little buggy and let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “That’s some trick, huh, Nana?”
"It sure is," Nana agreed.
"What is he, Nana? Do you know what he is?" I asked.
Nana’s eyes flicked over my shoulder, and a grin spread across her lips and danced in her eyes again. She turned me to face the yard. “Look,” she said.
As I looked over the lawn toward the dense growth of the woods, dozens of pale yellow-green glows brightened and dimmed. The bug I’d caught crawled out to the tip of my ring finger. He must have been able to see his friends, too. Thinking of all the butterflies I caught and released, I held up my hand and gave him a puff of air to help him fly.
"What are they, Nana?" I asked.
"They’re lightning bugs, darlin’."
"Ohhh," I said. They had a good name. I wouldn’t forget that one. "Why do they make lightning?"
"They’re talking to each other," Nana said. "That one just said, ‘Is this a good yard?’ and that one just answered, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a wonderful yard with lots of trees and flowers and a nice little girl to play with!’"
I stared hard at Nana, but she wasn’t teasing. “They really talk to each other?” I asked.
"Yes," Nana nodded.
"How do you know what they’re saying?"
Nana laughed and hugged me against her crouched body, fitting my head perfectly along the curve of her jaw. She smelled like Tide and L’air du Temps “I’m an old woman, doll. Old old old,” she told me. “I’m a grandma. Grandmas just know these things. You’ll see one day.”
They were a firing squad in grey skirt suits and tweed sports jackets. The Principal, Vice Principal, Kindergarten teacher, and man from the school district sat in conference chairs crowded into a tight row behind the Principal’s desk; my mother and I faced them on the other side. The week before, Mom and I had stopped by the elementary school down the street from our Venice Beach apartment to register me for Kindergarten. Or, we’d tried to register me. The VP had caught sight of me that day, pulled my mother aside and suggested in a tone that wasn’t really a suggestion at all that it might be best if we scheduled an appointment to discuss my attending their school.
Today was that meeting.
I didn’t understand everything that was being said. I knew, though, that these four didn’t want me. They didn’t like me. They also talked about me in front of me but never talked to me. I hate that! Why do people do that? It’s not like I have cooties or anything. You can’t catch being burned.
"She has special needs that would take my time from the other students," said the teacher.
"How many of your Kindergarteners can tie their shoes, skip with both feet, jump rope, play hopscotch, and cut with scissors? Sara can," my mother, my only champion, shot back.
"Uh huh, and I have a bridge. She’ll need left-handed scissors, too, I’m sure," muttered the teacher.
"I use right-handed scissors upside down-inside out, Ma’am. Can openers, too," I assured her, but she didn’t seem like she could hear me.
"Has she ever been tested? How do we know she’s ready for the, ah… strenuous curriculum of school? She might have trouble, ah… keeping up," suggested the Vice Principal.
"She can read, write, add, subtract, tell time, and measure ingredients for cooking. She just started on her multiplication factors. Do you cover anything more than that in Kindergarten?" my mother asked pointedly.
"I like tests, Mister! Or I could read to you! I read really well," I supplied, trying to be helpful. Nobody seemed to notice or need it, so I slumped back down in my hard plastic seat.
"I’m afraid she’ll be a distraction. The way she looks, her obvious physical differences, could make the other children uncomfortable," said the Principal.
"She might have a few things to teach those children, too. Empathy for a start," my mother told her.
And the worst of all, the statement that echoes in my head, even now, 35 years later, came from the man from the district. He said, “Maybe she’d be better off in a school for people like her.”
My mother went nuclear meltdown at that comment. “People like her? People like her?!” she demanded. “Who would those people be, exactly?”
The man had decency enough to look at least a little flushed and shamed, but he plowed on. “A school for… special children. Surely you understand.”
"Special children?" my mother asked. Without looking, I knew she was rising from her seat. The waves of anger and incredulity crashed down on the room, beat against these four with the implied threat of deadly undertow. It was coming. My mother was about to slam down her very last and very best Ace card. "The only way my daughter is ‘special’, sir, is in how profoundly gifted she is. You would be undeservedly blessed to have her here. If you seek to bar her from attending your school, mark my words, I’ll call every TV network in L.A. The next time you see her beautiful face, she’ll be crying on the six o’clock news as she tells everyone how mean and awful you were to her. And. How. You. Won’t. LET. HER. GO! TO! SCHOOL!" Mom enunciated each word so clearly and precisely, I could almost see them hanging in the air.
I’ve never been on the six o’clock news, but I did go to Kindergarten.
"Poppy! Poppy! Tell me another Jimmy and Jack story!" I begged.
My grandfather bent back the corner of his newspaper and peered down at me from his afternoon post in the brown, corduroy rocker. His copper-penny eyes twinkled. “Jimmy and who?” he asked, turning the names out as though they were foreign words bumping over his burled Appalachia palate. “Jimmy and…?”
"Oh, Poppy!" I said, and grinned. I couldn’t help myself, although I knew it betrayed me, betrayed that I was well on to his tricks. Poppy teased. He teased everyone, but most especially, he teased me. "Jimmy and Jack!" I reminded him.
"Jimmy and Jack… Jimmy and Jack, you say? Don’t know ‘em." He sucked his cigar back to life — three staccato whup whup whups — and made to go back to reading his paper.
"You know Jimmy and Jack, Poppy. They’re the naughty boys who…" I trailed off, trying to remember the very best, most telling detail of the stories my grandfather had already told me. "The little boys who put the school master’s car on top of the barn!" I declared, triumphant.
Pop dropped the newspaper to his lap. “Oh! You mean Jimmy and Jack! Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place!”
Pop is a storyteller and a comedian with a sense of timing as keen as a knife’s edge. He’d begun telling me stories the summer I was four, always in the late afternoons, during the hour or so between his coming in from working on the property and Nana setting dinner on the table. Sometimes, if it wasn’t too hot, he took up residence on the back porch. Sometimes, he went to his rocking LA-Z-Boy recliner in the den. Usually he read the paper and puffed at a stumpy, gagging sweet cigar. He never told me many Jimmy and Jack stories, and none of them were particularly long; these, both, are facts that nag at me, sending twangs of regret zipping and ricocheting in my chest. There should have been more. I wish they were longer. They need to be made into children’s books, dammit.
Because the Jimmy and Jack stories are true. Oh, I didn’t know it when I was four or five. I didn’t even fit it all together until I was approaching double-digit birthdays and could allow the beloved folks around me to have both the titles I gave them — Mom, Nana, Poppy — as well as their own names — Rebecca, Frankie, Jimmy. My grandfather is the Jimmy from the stories; his brother, scarcely one year younger than he, was Jack.
This is my favorite Jimmy and Jack story, and so this post is a shared memory: my grandfather’s for having lived it; and mine for having heard it in countless, begged-for retellings.
It was Halloween, 1936. Jimmy was 12, and Jack was 11. Their daddy, William, was law at the coal mine in the tiny, mountain town. He was tall and thin, but clever and quick. He was also a respected gentleman of the area, often called upon to settle employee disputes down the Company Store with his smooth baritone and smoother still countenance. That afternoon, William fixed that steady, weighty gaze on his young boys, but mostly on Jimmy, because Jimmy was the leader. He was older, and by that birthright alone he could persuade Jack to do all manner of crazy things.
So, William, again, mostly speaking to Jimmy, said, “Boys, you better not let me catch you going out that gate tonight.” Their daddy uncurled a single finger from a calloused hand and indicated the gate beyond the porch and stepping stones in the front yard. “You hear me, son? Don’t you go out that gate.”
"But, Daddy!" said Jack. "Daddy, it’s Halloween!"
Jimmy stepped down on Jack’s foot to shut the boy up quick. When their father glanced toward the gate again, Jimmy shot Jack a white-lipped hot glare to drive home the unspoken message.
"Aye, it is Halloween," said William. "And I’m no fool. I know what sings in the hearts of boys on Halloween. Trouble!"
Jimmy and Jack, their silent dispute momentarily forgotten, jumped to attention at the accusing word.
"I’ll not be having my boys getting into trouble, on Halloween night or any other. You hear me? If you go out that gate, I’ll take you both to the woodshed. One or both cross me, no matter, for both will feel the bite of my switch." William stared directly into Jimmy’s eyes as he made this declaration.
"Yessir," said Jimmy and Jack in unison.
But Jimmy and Jack did go out that night! They ran through the town of Big Stone, chasing trouble as it chased them. They threw a sack of poo, collected so carefully from their own dog, at the door of the mean ol’ school master’s house. They laid traps of cans filled with stones and dirt over the doorways of others. They loosed chickens from coops and pigs from pens, and chased them away down wind-whistled streets.
The next morning, William called his boys downstairs. He had a switch in his hand and a hard set to his brow. “I thought I told you not to go out that gate last night,” he said to Jimmy and Jack.
"We didn’t go out the gate, Daddy!" Jack protested.
"No, sir," Jimmy said. "We didn’t go out that gate."
"We went over the fence!" Jack said.
Amiable sidekick and comedic foil Jack died two years ago. He would have been 87 in August. I miss you, Uncle Jack.
Happy 88th birthday, Poppy/Jimmy. I love you. I could never hope to tell the story as well as you; I just hope I told it right.
This is my earliest memory, and the poorest quality of them all. It’s less memory and more a harsh blast of image. Trying to look directly at it is like sitting in my living room right after a tremendous storm has knocked out the power. I’m not sure where I’ve left the candles and flashlights, so I haven’t quite made up my mind to move yet. Lightning strikes, then, I see the room around me in an alien, blue-black flash. That strike, that flash — as long I don’t try to gaze at it dead-on, pick it apart, understand it too closely. Then it scampers away from me. — is all I have of this memory.
My oldest memories — and this one in particular, since it is the oldest of them all — are like this to varying degrees. The further back I go, the more the picture, sound, and… flavor… has degenerated. Or, perhaps, the picture, sound, and flavor was never stored properly to begin with. Most folks don’t have conscious memories of events before the age of 4 or 5. Maybe a snip here or a snap there, but of everyone I’ve ever asked, true memories — with details, focus, contrast, sound, scent, color, texture and emotion — don’t kick in until about 4-years-old. I don’t think I was meant to store these older memories, that the human mind just isn’t wired that way, and whatever spark ignites the engine of the storage center does not and should not occur until at least 3… or 4… or even 5.
But trauma is a toxic, noxious cocktail, and I believe it assaulted my brain until it awoke parts of me meant to slumber for a few more years. The memories stored were stored improperly and incomplete because my mind wasn’t ready to store anything at all yet. I didn’t have many emotions, so nuance of feeling couldn’t be processed. My vision was poor and my attention span narrow, so the details of faces and clothing and colors were discarded. I couldn’t read, so written words couldn’t be examined and boxed accordingly. I didn’t have language, so my mind had no place to tuck away what people were saying.
I didn’t have language. That’s key with this memory. I don’t know how old I was, only that I was not yet talking.
I spoke my first words (and for even more of a mind-bending loop-de-loop, the first words I spoke came in sentences, “Look, Mommy! See that?” Don’t ask me how; I’m just driving this bus) when I was 8-months-old. This is before that.
I’m laying in an isolation chamber. I think it’s a crib of some sort, but the rails are clear plexiglass. I can’t see clearly through the plastic, can only make out blobs of shape, and there are a lot of people moving and shifting around out there. The crib is canopied in plastic. There’s a rhythmic rumbling hum all around me. It’s hot. My torso and legs are naked, but my skin pounds in sickening hot waves with each beat of my heart.
On either side of me are round cut-out holes in the plastic walls of the crib. The holes are fitted tight to the chamber with black rubber gaskets. Black rubber gloves are fitted to the holes. One of the gloves has come alive.
I can’t move. I’m not sure if I’m simply unable to sit up on my own, or if I’m weighted down by too many tubes and wires. I can turn my head away, but I don’t want to. I need to watch this glove. I need to see what it wants. I will kick it, maybe. I think I can kick it, if I concentrate very hard.
The glove is shaking something. It’s a toy. It’s something I liked a few minutes ago. I will not like the toy any more. I hate the toy. I hate the glove. The toy makes noise when the glove shakes it. I’m interested. I’m afraid. It should only make noise when I shake it. It was mine. It does not belong to the glove.
Another glove, one from the other side of the crib is reaching for me. I’m angry. The glove that ruined my toy by touching it is trying to make me not see the other glove that is coming now. It’s going to hurt me. Both gloves will hurt me. I am rage.
His name was Diablo. His mane was loose and wild, and fell over his right shoulder in a coarse, shining sheet. His body rippled and gleamed, seeming to weave and undulate in the glare of the early summer sunshine, even as he stood still and appraised me through askant, half-lidded eyes from across the pen. He was unbroken black save for the white lick of flame up his nose.
I chuffed at Diablo and shuffled forward. “Oh, pretty guy. So pretty.” I waved the thick stump of the carrot I’d grabbed from a bucket in the barn near his nose. “Yummy yummy for the pretty guy. You like carrots. I bring carrots. You like me. Innit right?” I singsong cooed.
Diablo haughtily shook his head and ropy-muscled neck, but he took a few halting steps toward me, too. He stared down at me as if determining whether I was friend or foe, kind or evil, 11-year-old girl or scuttling bug.
I had a cold flash of fear then. I didn’t even come up to his shoulder, I realized. I straightened my back and more firmly fixed the smile to my lips. They smell fear. He’ll smell it. And you’ll never be able to ride him if that happens, I reminded myself. I swallowed twice and let out a long, gentle gust of air through my nose. A sigh to calm me and him.
It was he who finally closed the gap between us. I’d been ready to quit, try again another day, no doubt having to take it from the top all over again. Maybe “another day” wouldn’t be so hot and drowningly humid. Sweat trickled between my shoulder blades, heat thumped in my head, and my arm — extended up and out with that carrot — was starting to quake and cramp. Diablo headbutted me lightly and stole the carrot from my hand in a single, smooth gesture.
Michael was my first Very Best Friend in The Whole Wide World. He was four-years-old, the youngest of a whole babbling chaos of children who lived upstairs from us in the apartment building in Petersburg. He was my fierce, loyal, compassionate companion, and I often wonder if he grew into a warrior champion of a man. That’s certainly the shape and texture of the dent he left in the fabric of my memory.
Michael’s mother looked after us during the day, while his siblings were at school and my mother at work. We played Matchbox cars. We mowed down Weebles with Tonka trucks. We created great blanket forts only to clobber them like miniature Godzillas. Michael could pull a smile out of me and convince me to play any crazy made-up game that came to him. I think I loved him a little bit… in spite of, despite, because of it… I’m not sure. I was a strange only-child raised in a strange no-child world of over-educated adults; even at just two, I’d already begun slathering myself against that biting awful loneliness with dense layers of stubbornness and pride. Yet, with a poke in my side and a tug at my wrist, Michael could get me to do any darn thing.
And Michael’s favorite thing to do in the afternoon was drink strawberry Quik milk and watch George of the Jungle. Naturally, it became my favorite thing, too.
"R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P! Raggmopp!" Frankie sang. She flicked her heels back and forth across each other and shook her bottom, doing the dance she’d told me was called "The Mashed Potato".
The little AM radio on the counter was tuned to Frankie’s favorite station, the station we listened to every afternoon while we made dinner and rolls and dessert. Soon, The Paul Harvey News would come on. She loved boring Paul Harvey with his foghorn voice and the news stories that sounded an awful lot to me like he was really just reciting stuff from the latest issue of Reader’s Digest. For a few more blessed minutes, though, we had music. Old timey music. The swingy, brassy sort of stuff from Frankie’s childhood. We were dancing along to it in our ankle socks on the kitchen lino floor that Frankie had meticulously swept and mopped and waxed.
Frankie grabbed my wrist and spun me like the miniature ballerina in my jewelry box. My waist-length hair flew out around me, the skirt of my sundress belled out, and I threw my head back and laughed. As I came to a dizzy stop, I pushed off and sock-skated away from her. She followed, gliding gracefully in her socks too, threatening more spins and lots of tickles should she catch me.
Eventually, we collapsed against the center island, sweaty and giggly. “Alright, doll. Let’s see what we have to make for dinner,” she said.
Frankie died from metastatic colon cancer in 1995, just a few days before her 67th birthday. I miss her every day.