On cold school mornings, it was hard to wake up, get out of bed. The wood floors were chilly on our toes, the house was church quiet in the wan light. The last things we touched before bed were just as we’d left them: an open board game on the dining table; smashed up sofa pillows in a nest in front of the TV set. Mom would have stoked up the wood fire. Its smoky scent suggested to me the comfort of a day at home with soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, so that the thought of washing my face for school made me sick with dread.
We lived on a country road outside of town, in a little brick rambler on a thirteen acre patch. In the summer, it was cheery with falling birch tendrils and floating mimosa blossoms. Dashing bare foot over soft wild clover, our only concern was not to step on bees. That happened to me once and twenty-four hours later – a peculiar delay – my foot swelled up fat as a melon. There was an orchard, or three apple trees we called an orchard, you could see from the bedroom windows. Once I spread a quilt there and read in the shadows, heedless of heat and snakes. Another time, me and Mom discovered a dove nesting amid the blooms and we visited often to watch her bringing food to her fledglings. One day we went to find them, but there was only a mess of blood and feathers. The cat had gotten to the little winged family.
When the season turned, there was a sad kind of beauty that took place of all the gold and the green. The autumn wind bowled easily through the shallow hills, bending grasses that were auburn and blond like my two sisters’ hair, and scrubbing the scrub cedar until the air was heady with its chill spice. Sometimes, when the fall was new, I would walk with Mom out to the pond and then into the woods. We’d take note of all the summer things that had vanished – the blue quaker ladies we found on the pine hill, the orange lantern vines that decorated a marsh-footed persimmon tree – and we’d stand for a good while at the water’s edge, marveling at the blue mirror of an October sky. If you were silent, the breeze in the pines sounded like the very world was taking a deep breath. On weekends Dad might walk with us and though he was often like a stranger to me, it was nice to be three. The girls seemed never to be part of those ramblings, my oldest sister, Moo, happy to stay in her room, her nose buried in a romance novel, while tow-headed Bird talked on the phone with friends, usually about the new boys that year. If my folks had a little buddy for traipsing through the autumn woods, I guess it was me. At least, that is how I remember it.
There was as much to love about autumn as there was summer – except for school, which seemed only a sterile building to be placed for the day, where the learning was sometimes a pleasure, but where the cruelty of the roughest kids paralyzed me. School gave me a knot in the stomach, a dread that began at bedtime each night. In August, when the first day was still a few weeks away, I would have nightmares about it. The defenses I put up against the unkind few – I later discovered – also kept away those who might have been my friends. I lived my childhood years in a cage that I had built from the inside but did not know how to dismantle. What was meant to protect me became the thing that made it hard to be happy. I now know how being safe can be a delusion, keeping us from being bold, from trying our own, unique untried. But try telling a kid that, especially when you’re that kid.
If there was one thing that brightened the mornings – those awful school mornings – it was breakfast. The scent would bring us to the kitchen quick, still sandy-eyed as we tried to walk and step into our socks at once. The sounds of eggs being cracked, a whisk rattling against a mixing bowl, water running, toast popping, bacon frying – this lovely song of morning comforts was the very thing that made leaving the house shortly after seem crueler still. I would be thinking of my options for staying home even as I sat down at the table. My sister Bird would be eyeing the morning fare with only mild interest, most likely wondering yet again why Mom would deprive us the pleasures of Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch. If I had used the complaint of a sore throat the day before, I would decide that it ought to be an upset stomach this time. It was important to keep it varied. Those stomach ache mornings required a terrible sacrifice, as I knew from experience that you needed to feign a poor appetite to really seem sick. I’m sure when Mom noticed the histrionic pushing around of a stack of pancakes, accompanied by the grave face and a string of heavy sighs, she knew what was coming.
We struggled with each other horribly, me sticking to my claims hard and fast, she refuting them and insisting – yet again – that this time the truancy officers really would come and take me away and throw her in jail as an unfit mother. But when I could break her down and get my way, it was quite simply turning off dread, turning on happiness. If it meant having to hide in my room all morning, reading and keeping up the game, it was worth it, knowing that by lunch we would be friends again. I would come out around eleven, saying I thought I felt a little better, and I would offer to do some little house chore for her. She would be busy at her typewriter, typing medical records from dictation, and would roll her eyes and say warily, “Whatever, Paul.”
I would try to be quiet as I washed dishes or cleaned up breakfast from the counters. Her mornings were stressful even aside from my contribution. She spent as much time as she could trying to finish that days batch of work, while dodging calls from friends who seemed to think working from home was a lot like not working, and occasionally hiding in the living room if Jehovah Witnesses or salespeople knocked at the door. It was fun to stand in the shadows with her; we always caught each others eyes and got a case of the church giggles. Our eyes are a lot alike – keen, brown, and sleep-shadowed – and they always seem to recognize the ridiculous when they meet. Mom and I were the worst for sharing nervous laughter. By lunch time, she would be thawing, perhaps deciding it was useless in the big scheme of things to carry on a show of her disappointment in me. She and I were equally powerless to explain or best what had become, by the time I was nine, the phobia that was shaping me. She had her own cadre of anxieties – perhaps she could sympathize. At the time, I figured she liked my company as much as I liked hers and that it was a reluctant acceptance of this that brought about the lunch hour reprieve.
Putting her work aside, she would step into the kitchen and pull out one of her Weight Watcher lunches, saying how she would much prefer some biscuits and Dinty Moore beef stew. I would readily agree, “You only had two pancakes at breakfast, Mom, and you had fruit on your yogurt.”
My agenda was obvious and she might give me one last withering glance as she said, “That doesn’t matter, Paul. You have to stick to it every meal.”
I would shrug, “Can I have some Dinty Moore and biscuits then?”
“Oh, so your stomach’s that much better.”
Inevitably she would toss the box of grilled barbecue chicken, peas and rice back into the freezer and knock open a roll of biscuits on the counter edge. I would get out the can opener and rummage in the pantry cabinet. I would chatter nervously, happily as the food cooked. As we ate, Mom would eventually get back around to the school problem, but I would try to charm us onto other topics. If we steered clear of those troubled waters, we had fun, so I learned to get us going on things she liked to talk about. As we gathered up our crumbs and spills into the folds of the paper towels we called napkins, for the first time that day I would notice the knot in my stomach had gone away. She would have to get back to her dictation and I would ask if I could watch TV if I kept the volume down. In a brief, hard-captured peace, we parted for a few hours and the morning tumult seemed impossible to remember with the sounds of typewriter keys and game show music replacing the silence.