What We Hold On To (Beginning of Chapter 3)
My antique jewelry box with the chipped wood veneer and intricate brass design on the lid used to be my Nanna's. It houses a red velvet pouch. I pull out the silver charm bracelet inside. I haven't worn it since my teens when my family fell apart. Two of the charms, a cat and a Lucky 13 horseshoe, were never soldered on. Wearing it now, it feels like I'm carrying a little book around my small-boned wrist. There's the first charm, that heart I was given by my stepfather when I was four. For later birthdays, my mother gave me the state of Virginia representing my time at camp and a silver Liberty Bell representing our move near Philadelphia. Sometimes I tell my therapy clients that the goal of your life's journey is not to be burdened with steamer trunks, old leather suitcases, valises filled with old shit, endings, hurts, the past, the sound of your mother yelling and your fathers leaving. The goal is sorting through, choosing what to take, deciding what you must have with you that's useful in dealing with your present life. Hopefully it is a manageable amount. Hopefully it is no more than a carry-on bag. Or my jangly bracelet of silver memories with a strong clasp.
Clouds scatter across the roofs of the other suburban houses in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Big fluffy puffs moving fast toward Philadelphia in the late spring breeze. We are in the front yard next to the azalea bushes, and my mother has a peanut butter jar in her hand. She is catching the slow, black wasps as they come up from a hidden place in the ground. I am crouched on my heels, a bit away from her, a little afraid of what she's catching. She wants to show my sister and me how animals make their homes. She finds birds' nests of woven weeds and grasses. She
points out the wasp nest under the eaves of the long porch outside my bedroom. She pulls down a white cocoon from the 'V' in the slender branches of the pussy willow and tells us about the caterpillar liquefying itself into a butterfly. I think my mother knows many things. One afternoon when I come home from Stafford Elementary School, she is sitting on the chaise lounge in the backyard with a book and talking to a mockingbird, or so she says. Different bird calls rise in her throat as if she had soft rumpled feathers. My mother loves this house we now live in. She isn't working as a nurse right now and is, instead, fixing everything up. It was built for the developer of the neighborhood. It's the nicest house, and inside it has a lot of extra closets and the biggest yard we've ever had with woods in back and a creek. "We are never moving again," she tells me, grimly, as she surveys Daddy, my stepfather, a tall man with a sandy blond crewcut and piercing blue eyes, walking up the sidewalk between the flowers she's already planted.
I have my own room here. I sleep in my mother's childhood antique, four-poster bed under the framed poster of the tapestry of the Unicorn in Captivity. It depicts a small horse with a horn in a fenced-in pen. My mother had seen the image at the Cloisters in New York City. She wanted me to have it because I like unicorns, especially one in The Little White Horse, my favorite book. Early in the morning I read it, along with the Narnia books stacked in a giant pile on the bedside table. It is the most comforting feeling of all, knowing you have lots of books to hold like anchors.
Some mornings when I don't have school, instead of reading, I get up right when the sun comes up and long before everybody else does. I like the aloneness when it's bright outside. It reminds me of when I was all alone at Hazelwild Farm Camp, but I don't mind this feeling here. I go to the kitchen. I take a spoon from the drawer and climb up on the kitchen table to eat a full spoonful of white sugar, twice. I love it melting down my throat. I open the back door and look for Tommy, all stripes and green eyes. He sleeps with me sometimes, so then I let us out together. The day glimmers and turns green, and the dew on the grass makes glinting sparks of light. It's warm, early summer, and the grass is cold and wet on my feet. The cat appears, and I follow him. We walk beneath the willow tree, passing under its long branches with the slender silvery leaves. We walk the edge of the hill that leads down into the woods. There is a creek further down and then a dump back over the other side. We stay on the periphery of the lawn, smelling wet earth and the flowering bushes, everything moist and giving off breath in the sun. Tommy rubs my legs, purring and purring, and the sun warms my back like those puffy, blue hydrangea blooms. I want to open and be consumed by the sky, the air, the purring cat, the long day filled with nothing to worry about. We go to the side of the yard where the roses climb the trellis off the wide porch. Then past the bushes to the steps. On the other side, a huge bay window. From the porch, I can look into my own room, see the four-poster bed with the quilt turned back and the indentation of my body left and gone from there. There's the washstand with the white pitcher, the little old school desk, the bureau with the three drawers and my penny collection inside. I am the one who is awake in this green world, and I feel, although I don't name it then, joy—a brightness and freedom about what the day might hold.
In our sunken living room, we keep a terrarium with plastic palm trees in it for turtles, but they have a habit of climbing out, losing themselves slowly under chairs and along the hardwood floors, trailing dust bunnies and bits of cat hair. There aren't many hiding places in this house, and it's clear the turtles can't really escape. One day, I stand near the terrarium and watch my mother. She climbs on a step stool and reaches up to the top shelf of the hall closet. She pulls out a box and opens it. It's a gun. She shows it to me and tells me that it's Daddy's and that she is putting the bullets for it someplace else in the house, and I don't need to know where they are.
"If anything bad ever happens when we are fighting," she says, "take your sister and run to the neighbor's."
It's close to bedtime, early evening. I'm wearing baby doll pajamas, a sleeveless top with a ruffle on the bottoms. I wear them with my underwear. Suddenly, Daddy is looming in my doorway, screaming at me to get in my bed. I don't want to because it's still light outside. Crying, I push past him out of my room, running out of the house because I know my mother is outside sitting on the next-door neighbor's porch. His heavy footsteps follow me out the front door and he stands on our porch. He's only wearing his bathrobe which has fallen open to his nakedness underneath which I don't like, and he's still yelling at me. My mother comes right over from the neighbor's, walks me back inside, and puts me in my bed. I listen to make sure she doesn't leave again.
My doll Lisa lives under the bed in the long box she came in, with blankets and a little pillow I made for her. Still, there is a lot of dark space under there where something else might live. I worked out a deal with whatever it is under there. I go to bed and turn toward the wall with the windows. This way the thing can escape through the cracked door into the night-lighted hall without me seeing it. If I face the door, then it can't get out and it hides in the wide inky darkness holding me. Sometimes I have nightmares and yell for my mother. Sometimes she comes and sometimes it's Daddy in his boxers. I don't like it when Daddy comes because it scares me more.
In the daytime, sometimes I am the scary thing. I wait for Missy, pressed up against the right side of her doorway. When she opens it all the way and comes out, I holler, "Boo" and she screams. You'd think she'd know to look by now, but I guess when you are four, you don't always remember. Once I took her Raggedy Ann. "Annie, Annie," she was gasping with big wet tears rolling down her face. I felt bad then and I gave it back, but first I gave it an extra tug on the striped leg, so she'd know who was bigger. Maybe I am trying to teach my sister how it feels to know there is something waiting outside your room.
The second-grade school project is to make a map of something. My mother has an idea. In National Geographic, they have published the first maps of the ocean floor. It is 1967, and science can see almost everything. Soon we will see the moon up close. Now we are traveling underwater. My mother gets a big box, maybe three feet by three feet, and puts the map on the bottom of it. We take blue clay and begin to shape it to look like the picture on the map. Pressing down, we make deep indentations and then pile it up around the "valleys." It's a very big project, and cold in the basement, but my mother is really into this, and I don't want to disappoint her. Night after night, we are making a whole world together. And as we do, my mother talks about my "real" father and how someday she hopes that I can meet him because I would like him a lot.
"We will go find him together," she says. He worked with interior decorators and had a "good eye and is artistic like you." They had an apartment in an old house when I was little with a bat in it because it was in an old house. His sister, she tells me, lives on a lake with her family, and I went there when I was very little.
She pauses, "What I'm telling you about your real father, Malcolm, is something that would upset Daddy." Then she pauses and looks at me sadly and says, "We were so young when Malcolm and I got married," and looks down at the clay map, frowning about how much work still must be done on it.
We sculpt for quite a few days. I know it will look different than anyone else's project and I will feel embarrassed. I am already different than anyone else because I have a secret father. I feel the loneliness of that ocean, its gray empty depths and the complicated land masses that exist far under. There is a moment when I am sculpting a mound when she says, "No, not like that," and "I'll do that part," and I shrink back because she knows the right way, and after all, it's her idea—although my name will be on it.
What did I learn from that project? Names of ocean ranges, elevations, the depths you can't see through the murky waters. My mother's fascination with what's underneath and how she wanted me to understand something bigger than the broken shells, the starfish, and the ugly sea creatures of my imagination. That she needed a map for herself to know what to do and that I would come to understand the otherworldly terrain she created.
Nanna and Nonno, my grandparents, are coming to visit, driving down from Gloversville, New York to stay for a week. My mother makes a special pot roast for dinner the first night and Daddy sits at the head of the table. My mother has put out candles and the dishes with the gold rims. Nanna, lips pursed, asks Daddy how his new job is going and suddenly, as we finish our carrots, he pushes back his chair hard and leaves the table before my mother serves us the cake with cool whip.
"I told you not to talk about that," my mother reprimands. Nanna lifts one eyebrow which she showed me how to do the last time they visited. She doesn't like Daddy. She and my mother start to talk about people I don't know. Nonno shakes the silver cannister for the martinis hard, not saying anything.
Nonno is my favorite. After dinner, he'll read to me and my sister from The Wind and The Willows or the Jabberwocky poem as we sit on the couch, curled against his chest. Nanna doesn't sit down until she helps load the dishwasher, washing the cooking pans separately before my mother can. My mother says, "Relax, you're visiting." But Nanna still picks up our puzzle pieces and troll dolls from the floor before we go to bed.
Now my mother rubs polish on the living room end tables and lines up the books on the shelves, muttering to herself as she pushes the vacuum noisily from room to room.
"Go clean your room, too," she demands, "It can never be tidy enough for her. And don't forget to dust," she adds. Her mouth is tight, and she yanks the cord from the vacuum to plug it into the outlet in the next room. Dusting is my task ever since I wrote "dust me" with my finger on the table next to the chair in the master bedroom where we often watch TV. My mother didn't think it was funny. "You're like your grandmother," she smirked, "since you have so much to say about it, you can do it."
A few months ago, my mother yelled at me about cleaning up. Her face twisted as she grabbed my toys and books and clothes and threw them all around my bedroom, making it messier. "It's disgusting," she screamed and slammed the door so hard that my picture of the Unicorn in Captivity shook in its frame and almost fell. "Don't come out of there till it's done," she yelled.
My mother isn't angry now, but she's putting all the ironing she hasn't done into big bags, so Nanna doesn't see it. She lugs these garbage bags into the back basement and pushes them against the wall all the way back in the dark fruit cellar. Nanna irons everything when we stay with her, even our underwear. My mother hates to iron.
"She'll never find out about this," my mother says, laughing a little and pushing her bangs from her sweaty forehead, "It'll be our little secret."
But when I come home from school, Nanna has the ironing board out in the middle of the basement where we play with our toys and dolls. She carefully presses everything in the big bags my mother thought she hid.
"Your mother never keeps up with things," Nanna says. "She's messy."
My mother rolls her eyes when I tell her later. "Your grandmother probably did that white glove test on the mantle just to make sure we remembered to clean there."
My mother is very proud of the new dining room table in the center of the house. It's Danish, I am told, and my mother polishes the beautiful surface regularly. We aren't allowed to use it except for special occasions such as when my grandparents visit. Nanna and I play Scrabble here. She teaches me this: words have points—you can win with them. You can play off another's words and make something. I learn to beat her, but it takes a few years. She is too focused on the words, not on the winning or the score. I see connections between words, how things can run alongside each other but not collide.
I am sitting at the table, writing something, on that paper with the blue lines—grainy paper with dashes and lines, like a code, I squeeze my letters between. C-A-T, I write, and my Tommy and I are walking again in the backyard under the willow tree and down into the woods. So early in the morning there is no sound but his purr, orange fur running past my fingers. He walks with me, an escort into the world of black bark and leaves and water. I write W-A-L-K and see how the barbed points of the W keep us out like a fence, like the boundaries on the property. I sit at the dining room table and practice this, the words onto the page, the page onto the world.
When I lift up the blue-lined paper the words stay on the table. They mar the smooth surface like the ring a stone leaves when it drops into a lake. In the bright light the words glimmer. My mother yells at me for doing this, leaving my trace, ruining the glossy surface.
At night, the low voices of my parents are getting louder like sharp pieces of glass cutting air. I have nightmares about fire, everything engulfed in white heat. I am afraid when my parents go out for dinner that they won't come back. Daddy is angry all the time now, I can tell from the way he snaps drawers shut with a mean look on his face. He tells me to be quiet while he watches the football game. I imagine smoke hovering over the picture frame of Wyeth's painting, Christina's World hanging over the living room fireplace. I believe that girl has useless legs. She can't struggle up the hill toward the faraway house.
Sometimes my sister and I wrestle like small animals, rolling and clawing until one of us is mildly hurt and weeping. My mother was an only child and doesn't know how it is to be connected through skin and bone like this. She yanks me over to my bedroom and says something about finding something constructive to do until we can play together again. My mother says to my "aunt" (who is really her best friend) on the phone in the kitchen, "I can't take the stress with him and the girls right now." My sister and I fight over everything, how I breathe, who gets to play with the troll house, even the wishbone from chicken. We have my mother wash it, cleaning meat from the white, smooth remains until only some beige strands and gristle are left. She holds it by the flat curved top and scrubs it under the faucet. But we have to wait for it to dry, to sit on the windowsill in the next morning's light while we ache to split it. And then, perhaps a few nights later, my mother brings it down for us. I didn't think then that we were fighting about sides, about our parents. We'd just wrap our small fingers, mine with the nails bitten, and pull. Pull as if it was the most important thing for one of us to get the bigger part....