In the photo from that day I am standing in front of them, arms crossed, a forced smile upon my face, Wolfie and my mother with true smiles behind me, the vows they wrote for one another hanging in the air between us.
My grandfather is holding my hand up to the light, looking it over, searching for the lost splinter. He is ready, methiolade set upon the counter, needle in hand, to dig, extract, disinfect, and bandage. I hold my breath, offering no help, praying that he will never find the offending piece of wood, never again use that awful red stuff that stings like hell. A sliver I can live with. I wonder, though, briefly, if it is true what they tell me, that an ignored splinter will remain under your skin forever.
It's the winter of the great blizzard, one night like the rest, spent in sleeping bags upon the floor next to the wood burner, the warmest place in this old, gusty farmhouse. Snow has been melted for the flushing of the toilet. Kerosene lamps lit. Cinnamon tea made for added warmth. Parcheesi played to fend off the boredom of the long days, two mismatched dice and odd buttons replacing lost pieces.
Her hair is blonder than I remembered, but she smells the same. We have hidden ourselves in the dark, coolness of the barn, our parents drinking together at the picnic table a few feet from us. Our mouths are open, mimicking those we have seen on television, our tongues unsure of where to go or what to do. Her mother calls to her and we break free of one another, running back out into the sunlight, out of each other's arms.
We are walking, my dog and I, through the snowy fields, over frozen ponds, into the blanketed woods, our play place, our own magical world. Later I will pull the burrs from his red fur as we sit upon the hardwood next to the fire, warming our still chilled bodies. He will lay his head in my lap as I read to him from one of my books, and I will know there is no better friend in the world than this Irish setter.
I am sitting quietly on the floor, my flannel nightgown pulled down over my knees, on the outskirts of their circle, feigning invisibility in an attempt to remain a witness to their merriment. Stevie Nicks' thick voice emanates from the stereo and mixes with the smoke from the fire, their cigarettes, the incense that is burning steadily atop the railroad tie coffee table between them. They are laughing and passing, passing and laughing, and one of them laughs and extends a hand my way. I hold my breath and stare at the hand, at what is being offered me, waiting for them to realize their mistake. It takes only a second. Then more laughter and the hand recoils. I am being smiled at now, a room full of reddened eyes upon me, my invisibility revoked momentarily, before the passing resumes, and their shared laughter continues. I fade happily back into the woodwork.
Seated high upon a barstool, I watch her there, cue stick in hand, slouching down for a better view of her next shot. She is everything I am certain I will never be: beautiful, strong, unafraid, a man's woman. Every eye is on her now, and she sinks it, beating yet another man at his own game. I wonder to myself if there is anything this woman, my mother, cannot do. I love her then as I will never love a man, and she will break my heart as no man ever will.
We have left my mother behind, she not wanting to leave with us, I not wanting to go home without her, with him. The choice is not mine. I do as I am told. I climb into the passenger seat beside him, praying every bit of the four miles to our house. I watch him from the corner of my eye, watch that his head does not fall forward, watch that his eyes remain steady upon the road. I speak to him, of nothing, of anything, just to talk, just so he will listen. We make it. I prolong getting out of the car as he makes his way into our house. A few minutes later, as I enter, as I call for my dog, I have to step over his body, sprawled where he fell, there upon our kitchen floor.
I am awaken by the dog, whining at the bottom of the stairs that I descend, now realizing I have to pee. As I step over the dog on my way to the bathroom, I hear their muffled voices coming from the guestroom. My stepfather is still at work, I know, because his car is not parked in our driveway. I wonder with whom my loyalties lay. In my eight year old head I contemplate recording the incriminating sounds, then quickly think better of it. I use the bathroom and climb the stairs, escaping the sounds, pulling the quilt up over my head, crying for him and her and myself all at once. I am too young to understand things like growing apart, human needs, emotional distances. I know only that things are not all right. Betrayals have been made. And the man I took so long to accept, to love, will soon be yet another memory, a face in the forgotten photo album beneath my bed.
Moving into our third house in twelve months, I watch as my mother opens boxes, rearranges furniture, hangs the familiar pictures. There now is the one that will have the single greatest impact on me, the one that will follow us through more than twenty moves in as many years, the one without which no house or apartment can ever be a home. It is a simple black and white photograph, pulled from the pages of a college publication during my mother's freshman year. In the photo two young boys, one black, one white, probably eight or nine, are smiling, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, in matching, striped shirts, a playground out of focus in the background. The caption reads, "The Blind Are Also Color-Blind." This one photograph pretty much sums up my mother's thoughts on race, on humanity. And it is all she never had to say.
Once again, it's just Mom and me. We have moved into town, into a two-bedroom apartment. Though I am secretly thankful, she is depressed and seldom leaves her bed. I want her to be happy. I want her to stop crying out his name, to stop hating herself, to love me. I want this to be enough -- just me -- just the two of us.
My grandmother is driving, and I am looking out my window at the palm trees that line the highway, not wanting her to see my face, to see the fallen tears. She is telling me things about my mother I don't want to know, cannot believe, refuse to hear. She is using words unthinkable, words I am not supposed to know, nor repeat. Words no child should ever hear mentioned in the same sentence as their parent's name. I hate this woman, my paternal grandmother. I despise her words. Words she thinks will help me in some way. Words she thinks I need know. Words I wish to shove down her throat, to erase from her lips, to exhaust from her mind. I want to go home. I want my mother. I want to never see this woman again.
I've been waiting a while, thirty or forty minutes. All of the other parents have come for their kids, and only I remain. It's only a mile and a half to our apartment, but in the dark it feels farther. I realize, halfway home, that I am without a key. I pass the apartments and keep walking another half mile to my friend's house. There I call my grandmother, my mom's mom, who comes and gets me, who has a key, who sleeps beside me that night in my double bed. In the morning my mother is there, pulling me to her, apologizing through the tears, through the lingering stench of scotch. I don't want to leave her, but my grandmother reminds me it is Friday and I have to go to school. As I walk I worry about my mother, lying there, crying, alone.
I slip quietly into her room, as though she might appear at any moment, though I know she will be at work another two hours. I spy the notebooks there beside her bed -- what I have come looking for. Cautiously I flip through them. Her poems are filled with heartache, anguish, loneliness -- the effects of being a young, single mom. But then there is one about me, a love letter of sorts, written on my seventh birthday. She had shown it to me then, but I had forgotten. Until now. "Elizabeth, among my loves it is you I love the most. No other one shall take my heart; though another might make it break apart, it shall always belong to you."
About the author:
Elizabeth Ellen says yes to the universe. So far the universe has responded with a definite maybe.