Chapter 2: In the Shadows
There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow… — George Eliot
Interspersed with the “normal” memories of my young childhood are dark memories in which I experienced fear and sometimes terror.
The first betrayal of the bond Mem created with me as a small child happened when I was perhaps three or four years old. Usually when Mem was going somewhere, she’d pick which of us children could go with her. On this day, we all got to go. Mem was taking her children to the dentist’s office. At least that is what I thought was going to happen.
We all piled in our next door neighbor’s car and headed up Hale Road, and then took a right on Burton-Windsor Road towards Burton. But then instead of going to Burton, Mrs. Sakura pulled in the lane of the Weaver Family’s home. Mem got out of the car and talked to the mom of the Weaver children. I don’t remember getting out of the car, but I do remember standing on a sidewalk that led to their house and realizing Mem wasn’t next to me any longer. I looked around in panic, and then I saw that little red car with Mem and my siblings in it, heading up the hill and away. I thought the reason they left me behind is because they forgot me. I screamed out my panic, and cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I must have blacked out because I fell backwards. I saw stars as the back of my head hit the sidewalk.
The next thing I knew, Ada was sending one of her children to fetch a little red wagon to give me a ride. But the longing to be with Mem and my family was too great for me to care about a wagon or anything else. When Ada said that Mem would come back, I realized that Mem had not forgotten me, but rather she had purposely left me there. In my child’s mind, I couldn’t understand why the others all got to go to the dentist office while I was left behind. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know where Mem was, nor did I know if she would ever come back.
What seemed like an eternity passed before Mem and the others came back. By then I had no more tears left. I sucked in my breath and walked past Mem as if I didn’t know her.
* * *
I gradually became aware that it isn’t normal for someone to spend as much time sitting in the house as Datt did. He sometimes spent whole days on his hickory rocker, rocking slowly back and forth. Mem often tried coaxing him to do something else, but it seemed like it took more energy than he had to lift himself out of the rocker. He left it for meals, and sometimes when Mem demanded he needed to do something for her.
What was more disturbing than Datt’s inertia were his conversations with people who were not in the room. In the middle of his rocking, he’d stop, look up into the corner of the room, snap his dark eyes, and move his mouth as if he were talking to someone in an animated way. Then he pinched his lips together and slowly started rocking again, back and forth over the hand-woven rug.
I’d look up into the corner of the living room, trying to comprehend who he was talking to. I knew something wasn’t right, but I was too young to understand what was wrong.
Some nights Mem tried to urge Datt off his rocking chair to go do the farm chores, and it started an argument between them. Mem’s voice became sharp, trying to command, cajole, or shame him into going out and doing the chores. Some nights Datt got up, put on his winter coat and hat, and stumped down the stairs and out the door. Other nights he wouldn’t budge from his rocking chair.
One night I was playing on the floor with my sisters when Mem and Datt began arguing. Mem had been chastising Datt for what seemed like a long time. He stopped his rocking as Mem said, “I have enough to do without doing your chores too! It’s time for you to do your share!”
“Yeah, well I do my share,” Datt said.
“You do your share from your rocking chair, huh, while I do all the cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of the children, and this isn’t enough? Now I’m supposed to go out and milk the cow, feed the horses, the pigs, and the chickens, and then come in and make supper too? Why should I?”
“You wanted to have children… well now you have them!” Datt retorted.
With this, Mem walked with angry footsteps towards the coats in the corner of the kitchen. I could feel her anger in the vibration of the floorboards. She wiggled her barn coat over her dress, pulled a scarf over her head and tied it under her chin, grabbed the only gas lantern we had, and headed out the door. Her last words before the door shut behind her were, “Huck uff deah huckel stuhl und less mich oll die ouvet du don! — Sit on your rocking chair and let me do all your work then!”
After the kitchen door closed behind Mem with a bang, we were left in the dim and flickering light of the oil lamp. Tension and anger crouched in all the shadows, like a beast ready to pounce. I was paralyzed by terror.
Datt had stopped rocking as Mem slammed the door, but then he started rocking slowly back and forth. I moved into the small, yellow circle of light of the oil lamp next to Datt’s rocking chair to get out of the scary dark shadows. I was holding onto the arm of the rocking chair when I got too close and Datt rocked over my big toe. I heard the “crunch” just before the overwhelming pain slammed into my toe. I didn’t know anything could hurt so bad — I wondered if my toe had been cut off. I screamed and sobbed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.
I barely heard Datt say, “Lomie, if you stop crying, I will give you a penny.”
I couldn’t stop crying. The pain in my toe was too big, and so was the fear when it dawned on me that Datt could not take care of me, no matter what happened. I wanted Mem to come in from outside and make everything okay.
Datt took his little metal cylinder matchbox out of his pocket. I used to love to watch him unscrew the top and see the blue tips of the matches, but not this time. I could not have stopped crying for anything.
Datt turned away from me and picked up Sylvia and put her on his lap.
I sat on the floor in the living room, still sniffling from my sobs, when Mem finally came in from doing chores. I’d completely exhausted myself from crying. The searing pain had changed into a throbbing one.
When Lizzie told Mem what happened, Mem took my shoe and sock off. I saw with relief that my toe was still in one piece. There was blood oozing out from under my big toenail and the whole toe had turned purple. Mem set about getting cold water in a wash basin to soak it, scolding Datt, “You could have gotten her water to soak her toe! Can’t I even leave you with the children anymore?”
Datt sat there stock still on his rocking chair and said nothing. Mem continued to scold as she prepared supper and put it on the table.
After we had gathered around the table to eat, we bowed our heads in silence. Then Mem dipped vegetable soup into each of our bowls. Datt sat there, holding out his bowl, waiting to be served. Finally, when all of us children had been served, Mem served Datt his soup, and then her own. That’s when quiet set in, the kind that made me wonder what would happen next. But I was too hungry to think about anything other than eating my soup.
That night, Mem and Datt’s argument followed me into my dreams. Datt sat on his rocking chair with his arms folded over his chest as Mem’s scolding voice continued on. This time instead of sitting there, Datt jumped up from his rocking chair, and with shuffled hurried steps, he stomped out to the kitchen sink. He bent over and knocked his head into the sink, hard, several times. To my horror, the top of his head broke off and rocked back and forth, like a jagged piece of eggshell in the white sink. He stood there without the top of his head and said, “Now are you happy?”
I screamed myself awake. I was hot under the covers, in the bed I shared with Lizzie and Sylvia. Mem got out of her bed and asked, “Lomie, vas iss letz?”
I was crying so hard, I couldn’t catch my breath. Finally between hiccups, I managed to tell Mem about my dream.
She tucked the covers around me, and said, “But it was only a dream. Go back to sleep.” I couldn’t tell Mem that it was like real life, and so maybe it could happen.
Long after Mem had gone back to bed, I crouched in my bed, too afraid to go back to sleep because I didn’t want to go back into the dream. Mercifully, I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep.