Chapter 4: Do-Bees and Don’t-Bees, continued
One day Mem decided to use an idea she’d read about in a magazine because she felt we were not helping her willingly. She created a “Do-Bee” and “Don’t-Bee” chart. Every night she marked the chart for each of us girls. I could be really good for almost a whole day, then make one complaint and all the good things didn’t count because she walked up to the chart and wrote under my name, “Don’t-Bee a complainer.” Sylvia would get “Do-Bee a Helper.” That seemed to be the way of things: Sylvia the good helper, Lomie the bad complainer.
At the end of the week whoever got the most Do-Bees got a nickel. Sylvia almost invariably got it.
One night, Mem was washing dishes, and Sylvia and I were drying. The gas lantern hissed softly on a hook above our heads. I was determined to keep the “Do-Bee” status I had so far that week. I was ahead of Sylvia for the first time. We were running out of counter space and Sylvia and I were trying to get each other to put the dishes away. Mem looked over and said, “Sylvia, if you do it, I will change your Don’t-Bee from yesterday to a Do-Bee.” Right away Sylvia started putting them away. I asked, “If I do it will you change my last Don’t-Bee?”
“No, the offer is for Sylvia,” Mem said in her definite voice.
I felt such a rage rising in my chest that I couldn’t hold it in. I slammed a stainless steel bowl onto the counter and said, “That’s not fair!”
Mem just said in her solid voice, “That’s the way it is.”
I had never before felt such a pressure in my chest. The rage was so strong, I thought I was going to explode. I stomped my feet and said loudly, “But it doesn’t even have to do with who is the best helper! You just like Sylvia more than me, no matter what I do! I don’t care if I get all Don’t-Bees from now on!
I may have said more, but I noticed Mem was wiping her sudsy hands. Then she headed for the china cabinet with determined footsteps. When she didn’t threaten and walked as though she meant it, I knew there was no use begging. She grabbed the whip down off the top of the china cabinet and said in that voice that I did not dare disobey, “Lomie, come here!”
I don’t know why I bothered to beg, “Mem, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, I take it back, please, I won’t say anything more…”
Mem had that hard, angry look in her face that she got when Lizzie disobeyed her. I imagined myself running out the door. I knew she could not catch me if I did, but she could send Joey after me. Then my whipping would be worse, so I had no choice. I walked towards her.
Mem grabbed me by the arm and whirled me around, lifted up my dress, and snapped that whip across my legs, bringing the stinging pain down on the backs of my thighs. The whip whistled as she brought it down, over and over, until I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to stand that searing pain. I screamed and danced, wondering what would happen when it hurt so much I wouldn’t be able to bear it. I thought Mem would never stop. When she finally did, she gave me a push and said, “NOW let’s see if you talk back to me again!” as she put the whip back up on the china cabinet. I couldn’t stand to look at her mean, hard eyes. And then as if the whipping wasn’t enough, she said, “Do you think I like whipping you? It hurts me as much as it hurts you!” I knew this could not be true. It was her choice to take the whip off the china cabinet and use it to inflict that pain on me. I ran upstairs, shivering, and lay on my bed. I cried until the quilt under me was wet. I vowed I would never talk back to Mem because I never wanted to feel that horrible pain again. I felt the welts on the backs of my legs. They stayed hidden under my dress for days, until they gradually turned color, then faded away.
When Mem said that she hurt as much as I did when she whipped me, she made me feel crazy — I thought I was the one who was hurt, and now I felt guilty besides. I thought the whipping was my fault.
I paid no more attention to whether Mem wrote Do-Bee or Don’t-Bee under my name on that chart anymore. I did what I was told, but that chart made no difference to me. Mem used it a few more days after that, and then she stopped. This was the only time in my young childhood in which I remember preserving at least a little of my dignity in a battle of wills with Mem. I was six years old.
* * *
One dark night, not long after Mem abandoned the Do-Bee chart, my sisters and I sat at the table, eating bread and milk. The oil lamp cast a faint yellow light around the kitchen, and rain drummed on the windowsill outside the kitchen. The pungent, oily smell of the lamp lingered over the table. Mem was preparing us for bed, and Datt was snoring on his rocking chair in the living room. Joey was upstairs in his room. The floorboards above us creaked as Mem carried Baby Simon to bed. Even though it seemed like a normal night, something wasn’t right. I could feel it.
Mem came down the stairs and through the dark living room. When she stepped into the kitchen doorway, she held our sleeping caps in her hand. My eyes were drawn to her hands and I saw her squeeze the caps in her hand as she gasped and cried out. My sisters and I watched helplessly as Mem reached up with both arms, as if she were grasping for air, then she dropped face down onto the floor in the kitchen doorway with a loud THUD. The silence that followed was louder than her fall. We were too shocked to move
Joey broke the silence as he came bounding down the stairs. Datt awoke, scrambled towards Mem, and kneeled beside her. He called her name and tried rousing her, but she was limp and did not respond. Datt looked up and said to Joey, “Go to the Sakuras and tell them to call an ambulance!” Joey went running out the door and across the yard in the dark rain in his bare feet.
Datt half-carried, half-dragged Mem to the couch. He looked at us and said, “Girls, go to bed!” We fled up the stairs to our beds. I lay on my back, breathing hard, too scared to move or say anything.
When Joey came back from the Sakuras, he came upstairs, stood at his window, and stared outside. We heard strange voices and banging noises downstairs. I wondered what was happening. Then Joey cried out, “I think Mem is dying! They are taking her in a stretcher to the ambulance!” He ran through our room, Mem and Datt’s room, and down the stairs.
Until that moment, I didn’t have a concept of death. But now it struck me like a whip, and the terror of it caught my breath. I was too frightened to cry. My sisters and I crept to the window as the ambulance drove slowly out our lane, carrying our mother away. I heard the sound of the gravel crunching under the tires of the white station wagon with the red cross on the back of it. I wondered whether Mem would ever come back.
My memory of that night leaves me standing at the window, feeling frozen with fear. My memory returns the next morning, when I awoke to the sound of Aunt Gertie and Grandmother downstairs making breakfast.
When Datt came home later that morning, he looked more tired than I’d ever seen him. He hung his hat on the peg inside the stairway. I came up behind him and asked, “When is Mem coming home with the baby?” I was going by what Joey said the night Baby Simon was born. Datt walked by me and didn’t answer. The sad look in his eyes silenced me. I wondered if Mem was going to come home at all.
Mem did come home several days later, but she did not bring a baby with her. She walked slowly in the door, like every step pained her, and sat down in the rocking chair. I thought maybe Mem had really been sick instead of going to the hospital to buy a baby.
A few days later, Mem stood in the living room, holding a clear pump with a red ball over her breast. She squeezed the ball and milk flowed into the pump. Tears fell quietly down her cheeks. I touched her arm and asked her what’s wrong. She looked out towards the horizon at the far end of the field on the other side of the road and shook her head. I wanted so much to make it better, but all I could do was watch her cry.
End of chapter 4.