1. In My Cradling Arms
How easily I can remember that small parlor with the tiny coal fireplace in England. That room, that house, seems to come in clearer and stronger every year that I grow older. The tall upright piano took up much of the room, that piano where I tried, when I was ten, to play the “Coventry Christmas Carol.” It was bitterly cold in that row house in Cambridge, England. There was no central heat in those days, and in the bedroom we had to stand in front of an electric heater to change into our pajamas.
My father was on sabbatical for the year and we had taken the enormous Queen Elizabeth ocean liner across the Atlantic in warm, easy weather. Under bright sea skies and sun, we had played shuffleboard on deck. Tea and cakes were delivered to us by a steward in a white uniform, while we lay under wool blankets on deck chairs. My father kept saying how charming and fun it was. The wind blew through his jacket sleeves, as if to lift him away. While my mother was afraid the boat would sink. For the whole trip her hands clutched the railings. Her eyes never lightened.
When we docked, we spent a blowsy August ripping around in a tiny white car through villages and along chalk cliffs, looking at crumbling castles lost in the tall grass. And then we settled down to live seriously in Cambridge. My sisters and I were enrolled in school.
Soon it was Christmas time in England and I had to look away when we passed the butcher shop on the corner because whole pigs hung in the window with their sad snouts and their curled tails intact. Downy rabbits too were strung from their bloody ears in plain view. The hamburgers tasted gamey and I had chilblains on my toes from the cold.
I went to school around the corner from our row house. The building was made of stone and had a church-like feel with a walled-in courtyard. The girls had to wear white blouses, black plimsoll shoes, and blue woolen knickers (underpants) for outside gym class, held in the courtyard. We jumped the scissor step over a rod that was raised higher and higher out there. I was quite good at the scissor jump and I had learned to write English style with a pen and nib dipped in an inkwell.
A lot of the classrooms were empty in the school, which puzzled me, and many of the rooms were cold and had desks and chairs piled up everywhere, unused. My teacher was quite harsh and demanded that everyone say, “Yes, Ma’am,” after every sentence spoken to her. She was particularly cruel to my friend Sheila who wore braces and had flecks of dandruff in her long black braids. Sheila was terribly bright, wore thick glasses, read all the time, and wheezed when she breathed. I was aware that the teacher made up reasons to be mean to Sheila. She was always being sent to the first form to sit “with the babies” having done nothing wrong at all, as far as I could tell. On the way to the lavatory, we could see Sheila in the small children’s room sitting in a corner, crying in shame.
The teachers were constantly telling us that the men from Westcott were coming soon. Every song we learned, every drawing we did, every poem we recited was done in anticipation of the arrival of the men from Westcott. And it was then that I had to memorize the Shakespeare poem “Winter.” The coldness of it was quite fitting, with winter setting in, I with chilblains on my toes, the unheated rooms and Sheila’s tears. And mine. The other girls in the class did not like me.
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail . . .
I remember the poem to this day. And I remember too the day the men from Westcott arrived. They wore dark suits and carried small hymnbooks and they lined up during assembly in the great hall. Then the head mistress asked the entire room if there were any Catholics present. And one small, thin boy from the first form raised his hand. He was asked to come to the front of the room. He did so in a timid way and he stood there alone for the entire session. Nothing at all was said to him. It was quite baffling. The men from Westcott sang hymns. We joined in on some of them. Then we filed back to our classes, walking through rooms of empty, piled-up desks and chairs.
At home I was always aware that my father was trying to write a novel. He had been given an advance (which he said we had all spent, he on books, my mother on English tea sets, which my father was not happy about, and my sisters and I each on a new doll). But my father couldn’t find the story within himself. He couldn’t find the voice or the plot or the sense of place. He tried and tried in his office up on the third floor of the narrow row house. I could often hear his typewriter thundering above. But the story, the inspiration, where was it now? Why, after all these years of writing stories and wanting to be published, why when the chance came, did the inspiration leave him? He was dry and shattered. And looking back now, I realize he must have been scared. Over the winter his face that was normally tender with charm and enthusiasm and knowledge (he knew everything) grew rough and bruised looking.
My sisters and I witnessed terrible screaming fights between my parents that winter, in which they both said unspeakable things and used dreaded words like hate and divorce. But later they would make up and disappear upstairs to their bedroom for hours, leaving us to ramble around alone, tinkering with the piano or hula hooping in the living room.
It was during one of those long, lonely, cold stretches that I got in bed one afternoon with one of my extra school notebooks and began to write a “novel.” Perhaps because my father wanted and needed a novel. I am thinking now that perhaps, in some way, I was trying to help. I was always my father’s guardian. I watched over him. I was his small ten-year-old nursemaid. I disapproved of my mother’s fears and tantrums. I cradled my father’s wishes. I kissed his cheeks and stroked his forehead. But it was no use. My hands were too small, my heart too full.
My novel was about a girl who went to live in a country of snow. And I kept writing a little every day for the next month. I believe I got as far as chapter nine.
Then everything changed forever and ever and ever. I went to school that day I remember and took the feared Eleven Plus exams. We sat all morning writing essays and answering questions. The head mistress had come into our room and stalked the rows. I was at the back of the class, the lowest position possible. (Because I was American?) My desk mate was a red-haired, messy boy who couldn’t write properly and never knew what was going on. His desk when he opened it spewed wads of crumpled papers. I struggled along trying to understand my teacher’s wishes, trying to sort out the foggy confusion of a foreign culture, and trying to sift through the filmy chaos and bafflement of childhood.
I can remember walking home that day. Was it sunny? Yes, winter was melting away. There were crocuses. We had seen them at King’s College lined up along the little stone footbridges. We had seen them along the Cam River near where the swans floated. Yes, the air was gentler, the light brighter. The walk home almost warm. But our door was locked when I got there. No. It was never locked. My mother would always be there after school. She would be afraid to leave us alone. She was afraid of so much.
I tried again but the door would not open. I sat on the steps. Were they warm? Yes, they were warm and worn, being made of old stone. And winter was falling away. But where was my mother? Then there was a note on the door, which I hadn’t seen at first. A note? It told me to go to the neighbor’s house down the row. Number 10.
Well, that’s when I knew. I knew something was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Why was the sun so soft and bright? Why were the birds flying overhead? Why the blue sky?
The afternoon at the neighbor’s was endless and went on into darkness. My little sister romped through the house with one of the neighbor’s sons. But that only made me feel more chilled. One of us (my sister?) knocked a prized blue plate from the mantel by mistake. It shattered all over the floor. I can remember it breaking in so many pieces, the jagged blue shards lying everywhere. “Oh, it’s nothing at all,” said the neighbor.
Then I knew for sure. I knew.
My mother gave away all our English possessions that week. The heaters and the toaster and the waffle iron that she said would never work on the electric current in America. All the pots and pans too went out the door and into the arms of the neighbor who, when asked if she wanted them, would say, “Ooh not half!” The inside of the house was boxed up and given away, piece by piece. My sisters and I didn’t have to go to school anymore.
And we rode to South Hampton to the ocean liner that would make its journey through mountainous gray waves in March back to America. When we boarded, there were very few passengers on the boat. The corridors were long and dimly lit and tilted this way and that. We lay on our bunks, seasick in our dark room. When I did manage to get up, I found a swimming pool with no water in it and all the portholes were locked and covered. We never saw the sea.
And we left my father in England forever and ever and ever. The truth was, though, he had already been flown home to his parents and to a cemetery in Chicago, but I wouldn’t know about the suicide for months to come. And yet I had been his nursemaid, his unseen angel in waiting. His small hopeless bride.
2. Corn Stubble and Blue Sky
There were roaming children and dogs in our neighborhood when I was quite young. Sometimes a child, nameless and unexpected, would show up in our living room. Perhaps it was just the kind of midwestern university, barrack-style housing project we lived in, or perhaps it was part of my being four years old. Nothing was entirely understood or explained.
One day, one of those children showed up. A boy. I didn’t ask where he came from. My mother had just cleaned my room and it sparkled in a new way. Normally my room was a terrible mess. You couldn’t see the floor for the papers and books and blocks and broken crayons, everything tossed and jumbled everywhere. But today, my mother, who usually lazed about writing things in a notebook and eating dietetic candy, suddenly spent a whole morning scrubbing and sweeping and folding and piling all my toys and books on shelves.
The result dazzled me. I stood by in a state of wonder. The whole world was transformed. I felt uplifted. My room actually had a wooden floor. I could finally see it. The bed was smooth and clean and now comfortable. My mother took a deep breath and stood in her cotton, plaid dress with her head tilted against the door jam. She breathed in and out with satisfaction. And a pleasant bond was formed between us. I was the recipient of something special.
Soon after that, the boy appeared. He had a buzz cut that was so short and blond he looked to be bald. He was small, narrow shouldered. Wiry. He wore a white T-shirt. He was jumpy and keyed up. And he had no name. He was not Johnny Beeberman who terrorized the tarred road that ran along one side of our house. Johnny carried a big piece of wood, knocking children down who got in his way. He wasn’t Phillip either, a little boy who sometimes drank cocoa with my mother.
No, this boy, who appeared that day, was not Johnny and not Philip. He came from some other part of the housing project. Perhaps he belonged to the Bowsmas or to the Coppersmith family who lived far away along the block that edged the fields of corn stubble.
My clean room gave me a new lease on life, a firm sense of respectability. A kind of joy. I was proud of it. The boy and I went together to play in there. As I stood in the beauty of it, it felt like someone else’s room, no longer mine, full of mystery and wonderment.
The boy, after looking around, seemed unable to engage in anything. Nothing seemed to catch his fancy. He swung his arms about. He walked in circles and then he began dumping out a box of blocks, making a rattling thunder as the blocks hit the clean, new floor.
The blast of noise and dust seemed to energize the boy. And at that moment, he and I formed another kind of bond, a terrible unspoken pact that could not be reversed. The boy then went to the bookshelves and began pulling all the books down and dumping them on the floor. He jumped on the books, cracking their golden backs. He got up on my clean bed and pulled more things off the nearby dresser, dolls and stuffed toys and tin tea sets. Even the lamp went smashing to the floor, the light bulb shattering into thin white shells.
He shut the door to the rest of the house. Suddenly this was a private matter. A matter of death and destruction and I was somehow deeply entwined. I didn’t think to change his course or mine. It was unquestionable.
We both began stomping on my dolls and my books. Smashing everything. Then we went to the closet and pulled down all the dresses and coats and anything else in there and dragged them out into the middle of the room. I went for another box of toys and turned it over, adding to the rubble. More and more boxes were dumped. And I stomped with him over everything, as if gorging on dread and demolishment. All the while, unease piled up in my heart. Foreboding. Darkness. Trepidation. Then we tore the mattress off the bed and jumped on its slanting body, up and down, I, in reckless sorrow.
When everything was ruined and the room turned to the worst mess I had ever seen, a true disaster, the boy announced that there was nothing we could do now but run away.
I knew he was right. I would have to leave my soft, long-armed daddy who taught me how to count to one hundred and showed me how to tie my shoes. I would have to leave Mommy too. She was often tucked against him in their dim, sweet-smelling bedroom with the shades drawn where I loved to lie early in the morning. I would have to leave him and her too.
In a great roar of annihilation and wreckage, I would have to run away forever from supper at the table, from the blurry glass bricks built across the kitchen to divide it from the living room. I would have to run away from the small, close air of this house that held me so softly, so gently. I would have to run away from lying on the couch and hearing Daddy practicing piano, playing “The Tennessee Waltz,” a song I loved and yet anguished over . . . I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee waltz.
But the bald, pale boy was right. It had to be. There was no turning back, nothing else to be done after such a terrible string of misdeeds and such destruction.
The boy ran outside into the yard and I followed him. The sky above us was huge, an endless bowl stretching off into a forever blue. He got on my tricycle and I stood on the back and he pedaled us away down the street. I turned around to see our house and that tar paper green color, rough and sandy to the touch. The line of barrack houses, comforting and matching, each one identical and yet not. So vibrant green were those walls. A longing color such as I have never seen since.
I wanted to wrap my arms around our house, to pull it against my heart. I wanted to lay my face along the walls and let my tears bathe the roof and the doors and the beloved windows. But we were on a fiery, unstoppable course, riding my tiny dented tricycle into the large and endless unknown.
How small we were suddenly as we turned down the road that led out of the enclosed complex, which was called Stadium Terrace. The boy pedaled into the street where great unyielding cars swished past us as we crossed to the large area in front of the football stadium. The stadium was the most enormous building in the whole world. It had arches everywhere and dark tunnels of stone. “A Roman colosseum,” Daddy had called it. It towered above us.
And I was let loose in the world. I was naked and unsheltered and dropped into the vast and forever falling universe, never to be saved or stopped or held close ever again. On the back of the boy’s tricycle (it had been mine but it was now his) we pedaled into the gigantic, open plains of unfettered space and desolation. Through great winds of aloneness, we grew smaller and smaller as he pedaled.
And then there was a black car and my mother at the wheel. She pulled up in front of the stadium, got out of the car, and yanked the bald boy off the tricycle. “What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted. She stuffed us both in the back seat, the tricycle in the trunk, and she gunned the car motor, roaring as she drove us back across the street and into our enclosed project where children roamed at large and dogs rummaged without leashes and ran toward the long plains of corn stubble that stretched around the project and beyond, where the train howled its plaintive whistle three times a day in the distance. She pulled the car up in front of our house.
“Go home!” she said to the boy. “Go home!” And he got out of the car and went back to wherever it was that he had come from.
That spring we moved away. And I mourned the loss of Stadium Terrace and that shabby barrack house and all it encompassed. I kept the awareness of it that I had witnessed from the back of my dented tricycle. I kept it close to me. Sometimes still, I dream at night that I am running across a shorn field alone, just the tiniest speck on a vast expanse of green.