Thursday, February 28, 2013

Once, a long time ago

Once, a long time ago, I thought I'd write a memoir.  Here is a piece of that experiment.

August 27th, 1966
My brother and I sleep on green canvas cots in the barn. My sister, who is only six, sleeps in the house. In the early morning I awaken to a trembling on my chest: it's a chipmunk! I scream, and it scurries off. My brother throws a cow bone at me for waking him, but he’s sleepy and it clashes against the slats of the barn wall. He has a collection of cow bones from the neighbor’s pasture. He’s trying to make a whole cow, but he will grow up and drill gas wells, leaving the pieces behind.  
My brother and I eat Special K for breakfast. My sister eats only white toast. No one forces her to eat vegetables or fruit, get some iron in her blood. There is, at this moment, a freedom at home, an agreement to let some things slide.
My father has hung a long rope from a high branch of the sturdy maple in our front yard. At the bottom of the rope is a dowel from a broken chair, tied to the rope with knots I will never learn. I sit on this swing, an Olympic contender. There are specific feats I must perform, exactly right. I pull back, push off, lean back, pump, point my toes, hold one arm out, fingers cupped together. On the back-swing I must switch hands. I do this very well. The trees applaud.
Inside, my mother cooks cabbage soup, my father’s favorite, although he won’t eat today. The house and her clothes will smell bitter for days. My mother stands over the soup and stirs, and only now that I am a mother do I know that she wept into that broth no matter what she made us believe.
In the woods, I tie my sister to a mast. My brother makes me walk the plank. The trees oblige: there are so many masts, so many planks, so many places to hide. My brother dares me to eat currants that grow along the back field, and I do, even though I know how bad they taste. My sister eats only one, but doesn’t spit it out, and we tell her how good she is. She doesn’t understand much yet, but she will.
We keep our voices low at dinner. Upstairs, my father coughs. My mother excuses herself, and doesn’t come back down for a long time. We do the dishes. Afterwards we sit in front of the black and white TV. We watch the pictures of our planet, sent down from the lunar orbiter. We see the ball of our earth, the tattered cover of clouds, the shadowy shapes of continents. My mother comes downstairs and sits between us on the couch, laying an arm over my brother’s shoulder. Later we go outside and look up, but can’t find the moon. From outside we hear that cough, and I count the repetitions like the seconds after lightening.
My brother and I sleep in the barn. A branch scrapes against the roof, prying at the shingles. We pretend we’re in a cabin in Alaska, wolves pawing across the roof. We play at being alone. In time, we’ll be perfect at this. We’ll be fine.