Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tough, Part I

Christmas, 1972. I was nine years old. We were seated on the worn davenports and chairs in my grandmother’s living room, on her farm in Dassel, Minnesota. My two sisters and I, my mother, my grandmother—no men in our midst.

Each of us sisters had a small stack of gifts, a surprise better than the Santa we no longer believed in, since we knew our mother had no extra money. She had prepared us ahead of time—it would be a lean holiday. Dinner had been served, roast beef and creamy mashed potatoes, gravy, bread spread with butter from the Creamery in town, rutabagas steaming in their chipped serving dish. Now we were resting, holding at bay our excitement, tempered by all that had come before.

We opened our gifts in turn, each sister receiving similar presents: practical gloves for winter, an album by a favorite group (I got the Partridge Family), and one extravagance, white vinyl go-go boots. More than thrilled, we thanked our grandmother from whom the presents came, avoiding our mother’s glance. We didn’t want her to feel bad. It had been a record difficult year for our family; we all tottered on the edge of a grief that threatened to swallow us.

Then, my mother left the room and returned with a few presents. We girls held our breaths and our excitement. Though we had few emotional reserves ourselves, we spent them to protect our mother whenever we could. Resisting glee, holding back happiness, we didn’t want her to think we cared about what she could buy for us. Out of the wrapping appeared a pair of ping pong paddles, a box of three balls, a net. Stunned, we looked toward our mother; these were implements, but how would we play the game? Was this a joke? Where was the table? We knew families with ping pong tables, and they also had big, well-furnished houses, finished basements, air conditioning, two cars. Two parents.

Truth was, the table was in our basement at home. Such extravagance was, to us, overwhelming. For several minutes, we shouted and clapped and jumped up and down and hugged our mother. We had not allowed ourselves to be so free with our feelings for many months; it was easier to keep them to ourselves, bottled up. In that way we had learned to carry on.

But one emotion often triggers another. Laughter often follows tears and the other way around. We decided to set up the ping pong net across the Formica kitchen table and start practicing, but the net was too long, the table too short; the net leaned to one side or the other, in spite of our attempts to secure it, and the ball flew past the end of the table. I kept the game going, desperate for it, but soon they were all giving up, murmuring, It’s not going to work, Guess we’ll have to wait until we get home, drifting back into the living room to watch TV, talk about winter and the next morning’s drive. I stood in the kitchen, petulant and demanding. We can do it, I yelled. There was no response. I want to play, I nearly shouted, stomping one foot in frustration. Near tears, I went to them to plead, for what exactly I didn’t know. Even though I stopped shouting, my presence was loud, insistent. They ignored me.

My mother headed toward my grandma’s adjoining bedroom and beckoned me to follow her. Still grasping my paddle in one tight fist, I closed the door behind me and faced her, indignant. What did she want with me? My Christmas had just started looking pleasant, and now it was falling apart. My shoulders were hunched in defense even before she spoke.

I miss him too, you know.

It was almost an accusation. She wanted me to admit that I was pitching a fit because my brother was not with us. She wanted me to know that the grief was not all mine to have, nor to display in awkward and indirect ways, nor to use to get attention. She wanted me to say it and to go to her and comfort her: Yes, I miss him, I’m sorry.

In June, my brother, who was not yet four, had died. He had fallen down the uncarpeted stairs that led to our basement while my mother was at work, trying to cobble together a living after my father left us in March, and while our babysitter Debbie was probably washing dishes at the kitchen sink when she heard the rhythmic bumping of his body on each of the wooden stairs and paused, perplexed, trying to place the sound. I was not home at the time. I heard the story secondhand, how Debbie saw him, still and bent, at the bottom of the stairs, called my mother and an ambulance. How the neighbors began to gather—to keep my sisters away? To wring their hands at this, our second misfortune? To administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? To meet my mother at the door when she sped home and attempt to give her hope?—and how someone carried him upstairs and laid him on my mother’s bed.

The scene was never very clear in my mind—what happened to Debbie? Where did she stand? Did she stay with my sisters when my mother left in the ambulance? Did she cry? Did she scream? Did she apologize?

It was an accident, and I was not a witness. Nor, properly, were we all survivors. We spent the rest of the numb summer visiting the farm on weekends, peeling apples from our trees, playing outside as usual, keeping up the studied front that would allow us to keep moving, placing one foot or thought ahead of the next. Fourth grade approached and I dreaded the return to school and the questions I feared. I would not invite questions. I would look like someone who didn’t need help, comfort, attention.

For six months I had been practicing my stoic act; it didn’t feel like an act anymore. When my mother faced me in my grandma’s bedroom and held out her arms to me, I went to her, but I set my chin to stop it from quivering and blinked hard to keep my tears from spilling.

Resistance had been the one sure thing in the chaotic world we now inhabited, our mother gone long hours at work, my sister wearing a key on a chain around her neck to let us in the house after school, our cupboards nearly empty, our conversations governed by what would not make us break down and weep. We rarely spoke his name.

No, no. No. I would not admit anything. I would not, now, after months of keeping it at bay, allow grief to expose me. And thus even while my arms wrapped around my mother’s waist I clung to the toughness I had adopted and nurtured, the child of my grief and parent of all that was to come.