My family’s first house, where I lived until I was eight, was a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse with a mint-green tin roof and the siding painted pink. In the front was a picket fence which my parents built, and a circle of grass with gardens all around. In the back was a wide field, with trees growing on three sides. Even though we lived in a neighborhood, our house always felt separate from the rest of town because there was so much land behind it. I remember asking my mom, long before we ever decided to move, if we were going to stay in our house forever. And she told me she couldn’t answer that for sure. That we might not stay there forever.
My younger sisters had terrible nightmares from the time they were toddlers. Horrible things would happen in these dreams, like people getting chopped into pieces and cooked in microwaves. It made no sense – we hardly watched TV and certainly never saw anything violent
or graphic. I did not have particularly bad nightmares, but I did wake up frequently at night. I woke up because I was terrified beyond reason of the concept of infinity.
My parents taught me that after people die they go to heaven to be with God and everyone they love. And they stay there forever. I believed this, and still do, but I could not understand it and I would lie in bed thinking about it. I thought about heaven, and it seemed to me that I would get tired of forever, after a while. I shared a room with my two sisters. There was a large flowered carpet on the floor and through one door was the living room; through the other door was the playroom we called the sun-porch. I even shared a bed with my sister, Fiona; and in the winter when it was cold I remember how we kept each other warm, lying facing each other and so close that our noses sometimes touched. But this was not enough to make me feel safe. An unbearable coldness would start in the pit of my stomach and rise into my chest. I had a rag doll that I slept with and I would lie on my stomach with the doll under me and press the doll against my stomach to try to stop the terrible cold. If I couldn’t take it anymore I would go to my parents, who were usually still awake and in the living room watching Letterman. I was too young to know how to articulate what bothered me, and they thought I was having bad dreams. Occasionally, that feeling comes back; but now I’m better at stopping it.
I cannot blame my parents for sending me back to bed, especially since I was notorious for getting up at night and escaping from my room no matter how many gates and barricades they put up. I could climb bookshelves and later, when I was older, I would shimmy up door frames. We had a basketball hoop in our driveway that I quickly learned to climb, using my arms to pull and pressing my knees together to push myself to the top and touch the net. I have a distinct memory of waking up one morning and seeing that the door to the living room was blocked with a gate. The door to the sun-porch was held shut by an ottoman that was too heavy for me to push. But the sun-porch door was the kind that normally leads outside. It had eight panes of glass, and one of them – the second up from the bottom on the right – was missing. I squeezed through the empty pane and climbed down over the ottoman, and then I was free.
When we lived in that house I used this same ottoman, which we called a tuffet, for tea parties in the mornings. I had a plastic tea set which changed colors when a hot liquid was put inside. There was a spell when every morning I woke up before the rest of my family, set the tuffet for tea for myself and my sisters, and we drank “tea” made from water mixed with the juice we squeezed out of sections of clementines.
During the day we did schoolwork with my mom because we were home-schooled. In that house I learned to read. I remember being on my parents’ bed – the bed they built together out of cherry wood – lying with my mom in our clothes on top of the down comforter and reading Owl in the dim light that came through the north-facing window. Owl had odd adventures but always ended up back at home. In one story he spent a whole day thinking of sad things like cups without handles or coats without buttons and crying into a teapot until he had enough tears to make tear-water tea. In another story he spent the whole night following the moon, but could never reach it. I squirmed and rocked back and forth in my effort to concentrate, “You girls could never keep still when you were learning to read,” my mom would tell me later.
When we finished school we might go for a walk to the duck pond or to the playground beside the library. If our friends came over, that usually meant playing Indians in the backyard (no one wanted to be cowboys), or orphans. My sisters and I had watched the first half of the movie version of Annie and spent most of our orphan games plotting to escape from an imaginary Miss Hannigan. Playing Indians involved building forts and making bows and arrows. One day I was alone in the front yard practicing with a bow I had made and taking aim at birds.
By this time, I had probably already become a vegetarian, so I didn’t want to hurt any real animals. I never thought my bow or arrows would be powerful enough to hit a bird. I took aim at a large brown thrasher flying low over the yard and released the string, and to my surprise my arrow skimmed clumsily across the bird’s back, causing it to flutter awkwardly. I was overcome at the thought of how nearly the bird had escaped death, and also at how nearly I had escaped being arrested, because I knew hunting was illegal in town.
Beyond our backyard field was an empty lot with an enormous stump in the center and overgrown shrubbery and weed trees. Daffodils grew there – every variety imaginable ranging in color from soft butter to bright chartreuse. There were so many different varieties that they bloomed continuously for much of the spring. Some had long elegant trumpets and others were ruffled or looked like popcorn. Their thick waxy stems leaked sticky sap when we snapped them off at the base. My mom told me that whenever you see daffodils in the woods or on an empty lot, it means that at one time there was a house there. I love daffodils, but when I see them on their own, they have the look of tombstones for me.
There used to be a house on that lot with the daffodils, but it was destroyed in hurricane Fran by the same tree that left its huge stump behind. I was two and Helena only a few months old when the hurricane came through, flooding our field so that it was a lake and causing multiple pecan trees to uproot in the soft earth. I don’t remember this. What I do remember is picking daffodils on that empty lot, and searching for fairies around the stump. Fleshy white shelf fungus grew on the sides of the stump, and I collected berries to store on the chalky shelves as a favor to the fairies.
In the evenings when my dad came home from work and my mom was making dinner, he played a game with us called Witch-in-the-Ditch. As he crossed the ditch that ran across our backyard he would start by talking to us in his normal voice, which he would gradually change into a terrifying screech by the time he reached the other side. I don’t think there was a point to the game. He chased the three of us as we screamed and taunted him. My mom watched us from the kitchen, looking out at us from where she stood by the sink, gazing through the window and over the azalea bushes. I sometimes felt sorry that she had to stay inside and miss all the fun.
When we lived in that house I shared a bedroom with my two sisters. When my sister, Fiona was old enough to sleep in a crib in the bedroom with Helena and me, she still often woke up at night crying for my parents. One night I could hear her starting to fuss, but she was not yet loud enough for my parents to hear. I desperately wanted her to sleep in bed with me. I was about five at this time. I went over to her crib, lowered the side, and lifted her out. Even with the side rail lowered I can remember that to get her out I had to lift her above my head. Once she was in my bed she was quieter for a while. I laid awake beside her, trying to fall back to sleep but wide awake with joy. She fussed off and on as the night passed and I never slept no matter how hard I tried. Finally, as the sky began to lighten outside and a grey brightness pushed through the windows, my mom heard Fiona and came and took her from me. I was crushed to have failed. My mom, though, was not upset with me; still, thinking back, I realize how dangerous it was for a five-year-old to lift a baby out of a crib.
It was in that house that I first told a lie. Fiona was an infant and my mom had finally gotten her to fall asleep on my parents’ bed. My second sister, Helena, kept climbing up on the bed to look at her, and my mom said that if she did it again she would get a spanking. I lifted Helena up onto the bed and ran to get my mom, telling her that Helena had done it again. Helena got a spanking, but afterward told on me, so I got a spanking too. I tried to reason with my mom, arguing that I did not think what I had done deserved a spanking, but I got one anyway. I was only spanked a handful of times in my life, and I don’t remember it hurting particularly. I was afraid of them because of what they symbolized. They meant I had been really bad.
A game my sisters and I liked to play was where one of us was blind, and the others would have to hold onto her and lead her down the road. It was something to make the many walks we took more interesting. One day I convinced my mom to let me lead her, promising that I would keep her on the road. But once she closed her eyes I led her off the edge and she twisted her ankle stepping down in the grass. I can see her stumbling. I can still remember where it happened, and the shoes she was wearing that day. They were platform sandals with brownish red straps, and the height of her shoes probably made her ankle twist more readily than it normally would have. I did not get a spanking that day, but after my mom explained that it would take me a long time to earn back her trust, I stopped telling lies.
It was also in that house that someone first lied to me. My sister, Helena, the one I had tricked my mom into spanking, told me that mom said we were allowed to use crayons on the chalkboard. As long as I could remember, my mom had drilled into us that we could only use chalk on the chalkboard, because crayons could not be erased. But it never occurred to me to question what Helena said. She had never lied to me before. My mom caught me pretty quickly, but not before I had begun drawing a ladybug on the corner of the chalkboard, and the partial ladybug stayed there permanently. What I remember about that incident was that I was the one who got in trouble. I was supposed to know better because I was the oldest – no matter what Helena had told me.
In that house I learned about another kind of lie – the kind that is told by saying things that are true. I had a friend named Sammy, who lived a few houses down the street. She was only a year older than I was, but she wore a bra and green-apple scented deodorant – both of which made me a little envious. My parents did not know Sammy’s parents, so my mom did not feel comfortable allowing Sammy to come into our house to play. Sammy hung around alone a lot on our street, so we were allowed to invite her to play if we saw her from our yard, but she was not to come into our house. One day my Nanny was babysitting us, and Sammy came to play and asked if she could come inside. Sammy was always asking to come inside and sometimes even cried to try to convince us. This time, I asked Nanny’s permission. Nanny would say yes, I knew, and so Sammy got to come inside our house and played with us on the sun porch. When my mom came home and found out, I was in big trouble. I knew I deserved to be in trouble, but I cried anyway. I sobbed that Sammy had asked me if she could come in and I had asked Nanny and she had said yes. I did not expect this to get me off the hook. I knew Sammy was not allowed inside and I had asked Nanny somewhat to stop Sammy from begging but also because I knew Nanny would agree. My mom, however, said she was sorry, she didn’t realize that Sammy had put me in an awkward position like that. To my surprise I was no longer in trouble. I did not attempt to explain myself anymore because I was glad my mom had stopped being angry, but I felt that I still deserved the blame. I could not put my finger on what it was, but I was sure that something about what I said was not quite true, and I hadn’t even meant to lie.
Most nights my Mom put us to bed, and always read us a story first. Some Fridays she took the night off and went out shopping or to meet friends. Then my Dad put us to bed. My sisters and I did not like these nights. At first they were fun, because my Dad let us eat our dinner sitting on the floor with our bowls resting on stools. We loved to imitate a scene from a Shirley Temple movie, Heidi, every Friday that my mom went out. Humming the music, setting the table the way she sets it in the scene, adding a vase of wildflowers and putting out bowls and spoons. Then we sat on the floor under the table with our bowl on a stool and ate dinner, just like Heidi does in the movie. Sometimes first, we imitated an earlier scene in which Heidi is traveling and wearing many layers of clothes, but gets hot and takes them off in the village square. We would take turns putting on all the dress-up clothes we had, and then taking them off. Then someone would be the mean aunt, who yells at Heidi and makes her put the clothes back on again.
When it was time to go to bed, though, my dad did not read to us as long as mom did, and then he would sing to us to help us fall asleep. Usually he sang a song called, “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra,” lying on his back with his eyes closed and his glasses laid carefully beside him, his voice cracking on the high note at the end. The song had no meaning that I could understand, but it sounded sad. He usually fell asleep very quickly, and I would lean out of my bed and whisper, “Dad, are you awake? Are you still awake?”
He would murmur, “Yes, I’m awake.” But he wasn’t. He had been asleep. It scared me to have him fall asleep before I did.
At night, sometimes, I worried about my parents’ deaths, but contented myself with the certainty that if they were to die I would die too. It would not be possible for me to live without them. It was at times like these that death did not scare me. I was more scared of being left alone. At least in heaven I would be with everyone I loved, even if it did go on forever.
I didn’t like forever. I remember asking my mom if I would always have to brush my teeth. Every day of my life. She said yes, I would, and that made me angry. Maybe that is what scared me so much about infinity. I couldn’t escape it. Infinity was everything, so there was nowhere else to go.
There was a time when I thought no one could ever live so long as to be ten years old – that was an impossibly long time to imagine. I left our old house and two more houses since. Now I’m away at college and I cannot remember the last time my Dad sang, “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” to my sisters and me. Since we lived in that house I have stopped believing in fairies and then started back believing in them again. I still love daffodils and they still remind me of tombstones. I still don’t like forever and when I think of what job I want after I graduate one of the first things I think about is how long I will have it. I know that if my parents were to die I would go on living, whether I liked it or not. Our old house is still standing. It won’t be there forever, but the daffodils will keep coming back each spring, long after the house is gone.