Many nights after we read together, my youngest child will say sleepily, “Tell me a story about when you were a little girl – one that you have never told me before.” Sometimes I am hard pressed to come up with a new one, but most times I amazed at how many events I can conjure up – many of them laughably short (“One time my father’s friend George helped us plant corn in our backyard – it grew but the ears were not big enough to eat. The end.”) but still enough to satisfy him. I know that this is a ploy to keep me in his room long enough for him to fall asleep, and so I talk. . .
When I was small, probably four or five, I moved from the nursery next to my parent’s bedroom on the second floor of our house up to the third floor where the rest of my sisters slept. Mom turned the nursery into her office, where I spent just as much time playing under her desk as I had playing there when it was my room. They’d converted the third floor from an attic to bedrooms for their growing family. There was one small bedroom with a door – a nod to my eldest sister, by then off at college – a larger dormitory room with four beds and then a third bedroom with a double bed through an archway opening off of that. By the time I moved upstairs, people had shuffled around a bit and the large dormitory room was left to me and my sister B. It was a sizable linoleum tiled room with a bank of floor to ceiling windows dormered out of the roof. The windows looked out of the rear of the house and over the rest of the block and the neighborhood down the 11th Street hill. From it I could see the roof of the little white house next door and the house beyond it, a fabulous, magical Victorian on the corner belonging to the W’s. Painted a deep gray blue with white trim, I would sit for hours trying to imagine what was behind those gingerbread trimmed windows. The W. children were all older than me, so my siblings had all been in the house, but by the time I was intereted, all of them had moved on and there was no reason to visit anymore.
The third floor windows opened on long, grooved wooden tracks, which created lovely breezes in summer but also made them rattle in the winter wind. The train whistles that wafted through them in the night echoed loneliness and adventure, depending on my mood, but the bottom line was that those windows, so full of possibilities in daylight, scared me to death at night. I felt exposed and far removed from all that was safe. I wanted to leave the stairwell light on, which drove my sister crazy. She couldn’t sleep with it; I couldn’t sleep without it.
“You’re such a baby,” she said. She was right about that. I alternately relished and detested my place as the youngest in the family. Though there is no question that there are many perks to being the last of many children, the cumulative weight of the experiences of the ten who came before me is not a simple burden to bear. Being spoiled is not the same as being included, and being allowed to play does not teach you to play well or fairly. Still, all of it was tempered in some way by love and attention, and I am still learning the value of those details as I try to look back and look forward at the same time.
And so, ‘fraidy cat that I was, on many nights I would wait until my sister fell asleep – or until I thought she was asleep – and tiptoe down the squeakish linoleum steps across the soft carpet of the second floor hall in to my parents room at the opposite corner of the house. There in the king-sized bed my parents would be sleeping with their backs to each other, and I would scramble up from the foot of the bed, across the white coverlet that smelled of bleach to nestle in the valley between them. I never recall them waking up and shooing me back upstairs, though I am sure there were times that they did, but I do remember bemused conversations in the morning about how I appeared there.
Some mornings I would lay in their bed and watch my father as he shaved in the bathroom while the morning news was on the television. There was a local voiceover guy on KWWL who bellowed “Good morning everybody!” It made a good day a forgone conclusion. And then came Captain Kangaroo, and Dad, in boxers and shaving cream, would come out and dance next to the television with dancing bear. It was a magic moment. Then he would come over and kiss me and I would swoon to the sharp soapy smell of shaving cream. Some times he would take the blade out of the razor and let me imitate him by putting shaving cream on my own face and swiping it off.
On other nights, it was not so much a desire to snuggle that sent me downstairs as abject terror. I had – and still have – a recurring nightmare that was so real to me that it migrated into my awakened state. There is a black rock, large and glistening, moving slowly and inexorably toward me. Everything depends on my keeping that monolith from moving another inch, and yet, no matter how hard I try, it progresses, threatening to crush me in its path. I remember scurrying to my mom’s side of the bed and shaking her shoulder, telling her in desperate whispers that I needed her help to stop the big, dark rock. I was tiny enough that, standing up, my face was even with hers on her pillow and I had to reach up to rouse her; she was understandably groggy and confused, but would cup her smooth dry palm around my check and chin and tell me to climb in and say my prayers and that my guardian angel would come and help me. I didn’t want my guardian angel; I wanted her, my mother, the person who knew everything and could do anything.
I never turned to Dad at such moments, though I counted on him for other things. I knew he would love me no matter what; I knew he would never ask more of me than I could give, I knew that the worlds we lived in were somehow different and the same. I surmise now that he was ruled by a strange mix of fear and obliviousness and that my own greatest fear is sharing his oblivion, of not knowing and conquering my own demons. My demons are his; my weapons for fighting them are hers, and so there is a battle royal in my head most every day. And when I lay next to my boy and share my stories, I know that I do have a guardian angel and that she is winning.