I could pass an hour or more on a summer afternoon practicing the bouncing ball game One Two Three Alairy on the driveway. The basic routine for the four-line nonsense poem involved four bounces a line, the end of each line complicated by swinging a leg between hand and ball on the last bounce. If I made it through the poem with my right hand, I’d repeat the routine on the left. With a successful performance on the left, I allowed myself to proceed to the next, more difficult execution: clapping my hands between each bounce, clapping behind me, over my head, beneath my leg, jumping both legs over the ball. Sometimes I would demand of myself a flawless routine, starting again at the very beginning if I hit the ball with my leg or failed to catch it.
My father worked in the sewers of a steel mill and my mother asked for our new house to include a separate room for him to shower in when he got home. In addition to the shower, the room had a toilet, simple sink, and mirrored medicine cabinet. The cabinet had little in it. A toothbrush for dentures, some toothpaste, a safety razor, shaving soap, and a bottle of Gripe Water my older sister had brought home from a babysitting job with the recommendation that it was useful for curing hiccups. I don’t recall it ever working. During one episode of hiccups, I concentrated on just how much I disliked the taste of Gripe Water on the theory that my aversion to taking a dose could motivate a breath held long enough to defeat the malady.
The first meal I made for myself was lunch: a lettuce sandwich. White bread. Mayonnaise. Iceberg lettuce. And a glass of milk.
“Don’t you think I know none of you like me?”
It seems unjust that this is the only line I can remember from a fight I had with my sister in the middle of an afternoon. It would have been either July or August, the months she was home from boarding school. I stood at one end of the sofa, the end her feet pointed towards. She had been propped against a pillow, reading, but by the time she cried out this truth, she was lying on her side and sobbing.
My parents took in boarders, a series of female first grade teachers who lived in a main floor bedroom and ate meals at the same time as the family and Selkirk Steeler hockey players who slept in the basement and didn’t.
Once, my parents were away for a week and I was left in the care of the teacher. I do not remember why they were away, only that we wanted the house to look beautiful on their return. I brushed the entire wall to wall carpet in the living room with a palm-sized clothes brush. It looked perfect. It showed every footstep.
One year, there wasn’t enough money for a Christmas tree. Santa left the presents lined along the living room wall. I received an Ootpik, a stuffed toy replica of a long-haired, arctic comic strip character I enjoyed. It’s felt nose reminded me of a carrot. I dutifully slept with it.
I stood at the top of the steps in our bare and empty garage and read from my mother’s bedside book of daily devotionals as though they were sermons and the rake and the snow shovel congregants. The floor was cement, the acoustics excellent.
I wanted to be a preacher. With solemnity, I confessed my dream to my father. He was watching television and recording church offerings, entering numbers off offering plate envelopes onto the pages of a ledger. My idea pleased him. I could tell it made sense to him. It was the one time I landed on a spot on the pretend-the-future game board that seemed to make him proud. I heard it as a note in his voice when he said, “I think we should tell Pastor Kornfeld.” Heard it again, Sunday morning, at the door to the church, shaking hands with the minister: “Pastor Kornfeld, Michelle has something to tell you.” Proud. Pleased with me.
This is it, I thought. This is how good things begin. This is how you start to shape your life. You begin when you are ten. You start your studies when you are ten. Then you can make your dream come true.
Pastor Kornfeld’s face transformed before my uplifted one.
“You couldn’t possibly become a minister. That would be heresy. You’re a girl.”
I drew courage from the silence, the absence of laughter. My mother was still at the dining room table. The teacher and my father had gone to bed, no evidence left in sight of the supply of construction paper circles they’d all been creating for a classroom project. My mother worked alone, papers and envelopes in stacks before her. The kitchen behind her was in darkness, the light above the table the only one on. I stood at the end of the hall, next to the built-in mahogany china cabinet, wearing a filmy, layered nylon nighty with lace straps. My feet were bare. I held my elbows for warmth.
My mother neither got up nor called me to her. When I was finished, she said simply, “Ok, now you’ve told me. Go back to bed.”
My brother slept in what had been intended to be a sewing room. It was a doorless space at the far end of our long house, on the other side of the doors to the garage and the backyard, on the other side of my father’s shower room. The closet in this room was designed for storing winter clothes. It was lined with cedar and airless. I hid there once in a game of hide and seek. The seeker tattled and my triumph was marred by rebuke. I was never to hide there again.
After watching gymnasts on television in the basement family room, I set two wooden chairs facing each other, stripped to my tights and undershirt, and leapt over them. I made it three times. Tired, I caught my foot on the fourth leap and hit my head on the cement floor. My father called my bruise a beauty of a goose egg.
My brother thought it would be helpful to use lubricant. The first product he tried was Vicks VapoRub. Although he kept it on his windowsill, I asked him the next time not to use it.
The bedroom closets had wooden folding doors. The teacher kept a carton of cigarettes in blue packages on the right corner of the shelf and often left an open pack on her dresser.
In the evening, the teacher and my mother would work together at the dining room table, my mother preparing for the kindergarten class she taught, the teacher marking awkward printing guided by solid and dotted lines. My father was often with them, making cigarettes by filling filtered paper tubes with tobacco with a hand operated machine. They talked and joked together as they worked.
I began with the open pack and wasn’t accused until I’d taken from the closet.
When the hair on my legs grew dark, I shaved during a bath using the blade in my mother’s sewing kit, holding it by the edge covered with electrical tape.