by Catherine Forster
Genre: YA Memoir
I was barefoot in the front yard, my toes warmed by a sunbaked sidewalk. Ants bled from its cracks. I poked them with a stick and watched them recoil, flee, and come right back, some carrying bounty. I was three years old, alone (except for the ants), and ever so careful not to step on the cracks. My big brother, Steve, told me that even one teeny step on a crack would break my mother’s back.
“Does everyone forage for food, or do some stay home and clean up?" I conversed with the ants, deliberating on colony jobs. Like most of my conversations, this one took place in my head. I moved on in search of new creatures. Avoiding the cracks, I hopped, skipped, and twirled my way down the block, eyeing trees, bugs, and birds. It was nice being alone with the bugs and birds: no crying babies or adult saying, “Do this or do that.” I hummed a tune from church and walked past gardens chock full of flowers, yards clipped clean, and yards overgrown with dandelions. I was tempted to pick the flowers, but I knew not to. Instead, I picked the dandelions bordering the sidewalk.
A woman in a yellow dress called out to me, asking me what I was up to. I was not in her yard, but I was smelling one of her roses. Standing on her porch, she asked me where I lived and where was my mother. Her husband came outside. Tall and frowning, he stood next to her and watched me, silent. I stepped away from her roses, then I told them my name and that I lived down the street. Unbeknownst to me, I'd been walking for hours, blissfully drifting; I was nowhere near my house. Her husband brought out the phone book, found my last name, and called. I don't remember what he said over the phone, but his wife's face plumped up like she'd eaten a tasty treat.
"Sit here," she said, pointing to the bottom step, "until your mother comes."
Mom arrived. "Hello, so sorry to bother you," she sputtered, addressing the cross-armed twosome. She grabbed my arm and pulled me up. The adults chatted, but I don't remember what they said. I remember studying Mom’s face and the tone of her voice––she used her out-of-the-house-friendly voice––knowing both revealed more than the words coming out of her mouth. She was hopping mad. When we got home, she let loose, adopting her you-are-bad voice. I was wide-eyed confused. What was all the fuss about? Why was she so mad? I was just on a walk, a very fine walk, and I wanted to go back outside for another. Whatever I'd done, it was in front of the neighbors.
"––might be Dad's customers. Don't ever do that again." I nodded my head like big people expected, all the while wondering what that was.
Sometime later, maybe days or even weeks––it's hard to know for sure, I watched her face as she berated me once again. Then too, I was unable to comprehend her rage. Again, I was paralyzed by it, afraid to pull away.
I was playing in the backyard, immersed in an imaginary adventure. I had to pee, but didn't want to stop and go inside. I waited too long and wet myself. Knowing I was bound to get into trouble, I slipped inside to change, but Mom spotted my soiled shorts and the pee dribbling down my legs. Her face scrunched up, turning ugly, and she yelled. I have no memory of what she said, but her voice hit me like a thunderclap. I nearly fell down. She barreled toward me. I froze, expecting the worst but not knowing what that might be. She cupped her hands under my arms, carried me into the bedroom, tossed me onto the bed. My head snapped forward and I bit my tongue, but I didn't cry––dared not to.
"I have enough diapers to change," she yelled, pulling off my pants and wiping me down las if I were a baby. She put training pants on me, or maybe a diaper; I don't remember, but it wasn't my underwear. Her mouth moved, but I didn't hear her. Her eyes frightened me. They said I don't want you.
In that moment, she may not have wanted me, or Steve, or Tom. I was too young to understand it might not have been me she was seeing or yelling at. The rage behind her eyes could have been meant for Dad, who was gone, away on business. Maybe she hated the new town, prying neighbors, the stacks-upon-stacks of laundry, the spit-up on her clothes, the absence of friends, and the loneliness. She was twenty-three with a bundle of babes, and one-hundred and fifty-six miles from home.
I was too young to know what her eyes meant.
Catherine Forster is an artist, filmmaker, and writer living in the Pacific Northwest ... at the moment. Her work and love of travel have led her to six continents, including Sub-Saharan African, the source of her childhood fantasies. She still holds a fondness for Tarzan, but when trekking in the bush, hiking mountain trails, or exploring a new city, she prefers the company of her beloved husband Kevin.
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