Here it is...My first essay in the memoir genre, enjoy!
I have a black and white photographic portrait of my sister Lisa and me when I was 5 years of age and she 3. I am always struck by the way my right arm is intertwined with her left arm. It looks as if I am leading a blind person. Looking at this picture brings back a flood of emotion that I am sure I did not understand at such a young age. Despite my youth, I was somehow aware of the responsibility bestowed upon me by the evolution of my family’s structure. I am the oldest, the one who shoulders the responsibility, and the peacemaker, the loom upon which all is woven, much like my arm is interwoven with my sister’s in the photograph. When I study the picture now, I see worry in my eyes - it’s as if I am holding on to my sister’s arm to make sure she doesn’t fall out of the picture frame.
I do not remember this picture being taken, however it echoes the first vivid memory I have as the eldest child charged with the care of our delicate family. I was eleven - a skinny, long haired girl on the verge of becoming what today would be called a tween. We lived in a middle class neighborhood typical of the sixties. Our house, a split-level with the front of the house divided into two rooms and a living room that no one ever sat in (except for a portrait) and the kitchen. The front door and the stairways were what divided the house with one stairway going up to the bedrooms and one going down to the family room. On this particular day on an otherwise pleasant weekend, my sister and I were summoned to our harvest gold kitchen. We sat at the kitchen table in our designated seats, mine directly across from the window that looked out onto the cul-de- sac, a literal dead-end. My sister’s seat faced me as she sat framed by the window. To her right sat the portable TV on an unfolded aluminum TV tray. Lisa’s position always gave her an advantage when changing channels and choosing what shows we would watch while in the kitchen. On this particular day I remember being disappointed that my sister would not change the channel from Gilligan’s Island to Rita Bell’s Prize Movie, but decided that an argument with her over a TV channel would be foolish, and possibly dangerous. After all, it was my father that had summoned us to the table, and when he arrived, it was certain that the television would be turned off.
First my mother entered the kitchen. She appeared almost magically from the family room amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke. Trailing behind her was our silent, devoted Germen Shepard, Caesar. That dog followed her everywhere. In her mid thirties, my mother was a very attractive woman. Tall with dark skin, hair and eyes she was, as they said, trim but “full figured” with long legs. She wore a sleeveless blouse and white slim Bermuda shorts that made her legs look tan and lean. Barefoot, she moved about the kitchen in a nervous manor, cleaning and chain smoking. The fact that my mother was cleaning was my first clue that something was amiss - she was not exactly known to be a fastidious housekeeper. In fact I don’t ever remember a time when the dish strainer was not on the counter or there were not dirty dishes in the sink. But today she was not only washing the dishes but also drying them, stacking them neatly in the dark overhead cabinets.
The theme song to Gilligan’s Island played on the television as my father entered the room. The dog crouched down and with his hips tucked under his hind end he snuck down the stairs to the living room and disappeared. My father said, predictably, “turn that damn thing off” as he took his place at the table. Before this day I cannot remember ever having any other emotion than fear towards my father. I’m sure I loved him but he ruled by intimidation. With only a glance of his deep dark eyes he could stop me in my tracks. He was a big man – overweight, about six feet, but good looking nonetheless. His presence loomed large and his demeanor always demanded attention. Discipline amounted to what today would be considered child abuse. He only told us once and after his first request if we did not immediately comply, out came the belt. On this day however, I could see that my father was different he sat silently for a moment, just watching my mother as she gathered and presented him with his cigarettes, lighter, ashtray and poured him a cup of coffee. “Thank you, Diane” said my father as she joined us at the table. Never before had I remembered my father thanking my mother - what was going on here? Usually he barked and she jumped.
We all sat there for what seemed like forever before he finally spoke. “Your mother and I have something very important to discuss with you girls.” My father paused and gazed at my mother and then turned his glace to me. “Well we …we have decided to separate.” WHAT? What was I hearing? My parents had never even had a fight that I had seen. “This has nothing to do with you girls.” Wait a minute, I thought, how could my parents splitting up not have something to do with us? My head started to pound and as I looked at my sister she began to cry. “Your mother and I just don’t love each other any more.” “We both still love you girls and that will never change,” my mother chimed in. I didn’t dare say it, but I was thinking how do you just stop loving someone? Why can you stop loving each other but know that you will never stop loving us? Does that mean anyone at any time can decide that they don’t love one another - it just stops somehow? What does this mean? My father continued “I’ll be packing my bags today and moving to an apartment complex not far from here.” My mother pushed back her chair and reached past the television to comfort my sister. Clouds of thick cigarette smoke filled the space above the table - it seemed to fill my lungs as well as the space and I felt as though I was going to suffocate. I asked to be excused from the table. “I’m going to visit Grandma today, would you like to go with me?” my mother asked ignoring my request. “Does this mean you are getting a divorce?” I demanded. My mother asked me again, “Would you like to go to Grandma’s?“ “No, no, no” I screamed as I shoved the chair and myself from the table. I thought for sure I had set myself up for a session with the belt, but my father, rather shockingly, sat frozen. I caught his desperately sad gaze as I stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs to my bedroom. I slammed my bedroom door shut, almost intentionally setting myself up for a beating. Never before had I walked away from the table without being excused. Not to mention the screaming or what my father would have termed “back-talk”. “Back-talk” was an absolutely certain way to meet up with the belt.
I threw myself upon my bed as I sobbed uncontrollably. I could not stop crying - my mind would not stop. What did this all mean? Had I done something wrong? I could feel the red fuzzy balls of lint from my faux fur bed spread sticking to my wet face – it was irritating and I began to hyperventilate. Anxieties filled my body as I shook with the fear of punishment and the unknown.
I did not hear my father enter the room. His warm hands lifted my head out from the sea of red fuzz - he looked deep into my eyes as he reached for his waist. Oh no, I thought, here it comes… the beating of a lifetime. I was absolutely sure he was reaching for his belt, but instead it was his handkerchief, soft against my face as he wiped away the tears and lint, impregnated with the oddly comforting aroma of stale tobacco. Then he wrapped his big arms around my body and held on to me so tightly. My face was buried in the warm fat of his belly. My body succumbed. I stopped shaking and began to relax into the comfort of my father’s embrace. It was at this moment that I fell victim to the warmth of my father’s unexpected and overwhelming love. He just held me for a while, and then we sat on the end of the bed side by side in silence. I studied him and I remember thinking how normal, gentle and vulnerable he was. He looked not at all like the man I was afraid of for so long. He noticed my stare and began to weep. “Honey, please ask your mother to forgive me, please,” he repeated. And again, “please ask your mother to forgive me. Please forgive me.” He pleaded with me and covered his eyes with his large hands and continued to sob. I was in shock - my father was human. Never before had I seen a grown man cry, least of all my father.
It was at this moment that I became aware of my responsibility as the peacemaker, the family picture frame, the loom from which all is woven - much like my arm is interwoven with my sister’s in the portrait. I’m still holding on, patching, weaving, and keeping the four of us from pulling each other’s threads too hard, and trying to keep everything within the frame. Of course I am looking back with broken and mended shoulders, a wiser heart, and sturdier spine, but I am older and weary, and would very much like to put the burden down…