Westbound on the Ohio Turnpike, Exit 10–Cleveland
It’s getting dark, and you look tired. Maybe we should stop soon. Cleveland. We usually go farther than Cleveland. Hmmm. Let’s see. We could always hit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes....
Just kidding. The Elvis Museum last year was bad enough, but I’m not about to visit a museum that extols virginity as a virtue.
Maybe we can make it to Toledo.
Remember the letters I showed you, the letters to my mother I found in the attic, the ones I never sent? I brought them with me. I don’t know why I’ve saved them after all these years, and I don’t know why I have never shown them to anyone, especially you. I don’t know why I keep reading them over and over....
Oct. 19, 1960
Why don’t you write? I never hear from you anymore. Did you remember my birthday? It was last week. I am 10 yrs. old now. Auntie sent me a walking doll with long red hair, just like mine, except Hillary’s hair is straight. Aunt Gwen gave me a teddy bear, it even has a zipper so I can make him fat or skinny. I like him skinny, but when I get mad, I make him fat (ha, ha).
Nana says I should write you a letter even if you don’t write. She says its the polite thing to do. I guess she’s right, but I sure wish you would write back.
I wish you loved me.
YOU DON’T LOVE ME ANYMORE.
You can’t send that letter. I can’t tell you why, you’re too young to understand, just start over, and write a nice letter. Because I’m your Nana and I understand what’s best for you. Because your mama needs to hear from her child and you’re her favorite. Don’t say that, she DOES love you, it’s just that she’s in a predicament–oh, just look it up in the dictionary–and she can’t write to you now. And, honey, don’t mention your birthday. It might make her feel bad, and we don’t want her feeling bad, now do we? Soon, I promise, just as soon as she gets better. No, I haven’t heard anything about Ruby. I’m sure she’s okay, you just have to be patient. Yes, we’ll go and visit her someday, I promise, even if we have to go all the way to Arkansas. It’s a long drive, you know. But it’s not the right time, you’ll just have to wait until she’s older. She’s still just a baby and wouldn’t know you anyway.
Now get busy on that letter, or else.
Oct. 19, 1960
How are you? I am fine. School is going good. I’m 10 years old now.
Love your child,
P.S. Nana says I should send this air mail.
Much better, honey, but you’d better get rid of that P.S.–and do it over neatly.
Don’t you REALLY have any more to say than that?
Shel, can you imagine? Mother had forgotten my birthday. I was hurting because I wanted the few measly dollars she usually popped into my birthday envelope, along with one of her silly cards. But mostly, it was a long rambling letter I wanted, the kind of letter in which she would mostly talk about Fritz, her German Shepherd. The same dog that snapped at my butt when I was seven.
Just before my grandparents drove me back to Iowa for good.
You don’t love me anymore.
PLEASE HEAR ME, MAMA!
I guess I knew she didn’t really MEAN to forget my birthday. Some-times these things just happened. Most of the time, I tried to understand. Really. But I also understood that sometimes you had to push the right buttons to get what you wanted.
And, then, surely, the money would come.
Mama? It’s Sammy. I’m in Sioux City.
Well, no. No one knows I’m calling, but it’ll be okay. I wanted to write you more, but Nana made me hurry, so I couldn’t finish the letter. You get it yet?
You still sick?
Well, Nana says you didn’t feel so good.
Guess what? I got all kinds of birthday presents–
Two weeks ago, Mama.
It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to....
This fantasy conversation still plays over and over. But at 10, I was anything but diplomatic. I didn’t know how to help a wounded person to save face.
Instead, I wrote THE LETTER–I wonder if she ever kept it?
The money came, but somehow, it wasn’t the same: my first hard lesson in the effects of emotional blackmail.
Before we left, Shel, I ran across that birthday card and 20 dollar bill--you know that was a fortune back then. I still cannot bring myself to spend that ancient ill-gotten gain. I can’t even bring myself to pull that card and money out of their yellowing envelope to look at her handwriting, let alone read the raw edge of her words. Though she’s been dead all these years– God, it hardly seems 15 years ago--her scrawl is engraved in my brain, her act of contrition pinching at the core of my psyche.
Maybe someday I’ll read parts of her letter to you, but please don’t ask, I don’t know why I can’t show it to you yet, I just can’t.
I just can’t look.
Not before I edit away the ache.
I just can’t.
You don’t love me any more.
I loved her: Mother was the only person in my life who didn’t harp on my weight, at least until I was older. Then it was different, and things changed between us. But in those early days, when I was still living with her, she accepted me for who I was, not as a potential princess who “if only she would lose a little weight she would be okay.”
Mother’s drinking made us comrades somehow, her sitting on the sofa (legs folded under her rear) with the bottomless bottle of beer, endless cigarette, and crossword puzzle book, I sitting in the swivel chair next to her (feet on the floor) with the bottomless box of Cherry Bings, sent Parcel Post by Nana from Sioux City, each of us glomming and glomming on our secret obsessions until we might burst open.
Both outcasts in the family.
Just the same, I was afraid of her. Not afraid in the sense a person is afraid for her life, but afraid that when I opened my mouth, I would say something stupid or insulting to her. Afraid that when she said something to me, I would misunderstand her slurred words and confirm what my first grade teacher had already told her: that I was mentally retarded because I hadn’t learned how to read yet.
I was a mute child.
I wanted to ask her questions, but I was afraid to hear the answers–like why I had so many daddies when most of my friends had only one, two at the most. So I made a list:
The Litany of Daddies
√ My real daddy, Richard Kane, the stranger daddy
√ Unofficial daddy, Dick Roberts, the bad daddy
√ Daddy # 2, Daddy Platts, the King of daddies
√ Daddy # 3, Johnny Lawrence, the saxophone daddy
√ Daddy # 4, (my favorite), Pappa, my grandfather daddy
Nana used to tell me how lucky I was to have so many daddies.
You don’t love me anymore, Mama.
I know she loved me, but I never knew what would set her off. It all depended on how much she had to drink, I suppose. The Mormon Bible School is a case in point. Did I ever tell you about that? When I was in first grade, she knew I was going to the Bible school every Tuesday afternoon after school and even laughed about it to Daddy Platts, proclaiming what a clever girl I was.
“Young Soldiers of Christ,” Mrs. Robertson, the teacher, called us.
A sweet old lady with a gray bun, luring us into the fold with hot homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Mother thought the whole concept was funny.
But then, when she was annoyed about something (it didn’t matter what–a broken fingernail, a pimple, an argument with Daddy Platts, the baby’s shitty diaper–I didn’t even have to be the cause), she would rage about the Bible school, swearing that “no Goddamn polygamist is going to convert my little girl.” Then she would huff and snort, making a big deal about going over to Mrs. Robertson’s and giving her the old “what-fer.”
And then collapse on the sofa and fall into a dead drunk sleep.
You don’t love me any more.
The day Ruby and I were run over by the truck, my whole life changed. My corporeal life stayed the same, of course–that is, until Nana and Pappa took me away–but from that day onward, I have felt this chronic sense of urgency, a sense that it all could be snatched away at any minute.
Thank God Ruby was too young to remember.
We weren’t injured, just a few bumps and bruises, but when you find yourself under an over sized piece of equipment and looking up at belching exhaust pipes and greasy metal, well, even at six, you begin to wonder about God and His infinite wisdom, you wonder if He’s REALLY in control, or if there’s a Superior Being over Him, making Him dance like a marionette, just like He pulls our strings to make us behave, and then cuts them when He’s ready to snatch us away.
It was sometime in the fall–Ruby had a runny nose and the air had a crisp edge–but it must have been before my birthday, because I wasn’t yet seven.
Ruby and I were sitting in an alley, playing with gravel, rolling small stones back and forth when I felt the bumper quietly nudging my back. I’m sure the driver had no idea we were there, but who knows? I turned my head and saw a silver bumper and an orange fender.
I’m gonna die!
Ruby was screaming.
My baby sister’s gonna die!
I don’t remember how I ended up on my back, but there I was, looking up as the underbelly rolled by.
I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I really do remember the front wheel rolling over my chest, pressing my rib cage against my heart, crushing the breath out of me. It’s difficult to put that moment into adequate words, but I’ll try. Nothing like tunnels or bright lights, though– that’s an 80's and 90's concept, I think.
But I knew I was dead, suspended in that nanosecond–or was it a lifetime?–just before the spirit flees the body for good. I discovered that not breathing has its own set of rules, that I no longer felt the flow through my veins, just a “glow” or aura of being, a warmth without physicality.
No pain at all.
See how words can’t begin to describe the experience?
And I really thought the decision was mine to make:
To go or to stay?
This state of pleasure was so seductive.
Later on, the LSD and weed would approximate this feeling, but never to the extent of that day under the wheel.
Stay! Go! Stay! Go! Go! Go! GO, GO, GO................GO-OOOOOOOO–
I would never see my mother, ever again.
The tire rolled off me, my blood moved again, breath returning.
Just like that–
Look, I’m telling you how I remember it.
I make no apologies for my state of mind, past or present–
“STOP!” Daddy Platts’ voice.
The truck slowed down but did not stop.
Pounding on the truck. “Stop it, Goddamn it! My little girls are under your truck!”
Ruby’s your baby!
I’m your princess!
My ponytail caught under the back tire.
By now, a crowd had gathered, and I could hear Daddy shouting out directions to the driver and ordering me not to move at all.
“Good, good, the baby’s out,” someone said. “And she’s fine.”
The crowd applauded.
A little girl in a lilac dress looked under the truck: “Whatcha doin’ under there? Are you gonna die?”
I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!
It was then I understood that life held no guarantees, that no one, even a child, is exempt from the possibility of dying–
That the choice to stay or go is never really ours.
The filament of being vibrating, Death nearby, his weapon ready–
“Please don’t let me die! I don’t wanna die!”
Mama? Mama? Mama!
And I thought about everyone else in my family–my Nana and Pappa, Auntie–Ruby. I wondered what it would be like not to see my family again.
Sometimes, I think I should have died that day–you and Doug would be better off, I’m sure. Nikki would have just remained in the cosmos, a better place, I’m sure, than the Circle of Love.
I just can’t explain away the slight ripple of fate that spared my life.
What would have Death been like?
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