Darkest Before the Dawn

I liked hanging out at Dawn’s house.  She liked hanging out at mine.  We started spending a lot of time together.

Of all of my friends, she was the one who seemed to understand the strange fear I had about my life.  My mother was unemployed.  Her mother didn’t work at all; she had a hip condition that wouldn’t allow her to stand for more than a few minutes at a time.  Her father worked construction, which meant during the dark days of 1982, there were many days when he was sitting at home when we walked to her house to do homework together after school.

Most of the rest of our friends were worried about which pair of Jordache jeans to put on in the morning or whether or not there was a stain on their new mini skirt.  Dawn and I were worried about whether or not the phone would still be operational when we needed to call each other over the weekends.

Dawn’s mother would shop for the new school year in the spring by putting her clothes in layaway at KMart and paying for them in installments.  Their family didn’t have credit cards.  My mother, alternatively, put everything on her credit cards and worried about paying whatever she could pay at the end of the month.  My sister got an after school job at Wendy’s to help pay for the things she needed, like gas and car insurance.

What I liked about Dawn was that she didn’t care; she didn’t care what other kids at school were saying about her.  You either liked her or you didn’t, and she didn’t have time for you if you didn’t.  I was far more of a people pleaser, wanting desperately for approval in the form of peer acceptance.  I put Sun In in my hair to make it blonder, I found the cheapest pair of legwarmers I could find just so I could join the crowd.   Dawn didn’t.   And the more she didn’t, the more I felt comfortable being myself around her.

Dawn was at my house when my brother started beating on my door to get something he wanted; she was nonplussed when I asked her to help me keep it closed.  When his fist punched through the door, she was calm.  I was at her house when her mother tried to calm down her father’s anger over what had been eaten out of the fridge, or when he got mad about money.  He’d never hit her, but sometimes, a few times, he’d hit her mother.

Our eyes locked over the shared fear we had for those who were supposed to love us.  We both knew that family wasn’t quite supposed to be like this, and we were glad that someone else out there understood exactly what that felt like.

That there was a lot more to the world than what you were wearing.  That there could be worse things than not having the latest designer pair of jeans or shoes.  That there were worse things that what the kids at school could say about you.  There was someone out there that knew what darkness was, and how close it could come.  There was someone out there who could help keep the darkness at bay, or at least at arm’s length.

That sometimes friends really are the family you get to choose for yourself.


Working Hard or Hardly Working…

The year was 1982.

The news all around us was bad; there was a recession on, and people were losing their jobs everywhere.  On the news we saw auto plants being shut down, steel plants being shut down, the beginnings of the rust belt were starting to form in the Midwest.

I knew, theoretically, that we were not well off financially.   There was a lot of “we can’t afford that” when it came time to say, honor my wish for the designer jeans with the signature on the back pocket that were popular.  Or the expensive tennis shoes.  Or any number of things that were officially on the Things You Want But Cannot Have list.  Still, we had clothes when we needed them, there was food in the fridge, my mother and sister both had driveable cars, and I had braces on my teeth.   I would have labeled us decidedly middle class.

Then, one day out of the blue, my mother came home early.  As a lawyer, she was never home early.  One time we counted where she’d worked forty consecutive days, including Sundays.  Every.  Single.  Day.   Her showing up at home in time for dinner meant that something was going on.  And something was.

The law firm where my mother worked had suffered the loss of one of their legal partners a year and a half prior.   Just after we had moved into our condominium, my mother’s boss was shot on the steps of the law office building where they all worked.   He was shot by a disgruntled client, everyone assumed, though no one really knew for sure.   It was my mother who discovered him, she having come into work early in the morning to get ready to go to court.

After the partner died, the law firm struggled to find its footing.  And a year later, they came to the hard realization that they were going to have to downsize.  Since my mother had been the last lawyer hired, she was the one who would lose her job.   And so she came home one afternoon in the spring of 1982 and told us that she was unemployed.

My mother didn’t sugar coat her fear; she was very worried about what losing the job that paid for nearly everything in our lives would mean.  My father had already been to court to reduce his share of financial support for us, and so we were already making due with less.  Now, it would be a lot less.   She talked to us about the program that would extend our health insurance benefits, COBRA, but announced that it was too expensive for us to pay for.  For the short term, she would have us transferred onto my father’s health insurance;  she would go without until she found another job.

It wasn’t long before an acquaintance of hers from the law community offered her an office in his suite so that she could pick up small cases on a freelance basis.  The work wasn’t much, but it made her and us feel like there was some semblance of normalcy going on;  she was getting up and going somewhere every day, and talking about law with lawyers.

She went to the unemployment office every week to prove that she was still looking for a job so that she could get benefits as long as she was allotted to do so.   Our world felt cold and bleak.   The recession was real, and it found its way into our home…and stayed.

The First One To Go

We were in the car, on the way to Grand Rapids, again.

It was time to settle my uncle’s estate.  My great Uncle “Bud” had passed away, very suddenly, the previous winter.  No one had been prepared for his death in any way; he seemed as healthy as any seventy odd year old man might be.   We had attended his funeral on a cold day in January, the drive taking six hours rather than the usual three.

His death left a cold, empty spot in the warm universe we experienced when we visited.  No one had realized how severe his wife’s progression into Alzheimer’s really was.  He had protected even the relatives that lived just a mile down the road from the worst of her behaviors, because she was his wife and he worshipped her.  He didn’t tell anyone how she had tried to eat the woolen blanket one day because she didn’t realize it wasn’t food.  He hadn’t mentioned to anyone the multiple times she had wandered out of the house while he was in the shower or still asleep.  He’d found her down the road at a neighbor’s, in their yard, watching the squirrels gather twigs and nuts.  He had not told anyone about how one day she sat at their wooden desk for hours, gouging into the soft wood with her fingernails until they were worn to the nub.   My aunts and uncles whispered that Bud should have “put Sophie in the home” long ago, but he just couldn’t do it.

This left all of the surviving relatives, us included, with the awful sensation that we had not just lost one beloved family member, but two.  Aunt Sophie was in another world, and it was all anyone could do to pull her just to the window of that world to interact with us.

When we got to Grand Rapids, I learned why we were having to spend another weekend talking about my uncle’s death.  My mother was executing my uncle’s estate, her being the only lawyer in the family.   Instead of our usual fun afternoons baking with my aunt or playing cards with my other aunt, they talked to my mother.

She sat down with the aunts and uncles and talked about things like “the will” and “probate”.  A fat checkbook appeared, like a three ring binder for school, with checks that had to be written out in duplicate so that there was an accurate record of where all of the money for the estate was spent.   She brought her big yellow legal pads and filled them with details about banks and safety deposit boxes and valuables.  The aunts and uncles gave her papers to bring back and forth to court in big manilla file folders.   They talked about selling the cute Cape Cod on Hall St. that I loved so much.   Where would I see cardinals and blue jays?  Who would buy the suet for the big tree out back that summoned them there?

It was warm on the day we went over to the house to take whatever furniture or valuables we wanted.   The house was even quieter than ever.  If the idea of my aunt and uncle no longer being here was a question in my head, this visit brought the idea into sharp, clear focus.  They never would yell at me that I was taking too long in the bathtub with the sliding doors.  They wouldn’t go across the street to borrow toys for the sandbox for me to play with.  They wouldn’t listen patiently as I told them about yet another Laura Ingalls Wilder story I’d just read.  They were gone.  All that was left were their possessions, which were being picked over by every relative who came through town.

I asked my mother if I could have my aunt’s chair, and her writing desk (yes, the one with the gouge that my aunt had carved into it).   They were bulky items, but my mother agreed we’d get them back home for me, somehow.   My mother took a small, color TV that my uncle had used in better days in their RV.    Someone else had already taken the larger one from the den.    We took sheets and blankets, we took kitchenware, we took all kinds of things.   The whole time, we felt a little like thieves, taking things that didn’t belong to us.   My aunt was still alive, but we were taking her things.  It felt wrong.

It took exactly one visit to the nursing home to realize how wrong we were.  My aunt had declined dramatically in the few months after my uncle’s death.  She was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t recognize any of us.  The only word she could say was my uncle’s name, over and over and over:  “Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Bud???”

In her haze of lost memories and consciousness, she knew.  She knew very little, but she knew he was gone.  And she was looking for him, around every corner,  in every corner, in the faces of all of the strangers she was now surrounded with, she was still looking for him.

So were we.

Kindred Spirits

My brother had an orange “pup” tent left over from his brief foray into Cub Scouts.   We had set it up a few times in the backyard of our old house to camp, and he quickly grew bored with the tedium of putting the posts in the ground, securing the ropes to the posts, puting the poles up to hold the fabric into the shape of a elongated triangle.

I loved the pup tent, and when my brother tired of it, it didn’t seem to bother him terribly when I started using it.  I would set it up just beyond the fencing of our tiny patio, in the common area in back of our condo.  Even on the hottest summer days it seemed like a safe space, a refuge.  I would put in my sleeping bag, my pillow, some books, a flashlight.  It was fun during the day.  But I wasn’t exactly sure about hanging out in it alone at night.

One day, I told my new friend Dawn about the tent.  She loved the idea of staying out all night in the tent, and was sure that her parents would allow us to pitch the tent behind her condo; their patio wasn’t all the way fenced in, so they would be able to see us through their sliding glass door, not to mention their bedroom window.

I was excited.  Dawn and I were both avid readers and had a lot in common.  We both liked to write, and we both liked the same type of music.  Her family intrigued me; she had three very much older half siblings who were grown up and didn’t live at home.  Dawn was the only child of her parents’ marriage, and lived in the townhome complex with them.  Dawn’s father was younger than her mother, which I thought was incredibly unusual at the time.  Both of her parents were extremely nice to me, although her father’s gruffness made me nervous.

We set up the tent in her yard, and got ready for the long night.  We talked about the girls at school, we talked about my brother (on whom Dawn had a crush, even though I was trying to warn her that he might not be the best boyfriend material), we talked about our parents.  We talked about books; we were both currently enthralled with the “Anne of Green Gables” series.   Our local bookstore was within walking distance, and I had just gotten a copy of the fifth book in the series, “Anne’s House of Dreams”.  She was reading her mother’s castoff copy of V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic.”  I was shocked that her mother would let her read such a grown up book, and resolved immediately to get a copy of my own. We talked about her pet rats, which seemed disgusting and sweet all at the same time.

That night was the first of many nights we would spend in each other’s company.   I knew that night that I’d found a “kindred spirit”,  just as Anne of Green Gables had found in Diana.   The refuge and escape I felt from the tension at home was a relief.  The companionship and comfort I felt in having found a friend who understood me so well was life changing.

Paranoia Will Destroy Ya

After my sister’s purse was stolen, fear started taking over my world.

My huge bedroom windows looked out on ten other townhomes.  Suddenly, I was sure every person living within those townhomes could see into my bedroom and were constantly watching me.  I put teen magazine pin ups on my window, black out curtain style, in order to block out the prying eyes.

I was sure at any minute that one of us was going to be diagnosed with a deadly disease.  I constantly checked my body for signs of the strange and unusual.  Headache?  A brain tumor was starting.  Stitch in my side during gym class?  Certainly the beginnings of a ruptured appendix.  Itchy mosquito bite?  Infection would set in at any minute to run rampant through my system.

But the biggest, most over riding fear that overtook my days after our home was burglarized was the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

It was the early 1980s, and the Cold War was at its height.  The news talked daily of the build up of nuclear weapons.  President Reagan was increasingly our military budget to be sure we had enough weapons to scare the Russians into not attacking us.

I started thinking about the distances those InterContinental Ballistic Missiles could travel.  Maybe they would hit the West Coast or East Coast first?  Living in the Midwest, maybe we’d be safer than those living on the coasts.  I would lay in my bed at night wondering if tonight would be the night World War Three would start.  If we were out during the evening, the light pollution from living in the suburbs made me wonder if the glow was really from an exploding nuclear warhead that we hadn’t heard about yet.  I started looking for the Fallout Shelter signs from the 1950s on buildings and wondered why we didn’t do nuclear war drills like kids did back then.

I couldn’t escape my fear even in downtime.  One of my brother’s favorite games for our new Atari game system was Missile Command, a game in which you had to shoot at incoming missles.  Each one you missed exploded into a mushroom cloud on the ground.  If you couldn’t keep up, the game ended in a huge flash of light.

I read  “Z for Zachariah”, in which the main character is 16 and has survived a nuclear war.  I made mental notes to be sure we had a manual can opener and started thinking about canned food and clean water.  I was flat out paranoid, and I couldn’t understand why everyone else around me wasn’t certain that we were all teetering insanely close to death at any given moment.

My fear lived on the radio too.  Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” was translated into English with a chilling message:  “In the dust that was a city/I could find a souvenir/Just to prove the world was here”.  “I listened to Sting’s “Russians” in my room late at night in the dark, hoping he was right in saying “We share the same biology/ Regardless of ideology/ What might save us, me, and you/ Is if the Russians love their children too.”

My 7th grade language arts teacher must have realized my fear through comments and writings I did in class.  One day, he asked us to skip to the very back of our literature book to read a story together in class.  In it, the teenage main character spoke of her fear that the world was about to end in a disastrous nuclear exchange.  She speaks of her sweet little brother and how innocent he is, she speaks lovingly of her parents who are hard working people who don’t deserve to die.  She speaks angrily about her government and how they could have put them on this path to destruction.  She was us.  She was all of us.

And then, suddenly, at the end of the story, it was revealed that the girl lived in Moscow.  That she was a Soviet girl.  But yet she had all of the same feelings, same emotions, same fears as I was experiencing.  It was a powerful story for me, and helped me shake loose my abnormal fear just a little bit.  I have always been grateful to Mr. W. for giving me that gift, that day.  It helped me breathe.  I needed to be able to breathe.

Fear Is The Highest Fence


The scream from my sister jolted me out of bed.  It was early; six fifteen or so.  The scream was not the usual exasperated, frustrated tone that my sister normally took when she wanted my mother to deal with something; this was not a yell or a holler, but scream.  A scream that immediately made me scared, because I heard the fear in it.

There was some noise outside my bedroom door, the closest bedroom to the staircase that led downstairs where my sister was.  My mother, going full tilt down the carpeted stairs.  I opened my door, leaned over the banister, and listened to the voices, afraid to get any closer to the problem that struck such a tone in my older sister’s voice.

“It’s gone.  No, I don’t know where I left it, I thought it was somewhere in the kitchen.  It’s gone.  It’s gone!”  My sister’s voice, words fast, high pitched.

“Are you sure?”  My mother’s much lower voice, slowly drawing out the words in an effort to sound calm.  I could hear the movement of worry underneath the false calm she was pushing out of her chest.

“I’m sure.  Was the back door locked?  Did we leave it unlocked last night?  I don’t think I remember it being open when I went up to shower, but I…I don’t really remember.  Oh God, what if they came in while I was upstairs?”  The hysteria was reaching a higher pitch.

No response from my mother.  I heard the phone picked up from its cradle and her fingers angrily punching on the buttons just three times.

“Yes.  No.  We’re not sure.  The sliding door.  My daughter’s purse.  Maybe more, I haven’t looked.  Yes, I’m positive, it’s still locked.”  A pause as my mother listened to the operator on the other end of the phone.  “Thank you.  We’ll be waiting for them.”

I slowly inched down the staircase after I heard the receiver placed back on the wall.  I stopped at the uppermost step that allowed me to look into the kitchen.

I saw the curtains billowing into the kitchen from the wind outside.  Curtains that should have been still, because the door should have been closed.  But they weren’t, because someone had come in through the sliding glass door behind them.  The someone had taken my sister’s purse from where she left it in the kitchen the night before.

My sister was crying by this point.  My brother was strangely absent from the whole proceeding.  My mother was covering her fear while checking to see what else might be gone before the police came.  She discovered quickly that some of the pieces of silver from her wooden silver box were also missing.  Nothing else.  It was almost as if the burglar knew exactly what to look for and where to look for it.

The fear the three of us felt continued in the days and weeks afterwards.  We bought a thick stick of wood to place in the track of our sliding door so that even if someone forgot to lock the door, it could not be opened from the outside.  My mother and sister learned to bring their purses into their bedrooms at night, just in case.

A few days later, my sister’s purse was found, without the money from her wallet, in the Dumpster near the end of our cul de sac.  The silver was never recovered.  We eventually discovered that my brother knew the burglar; he was a student at our local high school.   My sister asked around to all of her friends; we discovered that our brother most likely left the back door open for the thief.  He instructed the thief as to where the valuables would be located and what time to enter the house.   The information was given ostensibly to pay back a debt my brother incurred for marijuana.

Life felt different after that day.

Something From Nothing

In sixth grade, I had Home Economics on odd or even days for a semester.

I was excited about taking Home Ec.  In sixth grade, they taught you how to cook.  In seventh grade, it was how to sew.  When I went to band class down the exploratory wing for the whole first semester, I could smell the wonderful smells that emanated from the room on cooking days.  Home Ec was required for every student at my school, not just the females.  We all chuckled as the young, blond teacher divided our class up into groups of four, two boys and two girls for each group.

My mother would cook sometimes, but not often; she was too busy.  Most of her more elaborate recipes involved a crock pot and a long list of ingredients that simmered over hours.   Her cooking was a rare event, once a week at the most, rather than an every day occurrence.  I was curious about cooking, but the kitchen seemed an unfamiliar world to me.   Home Ec was a chance to finally figure out what was supposed to go on in there.

The Home Ec classroom was down at the end of the farthest hallway, past the band room and across from the wood shop.  The  room had six kitchen set ups around its perimeter.  A stove, a sink, cupboards filled with measuring supplies and dishes.  There was one refrigerator, located behind the teacher’s demonstration area.  She too had a kitchen set up, which in crowded classes became an extra group station.  Her area had a huge mirror above it so students could see exactly what she was doing without crowding around her station.

We had to cook four different recipes over the course of the semester.  The rest of the time was devoted to teaching us about food safety, nutrition and how to shop for ingredients.  When it finally came time to cook, the teacher would spend one class session demonstrating a recipe.  Then we spent another one rewriting the recipe out ourselves in long hand; all abbreviations had to be uniform and identical.  Neatness on the recipe was part of the grade.

Then finally, it came time to cook for ourselves.  Our first recipe was banana bread.  We learned how to mash up the overripe bananas.  We measured exactly to the line on the liquid cup, bending down to view the glass handled cup from eye level rather than from above.  We learned that the eggs needed to be cracked one at a time into a bowl just in case they were spoiled, so that we didn’t ruin the whole set of ingredients.

We were all amazed when the bread came out of the oven.  We were eleven years old, and we’d cooked something other than macaroni and cheese.  And it wasn’t just edible, it actually tasted delicious.  Our sense of accomplishment was palpable.

I would walk home from middle school in the afternoons to an empty house.  My sister was working after school or out with friends.  My brother was always out with friends doing God Knew What.  But me, I always came home.  There was homework to do, but I always finished it quickly.  There would be hours left in the day before everyone would come back home, and I was all alone in the house.

I would fill quiet, lonely afternoons with the lessons I learned in Home Ec.  I would take disparate ingredients around the house and make bagels, or bread pudding, or brownies; whatever recipe I could find that had ingredients we had on hand.  There was something magical in making something new and wondrous where before there had been absolutely nothing.

And so I cooked.

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