Sometimes I wonder what to write about next as if I can direct the process. Yet at this moment I am aware of two realities coexisting in this room as I place my fingers on the keyboard. Two places, two different points in time, two sets of activities colliding again and again, like bumper cars at some macabre carnival ride. The second one cannot be ignored because it will not disappear again until I give it words.
I tracked with some difficulty both the year this memory is tied to and my age at which it occurred. I know our small trailer was still on the homestead, attached through an entry way tunnel (we called the vestibule) to our canvas Jamesway home. This incident I remember occurred before my parents hauled the trailer down the mountain and sold it, which happened according to my mother’s homesteading letters before June 1963.
I also know that this memory is tied to the end weeks of one of my school years. It turns out this would have been the 1961-1962 year I was 10 years old and finishing my 5th grade.
With these facts at hand, I know the event happened at the beginning of May, 1962 after we had moved back to the homestead after spending the winter living at the ‘log house’ in Eagle River. I know mother had left the mountain on this morning, probably taking my baby brother and I think my older brother with her. She probably had taken the laundry with her, but wherever she had gone, she was gone.
This ties to a very rare memory I have of two things — playing with my two younger sisters and defying my mother. The memory itself is actually a long one that eventually consumed months of my life. When it started, it started innocently enough with the three of us playing with dolls. I remember the redwood picnic table and benches as they sat alongside the curved canvas walls my mother had painted flamingo pink, that arched over us as we played. That’s the thing about living in a house with curved walls. Exactly where does a wall end and the ceiling begin?
I was taller than my sisters, so my head brushed the ceiling well before theirs did. I had to stoop over sometimes and they did not. I remember all the dolls and their clothing, shoes and blankets spread over the top of the table. I remember walking around the table as we played. I remember someone decided part of the play needed to include giving the dolls a bath and washing some of their clothes. I went into the trailer kitchen and returned to the table with one of my mother’s Tupperware bowls half filled with water. I don’t remember who went and got the shampoo.
Time went on and the doll play ended. Everything was cleaned up and put away. I do not remember who put the Tupperware bowl back in the little trailer’s kitchen. I do know that at some later time my mother put something into that bowl and it ended up tasting like shampoo. She was standing in the Jamesway with the bowl in her hand as she demanded to know, “How did shampoo get into this bowl?” I do remember what happened next.
There was something about the time frame surrounding her question that let me know somehow that there was a loophole here, a rare moment of ambiguity for my mother before she automatically blamed me. It was as if she was taken so by surprise to have the taste of shampoo turn up in whatever she had put into the bowl that not even her ‘quick to blame Linda’ mind could put two and two together and come up instantaneously with me as the culprit.
As she stood there holding the bowl in her state of near rage puzzlement, I took advantage of her pause and actually thought some thoughts of my own. First, I knew she had no idea who had committed this crime. I knew if it was discovered by her that one of my sisters had done it she would not get mad at them. I knew if she found out I had anything to do with it she would explode at me and I would get in big trouble.
Her pause lasted long enough for me to move in my mind through to a whole new level of thought. This experience was completely foreign to me. I was being given enough room to so maneuver within my own mind that I considered how many, many times I had been blamed and beaten for lying when I had not. I thought about how I could never ever prove to her I had NOT lied when she said that I had. I thought at that moment that if she could obviously never tell if I was lying or telling the truth, that I might as well lie to her now because she wouldn’t know the difference.
(I never realized that just because I couldn’t prove that I was telling the truth didn’t mean that she couldn’t prove that I was telling a lie.)
I was running out of time to decide what I was going to say as my turn to answer her approached. She had asked each of my sisters her question in turn, and they had told her that we had all used the bowl to give our dolls a bath in. She turned her attention on me and demanded, “Whose idea was it to use the bowl and put the shampoo in it? Was it your idea, Linda? Did you make your sisters do it?”
Here was my moment. It seemed like I knew I had been waiting for exactly this moment all of my life. At the instant I opened my mouth to answer her I had drawn upon the last bit of information I could find within myself as I thought, “Even if she figures out I am lying she can’t possibly get any madder at me than she always does even when I am not lying, even though I have never lied to her. And if she doesn’t figure it out, I won’t get into trouble at all.”
I therefore knew perfectly well that I was lying when I opened my mouth in answer to her question. I could feel a glimmer of defiance of her as I simply replied, “Sharon did it.”
I was not at that moment worried about what would happen to Sharon by my blaming her, but that certainly became an important aspect of my denial after those words had come out of my mouth. It made my inevitable punishment worse. “How could you be so mean to your sister, blaming her for something she didn’t do! Trying to get her into trouble! How dare you!”
Of COURSE she was going to believe my sisters even if they had been lying. Which they weren’t. I should have seen it coming. Once they had said they hadn’t put the shampoo in the bowl, obviously the boom was going to fall in my direction, no matter what I said.
But for those few seconds I had not been listening to anything they had been saying. I wasn’t paying any attention to what was going on around me. The entire world could have come crashing down on top of my head and I wouldn’t have noticed until it hit me. I was involved in my own THINKING, and that is the first time I remember that happening. I gambled and I lost. Was it better to have momentarily gained some ground and lost it than to have never gained that ground at all?
I cannot at this moment get much closer to this memory than I am. It would not be safe to do so. What I do know is that I was absolutely wrong in my belief that things couldn’t get any worse than they always had been. My deliberate lie directly to her face was like pouring gasoline on her already raging inferno of hatred toward me. Her reaction to this incident lasted for many weeks and she never forgot it. My siblings continued to attend school only I was forbidden to go back for the rest of the school year. I was left home alone on that mountain with her.
I have most of what happened locked safely away in my memory. I do remember clearly one day of standing in the corner in the back of the wood paneled little trailer where she had put me by the door that went out the back from the small bedroom. This position was too close for any comfort when she came into the trailer’s kitchen to prepare food. I remember she had tied an apron on me that had a string around my neck and a tie in the back. There were pockets in the apron filled with bars of soap. Whenever she felt like it she would come into the room with her paring knife, tell me to reach into my pocket and hand her a bar of soap. She would then cut off a large chunk, hand it to me, and tell me to put it into my mouth and eat it. I had no choice. I did as I was told.
Why I can clearly remember this memory I don’t know, because I am certain there exits an entire string of experiences connected to this incident that seem to be gone completely. I do remember that she had promised me and my sisters that we could have rabbits this summer, and that she decided after my lie that I didn’t deserve getting one, and this made me sad.
I do remember, also, one of the beatings that originated with this misbehavior, when she attacked me with a 4 foot length of gray-green poplar log. She was screaming and yelling in a full blown rage as she entered the back of the trailer where I was, again, standing in the corner. There was something not only about the club in her hand she was planning to beat me with, but also something in the sound of her voice that scared me worse than I’d ever been scared before.
She grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to the bed, knocked me down with one arm as she swung the log from her other hand. Her blows smashed into my body as I twisted and turned to get away from her, trying to avoid her blows, until I finally broke free, dashed to the trailer’s back door and made it outside before she could stop me.
It was the weekend, and I remember seeing my father to my right outside doing something with fire wood. He said and did nothing to stop my mother as I headed out into the green growing grass of the field by the house and kept on running as she followed me, waving her weapon and screaming wildly. I ran into the woods and kept going until the sound of her following me faded. I stayed out until after dark, but there was no place to go but back home again.
I don’t remember what happened that night, but I do know the next morning was a Monday and my father had taken the Jeep and left for work. School was out for the year, and all my siblings were still sound asleep when I woke up before them on this cold, overcast day. I moved silently as I dressed, picked up my hairbrush and the bible my grandmother had once given me, wrapped them up in my blanket, and took them with me as I tiptoed across the plywood floors, walking on the boards’ adjoining seam lines to avoid squeaks, until I was finally free, standing alone outside the door in the dim light and rain.
Never in my life up until this day had I ever even thought about running away. As I stepped out of the house into the drizzle falling around me, all I knew was to head down the mountain. I instinctively knew that I had nowhere to actually go to. No place at all. It was like I was the only person alive in this gray wet world. I knew if I didn’t leave now, the only thing left was for my mother to kill me.
I knew that never before had her rage been like it was when she began beating me with that log. I knew she would have killed me then if I hadn’t been able to summon all of my strength to get out of her grip and run fast enough to stay ahead of her until she gave up and I got away. I knew I had been lucky this one time, and I knew she would never let me get away from her again.
I can still see the eyes of my father as he stood still watching that insane drama in front of him, doing nothing, standing frozen in place like a statue, evidently helpless as a shadow, as mute and stupid and dumb as any creature could possibly be. I knew my father would never help me. There was no complexity about that thought. I never expected differently. I just knew that I was in the world alone.
But all I could do that day was wander around on the mountainside in the rain, clutching my small bundle to my chest. I ended up sitting on a rock down by the creek where my father went daily to fill up the 17 metal army water cans as I thought blankly what it was that I could possibly do rather than go home.
Nothing. Nothing else I could do. It was a fact. I thought about reading my bible, but I was afraid if I unwrapped it from its blanket covering the pages would get wet. So I sat there watching the creek water splashing over boulders in a never ending stream. Finally I stood up, turned around slowly and began walking, head down, back up the mountain switchback road. I met my brother part way, who had been sent down the mountain to find me.
She was standing at the open door as my brother and I walked around the last curve and came into sight of the house. Only she wasn’t mad. I couldn’t believe it as I entered the strangely quiet atmosphere inside the house. She handed me a towel to dry my hair, gave me a bowl of soup to eat and then told me to go put on my pajamas and go to bed.
My father wasn’t back from work yet, and I think it was important to my mother that this whole event was over and done with before he arrived home. I doubt she ever said a word to him about it.
Later that evening she came and sat down on the edge of my bed. She never asked me why I ran away. She only asked me why I came back home. I lied to her again, knowing this time it couldn’t possibly matter what I said to her.
She seemed impressed that I had taken my bible with me. I told her I had spent all day reading it and realized what a bad girl I was, and I told her that I was sorry. I told her I had seen a bear and it scared me. I told her I loved her. She told me she had changed her mind now and she would let me have a rabbit.
I had evidently accidentally accomplished the perfect act of contrition in her world. In mine, I had finally pulled off a perfect lie.
- The state of being contrite; sincere penitence or remorse; deep sorrow and repentance for sin either because sin is displeasing to God or arising from love of God; humble penitence through repentance.
- The act of grinding or rubbing to powder; attrition; friction; rubbing.
Contrition or contriteness (from the Latin contritus ‘ground to pieces, i.e. crushed by guilt) is sincere and complete remorse (i.e. regret with a sense of guilt) for sins one has committed. The remorseful person is said to be contrite.