Once Upon a Time

Monday, July 15, 2013

8:00 a.m.

After breakfast, I sit on the living-room floor and play with my Lincoln Logs, thinking about the fairy tales my mother reads to me and how so many of them begin with a step back in time—there was a poor woodcutter and his wife and his two children; a sweet little maid, much beloved by everybody; a man and his wife who had long wished for a child, but in vain. I love a good story and the way it begins at a point where anything is possible. I’m an only child, often left to entertain myself, and as a result I often live inside my imagination.

School has let out for the Christmas holiday. Outside, snow drifts in our lane and falls over our barn lot, where my father scatters hay for our cows. Soon he’ll take an ax to the pond and chop away the ice so they can get to water. I don’t think a thing about what it takes for him to be out in the cold and snow doing these chores. I’m six years old, and I’m intent on building a cabin. I love the way the logs lock into place, every notch squared, every piece fitting together. The logs pile up until I can put on the slanted roof.

So much of the life that I live in our real house is ragged and uncertain because my father is an angry man. I watch television and read storybooks and build cabins with my Lincoln Logs to keep myself from thinking about what might happen if I say or do the wrong thing. I dream of other places, other lives.

Soon I go into the kitchen, where my mother is ironing clothes. She keeps a bowl of water on her ironing board. She dips her hand into the bowl and then sprinkles droplets across one of my father’s twill work shirts. She doesn’t have a steam iron, so she relies on the curve of her wrist, the graceful shake of her hand, to dampen the cloth and make the wrinkles easier to straighten.

I ask her to play a game with me. She says, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Then, because she’s a good mother, she says that one day, come summer, she’ll play with me all day long. She promises.

She’s a schoolteacher who spends her days giving her attention to the children in her class, children I envy because I don’t like sharing her with them. I love her because she’s kind, and a little shy like me. She’s different from my father, who will take off his belt or pick up a yardstick and whip me on my legs when I don’t behave or when I do something that displeases him.

My mother never spanks me. She makes strawberry preserve and butter sandwiches when I ask for a snack, or graham crackers with vanilla icing between them. She bakes gingerbread cakes and whips real cream. We have no air conditioning, so she sits beside my bed on hot summer nights, stirring the air by waving a Look magazine over me until I fall asleep. I trust her when she says she’ll pick a summer day when she’ll do nothing but play with me. I have no way of knowing that this will never happen. Eventually I’ll stop reminding her of her promise so as not to embarrass either of us any further.


10:00 a.m.

My mother’s hair is gray. I don’t know how old she is. I only know she’s older than my friends’ mothers. As time goes on, I’ll learn that she was forty-five when she had me. I’ll know that my conception was unplanned. After my father is dead and I’m a man close to thirty, she’ll tell me that the first thing he said to the doctor upon learning of her pregnancy was, “Can you get rid of it?”

When I’m six, my life sometimes feels like that, like I wasn’t meant to come along, like I’m a stranger in our home, a foundling taken in by this aging couple. I hold on to what’s familiar. My mother’s hair is gray, and she has a set of metal clips that she sometimes uses to set a wave. I know where to find them in her dresser drawer. The clips have sharp teeth that hurt when I close one around my finger.

My father has no hands. A cornpicker took them when I was barely a year old. He wears hooks—steel pincers that curve from the ends of flesh-colored plastic holsters. Each morning, he slips his stumps into these holsters and my mother helps him settle into the harness of canvas straps that he wears across his back. Thick rubber bands wrap around the base of each hook. A tension cable connects to a lever and runs up the holster. When my father extends his arms, the muscles in his shoulders draw on the cable, and the pincers open. The number of rubber bands determines the degree of tension. I’ll learn all of this later.

When I’m six, the hooks are mysterious. When my father lies down for a nap, my mother drapes them by their harness over a straight-backed chair. Sometimes, I slip my slender arms down into the holsters and try to make the hooks open. Sometimes I pry the pincers open with my fingers, careful not to let the hooks snap closed and pinch me between them.

I’m too young to draw a line of cause and effect from my father’s accident to his anger. I only know he has no hands. He can’t hit fly balls to me the way my friends’ fathers do. He can’t shoot baskets. He can’t throw a football. He manages, though, to grasp his belt or a yardstick when I misbehave, and in spite of that, I love him because he’s my father whether he wants to be or not.



“You’re just talking to hear yourself roar,” he says.

We’re in the living room, and I’m trying to tell him about my Lincoln Logs. “I built this cabin today. A big cabin. A cabin that used every log I had. That big.”

My father is worn out from his chores. His face is red from the cold. The legs of his overalls are wet from the snow. He’s forty-eight, and he has a son he never meant to have. A son who’s often oversensitive—some would call him delicate. A pantywaist, my father sometimes says. Don’t be such a pantywaist. A son that requires energy that he simply doesn’t have. A son he can’t touch.

“Tell your mother about it,” he says.

“I did,” I tell him. “She said this summer we’d have a day when she plays with me all day long.”

He says it again: “Talking to hear yourself roar.”

I let myself hate him just a little because I understand now: he’s just called me a liar.


3:00 p.m.

My father goes into our woods and cuts down a cedar tree. It fits into a stand in our living room. I help my mother hang icicles from its branches. We decorate the tree with lights and ornaments—shiny balls and bells and stars.

I decide I want to have a party, a Christmas party. I’ve seen people have parties on television. I love watching shows like Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show. I know how parties work. You set a date and ask people to come. They show up looking nice and happy. Everyone has good things to eat and drink. They play games. Sometimes there’s music, and then the people dance.

“I want to have a party,” I tell my mother. “Tonight. Start calling people.”

“Who should I call?” she says, the tremor of a grin twitching at the corner of her mouth. I don’t register the fact that she finds this amusing and is trying her best not to laugh.

“Everyone,” I say. “We’re going to have a party.”

I’m determined. I keep pulling Christmas decorations from the cardboard box where my mother keeps them. I am a boy who wants what he wants. I hold a string of silver beads in my hand.

Finally, my mother stops me. She explains that a party can’t just come together in a whipstitch. People have busy lives; they need more than a few hours’ notice. “And what would I offer them?” she asks. “I don’t have time to prepare anything.”

I won’t hear of it. “We’re having a party,” I say again, my voice rising, the tears starting, a tantrum about to break.

My father is suddenly there. “Just keep it up, Mister, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

I curl up on the sofa, still clutching the beads. This is the sofa that folds out into a bed. It’s where I sleep. Now I turn my face to the sofa’s back. I hear my father’s belt buckle come undone, and I try my best to stop crying.

“Roy,” my mother says, and then the two of them go into the kitchen, leaving me alone in the living room.

Soon the light grows dim, and I know that the afternoon is lengthening toward evening. We’re having a party, I keep telling myself, and at some point, I fall asleep.


5:00 p.m.

When I wake, the room is dark except for the lights on the Christmas tree. My mother has taken the beads. She’s covered me with a quilt. In the glow of the Christmas lights, I can make out the familiar furnishings of our living room. The Philco television in one corner, the desk in another, the overstuffed chair by the window, the rocking chair near the end of the sofa, the oil heating stove along the wall. It’s a room unlike any I’ve seen on television. No winding staircase to a second floor, no grand piano, no built-in bookshelves. I wake to the small room of our modest farmhouse. I try to imagine it filled with partygoers like the ones I’ve seen in my shows, but, of course, I can’t manage it. I can’t imagine the farm women wearing pearl necklaces, their husbands in snazzy suits and neckties. There are the people on television, and then there are people like us: farm people, people worn down by the hours of worry and work, people like my father who tried to unclog a shucking box without first shutting down the power take-off, people like my mother who never planned on having a son in the middle of her life and at a time when she has to do so much for my father. They have no time for the fantasies and tantrums of little boys like me.

I go into the kitchen where my mother is putting supper on the table—a square oaken table made smaller by the absence of the two leaves in the middle. An oil-cloth-covered table just large enough for the three of us.

“We were going to have a party,” I say.

My father is sitting at the table. He taps the place to his left where I always sit. The point of his hook makes a knocking noise.

“Honey, sit down,” he says. “It’s time to eat.”

My mother says, “Goodness, I bet you’re hungry.”

What can I do but pull out my chair and sit? “We were going to have a party,” I say again in a whisper. “Now it’s too late.”


10:00 p.m.

At bedtime, my mother helps my father take off his hooks. They’re in the bedroom. I’m lying on the sleeper sofa in the living room. I’m supposed to be asleep, but I’m not. I hear the points of the hooks scrape the floor as my mother drapes the harness over a chair. I hear her mumbled voice, and I know she’s unpinning the white cotton arm socks that my father wears over his stumps. She’s taking the safety pins from his T-shirt sleeves. She holds each opened pin between her teeth as she moves on to the next. Soon the light goes out in their room, and I hear the bedsprings creak as my mother and father settle down beneath the covers.

I call for my mother.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

“I can’t sleep.”

This has been my habit ever since my parents bought the sleeper sofa for me and got rid of the crib where I used to sleep at the foot of their bed. I call for my mother, and she comes and sits beside me until I finally nod off.

My father’s patience is wearing thin. He says, “Do you want to be a baby all your life?”

“I’m not a baby,” I say.

“Then hush up and go to sleep.”

I’m not a baby, I say to myself. I’m not.

I wait. “Mom?” I say again.

She comes to me, then, and she tells me I have to learn to fall asleep by myself. She says, “Just close your eyes and count your blessings. Think of all the good things from your day.”

My Lincoln Logs, my mother’s hair clip, the string of silver beads, the Christmas tree. Its cedar smell is all around me. It smells like somewhere else, like somewhere I might go one day.

I have no way of knowing that this scent, years and years in the future, will always take me home, will leave me standing on the porch of that farmhouse, knocking on the door, knowing that once upon a time there was a family here, wishing for just a few hours more with my parents, wanting to tell them how sorry I am that I once hoped that my mother might be young and pretty and my father might have hands he’d use to ruffle my hair while he called me “sport,” or “buddy,” or “pal.”

Fifty-one years have gone by since the day I’m recalling. I’m older than my parents were then. I have no children of my own. Sometimes I wake from dreams in which I’m knocking on the door of our farmhouse, even though it long ago went to ruin. My voice is small and afraid. I say, “Mom? Dad?” I say, “Don’t you know me?” I say, “Please, won’t you let me come in?”

I close my eyes and I can almost hear them. If only they’ll open that door, throw their arms around me, I’ll be able to say, “There we lived long and happily.” “We went cheerfully home and came to no harm.” “There was all care at the end, and we lived in great joy together.”

Instead, I’m a little boy knocking on a door that no longer exists anywhere in the real world. I listen; I wait. I knock again.

Monday, July 1, 2013