Colorless 50’s photo
Fading small against Junoesque
Plaid, pleated prairie dress
disguising tom-girl legs
Honeyed tidy braided hair
feigning sweet, demure
Clydesdale heavy, clunky shoes
Drenching in sweet prairie grass
Chomping at the bit
Shoes shed, running free
little mare, flying braids
Captured in pure innocence
Bursting out mercurial
The college campus named Prairie Bible Institute was at one end of town. The dorms held the students and a huge domed church held everyone on Sunday. We had a free bakery that was open all day with shelves of bread and rolls of brown paper to wrap the loaves. A dairy farm was owned by the campus. The men worked there in exchange for tuition. The women worked in the dining hall, cooking and cleaning. The families lived in barracks-style apartments with boardwalk fronts. Each family had a plot for a garden in the summer. Root cellars held communal winter vegetables.
I was four when I first formed a memory that stuck.
I begin to climb the bottom cupboard shelves, my toes on the edge, and until finally I hoist up to the counter. When I opened the upper cupboard door, I saw mostly bare shelves with a few cans of veggies, flour, sugar, and baked beans. But, my goal was to reach the item on the top, the “parents-only” box. I stood on my tiptoes and stretched my arm to reach the prize.
“Young lady, what do you think you’re doing?” My mother’s voice made me freeze.
“Nothing,” I mumble. A red-hot feeling flashes up my neck. I don’t turn around.
“Get down right now. You know better. Now go outside and play.”
I climb down with my back to my mother. I run outside barefoot across the pebbly road to a huge pile of hay bales. I had dug out a space in one of the bottom bales, where I could curl up and breathe in the sweet smell. I feel safe there. My mother seems to yell a lot now.
“Err…why do I always get caught, but my sisters never do. Why does my mother get to have whatever she wants?” I imagine her crunching down on a sweet cookie, curled up on the couch with a book. I don’t know why her tummy is growing so large and why she is constantly running her hands from the top to pause at the bottom, holding still as if she wants to find something.
I fell asleep. After I wake up, crawl out, and stretch towards the sky, I turn in circles taking in the sight of prairie grasses meeting the horizon in a flat circle broken by three small hills that look like lumps of rising dough. The sky looms overhead like an endless dome. The fields are sheared low like summer sheep that make prickly little jabs on my bare feet.
I see my daddy on the sidewalk, his head bent over as if he is looking for something. I run to greet him, and he looks up,
“Ohhh, there’s my little daughter.”
We just moved to this house on the prairie where my footsteps thump against wood floors. My sisters and I share a bed in the living room which was also furnished with a couch and an end table. There are a lot of elbow jabs and foot kicks until we finally fall asleep. My toddler sister, Becky, then climbed into bed with my parents.
My parents have a bedroom with a bed and a closet containing my mother’s orange and yellow dresses.
I see my mother bent over the bathtub full of soapy water, scrubbing some clothes on a washboard. Her eyes are red and wet.
Why do clothes make her sad? I turn away.
My mother and dad disappeared one day after that memory. A lady comes to pick me up. She packed a suitcase with a few of my clothes and said, “You’re going to a farm for a little while sweetie.” “Okay,” I said.
I don’t know why I am going away.
I perk up as she hands me a Betsy paper doll book, the kind where you could change her wardrobe by bending the tabs on her shoulders and waist. and a Little Lulu coloring book with a box of crayons.
My dad would never allow such “worldly” things as Little Lulu comic books. My mother bought some red plastic bubble pipes one time. I watched in awe as the colorful little bubbles floated and popped. Those were the first toys we had since we had moved to the prairies. Then, my dad came home. He said, “I won’t allow anything associated with tobacco in my home.” He grabbed our plastic pipes and threw them in the furnace. I watched as they melted together into a plastic pancake. I was sad and puzzled. What was tobacco anyway? Does tobacco float upwards and pop?
We pass fields of cows and horses, a few dilapidated barns, and weathered farmhouses with porches holding rocking chairs.
The Buick pulls off the highway and crunches down a long driveway leaving a cloud of dust. I get out of the car and peek from between my pigtails at a few grimy-faced children gawking at me. A lady in a plaid dress with huge pockets, her brown hair tied into a skin-pulling bun stood behind a screen door, dotted with dead flies..
The lady who brought me looked uncomfortable as she hands my small suitcase of clothing to her and said, “I’m sorry, I’ve got a long drive ahead. I’ll call you when it’s time to pick her up.”
“Come on in,” the lady waves in my direction. I don’t move. I don’t know her. She steps outside.
“You children get on in here now, you hear.” The children scamper past me and let the door bang behind them.
“Well, are you coming or not?” She waits with hands on her hips. Finally, I place one brown shoe in front of the other. Why am I here?
The lady took my clothes from me and put them in a bedroom. Those are my clothes and I want them with me. Give them back, I scream from my silent place.
Why does no one ever hear me?
I sit at the kitchen table between the children squeezing around me. I feel invisible, but I have never seen so much food in my life. There is a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, some rolls, green beans, and a large slab of roast beef. A cinnamon apple pie rests on the windowsill, making my mouth water. I placed a pat of butter in my mouth and let it melt into a golden puddle before it slid down my throat. Grunts and slurps are the only sounds I hear as we eat. I am so hungry.
Mother would never allow such manners. She taped pictures of a black frowning bird that said “a watchbird is watching you,” chipped from a magazine over our table, to remind us to watch our manners.
The next morning, one of the older children, named Andy, picks me up and sets me on the back of a goat and I promptly fall off. I hear the children snicker as I spit out bits of hay and brush off my dress. I stare at the ground while my body trembles and I feel a tear forming in the corner of my eye. I swipe it away with my sleeve before they can see.
One morning before we head out the door to do chores, the mother turns to me and says, “Put these boots on. There’s muck in the fields.” I stand with my arms tightly crossed. I stare at the floor. She picks up one of my legs at a time and shoves them in the boots that are too big for my feet. I want to yell, No, I don’t want to put them on, but the words just stick in my head.
Before everyone goes to bed the mother says, “If you need to pee in the night, go in there.” She points to a small metal pot in the bedroom next to a dresser.. I wait until everyone’s asleep. I’m embarrassed by the sound of my pee echoing against the cold metal.
I didn’t speak. I only remember the names of a few of the children, Andy, the oldest and meanest was the one who put me on the goat back; Billy, who did whatever Andy told him to and Chuck who has a constant stream of snot which he wipes on his sleeve. The parents are called, “ma” and “pa.” The pa has a weathered face like a piece of old leather, thick stained hands, and black greasy hair, but he never cracks a smile or glances my way.
Where are my mother and dad and two sisters? Did my parents leave me with a new family?
I am relieved when the lady picks me up a week later and takes me home.
While I was away our family moved to some barrack-style houses on the edge of the college campus. The new house has more furniture and I have my own bed. I don’t know where my sisters have been, but I never ask.