I have a babysitter one afternoon and her name is Penny. My brother’s not home yet. He’s at nursery school. My grandma will be bringing him home soon. I am three and Penny is a joy to me.
She wears a plaid skirt; knee socks and brown penny loafers, which she’s very proud of. I think it’s strange that she and her shoes have the same name. She’s just come from the high school and she tells me she’s 15. I don’t know what that really means but it feels important. She asks me if I know who the Beatles are. I say no. She tells me all about them; she is filled with fire and enthusiasm.
She turns on her transistor radio and teaches me how to do the Twist.
* * *
My mother is in the hospital. She’s broken her back. She got thrown from a horse at a Harvest Festival. I saw them load her into the ambulance on a stretcher. I was wearing a white cable knit sweater. I don’t remember crying. She tells me later I was screaming my head off: “Don’t take my mommy!”
I don’t remember it.
My dad is taking me to visit her. They’re going to let me into the hospital, even though I’m only three.
He has to dress me. He’s not very good at it, but he’s fun. Nothing like Mommy. He has to put my little legs into a pair of white tights. I cannot dress myself yet, or even help him, and this presents a challenge.
He stands me up on the bed. He scrunches the tights down into a little pile. “Put each of your feet in here,” he says, guiding each of my feet into the feet of the bunched-up tights. Then he grasps the waistband of the tights and in one sharp yank, he jerks the tights up around my waist and I am in my tights in record time.
“Daddy, that was fun! Can we do it again?”
He laughs. My dad is goofy. He makes faces at me and makes me smile. He takes plaits of my poker-straight hair sometimes and ties them loosely together under my chin. “You’ve got a beard now,” he says.
* * *
My mother is out of the hospital. She wears a huge brace, all over her body, under her clothes. The brace looks scary and reminds me of a skeleton. Her broken back always bothers her. It’s dinner time on a Sunday evening. My mother is irritable, which makes my dad unhappy. I sit at the breakfast bar with a slice of buttered white bread and, with curious interest, I spread the butter on my bare knee.
With difficulty, my mother yanks me up onto the breakfast bar, closer to her. She’s going to spank me. I start to cry.
My dad shouts at her, “Why do you have to hit her?” He pulls me back down onto the counter stool. Angrily, he tells me, “Don’t put butter on your knee.”
My mother has her very ugly face on and says, “I want her to go to her room. Now.”
My dad tells her sharply, “Stop it.”
* * *
It’s morning. It’s dark — it’s grey in the house. Is it raining out? Maybe snowing? Cleveland snows most of the year. I come into the living room and my mother has stopped cleaning. She’s sitting on the couch, crying. She’s holding a balled-up Kleenex. She stares at something on our Zenith black & white TV set.
I walk up to her, my attention gripped by her tears; by this strange turn of events. “Mommy,” I ask quietly. “Why are you crying?”
“President Kennedy has been shot,” she says. “He’s dead.”
“Who is President Kennedy?” I ask her.
“He was the President of our country, honey. He was a very good man.”
“What does dead mean?”
“Like Grandpa,” she explains. “He’s not coming back.”
I study her face; those tears I’ve never seen before. I take it all in.
… in progress…