I grew up in a Bi level house where you were forced to pick sides as soon as you walked in the door; did you want to go up or down? Would you like Heaven or hell? My bedroom, along with the bedrooms of three of my four brothers, was downstairs, while the living space was upstairs. Consequently, I spent a lot of time on the stairs.
The stairs were no man’s land, the most terrifying of battlefields, a space you’d try to cross quickly, because you never knew what surprise attack was waiting for you, or the type of artillery that was going to come raining down mere steps before you reached the safety of the living room. My mother, the great Ruth D, was a veritable military genius in the strategic art of a quick tidy up. If she got word that someone was coming over to visit, or sell her some cutco kitchen knives or do an impromptu intervention, her ears would perk up like a dog who just heard the shrill call of a training whistle. Then, she would spring into action, madly racing around the living room and kitchen collecting backpacks, text books, He-Man action figures and hot wheel cars. And then, sometimes just mere moments before the doorbell rang, she would carry her booty to the edge of the stairs, and toss the lot of it down, falling like aerial bombs to land out of sight at the entrance to the basement.
My childhood is pockmarked by the shrill whistle of inbound munition, loose leaf paper from folders failing like leaflets warning of an impending attack
There are five kids in my family so there was NEVER a shortage of ammunition! My mother would drop whole armfuls of shoes, still sweaty socks, books, baseball gloves, wooden batts and football helmets. Naked barbie dolls would come hurling towards you and you’d have to duck to avoid losing an eye from a rock hard barbie boob. Roller skates were the worst, or a still hot curling iron, the loose cord striking out like a cobra. I remember the shrill whistle of the bombs sharpening as they grew closer, my brothers and I serpentining to avoid a direct hit. No matter how stealthily we moved, we were no match for the military strategy of my mother. Any attempt to gain ground was at once obliterated by a direct hit from a lone patent leather mary jane shoe, or a copy of See Pug Run.
Over the years my brothers and I learned to dive and roll like well trained navy seals to avoid the incoming munitions. We got pretty good too. But then just as we were getting cocky, out of nowhere a stealth roller skate would hit the wall above one of us with an explosive impact. Sheetrock crumbling into our hair like dandruff “I’m hit! I’m hit!” a comrade would cry out dramatically, falling backwards and landing like a rag doll in the entryway. Occasionally, all five of us would get hit simultaneously, lay heaped on top of each other in the entryway foxhole next to the front door, waiting for a medic to arrive with a sagging stretcher.
A medic never came, but eventually my mom would hear our moans and show up at the top of the stairs, the limp, stretched cord of the telephone holding her back like a long leash. She’d stop talking long enough to cover the receiver of the telephone,hissing, “Hey! Knock it off! I’m on the phone with Rieta, and I can barely hear her over your moaning! If you want to play, go outside.”
I grew up with a staircase between me and my parents. In fact, half of my childhood was spent yelling up the stairs and listening for my mother’s reply to trickle down.
Mostly my yelling was about something Jared, my impossibly clever older brother, was doing.
Jared was my nemesis.
“Mom! Jared’s shooting me!” I’d cry from the pit of the basement.
After a few beats pause, my mom would yell from the top of the stairs something like,
“Jared, stop shooting Joanie this instant or you’re going to have to sit on the bricks!”
As I remember it, Jared, incensed, called back, “Geez, mom, It’s just a BB gun, it didn’t even break the skin! Joanie’s just being a baby!”
“Yes it did break the skin!!” I insisted!
“Prove it” Jared challenged,
“I can’t! It’s on my butt” I countered
“And your point is….”
“My point is I can’t prove it because I can’t show you my butt!”
“That’s not my problem,” Jared said, shrugging.
“I can’t control where you shoot me!” I argued, “You’re the one who aimed!”
“Well, I needed a big target,” Jared said.
At this point my mom would interrupt our arguing by saying something like,
“Joanie don’t say butt or you’re going to be sitting on the bricks next to Jared!”
“But Mom!” I’d begin indignantly.
“What did I just say!?” She’d ask incredulously!
“Both of you upstairs now!”
Sitting on the “bricks” was my parent’s preferred form of punishment. My father built the long brick bench in front of our living room fireplace when I was five. He let me help by carrying one brick at a time to him from across the room where they were stacked like coffins in the corner. I still remember the scraping sound his spatle made while he spread mortar across the bricks like frosting on a layer cake.
When we got in trouble, we were told to “Go sit on the bricks.” Where we’d wait until a parent came to lecture us about important things like why you shouldn’t lock your brother in the chest freezer.
“How do you think you would feel if you were stuck inside a pitch black box, laying on a bag of frozen weenies in nothing but your underwear?” My dad would prompt.
“I don’t know, cold I guess?” the accused would answer reluctantly.
We would promise not to repeat the infraction and then be re-released into the wild. On a side note, halfway through my childhood, a new kid named Jeremy moved into our neighborhood, and rumor had it that his parents were more into corporal punishment. One day he came over to ask if Jared could play and was told he was sitting on the bricks and would come out when he was done. When Jared had served his time, Jeremy was waiting for him outside and quizzically asked him, “Are they hot bricks?”
I have been watching my brothers kids for the last several days, and being submerged in the combat zone of growth has taken me back to my childhood days. I grew up with four brothers, which meant watching He-Men not My Little Pony, wrestling in the living room, dodging lighted lady fingers, and wisely refusing to drink any lemonade I was offered.
*This discovery was only made after I had unwisely accepted a glass of lemonade thoughtfully offered by one of my brothers only to find out it was urine in the cup instead of Country Time.
“Joanie” my mom had said after sending The accused to do hard labor on the bricks, “You’ve got to have better situational awareness! If you get handed a drink that is warm when it is supposed to be cold and don’t ask yourself why, then you’re going to be drinking pee for the rest of you life!”
My mom always had the best advice! I was never fooled into drinking urine again, even though I had been offered more than one warm 20 oz bottle of Mountain Dew while on a family road trip across the country.
“I’m not stupid!” I yelled at Jake and Jared who sat giggling in the back seat of the suburban. “I know it’s pee! It’s warm!”
In truth, it’s amazing we all survived, especially our parents.
My parents remodeled their house and the old brick bench got torn down and tossed in the dumpster. Plus, my parents rent out their basement now anyway, and don’t want to wake the tenants baby with a tennis shoe whacking their front door. So it’s become safe to walk into my house, without fearing a concussion. I mean, unless you say butt.
Family love is messy, it flies in your face without warning, hits unexpectedly with the weight of gravity. But it stays with you, grounds you, is the one consistency in the up and down journey of constant change. It’s a loud, clingy repetitive pattern; the tacky wallpaper of childhood. But, you grow accustomed to the familiarity of messy love, the stickiness of it. Find yourself rubbing your back against it like a bear, scratching. Lean like Pisa into the pattern, because on a gutteral level you know it’s the thing that holds you up. So you press as hard as you can against it, hoping it imprints, embeds itself in your pores; the ink of a tattoo you take wherever you go.
Yesterday my nephew Sam was helping his little brother Simon figure out why his seat belt wasn’t clicking.
“Sam! It won’t work! Its broken!” Simon yelled while he tried repeatedly to ram the pieces of safety together.
“Bupp” Sam said, after investigating the problem. “You’ve gotta move over. This seat belt isn’t working. Stand up so I can move your booster seat.” “But I don’t wanna be safe!” Simon said, whining.
“I know Bupp, I don’t wanna be safe either.” He answered absently while repositioning the seat. “But those are the rules.”
“Did you fix it yet Sam?” Simon asks hopefully.
“Yeah Bupp. I fixed it.”
“Can we get ice cream for not complains about being safe?” Simon asks hopefully.
Sam says. Sure.”