I grew up in a split level house where you were forced to pick sides as soon as you walked in the door; up or down? Angel or Devil? My bedroom was down, and the living space was up. Consequently, I spent a lot of time on the stairs. The stairs were no mans land, you’d try to cross quickly, because you never knew what was going to hit you next. My mom had perfected the art of a quick tidy up by using the brilliant idea wanted to get rid of something quick because someone was coming over to do an impromptu intervention or she was just tired of living in a pig sti, (her words not mine). She would notoriously toss any evidence of living down the stairs, a family study . She’d toss whole armfuls of shells towards us like bombs from a bomber, their shrill whistle 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 Boxcar Children library book, or a soggy moon boot. 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 with an explosive impact. “I’m hit! I’m hit!” a comrade would cry out dramatically, landing like a rag doll to the entryway.
Occasionally, all five of us would get hit simultaneously, lay heaped on top of each other next to the front door, like something from the aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg. 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. “Mom! Jared’s shooting me!” I’d cry from the pit of the basement. After a few moments 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!“”
“Yes it did!!” I interrupted.
“Prove it” Jared challenged,
“I can’t! It’s on my butt” I yelled.
“And your point is….” he continued.
“My point is I can’t prove it because I can’t show you my butt!” I said, my eyes narrowing in what I hoped was a withering stare.
“That’s not my problem” Jared said, shrugging.
“I can’t control where you shoot me! You’re the one who aimed!” I’d fumed,
“Well, I needed a big target,” Jared countered laughing.
Our arguing would predictably be interrupted by one of us getting hit by something innocuous like a textbook, along with my mother’s admonishment “Joanie don’t say butt or you’re going to be sitting on the bricks next to Jared!”
“But Mom!” I’d cry indignantly, “That’s not fair!”
“What did I just say!?” She’d shout incredulously!
“Both of you upstairs now! And no TV!”
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. 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 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 rereleased into the wild. On a side note, a new kid named Jeremy had recently 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 Jared 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 Jared, “Are they hot bricks?”
I have four brothers, and three sons. Obviously, men are drawn to me. Consequently I don’t really know how to be a girl. Except for PMS, I’m pretty much a savant on that forefront. I grew up 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.
In truth, it’s amazing we all survived, especially our parents. My parents rent out their basement now, 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. My parents have softened with age, in fact, my mother and my children’s grandma may not be the same person.
In truth, family love is messy, 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, lean into the pattern like Pisa, because on a gutteral level you know it’s the thing that holds you up. So you press against it, hoping it imprints, embeds itself in your pores; the ink of a tatoo you take wherever you go.