My mother's father had decided to sell his grocery store on the far side of town to retire in a smaller house in the center of the city, now that his ten children from two marriages and three step-daughters from his third marriage were all out on their own. Mother and dad bought this house that had been mother's girlhood home, so that when I was three and a half, we stopped sharing in the duplex to move into the huge mausoleum-gray stone house on Third Street.
What I had missed in playmates on Linden Lane was made up for in one family, the Springers, who lived in the golden yellow frame house right next to us.
Floating above the list of the member of this family was Grandma. She was so old and forgetful, I felt she must have forgotten her name, so they had to give her this general title for me to use, even though she was not related to me. Grandma needed my visits as much as I needed her presence to fill the void of Dearold and our ice cream walks. I am sure Grandma and I talked: she was surely conned into answering some of my why questions. But I don't remember one definite reality of her character, or even a gesture of hers. Often she was too weak to dress and come downstairs. Then I was allowed to visit her in her room.
It was her room that impressed me. It was as if her many days of living had, one by one, subtracted layers of her energy so that she was the tiny shrunken image of every other ninety-year-old lady. However, her room had taken on her personality to beam it forth now that she no longer could. She hadn't given herself to objects so the bareness reflected her life in a clear, steady tone.
In contrast to the other rooms in this house, her space was plain, so neat and well-scrubbed, with only her bed spread with a white coverlet, a bulging dresser with a hand crocheted runner that hung half way to the floor. On the runner, nothing but its whiteness sat on it. When I visited, I either carried in a chair from the hallway or sat on the floor. There was no carpet on the wooden floor that had seen so much wash water that there was no varnish left.
When Grandma dozed in her white bed with her white hair on the white pillow with the white tatting lace in her white linen gown, there was no life except the yellow bed and dresser, and her teeth.
Alone in this room – a box of sunlit bones – I would look at Grandma's open mouth or the fold of skin drooping by her ear. For reassurance, I'd turn to ask the mirror if I looked like her when my eyes touched her image.
The mirror said that all of Grandma was different from me – all of her.
I wondered how Grandma looked when she took off her clothes at night.
The mirror said I wouldn't understand. I should ask the pictures. But, there were no pictures on her walls to give me this reflection.
Mother Mabel Springer was a large bustling woman with black hair and quite a handsome mustache. She could send out such a stream of cookies that I overcame my fear of her manliness. I wanted to grow up to be a sweet old Grandma, not a bossy male mother like Mrs. Springer. Still, her cookies drew me like a magnet. I spent hours observing this fascinating male-female person bending over the wood stove oven to take out another batch of warm, breathing cookies.
The Springers were a very religious family. They would invite me to attend their evening prayer services when they found me, at sunset, still hanging around their house. It was only here that I experienced Mr. Springer. He had a deep melodious voice that made him sound like our preacher. Yet, in the Springers' living room, I could sit so close to him that I could see his eyes twinkling behind steel rimmed glasses as he read the Bible. When I thought about Santa Claus, it was Mr. Springer's face I stuck behind the whiskers and red suit. Except for prayer meetings, he was about as removed from me as Santa Claus or God Himself.
Now dad had a new job. Money was flowing in. A factory, covering acres, hiring hundreds, was built for the rapid mass production of army tanks. Dad was the head bookkeeper in the personnel department. The job paid enough so that Mother didn't have to work in the sign factory. Now, the only time they needed a baby sitter was when they went downtown to see a film. Mother would have spent part of every day in the darkened theater if she didn't have me.
In the beginning, she took me along with her, but I turned out to be a disappointing movie fan. I couldn't stand suspense.
Not knowing if the boyfriend cop would get there in time to save his nightclub singing girlfriend from the gun of the hired killer or if the dog would find the lost child before the forest fire and/or the fleeing wild animal got to eat her, would curl me into a knot of helplessness in my plush seat. With indelible ink in terror's handwriting, every plot was etched on the retina of the one eye that kept watching. To sublimate, I chewed holes in my cloth handkerchiefs. When Mother saw this, again and again, even after children's films like "Bambi" and "Snow-white", she gave up my companionship to leave me home with the Springer's oldest daughter, Marybelle.
Marybelle was a cheerleader. She looked exactly like a cheerleader should. With medium height with longish brown-black hair, she had an athletic tension about her, and merry eyes like her father's. Marybelle, I worshipped. When she came over she always wanted to do something. She tried in vain to teach me to hang walk myself across the monkey bars on the school playground, but my plump body was too much for my grip. Instead, she taught me body turns on the low bars. As I leaned over to turn me up side down, to fall with a splat of bare feet in the fine warm dust, I thought I looked like Marybelle spinning around and around, backwards and forwards, even with one hand. It was Marybelle who, on warm summer evenings, organized the games of "hide and seek" or "kick the tin can" for everyone who wanted to play. It was Marybelle who told the big kids they had to let me join, and she helped me find the special hole under the neighbor's porch where no one ever found me.
Paul Springer. For five years I loved Paul with every cubic inch of my being. He had absolutely nothing to do with my sexual life. He was handsome in the same ways that Marybelle was pretty. But, being male, he was prey for my heart hunting. Paul was one year younger than Marybelle, an adult for me, who could only be loved on a pedestal.
Each afternoon I would lie in wait for Paul to come home from school. I used his coming as an oracle. If I saw him, the evening promised to be endless, passing as if mother forgot my bedtime to melt into the mountains of sleep without the ordeal of going to bed. If Paul didn't come by or I missed his coming, I knew that with the last bite of dinner mother would announce, "Time for you to go off to beddy-bye."
The indignity of having to take off the clothes which had been such a part of me and my day, to have to drop them in a heap as if they were no longer important, filled me with a final sadness. Even worse was the bath. To have to wash off all the delicious smells I had acquired over the day: the sun sweat skin smell, the strawberry jam smear on my shoulder, the green under my nails from picking flowers. Mother didn't understand that these were parts of me, traces of my day that never would come again in just this way building blocks of my reality that shouldn't be so disrespectfully scraped off and floated down the drain, under the white rubber plug. Most painful, was to lose the "waiting for Paul" smell without having seen him.
Bringing up the rear of this family, was another David in my life. David was a couple of years older than I. He was already in school where I longed to be. David hated school, and in the beginning, he hated me. I was the brat who spied on him and his friends when they built their clubhouse out behind the Springer's garage. If David had known the trouble he would have with me and the assorted girls who played under the golden delicious apple tree that grew in our yard but draped it's limbs on the roof of Springer's garage, he would not have braved the jeers of the neighborhood toughs to build the shack on the edge of the alley.
All summer my girlfriends and I watched the boys solving various construction problems. Out of jealousy for their skills, we'd hide behind the sweet peas growing on the property line fence, to tease and shout out rude comments. When that failed to start a battle, we threw green apples and mud clods. As the shack neared completion, our jibs turned to pleas for the boys to let us see in their clubhouse. Their stout refusals only made us more determined. We organized a raid.
One drowsy summer afternoon, when no one seemed to be about, Marlene and I sneaked around our gray garage, leaning our ears against the wall gangster style, dipped under Springer's plum tree, dashing over to the shadowed corner of the yellow garage. Tip-toeing and twittering behind our hands we approached the haloed shack. As we opened the door, its unevenness scraped an angel's wing in the dust. The darkness and empty nothingness was like of cube of black for thinking.
Up out of those depths swarmed three mad as a hornet boys, hell-bent on destroying the disturbers of their peace and secrets. Marlene and I were so surprised that we stood there like dumb animals while the three of them slugged, socked, and kicked us with feet, fists, and finally, pieces of left-over lumber. Only when I saw blood on Marlene's face were we galvanized into a retreat. Yelling and screaming and crying, we ran for the security of the wooden gate with the boys right behind us, continuing the battle right to the boundary line.
Words were exchanged between the parents. The clubhouse was declared off limits for us girls. We went back to playing house with the tin stove that really heated, the sink with running water and the faded blue highchair for the dollies. Marlene was bored with such dull play now that we couldn't bother the boys anymore, so I was left alone, sitting in the sandbox with deformed green apples lying in the sandy hollows.
Like planned strategy, the stage was set.
"Jane, would you like to see inside our clubhouse?"
I stared at them, faces edged in wire squares, their arms over their heads, dirty fingers twined on the top of the fence. They hung there like grinning apes. I suspected a trick.
"You know I'm not allowed to come over there."
"Now it's different. We are aaassssking you to come."
"No, I'm not interested in your old clubhouse anymore!" That was a lie, so I turned my back so they couldn't read the truth on my face.
"Augh, Jane, It is really neat now. We've got the window in it now and curtains and it's really neat. Be a neat place to play house."
With that bit of news I got out of the sandbox, went over to lean my hip, gunmoll-like against the fence.
"We'll let you in the clubhouse if you solemnly swear on a stack of Bibles not to tell any one what we do in there."
Swearing not to tell was easy enough to do. Later, I'd decide if there was anything worth telling to the rest of the kids. If so, such a secret could be useful in the constant power play of our kids on the block.
"Ok, I swear."
"You swear what?"
"I swear not to tell anyone what you dummies do in your junky clubhouse. Now can I see it?"
"Well," they looked at each other. "We'll need to fix it up a bit more, being that you are the first girl in it. We want to put in a rug and fix it really up."
"I don't think you'll really let me in."
"Oh yes we will. Tomorrow right after school. As soon as we can get here. You wait in your yard and we'll tell you when to come over. But just you. If Marlene is here we won't even speak to you."
The next day was cloudy and cool – not the best day for playing outdoors. I would have rather stayed inside to sit on the window seat to paint in the coloring book with Mickey Mouse pictures. Instead, after lunch, I went out to pretend that I wanted to be in the back yard. Leaves were falling from the cherry trees. I was cold. I felt lost and alone. I waited and waited. I walked through the victory garden, looking for something to eat but the smell of rotting cabbage took away my appetite. I walked back by the sandbox to hang on the fence, staring at the leaning piece of shack and thought about what was in it. I felt if I sent my eyes over to look around, the boys would feel my intrusion and come out and invite me in. Silence and nothing.
I gave up to seek warmth at Ronda's and to play cards with her. That was the only game Ronda would play, so I only played with her when I was desperate for companionship. As usual, my need wore thin as one or the other of us would accuse the other of cheating. With each game our insults and accusations escalated. Ronda owned the cards. I left.
Only when I saw David standing in the street looking anxious, did I remember what the afternoon had promised.
"Come on. It's getting late. Where were you? It's almost supper time."
Dumbly, I looked at him as we walked down the side alley. I wanted to ask, how long does it take to see such a dinky clubhouse, anyway?
Inside it was dark. The window, lopsided and small, had a piece of cardboard nailed over it. Douglas and his younger brother, Benny, were already there. Waiting. With a flashlight.
"0kay, Jane, you swear never to tell anyone what we do here?"
"Okay, I swear never to tell what you do here or my mother will break her back when I step on a crack."
"Right. Now, take off your pants."
For that I had to swear to secrecy? I realized that if I took off any of my clothes I was at an emotional disadvantage to the other kids. So I negotiated.
"If I have to take off my pants, so does David."
While David and I shrugged with a low roof, dark walls and excited arms, legs, and our underwear, Douglas kept turning on and off the flashlight to make sure it was working. It was. It was blinding us to what was happening.
"You lay down here. See we even got a rug for you."
David, looking very funny in shoes and socks, shirt and sweater with nothing in between but his little white worm hanging over his wrinkled sack, knelt beside me. Douglas and Benny sat at my feet while Douglas shined the flashlight between my legs and into my eyes. David pulled my right leg over against his bare stomach and leaned over to investigate my anatomy.
"Is that how girls are made?" whispered Douglas. David was too busy pushing my other leg away for a better view to an answer. He stuck his fingers in the moist crevices.
"Get your hand out of there. I can't see." complained Doug, with the flashlight waving erratically around in the darkness.
"It ain't no fun just to look." hissed David.
Whispers at my feet. "Oh rats," swore Douglas, "Benny peed his pants and wants to go home. I've got to take him or he will tell mother what you are doing here."
Raising up on my elbows, I ventured, "I think I'd better be going home, too."
David didn't answer any of us, so I grabbed up my pants by the light of the opened door to follow Doug and Benny out.
Behind our garbage bins I rearranged my modesty.