Storytelling Roots

Storytelling Roots

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We Owned the Dirt

“We Owned the Dirt”
            My biological father, Scott, who I haven’t lived with since I was two, made a remark the other day about the time in my childhood when my mom and step-dad, who I refer to as my dad, moved my sister, Jesse, my new baby sister, Emily, and me into a situation that he considered abusive. He’s referring to when they moved us out of our horrible North Minneapolis neighborhood and into the county, where they slowly and painstakingly built us a house by hand.
I always become real defensive when he does this. As he looks at Jesse and me with a half-smile on his face, he’ll lean forward and say, “You know that could have been considered child abuse!” He says this as we sit in the very kitchen he sat in while all this was happening nearly thirty years ago. Oh, it’s a nice kitchen, too: granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. All you have to do is turn around and you couldn’t possibly take in all the artifacts he and his wife have collected from all their years of world traveling. 

            I’d retort: “It may seem that way; but, we were happy. We didn’t feel like anything was missing. We loved our family and felt loved by our family. It was an adventure for us.” Somehow this response always left me feeling uneasy; though I’m not sure if it is because I feel like I’m lying or if it is because I don’t like my family to be put down. I now have four children of my own. My perspective on this time in my life has changed accordingly. I don’t just look at it from the perspective of my memories, which I assume have been molded by my emotional experiences, I now look at it from the perspective of a mother, for the first time really seeing myself and my siblings as the young children we were. But if it was child abuse, then where was Scott? He had money, luxuries, he was the first to own any new technology and the first to know who was up and coming in the world of music. He was a man-of-the-world and engaged in politics, economics, the environment, world hunger. So, if our life was so bad, why didn’t we make this list back then?
“Mom, I’m glad you came over. Thanks for bringing the old photo albums.”
“Why did you want them?”
“I just wanted to see our life back then –again. I don’t remember suffering. I don’t remember being hungry. I don’t remember being upset with you and dad for moving us to the hill, but it seems like I’ve done everything in my power to live more like Scott than how we grew up with you. Maybe I really didn’t like it. Maybe I really was miserable.”
“Well, you have this Polly Anna personality; so, even if you were miserable you probably have pushed it out of your memory,” my mom says as she reaches to set the photo album on the counter. In mid-motion, the album slips from her grip and falls open on my kitchen counter where I am sitting anxiously. “Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to throw it at you,” she says playfully.
In front of me, sits this great picture of the three of us girls taken in early December when we were outside making a snowman. It’s a classic picture that captures the essence of rural Wisconsin’s winter-time playground. I have on a dark brown coat that appears, if anything, to be too big for me. The outside of my winter boots has fallen to my ankles while the foam guts stand tall nearly to my knees. I think my green hat must have either belonged to my dad or have come from one of those winter clothing drives that churches have because it’s manly and way too big for me. 
Admittedly, I did like it better than the hat my sister, Jesse, is wearing in the picture. Man, I didn’t like that hat. A cream and brown wicker basket pattern created by intricate knitting, which is pulled tight around her head by braided yarn strings that descend below her ears and the whole thing is topped with a big cream puff ball. I think it was that puff ball I liked the least. Jesse’s coat is a dusty blue color with once white pin stripes running down the back; although, the ‘dusty’ aspect of the color is probably a result of age and use versus an intentional fashion decision. The sleeves of the coat creep up her arms as she busily maneuvers around the snowmen.
My two-year-old baby sister, Emily, is clad in a mauve colored snowsuit, red gloves, and a light peach colored hat. Her neck is wrapped by a scarf. The scarf and the hat frame her big red cheeks and her little button nose. She stands watching Jesse work away; I imagine with the same fascination I had watching her intensity. She was a quite child. My memories of her match all her pictures: always content, always calm, always quiet.
            I remember making those snowmen with my sisters: a male with a red and white handkerchief rolled and then tied round his neck with a wool red and black earmuff hat, and a female that wore one faded orange handkerchief for a hat and a second red and white handkerchief as an apron. Neither my mother nor my grandmother ever wore aprons. My mom wore blue jeans and hung precariously off the sides of the skeleton frame of our home, donning a hammer and beads of sweat. She was a tom-boy-mother, if ever there was one. Nowhere in my short life had I ever witnessed a woman actually wearing an apron, so I’m not sure where we got that idea.
We had such a big yard; there was ample snow that year for the rolling of the bodies and the heads.  Our yard sloped downward as my parents were building us a home on the side of a hill. This posed a few challenges as we had to make sure that we never lost control of the snowballs we were rolling; we lost altogether too many snowmen bodies and heads this way.
There are actually a series of pictures that my mom took of this moment: five in all. She photographed us from three different angles that day as we perfected our snowmen. But there we are, captured forever in these pictures, busy in our childhood play, with smiles and contented expressions on our rosy little faces, two successful snowmen in place. 
“Oh, I remember those snowmen!” I quietly exclaim to my mom as much as to myself as she pulled up a stool next to me. “I remember having fun that day. Jesse and I were always so excited whenever it snowed because that meant more snowmen creations.” I pause, caught in reflection. In a less excited tone, I add, “Now I cringe at a forecast calling for a light sprinkling of snow: get out my boots, the shovels, the snow blower, the salt; hope I don’t throw my back out… Somehow I always enjoy it once I’m out there, but, man, getting older changes you!”
“Ha! If you only knew… But back then whenever life handed you snow, you girls always made snowmen.” 
 Too distracted by the photographs, I didn’t hear her oddly-obvious seeming statement. “Wait a minute…” I look back through the picture series again and notice that in each one my sister Jesse is not wearing gloves. “Where are Jesse’s gloves?”
First, with her back to the camera, Jesse cranes over one of the bodies with one clenched fist swung behind her; next, she is fitting the male snowman with a red and black plaid hat; then, on her knees, she is bent over the snow working on something that is seemingly very consuming; after that, her back is to the camera again as her hands mold the head of the snowman; and finally, in the last picture, she and I stand intensely working on the head of the snowman, her pulled in arms end in tightly clenched fists, the universal response to being cold.
“Oh, you two had to share a pair.”
In each picture, I don a pair of brown oversized men’s work gloves; the fingers of the gloves look ridiculous. In one picture, I am looking down at these gloves and my hat has fallen over my eyes. I stand in over-sized clothes, a stark contrast to Jesse who is working away in a tight hat, too small coat, and no gloves at all.
I begin looking closer at the pictures. I’m caught by the picture where I am looking directly into the camera, smiling; I really do look happy. I look at Jesse diligently working away, freezing, but dedicated to her snow creation. Emily, too, epitomizes nothing other than a typical happy two-year-old child. Is this possible? Were we indeed happy children unaffected by any of the concerns that currently are running through my now adult mind?
In two of the five photographs, the meager shrubs and scrub trees trickle out of the forest behind us. In another two of the photos, the big house my parents were building sits next to an adjacent forest line, both of which are covered with a thin blanket of snow. The R-Max sheets that adorn the exterior walls of the unfinished house match the snow’s bright glare with their silver coatings. There are windows in the house, tar paper on the roof, R-Max on the walls, but still, it was not ready for us to move into yet.
In the final photograph, I can see just the corner of our other house that loomed imperceptivity no more than ten feet behind our snowmen and the three of us girls. The upper right hand corner of the picture reveals the black tar paper that horizontally laddered up the face of the place we called home; officially, we called it “the little house.”
It was a little house, indeed. It was twelve feet by sixteen feet in dimension. Though it appeared tall in pictures, possibly two stories high, this was merely cleverly deceptive of the single room dwelling that had a loft over half of it, which was accessed by a folding ladder. My parents slept up in the loft while we girls slept down below. If you were in the loft, you had to be careful of many things: not falling over the edge, not being stung by the many wasps that loved to hang out between the exposed rafters; and, the sharp exposed nails, which they had used to adhere the tar paper to the roof, that came through the thin plywood on the ceiling and gouged your head should you attempt to sit up or raise yourself to your knees too quickly. The walls were made out of asphalt-impregnated fiberboard, which was a little itchy if you rubbed against it. Smelled faintly of tar, too. The floor was made out of particle board. There were a lot of windows because my parents thought that they would use the windows in the little house and then reallocate them into the big house when the time was right.  
That time was never right. With all the wrong circumstances, time rushed away, while money never seemed to come –at least not enough of it. As the air grew colder and the leaves turned golden and then brown, my parents worked harder and faster trying to bring the big house to a condition suitable for us to live in. But the air turned from brisk to cold, and soon the snow joined the circumstances that worked to plague my parents’ every effort, yet simultaneously entertained us kids so well. 
My mom flipped the photo album to its first page. “Look at this picture of you on Jesse’s bike in Minneapolis before we moved to Wisconsin.”
I am centered in the picture, straddling my sister’s rainbow banana seat bike, on the sidewalk in front of our North Minneapolis home. I am seven-years-old. In the foreground my little sister’s two-year-old head only just clears the bottom of the picture. In the back ground, a warehouse looms ominously big with its boarded up windows and rough red and brown brink front. You can make out etchings of graffiti intensifying the distinct character of the neighborhood.
“You are so cute in this picture. With your angle-white hair and your innocent little smile, you don’t look like you fit in with the surroundings, though. You really had no idea what was really going on around you.”
“I may not have known the details, but I could tell the presence of danger was everywhere. Anyway, what was it that made you and dad decide to move out of North Minneapolis to a hill in rural Wisconsin?”
“That ‘presence of danger’ you mentioned; and, that was a time of Reaganomics. There was a huge recession; huge unemployment. People with Master’s degrees were driving trucks. Reagan’s trickle-down economics weren’t trickling down fast enough.”
The year was 1983. The recession had bottomed out with unemployment sitting at around 11%. Reagan was in full swing mandating $64 billion in budget cuts to social programs across the board. According to The Gale Group, Inc, from 1973 the increase in high paying jobs had gone from a 40% increases to diddly 10% increases by 1985, while low-paying jobs went from 20% increases to 40% increases in this same time period.  This shifting of new job creations to low-wage jobs came at the same time as those in the highest income tax bracket were given a 35% decrease in income tax, real wages decreased by 18%, gas prices went up by 52%, and heating oil prices increased by 73%. 
“Your dad had a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, yet was working for $4.00 an hour at the Discovery Center. One day we took Emily to the Public Health facility to get her shots and we were informed that a family of five did not qualify for Public health assistance on $600 a month.”
It was widely believed that Reagan’s primary goal was to save money rather than focus on the well-being of American families and this sentiment was felt strongly by both my parents. At the time, Eleanor Clift, a Times staff writer for The Los Angeles Times claimed that Reagan’s proposals seem “bound to prompt suspicion that what Reagan really want[ed was] to slash welfare rolls and reduce government’s role in caring for the less fortunate.” This was not a hard conclusion to arrive at due to Reagan’s repetitive “anecdotes that suggest[ed] the poor [were] taking advantage of government programs.” Clift reminds us of Reagan’s “widely quoted story about a welfare recipient who bought a bottle of vodka with change from food stamps.”
The job market was barren, money was always tight, and danger didn’t always lurk outside our door. I’ll never forget the night my dad took the baseball bat, kept in my parent’s room, and with the bat lifted above his head, slowly descended the stairs. We had all been woken-up by the sound of glass shattering. Someone was breaking into our house with all of us at home and sleeping. I thought for sure my dad was going to get himself shot. What is a bat to someone with a gun? Fortunately, the burglar had heard us wake up and when my dad arrived at the bottom of the steps the young man was jumping out the very window he had broken to get in.
Throughout this time, I had grown up hearing my mom say: “We need to go to the woods and live deliberately;” course, at the time I was six and seven and this meant very little to me. I was unfamiliar with Thoreau or any notions of “sucking the marrow from life” (____). What I understood was their passion, their drive to remove our family from this place. I can still hear my mom singing the lyrics to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “LA freeway.”
Pack up all your dishes
Make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me
That sum-bitch has always bored me
Throw out them old LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street
While singing she would look at me as if she was singing just to me; her face always seemed younger as her expression held a hint of a smile that lit her tired eyes and playfully danced around the words streaming from her lips. Soon, us kids would automatically join in the joy of singing, only knowing that somehow it represented something good, a promise, or a hope:
If I can just get off of that L.A. freeway
Without getting killed or caught
Down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain't bought bought bought
If I can just get off of that L.A. freeway
Here's to you old skinny Dennis
My parents wanted to take us out of the city, whose habitat is “shaped by and for only one species” (Nabhan 11). They longed to raise us among nature, as one of many species co-existing in an area. A place “where there are no roads. It is not cage-in;” and, Nabhan adds, “It is not surrounded by chicken wire” (12).  This is freedom; my parents were suffocating in a jail of concrete and chain link fences. They hungered for wide open spaces, abundant life, the colors of nature, and this freedom from society’s ideas of right and wrong, justice, peace, and nurturing. “It is where you can play with abandon,” Nabhan concludes, “In a word, playfulness may be the essence of wilderness experience” (12).
Put the pink slip in the mailbox
Leave the key in the old front door lock
They will find it likely as not
With all the things that we have forgot
Oh Susanna now don't you cry, babe
Love's a gift that's surely handmade
We've got something to believe in
Before you know it's time we're leavin'
These lyrics are not available for printing.
By August of 1983, my parents had packed up all our dishes and whatnots into boxes and, carload-by-carload had moved them from our North Minneapolis house into my mother’s best friend’s basement in Bloomington. What little was left found itself crammed in a Travel-all that towered five feet on top of our car. The back, as well as the cab of the car, was completely filled, utilizing every square inch of space as efficiently as possible. My parents were desperately afraid that someone in our crime-ridden neighborhood would steel something from our car or we would have a flat tire, that something, anything, might prevent us from leaving town. They had had enough with the police sirens, the anger, the screaming, the drugs, the violence.
They longed for a peaceful life, raising their kids alongside Mother Nature, modeled after my mother’s cherished book, Children on the Hill, written by Michael Deakin. Deakin documented a couple who had taken their four children to the far reaches of society and proceeded to live in ideal harmony blending their children’s childhoods with the gifts and guidance of nature. This ideal that some find in nature is neither an old attitude nor is it a new one. The Forest Foundation says: “Time in nature inspires creativity, reduces stress, improves test scores, health, concentration, behavior, obesity, depression, attention deficit disorder and promotes humility and connection.” Richard Louv, author of, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, supports this theory. After ten years of in-depth research in the fields of psychology, education, and science, consorting with naturalists, environmentalists, and scientists, among others, he claims that “nature serves as one of the most important components of child development. …that nature can provide curative effects for a range of child and adult ailments, and plays a fundamental role in nurturing children as they grow.” This is the belief that my parents espoused, though theory is one thing and fulfilling this goal is something wholly different.
 “Leaving that evening, it felt exhilarating! We felt like we were free. We sang LA Freeway as we drove away from all the ugliness of the deceptively named Golden Valley Road neighborhood.”
As the grey concrete disappears behind turned album pages, I find the new setting of the pictures a great relief. Streaks of yellow and green tall wild field grass, the deep greens of old oak tree leaves massed in dense forest, a blue sky that I had never noticed in the previous pictures of us in Minneapolis, and dirt –dark brown dirt, rich with life and possibility. And then my beloved tire swing hanging from the heavy arm of one of these great oaks. My little sister holds on as her hair is blown across her face only partially exposing the exuberant smile of a child in the process of becoming weightless. Jesse and I flank the tire, caught in mid-motion of pushing and receiving the tire, back and forth. I can instantly feel the longing to be there and feel that free energy that I can remember from that time so well.
What isn’t captured in the picture, as it resided to the right and farther up the hill, was the little house my mom and dad had built to temporarily house us while building the big house, which lay directly behind the photographer’s back. My parents had finished the little house and we had moved into this cozy shoebox with nothing but the brilliance of summer’s sun on our shoulders and the constant sound of wind moving through the trees (and occasionally through the cracks in the walls of the little house).
We filled jugs with water at pumps and then haul them up our hill as we had no running water yet. It would be two years before we would know this modern luxury again. I’m reminded of the cruelty of this detail when I happen upon a picture of my dad mixing cement for the footers of the house and I stand beside the mixing bin pouring in water from a milk jug while he moves the sand and rock mixture with a shovel. The heat of the summer sun shows itself in the beads of sweat across his forehead. We both seem intensely focused on our task: I was because I was proud of the important role I was playing in the construction of our home, and was taking this role very seriously; and, my dad, most likely because he was carrying the weight of the ominous task that loomed before him. I never heard him complain, though I could see the fatigue in his eyes. His eyes were soft eyes, loving eyes; the eyes of compassion and love. But so often lately they were weighted down and didn’t lift to their normal happy squint.
Now, as an adult, I can’t imagine the burden that my parents held on their shoulders. They were building a house on the side of a hill with a mud slide for a driveway that no trucks could go up to deliver building materials. This meant they had to haul all the materials up the ¼ mile long mud rutted driveway—often by hand—themselves. There was no running water, which meant besides not being able to use it for building purposes, they also didn’t get to look forward to a nice cool shower at the end of a hard day of work in the pounding sun. Instead we had a Smurf baby wading pool that we each took turns standing in while mom would pour water over our heads; just enough to wet for soap and just enough to rinse the soap out. I imagine they had to pour the water over their own head when they washed. They retreated tired and sore to meager housing facilities that besides housing us housed many other vermin. And, at the end of the day, they still had three kids they needed to be there for.
That summer, the Midwest recorded record highs. Newspaper headings claimed, “AUGUST OF ’83 WAS AMONG 10 HOTTEST IN MUCH OF NATION;” and “HEAT WAVE CONTINUES IN MIDWEST.” Record drought brought headings like, “STATE’S CRANBERRY CROP SINKS.” And then came the storms: “SHOWERS IN THE MIDWEST PROVIDE TEMPORARY RELIEF FROM RECORD HEAT,” and “MAJOR STORM FROM WEST SOCKS AREA.” The Midwest was not alone in our heat as Toronto’s The Globe and Mail indicated with its heading: “WORLD-WIDE HEAT WAVE PUTS FOOD MARKETS IN A FRENZY.” In Wisconsin, on our hill-side, our little house was without insulation in the walls or ceiling, and large quantity of windows allowed all the midday sun in and then stored it -trapped- until the evenings when it baked us in a stagnant humid oven.
As the pictures of summer’s heat and summer’s colors give way to pictures of sweaters and golden leaves, I can’t help but remember the joy of the cool breezes upon my body. We no longer slept in pools of our own sweat; we lay comfortable among our blankets. Our play extended until the last of the day’s light gave way to the light of the moon and stars. From our hill, the expanse of the night sky was hung with the bright bulbs of starlight. The moon, too, always seemed bigger and brighter there than I had ever remembered it prior; I guess, thinking about it, I can’t ever remember actually seeing the moon when we lived in Minneapolis. I remember being held captive mid-walk to the outdoor 5-gallon bucket we called our toilet. I would stand paralyzed in awe as I craned upward and tried to take in the wonder of such a vast universe making itself realized right before my eyes. I wasn’t the only one. My dad said, looking back, his favorite memory is of going to the “bathroom” at night and seeing the stars: “It was then that I felt like I was part of the universe, part of the big picture; I felt connected. It was so peaceful.”
My parents took these moments of peace wherever and whenever they could, and continued to work hard and relentlessly through the fall and into the winter on the sheer power of their dream. I think about that now; reflecting on my own attitude toward dreams and achieving the impossible. My mom and dad never gave up –no matter how hard it got or what new obstacles fell in their way.
“The little house was small and cramped and not weathered well enough. We had the ten plagues: the mouse plague, the wasp plague, the moth plague (the great big ugly ones), the vole plague…”
“What are voles?”
 “Voles would come in and eat the mice that were trapped in the mouse traps. We would wake up to half-eaten mice, knowing that these carnivores were running around while you girls were sleeping on the couch and on the floor.  …the plagues went on.
“We had a refrigerator and a hot-plate whose one burner didn’t work sufficiently, taking 45 minutes to boil water. We also had single bulb lamps, all of which were powered by an extension cord that we ran from the electric box at the site of the big house to the little house. We filled and hauled about 20 or so jugs of water. We didn’t have heat; so, when it grew colder and the big house was not finished enough to move into, we bought an old $40 pot belly stove, which we had to brush the rust off of before bringing into the little house.
“Dad’s job was collecting water; my job was collecting wet firewood. I would not only build on the house, but I would walk through the woods looking for fire wood. I would stack them around the stove and in the sun trying to get them to dry.”
My dad was working in Whitehall at a daycare, leaving my mom to work on building the house alone each day until he would get back in the evenings.
“The burden was mine and mine alone. I believed that I could learn anything from a book.”
And she expected dad to be able to learn how to do the things she would teach him. She also expected him to understand the severity of their situation as time ran out and the cold swept in, and money ran out as the cold swept in. But my dad was not willing to let go of the part of the dream that had them enjoying friends and other relaxing opportunities.
“Building was a lot harder than I thought it would be. My belief that your mom could tell me how to do things and I would understand became more and more frustrating. I would get angry and sometimes take it out on your mom. I would fight to defend my ego: if you can’t be competent in one area, you try and make up for it in another area.”
“To his credit, your dad trusted me on the building process; but, he had no idea what it was going to take, didn’t know what he was getting into. I just thought, we took this on, so we have to do this. He was like, ‘I’m tired of this. Can’t we just take the weekend off? Can’t we have a party with the neighbors?’ We didn’t have food to feed ourselves, how would we be able to feed the neighbors? Dad didn’t know what he was getting into and it seemed that, according to him, it was my fault.”
My mom remembers when we did have a wonderful bonfire with the neighbors, though: “We roasted marshmallows, drank beer, listened to “Simply Folk” on the radio. Everybody brought something.”
This was everything my dad wanted: the company of ‘real’ down-to-earth people, a shared muse, kids running around the nature-lit field that nestled on the side of his very own hill, snapping sparks coming off red and blue coals that were engulfed in the wild dance notorious with bon fires, and the brilliant star-lit sky as a blanket that we all danced and ran and laughed under –together. This is a beautiful thing; this was a beautiful dream to bring to life. It reminds me of an old Tibetan proverb: “If I tell you my dream, you might forget it. If I act on my dream, perhaps you will remember it, but if I involve you, it becomes your dream too.” Even though I was just a child, I felt this dream too, I felt this bliss.
But again, these bliss-filled moments were scattered and lost among the realities that wore heavy on my parent’s backs. That fall while the other side of society showed off their Swatch Watches, played with their Wacky Wallwalkers, and bought the first Nintendo Entertainment Game Systems, we played in the great outdoors and ate little more than zucchini and Jerusalem artichokes that our valley neighbors gave to us from their over-flow stock. While others sang to Michael Jackson’s latest hit “Beat It,” we sang sitting altogether while my dad played his guitar. While we sat in nature’s lap reaping what was offered to us and exploring life at its source, the Internet was created, Microsoft Word was released, Motorola Company introduced the first mobile phone, the first person in history received an artificial heart, robbers took off with $37.5 million in stolen bars of gold from the Brinks Mat warehouse, the U.S. Embassy was bombed in Beirut killing 63 people, the US deployed Cruise Missiles in Europe and England and Pershing Missiles in West Germany. And while the world sat on the brink of World War III due to the height of the Cold War Crisis, we were being nurtured by nature, exploring our living world, and watching the natural cycles of life and death. 
There is a great picture of Jesse and me jumping rope on top of the piles of lumber that lay sunken in a layer of snow. Our facial expressions reveal the extent to which we were attempting to craft our skill in this new sport thereafter named “lumber-pile-jump-roping.” Behind us lay an infinite view of the valley rolling softly into neighboring hillsides –forests broken by patches of fields; it is a mosaic of colors and shapes cut and divided by geometric lines, some perfectly straight and some perfectly curving.
 “Mom, why are there less and less photos? You have so many in the beginning and into the fall and then they become farther and farther apart.”
“Well, that should tell you something. I think I became less and less inclined to want to record our life.”
I am back to the snowmen pictures. I feel both relieved by the memories of so many happy moments, but I also know that out circumstances were about to get worse. This particular series of pictures was taken in the precious few weeks before the below zero weather came. Our playful demeanor held no indication of what was to come; but I know, and the truth lay ominously in the back of my throat.     
“Clink-clink-clink … sizzle … POP!
The light bulb burst. Glass shattered.
Instant blackness.
The sudden and abrupt mini explosion with the accompanying blackness had not ceased to make us lose our breath from the instantaneous shock of sound and loss of sight. Even as an adult I am amazed at the fear that shadows the first few seconds of instant and utter darkness. Our third and last light bulb just burst from the cold.  Each time the subsequent blackness left all of us momentarily breathless.
“God Dammit, Andy!” my mom uttered in frustration.
“Yes, yes, I’m right here, dear,” my dad said in an attempt to reassure himself as much as her.
“Dad, why does it keep doing that (!)? Can’t you make it stop?”
Calmly and slowly he explained, “Jesse, I can’t make it stop. It’s too cold and the light bulbs are too hot for this kind of cold.” Flipping his flashlight on, he shined it on each one of us in turn. I imagine he was desperately trying to figure out where the light was most needed, knowing that it was needed everywhere at once.
Matter-of-factly, he said, “We’re out of light bulbs, Candy … what would you like to do?” He knew there was no good answer to this question and his heart sunk by the silent second.
Quietly, I sat in the corner of the couch, wrapped all around myself in every effort to keep warm. I looked at my sister’s face, creased in worry; even my baby sister looked worried as she sat there sucking her thumb; maybe it was due to the eerie light coming from the flashlight. Somehow, even though we were no longer sitting in the pitch blackness, I felt colder and less assured in the bluish light cast by the flashlight. It didn’t normally have this effect; but the air was so cold tonight, I think it was freezing the light rays as they were coming out of the flashlight.
I knew the look on my parent’s faces was not a good sign. I just wished my sister would stop asking questions; I was worried that it would make my parents feel bad, or make my mom mad. At negative -26º below zero actual temperatures, 1983 marked the coldest Christmas recorded since the previous record back in 1903 when recorded temperatures dipped down to negative -17º below zero. They said tonight the wind chill was recording negative -60º below zero. I didn’t know these numbers back then and even if I had, I’m not sure they would have spoken any louder about the cutting edge of cold that seeped in through the seams of my coat and pushed through the folds and layers of my clothing in search of my fragile skin. This cold enveloped me.
            It was December 23rd.  Eight days earlier, the weather took an unexpected plunge into subzero temperatures. The newspaper headings read: “COLD REACHES RECORD LOWS IN MIDWEST, HEADS EAST; DEATH TOLL 28;” and, “COLD GRIPS NATION; MERCURY PLUNGES TO AS LOW AS -44º BELOW;” and, “MIDWEST TEMPERATURES DOWN TO -44º SET RECORD.”
“We had had a normal December in the beginning. We had an early frost, but we didn’t know what this meant. You would think that winter wouldn’t surprise someone who grew up in Minnesota, but it did. People who live in the city don’t notice weather –weather patterns. We were surprised how early it got dark and how damaging rain can be as it doesn’t rain straight down. We were completely ignorant as to the weather; we were utter city-folk.”
The New York Times said the “frigid air turned most of America into an icebox.” This article, written on December 20th, went on to say, “Harrison, Wis., recorded the lowest reading in the country, -44º degrees Fahrenheit below zero.”
Now I think about my seven-year-old self sitting on that old worn-out couch, crunched into a ball, looking out the thin horizontal slot that lay between the bottom brim of my hat and the upper edges of the scarf mom had wrapped around my neck and face. I can still see how the place I saw as my home looked in the cold and unwelcoming light, splinters of light first shattered by the freezing air and then held frozen in place, only a fragment of the warm light they once were. The wood frame of the house was exposed as there was no insulation; only rows of vertical 2x4’s running up the exterior’s ¾ inch fiberboard. Right behind that piece of fiberboard lay the deep dark forest. I wondered what the animals were doing. Were they huddling together? Were they freezing with their families, too?
My parents had been trying to pack up our stuff and get us all into the truck so they could drive to my mom’s friend in Bloomington, where we were going to stay until it warmed up enough to come back. “We realized we couldn’t make it,” my dad said. They had tried so hard to get the big house to a place where we could move in, but, my dad said, “time runs out. It’s a funny thing… We ran out of time. We didn’t move into the big house while it was still warm.” While the bulbs kept breaking as he was trying to retrieve our clothes and pack them into bags, he said he had been thinking about what a mess it was making. But the truth is that he felt like they had failed their (as he put it) “extreme super goal to build a house with very little.”
I looked at my mom who was also looking at the snowman pictures; the expression on her face told me she was thinking about the time that followed this moment, too. “Three bulbs broke, one after another; then another one burst –our last one. So, we got our flashlights. When the last bulb burst, I was numb. We barely got off the hill. It was just another thing to go through that was hell.”
We all climbed into our truck, which by the grace of God started. However, the back window of the truck was stuck open. As my dad put the truck in drive and maneuvered us down the curving and bumpy driveway –once muddy ruts now frozen solid in place—my mom sat cocked in the passenger’s seat, facing us and smiling. She was telling us to stomp our feet and wiggle our fingers. Then she had us all singing Christmas carols. I don’t know if we sang them all the way to Bloomington or not. I know as we descended our hill my feet were freezing. I don’t, however, remember freezing very long.
“How did you do it? I would want to fall down and cry and give up. How did you keep going?
“You know Corey, 30 years later my memories of living in the little house make my skin crawl. Most of my life there was filled with terror: terror of the holes in your jeans, washing clothes was so hard, keeping track of library books and school paperwork, and keeping the books and homework clean. No matter what we did or how often we cleaned, the house was always so dirty. There was tension all the time, my relationship was on the rocks, & we had no money. I am amazed at my ignorance.
“But we just had to deal with it. Deal with whatever came up. When it got too cold, we left. Deal with it. Deal with it. Put on blinders, and just deal with it. We just lived, hoping for a better tomorrow, living for the house getting done. That Christmas I have no memory of even going to church even though we were living in the parsonage with my best friend and her family. No memory. You and Jesse had gone to Scott’s house; but, I don’t even remember Emmy opening presents. I have absolutely no memory of this time. I was on some kind of automatic pilot at the time. I feel stupid when I look back on it. Scared of how out of control we were. Terrified.”
My older sister, Jesse, on the other hand has no emotional reaction to this time as she says she simply doesn’t remember it: “I have zero emotion. I cannot remember it … except, I remember getting water down at the creek once. We pulled the jugs up the hill on a sled. I guess I also remember staking out the big house and it was fun and exciting. Everything I remember corresponds to a picture in the photo album. I think I might have repressed the memories because based on my personality, there is no way I would have liked it.”
One of Jesse’s few memories of the little house was when she put her foot right through the floor one night. She said it hurt and that she was pissed. We covered the hole with the rug and tried to avoid walking too close to it. I asked her if she remembers any of the details of the little house, like what modern amenities we had.
“We had no modern amenities.”
“Yes, we had electricity. We had an extension cord.” I reminded her.
“Okay, if you consider that electricity, than I guess we had half of a modern amenity.”
When I asked my little sister, Emily, what her most reoccurring thoughts were in the following years after moving into the big house when thinking back to the time when we lived in the little house, she said: “I didn’t think about it until I was much older and I would go get my bike from the little house where we were storing it. I was faced with the moisture and smell whenever I got something out of the little house. Then it sort of amazed me that we had had to live in there.” But to date, her most impressive memory is of the family sleeping all together.
This sentiment reminds me of a 16-day trip I took my kids on two years ago when my husband was working out of state. I put all four of them in the truck, packed light, and drove off heading south. It was just me and my kids and we explored the south west all the way from New Mexico and back up to Wyoming. We –rather, I—drove 8, 525 miles in 16-days, camping all along the way. Sleeping in that tent with my kids on the rocky ground was the best time I had had as an adult. At the end of the trip when I asked them what their favorite thing about the trip was, they all said that it was at night when we would all be tucked into our sleeping bags and I would read a chapter out of Wooden Willy, a book my grandfather was given as a boy and then gave to me before we left. We had driven away from a new 4800 square foot house and none of us wanted to go back. We preferred the tent.
This was our nest.
Nabhan, author of The Geography of Childhood, said, “Over time, I’ve come to realize that a few intimate places mean more to my children, and to others, than all the glorious panoramas I could ever show them” (____). It turns out what he is referring to is a primordial desire, “an emotion deeper than nostalgia, an ancient animal notion encoded within us: the simple comfort of the nest.” In this nest we physically, mentally, and emotionally feel a sense of refuge: we are hidden away from danger, we lie snug and concealed. Some psychologists, including environmental psychologist Mary Ann Kirkby, “now believe that such a predilection for small enclosed spaces with good vistas is a genetically programmed human response, not merely the casual preference of a few children.”
In this light, I suppose the little house was my childhood nest. Four month earlier, my parents had packed our belongings and left North Minneapolis, leaving behind the filth and the poverty. As Nabhan says, we had been fending off the rotting core of the city. Nabhan warns, “An increasingly large proportion of inner-city children will never gain adequate access to unpeopled places, neither food-producing fields nor wildlands. They will grow up in a world where asphalt, concrete, and plaster cover more ground than shade-providing shrubs and their resident songbirds.” My parents were going to make sure this was not us.
“We were on a big high: to break free of the city and the poverty; break free of the system. We were free.” They had problems and setbacks, but they just dealt with it. “Mice got into our dresser and ate our clothes, but we just dealt with it. The problems and setbacks never made us question what we were doing. We were overwhelmed, but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. We just thought that was what life was like. There were times when people were condescending and appalled and we didn’t feel bad. Maybe we should have known that at the time what we were doing was way outside the norm.”
It was out of the norm. McDonalds had just revealed its latest creation: the chicken nugget while we peed in a bucket under a never ending sky of stars.  It was this sky that lifted my dad’s spirits when he needed a boost, as well as planting apple and pear trees in our orchard, investing life into our future. “We would buy trees, apple trees and pear trees; the branches would be hanging over your heads in the truck. I was so excited; it felt like a return to my Boy Scout days.” For my mom it was a spiral notebook and a rainy day. “If I had a spiral notebook I felt rich and safe. That was mine and mine alone.” Jesse recalls the love she felt toward her siblings; though, when I asked her how she remembered this when she could not remember anything else, she conceded: “Okay, I guess I don’t remember whether I loved my siblings or not.” But it is the overwhelming sensation she is left with, just like Emily’s sensation of us all huddled together under piles of blankets and wool coats.
I guess this is it.  As ugly and cold and small as that little house was, it was my nest. It was a place that my family retreated to –together—at the end of each long day. Good or bad, we sheltered there together as a unit, and this must have left an eternal etching on my brain.
As cold as snow is, biting the soft skin of a child’s bare hand, the snow serves another, distinctly different, purpose. Though either our hands, or toes, or faces were cold, we played in what seemed to my 7 year-old eyes as an endless playground. The cold of snow was predictable; a factor that alone can eliminate fear. Snow, cold, these things weren’t malicious or evil. They were factors of the natural world: simply a part of life. Factors, that while fun to play in, were also beautiful. Natural beauty had this effect of bringing peace to my young heart. My mom and dad hugged me; they told me they loved me all the time. They were ambitious; but they kept us all together –no matter what.  I was too young to understand the adult pressures of family management, financial strain, and spousal tension. I really had no idea what my parents were doing. I didn’t understand the world, either. I remember not feeling a close, trusting, or safe love with my biological dad and when we left the hill and the little house and entered his world –the privileged life of upper middle-class in Minneapolis—I always felt like I was missing something fundamental.
So that cold December night of 1983, as we all climbed into our truck and bounced against the hard cracking plastic seats as my dad drove us down that long and curving driveway, I see my mom, twisted in her seat, smiling at us while her lips joyfully sing the words to a Christmas carol. I sang with her –and I too had a smile on my face. Whenever I have looked back upon this moment in my childhood, I always felt the warmth of family encompass the memory.
I guess that fall and winter of ’83 I did feel the bite of cold and the stress of my parent’s worried and strained faces; but, somehow I also felt the love that stubbornly knotted my family together. As we drove away from the blistering cold of our little house and drove toward the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I ached to go back. Cold, freezing, I would have rather stayed.
As I close the photo album, my image, enveloped in the darkness of the closing pages, disappeared from my eye sight. Though hidden behind the tiny floral print on the cover of the album, the truth about that time in my life is no longer hidden from me. I realize now how that experience was wholesome and has guided my view of family. Not just that, this time has influenced my attitude on most issues of life.  Stephen Trimble, in his book, The Geography of Childhood, points out that at the age of seven, I was in a unique period of development, “when childhood brains receive and learn in a uniquely fresh, receptive, and playful way” (28). As Edith Cobb points out, this is the time in a child’s life when they are “in love with the universe […] poised halfway between inner and outer worlds” (28).  It is no surprise then, that this experience was genuinely good as it solidified the fundamental aspects of my character and how I’ve lived my life since. I have always wondered if I was trying to make “snowmen out of snow” as my mother put it, twisting the old cliché –turning lemons into lemonade.  I guess the truth is: I was. But I think this is what we are supposed to be doing. Though I don’t stand in front of that dilapidated-looking little house as a young eight-year-old girl any longer, I still stand with her optimistic and enduring heart. And when it is cold and life hands me snow, I still make snowmen.

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