I have just finished reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I think I should have read it during sunny months instead of during the winter doldrums, when I am too susceptible to the memories that such a story brings to my mind. Or perhaps I should have taken a breather after reading Lit by Mary Karr before I read another memoir. Fathers incapacitated by ill health or drink, dying, mothers oblivious to their children's physical and emotional care, cold, leaking winter houses, spoiled (if any) food... It's too much for me.
During much of my teens I lived alone, my father having died years before, my mother hospitalized, my sister away at college.
I was given to believe that it was illegal for my mother to sign any legal documents because of her mental incapacity, so during my weekly hospital visit, in violation of whatever law that was (if there indeed was such a law), I would secret the monthly Social Security check to her for her endorsement so I could take it to the bank and cash it. Once I had money, I would pay whatever bills there were. And I would buy a package of sliced bacon and place it in the old GE lever-handled refrigerator's meat drawer. The sealed package was less food than a talisman. My best friend's family had big Sunday breakfasts of eggs and bacon that her father cooked. Their house smelled of food and security. Seeing that package of bacon in my refrigerator was a comfort. After weeks of lying unopened in the refrigerator, the bacon would begin to grow spots of blue-green mold and even then I wouldn't throw it away until there was more mold than bacon visible. With sad resignation I would dispose of it. And buy a new package. In those days I had a little touch of anorexia. Now as I type this, my stomach is growling and rumbling. I haven't eaten today and the urge to overlook hunger comes back with these memories.
Every cold weather day when I woke up in the morning and when I got home from school I needed to take the small tank from the back of the kerosene heater in the livingroom, carry it to the uninsulated back shed off the kitchen and balance it while I filled it from the big tank. I almost never managed to get it done without spilling kerosene on myself, and even if I was successful with that, my hands always carried that scent. Kerosene, being oily, doesn't wash off easily, and I wondered every day when I got on the schoolbus if I smelled like the fat dirty people who sat in the kerosene dealer's office when I went there to pay the bill. The office was messy and dirty and the windows were opaque with filth. And the whole place smelled like kerosene.
Sometimes the water heater would go out overnight and the apartment would fill with soot. I would wake up with black marks at my nostrils and the corners of my lips, and oddly, at my ears, having breathed that sooty air for hours. Cold water and a washcloth full of Dial soap couldn't get those marks off my face and I'd have to go off to school with my dirty face, pretending I looked normal.
In the summer I washed the dirty clothes in an old wringer washer on wheels that somebody had given to us. I had a hose that I'd hook up to the kitchen faucet to fill it for the wash and rinse cycles, and it had a nifty attached hose with a hook at the end through which it drained. The machine's tub leaked badly, so it drained onto the cracked linoleum floor as much as it drained into the sink. When I had finished hanging the clothes on the line in the back yard I would mop the kitchen floor with the pool of water. I felt adult and competent.
In the winter I would carry the dirty clothes the block or two to the laundromat. I might have owned boots, I don't remember. I usually wore the corduroy sneakers with holes in the toes that my sister had grown out of and left behind. My toes only hurt until I stopped feeling them. Right now I'm reliving a solitary dark evening walk through a sparkling snowfall, carrying the broken plastic laundry basket to the laundromat, shuffling through half a foot of snow. I composed a poem for the next day's English class, repeating and revising it as I walked. Our class had recently read Elinor Wylie's Velvet Shoes. I have no memory of my poem but I know that it was well-received for its alliteration...lots of "s" and "sh" sounds.
I wore those same sneakers the night our church youth group went Christmas caroling. When we had finished the round of the village and entered the leader's house to have popcorn in front of her fireplace, everybody took off their footwear inside her back door. She saw my holey sneakers encrusted with ice and snow and was shocked. "Is that what you've been wearing? Your feet must be frozen! What would your mother think to know I let you walk around all night like that!" I'm sure I just smiled sheepishly and shrugged, simply an unruly child who had disobeyed her concerned mother's cautions about proper outerwear.
The friend who lent me both of those books felt I would identify with the authors' stories. I do. It is unfortunate perhaps, and perhaps not, that that identification and empathy takes me into my own memoir.
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