Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Front doors are formal and sometimes elegant, but back doors are where life happens. At the Strid farm, where I stopped every afternoon on the way home from school, no one ever used the front door. Children, hired hands, even my mother arriving to see what had become of me, all came in through the back door, which led straight to the steamy kitchen, where Mrs. Strid seemed to be perpetually preparing something at the stove. You never knocked and waited for someone to greet you; you just walked right in like one of the family, left your galoshes in a pile with all the others, drank a glass of sweet, unpasteurized milk, and watched Kate Smith sing “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” or “America the Beautiful” on the television.
I’ve now spent nearly half my life in New York City, where no one I know has a back door, because we all live in apartments. In Hell’s Kitchen, the neighborhood where I first lived, our doors had three and sometimes four locks. This was back when the Guardian Angels patrolled the crime-ridden streets, and crack vials and discarded condoms often greeted me on the sidewalk in the morning. People from my hometown who knew of my whereabouts shook their heads in disbelief. How could she have chosen to live in such a place?
What they didn’t know was that the doors of those Hell’s Kitchen apartments, with all their heavy, clanking locks, often opened straight into homey kitchens that packed as much life as those in any rural town. I came to know almost all my neighbors. There was the stately and dignified actor who played Dracula in a Broadway theater. There was the retired ice skater and Broadway dancer downstairs, who would greet me with a shout of delight, drink in hand, and insist that I sample the stew he almost always had simmering. And there was our building superintendent, disabled by a factory accident, who shared neighborhood gossip and could fix anything, as long as you weren’t squeamish about electrical wires that sparked from time to time.
I have since moved to Brooklyn, where my apartment’s front door opens not into the kitchen but into a more formal entry hall. Some might say I have “arrived” (if one can have arrived in an outer borough), but I miss the feel of a door that swings open into the warmth and intimacy of a crowded kitchen. Why not enter as quickly as possible to where life is happening?
Brooklyn, New York
The movie was about a married man having an affair, who must sneak in through his lover’s back door. I walked in on my mother watching it on TV one night in the early sixties when I was a teen.
The main character had died, and his mistress was left to grieve alone, unable to tell anyone or reach out to the widowed wife. I remember her crying outside his house at night, rain pouring down.
As the credits began to roll, my mother said to me, “What that couple did was wrong. Adultery is a sin.” I’m sure she’d been enjoying the movie until I’d come along.
By the time I got married, the world had changed in ways my mother could not have imagined. My husband and I had an open marriage in which we were both allowed to take lovers as long as the other spouse approved. It never occurred to me that this was a sin, or even that it was illegal.
I did realize, when that marriage ended, that society does not prepare us to deal with the jealousy and other issues that arise out of such arrangements. My relationships that followed were more conventional, though not necessarily more successful. The love and intimacy I craved were always out of reach.
Then I met a new man. Our relationship developed slowly from professional interactions, to friendship, and finally to an affair. It was deep in ways that I’d had no idea a relationship could be. The emotional intimacy astounded us both. Even our disagreements drew us closer. And the sex was in another category altogether.
But he was happily married.
Though I recognized that we needed to keep our relationship secret, I did not feel the guilt my mother had tried to instill in me so many years before. I still don’t. I will be forever grateful that love came to me through the back door.
In 1959 I was a greenhorn in fishnet hose and spiked heels, trying my hand at cocktail waitressing in the fast-paced world of hookers, hustlers, and jazz musicians on La Cienega and Sunset Boulevards.
I’d arrived in Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus, clutching my four-year-old daughter’s hand, and quickly acquired a car for twenty dollars — an old, rather raggedy Oldsmobile. None of its four doors opened, and only one window worked — on the rear passenger side — but it ran well enough to get me to work and back.
At my first job my name disappeared from the schedule after I refused to “go out with” one of the boss’s friends who’d taken a fancy to me. But the boss must have felt a touch of compassion (or perhaps pity) because he called another place down the street on my behalf.
When I walked into the second place, I was ushered into the back office to meet my new boss, who leaned back in his chair and said, “Let’s have a look at your legs.” I lifted my skirt and posed on one heel. “So you’re the chick who wants to just be a waitress. Not interested in the big money, eh?”
“That would be me,” I replied.
I got the job.
Word spread in the bar about my car, and each night as I left work, a group of spectators gathered at the back door to watch me crawl in through the rear passenger window and over the seat. They’d hoot and slap their thighs in amusement — even the women. It was humiliating, but I was able to pay the baby sitter and the rent.
Eagle River, Wisconsin
I raised my hand to touch the bulky piece of beige plastic that curled around and inside my left ear. It felt like an alien implant, this hearing aid that my parents had had me fitted for earlier that morning. For days I’d fought them over the necessity of this strange device. Did they want me to become Super Nerd at school?
Upon arriving home from the hearing-aid clinic, I went straight to the backyard to show my dog what my parents had done to me. More than an hour later I entered the house, as I had hundreds of times before, and shut the back door behind me with a casual shove.
That’s when I heard it: I heard the back door slam for the very first time in my life. I was twelve years old.
Sugar Land, Texas
During World War II, while my father was serving in the navy in the Pacific, my mother and I lived with his parents. My mother drove daily to a manufacturing plant twenty-five miles away to sew parachutes, and my grandmother stayed home to care for me. My grandfather, a floorsman in the beef kill of the local meatpacking plant, rode the city bus to work every day and doted on me every evening. He would read the funnies to me, and we’d go for walks when the weather permitted.
One block west of our house was the depot of the Northern Pacific Railway. Once, as Gramp and I got near the tracks, we saw two men sitting beside a small campfire, and Gramp walked over and talked to them. I was afraid and clung to my grandfather’s hand. On our way home he explained to me how the men were “riding the rails.” He said they were hobos, not bums or tramps, and that he used to be one of them before he’d met Grandma. Anytime we saw hobos after that, Gramp would stop and speak to them.
One day while Gramp was at work, my grandmother and I were washing dishes when a knock came at the front door. Grandma went to answer it, wiping her hands on her apron, with me close on her heels. At the door was one of my grandfather’s hobo friends asking for a sandwich. Grandma told him to come to the back door, and he did. She made him a big sandwich, just as she did for Gramp’s lunch pail, and put it in a paper sack with a pickle in wax paper, some cookies, and an apple. The hobo thanked Grandma profusely, and she wished him luck.
That evening I walked to the bus stop and met Gramp. As we got to the house, he stopped and asked me if we’d had company. I said yes and told him about his friend. How had he known?
Gramp pointed to the curb in front of our house. Scratched on the cement with a rock were some marks. I could distinguish a cat’s face with whiskers. “My friend left that message,” Gramp said. “It means ‘Nice lady, back door.’ ”
Kaye McMasters Klukow
My first job after college was for a policy-analysis and lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. I slogged through a year of number crunching and occasional meetings in imposing, marble-clad buildings. After my one-year contract was up, I biked across the United States with friends. When I came back to D.C., I had a month before leaving to teach English abroad, so I got a job as a bike messenger, delivering packages around downtown Washington.
I quickly discovered that all the fancy buildings I had entered the previous year through the front door also had service entrances at the back. People like me were expected to enter there and ride the freight elevators. Occasionally I would see people I knew in the hallways, but they had only ever seen me dressed professionally, from coifed hair to high heels. In my biking tights and T-shirt, I was never recognized.
My aunt Marion always came and went by her back door. Coming in one door and going out another brought bad luck, she believed. She kept the front door triple locked and had her husband, a sign maker, nail up a sign that read, “All visitors, please come around to the back door.”
Aunt Marion also spit three times on the sidewalk in front of the house to ward off evil spirits. And whenever she came home, she touched her fingertips to the mezuzah nailed to the door frame and then brought those fingers to her lips in a gentle kiss — triple insurance against the evil eye.
Aunt Marion wore floral-print housedresses with deep front pockets and snaps, and the walls of her house were covered with bright floral wallpaper. She was much older than my father (her brother), and to me she was like the grandmother I never had. My greatest fear about Aunt Marion was that I would say the wrong thing, cross a line, and I would be banished, never again to be greeted at the back door by her deliciously moist kisses on my cheeks.
I remember her at my father’s funeral. “Who’s watching Marion?” someone whispered as we all walked toward the grave: code for Take her away if she starts to scream. Her wail, though, once begun, couldn’t be stopped. It exploded from her as she fended off attempts to usher her from the graveside. My own grief was silent, stifled by decorum, but Aunt Marion released hers into the cool November air.
Was it her belief in superstitions that allowed her to express strong emotions, impervious to the judgment of others? Was it because she kept evil at bay in her home that she had the courage to live large, to love freely, to let the world see her feelings? Whatever it was, at age fourteen I wanted her courage.
There is no back door where I work. Because of the threat of gunfire and bombs and men who snap pictures to post online, this reproductive-health clinic was built with security in mind. Back doors aren’t safe. A private parking lot surrounds the building on three sides, shielding our patients from the nine-foot-high signs showing bloody fetuses and threats of eternal damnation. The fourth side of the building, which faces a public sidewalk, is a solid brick bunker dotted by a few small windows paned with shatterproof glass.
Inside, our doctors and nurses, all of whom have unlisted phone numbers and wear bulletproof vests, provide choices, compassion, and care to women who travel sometimes hundreds of miles and pass through a picket line to receive safe and legal abortions. Afterward the armed security officer escorts our patients out the front door and into their cars. As they drive back through the picket line, I wish I could protect these women from the screaming protesters, who seem to have forgotten the years when women came out the back doors of cheap hotels in body bags.
My mother worked in a supermarket, standing all day on a concrete floor, bagging produce. At the end of her shift she would catch the bus home and arrive exhausted. On Saturdays, her payday, my little sister Evelyn and I would walk a half mile to the bus stop to help her carry the bags of groceries she’d bought with her $27.50. We always hoped the food would last through the week; it never did. By Wednesday we were hungry.
The neighbors, who were no better off than we were, helped when they could, and my mother did the same for them.
The Donahues next door were a large family. Mr. Donahue worked as a cook at the New Orleans City Jail, and his take-home pay was not much, but they sat down to a hot dinner every night. On evenings when my sister and I were hungry, there was always room for us at the Donahues’ table.
Mr. Donahue worked long days and was frequently irritable. One night he chased Evelyn and me from his kitchen with a wave of his hand. Mrs. Donahue said nothing. We understood. It was hard enough for him to feed his own family.
Mr. Donahue had to be at work at 5 AM, so he turned in early. After he had gone to bed, Evelyn and I returned to get the dinner Mrs. Donahue had saved for us. I recall standing in the shadows, batting at mosquitoes, waiting for two plates to be slipped out the kitchen door.
The men in my family all have smoldering tempers, and my father is no exception. In the years following my uncle’s untimely death, my dad’s typical mood fell somewhere between despondent and furious. I was a teenager at the time, and the effect his brother’s death must have had on him didn’t really occur to me. What concerned me was that he was making my life miserable. Unlike my mother, I didn’t try to console or pacify my father during his dark spells. Instead I grew angry and lashed out, knowing precisely how to antagonize him from years of practice.
One Saturday morning I was awakened by a hard kick to my bed. “Get up,” my dad said. When I came downstairs, he was readying himself for a day of chopping and stacking wood — which meant I would be chopping and stacking wood too. Envisioning my whole day ruined, I started screaming at him. He yelled back twice as loud, and I left by the back door, making sure to slam it behind me.
I slammed it too hard, and the door’s large window shattered. I had broken a piece of my father’s house. This was the worst thing I’d ever done in one of our fights.
My father stepped out onto the porch and briefly surveyed the damage. Then he turned around and went back inside for a broom to clean up the broken glass. When he was done sweeping, he took some measurements and proceeded to cut a new window and put it in place. Once finished, he walked into the yard and began splitting wood. He never spoke a word to me the whole time.
I waited a moment, and then I began stacking the pieces he’d cut. We didn’t argue again for the rest of the day.
South Portland, Maine
The year I had the affair, more often than not, I entered my house through the back door.
In the evenings I would go to the gym to avoid interacting with the man I had been married to for eighteen years. After I bathed the kids and put them to bed, I would sprint away, leaving my husband to entertain himself.
The extramarital relationship took place largely via e-mail. So I was careful to exit the e-mail program before I left the house. But somewhere between the third and fourth mile on the treadmill, I’d begin to doubt that I had gone through each step necessary to erase my lustful exchanges. Once, I had exited but not logged out, and my husband had found some steamy messages, which we’d later “worked through.” If it had happened once, it could happen again.
When I got home from the gym, I would enter through the back door so that, if my husband was in his usual place on the couch, I would see him before he would see me, and I could sense from his posture whether he knew everything. If all appeared OK, I’d reenter the life I hadn’t yet figured out how to exit.
In the summer my friend Joey would often appear at our back door while I was eating my lunch of tuna fish on white bread.
“Want to play canasta?” he’d ask as he adeptly shuffled two decks of cards.
I would quickly finish my sandwich and grab a pencil and paper for keeping score, and we’d play while my mother ironed in the kitchen.
On really hot days, when we’d been running through the sprinkler, my mother would hand us ice-cold popsicles, and we’d sit on the warm cement stoop, licking the drips that ran down our arms.
At dinnertime my mother would shut the back door, saying, “I think we’ve seen enough of Joey for today.”
One evening, just as we sat down for dinner, we heard a knock. It wasn’t Joey. It was the woman who lived next door.
“Can I hide here?” she asked. “Frank is trying to find me.” Frank was her husband.
Despite her desperate appearance, my parents hesitated. “Oh, Rita, I don’t know,” my father said. “We don’t want to get in the middle of this.”
Sometimes we would hear door slams and shouting from Frank and Rita’s house, but no one talked about “domestic abuse” then — if, in fact, that’s what it was.
“Please, just this once?” Rita pleaded. “He’s really angry at me.”
My parents let her in with a promise from her that this would be the last time, and she hid in a bedroom. A few minutes later Frank showed up at the back door.
“Have you seen Rita?”
“No, Frank, we haven’t,” my father said. My mother and I tried to give the appearance of calmly enjoying our supper.
“Well, if you do, let me know, please. I’m looking for her.”
“Sure, Frank. Will do.”
We went ahead and finished our dinner, and not another word was said about it. I was wondering what would happen to Rita when a rap on the aluminum screen door startled me.
It was Joey, standing there with two empty glass jars. “Want to catch fireflies?”
Sag Harbor, New York
In 1961 I was working as a technician at a medical-research institute in London. Every morning I would step off a double-decker bus at the gates of the institute and hurry around the long path to the back door, the only door technicians were allowed to use. The building’s grand front entrance, with its circular gravel driveway, wide steps, and tall double doors flanked with stone pillars, was for scientists only.
Scientists from all over the world came to do research at the institute, and those scientists needed help. They needed technicians like me, and secretaries, and cleaners for their laboratories and their toilets, and cooks to make and serve their midday meal. It was important to know your place in the hierarchy — a concept apparently unknown to the visiting American scientists at the institute. They didn’t care about titles or who used what door. They introduced themselves by their first names and often sat with us in the cafeteria rather than use the separate dining room marked “Scientific Staff Only.”
At first I was uncomfortable around the easygoing American scientists. Their tendency to speak directly and say what was on their mind was startling. I wasn’t used to people asking why things were done a certain way or questioning the culture of the institute. But after working with them for a year, I found myself emulating the Americans’ unafraid way of thinking. When there came a chance of a job in the United States, I took it — and opened a new door for myself.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I spent my early teens in the neighborhood of Pleasant Grove on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. In the summers I worked part time at my father’s hamburger joint, the Triangle Café, so named because it sat on a pie-shaped lot where 15th Street met Garland Road. I’d clean tables, wash pots and pans, and carhop with my sister Nancy, who always seemed to get better tips than I did.
This was in the early fifties, and a rumor was going around that the courts might try to integrate the public schools. Going along with my peers’ and my father’s sentiments, I vowed to fight such changes. One day, as I finished putting away the clean dishes after the lunch rush, there was a knock at the back door, where we accepted deliveries. I opened the top half of the Dutch door, and there stood two black boys, one about my age, the other probably his kid brother. It was my first encounter with blacks that wasn’t through the window of Daddy’s Pontiac.
After some hesitation I asked, “What do you want?”
The older one said, “How much is a hamburger?”
Not sure if I should even answer, I said, “Twenty-five cents.”
“We got a dollar. Can we come inside and eat one?”
The question confused me, so I told him to wait a minute. I went into the kitchen and asked Daddy, who was scraping the grill. He said no. I said they had money. He said they could order something to go.
I went back to the Dutch door and told them what he’d said. They frowned, shook their heads, and walked away. I watched them shuffle down the dusty street, two kids who, except for skin color, could have been one of my friends and me.
Later in life I would try to give Daddy the benefit of the doubt. Like many business owners before civil rights, he’d feared that serving black people would scare away his white customers. After all, he had a family to feed, a mortgage and bills to pay. But I remember that encounter at the back door as the time when I began to break away from his worldview and do some thinking of my own.
My mother had eleven children. She was pregnant with the last when our dad deserted her — the best thing he ever did for us. He was a raging alcoholic. My siblings and I would cower in corners while he beat and kicked our mom.
Our mother was a good person who raised us to be honest and fair and know no prejudice, but she suffered from mental illness and was in and out of hospitals, where she received shock treatments. Our lives had times of quiet and peace and other times, if she didn’t stay on her medication, of fear and chaos.
Our mother’s faith in the Catholic Church defined her, and she believed everything it taught. She also believed in the devil. She said he came into her room and tempted her. She would scream in the night, and no one could comfort her — not her children, nor her neighbors, nor her relatives, nor the parish priest. The devil was real, she said, and he was in our house and wanted us to worship him. He stood at the foot of her bed and demanded her allegiance.
We had a door from the kitchen to a small mudroom, which itself had a door that led to the backyard. During one of our father’s rages he’d knocked a hole in the door from the kitchen. Sometimes when I was in the house by myself, I would look up and think I saw the eye of the devil pressed against the hole, looking in at me. I would jump up and run out the front door and around the house to try to catch him leaving through the back, but I never saw him. Afterward I would sit on the front porch and refuse to go in until someone else came home.
When I finally moved away from that house, I learned that I could not close my eyes in the shower for fear that the devil would be standing next to me when I opened them. I went to college and law school. I got married and fathered children. My wife died of cancer after twenty-three years of marriage. All that time the eye of the devil at the back door continued to haunt me.
After I’d been by myself for over a year, something changed. One day I closed my eyes in the shower and said to the devil, “Come on.” I opened them. No devil. I repeated the experiment. Nothing.
My brother still lives in the house where we grew up. When I visit, the back door is just the back door.
After two years of marriage my husband and I had weathered several miscarriages, regimens of infertility drugs, and finally a life-threatening tubal pregnancy. I was spent and emotionally raw. I also felt inadequate as a woman. We struggled to find some sense of normalcy, telling each other halfheartedly that we could get through this.
Then we learned that Paul, my loyal and trusting autistic brother-in-law, was being abused financially, emotionally, and sometimes physically by his so-called girlfriend. He had met her through a dating chat line and offered not just his big heart to her but his entire paycheck each week. She took every cent he had, often leaving him with no money for food, and gave him no affection in return. Still, he worked doggedly to provide for her and her three adult children, who, like their mother, were unemployed. (My brother-in-law has not missed a day of work in twenty-five years and once even rode thirty miles in a snowstorm just to make it to his job.)
My husband and I intervened and invited Paul to move in with us. He agreed and has quickly become a part of our lives. Though he owns four cellphones, five bikes, and ten calculator watches (you can never have too many), he cannot do laundry or cook beyond making toast. He has a hard time in social situations but knows his local politics and sports statistics. He loves his apartment in our basement and is appreciative of even the smallest kindnesses. A voracious eater, he will often go through several boxes of pasta or even whole casseroles in a sitting.
I try to make sure Paul is safe and taken care of. He rides his bike everywhere, sometimes as far as ninety miles, just “for fun.” Each Friday and Saturday night he goes out “clubbing.” While he is riding his bike or moving to the music, I lie in bed content and thankful for the laughter and joy he has brought to our lives. My husband is always the first to fall asleep, while I remain awake until I hear the back door softly open. I know then that Paul is OK, and feel with quiet certainty that I will be OK, too.
I’d told him I’d leave the back door open, but I forgot.
“It’s locked,” he texted on arrival.
I went to open it, hoping I didn’t look fat, feeling strangely nervous, as if I were in high school again. I knew I shouldn’t be doing this, but I couldn’t help myself. I liked him too much, and this night had been eight months in coming.
He followed me upstairs to my little studio above the garage. It was cozy and clean, with a twin bed, desk, and a couch. I’d covered one wall with photos from Oregon and another with my charcoal drawings. He looked around and then nonchalantly gave me a kiss as if we’d been doing it forever.
For a long time we just lay together, talking and kissing. After a few hours I walked him to the door. He couldn’t stay overnight — he still lived at home with his parents.
This went on for four months. I always knew it was going nowhere. It couldn’t. He was my student, and I was his teacher. Yet if he came knocking today, I’d let him in.
There was only one way in and out of the second-floor subsidized apartment I shared with my mother and younger brother in 1979: an industrial steel door with a faux-wood-grain finish and a peephole that I considered very cool. My mother declared its sliding chain lock “flimsy” and had my grandfather install a big brass deadbolt, against rental regulations. The office demanded a key. My mother steadfastly refused because the maintenance man regularly used his master key when tenants were out, supposedly to check on plumbing and heating problems but really so he could help himself to whatever he found appealing.
I was eleven years old when my mother decided I could come home directly after school rather than going to my grandparents’. I wasn’t totally sold on the idea. I didn’t like being in the dark apartment alone. Opening the heavy door, I stood in the tiny living-and-dining area. After a quick glance around, I took a few steps and flipped on the kitchen’s dim overhead light. I poked my head in. Clear. Treading softly down the hall, I scanned my mom’s bedroom and the bedroom I shared with my brother, then rounded two bends to the bathroom, where I turned on the light and peeked behind the shower curtain. Exhale. Relatively sure I was alone, I retraced my steps, looking in closets and under beds. Then I put the chain lock in place and locked the deadbolt. That was the last step; I didn’t do it sooner for fear that it might slow my escape.
The maintenance man stopped by one afternoon just after I’d finished my routine. I was at the dining-room table doing my homework. I didn’t hear the key turn, but the deadbolt’s thud against the frame startled me. The door shook. The next thud was more forceful. I held my breath and tiptoed over to peer through the peephole at him muttering angrily to himself. Seeing my shadow, he said, “I know you’re in there,” and demanded I release the deadbolt. Silently I dragged the phone from my mother’s bedroom as far as the cord would allow and called her, eyes on the door. She told me not to open the door under any circumstances. He shouldered the door again, but the bolt held. At last he turned and left, keys rattling.
After that, I returned to my grandparents’ after school. I’d find my grandmother framed in the kitchen window, fixing supper; my grandfather watching Mike Douglas in the sitting room; and my brother somewhere between them, at a folding card table littered with Matchbox cars. I’d go in through the back door. It was never locked.
My back door opened into a garden with rows of vegetables: my first. All that spring I thinned the carrots and nursed the sickly-looking cucumbers.
One night I came home through the garden, closed the back door, lay down in bed with my cats, and dozed off. I awoke with my head pushed into the pillow and a man holding a knife at my neck. I could feel the tip of the blade below my right ear, cold and sharp.
As he raped me, he kept saying over and over that he was going to kill me. When he was done, he got up and yanked my head around by my hair. That’s when I saw the long blade, illuminated by the full moon coming through my window. He pushed my head back down in the pillow and threw something on my back. (It was my shower cap.) He told me not to move, or he’d come back and kill me for sure. I lay there terrified for a long while. Finally I got up, went to the kitchen, and saw the back door standing open.
I had no idea who my assailant was — I never saw his face — and the police had little to go on. With him at large I couldn’t sleep at my house, so the cats and I stayed next door with my best friend. I’d briefly go home to change into my waitress uniform and get more cat food, uneasy there even in the light of day. After a month I flew out west to be with friends in the quiet of the desert. But eventually I had to return.
The night I got home, I planned to sleep in my own bed for the first time in six weeks, but my friend said, “Stay with me as long as you want. Don’t worry, it’s fine.” With relief I returned to her house.
The next morning I got up to go to work. As I came through the garden to unlock the back door, I saw it had been chopped down, as if with an ax. The detective said the rapist was probably stalking me. A week later I moved across the country. I don’t know whether those carrots and cucumbers lived, but I did.
San Francisco, California
The back door of our home was almost never locked. In suburban Connecticut in the fifties, people who locked their houses were considered rude or overly suspicious. The front doorbell rang only when trick-or-treaters came on Halloween, when the dry cleaner delivered Daddy’s folded shirts in cardboard boxes, or when the Jehovah’s Witnesses were handing out the Watchtower.
When I was a little girl, my older brothers would slam the back door as they left the house, and my parents would yell. Later my brothers would return and slam the door again and grab a carrot or a beer from the icebox before Mom could deliver her trademark deep sigh. To me these sounds were happy sounds because they meant the house was full, and we were together.
The years passed, and my sister and I became the door slammers: on our way next door to watch The Mickey Mouse Club or, later, to disappear down the driveway in our 1962 Volkswagen Beetle. Finally I left for college.
One fall weekend a boy from my town offered me a ride home from the university. I thought it would be fun to surprise my family. I was still getting used to the idea that my mom no longer knew where I was every minute.
We pulled into my driveway at dusk on a rainy Friday evening. I tiptoed along the breezeway and looked through the storm door into the kitchen. There they were: Mom at the sink with her apron on, Dad in his usual seat at the table, and my younger sister setting out knives and forks. They were all talking and laughing and complaining just like always — only they were doing it without me. Somehow I hadn’t imagined this. I watched them for a while, but they couldn’t see me. I was invisible to them on the other side of the back door.
Meredith A. Titus
There was a sense of excitement in the house that New Year’s Eve. My parents were going out together, a rare event, and our aunt Ann had come to baby-sit my five siblings and me. I could smell after-shave, cologne, perfume, and a whiff of hair spray. That day Mom had driven to town without us kids, who were always at her feet, and returned from the beauty parlor with her hair piled atop her head. I kept looking at her, not quite recognizing my mother. The hem of the white wool pencil skirt rested against her shapely legs. I had never seen her look so beautiful and happy.
Dad was tall and handsome, with his blue eyes and great smile, but it wasn’t unusual to see him impeccably dressed. He always wore a suit when he went out in the evenings by himself. But tonight belonged to him and Mom.
Dad kissed Mom and said he was going to fill up the car with gas. We owned a gas station two doors down, so he’d be right back.
I’m not sure how long it had been before I realized that Mom and Dad were both gone and had not said goodbye. This was odd. I felt panicked while my brothers played, oblivious.
I don’t know what drew me to the back door, which we rarely used. The rear steps were steep and narrow, with a flimsy, creaky railing. Only the milkman came up those stairs, to leave the glass bottles on the landing.
As I opened the door, a cold wind blew against me. Several steps down I saw a slumped figure. My mother. The snow was falling and settling on her hair, which had flattened, and she was sobbing. I was ten years old and had never seen my mom cry. She must have felt my presence, because she stood up, and I saw her white wool skirt was dirty. There was no lie she could give me. She had to tell the truth: My dad hadn’t returned. He’d obviously had other plans, she said.
I was sick with guilt and shame for having always been on his side. Whenever they’d fought, I had thought my mom must have done something to provoke him. Now he’d left us all behind while he chased some elusive pleasure.
Culver City, California
On the last day before Christmas break, my father picked me up from elementary school with a newborn calf in the truck, right there on the floor mat of the passenger side, its body black and gleaming.
It was snowing. On especially cold days, if a calf had been born and hadn’t nursed or been cleaned by its mother, my father would put it in the truck to warm it up for a couple of hours. This calf was still wet and bloody. As I climbed in, I tried to keep my legs from touching him. His head was curled against his side, and hot air from the floor vent blew against his face.
My father told me the calf’s mother had died in childbirth. He also told me that when we got home, I should be quiet, because my mother was still sick and needed to rest. I knew she was supposed to have had a baby, but she hadn’t.
Snow continued to fall as we turned off the highway and onto the gravel road. Ice-covered tree branches drooped from the added weight, and some had given in and cracked. When we pulled into the driveway, everything was still, and the windows of the house were dark.
“Help me with the doors,” my father said.
We got out, and my father came around and reached in for the calf, cradling his neck and backside. He lifted the calf up and backed away, and I shut the truck door and ran ahead to open the back door to the house.
My father placed the calf in a corner of the mudroom where several old bath towels were spread out under a heat lamp. The calf tried to get up, but my father held him down until he relaxed, stroking the bridge of the calf’s nose with the back of his hand.
“Easy there,” he said.
I shut the door and threw down my backpack and kicked off my shoes. My father glared at me for being too loud.
“I forgot,” I said.
My mother appeared from inside, where she’d been resting. She smiled weakly and looked at the calf. She was dressed and wearing her favorite bracelet, the one my father had given her the previous Christmas, but her face was tired.
“We should clean the calf off,” she said.
She got towels from the cupboard, and the three of us knelt together by the black calf and wiped him dry and clean.