With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Of the four of us kids, I’m the one who used to worry that the worms in our garden felt scared by all the heavy dirt pressing down on them, maybe even as panicky as I did whenever my brother threw our green wool blanket over my head and said, Whooooo, whoooo, you’re a green ghost, so I’d dig with my fingers and gently tug the worms out, hold them, pale and slithery, in my open palm, wanting them to feel the air and smell, depending on the season, the fat pink peonies blooming or the brown cracked leaves scuttling along the sidewalk in the wind, until eventually someone who wasn’t the baby of the family, like me, would notice what I was doing and say, Put them back, that’s where they live, you’re gonna hurt them, put them back right now! so I would, tears falling.
I ’m the one who was so desperate for a dog that I sat on the wood floor of our living room, hour after hour, week after week, and memorized the dog section of the encyclopedia until I knew facts about pretty much all the breeds, including the rare Hungarian puli, who was curly haired and sensitive, like me, and, more important, hypoallergenic, which meant that if a puli came to live with us in our house on Oxford Road, my brother’s asthma wouldn’t get worse — it wouldn’t! — and my parents would have to come up with another good reason for their firm decision — You’ve got to stop asking, Es, because the answer is still no — to break my heart.
I ’m the one who looked the most like our mom, more than either of my sisters, though in this significant way she and I were opposites: I loved animals, and she was terrified of them, even writing a poem she dedicated to me — Dog, cat, iguana in the pet shop, / I quiver when I face an animal, / while you, my daughter, call / every beast your cousin, stoop / to coax the meanest stray / indoors to your protection — a poem that, on the one hand, made me happy, because it proved our mom understood me, a gift I didn’t take for granted since her own parents hadn’t understood her, not at all, proven by the cold, hard fact that, when she was a girl in the Bronx, they’d dumped her in an orphanage, then picked her up and dumped her off again in another orphanage years later, hurting her forever — but a poem that, on the other hand, upset me, because how could what gave me the most comfort make our mom quiver with fear?
I ’m the one who spent as much time as I could at the picnic table in the backyard, brushing my two rabbits with a soft blue toothbrush and feeding them raisins while I clipped their nails and examined their teeth and used positive-feedback techniques from a dog book I’d checked out of the library, Both Ends of the Leash, to try to train them to sit, stay, come, knowing that if our mom looked out the bedroom window on the second floor she would see what I was doing, but also knowing she wouldn’t look out because ever since her left side had suddenly gone numb and she’d flopped down our long staircase, bumping hard on each step, and our dad had scooped her up in his arms and rushed her to the hospital, she’d been resting in bed, which meant we needed to stay quiet — no clomping, banging, slamming — and leave toast with damson-plum jam outside her door and be good, responsible kids while the doctors ran tests and tried to figure out what was wrong with an otherwise healthy woman in her thirties, though I was pretty sure the doctors didn’t know the cold, hard fact about our mom’s parents and the orphanages, which was probably at least part of the reason she couldn’t get herself out of bed.
I ’m the one our family friend, Dr. Pav, pulled aside and told in a whisper, Don’t worry, I’ll get you a dog, a sheltie, like a mini collie, don’t you worry, I’ll convince your parents, stay patient, leave it to me, when we were visiting her at her fancy home in the country, because she’d watched me, year after year, sit on her stone patio with her collie, Bruce, brushing him and talking to him and napping with him instead of sliding open the glass door and coming inside to drink cocoa and work on a jigsaw puzzle and play cards in the grand tournament — yahoo! — with everyone else, and since Dr. Pav was famous and knew much more about children than our parents did, and since our dad, who never seemed scared of anything, seemed a little scared of her, and since our mom now had a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which meant that if her nerves were like telephone wires, then the bright plastic coating around the wires was dissolving, and the messages that the wires were sending were getting all messed up — a tragedy in the family, people called it — I stayed patient, like Dr. Pav told me to, and waited for the good news, the big surprise, the happy announcement.