In the Middle

by Mary Ann Cooper

The author's siblings

The author’s siblings

I can’t imagine being an only child. What’s it like not being surrounded by a crowd? Never having to vie for attention, whether it’s a subtle tap on the shoulder or a desperate shout of “Look at ME!” How can you have a game of tag? Instead of racing downstairs on Christmas morning, do you casually stroll, knowing that everything under the tree is for you? Do you only play solitaire and not war? Do you go everywhere with your parents, or have real babysitters, instead of your brothers or sisters? What’s it like to wear something that someone else hasn’t worn before?

I grew up with three older siblings and four younger ones – yup, that’s eight of us. Six boys and two girls, with me wedged in the middle, fourth child and second girl. We were all tall and skinny, our blue eyes and freckles identifying our connection. The size of a small party, everyone in our neighborhood knew us. We played, we fought and always leaned on each other for support and attention.

Sardined into a small house in Queens, New York, we took up every inch of it. It was a small Dutch colonial, sandwiched between others that were identical, a cement ribbon of driveway separating us. Each house had a brick stoop facing a stamp-sized lawn, scraggly shrubs hugging the foundation. A small vestibule opened into our living room, which led to the dining room and a small kitchen. The upstairs held three bedrooms and one bathroom, which was in constant use. It was a tiny bathroom, with faded white walls and a confetti of black and white subway tiles dotting the floor. Thin towels hung next to a chipped radiator, which sizzled and hissed like a subway grate.

The author's childhood home

The author’s childhood home

The bedrooms weren’t much bigger than the bathroom, the largest one housing four boys. Walking up the stairs to the second floor, it was easy to find the boys’ room, with its permanent odor of dirty socks floating above the landing. It was a wild place in there: clothing flung about, random belts and shoes littering the scuffed floor. A gnawed wooden crib stood against the wall where baby Brian slept, flanked by Bobby’s single bed. My other brothers, Kevin and Timmy, spent their nights in a wobbly double, placed under a window.

Next door to this cave, my sister and I shared the smallest room, our bed nearly spilling into the hallway, allowing me to lie in bed and close the door at the same time. A tired maple dresser hugged the wall, festooned with a gray doily running across the top. This tiny room was where my sister found refuge from being the oldest and a girl. Many nights, lying in our little bed, she confided in me.

“I hate it here. Someday I’m going to marry a rich guy and never have any children.”

“Can I come?” I always asked.

My parents occupied the last room, its walls papered with pink roses and green leaves, yellowed pieces of it curling up in the corners. Dark and mysterious, the metal blinds were usually slanted shut and the air was always filled with the mingled smells of Old Spice and Evening In Paris.

It wasn’t spacious up there, but every night, we all had a pillow to put our heads on.

In my self-absorbed child’s world, I had no idea of the stretch it was for my parents to keep our sizeable group afloat. But I knew they never planned for, nor wanted a large family.

“What’re you doing with all those kids, anyway?” our neighbor Mrs. Glennon once called over to my mother from her tiny backyard, chatting back and forth while hanging laundry. Our clothesline, with its wooden clothespins standing at attention, sagged with the weight of our belongings and the ever-present collection of diapers. I was ten at the time, and there were six children in our house.

Hearing the question, my mother stopped working and put her hands on her hips. And being the polite woman she was, she told the truth.

“Well, Helen, we’re just following our church’s rules. And that means no birth control.” My mother’s response quieted our nosy neighbor, but it didn’t help our situation much; two more babies, Jeff and Kerry, appeared after that.

My mother became pregnant with my sister Dianne on her honeymoon, and thus began her seventeen-year cycle of having children. I see me standing next to her, looking up at her brown hair that’s been wrestled into a French twist, her cornflower eyes above her smile. She’s always dressed in tired elastic maternity pants, topped by something shapeless and flowery. Her pregnancies usually occurred every two years, but sometimes my parent’s rhythm clicked, allowing my mother to venture into real clothing for short periods of time.

But whether my mother was pregnant or not, tired or ecstatic, my father loved her more than life itself. Both the same age, he had married his childhood friend, and called himself “Mr. Lucky.” For many years, Mr. Lucky worked two jobs during the week – one as the manager of a department store and the other as an elevator operator. Weekends, he made extra money tending bar at Herby’s, a local hangout on our corner. We didn’t see a lot of my father – he was busy making sure his family was taken care of. His reward for all that hard work? Coming home to my mother.

I imagine feeding this brood was a constant challenge for my mother and father, especially with limited income and growing children. Food appeared and was promptly eaten. No seconds. No leftovers. Our church provided us with our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, and each week the parish school delivered leftover milk and bread to our home. We weren’t the poorest family in the parish, but we were somewhere on that list.

My father got a paycheck every Friday, which was convenient, because by Thursday night we had run out of money. Weather permitting, most Friday evenings we all sat waiting for him to return from the city. Perched on our scratchy stoop, we climbed its steps and side pillars like hawks hunting for prey. Eventually, my father appeared at the top of the street, newspaper folded under one arm, a brown bag filled with paper boxes of chicken chow mein in the other. At our house, dinners were fancy on Fridays.

Our meals were noisy and quick. Sitting at the long wooden dining room table, we were shoulder to shoulder, my parents at each head and a highchair somewhere in between. Everyone was protective of what was put in front of them; today, many of my brothers still carry the habit of eating with one arm cradling their plate. It was implicit: This is mine; don’t touch it. Once, I was foolish enough to leave my seat during dinner for a bathroom break, learning my lesson when I returned to an empty plate.

“I thought you were done!” my brother pleaded to me.

Keeping all of us clothed was as big an issue for my parents as feeding us was. The school provided us with free uniforms, which helped dramatically. But for after-school and weekend clothing, hand-me-downs were the rule. My brothers shared a revolving wardrobe, clothes going from one to the other, with some of the pieces growing old with us, becoming part of the family. But since there were five years between my sister and me, hand-me-downs were a problem.

Until Barbara Medford moved in up the block.

A year older and a lot richer than I was, Barbara had an extensive wardrobe. And every few months, her mother walked down the street to our house, carrying shopping bags filled with clothing that Barbara had outgrown. Coats and shoes and everything in between had been neatly packed into those bags for me.   Standing silent, watching my mother thank Mrs. Medford, I wanted to grab the bags right out of her hands. Finally taking my goodies upstairs, I arranged each piece on my bed, admiring and petting my treasures for most of the day.

No one but my family knew that I was wearing Barbara’s hand-me-downs. But apparently Barbara did. One afternoon while playing hopscotch with the other eight year olds in the neighborhood, Barbara stopped and pointed at my faded top with tiny pink flowers on it.

“That’s my old shirt,” she said with a catlike smile. The other girls stood quiet, watching.

I felt my cheeks get hot; I wanted to run home. Instead, I stayed and looked Barbara in the eye.

“My mother made me wear this shirt. I hate it.”

I avoided her after that, and the Medfords eventually moved away. The pressure was gone, but so were the clothes.

Besides the hand-me-down’s, the family’s other source of clothing came from my mother’s monthly treks to the rummage sales that took place at the local synagogues. The clothing was inexpensive, and usually of high quality. Everyone benefitted from these monthly wardrobe harvests; besides providing clothes for all of the children, it was also the source of my father’s suits. Leaving early in the morning with one of her older children, my mother stood in line, ensuring she had a first look at the day’s offerings. Hours later, after carting her bargains home in cardboard boxes, she began her sorting process, many of us standing around her.

Occasionally, some of the shorts, tops and pajamas that were doled out to me had tiny labels with names sewn into them.

“Who’s Susan Fisher?” I asked one day, pointing to a label.

“Susan Fisher owned that shirt before you,” my mother said.   “She probably went to camp, and had to have her name on all of her clothing.”

I stared at my mother.

“What’s camp?”

The labels never really bothered me, it was the tops and dresses that did. When I wore a garment and perspired, it seemed to activate the camper’s old perspiration; mixed together, it smelled toxic. When I was older and in high school, the stench usually emerged right after lunch. Nervously clamping my arms down, I wondered if the people around me could smell it also. And from that point on, no matter how many answers I knew, my arm wasn’t going up.

“It’s embarrassing!” I told my mother.

“I know, I know,” she said. “Just keep in motion.”

About the author

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer concentrating on memoir and personal essays.  She has recently been published in Salon, Halfway Down The Stairs, Brain, Child Magazine and Literary Brushstrokes.

She is presently at work on her memoir, “The Hollis Ten,” a group of stories about growing up in a family of eight children in Queens, New York.  Today, she is comfortable in crowds and still never leaves her plate unattended.     

Mary Ann resides in Westport, Connecticut.

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Making Words

by Heather Babcock

“They blossom every 2 years,” the florist tells me.  “It’s not blossoming now but it is growing leaves.”

I cradle the orchid in my arms and step out onto the busy street.  The dust clouds my vision, softening my anger.

An elderly man plays a mandolin and I give him the last of my coins.  I walk slowly, leaning into his music.

People don’t let me talk about you but I do anyway.  I open my mouth and the words fall out onto the pavement, melting on contact like wet snowflakes.

When Dad came home from the war, his mother wouldn’t let him talk about it.  She gathered up all of the remnants – uniform, badges, medals, photographs – and put them in a big box to grow dust.  Dad wanted to make what he had seen into words but nobody wanted to let him.  Years went by, you and I were born and we asked Dad how it had been in the war.  Dad told us a story about a pet monkey named Simms.  Simms would jump up on the back of an unsuspecting sailor and steal his rum.  “Go get him, Simms!” the sailor’s friends would laugh.  It was the only story from the war that Dad ever told us.  It was the only one that he could make words with.

babcockdad

The author’s father shortly after he joined the Navy

I was the one who had to make it into words for Mom.  You know that.  You were there, sitting on top of her stereo, hiding behind her cat and thinking that I couldn’t see you.

You were the one scratching the needle over the record; the song was Daydream Believer and it started skipping.  The Monkees stopped dancing.  Mom’s heart opened up and swallowed the words and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

I look down at the orchid and it is in your hands – so small and strong, with brown dirt wedged under naked fingernails.

Fragmented images make up a sudden memory:

The two of us are standing together, your hand clutching mine.  You are 4 and I am 6 and we both have those terrible bowl haircuts that Dad used to give us with the kitchen scissors.  I remember the raised velvet of the white daisies printed on the starch material of our yellow dresses.  I remember wooden pews, scuffed Mary Janes, Jesus’ protruding ribs.  Everlasting life – is that what the pastor had been talking about that day?  I don’t remember water but there must have been water.  Did they hold us under water?

I don’t need a photo to see my daughter’s face.”

I know what Mom means – I don’t need a photo to see your face either.

I close my eyes and there you are: big floppy hat, wide legged jeans – looking like you just stepped out of sunshine and 1975. Your mouth is open and pink, stretched into a smile big enough to hide the scars on your wrists.

Or was that me, hidden behind the camera, wrapping your scars up in smiles?

I am not allowed to talk about you but today you will not shut up.

Orange is beginning to break through the baby blue of the sky.  Across the street, a crowd is gathering outside a church.  A proud, puffed up groom.  A peach skinned bride.  The bride smiles out into the sun, her eyes briefly resting on me before bouncing away.

She thinks that she is different.

About the author

Heather Babcock is a secretary by day, writer by night.  She has had short fiction published in The Toronto Quarterly (TTQ), Front & Centre Magazine, The Annex Echo newspaper and in the Steel Bananas Anthology Gulch- An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose.  She has fiction forthcoming in Descant magazine.

Three Poems

by Priscilla Atkins

“The Captivating Life of My Ten-Years-Older First-Boyfriend’s Ex-Wife”

The author, photographed by the ex-boyfriend.

The author, photographed by the ex-boyfriend.

I am nineteen and want to be the one who snapped
the little 3×3’s of “our” newly-wed life in Ramstein,
Germany. The husband is enlisted and she’s a six-month

business school grad. (There’s a lot to be said for a
smart typist.) I want to have slept with him in the cute
honeymoon suite in Switzerland: “Our tiny bed.”

I want to be inside her script. A picnic table set for four:
“Steaks on the grill—our first entertaining!” I want
all of it. Especially the long dark hair and spray

of pale yellow flowers pinned above the ear. Even the angry
good-by note (that I “stumbled on” while he was off
at his bartending job): “You and your god DAM nude

beaches. Your drinking . . . always sneaking away
on your motorcycle. I wanted a husband and children
who love me. Not a man who’s never home.” I’m nineteen

and wish the rolled up parchment, the tube from the Vatican,
was addressed to me; to be on the verge of a brand-new, Pope-
approved life with the police officer who lives downstairs

(to have typed his academy papers). I want dark hair, and pale
orchids. To be Catholic. To be worshipped. To be the face
on a 3×3 tucked in someone’s wallet long after I’m gone.

“Is This What You Want?”

The brave, long-haired sister.

The brave, long-haired sister.

My brave, long-haired sister misplaced the hidden house
key—out in the dangerous world, or under a pile in her room—

gone. No one notices until late one night, I am dropped off from babysitting
and discover after the car is gone, I have no way in.

When our parents return from whichever party of scientists and their spouses
and, soon after, my sister, my father loses

it; bawls her out, dark-knifed swipes of furious. He’s scary and bald. Right there
on the living room carpet, she gets down on her knees, facing

him, voice shaking,
“Here, is this what you want?” (Me,

I want—always—to disappear.) The house prickles. Chaos surging underneath
dense cotton.

After that, given my own personal key that I keep in a soft round purse,
two figures embroidered on the face, some nights I creep out of bed,

tiptoe to the closet, riffle all of the pockets
until my small hand comes up against the zipper’s rough blue pulse.

The author and her sister.

The author and her sister.

“Imaginary Marylands”

Bent, watery. I passed through your harrowed hollow
with my first-ever boyfriend
on a twenty-four-hour Miami-to-Massachusetts “forced march”
in his big-deal Buick.
The butt-head liked non-stop, liked to prove he’s every-inch-
the-man his alcoholic father was.
Leaving Florida at noon, eventually
rolling into the ash-can gloom of the shroudiest edge
of pre-dawn Eastern Pennsylvania
(we’re-supposed-to-be-in-Jersey—can’t-you-read-a-goddamn-map?);
I still know the sour-sorry taste of ghostly searchlights,
cars driven by blank, commuter-ghosts. From coal mines
to cubicles, we’re all robotic goats. Swallow anything. Cubed
days passing through us in a thousand ways.
I had never gone so long without sleep.
Swore I would never stray so far from center,
a life of 10-to-7 in-bed-quiet forever. But there I was, and here, I am,
thirty years hence, reading Celan’s biography. See how it’s done:
you walk straight out of innocence and don’t realize
the fractured universe includes you;
glass shatter, grinding, bearing up. Stop
and turn quickly so reflections don’t catch.
Then back on board, everyone’s midnight-blinded, together, hoofing it to France.

About the author

Raised surrounded by cornfields, Priscilla Atkins gravitated to Los Angeles, and then Hawaii. Eventually, she leapt back to the Midwest – Indiana, and now Michigan. Her poems have appeared in ShenandoahThe Los Angeles ReviewPoetry London and other journals and anthologies. She teaches women’s and gender studies and a first-year-seminar on comedy at a small college in Michigan.