My mother had a recurring dream while we lived in the cottage beside the river. Great rains would come and she’d wake to find the house unhinged upon the flooding water. Her brand new sewing machine sat upon a porch the real cottage didn’t have. The machine’s weight tilted the house to one side and she must throw it overboard or lose everything.
My uncle slept on the top bunk in our bedroom for a while after my grandparents died only a week apart from each other. While serving as a Seabee during the war, he had put my grandmother in charge of his Navy pay in hopes of buying his own house and starting a family upon return. The lure of buying a house of her own had been too much for my grandmother. My uncle returned from the Pacific to find himself broke and forced to live with his siblings and parents. What could he offer a wife? When my grandparents died my uncle was distraught over not having been able to forgive his mother. He then had a nervous breakdown.
That is my first memory: my father yelling at a grown man in a bunk bed.
The television on the formica kitchen counter flickered the black and white moon landing. I rushed outside with my visiting cousins. The idea of space suits and adjusting to a lunar environment terrified me.
My cousin, Lucy, wore canvas smiley sneakers that she’d just gotten from Valley Fair (the department store our parents shopped at when they couldn’t afford Sears). I envied Lucy those sneakers. It’s funny to think that a four or five-year-old could envy anyone, but I did. We snuck into the dark, swampy woods alive with mosquitoes and skunk cabbage, Lucy complaining of the mud inching up the rubber soles of her sneakers.
Far off and partially hidden by trees lurked an abandoned Volkswagon Beetle with the windows down and Virginia Creeper running riot over the interior. My older cousin, grabbed us by the shoulders. “There’s someone in there! Run!”
We tore back through the woods, our shorts catching on blackberry brambles until my cousin screamed. I saw my younger sister far ahead of us breaking into the light of our spongy but mowed yard — always the tattle tale.
My poor sneaker-clad cousin had trodden through a muddy patch. My older cousin yelled, “Quick sand!”
How we knew about quick sand is beyond me now, but there was Lucy crying and wallowing; afraid to move forward or back. I stood on the edge of the unfolding tragedy. My cousin might be lost forever, but this didn’t seem to trouble me. I only thought about the sneakers. Of course my older cousin, a boy, had to have known that his sister would not die in six inches of mud. I may even remember him smirking.
There was my little sister again, furtively glancing back, only once, at the light from the adult world of the yard. She carried three pale blue bathroom towels in her arms, the corner of one trailing through the muck of the undergrowth. Do skunks eat skunk cabbage? My mind wandered. My sister and two of my cousins pulled Lucy, sobbing now, to safety — minus one of the sneakers. They did their best to wipe off the remaining one, but even my older cousin was unwilling to attempt fishing the other from the depths of the quick sand. The towels were tossed beside a moss-covered stump teeming with creepy white worms.
The cousins were loaded into their boat of a car soon after, Lucy still crying over her lost sneaker. My uncle was squeezed between my cousins in the back seat that afternoon. My father had enough of his wallowing. He must go back to the family house he never wanted and make peace with his bachelorhood.
That evening it rained, the spongy earth bled into our basement again. My father spent all night like a crew member on a sinking ship pushing water with a big broom out the door of my parents’ newly finished bedroom. My mother read to us in our bedroom, the bunk bed ours again.
What I didn’t know back then was that my father blamed my mother for the cottage on the flood plain located so far from his parents’ home — a home he would have gladly stayed in (even after marriage) if it meant it would have prevented his parents’ deaths. My mother had saved her money to buy the house while he was away in Germany. He hadn’t spoken to her in months.
From the bunk bed I sometimes worried about the house tipping over. I thought about my cousin nearly vanishing in quick sand. The world felt so wet and slippery. The smell of mildew was everywhere.
How about you? What’s your first memory? Let me know in the comments!