I slithered into this world one chilly Halloween night, an eight-pound blob of wet flesh and blood with a scream shrill enough to scare the knickers off my parents, my brothers, and the doctor. Indeed, my family had no idea what they were getting into by ordering a girl baby.
This howling human specimen didn’t know what it was getting into, either: a female in a family of mostly males. Arriving directly from the spirit world, this mini-witch had no previous experience with mortals and had yet to discover if this strange condition was a trick or a treat. If I’d been an outhouse, my brothers would’ve had no problem tipping me over as a Halloween prank; I was not an outhouse, but was instead a stranger in their house. When the neighbor kids were out banging on doors and collecting treats, my brothers were surprised with a loud, stinky little witch of a sister.
I survived their various childish nicknames (birdbrain and boney) and taunts, and by the time I was old enough to keep up with them, I followed my siblings everywhere they went, often to the golf course to look for balls they might sell back to the golfers who’d been careless enough to sand-trap them or lose in a pond. But mostly the boys cut the dimpled shells off the golf balls and released the rubber innards that made the balls bounce, careful not to cut the center core—which they’d heard was hollow and would explode if punctured. To my knowledge, no golf ball had ever blown up, so I don’t know if that story was true.
Hot summer days found me running barefoot through the grass with my brothers and cousins (who lived across the street), unmindful of stones, thistles, slivers of metal, or shards of glass that might cut our feet. Hot weather gave us the freedom to shed our shoes and socks, so we could save our shoes for “good,” the good being church or a doctor’s office. Come time for school again, though, our shoes no longer fit and we got new ones anyway.
One bad thing about going barefoot was stepping in hot oil the county had just poured on the newly graded dirt road out front. If we wanted to cross the road to play with our cousins, we had to bear the pain of burning soles—and getting a bawling out from our mother for tracking oil into the house. No doubt a witch’s broom to sail over the oil would’ve come in handy then.
There were times when I walked barefoot through a creek to God knows where. (It’s probably dried up or polluted now.) Sometimes I didn’t know where we were going, and didn’t really care. It was enough to follow my brothers and let them suffer later for whatever mischief they got us into, or for not telling someone where they were going with their sister and little brother (who had arrived three years after I did). We just went. Period. It seemed we kids were always on the go, and nobody thought a thing about it.
Recalling those days, I believe we mostly raised ourselves, with a little help from our Aunt Pearlie, whose door was always open to her dead brother’s children. We could usually expect to be fed a thick slice of homemade bread fresh from the oven, slathered with real creamery butter.
Today, someone would surely have called Children’s Services to report our mother’s negligence. But it was the Great Depression, and Dad had died when I was three. Mom was usually out working at whatever job a widow with four kids and only a fifth-grade education could find. If we needed anything, we turned to our aunt for help. We had no cell phones back then—and no 9-1-1 for emergencies—but somehow we managed.
My brothers teased the daylights out of their only sister. They knew I was afraid of the dark and the boogeyman. Warm evenings often found us alone in the house with the front door open and only a screen between us and whatever dangers lurked outside in the dark.
On some of those evenings I felt sad and lonely, as though I were the only human left on Earth. To deepen my melancholy, from somewhere in the distance—or perhaps the distance of my own mind—there came the mournful whistle of a train. We did not live near a train depot or railroad tracks, to my knowledge, so I don’t know where that far-off sound came from. But it was spooky.
It didn’t help that my brothers loved to scare me. They thought it was fun to make me cry and scream. One evening, they had me hysterical, saying, “See those big green eyes looking through the screen door, birdbrain? The boogeyman’s going to get you!”
When Mom came home and found me cowering under her bed, shaking and crying my eyes out, my brothers were in deep trouble. But Mom looked me in the eye and said, “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” Showing real sympathy to her scared little girl, right?
Another time when she was gone, my oldest brother—having a part-time job and a few dollars in his pocket—decided the four of us would go to a movie in downtown Kansas City—twelve miles away, plus a mile or more walk to catch the bus.
It was dark by the time we came back home. I don’t remember what movie we saw, but I sure remember running and screaming past the graveyard on our way home from the bus stop.
We tried to sneak into the house, hoping Mom wasn’t home yet. But there she was, sitting in the dark waiting for us with a long switch in her hands. The oldest boy got most of the lashes, but I still remember how that thing felt on my bare legs. It didn’t matter whose fault it was; we all got whipped.
Mom said that the first thing she did when she got home was to check on my little brother. But there was no boy under the covers, just his pillow scrunched up to look like a sleeping kid. She then checked the rest of our beds and found them empty, too. When she realized what we’d done, she was furious … and worried out of her mind because her kids were gone, it was late at night, and she had no idea where we were.
I survived the switching, the teasing, the name-calling, and the eerie whistle of a distant train, but somewhere inside of me, that terrified little girl is still screaming past the graveyard. Sometimes I want to return to that time and tell “mini me” that everything’s going to be all right.
Stay tuned for more from the deep well of my subconscious.