"I don't feel right," Dad said as he poured a liberal amount of maple syrup over the stack of warm pancakes that Ma set in front of him.
While stuffing my mouth with a sticky fork-full of drenched pancakes, I cast a long, adoring glance at him and thought he looked just fine—strong and handsome as ever. As I recall, he was making the doctor face; it's a diagnostic look that he gets while trying to figure out a particularly elusive ailment—those three little vertical lines in between his dark eyebrows deepen, and his mouth scrunches up, making his lower lip practically disappear underneath his upper lip. I could tell it troubled him that he didn't feel right—the doctor wheels were turning, analyzing his symptoms, listening to his body, trying to figure out what it was trying to tell him.
"You look okay, you probably picked up that bug the kids had this weekend," Ma shrugged with a casual flip of her shoulders. She only looked at him for a few seconds; then satisfied with her visual assessment that he appeared okay, she returned her attention to the pancakes sizzling on the griddle. Her expert opinion agreed with mine, he did look okay—Okey- dokey, Pokey as we used to say, though I still do sometimes.
He said nothing to deny the possibility that he may have picked up a bug, which was odd; he didn't even make his perish-the-thought noise to protest at the suggestion that he might be vulnerable to such a pathetic little virus that made us upchuck all day Saturday. We all knew that he was immune to such things. If Dad were alive during the time of the Black Death, he would defiantly wade into a pit full of disease to cure the sick without a bit of concern for himself, and then emerge alive and well, shepherding the survivors. He just did not worry about getting sick. But today was different; he stared at his pancakes without appetite, his robust face pensive as if he was seriously considering the idea that he—Dr. Wendell J. Waters—could be S-I-C-K. It was absolutely, positively unthinkable.
When Ma turned around again, he was already gone.
* * *
Doctor, heal thyself! Know thyself, doctor—thou body is fallible—thou body will wind up deceiving thee—deceiving all, and deceiving me.
Dr. Wendell J. Waters didn't diagnose the aneurysm that caught him in the brain like a shot to the head—bang you're dead. He never knew what hit him; that fact was plain on his face when I saw him still sitting there after the body was long gone.
For three years after Dad's death, his ghost remained seated at the kitchen table, puzzling over why no one but me could see him; being just a little shit at the time, I didn't have the verbal tools to explain—or to comfort. Of course, no one believed me, because "there are no such things as ghosts"—or so I've been told. Only Dad would have believed me if he were alive and could come to my defense. So, I identified his classification as a such thing—I separate the words now, but at the time, it was one word suchthing. It's kinda funny how a child's mind processes what they are told; it's dreamlike, words have a visual substance to them—I tried to picture their meaning—at least, what I thought they meant in context with the feeling expressed by the speaker.
I knew Dad was dead—his body dead and buried, but as a suchthing, he was still there, only I could see him. I never really mourned losing him, because I hadn't really lost him, just the part of him that I could touch. I guess you can imagine my Ma and siblings thinking I had gone off my rocker because I'd sit at the table directing conversation to the empty chair where Dad's physical life ended and his metaphysical one began. After all, seeing is believing—if you can't see it, you don't believe it—I saw him—therefore, I believed.
I always figured my ability to see him was because we had a special relationship during the short time that I knew him—or maybe he felt that I needed him. Just before Dad died, I went through a sickly spell in which tonsillitis accompanied by earaches caused me to become a focus during his busy life. I spent hours lying on the couch in his office where he could keep an eye on me during the day. He'd tuck a peppermint sucker in my mouth, slather my chest with a mentholated rub, and then wrap a warm towel around my neck along with a heating pad held to the infected ear; his gentle bedside manner combined with modern medicine and soothing holistic remedies always made me feel better in that extra-loved sort of way. Although the Tetracycline that he dispensed worked to take care of my misery with rapid results, the sore throats and earaches kept coming back—it seemed like I was sick forever.
Along with this pain, I also suffered with a persistent reoccurring nightmare. In this dream, I'm alone in the house, it was empty—so empty I could hear it being empty, humming with emptiness. Looking around, I saw blood splattered on the walls. I knew that the killer was in the basement, I could hear him breathing as I walked down the stairs. I'd wake up screaming when the hand reached between the steps and grabbed my ankle. Oh, how I would scream!
Ma always worked the night shift at the hospital where she was a nurse, so I knew not to call for her. Dad was home at night unless he had an emergency—he still made house calls. When he was out, my big sister, Noel, usually took care of me. When she wasn't home, my oldest brothers, Spence or Asher, took responsibility, and sometimes Dennis would appear at my door if he felt inclined to hear me cry; they did their best. More often than not, Dad would be the one tending to me, although he'd looked worn out from his day spent healing people, but he'd come in to heal my night terrors that would leave me inconsolable.
"What would make you feel safe?" he asked one night.
"A fire breathing dragon," I replied. "Her name is Lucy."
"A girl dragon?" he asked with curiosity as if a female dragon was unheard of in the realm of dragons.
"I'm a girl—why would I want a boy dragon?" I reasoned.
"I guess it would be icky, the boy dragon would have to look the other way whenever you changed into your jammies. Okay, where will she live—in your closet?"
"No—under my bed—she'll also keep the dust kitties away—they make me sneeze."
"Oh, I see, she'll be a double-duty dragon—bad dreams and dust kitties," he nodded, with a thoughtful scrunch to his lips; the pale skin around them looked gritty with nighttime stubble. My Dad's shaving habits always fascinated me, he used to let me watch him scrape the sandpaper whiskers from his face with a straight razor, and then I'd pat his cheeks with aftershave when he finished.
"So—what does she look like?" he asked, taking out crayons and a pad of paper from my art box. While I described Lucy, he created a splendid guardian to watch over me during the long hours of darkness. Each one of her gold-green iridescent scales is patterned with one violet-blue "eye" just like peacock tail feathers; her cat eyes sparkled with the deep layers of an opal's multi-colored fire; a golden mane grew around her narrow reptilian head, and the silken fringe falls along the ridge of her long graceful neck. The thick scales of her underbelly are made of a gleaming indigo armor that is as strong as steel, and her tough, leathery wings bear the delicate translucence of thin slices of amber. Her ivory claws and fangs are as sharp as razors, and the barbed end of her long, loopy tail is similar to a stegosaurus, though less cumbersome.
Lucy was a lovely creation—real only in my mind—a story that I would tell to myself in whispers every night before sleep, but my Dad's beautiful crayon rendering framed above my bed gave her and unexpected substance. Her presence under my bed created an impervious barrier that nightmares didn't dare cross—it was also mysterious that there were no dust kitties under the bed—a marvel that puzzled Ma every Saturday morning when she came through with the dust mop. It was silly to think that the dust kitties were the creators of the bad dreams, but, oddly enough, they seemed connected somehow. My earaches went away; Dad was inclined to believe that I grew out of them once my baby teeth finished cutting through my gum-line in neat little white rows. Although he never saw Lucy in her box under my bed, he never disputed that I believed in her being there. Whenever he did peek inside, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope in his eye, but Lucy wouldn't show herself to anyone but me. Some people just can't handle the responsibility of seeing the things that they believe do not exist, even if they want to see it—at least, that's what Lucy always said.
When I became older, Lucy told me that my old long-gone nightmare was an event that really happened. Many years ago, a man murdered almost everyone in his family. The residue of the crime permeated the house—and when I put my ear against the walls and floors, I could hear the echoes of their screams and dying moans. Lucy said that the man had come home shell-shocked after fighting in the Great War; when I asked her to explain what that meant; she told me that the mortar explosions scared him so bad it messed him up—made him crazy. The man killed himself after he attacked his eldest daughter when she came home from work. Lucy said the girl survived, but surviving didn't mean she was happy—or lived happily ever after, amen.
After telling me this, Lucy then explained that she was going to begin her one hundred year sleep—but she would continue to filter my dreams, so I was not to worry. Lucy curled into a cat-like pose with her tail tucked over her snout and fell asleep. She is still asleep now, occasionally cracking open an eye to peer at me when I peek under the bed to look at her. Even a sleeping dragon terrifies dust kitties—fascinating.
* * *
At the time of Dad's death, Ma was pregnant, very pregnant, but not ready to deliver. Grief shook her nerves so badly that the obstetrician feared her state of mind might bring on labor before the time was right; he recommended that she should go on bed rest so not to lose the baby. The baby, my little brother Weezer, came on time with no complications.
A brother, what a blow, just what I wanted, another brother—I already had five older brothers. My sis, Noel, was the first in the sibling line-up, and I was supposed to be the last—the baby—the bookend, but oops! Ma's belly got big. Our parents were surprised, or at least pretended to be, but their secretive glances and blushing smirks told the untold story of parental intimacy that remains an unfathomable mystery to their offspring. When they warned me to expect a brother—I prayed for a sister—you better believe I did—with my little clenched hands raised toward heaven, I shamelessly begged for a baby sister. But I had to settle for Weezer.
So while Ma stayed in bed knitting baby booties and blankets to pass the time, Gramma Waters came to watch over the brood of children—that horrid witch didn't believe me when I tried to explain that Dad—her son, her only son, her pride and joy—was watching over us right there at the kitchen table. She cuffed me in the seat of my pants with a wooden spoon for telling such a lie—Dad got mad, but he could do nothing because she didn't believe—his touch wouldn't mean anything more to her than a draft in the room that would make her pull her sweater close around her hunched shoulders.
"He's dead—there ain't no such things as ghosts—go to bed and be quiet—your nonsense will only upset your mommy—so help me if she loses that baby, it'll be all your fault!"
I felt mortified—not with Gramma spanking me for a no good reason, but because it was the first time I ever saw Dad cry—crying for him as he is now wasn't like human crying—it appears much more painful as he shimmered, collapsing and expanding in emotional contortions that were visually awesome. The man who never seemed phased by much of anything in life, wept because he was sorry for me—sorry that his dying put me in such a predicament; his whispered consolation fluttered around my ears like a breeze longing to be heard, not just seen. After Gramma stormed out of the kitchen carrying a tray for Ma, Dad reached out for me to come to him. Without hesitation, I sat in his chair to be near him, and I tingled all over, cold at first, then warm, soon I became hot, so hot I had to leave the comfort he offered. When I left him, he blew me a kiss; I blew him one in return, and went to bed.
The next time I saw him cry was on the day we left our house in Buffalo to move to Lyons way far away, but that was a solid three years later.
* * *
Dad sat like a guardian at the kitchen table every day, he never moved. I could tell he enjoyed watching over the mealtime gatherings of his brood. His worshipful gaze watched Ma's every move as she orchestrated our meals. I think he enjoyed being there, especially now that he didn't have to worry about a call taking him away to care for some sickly individual at any minute. He looked at all of us with awe as if he hadn't taken the time to see us while he was alive. I could tell he got a kick out of his namesake Wendell Jr., better known as Weezer; Dad told me that he never wanted a son named after him; Weezer was supposed to be named Jeffrey Scott. My big brother, Spence, christened him with that amusing nickname because of his little wiener's habit of whizzing wee-wee all over the place every time we changed his diaper.
But not every day was bliss; there were the days Dad's face would be cast with gloom whenever he witnessed things going wrong—Ma crying—Ma yelling—Ma throwing things—Ma hitting one of us whenever we'd act up. That old wooden spoon got a lot of mileage before it finally broke when Ma chased after Dennis with it in hand (or was it Dwayne, I can't keep those two jerks straight sometimes) and he slammed his bedroom door on it, effectively snapping it in half. Things did go wrong after Dad died, more wrong than right. It makes my brain ache to think about it now, years and years later—my heart heaves inside my chest as the memories undulate in waves, crashing on my mental shore again and again and again. They never end.
Things changed—or should I say, things became different when a letter came. Ma's expression of confusion piqued our curiosity as we gathered around the kitchen table to watch her read through the bundle of documents that arrived by special delivery. After a comprehensive silence, she laid aside the papers and declared that they came from a lawyer representing the Estate of Mabel E. Lamoureux—this is her Last Will and Testament.
It was the first time I ever heard of Great Aunt Mabel—I was only six, teetering on the edge of maintaining a reliable awareness of anything outside of myself—there are parts of the preceding years that I remember with the viscous consistency of dreams. Naturally, at such a young age, there are gaps of time I cannot account for, but other family members are always more than happy to oblige with their stories about some embarrassing event that I wish to remain ignorant of, like the time I had an endless stream of diarrhea oozing out of my diaper that filled the feet of my sleeper—or the infamous projectile vomit incident when I had the croup. It seemed like I was sick all the time—infamous for ruining a perfect holiday. My favorite story is the Christmas night when the big kids were playing with their new game Twister; I was watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I threw up in Burton's new shoes—jeez Christmas anyway, the look on his face was—priceless.
Some early memories are fragmented and drowsy; then some memories, like Dad's stunning death at the breakfast table, have a clarity that seems impossible while submerged in that shallow kiddie pool of self. By the time I turned six, I started to break the surface to the outside world, taking a quick look around at the big picture. There was a lot to comprehend.
A little bit at a time, I started to give a damn about things like a man named Nixon, the President of the United States of America. I pledged my allegiance to the flag of our country in school even though I had no idea what half of it meant because no one ever explained it—I just did it because the teacher expected me to follow without question. Being a little kid and fairly sheltered in a comfortable life, I had no reason to question the things expected of me. Democracy was still an abstract concept of freedom given to me in big word form, and Capitalism, unbeknownst to me, had everything to do with how many pennies it took for me to buy bubble gum at the corner store. Communists, nuclear bombs, and Vietnam were bad things in our world that the television reported with nightly regularity when I would much rather be watching Popeye kicking the tar out of Bluto to the tune of Columbia, Gem of the Ocean. I still had a lot to learn.
Learning about the existence of the departed Aunt Mabel was like finding buried treasure—she was already dead for over a year. Ma was sorry to hear that Mabel had passed on, and she felt baffled that Mabel wanted to give her the house.
"Why me? What am I going to do with that place? I have no need for it," she sighed.
"Sell it!" chimed Dennis.
"No—no—you don't understand—Tanglewood can't be sold, it must stay in the family—it is the legacy of the Lamoureux's—and so the responsibility falls to me—and someday, one of you will have it to pass on to your children. Tanglewood belongs to us now."
I thought it was weird that she referred to the house with a name—and such a name—the kind of name that should have curlicues:
It possessed a magical sound—we all murmured it after she said it as if tasting it for the first time. Of course, you can't sell a place named Tanglewood.
When I inquired about the how come of the name, Ma told me the story about her ancestor, Cornelius Lamoureux. When he first saw his newly acquired property, he gave it the name Tanglewood because it was such a hopeless tangle of vines and briars mixed in amongst tall hardwood and pine trees.
Then after she made a phone call or two, Uncle Phil Lamoureux telephoned her—he is Ma's brother. The unheard of Aunt Mabel was one surprise already, I never knew Ma had a brother, and not just one, she had three older brothers, the other two are George and Gary. George died a long time ago; Uncle Gary is alive, but sick with lung cancer. She also has a sister named Victoria—or "Vicky" as she prefers to be called. She telephoned a lot too. "Is Saint Joan there?" she'd ask; there was an inside joke to this which I was not privy to at the time, but years later I learned what it was about—I'll tell you later.
The telephone calls from her siblings became frequent—crazy frequent—Ma was just about ripping her hair out every time the phone rang—"What the hell do they want now?" Ma shrieked, nearly beside herself with every ring.
Then Uncle Phil came all the way from Kingston, Ontario to pay us a visit; he was a tall, lanky man, his blond hair still thick in spite of his advanced age that Ma marveled over with a teasing cruelty that was all in fun because of his blatant vanity as he peered at himself in every reflective surface. He made his own playful digs at her for being a runt—"She's living proof that smoking will stunt your growth!" He cast this tidbit of Ma's past to us like a bone to an expectant dog—we were shocked, and it seemed he took pleasure in shocking us. But in spite of this bickering, it was clear that their years apart never changed the familiar bonds—they were not strangers. It was strange for us—he was a strange man; he dressed in expensive suits, and he tailored a crisp manner along with a British accent, which Ma mocked all in good fun. "I really don't know who you're trying to kid with that pretty accent, especially with a name like Lamoureux!"
Ma and Phil stayed up talking long into the night—but we were bold spies, and eavesdropped from the top of the stairs after spending the right amount of time making the right going to bed noises. We heard Ma insist that she didn't want to move to Tanglewood, and wanted Phil to have it. He assured her that he didn't want it because it was too much work to maintain—he already had his fill of it for the past year, fighting with the Town of Lyons about it becoming an eyesore if he didn't get someone in there to take care of it. "If the grass grows to someone's trouser cuff they're on the phone bitching at me about it—Lyons is not a hop, skip, and a jump from Kingston—I do have a life, you know!" he complained morosely with a huff. "It's hard to hire reliable help when you can't supervise them—and I'm afraid Mabel let it fall into disrepair towards the end." Ma grumbled that she wished she had known before it came to this. "—I would have helped out." Then he snorted, "Well, dear sister, you're the one who took off without leaving a forwarding address—you could have kept in touch, but I see now you've been busy being married to a doctor and having a pack of children." There followed some inarticulate objections, slamming of objects, an outraged cry, "Don't blame me for staying away, blame Haviland!" Then Phil apologized for upsetting her.
According to the rest of his persuasive testimony, Aunt Vicky didn't want it either (she married several times, never had children—never wanted children). Phil went on to say that Vicky hates the monstrosity; she lives in Manhattan, which in my child's perception, was far enough away that she might as well be living on the moon. The most interesting tidbit of information relayed from a telephone conversation Noel listened in on a few days ago was this, "You were the logical choice—Mabel always liked you best anyway—she hated Haviland for disowning you because of your big ideas and wanting to save the world."
What did all of that mean? We puzzled. I got tired and nodded off while Noel, Spence, Dennis, Ash, Burton, and Dwayne continued to puzzle over it until Ma yelled up the stairs, "You kids have school tomorrow—go to bed!"
The next morning, Spence told us that he made one more tiptoe to the top of the stairs and overheard Phil say, "Tanglewood can only be a benefit for your children—imagine them living there—it will be a fine place for them—especially without Haviland there to make them miserable—"
"What did she say to that?" Noel wanted to know.
"She said nothing—at least, nothing that I could hear—" he shrugged.
* * *
A Buffalo, New York winter can feel like forever, especially when it drags on into April with its fickle storms smashing delicate crocuses into pulpy purple and orange stains in the fresh snow. Spring finally arrives with a muddy ugliness that is better off covered by snow as it rains a damp misery—there is nothing pretty about April showers. The storminess and gloom of this season reflected our reluctance—our unhappiness with having to move away.
My brothers kept stealing the real estate sign from the front yard and throwing it in the bushes somewhere blocks away. There was one time Dennis plunked it down outside the high school, which we all thought was pee-your-pants-hi-larious—but he spent a few days after school for that prank. We became more quarrelsome; Ma laid down the law with frustrated tears that made us all feel bad—making us secretly hate the individual who crossed her. With the arrival of May, our house finally sold and a hot spell with thunderstorms rolled through; and as our lights flickered, we finished packing our belongings by candlelight.
On the day that we moved to Lyons, I packed Lucy in a special box with air holes that I made to transport her along with my favorite toys, which she concurred were her favorites too. Ma naturally took advantage of our moving to clean house as she told me only to bring the toys that mattered most; anything that we had outgrown or no longer wanted were donated to poor kids who had none.
After Ma herded us out of the house with the last of our belongings, I ran back inside to say goodbye to Dad; he stood in the kitchen, his expression grim. I went right to him and stood in that tingling cold until the warmth became unbearable.
"Goodbye, Dad—we're leaving now, and we're not coming back—maybe it's time for you to go too," I said as I backed away. He nodded in response, and then his hand passed over his face as sadness swept through his spirit—he tried to hide it; I just stared at him—letting my eyes soak up the last sight of him I'll ever have.
"Dusty-girl, are you in here?" Ma called from the front door. She came down the long hallway and stepped through the kitchen threshold. "It's time to go," she said, taking me by the hand—but she hesitated. She looked around as if checking to make sure that we left nothing behind, and then she fixed her gaze on the place where Dad stood. Although she stared hard at him, I knew that the space he occupied remained empty to her searching eyes; I knew that she longed to see what I could see even though it scared her. She never acknowledged that I saw something no one else could see; she never said that she did or didn't believe me. She always defended me from my teasing brothers, and the strange looks of visitors, she would tell them—"Please don't sit there, Dell died in that chair"—that's the closest she came to admitting that he might exist. It was always amusing to watch how people would react to this information—flinching, staring, grimacing—I think it's funny how the living are so afraid of dying and anything dead—as if it's something contagious. Dead germs, no returns—sorry, there's no home free when it comes to death—dead today, buried tomorrow—goodbye—amen.
"Goodbye, Dell—I love you," she said to the emptiness just in case I wasn't crazy.
He reached out to touch her, but retracted his hand, and then he blew her a kiss instead. Of course, she couldn't see his chivalrous gesture; she looked to me for guidance, but I did nothing—I didn't want her to think I was lying just so she'd feel better. Somehow, I knew if I told her the truth about what just passed beyond her field of vision, it would only hurt her more because she couldn't see him.
"It's time to go, Dusty," she whispered, wiping tears from her face.
Ma and I walked out together, hand in hand down the long central hallway of our Buffalo house. I didn't look back, because I feared that he was going to stay there all alone—I was so afraid that he had no choice that he'd have to stay behind watching the next family who moved in—the image was too sad to comprehend. I still miss him.
©2007 by Laura J. Wellner, All Rights Reserved, Field Stone Press
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