“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”
When I was three years old, I fell, head-first down a utility hole in the field beside my grandmother’s house. The hole and I were virtually the same size, so only my white patent-leather-clad feet were visible, kicking furiously at the hole’s surface. The kicking caused a steady stream of dirt to break away from the sides and fall into my eyes and mouth. Forehead grating against broken pieces of glass. Arms trapped immobile at my sides, making it impossible to get my suck-thumb into my mouth. The only recourse was to start screaming loudly.
Just five minutes earlier, my mother gave me a wary escort to gramma’s front porch saying, “You stay right here on this porch, and don’t go anywhere. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
Mom was not in the best of moods, though I didn’t understand why at the time. In my opinion, I’d behaved perfectly all morning, and at three I’d never conceived of a world that didn’t revolve around me. Her foul mood began while we were in the bathroom finishing my bath, both dressing and laughing amid silky swirling clouds of baby powder. She slowed suddenly and paled. Wincing, her hand rose to her stomach.
“Damn.” A single drop streaked down her cheek, leaving a shiny path amid the white-powder like the tail of a comet. Wiping it away quickly she said with a narrow smile, “Let’s finish drying you off and get dressed.”
It was Memorial Day and we were going to the cemetery to visit my grandfather. Something we did every year, making the three hour trek from Lexington through the Eastern Kentucky mountains to take gramma to visit the grave. My father didn’t make these trips with us, although it was his mother we were visiting. The trip was always solemn, heavy with a sense of duty that I could feel but not quite understand. Mom loved gramma, but it wasn’t an easy love, being intricately wrapped up with her sense of wife and motherhood.
I never met my grandfather. He died just a few days before I was born. In fact, the whole grandfather concept was foreign to me, as mother’s side of the family didn’t have one lurking about either. So, I remained constantly on the lookout for clues about grandfathers.
I remember my grandmother in constant motion, shuffling worriedly back and forth in her tiny house from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom, while emitting a strange high-pitched whistling whsseree-whsseree sound. This sound was annoying, but also comforting, familiar. Mom and I would giggle quietly over it as we sat eating cookies in gramma's cramped, but cozy table with a worn plastic red gingham table cloth. Lemon cookies. There were always soft lemon-frosted Archway cookies in gramma’s cookie jar on the kitchen table. I still buy these cookies sometimes and have to will myself not to eat the entire box in one sitting.
On this visit, I was ejected from kitchen to front porch for the same offense. After being scrubbed clean from the morning’s play and dressed in an itchy ice blue sailor jumper with white tights, I snuck into the kitchen, ate too many lemon cookies and then refused lunch. Most children when given the choice between cookies and gramma’s homemade meatloaf, I’d argue, would have done the same. However, with more than thirty years hindsight, I do admit that it was rude to declare in a loud voice that the meatloaf smelled like feetloaf.
So, I found myself firmly escorted to the front porch to wait “right here” while mom cleaned up the kitchen and gramma got dressed to go to the cemetery.
“Right here,” in my opinion, was a phrase open to interpretation. I always defined it as the geographic region roughly equivalent to the range of my mother’s voice. Throughout my childhood--in fact throughout my entire life—I've tested and sought to expand the boundaries of that range.
At three, I was just beginning to test these boundaries alongside the new cognition of myself as a separate person whose actions might not need to mirror the direction given by that voice. Over the years, I would measure the success of my exploits by the increasingly severe reactions that resulted from my mother.
At five I would begin breaching my backyard to explore increasingly exotic, forbidden locations such as the drainage tunnel in the ditch behind our yard--which went all the way under the street and came out in a muddy reservoir on another block. As I made my way back above ground, I would encounter a masturbating ice cream man who would ask me, "Do you want a feel?" Later I would hide under my bed as the police came to the door to let my hysterical mother know he had been arrested.
At eight, proud to be our neighborhood's only latchkey kid, I would ignore mom's explicit and repeated instructions to stay home and wait for the cable guy after school and instead ride my bike two miles to the convenient store to practice my "no hands" technique. On the way, I would have a massive bike wreck, dislocate my wrist, break my toe, and have to be rushed via ambulance to the hospital for surgery to lodge my wrist bone back into place. For roughly 20 years afterward, this example was used to remind me what would happen should I disobey instructions.
Throughout my teen, college and early adult years, various disastrous consequences seemed to ensue from mother-opposing behaviors. College dorm rooms, apartments and houses from New York to San Francisco have all served as containers of my mother’s voice driving this point home at multiple frequencies across expanding distances.
But at three, the porch was interesting enough in its own right. It boasted a porch swing, four wide steps perfect for the minutia of toy set-up, and white wood railing for sticking your head through to peek at the forbidden field beyond. Sometimes there were rabbits in that field. I had seen them from the window the night before hopping and nibbling, furry and awaiting capture. Sometimes there were loud people smoking cigarettes to musical breaking glass and crumpling tin late at night. Gramma grumbled to my mother about this, telling her she sometimes had to call the police to quiet them down. As I looked through the fence railing, I saw that an enormous mound of dirt had appeared overnight and beside it a hole with some type of white cover. Dirt and holes were better than rabbits.
I wanted to be part of what went on in that field, but had thus far been denied opportunity. Now, it was mine for the taking and I did not hesitate. I skipped down the steps in a hopscotch pattern: one down, one up, two down, one up, two down, one up. At the bottom, after casting a backward glance to see if my mother had appeared in the doorway, I strolled deliberately into the field. I would climb atop the dirt mound, and sit as a throned princess clad in white stockings. After all, I’d gotten second place in the Little Miss Daviess County pageant only the week before. There had been a throne, which as runner up I did NOT get to sit on. It was no small consolation that this one looked much grander in scale.
But first, there was the hole to be inspected. I peered down over the side of the covering, which looked like a plastic doormat, straining to see the bottom. Pitch blackness stared back. Nearby, pieces of broken glass lay strewn across the field. I could throw these down the hole to ascertain its depth. The doormat allowed for this experiment, being pattered of wide straight lines with spaces in between. I gathered a handful of broken glass and began tossing. Each piece landed with a dull thud, but the experiment proved unsatisfactory in assessing the hole’s depth. I pulled the mat aside and squinted harder. Still nothing. So, kneeling in the dirt at the edge of the hole, I leaned my head in as far as it would go, holding onto a large piece of grass and ground. I could almost see the bottom…
In the next instant, that tenuous piece of earth gave way. I toppled in head first, coming to rest with my forehead atop the pieces of glass.
I had found the bottom.
I could only move feet, eyelids and mouth. The sides of the hole were the exact size of my shoulders, and every panicked struggle rained dirt down into the narrow space between my face and the sidewall. Suspended upside down, the weight of my body rested entirely upon my head. I was simultaneously terrified and furious. I began to scream.
Luckily, Sam heard my screaming and came to the rescue after only a few minutes. Sam was a car mechanic whose garage sat on the field’s back edge, behind my grandmother’s house. He was in the middle of an oil-change when my screaming started and the next thing I knew I was pulled straight up out of the hole by my feet and carried—still screaming—back across the field and up the stairs to the safety of the porch. Only moments ago, this same porch had seemed incapable of containing my well-laid plans.
As Sam reached the top of the porch stairs, my mother flew out the front door, gramma close behind. Both wore dresses, high heels, stockings, red lipstick and perfume--Chanel Number 5 for mom, Chantilly Lace for gramma. My grandmother wore a hat that fit tidily atop the dome of her head. With purses in hand, they were ready to leave for the cemetery.
“Just pulled this‘n out of that hole by’r feet. Coupla scratches on’r head. Ain’t no harm done.”
Mom pulled me out of Sam’s arms and started dabbing the blood on my forehead and scalp with spit so she could inspect the scratches. “Karen Paige what have you done now? I told you to stay RIGHT HERE. Where does it hurt? Stop screaming and hold still so I can see if you are hurt.”
What hurt were her fingernails digging into my left arm, and her ferocious spit-scrubbing on my forehead.
“Yep, saw them boys from the phone company dig’r out this mornin’. Ten more holes jus’ like‘m from here’t th' enda the road.” Sam seemed pleased to provide this status report as he shifted from one foot to the other and smiled sheepishly at my mother.
Her hysteria quickly gave way to fury as she completed her head to toe inspection, saw I was unhurt but for several scratches on my forehead, and realized I was covered in dirt. It fell in wet clumps from my hair each time I moved, was caked under my fingernails and up my nose, and I was spitting it from my mouth. My no-longer-white tights were torn at both knees, my jumper was streaked with mud and grass stains, and I was missing a shoe.
“What in the world were you doing young lady? I told you to stay on this porch.” she spat between clenched teeth.
To Sam and my grandmother she fumed, “I left her for two minutes!”
Gramma sat down on the porch swing and tentatively started a worried rendition of her whsseree, whsseree sound. She placed her handbag at her side, sighed, and seemed to resign herself to not making her yearly pilgrimage.
“I wanted to see the hole,” I ventured.
Sam tried, ”Just cain’t turn yer back on these young’uns for a second.” He looked sideways at my mother to see if this insight had proved helpful.
“Well. You certainly saw it alright. Now march right in that house and into the bathroom.”
She took me by the wrist, opened the screen door, and propelled me into the bathroom.
”We’ll have to give you a bath and scrub you from head to toe. I’ll bet your grandmother doesn’t have any disinfectant or band aids and the stores are closed today.”
She began peeling away my sodden clothing. My one remaining shoe, she put by the door. The tights, she tossed into the wastebasket.
”I don’t know how we’re going to get all this dirt off of you and all your clothes are ruined. Stand still while I run a bath...."
As she turned me toward the bath, her words trailed off and I saw the tub was already full. And there in pretty pink water floated her stockings and undergarments.