I miss the farm. I miss having my own room and having chores to do in the morning and I miss the colors. I don't miss the Tylers. Everything here is gray. The lights inside are yellow, but not like the yellow of the sun. The backyard here has no grass. It is a plot of hard dry dirt surrounded by stacks of rotting wood and garbage cans. They smell worse to me than pig manure. There's a patched up old slat fence that's been knocked down and put back up so many times it wobbles in the wind. My sister Louise goes out there to play each morning. She sits under the back porch and mixes up mud-pies, and then she bakes them on bricks in the sooty sun until they are dry and crumbly and gray. She calls me out to come and play with her, but I cannot bring myself to do it. There's just no sense in it. I help Mama with the housecleaning, but this apartment is so small and cluttered it is difficult to really clean. We straighten things up everyday. Mama calls it 'redding up', but to me it's just moving things from one place to another. We didn't have any clutter on the farm -- Mrs. Tyler said if you couldn't sit on it or eat off of it, you didn't need it. I sleep on a folding cot in the living room, and every morning it has to be made up and folded up and rolled into a corner and covered with a flowered throw. I have all my things in a large flat box that fits under Mama's bed. Louise keeps pulling it out and rummaging through it, but I have now let her know it is my property, and even though she goes crying to Mama I will not give in on this. These things are the only things that belong to me. Nothing else in this house is mine. Even the new dress Maw bought for me does not feel as though it is mine. It is a part of this house, and so not mine.
The first night I was home I bowed my head and crossed myself at the dinner table. Louise pointed at me and laughed, and Mama frowned, and Maw had a fit. She didn't yell at me though, but at Mama. She said, "See what those people have gone and done with your daughter? They had no right I tell you, and if you'd been paying attention you would've known what they were doing." And then she turned to me and took hold of my arm. "Annie, we don't do that in this house. All the Lord requires of us is a simple thanks for the food we have. You don't have to cross yourself ever again.” and then she continued with Mama, "I'm taking Annie to church with me every Sunday from now on. I've tried with Louise, but without you backing me on it I've gotten nowhere. This one though . . ." and then she nodded over toward me, ". . . there's a lot to be undone, and she'll have to be baptized soon to wash away the damage" Later, I heard Maw telling Mama that she would not stand by and Catholicism creep into the family, and before she left she told Mama to have me ready for church on Sunday. That night, before I went to sleep, I crossed myself three hundred and sixty five times and prayed to St. Jude. I asked if he could hold them for me and deduct one each day, and promised I would do this each year until the time came I could cross myself at the table again.
The Old Man, that's what everyone calls our father, is very strange. He never came to the farm with Mama when she visited, and I don't remember him from when I lived here before. But the Tylers told me he was my "natural" Daddy, like Mama is my "natural" Mama, and so I believe he is. He laughs a lot when there is nothing to laugh about, and is always trying to talk to me when I don't want to talk. I hear him sometimes in the bathroom at night. The bathroom is right off the living room where I sleep, and sometimes I hear him in there in the middle of the night moaning and bumping around, and sometimes he's in there for a very long time and sometimes I think he is crying. Sometimes the toilet does not even flush. I don't like the way the Old Man looks at me. I woke up one night and found him sitting on the edge of my cot. He was just sitting there staring at me. I asked him what was wrong and he just got up and went back to the couch. He reminds me of that pitiful little dog back at the Tyler's. All he ever did was whine and cry like he wanted something, but you never knew what he wanted. He'd dance around you in circles with his tail between his legs and his ears back like he'd done something wrong, whimpering the whole time. I felt sorry for him at first, but then it got so I'd just kick him away because I couldn't stand it anymore. Him and Mama do not sleep in the same room. He sleeps on the couch, and Louise shares the double bed with Mama. When they sent me away, Louise was in a bassinet in Mama and the Old Man's room, and now she's got Mama all to her self. Mama goes in and pats her to sleep each night, even though she is five years old and goes to school now. When Maw is here they argue about it, and Maw tells her she is spoiling Louise rotten. Also, Louise hangs on her all day long, and whines and cries each morning because she has to go to school. Once she locked herself in the bathroom until it was too late to go, but mostly she plays sick so she can stay home. She was always with Mama when she came to visit on the farm, and I hated her because she got to go back home at the end of the day. But then I think I'd forgotten or maybe never known how different Mama's home was from the farm. I used to think I was on the farm because I was so bad. The day before I left home, I pushed Louise she fell and cut her knee. I don't think this anymore. I think now they just didn't want me around.
I like my brother Jimmy. He is "slow" Mama says, and he pouts, but he talks to me a lot, and that makes Louise jealous. She is mean to him, and gets even meaner when she sees him talking to me. But she has Johnnie, who never bothers to even notice me. He is two years older than me, and Mama's always trying to get him to take me with him when he goes out, and sometimes he says he will, then he runs off while I'm getting ready. Him and Louise are my Mama's favorites -- neither of them have ever been in foster homes.
Marion is in bed all day long. She is a year younger than me and Mama says we looked like twins when we were little. She is rail thin and I am fat as a cow. She has long silky hair and my hair is coarse and curls every which way except the way I want. I go in to see her and she shows me her paper dolls and sometimes we listen to her records, but she watches me carefully the whole time I'm with her, as if she's waiting for me to do something awful to her, and I think she lies to Mama about taking her medicine. She was with me on the farm, at first, but then she got real sick and they took her home.
Harry's off somewhere hitchhiking, Mama says. I remember him taking me for walks before I left for the farm, and I remember him holding my hand and telling me that men always walked on the street side of the sidewalk to protect ladies, but I don't remember much else about him. Mama says he'll be home soon, but she doesn't know when.
Maw is nice to me, but I saw her pull Marion's hair hard one time when she wouldn't take her medicine, and once she put on a monster mask and scared Jimmy to death, and she wouldn't take it off, even though I begged her to. Jimmy sat in corner screaming and crying with his hands over his head and she still wouldn't take it off. And one time she put yellow soap in his mouth for swearing. He ran out the house and spit it out in the gangway and Louise went and told, so Maw made him come up and she soaped his mouth again--"real good this time", she said. She tells Louise that if she catches her sticking her tongue out she will cut it off with her big scissors, and if she doesn't go to church with us she'll burn in Hell. But I am not afraid of her. I know why she hates the Catholics so much.
There's nothing for me to do here. I help Mama, but outside of that I have nothing to do. I don't think she really likes me or wants me here, and I think she is glad that she doesn't have to bother with me much. Whenever we're alone she seems all antsy and uncomfortable and starts talking about things I did when I was a little girl. It almost seems as if she's trying hard to remember what it was like before I left so she'll know what to do now. I don't remember any of what she talks about, and sometimes I think she's making it up, because it's all real happy stuff like birthday parties, and trips to the zoo, and her reading me stories, and stuff I'm sure I'd remember if it really happened. I always listen and then tell her I don't remember, and then she doesn't seem to know what else to say and remembers something she has to do so she can get away from me. Sometimes I think she is scared of me.
I do not like to read and I do not like school at all. I like going to church with Maw, even though it's not a Catholic church. I know God understands I can't do nothing about that, and I say the rosary whenever I can get off by myself. It's hard to do in this apartment. There's no privacy at all except in the bathroom, and every time I go there's someone banging on the door to get in. There's an air shaft outside the bathroom window, and sometimes I open it and hang my head out when I say my prayers, so no one will hear me. At the bottom of this shaft there are beer bottles and cigarette butts and a little shiny piece of what looks from up here like blue satin. I could set up a fort down there. I could let down a rope and go down there whenever I wanted to if I wanted to.
When I left the farm, Mrs. Tyler cried and said I should write to her every week to let her know I was all right. I started a letter but didn't know what to say, and I knew my spelling was bad so I tore it up. She never wrote one to me.
Mama and the Old Man fight all the time. When she makes fudge she hides it in her dresser drawer so he can't have any. He doesn't have any teeth. Mama says he had some but Maw took them and threw them away. I don't know why she would do that.
I am going to leave when I turn eighteen. Johnnie told me that's legal age, and no one can stop me then. I only have four years left here. He got Mama to sign for him to go into the Marines, but I won't be able to do that because I am a girl. Johnnie will be leaving soon. I think about leaving all the time.
Now they're talking about moving again.
I go to church with Maw every Sunday at the Englewood Christian Church at ten o'clock in the morning. She always stays after the services, and I wait while she talks to Pastor Britton and some ladies who work for the church. They want me to teach Sunday school to little kids, but say I have to be baptized first. I don't much care if I do or not. I just shake my head and agree with them cause it seems that's what they want me to do. I like the Bible, but don't know if I could teach it to little kids the way they want me to. I sit with Maw every night after supper and we read passages out loud. I read and she listens -- she helps me with the hard names and places and seems happy when I say them right. Sometimes Louise sits with us, but she usually gets bored and starts acting silly and Maw sends her away. I don't like her much. She hates me. I know it. I can see it in her eyes. Especially when Mama is around. If she's talking to me, Louise pulls on her dress and hangs on her and whines about something until she forgets about me. She's pretty smart for a little kid, but she thinks I don't know what she's doing, so she can't be too smart. And she doesn't know that I don't care if my mother ever talks to me or does anything for me. I just don't care. I don't even know her, and don't know if I want to. It's different with Maw. Louise hates her too, but it still bothers her that Maw pays me so much attention.
Maw's bought me a lot of clothes since I came back. She wouldn't ever let me wear my overalls or any of the pants and shirts I brought from the farm. She goes to the Goodwill and comes back with cotton dresses that have collars up to my neck, and strings that tie around my waist with a bow in the back. She makes me wear "snuggies" -- peach colored cotton underwear that makes me look fatter than I really am. The shoes she buys are what she calls oxfords; they're brown and clunky and have laces, but I polish them up so at least they're shiny. She pulls my hair back into a pony tail with a rubber band and then ties a ribbon over it. We used to truss up and tether animals on the farm with ropes and bindings when they misbehaved, and sometimes I feel like one when I get dressed for the day. Nighttime is different -- then I wear the long flannel nightgowns she bought me for Christmas, and I can move every part of my body inside them. I sleep on the roll away bed by myself, so I can stretch out my arms and legs and not be afraid of kicking anybody. Then my body is mine.
I take baths every night. I fill up the bathtub and just soak. On the farm I never minded being dirty -- dirt didn't feel like dirt there -- even though we worked right in the dirt and it got ground into my hands and under my fingernails. My skin wasn't really my own skin there the way it is here -- I never thought much about being clean and smelling clean and all that. Most nights I'd just brush off the loose dirt before I went to bed. They didn't have indoor plumbing either, and you couldn't just take a bath whenever you wanted to -- you had to haul the water in and heat on it on the stove, and most evenings I was just too tired to even think about it. It's hard to feel right about taking a bath every night though, cause someone's always banging on the door to get in and I sometimes have to get out before I want to. Usually it's Louise, and I hear her yelling out to Mama, "What's she doing in there? I gotta go pee . . . " and I try to just ignore it, cause I know she doesn't have to go pee any more than I do cause I always ask her before I go in. But she usually keeps it up until our mother knocks on the door and tells me I have to hurry. I always lock the door. She didn't like this at first, and told me if would be okay if Louise came in while I was in the tub cause we're both girls. But I said I'd rather not take a bath at all if I couldn't lock the door and so she finally left me alone about it. Maw makes a big fuss about how clean I keep myself. In addition to taking a bath every night, I scrub my face twice a day and wash my hands a lot. My fingernails are short and there is no dirt under them, ever. Maw gave me a manicure set in a little pink plastic case, and showed me how to use it. She said I shouldn't clip my nails with a clipper like my mother does -- that only men should do that. She said when I'm sixteen she'll get me some clear nail polish.
When Maw told me I had to get baptized, I was real scared. I’d stopped crossing myself in front of her, and never said the rosary where she could hear me, and I'd been going to church with her and reading from the bible and all and I thought that was enough. But she says I need to be cleansed "properly", and she says the baptism will wash away all the "Catholic" stuff the Tylers put into me. I heard the pastor call me a "lost sheep" one time, and then say how happy he was I would be brought back into the fold. I don't like him. He has a wife and I see him looking funny at some of the women who stay after services. Shouldn't have a wife in the first place. Priests aren't allowed to have wives -- and that just goes to show how little this religion cares for God's rules. They don't even call him "Father".
I'm glad Maw takes me to church though. It's the only time outside school that I get to be out of the house and away from Louise. And I do talk to the Virgin Mary all the time. She is a woman and so understands that I cannot disobey Maw. Maw says she's got to "undo the damage" the Tylers did by making me a Catholic, but Mary knows that she cannot do this because I am a true Catholic. I recite the rosary every evening (silently, and without beads) and I don't eat meat on Fridays and I say extra prayers on every holy day of obligation and I don't have anyone telling me I have to. And no one knows except me, and Mary, and God, and Jesus maybe.
The Sunday I got baptized I was real proud of myself. Before we left the house I went into the bathroom and rubbed Vaseline all over my face--I knew it would keep the baptismal water from really touching me. I stuck my St. Jude card into the waistband of my panties, face in so the the relic spot was touching my skin, and I said four "Our Fathers" and three "Hail Mary's" on the way to the church. I had to wear this long purple robe and go up on the stage with the Pastor. He asked me questions and I answered the way we'd rehearsed I'd answer, then he dunked my face into a bowl of water three times. Each time I prayed silently to Mary to forgive me, and I could feel that she did. Then he gave me a white towel and I blotted the water off my face. I felt my face all over and could still feel the layer of Vaseline so I knew I was still all right -- I was still Catholic. I could see Maw and Mama down in the second pew smiling up at me, and I smiled back at them. Louise was sitting in between them, with a real dumb look on her face. I know she didn’t want to come. She put up a big fuss when she found out I was going to be baptized. Said she wanted to be baptized too, and got all hysterical and threw one of her hissy fits when Maw told her she was too young. But that was nothing compared to the fit she threw when Maw added that if she didn't start going to Sunday school she'd never be baptized and would end up burning in Hell. I went into her bedroom that night and told her that Hell was down in the sewers, and next time she passed one she’d be pulled in by the Devil himself “The Devil’s big old claw’s gonna reach out, grab holda your leg, and pull you right in.” I said. Louise started to yell out for her “Mama”, but I grabbed hold of her arm and told her “Not even Mama can help you now -- not even Mama can stop the Devil.” She just fell back on the pillow with her eyes wide and didn’t say anything, even when I let go her arm and went on out and went to bed. She started moaning in her sleep that night and I felt kinda bad cause I figured she was having nightmares, but she tests me so I can barely stand it sometimes.
To be continued...
To the Girl-Child
I watch, as you become me,
And think now here is a far better me
than I was ever able to be.
Yet I know that over the years
you have filtered back into me,
returned to the soil and altered it,
Until the me
I might be
no longer exists
So as I watch and think
I see you becoming me
I know you are becoming something
brighter and more brilliant
than either you or me could ever be
by ourselves alone.
...by Arlene Greene