Over the next few days, this story will be presented in four parts. Enjoy!
Jacob's Wish, Part #1
[copyright 2009 Vinita Hampton Wright]
This holiday promises to be total chaos, with the five of us siblings arriving within twenty-four hours of one another at our parents’ home. The forecast is for blizzards in one direction and ice storms in the other. Two of us are flying and the rest coming by car, so who knows who will be in the most danger along the way. I imagine mile-long pile-ups on the interstate and two-day delays at the airports, everyone landing finally at the old house grumpy and disheveled and out of the mood to celebrate.
But celebrate we will, because this is how our parents trained us—first of all as a big family that did things together, and second of all as faithful Catholics who attended Mass regularly and held to the general rhythm of the church year. No matter what was happening out in the rest of the world or in our social lives, we stepped to that eternal cadence, and although we complained plenty, the forced discipline formed in each of us a sort of steadiness, the ability to simply decide to follow through on a thing and do it, come what may. A lot of people my age resent their religious upbringings, but I find it hard to stay mad for long. When Mom called up each of us three months ago and told us about her cancer, we then called one another and decided to be there for the holiday, no matter the logistics. Since then, Mom’s treatments have gone well, and I don’t believe any of us think she will actually die, so we look forward to a Christmas more sweet than bitter.
I’m driving ten hours to get there, which means I’ll have plenty of time to think. As the miles go by, memories rise to the surface. Most of them are holiday memories, and most of those run together; after so many Christmases, I can barely remember what the gifts were on any particular holiday, or who was at home or away.
The earlier the memory, though, the clearer the details. And the Christmas that comes through with the most definition happened the year I was ten. My grandfather Burke had died in early November. He was my father’s father, who had sold his farm years ago but lived in the farmhouse until he died of a heart attack. Grandma had died years before in a car accident; I hardly remember her. Grandpa Burke is a nice memory, though—sort of jolly in an understated way. He loved having us kids come out to visit. He always gave Mom a big hug and kiss on the cheek and called her “Daughter.” I think he and Dad got along, but I don’t remember a lot of warmth between them. Mom said once that they were too much alike and had always butted heads.
Anyway, Grandpa Burke was gone, and I think it was harder for Mom to get in the mood for Christmas than it was for Dad. Mom’s parents had both passed when I was very small, and that’s probably why she was so attached to Grandpa. Dad didn’t reveal how he felt. All I remember was how tense it was around our house as the holiday approached.
Part of the tension had to do with our family at the time, which was sort of growing out of itself. My oldest brother, Dan, was married nearly two years by that time, had graduated college worked for an insurance company. Dan and Dad got along just fine, and we all liked his wife, Allie, who didn’t flinch at the rough and tumble of our family. Another plus was that they lived just over in the next town, not even an hour away, which meant that they visited often. Also, Allie was Catholic, and the two of them had joined a church already and promised to be a “good Catholic family,” as they were called back then. No matter what in our family was not going well, I know that my parents probably said to each other on the worst days, “Well, at least Dan’s doing well.”
David, the second-born, did just what second children often do: defied every convention and possessed the gift for riling up every situation. Maybe today someone would diagnose David with Attention Deficit Disorder, but back then, we called it “distracted” or “flakey.” David tended to hear every other word said to him, especially if that person was Dad. I think David actually tried to listen to Dad, but it was like a bad frequency, two cell phones that kept cutting out on each other. He also forgot things frequently, like a family dinner he was supposed to attend, or which bills were due, or what time to show up for something. By now, David was out of the house, too, but our parents were not happy about this. School had never been his best situation, and so after graduating high school, he found a job at a warehouse in another town nearly two hours away. David didn’t visit as often as Mom wanted to see him, which caused friction. He also lived with two other guys and did not go to church, another strike against him. Dad thought he was wasting his life and had better “get it together.” Either David didn’t pick up on all the worry and disapproval, or he did and didn’t care. Usually, my parents’ voices took on a strained note when they said his name.
Three of us kids still lived at home. Jonathan, fifteen, was a good kid and easygoing. He did what was necessary to get along with everybody. His only vice was a love for animals that went far beyond what most families could bear. Our house gave shelter to his collection:
- Arnold the hound looked as if he had survived two wars. Jonathan found him at the town dump, eating garbage. Arnold was pretty self-sufficient, seeming content to have food and shelter. But he developed a love for Dad that no one could explain. Dad was nice enough to the pets but did not invite special attention. Nevertheless, Arnold’s favorite spot to nap was on Dad’s lap. Long-limbed, and at forty pounds, Arnold would drape himself over Dad and the recliner that was his chair, paws sticking out in all directions, his dog snores competing with the television.
- Bessie the Golden Retriever we’d gotten as a puppy from the litter of the Harpers’ dog three blocks down. Bessie was frightened of loud noises—you can imagine what it did to her living in a large family—and responded to any form of swearing by hiding in the laundry room. She ate only if someone was in the room with her. Arnold would eat everything in sight, including Bessie’s dinner, unless someone put Arnold outside and then stayed with Bessie until she calmed down and decided to eat.
- Messie the calico cat was fluffy and happy and deserving of her name. There was no surface upon which she would not walk, climb, or sleep. There was no item or substance that did not awaken her curiosity. In other words, Messie got into everything and usually distributed it all over the house, whether oatmeal from someone’s leftover breakfast bowl or sequins from my sister’s majorette outfit.
- Stalker the cat was gray-striped and part Siamese, which meant that he was demanding and ornery. The only reason Mom let us keep him was that no mouse, cockroach, or spider escaped him. It was better than having a live-in exterminator. But you never knew when you’d find a dead something left as offering in the doorway or on your favorite chair. Also, when Stalker ran out of real prey he would pounce on moving feet, the pen you were writing with, a dangling electric chord, or a strand of hair trailing down your back.
- Jennifer, the black bunny with white nose and feet, liked to sleep in Jonathan’s bed or mine, under the covers against our feet. She went pretty much wherever she wanted but only by routes that kept her out of the way of Stalker and Arnold. Jennifer could hide so well that several times the whole family went hunting the neighborhood only to find her later in a shoebox at the back of a closet or, once, in the dryer.
- Mitch & Mollie the turtles stayed in a tank in Jonathan’s room, because Mom gave him no other options.
- For some reason, Billie Bob the hamster was allowed a large cage in the family room, in front of the window. He had a wheel and several other toys and stayed busy except for the times when Arnold or Stalker was chasing one of the cats or Jennifer. Then Billie Bob sat up on his furry haunches, nose twitching and front paws in the air, as if he had a bet riding on one of the runners.
Our parents didn’t really mind all of Jonathan’s creatures. Dad had grown up on a farm and, once he got used to the idea of animals inside the house, he was fine. Mom had many pets as an only child, and we knew that if she saw a creature first, we had a better chance of keeping it. But when you really care about creatures, they create a stress all their own. In our house, if one of the humans didn’t have a cold or infection, a cut or bruise, then certainly one of the pets did. We had more medical supplies than a clinic, and we all learned what human medicines could double in a veterinary capacity. Even we kids knew how to dose the rabbit with the appropriate substance. Jonathan took primary responsibility for critter care, knowing intuitively that even Mom could take only so much.
Mary Alice, two years older than me, wasn’t a great fan of animals, and so the noise most often heard in our house was not the dogs or cats or the hamster wheel but Mary Alice’s shriek of disgust or disapproval. Of course, this made all the animals love her more. The dogs came begging for pets or treats, and the cats like to lounge on her clothes, especially sweaters of dark color. Mary Alice was only thirteen at the time but already punctuated her every conversation with, “Someday, when I get out of this house . . .”
I should say Marci, because that’s the name Mary Alice took for herself at age nine, when a new girl arrived in her class at St. Tobias School, bringing the number of Mary’s in Marci’s class up to five. She simply refused to have the same name as four other people, so she announced to everyone that she was now Marci. This grieved our mother for about two months, partly because Marci was not a Catholic name, and partly because Alice had been the name of Mom’s mother. But you learn to choose your battles. Our parents called her Mary Alice only when she was in trouble, or about to be.
At that time, I was ten. As the baby of the family, I had figured out how to survive. I could adapt with any change of situation and knew how to get what I wanted from just about everybody in the family. The only person immune to my devices was Marci, who enjoyed terrorizing me after she had been terrorized by someone else, usually a classmate who got tired of her drama. She was the drama queen for whom every problem was insurmountable and every pain a symptom of immanent death. Looking back on things now, I think Marci created about eighty percent of all stress experienced in our family. Our parents could figure out how to stretch a paycheck and how to repair their own washing machine, but even the two of them together had trouble calming down Marci once her panic button had been pushed.
Because of this, I learned that the best way to get by was to be quiet and unflappable. I learned to solve my own problems and not complain much. Once I fractured my shin and no one knew about it for a day and a half and then only when Mom demanded that I wear a skirt to Mass and saw the bruise spreading like spilled grape juice. So I suppose I introduced stress by not giving them enough information. Each child has his or her own gift for causing trouble.
[Check back tomorrow for Part #2]