I was conceived on Grandpa and Grandma Ivy’s front porch. Mama’s brother, Conway, disagrees. He’s 83 and says the front of the house on Smith Street in Mira Loma never had a screened front porch. There was a screened room at the back, he says. Only a concrete stoop with two steps in front. He is adamant about this.
I don’t doubt Uncle’s memory. On the other hand, Mama never lied. “There was a cot where your daddy and I slept on the front porch and that’s where you were conceived.” If I am misremembering, the error’s been with me too long. It’s become my truth.
I was an only child until my brother arrived four years later. He smiled a lot. He was chubby. His eyes were very blue. I’d been a January baby; Randy came in December. Our birth months are bookends on various years; what falls between those months are harvests, hard work, becoming what we’ll become, Mama’s tender care.
Uncle Con says Mama kept me too clean, high-top toddler shoes too white, blond hair always beribboned. He says I was spoiled.
Mama said I wasn’t. She said I obeyed and didn’t whine.
I cried when a clay elephant I’d painted yellow in kindergarten came back from the kiln with no trunk and only one ear. I remember how it looked and I remember my tears. I’ve never been very good with disappointments, but did this make me a spoiled child? Mama said I was tender-hearted, like Daddy.
Mama was ivory-skinned, ginger freckles across a small nose, hazel-eyed, auburn-haired, slim and taller than most kindergarten mamas. Daddy’s tender heart was often hidden by the exhaustion of farm work. Mama’s was worn in the open, reflected in the contours of her heart-shaped face, the way her fingers whispered across my forehead after prayers and before sleep.
“Daddy and Daughter”
Mothers feed families and fathers feed calves. This is the order in our house. I should be taught cooking, but I go out with Daddy when the day is still purple as a bruise. I ride his shoulder to the calf barn and break eggs into a powdered milk mix.
What he is doing is removing me from Mama’s care because Randy is smiling and new and in need of Mama’s full attentions. My hands are small, yet he can set me down on a stainless steel counter with a flat of eggs and trust me to empty their contents into a stainless-steel pot deep enough that, if I were naughty, I could hide inside it.
Between cleaning stalls, he checks the milk mix for bits of shell; I am mortified when he finds any. The great fear is not of him but of failing to do the job right. If he smiles and winks at me with a tiny fleck of shell on his fingertip fished from the pot, I don’t see the easy forgiveness he offers—only the fragment of a mishandled egg, the flaw, the error I’ve made. If he shows any misgivings, they are not about the eggshell—they are about me, about why my eyes fill with tears over such a small thing, almost nothing.
He must have told Mama, because Mama tells me, People who never make a mistake are people who do nothing. Still, it is not easy to see mistakes. It’s hard to keep doing a job the best you know how and the best you know how might have a jagged little piece of something that ought not be there.
Daddy is easy to smile, hard to make laugh out loud or talk about many things other than calves or the fields. He smells of Old Spice and fresh wood chips from the new sawdust lining stalls in the barn where calves stay from day one through day seven—if they make it that long. Most do. Some don’t. He does the best job he knows how to do. He never cries out loud, just wet lines on his face each time a new calf dies. I hug him when he cries.
“Brother and Sister”
My brother’s imagination should have made him a writer. His eyes are as blue as Daddy’s, his hair as naturally curly, and his complexion as brightly ruddy when he’s exerted or bursting with something new to tell. My uncles, Earl and Gerald, say he tells the best stories to get around trouble. Earl and Gerald are identical twins and very knowledgeable about all things mischievous; in their opinion, Randy doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie. I’m like Mama—a little white lie is as black as any other.
My brother once painted an “X” on the maple veneer of Mama’s new dresser with nail polish. There was red polish on his hands, on his bronc-buster pajamas. Yet the story Randy told got him off with a few head shakes. I wish I could remember the story.
Truth is, I may not have even heard it. We didn’t play together. He pulled my dolls’ bodies away from their heads. I buried a toy saw that came with his little-kid tool box to get even. I buried it in loose gravel alongside the driveway. I was ordered to retrieve his stupid saw. Randy was never ordered to make any dismembered doll whole again. I was angry and shoveled my arm into the wrong mound of gravel. A red ant hill. Screaming into the house, ants inside and outside my clothes, I was stripped and bathed, ant bites everywhere. Nothing was said. It was a case of two wrongs don’t make a right. Some lessons come in stings.
I bossed Randy around as if his mini-mama. By the time we were fourteen and ten, Mama had delivered Debbie in March of 1961 and Donnita in December of ’62. I punched Randy when he sassed back or didn’t mind what I said. When I was sixteen and he was twelve, he pinned me to the floor. “Enough,” he said. And it was.
He was nearly six foot tall, perpetually in some small trouble or other, eternally on restriction, unable to tell the truth, and not to be believed when he did. We’d never played together—yet there was something. One way or another it seemed unfair. I was free to go as I pleased once chores were done, while Randy, ornery as he was, was stuck home, sometimes with welts from a belt whipping by Daddy. Not often, but sometimes, I found myself halfway to Genie’s house and turning back for home. Randy’s troubles were almost always because of some lie or another, some story—stories that if he were still a little boy who went red with excitement—would’ve brought no more than head shakes.
The surfers at San Clemente beach—Oh, my! Short boys and tall boys with long boards and triangles of zinc oxide like white Yield signs on every nose. For us girls, sun-bathing was a sport. It was a game of perfect indifference, of eyes watching every move any male—except our cousins and brothers—between 13 and 30 made. We spied from behind dark shades, from under hat brims, while seemingly absorbed with Seventeen or Vogue. Sometimes we remembered to turn a page. Sometimes we slathered a mix of baby oil and cocoa butter on each other’s backs, one of us saying, Is he walking this way? Is he going in? Does he have his board? With Uh-uhs or Uh-huhs in answer, no visible movements of interest.
We wore zinc oxide on our bottom lips. It was an art, the application. To somehow look beach savvy and sexy, glistening under a sun that ate us up everyday and came back the next for more. The ultimate challenge came when the shadow of one of them crossed our towel and stayed, sun-browned feet caked with sand on the very edge of our towel-island worlds. To speak? Look up? Turn another unread page in our books?
“A Trio of Babies by Twenty-five”
I start early with babies. It’s Bonnie Jean’s fault. Or Angela Christine’s. Bonnie’s Angela is perfection. Perfection to hold, to cuddle, to rock. Not just me. Al can hardly keep his hands off Bonnie’s sweet gift from Wayne either. She’s tiny. She’s pink. She is something of an addiction and we, Al and I, decide birth control might not be the most healthy thing in the weeks that follow Angela’s birth.
“Rhythm” is more natural. We read books about “the rhythm method” of birth control between catch-up sex every chance we get. After all, he’s been thirteen months in Vietnam and several more in rehab learning the right way to swing out a new half leg. There is considerable catching up to attend to. Our “family plan” is to wait until we both earn college degrees. It’s sensible; it’s the right thing to do.
A year and week after we hold Angela, Donald Lewis is born. It’s November 1968. He is perfect, even when he pees a fountain to hit Al or me in the face.
“Rhythm” has its faults—like saying No when you don’t want to say No or saying Pull out when you want him to stay. I have an IUD (Intra-Uterine Device) installed. No pills, no problem—except I get to thinking how Randy and I had never been close and too many years between us seems like part of the cause.
I have the IUD removed. Danielle Renee arrives in late March 1971.
A new IUD goes in. No pills, no problem—except—the IUD slips. A year and four days after Dani, Aimee Marie arrives.
I can’t have three children, can I? Yet I do. I do. Two in diapers. One riding a trike. One who’s learned how to run but not how to stop; one who has “learn to roll over” still unchecked on her To Do list; one who reads along with the story books, making up words as he goes; one who eats the pages in the books; one who smiles at the books because she smiles at everything, anything that moves.
Bonnie Jean says, “You surprise me. Your patience. You never seemed the type. Well, for one—maybe. But three? I never pictured you as this kind of a mom.”
Perhaps I answer, “It gets easier; one’s almost the same as two. And three is only three, practically two.” Maybe I add, “There’s a rhythm to it; we’ve learned the dance.” Maybe I smile and say nothing.
The past is a long time gone when a first-born is forty-one. There was a rhythm, and we learned the dance, Al and I. Occasionally, toes got stepped on. But all in all—It. Was. A. Blast.
What’s been said or unsaid is like the moon. There’s a fingernail sliver recollected out of the whole, or a whole conversation remembered with such exactness it must be an accumulation of fictions, stories thought to be truths, a rounding out of moments and glimpses through memory, so lovely the glow can’t be stayed, nor shadows erased from the valleys. What will I be to them, to my children, grandchildren, friends? A sliver, a half, a whole? What is Al to us now, gone these decades to a blood clot brought on by a missing foot and shrapnel fragments so long at home in his tissue and blood?
Today he is the Man in the Moon, a configuration of shadows forming a shape standing at the helm of a blue jet boat on a river cutting a valley, one arm lifting a toast to all the poor suckers who can’t be where he is.
Tomorrow he may be gone round to the dark side, unknowable, cold, an unreachable part of a changeable past. That I knew him is only a half truth. That I know myself is no truth at all—but I watch for what I may find. It’s not all bad, this waxing and waning, these tides of altered truths.