My first memory is of heat and yellow-orange shadows flitting through stained glass, cool mesh pressed against my too-warm cheeks because it felt nice. There is the soft, faded smell of pipe smoke and wood polish. I can hear people, though I never see them, and am content.
I asked my mother about this years ago, and she said that when I was a baby, I would sit in the old play-pen in my grandmother’s sitting room with the lights turned off, pressing my face to the side. (The lights were off because the house was ANCIENT and did not have air conditioning. Also, there was very little insulation in the walls, and the ceilings were incredibly high. None of this lent itself towards keeping heat out or in. The pipe smoke was a reminent from my grandfather, who had died 15 years before.) She mentioned in an off-hand way, through a blue-silver shimmer of cigarette smoke, that we must certainly have a picture of it somewhere, as I did this face pressing thing all the time. This never turned out to be true because there exist no pictures of me as a baby. Probably she meant to take one upon catching me with my wee baby face mooshed against the side of the play pen, but didn’t have a camera on hand. (I don’t think we had a camera.)
In any case, she said I was one or two years old when this memory must have planted itself in my brain. She said the play-pen was one of those dangerous old metal and mesh contraptions with the baby-killing collapsible sides. I also remember pinching my fingers in the hinges, and pulling it down on myself more than once. Somewhere in all of this, I remember the heavy, erratic thud-thumping of my older (younger) sister storming around the house. The sound is of her full-leg casts pounding against the hard wood floors, and is often punctuated by her sweet baby laughter.
My mind skips ahead from there. Again it is dark, and this time the darkness is complete except for candle and day light. Instead of stifling heat, it's always slightly cold now. This is due to our electricity being turned off more often than not, despite the fact that our mother works 3 jobs, 20 hours a day to provide for us. It’s two years after the hot, shaded comfort of my grandmother’s house.
My sisters are there, and any time I go to this period in my life I am overwhelmed with a bone-crushing love for my older (younger) sister. I can see her as she was then, almost-black hair down her back, thick bangs straight across her sweet, pale, round face. Too blue eyes staring wide and innocent out at the world. She was maybe four years old, and already terribly kind and thoughtful. (This is how she still looks to me inside, how she looks to my soul, if that makes any sense.) She was my first friend, my best friend, and I was her shadow. She was everything to me. We played happily, constantly.
I remember our oldest sister, too, but in stark contrast to The Older… The Oldest scowled, was frequently too harsh with her words and hands, and was tasked too often with watching her nuisance siblings, 15 years her junior.
I see our mother in this chunk of time only briefly, fleetingly, and am stricken by how beautiful and perfect she was. (The knowledge that I realized even then that she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever see comforts me, as it comforted her when I relayed the childhood observation to her twenty years after it had occurred to me, whispered against her hand as she lay in the hospital, dying, though we didn’t yet know it.)
We lived in a small trailer, the four of us, and my toddler bed was in the closet of the room my sisters and I shared. I had a long yellow blanket with white fringe trim that I dragged with me everywhere, which bore a redish-pink stain from the time I used The Oldest’s favorite fingernail polish to paint part of our bedroom wall. I thought it would make her happy. It most decidedly did not.
At the very end of this cold, dark period, I see my mother in a wooden dining chair (or a large, black chair. The memory wavers on this one detail alone,) she is crumpled and crying. Her hands shake as they cover her face. The Oldest is sitting in the corner, curled into another chair, glaring out at the world but seeming for once less aggressive and more wounded. More human. As our mother cries, I curl myself around one of her legs and tell her it’s going to be alright, and that I love her. She cries harder, wracked with these animalistic sobs, and the man we call my father appears in the doorway to take The Older and I away. This is my memory of my mother’s first psychotic break in my lifetime.
(To be continued..)