“Well, there’s no doubt that the festive season is upon us.” I sighed. “Bob Geldof has everybody singing Do They Know It’s Christmas again, there’s vomit at the bus stops, and now this…” I tapped the newspaper I’d been reading. “Fistfights and chaos in the nation’s superstores.” I sighed again. “I don’t know why they call it Black Friday. Surely it should be Red Friday. Or maybe Black and Blue.”
“Christmas….” Saskia got a faraway look in her eyes. “I had heard such wonderful things about Christmas in Britain before I came here. The snow… the lights… the trees and wreaths… the mistletoe and holly… the goodwill… the joy… the festive traditions...” She shrugged, her smile about as jolly as wet feet.
I said, “I take it it didn’t quite live up to your expectations.”
“Yes and no.”
And so begins our Christmas tale…
Her first Christmas in Great Britain, Saskia was invited to spend the holiday with the family of a work friend, Kate Spudfield. Dinner would be served at three, but Saskia was told to arrive at one for the pre-meal festivities. Saskia thought that meant carolling, egg-nog and heart-warming stories told around the crackling Yule fire.
At exactly one pm, Saskia rang the Spudfield doorbell. When several minutes passed with no response, she rang it again. The door was finally opened by a small child who was stuffing chocolates into her mouth. Saskia introduced herself and asked for Kate. The little girl slammed the door in her face. A few seconds later, Kate (wearing reindeer earrings and antlers) appeared and invited her in. “I’m sorry about my niece,” she apologized. “You know what children are like at Christmas.” Having no experience of British children at Christmas, Saskia lied and said she did.
As they walked into the living room Kate whispered to her not to say anything about the tree.
Saskia wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. She was still perfecting her English. “Pardon?”
Kate explained that her parents hadn’t spoken for six days because of the tree.
“They what?” asked Saskia.
“Six days,” Kate repeated. “They had an awful row about it. My dad’s very old-school and conservative. He likes real food and real trees and all that. But my mother’s the one who spends the next nine months hoovering up pine needles. So this year she put her foot down and she picked the tree.”
Saskia was trying to follow the conversation, but her English seemed to be deteriorating at a frightening rate and she wasn’t finding it easy. “And they had a fight because he doesn’t like the tree she chose?”
“Got it in one,” said Kate. “They had a ten-rounder. Don’t let on that I told you, but he’s been sleeping on the sofa ever since.”
Saskia followed Kate into the sitting room. She was aware that there were people in the room – quit a few people – but her attention was grabbed by the tree in one corner. It was very tall and shiny. And it was pink. The pink of cheap candy loaded with chemicals. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would want a Christmas tree that colour. In Los Angeles, perhaps, where the connection between life and reality is at best accidental, but not in Oxford, England with its centuries of history and traditions.
“My goodness,” said Saskia, doing her best to recover from her surprise, “it certainly is pink.” Kate kicked her, but it was too late.
Mr Spudfield, who was slumped on the sofa with a red and gold paper hat on his head and a glass of whisky in his hand, looked over. “Charles Dickens is rolling in his grave,” he informed Saskia. Before she could say that she doubted that very much, as Mr Dickens had been dead for some time, he went on. “The whole country’s going to the Americans. That’s what’s wrong. Everybody’s eating hot dogs and wearing baseball caps.” He knocked back his drink. “They’ll be turning Buckingham Palace into a theme park next. Have Her Majesty selling postcards and charge a tenner to have your picture taken with the Corgis.”
Several of those gathered said, “Dad, please. Leave off, will you?”
“I will not leave off!” bellowed Dad. “It’s my house. I can say what I please in my own home. Blinkin’ pink Christmas trees.”
Something heavy and metallic fell to the floor of the kitchen.
“Oh, my God!” cried Kate. And she ran from the room.
In Kate’s absence, Saskia introduced herself to the rest of the Spudfields, their children and spouses. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Saskia. I work with Kate.”
No one so much as looked her way. The men were all wearing paper hats, holding glasses of whisky and watching television. The women were wearing paper hats and trying to stop the cabal of screaming children from hitting each other, knocking something over, or eating more than four chocolates at a time. Eventually one of the children spotted Saskia standing in the doorway, smiling like a plastic elf. “Did you bring me a present?” the child demanded.
“Britany!” scolded one of the women. “That’s not polite.” She smiled at Saskia. “You know what they’re like at Christmas.”
This time when Saskia said yes it wasn’t a lie.
Kate returned from the kitchen, looking so frazzled the kitchen might have been in Warsaw and she’d had to run all the way. “I’m afraid dinner’s going to be a bit late,” she apologized. “Mum just threw the turkey on the floor.”
This announcement upset no one.
Time passed. Except for the laughter from the telly, the shrieking and weeping of the children, the shouting of the children’s mothers, the occasional sound of another part of dinner hitting the kitchen floor and the snoring of Kate’s father, the house was eerily quiet.
Saskia glanced over at the tree, looming brightly, if pinkly, in its corner. Two little girls were busily pulling the tinsel from its branches while a third was adding wet toilet paper to the decorations.
“Ought that cat to be there?” asked Saskia.
Kate looked at her. “What cat?”
“The cat that’s climbing up the tree,” said Saskia.
“Oh, gosh, no,” said Kate, for the first time noticing the yellow eyes peering out from between the pink branches and the plastic baubles. “Moggy!” screamed Kat. “Moggy! Get down from there!”
“I’ll get her, Auntie Kate!” yelled a little boy who was dressed as Spiderman and brandishing a sword.
Instantly the other children joined in. “No, let me!” they roared. “Let me!”
Mr Spudfield woke up when the tree fell on him.
Dinner was a strained (and strange) affair. By the time it was ready night had descended and the men were involved in a film they’d seen several times before, so they ate on trays in the living room. Everyone else – Mr and Mrs Spudfield, the four Spudfield daughters, the seven Spudfield grandchildren and Saskia, ate in the dining room. It was then that Saskia realized that the Spudfield parents weren't the only ones not speaking to each other. The Spudfield daughters would ask to have things passed to them, but that aside their conversation was as absent as Father Christmas himself. Their parents, however, made up for this lapse. If Msr Spudfield wanted the butter she would say, “Pardon me, Kate, but would you ask your father to pass the butter.” Kate would ask.
Mr Spudfield would then say, “Tell you mother I’m not finished with it yet myself.” Kate would tell her.
“What’s he going to do, eat the whole bar?” Mrs Spudfield would want to know. Kate would ask him if he planned to eat the whole bar.
Things were limping along like that when one of the boys threw a handful of cranberry sauce at a cousin. The cousin’s mother yelled at him. “Justin! Look what you did! No pudding for you unless you apologize.”
Justin’s mother didn’t like her sister yelling at her child. She told her to mind her own business.
Her sister didn’t like being told to mind her own business. One thing led to another, and she picked up a drumstick and started hitting Justin’s mother over the head with it.
By the time the plum pudding was served only Kate, Mr Spudfield and Saskia were left at the table. Kate put too much brandy on the pudding and set her antlers on fire.
When all was said and done, however, the day actually did get close to Saskia’s original expectations. Not only were the fire fighters wearing sprigs of holly in their helmets, but they sang We Wish You a Merry Christmas! As they put out the fire on the dining-room table.
My sixth grade teacher was Mr Sutcliffe. We were the first class he’d ever taught, which meant that, unlike the other male teachers at Bread and Cheese Hollow Elementary school, he was young enough to remember his own childhood and had a full head of hair. It also meant that he hadn’t had his idealism, passion and enthusiasm sucked from his soul by hundreds of eleven-year-olds whose favorite period of the day was lunch. In fact, I believe it’s fair to say that Mr Sutcliffe pretty much glowed with enthusiasm, idealism and passion. Mr Sutcliffe had a mission. He didn’t care if we became doctors and lawyers or secretaries and plumbers; he cared that we thought and didn’t just let life happen to us. He encouraged us to be questioning and creative. He wanted us to love learning as much as he did. “Education isn’t about memorizing dates and facts,” he’d say. “A computer can store dates and facts. Education’s about opening your mind and heart. It’s about thinking. Think! Think! Think!” At which point Ted Grosky or George Hubbard would shout out, “I think I want to go home!” Undaunted, Mr Sutcliffe would join in the laughter. “And I think you should think again,” he’d say. “Or I’ll think about keeping you after school.”
Despite his idealism, passion, enthusiasm and demands for conscious and creative thought, we all liked Mr Sutcliffe. He wasn’t fusty or dull, or drone on worthily for what seemed like whole lifetimes the way some teachers did. Oh contraire! Mr Sutcliffe was funny, interesting and kept us awake even through the most tedious hours of the syllabus. His enthusiasm was contagious. The boys thought Mr Sutcliffe was especially cool because he was a war hero and rode a vintage Harley, which sat in the parking lot among the compact cars of the rest of the staff like a lion in the middle of a purr of tabby cats. The girls thought he was especially cool because he was extremely cute, played the guitar and Emily Gonzales had seen him in the supermarket wearing a necklace (“Not a St Christopher’s medal,” she assured us, “a real necklace with beads.”), which was a historic first for our town, and possibly a historic last as well.
Every year, besides collecting canned goods to distribute to the deserving poor, our school put on a special Thanksgiving pageant to celebrate the founding of the New World. The band played, the chorus sang, the dancers danced, the children with special skills (being able to twist yourself into the shape of a pretzel or play Roll out the Barrel on the accordion) performed and, to tie it all together thematically, there was always a skit commemorating The First Thanksgiving. As it happened, that autumn our class was doing a project on Colonial America. Perhaps unaware that Mr Sutcliffe believed that history was “always told by the winners” and had decided to change that, Mr Lupino, the Principal, gave us the task of putting on the Thanksgiving skit.
Few people in America may know about the massacre of the Pequot in 1637 (though Class 6A did), but there probably isn’t anyone over two who doesn’t know the story of The First Thanksgiving in 1621. It’s pretty straightforward. The Pilgrims came to America to escape religious bigotry and repression. The Wampanoags, who’d been living in the area for quite some time and were unaware that it was really New England and the property of the English Crown, helped them settle in and showed them what to plant and hunt and stuff like that so they didn’t starve to death. To thank God (and, possibly, the Indians), the colonists made a feast to celebrate their first harvest. This event not only showed their gratitude but created an enduring symbol of the cooperation between the English and the Native Americans. What could be easier to depict in the few minutes allotted to us? It was a no-brainer. Unless, of course, you were being taught by the enemy of no brains. “Don’t parrot history,” Mr Sutcliffe instructed. “Interpret it.”
The auditorium was decorated with cardboard turkeys and cardboard pilgrim hats taped to the walls. Out front the audience gathered. Since this was a daytime production, there weren't any fathers in the crowd, but there were plenty of mothers. My own mother, resplendent in her royal blue coat with the fur collar, sat dead center, her program on her lap and an expectant smile on her lips. Back stage, the cast of The First Thanksgiving gathered. Our study of Colonial America had approached the subject not from the perspective of the Colonists (the winners) but the Native Americans (the undeniable losers). We were ready to interpret.
Our first break with the traditional version of the Pilgrim’s story happened when the colonists finally landed after their arduous journey.
“Hark!” cried Pilgrim One, spying the Wampanoags watching not quite cautiously enough from the trees. “Have we made a mistake? Did we take a wrong turn? This land is already occupied.”
“Not by white people!” said Pilgrim Two. “So it doesn’t count. This is our land now.”
As one of the Wampanoags I didn’t have any lines then, so I was free to see the smiles fade from the face of just about every mother in the room.
“But maybe they can give us some seeds for the crops that grow here and show us where the best hunting and fishing is,” said Pilgrim Three. “We could really use the help.”
“And maybe they could lend us some food if we run out of supplies before our first harvest,” said Pilgrim Four. “We probably won’t make it without them.”
Cut to the following autumn.
The Pilgrims were gathered around a table, in the center of which was a basket of corn and squash. The Pilgrims had empty plates in front of them and were holding their knives and forks at the ready.
Pilgrim One looked stage left. “I wonder where our guests for The First Thanksgiving are. It’s getting late. ”
“I’m getting really hungry,” said Pilgrim two. “They should have been here hours ago.”
“You don’t think the few who survived the measles, smallpox and mumps epidemics we gave them have died, too, do you?” wondered Pilgrim Three.
“Well that would be something else to be thankful for, wouldn’t it?” said Pilgrim Four. “At least we won’t have to shoot them later when we want more of their land.”
From the wings where the Wampanoags waited, I saw Mr Lupino marching towards the door to one side of the stage.
Cut to the surviving Wampanoags in their lodge.
“I feel a little bad about not going to dinner with the Pilgrims,” said Wampanoag One. “I mean, we did promise.”
“Are you kidding?” Wampanoag Two laughed hollowly. “They take our land, give us diseases, make us worship their God, murder, kidnap and enslave us - and you want to have dinner with them?”
“It’s not really that,” protested Wampanoag One. “I just think that they owe us something. Some recognition of all we’ve done for them.”
I turned to the audience. That was my cue.
But as I opened my mouth, the curtain suddenly started to close in front of us. Mr Lupino, looking a lot redder in the face than any of the Wampanoags, was in the wings, tugging on the cords.
Unprepared to miss out on delivering what I considered the best line in the skit, which I’d written myself, I bolted through the narrowing opening in the curtains to stand alone at the front of the stage.
“Don’t worry!” I said, my voice loud and clear. “They’ll give us something. A few hundreds years from now they’ll start naming cars and RVs after us.”
There was a silence that could have drowned out the sound of a million bison stampeding over the plains.
I looked out into the audience, searching for the face of my mother, beaming back at me with maternal joy and pride.
She was hiding behind her program.
It took her a day to notice.
“Are you sure you didn’t take them out yourself?” My mother often managed to sound as if there was little on the planet that could ever truly surprise her. “Maybe one of them got some dirt or a drop of juice on it and you couldn’t use it any more?” Or maybe it was just the oddities of her own children that couldn’t surprise her.
“I think I’d remember if they were ruined,” sneered my sister. She turned to me.
I, of course, denied all knowledge. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I sounded bored. “Why would I take you shoe laces?” I sniggered. “I mean, that is like sooo pathetic.”
Later that night, while she was watching TV, I mixed up her socks. One cat sock paired with a dog sock, the other paired with a giraffe sock. One polka dot sock paired with a striped sock, the other polka dot sock paired with a heart sock.
She marched into the next morning with an armful of mismatched socks.
“Why aren’t you dressed?” asked my mother.
“Because I can’t go to school!” My sister dumped the socks on the table. “Look what she did!” she shrieked. “Now I don’t have any socks to wear today. It’ll take me hours to sort them out.”
“What is wrong with you?” asked my mother.
I sniggered into my cereal bowl. And then I realized that she wasn’t speaking to my sister.
“Me?” I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. “I didn’t do it. Why would I do a dumb thing like that?”
“I don’t know,” said my mother. “I wish I did, but I don’t.”
“Well I’m sorry, to disappoint you” I said, “but I have better things to do with my time than mix up her socks.” I gave my sister a smile as sweet as a gallon of corn syrup. “Maybe the ghost did it,” I purred.
“Ghost?” My mother looked at the pile of socks with new interest. “You think Nellie did that?”
“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?” I said. “She’s been in that graveyard a long time. She must be humongously bored.”
My sister was throwing a pair of socks (one yellow, one orange if I remember correctly) in the air as if it was a ball.
The next day I hid one of my sister’s shoes. But instead of raging she dragged my mother into her room to examine the gap in her shoe rack. “Look what Nellie did this time,” she announced.
I shook up my sister’s jewelry box so that everything was tangled together. But instead of ranting she presented the box to my mother as if was some kind of trophy.
I de-alphabetized my sister’s tapes. “Now see what she’s done,” she said to my mother. “She’s getting out of control.”
My mother came back from the library with two books: The DICTIONARY OF GHOSTS and GHOSTS OF LONG ISLAND: CASE STUDIES.
The next morning when I went to get dressed I found that every skirt, dress and blouse I had been taken from its hanger and dumped on the floor of the closet.
My mother reached for her book of case studies. “That’s very interesting,” she murmured. “There’s a similar incident in here.”
My sister found sand in the pocket of her jacket. My math book went missing. My sister discovered stones in the bottom of her book bag. I opened the sandwich I’d made for my lunch the night before to find that the peanut butter had turned into liverwurst. My sister’s hairbrush had been smeared with Vaseline. Every button on my blouse fell off while I was changing for gym.
“Almost the same thing happened to that family in Wampaugh,” said my mother the Saturday morning all the toilet paper disappeared.
My father, who because he’d only just returned from a business trip the night before hadn’t yet been briefed on the ghost, said, “What family in Wampaugh?”
“The one that had the ghost of an 19th-century sea captain living in their attic,” said my mother.
My father put down his coffee cup. “What does that have to do with out running out of toilet paper?”
My mother explained that we hadn’t run out of toilet paper, Nellie had hidden it all.
“Whose Nellie?” asked my father.
My mother made her you-never-listen-to-a-word-I-say face. “Our ghost,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about Nellie.”
Rather than admit that he had, my father said, “So where does the sea captain come into it?”
“He flooded the house,” my mother explained. “You know, because they weren't paying enough attention to him.”
My father’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. He’d been away from us for nearly two weeks. It was clear he could have used a debriefing. “So you think whatever her name is took our toilet paper because she’s not getting enough attention?”
“She could get violent,” said my mother. “We may have to call the priest to have her exorcised.”
My mother left right after breakfast to have her hair done. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway my father turned on my sister and me. “I can’t turn my back for a minute, can I?”
This was, of course, a rhetorical question but that didn’t stop us from answering it.
“I don’t know what’s been going on here while I was away,” he went on. “But it stops now, is that clear? I’m not having some priest chanting and swinging incense through the house. Do you know how much that would cost?”
My best striped top (red and blue with a devilish thread of yellow round the collar and cuffs) was missing. I’d taken it out of the clean laundry, folded it meticulously and put it away in the middle drawer of my dresser, right at the top. I knew that this was what I’d done because: A. I had total recall of the event; and B. I’d planned to wear it to the movies on Saturday. But when I went to the middle drawer of my dresser it wasn’t there. I rummaged through the drawer but it hadn’t wiggled its way down to the bottom. I pulled every single thing out, but it hadn’t hidden itself in a sleeve or a turtleneck. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I hadn’t put it in the middle drawer but the first or the third. I rummaged, I pulled out, I searched with the thoroughness of Sherlock Holmes examining a drop of cigar ash, but my very best striped shirt wasn’t in the dresser. It hadn’t fallen down the back, either.
“Mom!” I hollered. “Mom! Where’s my red and blue top?”
My mother sighed as if she was three thousand years old and for all of those three thousand years (on the average of approximately sixteen times a day) someone had been asking her where her red and blue top was. “I thought you put it away.”
“I did.” Like a fly on the salad, an injured note settled into my voice. “But it isn’t there, is it? It’s disappeared.” I gritted my teeth. This kind of thing wouldn’t happen if I were an only child.
My mother, who was making a bouquet of roses out of pink and yellow Styrofoam egg boxes at the time, didn’t look up from the demands of her task as she said, “Are you sure you looked thoroughly?”
“Yes, I looked thoroughly. I took everything out of my dresser. It isn’t there.”
This statement made her glance my way, one penciled eyebrow rising accusingly.
“I am going to put it all back,” I snapped.
My mother glued another petal in place. “Make sure you do.”
“You’re missing the point!” I wailed. “It didn’t just walk out of my room by itself! It’s not a shape-shifter! Your daughter took it!”
She ran a green pipe cleaner through the center of her rose. “You’re my daughter.”
It always amazed me that though she had no sense of humor my mother never tired of cracking jokes.
“The other one.”
My sister had history. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d “borrowed” something of mine without going through the formality of asking me first. My brown corduroy skirt. My snowflake socks. My Eric von Schmidt album. To name but three things she’d felt entitled to help herself to simply because we shared a gene pool and had rooms next to each other.
“I thought she promised not to do that any more,” said my mother.
And the President promised not to raise taxes.
“Oh, Mommmm….” I groaned. How naïve could one woman be?
“Well, did you ask her if she took it?” My mother picked up a tiny, sparkly yellow bead with a pair of tweezers. “Why don’t you ask her if she took it before you start jumping to conclusions.”
“Fine!” I huffed. “I’ll do that.”
My sister said she hadn’t touched my stupid top. “I’d rather have lice that wear that,” said my sister. “It’s like so uncool.”
I knew she was lying.
“Well if you didn’t take it, who did?” My mother couldn’t fit into my clothes and as far as any of us knew my father didn’t cross dress. “You may not have noticed this, but we don’t have any other sister.”
My sister smiled the smile that punched every button I had at exactly the same moment with the force of the explosion needed to launch a missile. “Maybe the ghost took it,” said my sister.
“Don’t think you’re getting away with this!” I hissed.
The door slammed behind me.
Only my mother had seen the ghost.
She was a young woman wearing a long, summery print dress with an apron over it and a bonnet, and as pale as moonlight on water. My mother called her “Nellie” for no reason other than she’d always liked that name. My mother had seen Nellie twice. Once on a hot and humid August day my mother had woken up in the hammock in the backyard and seen Nellie walking through the kitchen wall. And the second time, the following winter, walking through the snow on the road in front of our house (and through several telephone poles and stranded automobiles as well). Nellie didn’t belong to our house – before we’d had it built there was nothing on our property but trees – but, according to my mother, from the Colonial cemetery in the nearby woods. My mother (whose own mother had told fortunes and read tea leaves and raised her with a deep belief in The Other World) said it stood to reason. “She’s either lost or just taking a walk,” said my mother.
My sister, being younger and more impressionable, had been scared of the ghost, and had gone through a phase of thinking that every clanking pipe or branch scraping against the house was Nellie. I, on the other hand (who, with my father, represented the logical, rational side of the family) had always been skeptical about the ghost (if not actually scathing, cynical, sarcastic and doubled over with infantile laughter). Indeed, until my sister leered at me like that and said Maybe the ghost took it, I’d forgotten about Nellie completely. My sister, obviously, hadn’t. Now that she was old enough to wear make-up and steal my clothes she was also acting as if she was too old to believe in ghosts. But I thought I knew better. She still always slept with a night-light on. Even if she couldn’t help me get back my very favorite top in the entire universe, I figured that Nellie could help me settle the score.
As soon as my sister left the house, I tiptoed into her room like a cartoon fox heading for the chicken coop. Although I knew beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt that my sister had taken my striped shirt I searched her room before I set my plan in action. My sister, though mystical, believed in neatness and order and a certain amount of perfection. Her closet and drawers were all color coordinated (blues together, whites together, etc), which made my job easier than it would have been if I’d been searching my room. But – if further proof was necessary (which it wasn’t) - there was no sign of the top. Secure in the knowledge that I’d more than bent over backwards to be fair, I removed the laces from my sister’s turquoise high-tops, and buried them in the garbage.
The haunting had begun.
My mother (claiming that she couldn’t take a turn with the paddle because she once strained her back rowing at summer camp when she was twelve) sat at the back of the canoe, the dog on her lap, her delicate skin protected by a large straw bonnet tied with a strip of bright pink organza. “By the shores of Gitche Gumee….” she intoned. “By the shining Big-Sea-Water…”
Normally, on family trips, my mother sang. She usually tried to match the song to the locale. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or the song about the church in the wild wood should we pass a party of knights or a religious building. “Old MacDonald” if we passed a farm. “We’ll Meet Again” when a cemetery hove into view. Today, however, as our canoes huffed and puffed their ways over the serene and woods-encircled lake, she was reciting Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” (the two verses that she remembered from school). Fortunately, my mother didn’t know any songs about Native Americans, and even if I could have paddled and sung at the same time there was no way I was going to fill in that gap in her knowledge by sharing the song about Running Bear and Lovely Little White Dove with her. “Hiawatha” was bad enough.
“What’d I tell you?” shouted my father. “Didn’t I say this was going to be a vacation we you never forgot?” He and my sister were in the lead canoe. He was doing the paddling and she (having already dropped an oar into the water once) was sitting behind him, slapping the surface of the lake with her hand in a way that suggested she might be wondering how much force it would take to capsize the boat. “Look at that view. Isn’t it spectacular?” Water splashed over my father and his passenger as his blade pointed at the view. The jade-green, glasslike lake below us. The enormous, silent sky above us. The huddle of old-growth forest that encircled us. “This is what this country used to look like before we invented strip malls,” my father informed us. “Wild. Raw. Throbbing with life. Just as Nature made it.” He pulled up his oars, letting the bright red canoe (number 18) drift while he took in the untamed beauty all around us in our rented canoes with our life jackets on. “It’s like going back in time.”
“I’d rather go to Disney World,” grumbled my sister. My sister hadn’t been in favor of this vacation to begin with (well, no one was except my father), but since discovering that campsites didn’t have private bathrooms or TV, I’d rather go to Disney World had become my sister’s theme tune. “They have Frontier Land, you know.”
“Be that as it may,” my father placidly replied. “But it’s all pretend, honey. This is much better. This is the real thing.”
“I bet the real tribe that used to live here would be a little surprised to find all those white people swimming in their lake.” I was in one of my rebellious phases, which three twenty-four-hour days with my family was doing nothing to diminish. “Not to mention the speedboats and the café and the bar on the other end.”
My father looked back at me. “Cynicism is not attractive in one so young.”
“Stop giving your dad a hard time,” ordered my mother. Which, if you asked me, was pretty rich since she’d done nothing but give my father a hard time since we left home – starting from when she threw the map out the car window. She not only refused to paddle, she also refused to help set up the tent, to blow up her air mattress or to cook on the ground, and usually stayed at camp, reading a book, while my father took my sister and me on walks to disprove her predictions that we would break out in poison ivy or contract lyme disease. But being ferried over what amounted to one gigantic scenic overlook obviously agreed with her. This was a part of getting out in Nature she could go with. “This place is inspiring. Truly inspiring.” She peered over the tops of her sunglasses to be even more truly inspired. “God’s country. That’s what they called it. God’s country.”
“No it wasn’t. They called it Algonquin country.” I told you I was in one of my rebellious stages.
My mother, however, wasn’t about to be baited. One of the reasons she was in a good mood was because tonight my father had agreed that we could eat in a restaurant instead of having yet another meal of canned beans and canned spaghetti (which, with canned soup, canned ravioli and boiled water, were just about all you could expect to make on our stove). Even Wilderness Dad had his limits of just how far back in time he was willing to go. “It’s so quiet and peaceful,” she went on. “It really makes you think.”
“All it makes me think is that I’d rather be at Disney World,” said my sister.
“It’d be cool if we could see an eagle or an elk or something like that.” I sighed. “But I suppose we exterminated all of them, too.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said my father. “The Ranger told me there’s plenty of wildlife left in these woods. Deer… raccoon… coyote… even bear.”
“Not down here with all these tourists around.” Rebels aren’t easily persuaded. “Somebody’d shoot them.”
“Let’s pull in over there and have our lunch,” said my father.
We pulled in “over there” and dragged the canoes up on the shore (my sister grumbling about not having to do this at Disney World and my mother and the dog, both exempt from this labor - she because of her old camp injury and he because of his paws – looking on.)
Interestingly, although a woman who considered crossing the supermarket parking lot a hike, it was my mother who suggested we go further inland to find a “sylvan glade” where we could have our picnic. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou…” Still obviously inspired, my mother was on a poetic roll that day, even if she’d changed continents. She beamed at my father. “Wouldn’t that be romantic?”
My father (though more a piece of cake and can of beer kind of guy) said, “We’re not going too far in. We have to keep an eye on the boats.”
Without going too far, we actually found the perfect spot, secluded but unspoiled by the litter that dotted the shores of the lake. It was a small clearing in a natural circle of trees. There were logs to sit on and a leafy roof over us through which the sun streamed down in halo-like light. Around us branches creaked and birds sang and tiny forest creatures rustled in the undergrowth – just as they had for thousands of years. As we ate our bologna sandwiches and sipped our iced tea, I think I can say that each of us was touched and moved by the timeless grandeur of our surroundings.
“It’s so serene,” murmured my mother. “Like heaven on Earth.”
Even my sister went through the whole meal without any mention of Disney World.
And then, folding up his sandwich bag and gazing over my mother’s head, my father said, “I don’t want anyone to panic. The best thing is to stay calm. But if I’m not mistaken, there’s a black bear watching us from right behind your mom.”
My sister and I both screamed, “Where? Where?” and launched ourselves at my father. My mother scooped up the dog and ran.
My sister opened her eyes first. “I don’t see any bear,” said my sister.
I opened my eyes. Still holding tightly to my father’s arm I peered through the trees behind the spot where my mother so recently had been. “I don’t either.”
“Don’t you?” My father shook his head, gathering up the fallen picnic fare. “I guess maybe I was mistaken after all.”
By the time we got back to the boats, my mother was yards out on the water in the blue canoe, paddling with a speed and grace that would have made Hiawatha proud.
“You see?” My father winked. “I knew that shoulder must have healed by now.”
“I don’t know what you’re on about,” grumped Lilibeth. “Of course there are strong, independent female role models for girls today. I mean, um duh. Don’t you ever go online?”
“I’m not in a Himalayan cave, Lilibeth. Naturally I go on line. I go online all the time. That’s what lead to my question in the first place.”
On my server’s homepage I watch a constant parade of women – most of them young, glamorous and beautiful and the rest just beautiful and glamorous (unless they found a tarantula in their breakfast cereal or have a dog that can say “Constantinople”). And most of them are actors/models/celebrities I’ve never heard of. The verbs “wow”, “shock” and “stun” often appear in the captions. So-and-so wowed… What’s-her-name shocked… Blahdeblah stunned… Usually all this wowing, shocking and stunning isn’t for leading a demonstration against some global corporation who should behave better, it’s for wearing a revealing dress - or for pretty much dispensing with the concept of clothing completely – but sometimes it’s for punching someone, or being drunk and disorderly, or for doing something provocative, or for looking good in a bikini only weeks after having a baby. There are also endless pictures accompanying announcements of engagements, weddings and divorces. Broken hearts and erased tattoos versus millions of dollars spent on a party. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, children starve, die of preventable diseases and are kidnapped. Women are attacked in public and murdered in their homes. Countries implode and the destruction of the planet continues. Blood and tears and hopelessness instead of potato-truffle tart and Lalique stemware.
“Well what about Beyoncé?” demanded Lilibeth. “You know what she’s said. She’s all about power, sexual liberation, control and self-ownership for women. You can’t get more outspoken feminist than that.”
“I know what she says, and she says it well. And I know that Michelle Obama thinks Beyoncé is someone kids everywhere can look up to. But aside from the fact that she’s a millionaire singer, not an investigative reporter or a human rights advocate, there can be a disparity between what she says and what she does.”
Lilibeth eyed me in a cold and cynical manner. “Meaning?”
“Meaning performing with her husband when he’s wearing a suit and tie and she’s pretty much in underwear. I’m not even going to mention the mask.”
“You don’t understand. It’s theatre.”
“That’s one thing you could call it.”
Lilibeth looked thoughtful; sour, but thoughtful. “So I reckon I probably shouldn’t mention Miley Cyrus.”
“Better not to. Unless we’re compiling a list of not particularly dressed woman performing with a man in a suit.”
I shook my head. “I was hoping for a woman who isn’t a singer and has been known to wear meat.”
“Okay.” Lillibeth’s voice sounded like a challenge. “Who would you think was a good role model for the girls of today?”
This required no thought at all. “Vandana Shiva.”
Lilibeth rolled her eyes at a nonexistent audience. “Who? Never heard of her.”
“Of course not. She’s not a celebrity. Dr Vandana Shiva. She’s a writer and environmental activist.”
Lilibeth sighed. “Let me guess. She doesn’t sing.”
“She isn’t a millionaire, either,” I said.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” asked my mother. Her arms were folded across her chest and her expression suggested that she was being diplomatic, but only with a lot of effort.
I raised the drill, ready to finish putting the screws in place. “No, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic. I think I’m being practical.”
She raised her voice to be heard over the drill. “Putting a padlock on your door.” It wasn’t a question but it sounded like it was.
“That’s right. If I can’t leave my room for ten seconds without having it burgled, then I’m being practical.” I stepped back to survey my handiwork. There were a few more holes than there needed to be, but it wasn’t too bad. It would do the job. I smiled. “It’s either this or hire a security guard.”
My mother gave me one of her you-don’t-have-to-be-crazy-to-live-here-but-it-helps sighs. “I don’t know what people are going to think when they come to the house and see you’ve got a your room locked up like it’s Fort Knox.”
“They’ll think I live with a thief, that’s what they’ll think,” I snapped back.
Right on cue, my sister’s door opened and her head appeared. “Just make sure you tell them how you tried to kill me!” yelled my sister.
It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon. The James Fennimore Cooper Mall was filled with people of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors and religious beliefs happily buying things they didn’t need and in many cases would never use. There was laughter and smiling. There was music. The artificial waterfall splashed into the artificial pond. The colorful plastic bags bobbed along like party balloons. Bored looking men stood outside of stores, bags of shopping clumped around them like presents around a Christmas tree, glancing at their watches every few seconds. Small children dripped ice cream and soda. Huddles of boys sat together on benches or strolled the walkways with their hands in their pockets, telling each other bad jokes. Small herds of girls, the special endorphins only generated by shopping making them shine, moved from store to store like grazing cattle moving across a field. Except for a few bickering couples and crying children, all was peaceful and content in the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.
But suddenly this scene of tranquility and domestic bliss was shattered by a heart-piercing scream. People looked up, frozen in the moment like startled gazelles. Only the three teenage girls over by the pond, engrossed in deciding where to go for lunch, didn’t hear the scream.
Which, as it turned out, was unfortunate.
Another scream, closer and even more piercing than the first, echoed through the west side of the first floor. Even the girls debating the merits of pizza over pastrami heard that. The very pretty one with the pin-straight hair and eyes the same shade of cornflower blue as the skirt she was wearing looked up just in time to see someone in a perfectly aged but tragically stained denim jacket charging towards her, hair flying and face contorted in rage.
“Stop!” shrieked the girl. “Wha-”
But her words were lost in a mighty splash as she toppled backwards into the pond.
I hadn’t planned to go to the mall that weekend.
Kammy’s parents were away and I was staying with her to keep her company and to stay up half the night watching old movies and eating junk food. Mrs Cole had taped notes to what she considered Danger Points around the house. [DO NOT USE DISHWASHER on the dishwasher. REFILL ICE CUBE TRAYS on the ice cube trays. DO NOT FLUSH GALLONS OF POP CORN DOWN The TOILET on the toilet. Etcetera…] Besides the notes, she left pages of typewritten general instructions on what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and whom we should call when, despite all her advice, we messed up.
“Is she unbelievable or what?” thundered Kammy. “You’d think they were going away for a month and she was expecting war to break out. We aren’t children, for God’s sake. I think we can make it through the weekend without any of this stuff happening.”
And Kammy, of course, was right. We didn’t lock ourselves in the attic, we didn’t set fire to the dryer and we didn’t blow all the fuses. In fact, none of the possible disasters envisioned by Mrs Cole occurred.
We turned the kettle into charcoal.
We put it on to make coffee and forgot about it. It had a whistle, but we didn’t hear the whistle because we were playing The Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the right volume (loud enough to wake the dead). The Coles had a smoke alarm, but it had been inactivated weeks before when Mr Cole made blackened fish.
Kammy and I stared at the charred remains of the kettle, the handle flopped over to one side like a fence that’s been hit by a heavy wind.
“Oh, Gawd…” groaned Kammy. “She’s going to murder me.” She used the fire tongs to lift the kettle into the sink. Just in case it suddenly exploded and pieces of hot metal flew around the kitchen like leaves in a storm. “You’d think she’d’ve had the sense to put a note on the freakin’ kettle, wouldn’t you? She’s put notes on everything else.”
“I guess she figured we knew this one.” This had happened before. Which is how we knew about putting the kettle in the sink and how much like leaves in a wind exploding metal can be.
“Well, she was wrong, wasn’t she?” said Kammy.
I tried to look on the bright side. “At least we didn’t spill Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over her denim jacket.”
My sister was always borrowing my things. That is, she called it borrowing. I called it taking without permission, which, according to Webster, is stealing. Shoes, socks, dresses, jeans, skirts and blouses, music, books, jewelry - everything that belonged to me was fair game. It was as if my room was the jungle and she was the illegal logger or the poacher after bush meat.
And as if it wasn’t enough just to help herself to MY PERSONAL POSSESSIONS, she would shorten my skirts and stretch out my tops. She’d lose my earrings and loan my albums to people who also never gave them back. She put holes in my socks.
She dumped half a bottle of Dragon’s Blood nail polish all over my denim jacket. My beautiful, washed-out jacket with the fraying cuffs. It had taken me ages to get that jacket to that state of perfection. And it had taken her approximately thirty seconds to destroy it.
My sister, of course, was sorry. She just wanted to wear it bowling because it was so cool. She was going to put it back in my closet before I even noticed it was gone. The nail polish was an accident. It wasn’t like she did it on purpose.
“Stay away from my things!” I’d screamed. “I mean it. If you so much as lay one finger on anything of mine unless it’s to get it out of the way of a herd of stampeding wildebeest I’m going to make you wish you were born to slaves in ancient Rome!”
My sister promised. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
But not for long, it seemed.
Because as Kammy and I rode down the escalator with the new kettle from Happy Home Housewares, what did I see but my sister standing there with her friends, wearing MY NEW SKIRT. What a fool I’d been! Naïve! Trusting! I’d actually believed that I could go away for an entire weekend and my sister wouldn’t jump at the chance of plundering my room.
I, like you, had heard the expression “I was beside myself with rage”, but it wasn’t until that moment on the escalator that I realized what it meant. I really was beside myself. There I was, a regular teenager in a ruined jacket only a few steps away from the main plaza – and beside me, huge and demented, was the Terminator, programmed to destroy the girl with the pin-straight hair in the blue skirt without question or thought.
It was the Terminator who screamed.
It was the Terminator who leapt the last few steps and sprinted towards the pond.
It was the Terminator who shoved my sister into the water.
But I was the one who had to be picked up by my father from the security office of the James Fennimore Cooper Mall.
“What on earth got into you?” asked my father as we got in the car.
I shrugged. “It’s a long story.”