Anaheim, California ca.1965
Kim and I are taking our bath tonight with the door closed. Mommy closed it the way adults do when they’re mad at one another or when they want to tell secrets. But Billy’s the only other one in the house and he can’t tell secrets. The only word he knows is “Dada.” So I don’t know if Mommy’s mad at Billy or mad at us, but she’s mad.
It started this morning while Billy took his nap and Mommy put her hair up in pin curls. “Mean Mommy,” that’s what Kim calls her when she sets her hair. I remember the first time I watched Mommy wash her hair in the kitchen sink, sit down on the couch with her cosmetic bag and the double-sided mirror on its own little stand. She twisted each wet string around her finger, held it on her head with one hand, and used the other hand to open the bobby pin with her teeth, before pinning the strand to her scalp. Each curl got two pins and pretty soon her whole head was covered with crisscrosses. I thought Mommy looked funny. But when Kim woke up from her nap and saw Mommy with all those pointy crisscrosses all over her head, she cried and cried. Mommy got really sore at Kim for all that crying and sent her back to our room. I could hear Kim all the way from the living room, “Mean Mommy,” she kept yelling, and the name stuck. Now whenever Mommy puts her hair in pin curls, watch out! I think they poke her head and that’s why she’s so grumpy.
Tonight there hasn’t been time to comb out the fluffy dark curls. Daddy’s coming home late, the baby’s been kicking all day, and Billy’s cranky from cutting another tooth, so Mean Mommy’s putting him to bed. The bathroom, all warm and steamy, smells soapy from the Mr. Bubbles out of the pink box. The plumbing bangs and squeals, muffling the sounds of our bickering about who gets to sit next to the streaming water. I use my big girl words but Kim’s not listening. She’s turning red and clenches her fist and cocks it behind her head. Our bottoms make squeaky sounds in the tub as she lunges at me and I try to push her away. Mean Mommy comes in when she hears the scuffling.
“I want to sit there,” Kim wails, “why does she always get all the warm water!”
“Shut up,” Mommy hisses, “your sister needs to sit there so she can control the tap.” She always takes my side because I’m the oldest, I’m in charge.
“I want to sit there!” Kim whines some more.
“You’re too little. You’ll burn yourself! Now stop your crying or I’ll put you straight to bed without a bath.”
Kim keeps right on whining and now Billy has started crying from the other room. Mommy stands there with both hands low on her sore back, big belly poking out, steam whirling around her head. She winces as the baby kicks right in her privates. I remember how much it pulls when Mommy puts barrettes in my hair I think her head must be hurting from all those crisscrosses. Just when I think she’s going to start screaming and popping those pin curls, Mommy reaches into the soapy water instead. She’s trying to pinch Kim on the chubby part of her leg but the leg is slippery, her big tummy gets in the way and she loses, and catches, her balance.
“Just wait ‘til your Dad gets home!” Mommy yells as she straightens up, then waddles out of the steamy bathroom.
Kim makes her ugly face at me. She sticks her tongue way out and closes one eye and wrinkles her forehead. I turn off the water. We’re in a giant bowl of fluffy whipped cream with peaks and mountains just like when Mommy makes white frosting from the Betty Crocker box. I pick up the pink Tupperware tumblers, toss one to Kim and we swirl the bubbles around the tub until there’s nothing but soapy white. I feel the cool white water from Kim’s end of the tub mix with the warm water near the faucet. “We’re making milk!” Kim squeals and we sing our milk-making song as we swirl the water. It sounds just like “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” but we have our own words and it ends with “Here comes the milk man, so early in the morning!” From the other room I can hear Mommy yelling to wash behind our ears, but we keep singing. Billy’s fussy tonight and Mommy lets us play until the water gets cold. After a long time she pokes her crisscrossy head into the steamy room, Kim shivering, our fingers and toes all shriveled from the soapy water.
“Did you girls wash up?” Mommy’s all business and she doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Carrie, get your sister out of there and help her into her jammies before she catches cold.”
Mommy leaves the door open and goes back to Billy, still fussing, but more loudly now. Cool dark air from the hallway rushing into the warm white bathroom, Kim’s teeth chattering as she tumbles out of the tub. She’s three years old and almost as big as me. Everybody says we look like twins. Just like the Campbell’s Soup kids, they say. I don’t think we look like twins at all, me with my curly dark hair, pale skin and green eyes. Kim’s eyes are dark brown, her skin olive, and her dark blond hair looks just like the old photo of Mommy, a little girl, goldilocks curls, sitting on a circus pony.
Kim steps into her pajamas, a full-length pink sleeper I’ve outgrown. The soles are bumpy and there’s a nubby white lamb on the chest, named Whitey. He used to be fluffy with a cotton floss nose and I used to talk to him and let him hop all over me and be my secret friend while Mommy was busy fussing with babies. Now Whitey’s pink nose is worn off. He doesn’t talk anymore and he barely even fits as Kim tries wriggling a fat arm into one sleeve. I help her get both arms inside, zipping her all the way up the front, Kim’s pink tummy touching my naked skin, snapping the little tab over the zipper. Sleepy after our warm bath, she teeters down the hall as I finish brushing my teeth.
We share a double bed in the room in the front of the house, at the end of the hall. Mommy papered the walls with pretty lavender and pink flowers and we have a tidy white toy box, matching chest of drawers, and a shelf where I keep my Book of the Month Club books. There’s a big picture window framed by fluttery white eyelet, curtains Mommy made on her Singer portable. I can look out front at the little tree Daddy planted, sweat pouring down his freckled forehead as he dug that hole. Crunch, the point of the shovel went into the grass and then thump, the dirt clods landed in the red wheel barrow. After he wiggled the tree out of its can and set it into the hole just right, he shoveled the clods back in, patted them down and arranged a ring of curved bricks around the chocolate brown ground. On Easter morning Grandpa Pete took a picture of our whole family in front of that tree. In the picture you can see Daddy, holding his cigarette, olive trousers, creased shirt and thin tie; Mommy holding Billy in a cotton receiving blanket; and me and Kim in our matching Easter outfits, one navy dress with yellow flowers, one baby blue dress with pink flowers, coordinating hats, white purses and white patent leather shoes, frilly white ankle socks and little white gloves with real pearl buttons. We’re all squinting in the bright morning sun and you don’t even know the little tree’s in the picture except for its spindly shadow spilling onto the new grass beneath our new Easter shoes.
I sleep on the window side of the bed because Kim’s scared. She’s afraid of lots of things, especially her nightmares. Ever since Daddy told Kim not to come to their room, she goes there every night. I hear Daddy snoring, Mommy leading Kim back to our bed, but sometimes Daddy wakes up, cursing Mommy in the middle of the night.
Tonight Mommy comes in with bedtime kisses. Even though Billy’s asleep, she can’t stay. Daddy just got home and he needs a beer and his dinner. Mommy leans over the bed as best she can and gives us each a smooch on the forehead, big hard belly, scratchy crisscrossy head, soft lips.
“Don’t forget to say your prayers, girls, “ she says as she switches on the lights and closes the door.
I look at the bronze plaque hanging above the bed, a child angel, curly hair, chubby cheeks, holding a little lamb, engraved words I can read but know by heart. Squeezing my eyes shut and reciting:
“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
“Let’s do ‘God bless,’ Kim whispers. “God bless Mommy and Daddy and Billy, God bless Grammy and Grandad…” through every member of our family, all the aunts and uncles, all the cousins and neighbors and finally opening my eyes, Kim has wrapped her head tightly in the blanket so that only her nose and mouth peek out. Soon she snores quietly.
I turn off the wall switch and tip toe back to my warm spot in the bed. There’s a little light coming from the crack under the door, more light coming in from the window, and for a long while I watch the shadows dance across the walls, the yellow streetlamp a dazzling nighttime sun. Bouncing headlights move across the wallpapered horizon like shooting stars sent to grant my wishes; the man in the moon, his soft smile beaming its blue-white glow through the window. The little tree in the front yard, so meek and frail during the day, casts its menacing shadow hands into the room and the wind makes them shake with anger. The lavender and pink wallpaper posies have vanished and suddenly a witch appears in the blue-white gloom. I blink and try to remember the pretty bouquets spread across the wall during the day, but the witch won’t go away, her sinister twins surrounding her in a perfect pattern. Soon other figures dance beside her: a snowman, a pirate, a howling dog, a man with a top hat. Even the snowman has an evil snarl on his face.
I close my eyes and think of the beaming moon. I think of the stars, too shy to come into the house. I wonder what else is up there, what else there could be in the sky, far above the moon and the stars. In an instant I feel better, lost in my thinking about the universe, about its size, its shape. Is it a square universe or a more like a big ball? My eyes shut tighter with the wondering, what’s beyond the universe and what’s holding the universe. Maybe it’s floating in a big soup, I imagine, and then the universe soup would need a big pot just like the one Grammy Nora cooks in when all the cousins come for dinner. That would be a really big pot. Bigger than the universe’s universe. Bigger than the sky. These are such big problems, much bigger than witches on walls and wild tree arms. I want to know how there can be anything bigger than the one and only universe, and then all of a sudden I know who God is. I know God is the universe and I’m a very tiny part of God. I won’t tell anybody what I know.
I go to bed every night and think about God. Every night it’s the same thing. We take a bath after dinner and Billy cries and Mommy leans over the bed with her big belly and kisses us goodnight and Daddy comes home late and we say our “Now I lay me down” and “God bless” prayers. Sometimes I get angry with Kim when she won’t say the prayers right, when she wiggles under the blankets, and whines for another glass of water, refusing to wrap herself in soft satin binding. I get angry because God won’t come until Kim’s asleep and the lights are out. Sometimes I’m afraid when the wind blows and the tree arms wave across the wall. And sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I can’t help looking at the witch who’s always on the walls now, even during the day. But I can always find God and the universe because they hide inside of me at night.