I will be at the Nebraska Writers Guild Greater Nebraska Conference this weekend, but I’d like to leave you with something to consider. What follows is an excerpt from my book, The Reluctant Canary Sings. I will be reading this bit at the conference, but what I hope it does is gets people thinking about how what happens in one generation affects the generations to come. See what you think. Would the difficulties described here make any difference to the children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren of these people?
Bobbi’s parents have had a fight. her dad has stormed out into the rain and, since Bobbi sleeps on a Murphy bed in the living room, she’s wide awake too.
Dad glanced at me, and I caught his gaze for a moment and held it, giving him a nasty look. Then he turned and slammed out of the apartment, thumping along on his crutches. I wondered briefly where he’d go that time of night in the rain, but at that moment I really didn’t care.
When Mom came out a few minutes later, her normally olive skin gleamed white in the gleam from the street light around the corner from our tiny window. She had a wild look in her eyes.
“You’re not crazy, Mom.”
Mom sat in the chair by the window, gazing out at the blank wall across the alley.
“I don’t think I am,” she said, “but sometimes, when we can’t make enough money, I feel like I’ve lost it.”
Hugging my knees to my chest, I tried to give her some reassurance.
“You’re just scared, Mom, not crazy.”
“Isn’t it the same thing? Paranoid, they called her. Isn’t that being scared of everything?”
“But you don’t see things that aren’t.”
“I’m not sure she did, either.” Mom fidgeted with the folds of her nightgown.
“What do you mean you’re not sure she did?”
“I was never sure if she imagined things or if Father just wanted to get rid of her.”
I stared, noticing a cold draft running up my spine. “What are you talking about?”
“Bobbi, they fought and they fought and they fought. My mother was not one to let him have his way just because he was a man.” She got quiet then, but in a moment she seemed to rouse herself. “Guess I got that from her.” She glanced at me and back out the window, “but I never remember her talking about anything that wasn’t real.”
“But wouldn’t the doctors know?”
“Bobbi, it seems to me that they all figure any woman who doesn’t agree with her husband—or any man—must be crazy.” Mom continued to stare at the bricks, her voice expressionless.
“You don’t think she was crazy?”
“I don’t know, Bobbi. Sometimes she,” Mom glanced at me, “she’d just blow up, yelling and screaming.” Mom fidgeted with her nightgown again. “The little kids would run and hide and just shiver in fear.”
“What did you do?”
“Kind of ducked my head and did whatever she wanted—if I could figure it out—and wait for her to wear herself out.”
“Was she always like that?”
Mom frowned. “Seems like it started when I was about, I don’t know. Maybe ten—eleven—after she had Mildred. We all worried she’d hurt Millie, so I’d try to grab the baby and keep her quiet.”
“What about your dad? Couldn’t he keep her calm?”
“Like I said, they just fought and fought.” Mom glanced over her shoulder at me and back out the window. “He’d tell her to calm down. He might try to get hold of her hands, ‘cause she’d be striking at him—and she’d scream at him about some other woman. She’d get wild sometimes with anger, always about his women—kickin’ and spittin’.”
“Were there other women?”
“I don’t know, Bobbi. I was just a kid. He was gone a lot.”
“Is that when they put her in the asylum?”
“No. Not then. She had three more babies and the blow-ups happened more and more often and father couldn’t control her at all—nobody could.” Mom’s fidgeting in her lap got more agitated. “And then we were all scattered out everywhere.” She turned to me. “You don’t need to hear this, Bobbi.”
“No, Mom, no wonder you get scared sometimes. I’m glad you told me.”
We both stared out the window at the wet bricks across the way, listening to the thunder. “What about your dad then, what did he do after?”
“After he had her locked up?”
“Well he farmed all us kids out with relatives. And he was there all by himself.” She shook her head, clucking her tongue. “I don’t know—did she just wear him out? Did he drive her crazy? He just gave up on everything; didn’t even try to get the kids back.” She sighed. “I stayed with my friend, Evelyn. I was sixteen and her parents let me stay until I married your father.”
“What about your brothers and sisters?”
“They all went—no two together.” Mom looked around at me, her eyes indistinct. “We never saw each other again. I’ve tried to find them.”
“That’s why . . . .”
“That’s why we never see my family—except Moreen. She’s the only one I ever found.”
“And she never found the others?”
“The family disowned us, Moreen and me.”
“We were Irish Catholics.”
“She and I married Protestants.”
“They disowned you?!”
“That’s what they did back then.”
I couldn’t say anything.
“And your dad was an orphan.”
I stared at my mom, mind locked. Why hadn’t I known this? How could I not know this? I remembered all the yelling about the watch.
“Wait a minute. What about the watch?”
“The sisters gave it to him when he left. Said they found it in the box with him.”
“Yeah. An apple box. On the steps.”
“That’s awful. What happened to his parents?”
“Nobody knows. There was a big diphtheria epidemic about that time. Maybe his parents died and some neighbor took him. Or maybe his mama died having him. I don’t know.”
“Wouldn’t somebody keep track?”
“Apparently not. He says that watch is the only proof he has that he came from real people. Otherwise, he says, he’d have to think he hatched out of a dragon’s egg—I think they treated him pretty rough.”
I sat, stunned, trying to imagine not having parents. Mine could frustrate the hell out of me and, during the times they could afford to live separately, they passed me around like a baseball with two men on base, but I always knew one or the other of them would take care of me. It seemed like neither of my parents even had that comfort.
“So there was just the two of you then,” I said finally.
“And then you came along.”
Mom turned back to the window. “Just the two of us,” Her voice trailed off and she stared at the bricks across the alley. “just tryin’ to be normal. An’ we don’t know what that’s like or how to make a family. How would we know?”
She seemed to be talking to herself, so I just listened.
“An’ so mad. Him just a little baby boy an’ no parents. Nobody to love him. Just tellin’ him to keep his mouth shut an’ do what he’s told. An’ me listenin’ to ‘em fight. An’ her screaming and clawin’ at him an’ him hittin’ her and tryin’ to shut her up. No wonder she went crazy—or maybe it was him went crazy.”
“I always swore I’d never be like them—your dad and I made a kind of pact—but sometimes I feel like I’m gonna explode, like my skin’s stretching and stretching—and I’m gonna blow up and splatter all over.” Mom looked back at me again. “I try to be calm. I get so scared I’m like her.”
“You’re not, Mom. I’m scared too. It’s hard to be poor.”
A flash of lightning illuminated the bricks across the way and nearly blinded both of us. Blinking, we waited for the thunder. When it came, it was a low, guttering growl. We sat watching lightning flashes on the wall as the storm retreated, rolling and growling away like a dragon seeking its egg.