By Kathy Ewing
Even now, when I’m falling asleep and when I’m awakening, the household in my mind—the arrangement of rooms, the overgrown yard, the cement steps outside the front door, the back door leading to the garage—is the house where I grew up. The room I am lying in is my bedroom in Canton, Ohio, a large, south-facing space with three windows. As I come to consciousness, I have to deliberately re-situate myself into the suburban Cleveland house I’ve lived in for almost thirty years, back into my present smaller bedroom, facing north, where I sleep with my husband. I have to deliberately reorient myself to these “new” surroundings. The default home in my mind is the house where I grew up.
East of my childhood home, about two city blocks away, ran a railroad track, and in the fifties and sixties, trains ran more frequently than they do now. They ran during the day, and when the train whistle blew, our neighbors’ dog Sarge, a big old collie, would light out after the train and try to chase it down. At night, as I lay in my bed, conscious of my mom in the next room, aware of my dad downstairs, listening to my sisters breathing or turning in their beds and our dog Abbie twitching and murmuring in her private canine dreams, I would hear that train whistle, far in the distance but growing nearer. It was a nighttime, haunting sound. And where I live now, there’s a railroad track somewhere in the distance, and sometimes, only late at night, only when I’m lying in the dark, I can hear the train whistle. When I hear it now, unable to sleep or on my way under, it makes me feel mournful, but it also makes me feel at home.
In all the years I knew my dad, he never went into our basement or attic. After his downstairs bedroom was added, he never again went upstairs. In all the years I knew him, my dad was a paraplegic.
His illness began as a backache. Believing he had merely strained his back while painting our house and seeing no need, at first, for medical advice, my father bought an electric heating pad to ease his discomfort. I store this pad even now deep in my linen closet under the sheets, as a somber artifact of that time. It was 1953, and I was two years old.
When Dad finally saw the doctor, the diagnosis was polio. My sisters and I were vaccinated, and everyone who visited him had to wear a mask and gown. When the treatment for polio had no effect and the symptoms worsened, the doctors realized they had made a mistake.
They discovered an abscess on my dad’s backbone that had damaged his spinal cord. Surgery relieved the abscess but itself caused further damage. He came home determined to walk again with the help of crutches. A cumbersome set of parallel bars sat in his room, along with a pair of braces with which to train. After several years of struggle, he was forced into a dreadful decision. Because he suffered pain and muscle spasms, the doctors recommended further surgery in which the nerves of his spinal cord above the waist would be severed, leaving him with no feeling or movement in his legs.
Spinal cord. Abscess. Paraplegia. These words were passed on to me; I accepted this story on faith, but always wondered how accurate the medical details were. One evening several years ago, sitting next to a friendly neurologist at a dinner party, I felt comfortable questioning him. I tried the words, one after another. Abscess. Paralysis. Did we have the story right? Was it plausible? It was, he told me kindly. In the early fifties, the neurologist said, the misdiagnosis, the abscess, the drastic surgery would have all made sense.
After the second, decisive surgery, which removed any hope of walking again, my father underwent two solid years of rehabilitation and training at New York’s renowned Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, now called the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. When he returned home, he was in a wheelchair for good. I was six years old.
Every now and then, when my dad was making some repair, he would send me down to the basement to search for a tool or piece of hardware that he recalled having used years before on his old workbench in a dim corner of the basement. On the left, makeshift shelves held baby-food jars full of screws, clamps, and nails. On the right, more shelves held big cans of drying house paint. The workbench itself was covered with bits of wood, screwdrivers, nuts and bolts, clamps, and other mysterious hardware. On the front of the bench was a vise that my father had made. I liked to play with it. I turned the big handle and moved the vise in and out, grasping those random objects and holding them tight.
Sometimes he needed an artifact stored in our rickety backyard shed, full of more old tools, a couple of bikes, some worn-out furniture. I would run outside and open the shabby wooden door, revealing hoes, saws, a huge cement roller once used to smooth down the lawn, rusty buckets, hoses, and shovels. But I remember best the faded green canvas awnings. I understood that they had once graced our home’s upstairs windows, providing shade in the hot Ohio summers. They smelled musty, a smell that signified the past to me. Those awnings possessed a romance, and I longed to see how they looked on the front of our house. When I asked my mom about them, she responded sadly that they were of no use anymore.
So many things in our house were of no use anymore. In our basement, fruits and vegetables canned by my mother filled a closet, untouched, ignored. These jars sat on those shelves all my life, never moved, never opened, never dusted. We threw them away when we sold the house, thirty years after my dad first became ill. Another corner of the basement held the deep freezer, empty during most of my childhood, except for big tubs of ice cream (from which my sister and I sneaked big spoonfuls) and for the occasional sides of beef my parents bought. I was given to understand, though, that it had stored the wealth of my father’s garden back in the years before I could remember, before my dad “got sick.” That was our family expression for what had happened to my dad.
Even corners of our living area, upstairs, were like sealed-off museum displays. A large china cabinet in our dining room was filled with beautiful antique dishes we never used. The linen closet upstairs contained a dozen pairs of high-heeled shoes from the thirties and forties. In my lifetime, my mother suffered from corns and other foot ailments and wore big orthopedic shoes, of which she complained bitterly. I loved dressing up in her fancy old shoes, but I would have preferred to see her wear them. The closet was filled with bottles and jars of desiccated ointments and soaps and lotions, in addition to the sheets and towels stuffed onto the shelves. I thought of this closet as a drugstore that could be raided for shoe polish, shoelaces, Vick’s Vaporub, conditioners, shampoos, permanents, hair rollers and clips. Stuff sat in that closet for years and years. If you reached in far enough, you could find whatever you wanted.
In my dad’s room sat the big parallel bars, unused except by me and my sisters. In addition to framing the “house” where I played with my dolls, they provided a perch from which I could talk with my dad when he was sick in bed. In his small bathroom, was a shower, rarely used. After he died, the shower stored the vast supplies of toilet paper my mom purchased from the Cook Coffee man.
My mother had a whole stable of door-to-door salespeople. The Cook Coffee man sold her everything from toilet paper to dish cloths and knickknacks. I guess he sold coffee, too. The Fuller Brush man visited occasionally, and we had a Nickles bakery guy and a milkman nicknamed Brownie. Over the years, a variety of Avon ladies over the years stopped by periodically to show their wares. My mother bought cosmetics and perfumes for herself, which she rarely used, and for us as well. We each had our favorite scent: Sweet Honesty for me, Occur and Topaz for my two older sisters.
These came in decorative bottles, known as “fan rockers.” Many of them have become valuable. Poking around online shows that my bottles seem to date from 1962, which is just about right. Shaped like upside-down fans, the bottles can literally rock from side to side on their curved bottoms. The sides have ridges, and narrow up to a point, topped by a gold plastic cap, with a little sash tied around it. The bottles came in small, neat boxes, and the color of the box indicated which scent it was.
When I was about eleven, I gave one of these bottles of Avon perfume to my mom. The scent was probably To a Wild Rose, which seemed old-fashioned and appropriate for a mother. I can’t remember now how I acquired it. I suppose it’s possible I secretly bought it myself from the Avon lady. More likely, I selected it from one of my mother’s three large dresser drawers filled with gifts–things she had received and never used, as well as items she had purchased and hadn’t given to anyone. And never would. Time had stopped when my dad got sick, and nothing new could enter in.
When my mom died, we sorted through her drawers and gave things away. I remember beautiful lacy slips and colorful nightgowns and robes. Her everyday slips were droopy and old, the straps fastened with safety pins. The pale pink flannel nightgowns she always wore had been washed so many times they were sheer (in fact, I’m just guessing they were flannel originally), hanging down in tatters, and she never wore a robe that I can remember. All those bright, clean, new items in her drawers went to Goodwill after she died.
Most likely, I picked out that perfume myself from her stash, because it made sense to my eleven-year-old mind to “shop” from those drawers. I wrapped it in some light blue paper and gave it to her for her birthday. Smiling slightly, she set it aside and opened other packages. When she came to the end, the blue box was still there.
“Why don’t you open it?” I asked.
“I know what it is,” she answered evenly. “I don’t need to open it.”
That made sense to me at the time. When it’s your mother speaking to you, you make it make sense. It was like Santa Claus, who, she told us early on, did not exist. That’s how we dealt with such things. They were in the area of fact. In fact, my mom did know what was in that box, because the size and shape were so familiar. What was the point of opening it?
Eventually the little blue-wrapped box made its way to her dusty dressing table, filled with other perfumes, lipsticks, and powders, rarely used. I can picture it sitting on her dresser for years and years. It sat there, in fact, for about thirty years. It was there when we were selling the house and cleaning out her room. As a teenager, I would occasionally ask her, partly joking, when she was planning to open it. She would repeat, impassively, that there was no need because she knew what was inside. Finally, I just stopped asking.
I wasn’t angry or disappointed. I was merely bewildered. It was a gift from her daughter that she never bothered to open. I never verbalized how odd this was–I never had to. I have just always carried with me the vivid image of that box on the dresser.
It seems now a symptom, one among many, of my mother’s mental illness, of eccentricity and disconnection. She has remained a painful mystery to me, though evidence of her life lies all around. Her tattered nightgowns, that little blue box, her criticism, her emotional absence, and her stacks of old magazines in the kitchen were documents that I couldn’t read. I have set my mind at last to understanding them all.
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