I grew-up in a family of imposters, all of us fully committed to filling our various roles, afraid of what would happen if we ever stopped, so we played on, and I learned very young that even sadness and death, especially death, were better left ignored, buried as deep as a grave itself.
My childhood home in southern West Virginia was ringed by bushes of one variety or another, and I think those dark bushes, stooped and ugly, thick and choked with decaying branches, helped us to hide.
Mostly, my mother insisted on the bushes. She called them hedges. She wanted to pretend she liked the deep, black shadows they created, and all the scraggly plants that my dad could hardly keep up with in between shifts at the aluminum plant and the other chores and repairs that kept him tired and busy. Sometimes, the branches of the bushes drooped heavy against the ground with the weight of nasty, brown bagworms. Then my parents would hand each of us, Michael, me, and Clery, a paper bag and we’d spend the day pulling bagworms from the branches. After a few hours, my stomach churned from the smell and the idea of the worms that squirmed and died inside my paper bag. Later that night, there’d be a huge fire in our deep back yard and Dad would burn all the bags along with our other trash. He would let each of us drink a bottle of pop and toss in branches while he watched and reminded us not to get too close. Mom never came out for the bagworms or the fire, and I always suspected she was sort of hiding behind all her bushes.
Mom wasn’t well, but we pretended she was. We excused her temper that could appear suddenly and violently. We sat upright in our beds when she dumped icy, cold water over our heads. We shook and cried but took it without hiding or even flinching. I can remember Clery, the youngest, at around four years old, trembling and crying so violently that she finally reappeared with a towel and dry clothes for him. She even cuddled him a bit, cooing and acting as if nothing had happened. I know she did that because I peeked into the bedroom where Clery had been sitting when the cold water came. After the dousing, his face was red with tears and his clothes were dripping wet. She sat holding him close, rubbing him all over, and he leaned into her shoulder, wanting it but not, all at the same time.
Today, I’d say my mom had depression, but I’m not sure what it was called when we were pulling bagworms in southern West Virginia in the 60s. My parents had lost a child, a daughter, suddenly. She was just a baby, still so tiny and vulnerable. Recovery for adults was expected but not supported, I suppose, medically or emotionally. Dad did everything -dishes, groceries, laundry, all of it- ignoring the strain in the house, filling both roles as if nothing was wrong. Mom gained enormous amounts of weight and stayed in bed until noon with three young children in the house and a tired husband who worked shift work and slept very little himself. There was always cereal or toast for breakfast, but I don’t ever remember eating lunch on long summer days when we were home from school and Dad was working. Mostly Mom told us, “Go play.” Then she locked the back door and lay in the dark or stared at our small, black and white television as it whistled and hummed and flashed snowy images.
It was on one of the bagworm days that my two brothers and I spotted the baby rabbit under a bush. Clery called for Michael and me, “Come look! Quick!” And there, frightened and unmoving, was a grey baby rabbit, heart visibly beating, tiny chest rapidly pumping up and down, thin fur quaking in the summer breeze. “Keep an eye on it while I tell Mom,” said Clery. Michael, my older brother, and I stared at the rabbit. We couldn’t have been more than a few feet away, nearly close enough to reach a hand under the bush and feel its soft fur. I was so eager to touch it, something so opposite the splintery feel of rough bagworms. It certainly saw us, yet it didn’t run like the other rabbits we’d seen around the house. Catching the baby rabbit seemed entirely possible.
I started imagining the small rabbit nestled in a shoebox, a cozy shoebox filled with lots of old, soft rags for warmth and small bits of carrots to eat. We’d taken care of kittens before, several of them at a time. The three of us had taken turns twisting the heavy, metal can opener and dumping the wet cat food into the lid of an old peanut butter jar. If we were out of food, we’d pour the lid full of milk and then ride our bikes to the store, pulling our dimes and nickels for a can of the food we knew they liked best. We’d even learned not to pet the kittens while they ate, to leave them be while they pushed and purred and scooped with their rough tongues. I was sure we could manage a little rabbit.
“We could catch it and feed it with an old baby bottle,” I told Michael. So Michael stretched out on his stomach and began inching closer and closer to the tiny rabbit when Clery returned with our mother. “Don’t touch it,” she screamed. “It’s got rabbit fever!” Michael froze, terrified and uncertain, and began quickly scooting backwards. I saw his striped t-shirt pushing upwards, all the way under his arms, leaving his stomach and chest bare. I pitied him the scratches and cuts I knew were spreading as he backed across the broken sticks and twigs. He’d get the worst of it from our mother since she’d caught him under the bush. He knew it and so did Clery and I. He’d have to get a switch from the willow tree, hand it over, and stand still like the rabbit as she thrashed his bare legs. Depending on her mood, we might all have to choose a switch. It had happened often enough in the past. I can recall standing in front of the tree, tears streaming down my face, trying to choose. Michael always said, “Just pick one. What the hell difference does it make?” My stomach churned on those days too.
“Rabbit fever will kill you,” she assured us that day. Then she quickly disappeared inside the house, her thick figure slamming the screen door, and we heard the familiar clicking sound of the lock. Dad stood calling to her through the screen, convincing her to let him in “just to talk.”
When he returned he was wearing thick, canvas gloves, the kind he used for cutting branches or hauling trash for the fire, and he scooted under the bush with his gloved hands extended and reaching. The small rabbit didn’t move as he grabbed it. “Your mother just wants to keep you safe,” he said. “What about its mother,” I cried. “Won’t she be back for her baby?” “Not likely,” he replied. “Not if it’s sick.”
I huddled inside that evening, nursing my stomach and avoiding the familiar dance and crackle of the fire for the first time.