I was four years old the first time I saw a swastika. As Father unlocked the door of our new house, I noticed a strange symbol embedded in the concrete surface next to the steps. It looked like a twisted cross made out of bricks. “What’s that?” I whispered to Mother.
“That’s a swastika,” Father bellowed, thrusting his shoulders back. “It’s a symbol of German power, and our victory over the Jews.” I bit my lip before my next question came out. I would ask another time. My little sister Margie leaned in to get a better look, her brown curly hair falling forward. Mother swayed back and forth, holding my brother Johnny in her arms.
The door opened and we marched into the house, single-file, following the path worn into the linoleum through the kitchen. We walked past the dusty window and saw a gas tank outside with a pipe which led inside to the oven. The ceilings in this house were much lower than the ones at Grandma’s house, where we had lived before moving here. The ceiling hung only an inch above my father’s head. He looked like a giant in this house. “Your head almost touches the ceiling Daddy,” Margie spouted. I froze in my place.
The sound of car tires on gravel drew our attention the back door. “Don must be here with the truck,” Mother noted.
“Go help your mother get the stuff out of the car,” Father ordered as he nodded toward Margie and me. We hurried out the door, toward the station wagon on the far side of the circular driveway.
“Look,” Margie said, pointing to the tall green stalks of corn on the side lawn. “We can make tunnels.” We forgot our assignment and ran between the corn stalks, giggling and hiding on each other. “Get over here!” The voice jolted us. Our wide eyes met; our shoulders tightened. Father and Don stood in the driveway next to the lawn.
“I told you to help your mother, now do it!” We scampered to the car and grabbed the brown shopping bags filled with clothes.
“When I first pulled in the driveway, I thought you really got yourself a piece of the American Dream here,” Don confessed. “Big house, stone front porch. Lots of land.”
“Yes, it’s the place I always wanted,” Father said.
Don eyed the chicken coops, attached to the aged garage. “Are you going to raise chickens, too? Bawlk, bawlk!” Don taunted. “And what’s that smell? There’s cows across the street. Well, you certainly have your work cut out for you,” Don said. Father glared at him. Don took a step back, and his blue eyes widened.
“Help me get the beds out of the truck,” Father answered, his face stern.
Father and Don hoisted the bunk beds out of the back of the pickup. Margie and I had shared them in our room at Grandma’s house. Father had built them to be easily divided into two single beds. The ceilings here were probably too low for bunk beds anyway.
Margie and I carried our bags toward the house. Mother stood on the back step, right on top of the swastika, admiring the yard. “Look at all the pretty flowers. These are petunias,” she said, nodding toward the flower beds alongside the house. She inhaled and exhaled, her shoulders loosened. “And those are lilacs.” She pointed to the bushes in the back yard. Mother turned and patted my shoulder. “Let’s go upstairs and pick out your bedrooms,” Mother said. Mother pointed to the largest room as we climbed the stairs. “This is me-and-dad’s room.” She looked at me and pointed in the opposite direction. “Bridget, you take that room at the end of the hall, since you’re the oldest. Margie can have this one, and Johnny will be in this one next to me.”
Father and Don brought up our beds, one by one, and set up a bed and a dresser in each of the small rooms. I went to my room, and unpacked my clothes into my dresser. Margie did the same in her room down the hall.
We helped mother empty the boxes and set up the kitchen, and took turns keeping an eye on Johnny.
Mother began cooking supper on the old stove. “Here, kids, take your suppers up to your rooms. Dad and Don haven’t brought the kitchen table in yet.”
I heard my parents directly below my room, downstairs with Don, laughing and having drinks. I sat on my bed which was right up against the wall on three sides; it just barely fit into the room. My eyes scanned upward from the ripped yellowed wallpaper. There was no decoration at the top of the wall where it met the ceiling like there had been at Grandma’s house. I looked down the wall, and saw a strange object which had several holes. What was that? I stuck my dinner fork into the opening. A sharp pain radiated from the outlet, deep into my arm and then encompassed my body. I released the fork and it fell to the floor. I am a bad person. I am so bad. I am so bad and that’s why I keep getting hurt. I climbed into my bed, and pulled the sheet up over my head. It was late August; there was no need for blankets for physical warmth. I curled into the fetal position and drifted off to sleep, terrified that my parents would find out what I had done.
. . .
Father had already left for work by the time I woke up and came downstairs, which I hoped meant that no one had found out my secret from the night before. The kitchen table had been brought in during the night, and the rest of the family was gathered around it. Johnny sat in the high chair, farina encircling his lips as Mother spooned more into his mouth.
“I wanna feed Johnny!” Margie yelled.
“I’m almost finished. But you can get a towel and wipe his face.”
“No, I’m not going to clean him up. It’s not fair!”
I poured cereal into my bowl and splashed milk on top. I remained silent. Ignoring Margie when she was in a mood was a new plan I was trying out.
“All right, I’m going to clean him up, and then we can go outside and get some sun,” Mother said.
Outside, Mother placed a blanket on the grass. She and Johnny sat down, while Margie ran over to inspect the two small buildings off to the side. I stood there frozen, deciding whether I should sit down or keep an eye on my sister.
“What’s this?” Margie asked.
“It’s a woodshed. People keep wood in there to use in their fireplace.” Mother answered.
Attached to the woodshed was a smaller building, its door suspended from rusted hinges. Margie pushed the door open. “Look, it’s a fort.” Margie stepped inside, and I walked over to take a look.
I peered in. On the floor were yellowed newspapers . “But it’s got two big holes in the bench. Mother, what is this for?” I asked.
Mother looked up and realized what we were doing. She left Johnny on the blanket in the grass, and joined us.
“Come out of there, it’s dirty,” Mother said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s an old outhouse.”
“It’s an old-fashioned bathroom.”
“Eww, yuck!” Margie said. She turned around and ran out of the outhouse.
Mother turned her head and saw that Johnny was no longer sitting on the blanket. Her eyes darted around the yard.
Johnny shrieked. He had crawled over to the lilac bushes and interrupted a colony of bees.
Mother’s eyes bulged open as she witnessed the attack. “Oh my God,” she screamed as whisked Johnny up into her arms and carried him into the house, swatting the bees off as she went.
Margie and I were watching television in the living room, right next to the kitchen. At exactly 5:45 pm, I heard the beat of Father’s footsteps at the backdoor hallway. He mumbled under his breath, and slammed his lunch box down on the table. Mother had already set the table, changed into a clean dress, and was preparing dinner for his arrival. “Here, I’ll take that,” she said, as she grabbed the lunch box and slid it to the side of the countertop.
“Supper’s ready,” Mother called to us.
“Why don’t you make the girls help you?” Father asked.
I plodded into the kitchen and dutifully took my place at the table. Margie strolled over and plopped into her seat on the other side. Johnny sat in the high chair next to Mother.
“Why does he have Band-Aids all over him?” Father asked.
“He got stung by some bees,” Mother said.
“How did that happen?”
I gulped. “We were outside, and Margie was in the outhouse and—“
Smack. I felt Father’s fist punch my upper arm. “Why weren’t you watching your sister?”
“I was, but—“
“Don’t talk back! You’re supposed to watch her. You should know better.” He swatted me like I was a mosquito, an unwanted insect interrupting a summer outing.
I froze in place, waiting for Mother to defend me. Silence. I stared at the coffee grinders on the wallpaper, as if they had some wisdom to impart. The grinders gave me something to focus on besides my family.
“Here, have some green beans,” Mother said as she passed the bowl to the middle of the table.
Margie grabbed the bowl. “Oh, I like this kind.”
I pushed the fork across my plate, into the mashed potatoes, scooped a small bit and inserted it to my mouth. I couldn’t taste anything. I chewed and swallowed my anger. With the next mouthful I chewed and swallowed my humiliation. I gulped it all down and felt it land in my stomach and become one with me. I chewed a forkful of green beans and loneliness and pushed it down into my soul. The anger and pain became part of my flesh. Methodically, I finished everything on my plate, just as I had been told. The stuffed feeling in my belly provided numbness to the emotional pain.