Part of my life was spent living with my maternal grandparents. They were old-fashioned and impoverished. It was the worst time of my life. I don’t remember how or when exactly my mother and I ended up there; I was around three or four years old at the time. My father must have dumped us there sometime after my sister’s birth and my mother becoming mentally ill.
The house was small with two bedrooms on the ground floor and a large attic as a second floor. My mother was the oldest of ten children. My youngest uncle was only two years older than I was. My mother and my grandparents had the first floor bedrooms and the children who were still at home were ensconced in the attic; boys at one end and girls at the other. I was forced to share a bed with my youngest aunt. There was no indoor plumbing. Water come into the house in the kitchen through the use of a hand pump at the kitchen sink. Baths were infrequent and hard work requiring the hauling of heated water from the kitchen to the tub (a large galvanised washtub also used for laundry). Chamber pots were available in the winter, but had to be emptied at least once a day. The house was heated through a coal furnace (a large upright stove in the front room of the house. We didn’t have a phone, but we somehow had a television.
There was always soup on the kitchen stove. Vegetables would be added to the soup as they became available, and either dumplings or noodles would be thrown in from time to time. The pot never seemed to be empty. Occasionally, there would be rabbit or chicken or groundhog to add to the stew. Sometimes there would be rice pudding; basically it was a block of solid rice, slightly browned, because my grandma was not exactly a good cook. Although I do sometimes miss the dandelion greens in bacon dressing.
Most of my memories from that period aren’t very pleasant. I remember one day when my mother decided to take a walk – naked. It was my job to find her, bring her home and get her back into her clothes. I was five years old. My grandfather blamed me for my mother’s condition and made looking after her my responsibility. I did what I could until one day, returning from school, she was gone. She had been sent to a state run mental hospital, but all I knew is that I didn’t need to worry about her anymore. Unfortunately I still had to deal with my grandfather’s dislike of me.
The man terrified me. His cruelest punishment was to send you to cut the switch (part of a tree branch to be used as a whip) that he would punish you with. Anytime anything went wrong, something went missing or was broken, I was his first suspect. My uncles would occasionally do things with the intent of blaming me for it. I learned to shimmy down the poles that supported the back porch roof and run into the woods for dear life.
I remember clearly one of those incidents. My uncles started to empty out the drawers of a dresser. I begged them to quit, wildly stuffing the clothes back into the drawers before my grandfather found out. I took off the moment I heard his gruff voice and his heavy boots climbing the stairs. I climbed out the window onto the porch roof and jumped to the ground. I ran quickly down the old logging road into the woods and climbed the nearest tree. They found me clinging to the trunk in terror, crying as they tried to talk me down. My youngest uncle had to climb the tree and help me down as I was too shaken and terrified to move.
My grandmother was little consolation. She took it upon herself to correct my sinful defect of being left-handed by swatting my hand whenever I used it. She spent years slapping the devil out of me until I had switched sides and become right-handed. My heart goes out to anyone who has been forced to switch sides (whether left-handed or gay). It is an awful thing to experience.
I lived there until just before my tenth birthday, when I was lucky enough to go into foster care. Years later, when my grandfather died, I breathed a sigh of relief. I could finally let go of the fear and loathing that I had for the man.