Accidental Felons

One early, Autumn afternoon on a Sunday, I went over to Tami’s house for the day, glad to have one more day of leisure before we went back to school on Monday. The air had that back-to-school feeling to it that wasn’t quite the end of summer, but also not quite the beginning of fall. The in-between place where the leaves were changing color, but you could still wear shorts; where you still spent most of your weekends outside, but the evenings were slowly getting shorter and cooler; where certain trees were already half-bare, while others had no intention of changing for another several weeks.  It wasn’t summer and it wasn’t fall. It wasn’t hot anymore, but it wasn’t cold. Everything seemed to be holding its breath and waiting for a clear line to be formed. Waiting for that moment when you no longer tried to stubbornly hold on to lazy summer days, but turned your head up, fully, to take in the sound of dried leaves bushing up against each other in the breezes. When you finally said goodbye to long shadows and sprinklers, and listened for the sound of geese flying south. The in-between places always hold the most change in them, and it’s uncomfortable and necessary, simultaneously.

For most of the day, Tami and I had found things to do inside, but kept getting into trouble. We had both decided to crank call old ladies. We’d look up names in the phone book and pick ones that sounded old like Helen, or Eleanor or Joan, and then call them up.

“Hello?” they would answer.

“There is an emergency involving your husband and you need to go to the hospital immediately!” we would say into the receiver. Or, “Something terrible has happened and you need to get to the emergency room right away,” then we’d hang up, vibrating and giddy with adrenaline. Until one time, one of the old ladies called us back and reamed us out, demanding to speak to our mother, so we frantically hung up and tried to act ignorant when Tami’s mom asked us, “Girls, who called?”

We also tried to play one of our favorite games that we called, “1800s,” where we pretended to be Colonial Women living on the Plain, tending to each other because we had contracted some deadly disease like Typhoid Fever. We lit a candle, placed it underneath a cleaned-out ash tray in an attempt to fry an egg “the old-fashioned way,” and ended up getting wax and egg and broken glass all over her bedroom carpet.  Our imaginations were rich, but our planning was poor.  Her mother knelt on the floor with a paper bag and her iron trying to get out the wax and clean up the mess, and hollered at us to get outside.

Unfortunately, that only transferred our trouble-making from inside to outside. We walked around the trailer park bored and looking for adventure. First, we took an old coffee can around to the back of her trailer and started throwing a bunch of stuff into it, like leaves and random pieces of paper and cigarettes, and small twigs, and then lit it on fire for fun. The two of us sat huddled over the coffee can and watched the small fire we had created like two little budding pyromaniacs, until her mother spied us from the kitchen window and hollered at us to put the fire out. We were on a roll though, and so from there, things only got worse as we transitioned from crank-calls, to arson, to inadvertently committing a federal offense.

Making our way to the back of her trailer, we climbed up one of the tall fences in her backyard separating her from her next door neighbor, Heidi. Heidi was an upper-classman with a muscular, stocky build and a shag of blonde hair with black roots that sat atop her head. She rode Tami’s bus. She was the kind of girl in whose direction you never looked for fear of her posturing and yelling, “What the fuck you lookin’ at?” We didn’t know Heidi, we just knew of her, which was plenty. We perched our feet on a slat near the bottom of the fence, grabbed on to the tops with our hands, and with our eyes slowly coming up over the fence in wonder, we looked through the nearest window and spied her gnawing on a piece of fried chicken at her kitchen table like a cave-man.

“Look at the way she’s eating that chicken!” Tami whispered in awe and horror.

“Disgusting!” I conceded, “She’s got it all over her mouth.”

Someone was sitting across from her, although we couldn’t quite make them out, and there was only the one light hanging above their heads, illuminating very little, except the ferocious way she devoured the chicken leg on her plate. She seemed either starving or very angry. We stayed on our tiptoes, grasping the tops of the fence and quietly giggling, when suddenly she turned her head our way, the mangled, half-eaten chicken leg poised in the air in her left hand. Hurriedly, we jumped off the fence, landed on the ground, ran away giggling, and made our way back toward the main road that led out to the country and a few farms. We came upon a mailbox.

“Whose mailbox is this?” I asked innocently.

“I have no idea. Maybe it’s the Shepherds’ across the road, or the Fitsimmons’ next door?” Tami said, continuing to walk.

“Let’s look inside,” I said, and we huddled over the front of the mailbox and opened the latch. Before we could even peek into it, we heard a, “Hey!” coming from behind us. Whipping around, we realized it was coming from Heidi’s trailer. Slamming the mailbox shut, we bolted back toward Tami’s trailer as she continued to yell at us from her screen door.

“I saw you guys lookin’ in my mailbox! I’m gonna get you!” She stood on her front steps, half-way in, half-way out of her trailer, eyeballing us and seething like a bull ready to be let out of its pen. We stood holding our breath and trying not to make eye contact with her, until we heard her slam the aluminum door shut and, presumably, went to get back to her chicken leg.

Time to call it a day. My mom would be by to pick me up soon as it was, and it being Sunday afternoon, I’d probably have some homework to finish. Sundays at home were somber. It wasn’t really the weekend anymore, but it wasn’t a weekday either. My parents were neither fighting, nor particularly chipper either. There were no long silences, but a sad contentment in the air. I would be glad to be home, I guessed. I could close myself in my room and organize things.

However, Heidi stayed true to her words, “I’m gonna get ya,” and didn’t soon forget about our illegal peek inside her mailbox. Only a few days later, Tiffany, Tami and I, all three of us, were hanging out at Tami’s house. Tami and I had not told Tiffany of our previous run-in with Heidi, but the both of us certainly felt a bit more cautious being out in broad daylight with a bull’s-eye on our backs. Maybe she had forgotten about the mailbox incident? Maybe she wasn’t home? We weren’t sure, but loitering around outside, we turned right and headed up the road yet again. And that’s when it happened.

Walking up the road toward the countryside, Tami and I were nervous, our eyes darting left and right as we neared Heidi’s mailbox. Tiffany chattered away, oblivious to the potential dangers that lie in wait. Just as we were walking right in front of Heidi’s trailer, we heard them.

“There they are!” Two figures hurriedly jumped up from the kitchen table and emerged from Heidi’s trailer, the screen door slamming shut behind them. Tami and I immediately took off in a dead sprint down the road in the opposite direction of her trailer. We had no idea where we were headed other than away from Heidi and whoever she had acquired in her hunt for our heads. Ahead of them both, I looked back and saw Tiffany, who lagged behind, completely oblivious as to why we were sprinting down the road, past the railroad tracks.

“Why are we running?” she hollered, confused.

“Just run!” both Tami and I yelled back, seeing Heidi and her accomplice gaining on us.  Tiffany looked over her shoulder, saw two girls at her heels and sped up the pace.

Tami knew the neighborhood better than we did, and quickly pointed to a house of another much nicer upper-class girl who also rode her bus, and who she was sure wouldn’t mind harboring us for a while. The three of us made a sharp left, crossed the railroad tracks and bee-lined it for her backyard, putting a bit more distance between us and Heidi and her friend. Frantically knocking on her door numerous times, we realized the nice girl wasn’t home. Had Heidi and her friend seen us? Did they know where we were? Were they going to come scrambling around the corner any second now? Feeling as though we only had mere seconds before Heidi and the other girl came barreling around the corner in their fury, we noticed the nice girl’s garage door slightly ajar and quickly squeezed ourselves through.

Once inside the garage, we squatted down below the windows, taking peeks every now and then while we caught our breath to see if they had followed our trail. Panting, we looked around the musty garage. It was much darker and cooler in there, and served as a safe hideout for the time being. A workbench sat against one wall, a push lawnmower was nearby, and hundreds of other little odds and ends were all around: tennis rackets, old sneakers, a chainsaw, potting gloves. It smelled like oil and there was a grimy feel to the floor. But it was better than the alternative, and it also gave us the chance to fill Tiffany in. We explained how only just a few short days ago, we had peered through Heidi’s kitchen window, had then innocently peeked in her mailbox, and how she came after us and threatened us with her menacing looks and “I’ll get you.” We filled in each others’ blanks and made sure to describe, in great detail, the caveman-like way she had eaten the piece of fried chicken leg she’d been gnawing on for dinner. She was no one we wanted to mess with, and we needed to get home as soon as possible.

We noticed a front window facing the road and decided to take a peek to see what exactly was happening outside. With the three of us crouched down, we put our fingertips on the windowsill and dared raise our heads to see what awaited us. And much to our dismay and horror, we saw Heidi and her best friend, Missy. Missy?! Not Missy! Missy was everything Heidi was not: tall, skinny and with long brown hair that she feathered back on either side of her face. She had a pointy, harsh-looking nose and equally menacing eyes. Each of them stood guard on either side of the railroad tracks. Railroad tracks that had to be crossed in order for us to make it back to Tami’s front steps. Railroad tracks that were now being guarded by two upper-class bullies who were resting their hands on their thighs with their sleeves rolled up, clearly intent on waiting for our return and pummeling our faces.

The sight of them filled me with a new level of fear. What had we gotten ourselves into? If only we could have gone back in time and not peeked into Heidi’s window, and not have opened her mailbox! Was it going to hurt when she punched us? Were we going to be covered in blood? Would we have to be brought to the emergency room? I’d never been in a fight before, except with my sister, who I now thought of fondly and with immense love. Oh how I wish I was home, playing in the leaves with her, or at least, organizing my bookshelf by author. Instead, here I was, a 13-year-old who had accidentally committed a felony, running for my life, trying to elude the inevitable torture that awaited us at the railroad tracks. Maybe someone would see us and intervene as they drove by? Sitting in someone else’s garage, the owner of which could be home at any minute, we tried to wait out Death. We became increasingly hysterical and terrified.

Looking around the dark, dank garage for something…anything…Tami noticed a telephone attached to the side of the work bench. “Let’s call my house and see if my stepdad will come get us!” Tami picked up the telephone hurriedly dialed her phone number and begged her stepfather to come up the road and get us. “You don’t understand, they’re out there waiting for us!”

His reply went something like, “Stop being babies and get home…now!” Tami slowly hung up the phone, despair settling into her eyes. She didn’t have to tell us, we understood that her stepfather had just thrown us to the wolves.

Heidi and Missy were the toughest girls you could find at Missisquoi Valley Union High School. They were rough, they were mean, and they were always angry. They were the kinds of girls that got into fights in the hallways at school because someone looked at them the wrong way. They wore t-shirts with skulls on them and made out with random boys at the Highgate Skating Rink in the bleachers section. They were terrifying and could mangle us just like a chicken leg if they had wanted to.

After sitting in the garage for what seemed like forever, trying to figure out how the hell we were going to get home, we decided to arm ourselves. We each grabbed a rake, a shovel, and a pitchfork. Planning to make our way back to Tami’s house wielding our weapons, we looked out the window one last time and couldn’t believe our eyes. Heidi and Missy were gone. We had out-waited them.

As good as this revelation was however, that was only half the battle. Heidi’s trailer was just before Tami’s. So, even if we made it past the railroad tracks, we still had to make it past her trailer. After discussing our options, we decided that our plan would be to walk hand-in-hand until we got to the telephone pole on the corner, just past the tracks, but just before her trailer. We would simply have to run our asses off from there. Slowly emerging from the half-open garage door, one-by-one, we implemented our plan. Walking hand-in-white-knuckled-hand, we kept our eyes on the telephone pole, my heart-rate increasing with each and every shaky step. We walked in a straight line, our steps in sync, our hands losing circulation. We were a unified front as we saw the tracks and the telephone pole and Heidi’s trailer getting closer and closer. We were in this together. Until, that is, we reached the telephone pole.

The second my foot hit that mark, I let go of their hands and ran faster than I had ever run in my entire life and probably ever would. I was the tallest of the three of us and so the fastest. I remember looking behind me at the two of them, Tami coming in shortly after me and Tiffany behind her. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two figures running adjacent to us through the almost-bare trees, clearly trying to cut us off before we reached her steps. “Get em!” I heard Heidi holler. With two blurry forms racing through the woods, I could hear twigs crack and dried leaves rustling as my own feet kicked up the gravel of the driveway in the trailer park. They had been waiting for us after all—just not at the tracks.

Thankfully, we again outran them. After what seemed like the longest 50-yard dash of my life, Tiffany, Tami and I reached the steps to Tami’s trailer where her step-father sat in his recliner, sipping a beer, watching t.v. and totally apathetic to our situation. Panting and gasping and looking all around, we stood there a minute to catch our breath and let the reality set in that we had actually made it home alive. The most menacing 45 minutes of our lives was finally over. We had escaped possible death. I felt like I had been given another chance at life.

I went home that afternoon and didn’t breathe a word of what took place to either of my parents. Glad to see my mom at the dining room table punching away at the calculator for work; glad to see my dad in his chair in the corner, watching a boxing match on TV. My sister was playing by herself in some of the newly fallen leaves on our front lawn, and I joined her, covering her whole body until all you could see was her giggling, freckled, little face. I remember being so happy to be Home.

Bliss is an endless aisle of soup cans.

My parents had wonderful timing. Just as my toes inched their way to the precipice of puberty, the ground began to crack beneath me, causing me to lose my footing before I had even begun. Just as my insides began to go haywire, my outsides began to tremor, blurring my point of reference. As I pushed open the door to adolescence, I quickly began to learn that I had an uncanny knack for stressing myself out in the most benign of situations. Or maybe I was already stressed and just trying to find ways to calm myself down.

I first noticed this seemingly useless and senseless behavior while watching Little House on the Prairie after school. Well, first, I had to sit through Guiding Light because it was either that, or The People’s Court with Judge Wapner who always seemed so grumpy and was always yelling at people. Both were painful to have to sit through, but in the end, I always chose to sit and watch Bud and Reva Shayne fight. They were always kissing and then arguing and then kissing and then arguing, week after week. I guess that’s why they called them daytime dramas. I suppose a show certainly wouldn’t get good ratings if their two main characters merely snapped at each other, rolled their eyes at each other, or questioned why the other had used that tone of voice and then didn’t speak to each other for two days. That would be boring for anyone to watch, even though in real life it still somehow left you on pins and needles.

After the last dramatic bombshell was dropped, however, and the screen froze on the face of the shocked and betrayed (yet again) Bud, Little House would come on and all was right with the world again. As opposed to Reva and Bud, Ma and Pa were always laughing and kissing,  and laughing and kissing.  Even when Ma got annoyed because Pa traipsed through the house with his muddy boots on, they were always able to laugh it off and kiss and be happy and grateful as they ate their bread and butter. Laura and Mary always responded with “Yes Pa,” or, “Yes Ma,” and Pa always came home in such a wonderful mood, despite having worked at the Mill from dawn ‘til dusk.

I wondered which one was closer to the truth: The incessant cycle of fighting and making-up between Reva and Bud, or the perpetually happy and pious Ingalls family. And where did a family like mine fit in.

After the scene of Laura and Mary sitting on a tree stump and laughing faded, a commercial would start, thus catapulting me into my habitual race against time. I would jump up and sprint into the kitchen to make my staple peanut-butter-toast-with-chocolate-milk snack. Knowing I had only two to three minutes before Little House would be back on, I would already have gotten out and prepped the peanut butter, the plate, and the chocolate syrup so as to cut back on time. I would stand in front of the toaster, knife poised, ready and waiting. As soon as the toast would pop up, I would frantically start spreading peanut butter and listen to the TV to make sure commercials were still on. Quickly pouring the milk and stirring up a chocolate frenzy, I would hear a commercial starting to wind down, and would grab my stuff. Barreling out of the kitchen like a bull out of its chute, through the dining room and back into the living room, I would often spill a bit of milk on the way, just to make sure I was physically back in front of the TV when Little House resumed.

The perplexing thing was, it wasn’t about not wanting to miss any part of the show as much as it was that I just felt as though something bad would happen if I didn’t get back in before the commercial ended. I had no idea what, but I didn’t want to find out. Once I was in the room I would settle back down into the couch, set my chocolate milk on the stack of VHS drawers and savor my warm and melted peanut butter on toast.

My sister, sitting in my father’s arm chair, had on his pair of gigantic headphones. They were his big grey clunky ones, with the heavily padded ear pieces, and were far too big for her tiny, almost-six-year-old freckled face. Her rat’s nest was poking out in the back and her freckled cheeks squished from the tight padding. She was listening to her all-time favorite song by Bobby McFarrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and looked up at me smiling, singing off-key far more loudly than she needed to, so that she could hear her own voice. She swayed her head back and forth, her feet bouncing to the rhythm while I diligently nibbled the perimeter of my toast like a chipmunk.

I also had a proclivity for stressing myself out while simply lying in bed. For instance, I’d have a song stuck in my head, like “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, and I’d be singing it or humming it over and over, moving my toes back and forth to the rhythm. But then, I’d start to feel like I had moved my left toes back and forth a lot more than my right toes and my feet would start to feel unbalanced and weird, at which point, I would do a succession of quick back and forth toe-moving with my right toes just to even things out a bit, until I had reached a state of equilibrium. This would happen numerous times as I lay there trying to fall asleep. Once I recalibrated my toes to a nice state of symmetry, I’d start moving them back and forth again, maybe this time to “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan, when I’d inadvertently move my left toes back and forth more than my right. And round and round I’d go. If I didn’t even things out, my foot would start to feel funny and then it would start to radiate through my whole body. I’d feel kind of “off-balance” because of it, so I did the only thing I knew how to do. I would lay there in the dark of my room, my toes moving back and forth like little pistons just beneath the covers until everything was balanced again. Then I’d sleep like a baby.

My quirky idiosyncrasies weren’t solely relegated to the confines of my living room or bedroom however. Sometimes they made themselves known while out at the supermarket with my parents. Grocery shopping was “fun” for me, mainly because of the endless opportunities for me to indulge in my guilty pleasure of imposing order on my surroundings. In the canned fruits and vegetables aisle, my mother would stop and flip through her coupon book looking for the three-for-one on canned peas (my favorite). She’d lick her fingers and thumb through them, her delicate hands deft and quick. My father and sister would be fooling around with the cart half-way down the aisle, my sister on the end while my dad did pop-a-wheelies to make her squeal. Then there was me—the life of the party. I was lagging behind them all, straightening all of the awry cans of sliced peaches and French cut green beans that other slovenly patrons so carelessly shoved aside or knocked over and which the stock boys were clearly missing. Sometimes, my mom would dawdle, and I would tackle one entire section of canned corn, stacking the front row all by twos and turning the cans so that the Green Giant was in the exact spot on each and every one. I wasn’t always able to get to all of the cans in the aisle as my parents would move on, but I would do what I could in what little time I had. The soup aisle was my favorite what with the endless rows of cans lying on their sides pleading for me to right them again. When I was done, I would stand back and revel in the beautiful and breath-taking order of the Campbell’s tomato soup section. An Andy Warhol painting in the flesh that made me giddy and gave me goosebumps. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see my family disappear around the corner and have to eventually tear myself away from my masterpiece.

One of the perks of having such a strong desire for order and punctuality was the fact that my Caboodle was immaculate. For all intents and purposes, Caboodles could be described as brightly colored, plastic toolboxes. Mine was aqua-blue with a pink trim. You undid the latch at the front of the caboodle and inside there were compartments and sections with a moveable upper shelf and cache of room in the bottom. Whenever stress seeped into my body, I would simply open up my Caboodle, put on some Martika and organize the shit out of it. My white Timex watch went right in front (it wasn’t a Swatch watch like the one Tiffany had, but it was close enough). My hair ties were in a neat stack on the left end of the moveable shelf, organized by size, or color, depending on the day. The right side of the shelf housed my barrettes. The bottom held any headbands I had, nail polishes, and fuchsia colored lip-sticks that my mother never actually let me wear beyond the borders of our front lawn. Each group of items was neatly placed in rows on each shelf, and at the very bottom was my hairbrush and hairspray. I loved to empty out my entire Caboodle, lay everything out before me, maybe add a few new items I had gotten here and there, and then meticulously rearrange everything again, sometimes in different places, just to shake things up a bit.

Clearly, I was learning how to manage myself like we humans all do. My father turned his love of movies into a cinematic library, had a life-time supply of White-Out on hand at all times and used and re-used the same envelope for his grocery list for years. I organized grocery store shelves, my closet, my bookshelf and my Caboodle during the day and spent way too much time focusing on my fingers and toes at night. It was simply hard-wired in me to head in that direction. I guess when things started to feel like they were getting messy or falling apart, I was trying to figure out ways to make some kind, any kind of order in my life. Then, there was my sister.

One year—my third year of taking dance lessons—we had our annual dance recital. After months of being dropped off at dance lessons in the basement of our local Methodist church at six, it was finally time to perform in front of real people instead of pictures of Jesus and Mary. My costume for this year consisted of a flapper-like skirt that was made of elastic at the waist and was covered in shiny beads. From there, the rest of the skirt was just hundreds of strings that dangled down to my knees—red string that swayed back and forth with every move. I would often put my hands in front of my knees and crisscross them just like they danced in the 20s. Unlike my other outfits that were worn once and then discarded shortly thereafter, this skirt would get use for months to come.

After my recital, my sister decided to start wearing it on her head. She would wear the elastic waist part around her head, like a hat, because then she could pretend she had long hair. She was another victim of mom’s insatiable need to never, ever let our hair grow below our chin. Erin found a way around that by wearing my old skirt on a daily basis, and for months upon months we simply came to regard it as “Erin’s long hair.”

She wore it around the house constantly, shaking her head so it would sway, and flipping the strings over her shoulder as if it was in her way and annoying her. She wore it outside to play, she wore it to bed, and she wore it to dinner. Sometimes you’d spy her sitting on my dad’s ottoman, running her fingers through her long hair and zoning out. At the end of the day, as my mom picked up the trails of mess we had left throughout, she would always bend over and pick up “Erin’s long hair” and hang it on a hook in the doorway of our basement. The next morning, Erin would open the door and stand there, “Mom! Mom! Can you get my hair down please?” My mom would come from wherever she was and take Erin’s long hair down from the hook, yet again. If Erin couldn’t find her long hair, she would freak out, crying and tearing her room apart, only to remember that she had slept with it and it had fallen behind her bed. Then, she’d find it and put it on, and all was right with the world again.

My mother was surrounded by VHS tapes. She watched her older daughter organize the entire grocery store, and made sure to always, always keep track of her younger daughter’s fake, long hair, God forbid. What else could she do except try her hardest to keep us all happy? We each had our ways of coping with the hard, cold fact that we were all comically messed up humans and all had to co-exist.

One day in July, for my sister’s sixth birthday, she got a Pogo Ball as a present. A Pogo Ball was the same concept as a pogo stick, but instead of a long pole with two places to put your feet, it was a ball with a ring around it. The ball itself was a fluorescent orange color and the ring around it, a bright yellow. It looked like Saturn. The object of playing with the Pogo Ball was to stand and balance on the ring, while simultaneously squeezing the ball with your feet and bouncing around. It looked so much easier to do than it was. Outside in the oppressive July heat, shortly after my sister opened the box, she and I tried to figure it out. My mom and dad, who were most likely just milling around the house doing chores, saw Erin and I playing with it and decided to give it a shot themselves.

My father, ever the diligent rule-follower, immediately retrieved the directions from the box. In the driveway, my mother hopped onto the ring part of the ball, giggling and unsure, as my dad read the directions:

“Step 1: Wearing sneakers, place one foot on the disc, pressing your instep against the ball.”

My mother followed accordingly. “Okay.” She smiled.

“Step 2: Bring your other foot up, pressing your instep against the other side of the ball. Grip the ball tightly between your insteps. Step 3: Push down with both feet to begin bouncing.”

Having followed all of the directions to a T, my mother held on to the trunk of our new blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. We’d finally ditched the old, rusty truck and bought a shiny, new car just a couple months prior. Getting her bearings, my mom giggled as my dad folded up the directions and put them in his back pocket, a smirk on his face. Getting her bearings, she let go of the car and attempted to bounce around on the ball, only able to get out two or three jumps and a few squeals before falling. My sister and I laughed hysterically. Not only because our mother just took a digger on the asphalt in her pretty, matching skort outfit, but because she was laughing so hard too. Mom was always so busy doing laundry and cutting coupons and making doctor appointments, she didn’t really have time to laugh a whole lot.

Then, my dad wanted to try. He too, balanced himself on the back of the Oldsmobile, but was more serious about the ordeal, and kind of stared down at the Pogo Ball, trying to remember the directions before finally letting go and attempting to hop his way toward the end of the driveway. It hurt to look at the Pogo Ball. Clearly, my father had surpassed the maximum capacity of weight allowed on the poor toy, and with every bounce, it looked like the plastic bubble just might explode. If the Pogo Ball had been alive, it would have definitely been screaming for mercy. Luckily, he only got to hop three times before he also wiped out on the asphalt. My mother, laughing loudly at him threw her head back and put her hand to chest, yelling, “It’s so hard to squeeze your feet and jump at the same time, isn’t it?” But, my dad was too out of breath from jumping and laughing at himself to really answer. He took out his handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped his eyes from laughing so hard and blew his nose. My mother would hop on again and give it another go. All of us did. Each time, we were more and more determined to make it to the end of our drive.

My sister Erin, who weighed all of 45 pounds, easily hopped onto the ball and bounced around. My parents looked on, smiling and catching their breath.

“Wow! You’ve got it Erin!” my mom exclaimed.

“Stop showing off!” my dad teased her, as she bounced around proudly and effortlessly.

I tried for a minute, but didn’t really care about how far I could get. I think I wanted to watch them do it. We all stood in a circle as each one of us tried it out over and over. For just a few minutes, things felt so different and so nice. It’s almost as if my mom and dad forgot they were mad at each other, or stressed out about things. No one was rushing to work, or swearing at the broken garden hose nozzle, or organizing anything. We all just laughed at each other and ourselves, even if only for a short time.

Who would’ve thought that a cheap little pogo ball would have been such a gift?

 

Fear is the path to the dark side. And Deet. And Carbs. And Eucalyptus. Oh, and non-organic strawberries too.

At the time, I felt like a rock star mom.

It was winter and both of my boys (ages 6 and 8) had chest colds.  I had bathed them, cleaned out their noses, rubbed Vicks Vapo Rub on their chests and on the bottoms of their feet, put Kleenex next to their beds and put some drops of Eucalyptus in their humidifier.  Kissing their foreheads goodnight, I felt assured that I had done all I could to make them feel their most comfortable while they slept.  Their whole room smelled pure and fresh from the eucalyptus and I felt at ease knowing they might breathe a little better, and sleep more soundly, as I shut their bedroom door 3/4 of the way–enough for some quiet, but also enough so that I could hear them during the night.

I felt like a good mom.  A good mom who had taken all the right steps to help them feel better.  And so, every time they had colds, that is what I did:  bathed them, smeared Vicks Vapo Rub all over their chest and feet and infused their room with the purifying aroma of Eucalyptus.

Until of course, I ran across an article 6 months later, explaining that using Eucalyptus for children under the age of 10 was “dangerous”.  A hazard to their health.  Something to be avoided.  That if you had essential oils just lying haphazardly around the house, that you should promptly lock them up to protect your children from accidental poisoning.

WTF!?!?!?!?

Are they essential oils, or used heroin needles?

On a dime, the comforting memories I had of a constant mist of  healing Eucalyptus filling up my boys’ bedroom, morphed into the horrifying realization that I was actually slowly and repetitively poisoning them every time they were sick.  Kicking them when they were down.   That, in actuality, I was forcing them to inhale deadly toxins as I stood there, over their beds, smiling and patting myself on the back as my two sweet, innocent boys lay there oblivious to the fact that their mother was slowly killing them.

How on earth can Eucalyptus be dangerous?  It’s an oil.  It’s an herb.  It’s a plant.  I closed out the article on my computer and became flooded with all of the other thousands of decisions I had made in the past that haunted me:

I vaccinated my kids.

I fed them strawberries from the supermarket.  The one fruit that contains the highest levels of pesticides out of ALL fruits.  What moron of a mother would do that to their kids?

I put sunscreen on them too.  Sunscreen that causes cancer.

And then some days, out of fear of giving them cancer from the sunscreen, I didn’t put it on, exposing them to the deadly UV rays.  That cause cancer.

Did I scold Sam too harshly when he antagonized his brother?

Crap, I let them both eat raw cookie dough the other day.

The boys forgot to wash their hands the other day when they picked up the chickens.

Should I hold my son back a grade or push him forward?

I let my kids have fluoride treatments!!??

Are they traumatized from hearing me and my husband argue about lacrosse practice?

What about that time Sam got a tick at lacrosse practice?  Should I have demanded an antibiotic at the time?  What if has Lyme disease now?

Should I stop buying strawberries?  I could just give them fruit cups in their lunches.  But wait no, fruit cups contain High Fructose Corn Syrup.  I can’t do that.  Maybe I’ll just pack them some water and crackers.  But wait no, crackers are carbs.   Oh, and maybe I should stop making sandwiches because they eat sandwiches everyday.  That’s a lot of bread.  That’s a lot of carbs.  Carbs are bad.  My kids are going to be overweight.  They’re going to grow up overweight and get diabetes and it will be all of my fault because I didn’t listen and I let them eat carbs and fruit cups!!

Is it any wonder we parents have so much anxiety?  Everywhere I turn, I’ve done something wrong to cause harm to my kids.  I am so exhausted from worrying about how I may be inadvertently causing my boys’ premature death.  Will it have been from the strawberries, or the sunscreen, or the chickens or the vaccines?  I’m living in a cesspool of fear where everyone thinks they are right and have ample studies to show me to back up their claims.  Was it always like this?  During The Great Depression, as families traveled miles upon miles in their jalopies, did they worry about these kinds of things?  Or, are many of us so privileged in our current times that we’re able to focus all of our energy into these ridiculous antics?

I try so hard to radiate a sense of knowing and steadiness for my boys.  I want to be someone they can rely on and depend on and have faith in, especially when they’re shaky.  But I fear that my incessant worries about the Deet in the bug spray I just sprayed on them are betraying me, and that they will grow up to feel just as afraid and unsure as I do.

Three nights ago, on a muggy Saturday evening, I told the boys that because it wasn’t a school night, we could have a slumber party in my room, and watch a little Gilligan’s Island and stay up a little later than usual.  We all got into our summer jammies and huddled in my bed.  The box fan we bought at Wal-Mart (what am I teaching them buying from Wal-Mart?  Should I stop buying from Wal-Mart?) provided a cool breeze for us as we lay on top of the covers.  I had each one of my arms wrapped around each one of my boys as we laid there, with the windows open and the fan gently blowing over our bare legs and arms, and talked about our Favorite Part of the Day and our Hard Part of the Day.  In these rare moments, with both of them in my arms and the three of us murmuring about our days, I get a reprieve from all of the fear and anxiety that so often fills my days.  It’s almost always My Favorite Part of the Day.

We quieted after a while and in the middle of the quiet, Sam my younger son said to me:

“Mama, I feel so safe with you.  It feels like nothing can get to me.  It’s kind of like you’re my Force Field”.

I’m not sure I have ever heard sweeter words than those in my whole life as a mother.  I squeezed him a little bit closer to me and kissed his forehead, telling him how happy it makes me that he feels safe with me, repressing the part of me that feels as if maybe I’ve fooled him somehow.  How could he feel so safe with me when it feels like, so often, I question everything I do?  Every decision I make?

It is not easy living in a culture, where at every corner you turn, there is an Expert waiting for you, arms crossed, shaking their head at the Pop-Tart you just gave your son on a Sunday morning while he watches “Teen Titans Go!” as they “tsk, tsk, tsk” you for your horrible decision-making.

“Teen Titans Go!” AND Pop-Tarts?  I may as well enroll them in military school now since I have already started them on the path of self-destruction.

It’s not easy living in a culture where you’re told if you vaccinate your kids you could very likely do them harm, and if you don’t vaccinate your kids you’ll very likely do them harm.  It’s not easy living in a culture that so blatantly deters you from using your intuition as a parent, which is our most invaluable asset above everything else.

I know that one day soon, my cape and mask will fall away, my superhero status will dissipate, and my sons will both see that I’m merely another flawed human trying her best, and not the indestructible Force Field they see me as today.

To all you parents out there who are doing their best to do right by their kids in this fear-mongering world in which we live, keep fighting the good fight.

And may The Force be with you.