by Laura Erickson
(copyright 1993, 1997, 2004 by Laura L. Erickson, but you weren't going to steal it anyway, right?)
Me at my Grandpa's house. My Uncle Dick took this photo.
I was hiding, squatting between the house and a thick arbor vitae bush. Actually, it was a juniper hedge made up of five individual shrubs (one day I had counted them where their flaky trunks emerged from the bare, compacted ground), but my family always called the hedge the “arbor vitae bush.” From the sidewalk it looked like it was touching the house, but there was a narrow space between that a very small girl could squeeze into. The green housepaint was cracked and peeling, the curled edges scraping my bare arms and back through my thin cotton blouse as I leaned against it, but leaning back was more comfortable, and safer, than squatting forward. The juniper branches looked soft and comforting from a distance, their tiny purple berries velvety and delicate, but up close I could understand why evergreen leaves are called “needles.”
I loved words. I was five-and-a-half years old, filled from the soles of my bare feet to the roots of my brown straight bangs with questions. I was afraid to ask most people the questions that bubbled up inside, but I loved puzzling them out myself. If this had been a cedar with its soft boughs, I probably would never have pieced together this bit of etymology, but the juniper made it obvious. Smacking into a branch hurt as much as being pricked by real needles, and the fine row of blood beads that welled up on my skin looked the same as the scarlet bead that oozed up on my finger whenever I poked myself with the needle while sewing Daddy’s buttons on his shirts. Of course if I got pricked with a real needle I had to run to the bathroom that very moment to wash my hands and put on a Band-Aid before the blood ran. If I delayed even the tiniest second it might smear into Daddy’s shirt and Mommy would beat me with the pancake turner. Only a very bad girl would get blood on her daddy’s uniform—you never knew when there would be an inspection at the firehouse.
“Laura! Get in here, Laura!”
Mommy was just a few feet away, yelling at me right there on the porch, but I couldn’t come out, revealing my secret hiding place, until she went back inside. It was Mommy I was hiding from.
Whenever I felt sad or lonely or just plain scared, this was a wonderful secret place to be. Everyone else in the family was afraid of the juniper hedge. It grew along the dining room side of the front of the house up to the porch, a cement stoop that had crumbled where it met the house’s foundation. Garter snakes hid under there—it was their winter hibernaculum (what a wonderful word! I found it in the encyclopedia article about snakes). For a few days every spring when they emerged, our front lawn seemed to writhe with snakes—hundreds of them—and during summer I could usually find one or two basking in the sun at the edge of the juniper’s shadow where they could quickly wriggle back under the hedge or porch if someone came too close. Even my big brother Jimmy, who had just turned eight, was a little scared of snakes, but not me. I found them fascinating, tragic victims of fate. Their undulating movements seemed weirdly beautiful yet somehow crippled, their mesmerizing eyes lost in a painful, permanent stare. The encyclopedia said snake eyelids were clear and sealed shut but I thought that wasn’t much different than if their eyelids had been sewed open. Either way, they couldn’t blink. At night they couldn’t ward off scary shadows and shapes as they fell asleep, and in daytime they couldn’t block out even the most blinding rays of the sun. God must have been in a terrible mood the day He created snakes. Jimmy said their double-pointed tongues were as sharp as needles, but I knew he had not tested this himself because one time I picked up a little garter snake and put my fingertip right in range of its tongue. When it flickered out to touch me, it felt surprisingly delicate, as soft and quick as an angel’s kiss. Of course, I’d never felt an angel’s kiss but it was how I imagined one would be—fluttery and gentle.
I had to admit, I didn’t really like snakes. Their glittery eyes looked cold and hard and angry as much as they looked uncomfortable, but I felt far more pity than fear toward them. And I was grateful to have them under the hedge by the porch because that kept everyone else in the family away. Of course my family was also scared of the hedge because the needles were so sharp. Not even Daddy would clip those prickly branches that shook their fists defiantly at the world. The dead brown needles that fell in a defeated heap on the ground seemed soft and sad, but even they could stab bare feet so I usually put on shoes to go outside. This time I’d run out the moment Mommy started beating Jimmy with the pancake turner. The open window to the dining room where she was hitting him over and over was just above my head, but I could somehow tune out his crying easier in the cool shade of this aromatic, secret sanctuary than anywhere inside the house. When she finally let up on him and sent him to his room, he kept crying as he stomped up the stairs, and even as the sobs quieted to soft, rhythmic shudders punctuated with noisy snuffling, I stayed put. Now Mommy was standing just a few feet from me on the porch, her talon-like hands gripping her bony hips, her eyes cold and hard as snake eyes even if they were beautiful blue, and I was here for the duration.
This was the safest place in my world. The hedge wasn’t trying to hurt me on purpose, and if I was careful to squeeze through in exactly the right spot, I could get in without being pricked. If I went in at the wrong place I’d get smacked, sometimes hard, but that was my own fault. The hedge was scared, too—that’s why it had grown those prickles in the first place.
I wasn’t the only one who took shelter in the junipers. Every evening before sunset, little brown sparrows gathered in the thick branches and cheeped, telling one another about their day’s adventures. Sparrows always had lots of stories to tell in the evening, and they told them in such a friendly, animated way that I longed to be one of them. Sometimes I sat on the porch before they gathered so I could watch them disappear, one by one, into the bushes. It seemed like magic, as if the bushes were somehow swallowing each bird whole except its voice. For a while every evening it looked as if it were the hedge, not the sparrows, doing the cheeping, so well were they hidden. Sparrows didn’t seem scared of garter snakes and they certainly weren’t scared of being pricked by juniper needles. In church once, Father Boyle talked about how God knew every little sparrow in the bushes and loved them all as His own little “cheeldren.” God sounded so kind and loving to hear Father Boyle talk about Him.
But Father Boyle didn't always know what he was talking about. On Easter he talked about the sacrifices mothers made to parade their little girls to Mass in their Easter finery, like so many lovingly tended spring flowers. We three Farley girls listened politely, each wearing the Sunday dress our Grandpa had given us back on Christmas, the one we wore every Sunday and would continue wearing until it was replaced with a new one from Grandpa the following Christmas. Mine was brown because that was the only color my mother said I could wear with my muddy brown eyes. Once a month Mommy would wash our dresses, and since I was the oldest girl it was my job to stand on a chair to iron them after I’d finished ironing Daddy’s shirts. Of course, in a week or two the dresses would be rumpled again even if we hung them up as soon as we got home from church. Mine had a couple of stains, and Patty’s hem needed mending. Instead of Easter bonnets we pinned shabby lace caps to our hair as we did every Sunday. And our mother hardly paraded us to Mass. Patty and I held two-year-old Mary’s hands as we walked the six blocks to the church on our own, clutching our little sister’s hands more tightly and looking both ways when we crossed Wolf Road at the light. At home Mommy was sleeping in, ignoring baby Mike crying in his crib, never knowing that Jimmy had skipped Mass to go fishing at the creek. I knew Jimmy was committing a mortal sin but I never tattled on him—my mother would have punished him at least as harshly as God would have, and a lot quicker. God may have drowned all Noah’s friends and killed every little baby in Sodom and Gomorrah but He apparently took His time when dealing with most naughty behavior. Father Boyle clearly didn’t know about mothers, and I couldn’t trust his version of God, either. The God my mother talked about was going to send each of us five horrible children straight to hell where we’d burn and writhe in agony forever and ever for making her life a living hell. Personally, I didn’t think God would go to that extreme, but I didn’t see Him offering much comfort, either. In my picture of heaven it was always sparrows who brought comfort to the little cheeldren.
The juniper branches were so thick and the shadows so dark that I felt invisible. When Jimmy or Patty played in the front yard, they never noticed me, and one time I hid here the whole time Daddy mowed the lawn and he never once spotted me. If I happened to be here when Bob the mailman walked by just inches away on the other side of the hedge, he didn’t see me either, even when he looked around to see if I was home. I didn’t like to hide from Bob. He came most afternoons right around 12:25, and even though we hardly ever got mail, he often came up our walk just to say hi to me. Anticipating his arrival gave me a good reason to learn how to tell time. If I had already finished whatever jobs my mom wanted me to do before Bob went by, I got to tag along with him through the rest of his route.
Mommy was still standing on the porch fuming at me, but now baby Mike was screaming his head off upstairs and Mary was trying to go potty by herself, crying because she couldn’t get her rubber pants down, and Jimmy was still snuffling loud up in his room, so Mommy finally went back into the house, slamming the door. I squeezed out onto the front porch ready to turn myself in, but just then I noticed Bob across the street. I waved to him and he waved back. With sudden optimism, I charged into the house, helped Mary pull down her britches in the bathroom, and ran up the stairs. “Mommy, Bob's coming! Can I walk his route with him?”
Mommy didn’t like me pestering the mailman and today she was mad at me and everyone else besides, but she was changing Mike’s diaper and the phone was ringing and Mary was still crying and no one knew where Patty was, so she just waved me out of the room. I took that to mean I had permission to disappear for a couple of hours. I put on my tennis shoes without bothering to find socks, carefully tied the shoestrings in a double bow, and raced out after Bob.
Bob was the one person I could question to my heart’s content. One day he showed me how street numbers worked. My house number was 116. Nan and Suzie’s house next door was 120. The house on the other side was 112. All the houses on my side of the street started with one and were even numbers, only they were numbered by fours so they skipped every other even number. Across the street was trickier. Those houses were also numbered by fours, but starting with 101—an odd number so all the numbers on that side ended up odd. I loved puzzling through all this. The block to the east of mine had numbers starting with two, and the next block with three. The block to the west had only two digits. Bob said it really had three digits like everyplace else, but the first digit was an invisible zero. I loved thinking about that whole idea—that there could be an invisible nothingness that was a whole block long, with houses and cars and everything.
Bob helped me read the street signs, too. My street’s name was Whitehall, which intersected Prater and Wolf Road to the west and Roy and Roberta to the east. (“Is that why they call it an intersection?” I asked Bob with delight when I figured that one out.) Parallel to Whitehall were Belle, Bernice, and Armitage. Bob said that parallel lines may not meet in the real world, but they do meet on the horizon and they also meet where Lake Street crosses North Avenue. That was not only an interesting puzzle, it was how Northlake got its name. I think it’s also why I thought Northlake wasn’t part of the rest of the world. Once when my mother lugged me along to a parent-teacher conference in Jimmy’s first grade classroom I busied myself trying to find Northlake on a globe. I searched every inch and found Chicago right there at the bottom of Lake Michigan but couldn’t find Northlake anywhere, not even in Africa or Antarctica. And I couldn’t find Northlake on a huge road map my dad once spread out on the dining room table. He snorted, “Of course not, stupid, this is a Florida map.” I hated when anyone laughed at me, especially Daddy. It made me even angrier because I didn’t know what kind of map a “ Florida map” could be. But no way could I expose my stupidity to Bob by asking him. I took it as yet another mystery to puzzle over, like the time Mommy and my aunts were gossiping about someone turning tricks on Wacker Drive and I thought they were talking about a magician. They all laughed at me, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Like the few cardboard picture puzzles we had, I always seemed to be missing pieces of information, but somehow we Farley children had learned early on that we couldn’t expect to find all the pieces to anything. That was just the way things were.
Sometimes Bob helped me read the names on the envelopes he was delivering if the writing was in printing rather than cursive. The most official-looking mail was always typed, but Bob said that the most valuable mail—the mail that meant the most to people—was usually hand-written. It was delightful fun to sound out the names and addresses all by myself. One day Bob showed me his name, typed on his paycheck envelope. “Robert Ziebowski,” it said. I figured out the Robert part okay, but pronounced the last name “ZIE-bow-sky.” Bob said that was close—it was really “Zuh-BOW-skee.” I was surprised that the Post Office called him Robert when everybody knew his name was Bob, but he said Bob was just a nickname, and added that I asked some funny questions for being the smartest five-year-old girl in the whole wide world.
Bob had to deliver to a lot of houses so he walked pretty fast. I fell behind if I walked, but it was easy to keep up with him when I skipped and I loved skipping. It made me feel like a bird. Bob carried half the day’s deliveries at a time. When his first bag was empty he stopped at a special mailbox—one that was shaped like a normal postal box but colored dull brown instead of patriotic red, white and blue and missing the chute for people to drop letters through. He used a tiny key to open a door, and inside was a second mailbag neatly packed with letters, magazines, and newspapers. He’d swap his empty bag for that one. Sometimes he let me open the mailbox door. The key looked like a toy, it was so tiny—much smaller than the keys that started Daddy’s car and unlocked the front door—but Bob said that size was no way to measure the importance of things or people. This was the key to letters from all around the world. Of course most of them were really just from Chicago, but some were from Wisconsin and Indiana, and one house occasionally got letters and once a package from California. Bob showed me mail from New York City and Miami and Las Vegas, and once he showed me the most special letter of all. The envelope was exquisitely thin. Bob said the letter inside was on the same beautiful paper, which he called onion skin though when I asked he said it didn’t make people cry unless the words on it were sad. The envelope had peculiar squiggles and extra postmarks and a stamp with funny letters that didn’t even look like the alphabet. Bob said that this letter had flown thousands of miles, across a lot of foreign countries and the Atlantic Ocean and several states on its way to Northlake from Poland. What was in it? Bob didn’t know. It might be filled with happy news from a beloved friend or relative, or something terrible and sad, or words of longing from a far-away lover. You couldn’t tell from the outside, but any letter was important to have come to Northlake from so far away. He said letters that came across the ocean were usually written on that delicate thin paper so they could come by airmail, and he let me touch it and even hold it in my hand. It seemed light and airy enough to have flown all the way on its own. Bob said the people who wrote the letter probably didn’t speak a word of English. How did they talk? He said a few mumbly jumbly words and then smiled at my confusion. “That’s Polish for ‘You are a dear little girl,’” he said, and I asked him to say it again and again. It was strange and foreign, like no words I’d ever heard before. And the way Bob said it made it the most wonderful sound imaginable.
Bob’s mailbag was rich brown leather, fragrant and warm. The day the letter came from Poland, he let me carry the bag while it still had that precious missive inside. I loved carrying Bob’s bag but he didn’t let me do it often, and when he did it was only after it was at least half empty. Bob said a gentleman never let a lady shoulder a heavy burden when he could carry it himself, but I argued that no one could be a true lady if she didn’t do her best to ease the burden for someone who delivered hundreds of messages from all around the world. Of course, I wasn’t only thinking of Bob—I loved the feeling of the broad strap pressing down on my shoulder, and the smooth, supple texture of the bag. I stroked it a lot. Bob said it came from a cow, and I thought how kind that cow must have been to give the Post Office such a lovely thing and wondered where she got it. I tenderly wound the extra length of strap around my hand and arm so the cow’s beautiful gift wouldn’t get scuffed on the ground.
My Uncle Dick called Northlake the country because it wasn’t Chicago, but it wasn’t the sort of place where you could see a cow. Cows were part of my black-and-white encyclopedia world along with the Bird of Paradise and the Cock-of-the-Rock and Yaks and Aardvarks. My Grandma had given us our encyclopedia set before she died, a grocery store special that she had carefully collected for us, one volume a week, the only hardcover books my family owned except an unread, gilt-edged Bible hidden away in a dining room drawer under the linen napkins and tablecloth, that we never used, also from Grandma. I somehow taught myself to read by poring over the encyclopedia, starting with the A volume. My plan was to read every single word of all 20 volumes even though I barely understood a fraction of them, but partway through the Bs I became fixated on the Birds article. I read it over and over as the pages learned to open automatically to Birds, the spine little by little becoming creased and cracked and finally split. I yearned to retreat deep inside this encyclopedia world with its beautiful creatures and strange maps and exotic people. Even in black and white this world seemed perfect, with no mommies yelling and beating and holding our hand to the hot iron, set at “linen,” if we missed a shoulder panel on one of Daddy’s shirts. In the encyclopedia world, no daddies were gone for weeks at a stretch, at last showing up at home to ridicule and belittle before falling asleep in a drunken stupor. I searched my neighborhood, hungry for evidence of the encyclopedia world, my eyes combing through maple and elm branches for the smallest bird in the world, the Bee Hummingbird; the largest bird in the world, the Ostrich; the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon; and what looked like the loveliest bird in the world, the Resplendent Quetzal, but nowhere did the boundaries of my real world intersect the boundaries of my encyclopedia world. No one ever walked down Whitehall Street looking remotely like George Washington, Geronimo, Emily Dickinson, or even Dwight David Eisenhower. There were lots of maps in the encyclopedia but not one of them had Northlake on it, not even the map of “ Illinois: Land of Lincoln.” My mother said most of what was in the encyclopedia was a lie and the rest exaggeration. But the encyclopedia set was a gift from my Grandma in heaven and the world it told about was a lovely one, so I tried to insinuate myself into that world by using encyclopedia words. “I’ll peregrinate to the store for you, Mommy.” “Isn’t the sky cerulean?” “I cleaned the toilet till it looks resplendent.” Of course, no one in my family, and no one I knew in Northlake, not even Bob, used those encyclopedia words. Sometimes when I talked like that Mommy smacked me hard or Daddy told me to shut my yap, but I couldn’t help it. I tried to be more careful around Bob, but the first day he let me carry his mailbag and I wrapped myself in its sumptuous leather and stroked it over and over, I blurted out what a resplendent bag it was. Bob gave me a big smile, rubbed my hair, and put his hand gently on my shoulder.
I loved to mull over Bob’s words about being the smartest five-year-old girl in the world. I was never sure when people meant what they said and when they didn’t. Grandpa once told me I sang like a happy little bird, but as soon as he went home, Daddy said I really sounded like an old bullfrog—Grandpa only said that because he loved me, and that was only because he didn't know the real me. When I was hurt I instantly lashed out with an angry retort so I snapped that I sounded okay to me, but Daddy said people couldn’t hear what their own voices really sounded like because everybody was locked inside their own head. That stopped me cold. Were we all trapped inside our own heads, hearing and seeing and smelling the world each in our own unique way, no two of us perceiving anything alike, so many snowflakes lost in frozen isolation? Did people speaking mumbly jumbly words across the ocean in Poland sound like they were speaking English to their own ears? Did colors that were beautiful to me look strange or even ugly to other people? Maybe what looked purple to me looked blue to Father Boyle and orange to Bob. Maybe my soft brown sparrows were vivid red like cardinals to someone else. Who could know for sure? Maybe to some people dogs looked like cats or frogs, or even snakes. Mommy and Daddy both said my brown eyes looked dirty and ugly. Sure enough, Mommy’s and baby Mike's blue eyes were beautiful, and the little green flecks in Daddy, Patty and Mary and Jimmy’s hazel eyes sparkled with loveliness. My eyes were muddy brown and I sang like an amphibian. It seemed like a cruel trick of nature that no one else in my family sang at all—songs rang through my head all the time and in the house I could hardly stop singing. I was careful never to break into a song when I was skipping along next to Bob, but I liked imagining that he was right about me being so smart. I never told Daddy about it, though—he’d ruin it by telling me the awful truth.
Today was the kind of day that made me skip with joy. The blue sky was festooned with flat-bottomed clouds. Robins were singing and Bob was ever so cheerful—he even let me carry his bag for three whole blocks. Every time we crossed the street, he reached down and took my hand in his big, warm one. This was like heaven, better than even my encyclopedia world, and I wished the afternoon would go on forever. But eventually we came to the last house on the route, near Bob’s special mailbox. He retrieved his first empty bag and headed for his truck. He wasn’t allowed to take passengers in the mail truck, but sometimes he secretly gave me a ride home. Today was my lucky day—he told me to climb in. There was only the driver’s seat so I took my place on the floor, sitting on his empty bags, squishy and soft. He stopped at my house and opened the truck door with his usual, “See you tomorrow, I hope!” I jumped out with my “Yep—I hope, too!” I skipped a figure eight around the two big elms on the front lawn. The cardinal was whistling somewhere in the maple. I tried whistling back but couldn’t make it come out right—I was too happy to stop skipping and whistling took serious concentration. I skipped right up to the porch steps where a sudden blast of Mommy yelling inside slowed me down. Patty was in big trouble. I looked at the juniper wistfully as I trudged past it. A couple of sparrows were already cheeping inside its sheltering, protective prickles, telling jolly stories about their day’s adventures. I wished I could snuggle in there with them tonight. I’d have lots of stories of my own to share, happy stories about my lovely afternoon with Bob.