It was early morning, and my bedroom was next to the kitchen. I’m not sure how the floor plan of the house was determined, but I was residing in what had been the nursery, and while the other five kids had to share rooms, I had my own space.
My two sisters were stuffed in a back room, and my three brothers were stacked military-style with bunk beds.
As each child arrived, there was shuffling that had to take place. Since I was the last, I landed and got to stay where I was. I had my own closet, dresser, and room for a desk. Compared to the rest of them, I was living the dream.
If I was upset or sick, I closed my doors and spent time alone. I wasn’t simulating dorm life, so right from the start, I was given a different perspective.
From the outside, it looked inviting, but at times I was a bit jealous that they had people to talk to. Being alone was isolating, and at night, when I had nightmares, which I did every time I fell asleep, I woke up in a dark room with no one to help me chase away the fear.
Not to mention the noise.
My mom was up every day to start breakfast at 5:30. On one side of me was the kitchen, and the other was the bathroom. Between the two, I was bound to wake up to a flushing toilet or the clatter of silverware. Usually, it wasn’t the sound of her screaming.
I heard him swear, and the back door flung open with such force it bounced off the wall, nearly off the hinges.
That did it for me. My self-perseveration skills kicked in. There was no way I would be a victim without trying to escape.
I got out of bed and ran into the kitchen, expecting to see her, but she had vanished. The heavy fragrance of coffee hung in the air. I wasn’t dreaming, and the evidence was in front of me. There were used juice glasses and cereal bowls on the table.
I heard a noise from the living room, so I moved on to find out what was happening at 6 a.m. I joined her at the picture window. It’s supposed to bring more natural sunlight into dark places.
We needed all the help we could get.
On this cold winter morning, my dad was in the middle of the street, trying to get his car under control. While I was tucked in my bed, trying to suck up all the peace I could before the onslaught of school began, my dad was in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
He had started his car to warm it up before the drive. Until I was in my first snowstorm behind the wheel, I never realized his seasonal plight of getting to and from work. I usually was asleep when he left.
To be sure it ran right, he had a routine. When the last bite of his cereal was gone, he would go out and raise the garage door by hand. The electric opener was available, but they liked the old-fashioned, difficult way to preserve their history of pilgrim times.
Back in the house, he would get his coat, secure his lunch bag and kiss my mom goodbye. Once in a while, I heard this when I rolled over into a deeper REM state.
“Goodbye, dear,” she would say. He would murmur something back, indicating his mind was still asleep.
I could not figure out what had disrupted their morning schedule that was as sure as a national holiday on the calendar.
I looked at her, watching him corraling the car. When her brows came together, it was an unspoken signal that something serious had happened.
Why was the car in the street? And why was he trying to open it, but it was locked?
Before I could ask, he dashed to the front door, which they always kept locked. His frantic knocking didn’t phase her.
She took her time opening it. One lock, then the other, and looked at him like he was there to sell her a vacuum cleaner.
“I need the extra set of keys!”
This was another clue. Commanding my mother was not how it went. Usually, she told him what to do, and he never questioned it. She didn’t do well with snappy communication unless he was in an emergency.
“Where are they?”
“Aren’t they in your purse?”
“I don’t know, John.”
His formal name. Another red flag the tension was high.
When in the middle of a problem, it always seemed like they had another issue surface that added another layer, like a jello salad.
She noticed he was gripping his hand.
“What is wrong?”
“Get the keys, Jean!”
The car was running on fumes, and he had one eye on her and the other on traffic. The road that ran in front of their house was always busy, so he had many concerns.
I still had no idea why they were in this mess.
“Did you hurt yourself?” Her attention was entirely on a potential injury, and she had left the nursing profession behind to be at home full-time.
“Jean! Get me the keys!”
“Are you bleeding?”
“I need the damn keys! Yes! I’m bleeding! Get me the keys!”
The change in her body language went from concerned to offended the minute he used foul language.
“Don’t speak to me like that!”
She was not making any effort to get what he was asking.
“I have to get the car out of the street! Please get me the extra set of keys! The car is locked!”
Now that his tone was more cordial to her liking, she hurried off to their bedroom.
I stayed out of the way. There was no way I was getting into the line of fire.
She put them in his hand forcefully, still showing irritation that he had spoken so coarsely. Her trip and back through the house had given her a few seconds to replay the scene. She didn’t like it when he sunk to a low level of speaking obscenities, especially around me.
She returned to the window as he unlocked it and got into the car.
When he pulled into the driveway, she said,
“Dad’s car drove itself out of the garage.”
Before I could ask why, he was back, hurrying to get what was needed.
“John, let me see your hand.”
“I have to go.”
“I need to take a look at your hand.”
“I’m fine. It’s not that bad. I cut it, trying to grab the door handle on the car.”
Another piece to the puzzle.
She said nothing else, but this was when the magic always happened. Against his will, he presented his wound so she could assess the damage.
“I have to go!” He said like an impatient toddler.
She turned it side to side, running her fingers along it to see if it needed a stitch or two.
It was hard to believe this man had served as a sergeant in the military, blowing up mortars to practice taking out an enemy, but she could turn him into a docile human being without saying one word.
He was the seventh child in the family. That’s awful to say about an adult, but it was how the roles were. She was contemplating if he needed a bandaid or not. She didn’t like to waste them if the skin wasn’t broken.
The cost of a box of bandages over a flesh-eating bacteria was at stake.
He had his limits, though.
“I’m leaving!” He got free of her and zoomed out.
No affection at the door.
She stood at the sink and watched him leave through the small window.
I heard him hit the gas and race away like a madman. He was trying to beat the clock.
“You can go back to bed, Chris.”
What?! Go back to bed! I was wide awake and had just watched two episodes of a soap opera take place in front of me.
“Why was the car in the street? What happened to dad’s hand?”
I wanted answers. I had given up my rest free of bad dreams to watch a display of marital dysfunction.
She started laughing so hard she couldn’t talk. As time went along with them, I realized that after the crisis had passed, she thought his poor luck was the best comedy she had ever seen.
I waited, more confused than ever. It was a school day, and I was out of my unconscious state, wasting precious time over something that made absolutely no sense.
“Your dad’s car slipped into reverse and backed down the driveway.”
Now that she heard herself say it, the hysteria took over. She hung on to the counter to keep herself from falling over.
I looked out the window at the neighbor’s driveway that had cars parked in it.
“He came over here to wash his hands after he ate, and he saw his car go by. He was worried it would crash into the ones parked across the street.”
In haste, he had chosen door number one instead of going out the front, which would have been the sensible thing. Going in the opposite direction of where the car was headed wasn’t to his advantage. With the motion, the door locks had activated.
His luck had run out.
He had been electrocuted and brought back to life, broke his back on a sled, and been shot at. His car was about to be the ruin of him. Would his insurance cover multiple car crashes without anyone driving?
With angels on his side, he had to stand by, unable to do anything. Miraculously, it took a slight turn and came to an abrupt halt.
The curb had saved the day.
My alarm went off.
“Get dressed for school, Chris,” she said, back to normal.
As everyone left the house to start their lives, I was suddenly the only one living with them. Now that there were fewer mouths to feed and options for me to inhabit, it was a matter of relocating me.
They converted my room into a formal dining room, and I was transferred to the basement where my three brothers had been living like inmates.
I didn’t mind the move because it gave me more privacy and my own bathroom. I didn’t have to share anymore, so I could come and go as I pleased. But, the limited shower rule was still in effect.
My dad didn’t want our hair clogging up the drain, so we could rinse off but had to use the stationary tub next to the washing machine. He feared we would all shed and clog up the drain, forcing him to fix it.
Liquid plumber products existed, but his theory was these would “hurt the pipes,” so none of us could risk it due to his apprehension.
It was unpleasant to come out of a hot shower shivering to get clean hair, so it was wise to do that first.
When I was little, I had to stand on a stool with my body bent over the sink while she sprayed water on my head. It was rare to be asked if the water temperature was too hot or cold. She decided, and usually, scorching was her setting.
Germs were her thing, and kids didn’t realize how to kill them.
I endured the hair washing ceremony, often freezing, while she scrubbed and pretended she was a beautician, using the cheapest shampoo and conditioners. It wasn’t about healthy hair but something that stripped out the natural oils and smelled like strawberries.
With my new room, I uncovered an unbelievable family secret.
I was in bed with the bifold doors open, barely awake. The flimsy doors would not have kept out any light or noise even if they had been shut. They were designed for a small closet, not an entry.
It was Saturday, so I didn’t have to rush out anywhere. It was dark, but I heard my dad go into the shower. A few minutes later, he stood by a heat vent near the furnace, drying his hair.
In my haze, I wondered how he had gotten his hair washed in the dark laundry room. I hadn’t heard the familiar loud squeak of the faucets. There was no way I would have slept through that.
The whispering started, so I turned over to see him better.
I thought he would notice me, but he was so far gone in his thoughts and self-talk, he was not in the present moment.
I could make out only a few words, but it was a rehashing of conversations he had from a different day as if he were going over his statements to be sure he had said them right. Then, it switched to what he would say if it happened again.
I made a slight noise, but he was so engrossed mentally with his stream of consciousness he didn’t hear me. It sounded like static from a tv caught between channels. He was working something out in his mind, exercising his mental capacities.
He told me he had read The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and his other book, Stay Alive All Your Life. In both, the author heavily encourages his readers to visualize and rehearse scenes to help relieve anxiety. Maybe that’s what he was doing. This was way before I began to read self-help books.
I was trying to comprehend why someone would stand so long whisper talking.
Wait a minute! His hair was wet!
Suddenly I didn’t care about the conversation he was having with himself or a dead relative. He took a shower and washed his hair against the rule he had imposed on all of us. He was bypassing all those frigid hair-washing sessions to stay nice and warm.
I rapidly sat up, and he saw me.
Cut off mid-sentence, he cleared his throat and pretended to hum.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He was not getting off that easy.
“I’m drying my hair,” he said calmly to throw me.
We knew. We both knew I had caught him red-handed.
On my next trip into the shower, I suds up and never looked back. I made sure to wipe down the walls with my towels.
The next time my mom cleaned it, she found a strand of my long brown hair.
“Chris, did you wash your hair in here?”
Following the advice of Norman, I conjured up an image of my dad drying his illegal wet hair by the furnace.
“Yes, I did.”
There was a breach in the allegiance, and I wouldn’t let it get past me.
“Dad doesn’t want anyone doing that.”
I wondered if she believed this or if he lied to her. I took my chances and decided that honesty was my best option.
“Well, I saw dad drying his hair after he got out of the shower last Saturday. He was by the vent drying it and talking to himself.”
She took a minute. Which one should she address?
The next card she played was always a good one but slightly overused. When all was falling apart, she asked a question. A tactical move that served her well for years.
“He washed his hair in the shower?”
It wasn’t that she was telling a lie outright, but pretending to reflect what I had stated.
She knew she had nowhere to go.
It wasn’t ever spoken about again, and I took that as a green light.
After his runaway car situation, there was a heightened sense of awareness when leaving it running unattended. Due to a bad experience, he didn’t fully trust it wouldn’t go rolling by starting the horror all over. Every time he washed his hands at the kitchen sink, he saw the image of it.
After some time passed, and it didn’t happen again, he didn’t give it another thought. He returned to his usual non-thinking mode in the morning before work.
As for the shower, his worries never materialized.
It’s good to look back to where you have been to see if you still have something operating in your present that is blocking your good from coming to you.
It can silently be at work below the surface, but it shows up through your behavior.
There are a lot of people who say, “The past is over! Forget it!”
I agree we shouldn’t dwell there, but sometimes you have to take a glance to figure out why your life is running the course it’s on.
To go forward healed and to promote excellent spiritual and mental health, sometimes you have to throw it in reverse.