#8 How did your childhood end?
The fourth part of a story about family secrets and childhood misunderstandings
When the doorbell finally stopped ringing, my younger sister and I pressed our ears against the white door that led upstairs. It didn’t sound like anyone was in the front landing, but there was only one way to find out. Lindsay and I stared at each other for a beat and then back to our family's two Shetland sheepdogs, who sat further down the dark hallway, cocking their heads to follow the high heels and heavy footsteps moving back and forth above us.
“Mom told us we had to stay downstairs,” Lindsay whispered, but she didn’t try to stop me from reaching out to turn the brass handle. As the door opened, a rush of hot air from the party upstairs—wine, fresh coffee, women’s perfume—flowed past us into the basement.
How long did we wait there, listening in the dark to the senseless jumble of music and too many conversations swirling around us in the stairwell? I’m not sure, but there was no one in the front landing and when one of the dogs sneezed behind us, I pushed my little sister through the doorway before she could change her mind and closed the door carefully behind us before the dogs could follow.
An hour earlier, my mother had modeled that evening’s outfit under a pot light in the kitchen, spinning slowly in a pool of yellow light as her black-sequined top sent a cascade of dizzying flashes across the wooden cupboards, the ceiling, and linoleum floor. My three sisters and I were fanned around her in a semi-circle and she had never looked so glamorous: a woven gray skirt, pantyhose, black high heels, teal eyeshadow and a bright coral lip, with a matching set of pearls and pearl earrings, and gold bracelet around the same hand as her wedding ring.
At the end of her slow pirouette, she put her hands on her waist and smiled. “How do I look?” she asked, but the yellow rotary phone by the patio door started ringing, and she bent over the counter to answer it before we could answer her.
My two older sisters rolled their eyes at each other and left the room, but when Lindsay and I tried to follow, my mother waved us over. She was surrounded by all those weeks of hard, sweaty work in the kitchen—all the cookies, squares, scones, chocolates, and bars had emerged from the deep freeze that morning and were now organized on wire racks to defrost on the countertop. Her baking had also reached a new level of intensity that morning: a sour cherry cheesecake cooled on the counter while three large ham and cheese quiches waited for their turn in the oven. The sink was full of empty ziplock bags and Tupperware containers.
As Lindsay and I waited, we eyed the countertops, wondering what we could grab on without our mother noticing, but she kept her eyes locked on us while listening to whoever was on the other side of the call, until she finally covered the phone receiver with her hand and told us, “Elaine is coming tonight and she doesn’t know anyone but you guys. I want you two to like her, so please be nice.”
There were eleven cream-carpeted stairs that lead up to the living room. When we stepped on the third one, it groaned under our combined weight, which caused Lindsay to freeze and grab my hand. She lurched backward in surprise and tried to pull me with her, and suddenly there we both were, suspended in the center of the mirror next to the front door: my wiry eight-year-old body swimming acid-washed jean shorts and a button-up shirt with neon blue lightning bolts, with no front teeth and a spiky brown mullet, and my five-year-old sister wearing a blue dress with a white collar and matching sparkly jellies, her hair plaited into a french braid.
Our mother, anticipating that we would sneak upstairs anyway, had forced us to dress up for her friends and that night we were background actors in whatever fantasy of hers was playing out upstairs. All these years later, I wonder how different everything would have been if we had just gone back to the basement and watched the rest of the WWF wrestling matches on the TV. If I close my eyes, I can still clearly see the two of us hesitating on the staircase, until the fear of missing out on whatever was happening upstairs overpowered our fear of getting caught, and we scrambled up the rest of the steps to peek around the banister into the living room.
My mother and two older sisters were rushing back and forth from the kitchen, ferrying food to the dining room table, which was surrounded by women drinking wine out of my parent’s good crystal, eating with the plates and silverware we only used for holidays and special occasions. Unlike the previous book clubs hosted by my mother, this was an evening dress and shoulder pad affair. Nylons. High-heels and shoes indoors. There were rich wives from the oceanfront houses mingling with the new mothers from our neighbourhood up on the ridge. Most had arrived with fresh blowouts from the salon or permed hair teased high and hairsprayed to the gods.
We both scanned the room. Lindsay’s eyes darted from dress to dress and she was clapping her hands in excitement. My mother had made a lot of friends in the three years since we moved to the coast, which was impressive because she and my father knew almost no one when we first moved here. I recognized one mother of a friend of mine but the rest were strangers—until I spotted Elaine in dress pants and a crisp white button-up, her short blond hair styled back. It had been several weeks since that weird meeting on her driveway, where my mother had pretended we ran into her by chance, despite it being clear that Elaine had been waiting for us to come by.
There was a sudden pop of a sparkling wine bottle; small screams and laughter rippled through the room. When Elaine noticed us at the stairs, she waved but stayed with the other woman around the table. There were dark bags under her eyes and she wasn’t talking at all. I waved back, but Elaine’s attention had already returned to the conversation she was in.
While I was distracted, Lindsay made a break for the kitchen, where my oldest sister had been watching us, leaning against the door frame. She was a teenager and I was invisible to her most days because of the age gap between us. Unlike the rest of us, she was blonde and blue-eyed and recently every conversation with her felt like some sort of a test, so when she came to sit down next to me on the stairs, I could feel deep in my stomach that something was wrong.
She looked from me to Elaine, and said, “You know she’s a dyke right?”
I knew that she wasn’t really asking me a question. I should’ve stayed silent, but I was starting to like Elaine and wanted to know what my sister meant, so I asked, “What’s a dyke?”
This time my sister didn’t roll her eyes. It was worse. She laughed—not that the fake teenage laugh she had recently acquired, but a belly laugh, so hard and so deep that her eyes started to water.
“God, Sean! A lesbian. Have you heard of a dictionary? I bet she’s trying to split up Mom and Dad.”
That was enough to send me leaping two stairs at a time back to the basement, which was ringed with bookcases filled with my parent’s books, magazines, and my father’s record collection. The dictionary was on the bottom shelf of the bookcase closest to the door that led to the backyard. It was huge and heavy, but I could pull it off using my body weight and once it was on the carpeted floor, I crouched down and started flipping.
The dictionary opened to sections where my mother had pressed flowers from her garden: an iris, lilies of the valley, a red and yellow columbine flattened against the page like a shooting star. Unsure how to spell the words, I had to sound them out loud and then search until I found the right combination of letters. The definition for dike made no sense (a long thick wall that is built to stop water flooding onto a low area of land?) so I tried lesbian next.
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈlɛzbɪən/, U.S. /ˈlɛzbiən/
Forms: 1500s lesbiane, 1500s lesbien, 1500s lesbyen, 1500s–1700s lesbyan, 1500s– lesbian.
1. A native or inhabitant of the Greek island of Lesbos.
2. A woman who engages in sexual activity with other women; a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women; a homosexual woman.
More confusing words to look up: Lesbos, native, inhabitant—but it wasn’t until I read the definition for homosexual that my face burned and the sweat from my hands smudged ink across the page. Whatever anger I felt at my mother was quickly replaced by fear. Was this why she had been acting so strange when we met Elaine on that walk? Did my father know? And then a much deeper fear.
Even at that age, I saw myself in that word and felt something shifting in this recognition, everything retreating and falling away from this moment—the footsteps moving across the ceiling, the fans screaming for Mr. Perfect on the television, the cabbage moth fluttering against the overhead light above me—as if to say: here is your future clearly spelled out before you in the half-light of the basement.
I should be grateful to my oldest sister for being the first person to speak directly to me about sexuality. No one talked about this to children then. Yet the way my oldest sister had talked about Elaine made me sick. I bet she’s trying to split up Mom and Dad. I didn’t know what to do to stop that from happening but I would do whatever I could to keep my family from falling apart.
Thanks for reading this week’s post. I’m curious if you remember the moment your childhood ended? Was it something sudden like mine or was it a gradual thing that happened over time?
The next post will be part of the highway accident series. Steve pointed out that I should interview a couple of my family members to see what they remember before sharing more about the accident (so I don’t contaminate their memories).
Until a future Sunday.
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