Perspective is more than just a specific view of things, it is the parallel lines that spread outward in all directions but are all sourced from a singular experience. Memoir doesn’t just ask for the what, but also the why, even if that why can never be answered.
I was thirteen years old when I got sick. Really sick. High fever, swollen glands, headache, and an extreme sore throat. The kind of sore throat that makes swallowing your own saliva an act of bravery. Several of my brothers and sisters were sick at the same time and we spent our days, quarantined, lying motionless on couches and mattresses. We were too ill to even talk to each other. All our blankets and sheets were washed in hot water, the whole house smelled of bleach, and eventually we all got better. Life returned to normal. Normal for me, meant, long work days in the basement doing laundry for thirty people.
One day, after I had been running up and down the stairs putting clean clothes away, I noticed that each time I took a flight of stairs my joints ached and the fatigue found its way inside my body, settling into my muscles and bones. I felt oddly winded and finally when the day was done, I crashed to the floor of my bedroom and pulled out the battered copy of Old Yeller I kept hidden under my bed. There I sat for at least an hour. When I eventually stood up there was a terrific pain in my feet that shot up both legs and became a bolt of lightning that electrified my core and crackled the roots of my hair. I crumpled back to the floor, scared and confused. I pulled off my shoes and socks. My feet were no longer mine. They had become round and hard, like water balloons.
“I am going to get Father,” Mother said when she saw them.
“No, Mother, I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
In a matter of minutes Father appeared and Mother pulled my reluctant feet out from under my dress, where I had hidden them, ashamed. Father and Mother towered over my bare legs and swollen feet discussing my symptoms while I helplessly stared at the carpet.
“Should we take her to the hospital? She can’t walk on feet that are swollen and I don’t know what is causing it.”
“No, let’s see if the swelling goes down by morning.” Father looked down at me, his eyebrows creased. I wanted to shrink and slide under the bunk bed. “She’ll be fine.”
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” Mother waited until Father was gone to ask the question.
“I didn’t think it was important, I thought I was just tired.”
In truth, I had stopped telling Mother anything, years before. I had stopped reaching out to her, stopped searching her face for my reflection there. She had drifted beyond my reach. A vanishing point. Lost at sea.
I had only been two years old when my father married his third wife. This new wife had brought with her attitudes and practices toward the discipline of children that went well beyond mere violence, but bordered the sadistic. I lived in an almost constant state of fear and vigilance. If I wasn’t the one getting beaten with the plastic tube, (cut from an inexhaustible roll of it,) it was someone else. No matter where I went, I could never escape the awful sound of “the stick” and its whispery whistle slashing the air, the thwack of it against a soft, human body. Over and over and over. The haunting animal cry of someone else’s pain left like a stain on the walls of our house.
I had tried to tell Mother about the beatings. But she only raised her hands up in a helpless gesture of defeat and said, “I don’t want to hear it.” What then were swollen feet and a bit of exhaustion compared to the hot, white welts of daily beatings? Or the tender swellings of bruises that I was so long accustomed to?
Mother bent down to feel my forehead, she was warm and comforting. I wanted to lean into her hand, to collapse into her care, but instead I closed my eyes and held still.
“Go to bed and we’ll see how you feel tomorrow.”
The next morning, Mother arrived in her white apron, hair combed back in a bun and the sleep long gone from her eyes.
“Do I have to do the laundry today?”
“Of course not, you are going to come to my room and lie down.” She had made up a mattress with a sheet and blankets in the corner of her small bedroom. I curled up there, still in my nightgown, listening to the daily activities of breakfast being made, of feet tromping back and forth across the kitchen floor. I breathed in the comforting smells of toast and warm oatmeal.
After some time, I heard Mother’s voice from the kitchen.
“I think I know what it is.” The conversation was muffled and I strained to hear more.
“We can’t take her to the hospital unless it gets a lot worse.” Father’s voice was tinged with fear this time. Hospital. I fell asleep to the vision of a kind doctor holding a stethoscope to my chest and myself far away from home, safe in a sickbed.
Our family, while large and living in crowded conditions, really didn’t experience an unusual number of illnesses. In fact, on the whole, our family was healthy. It was common practice in polygamous families to adopt natural methods of medicine to cure illnesses and provide basic comfort to the sick. A fever was allowed to run its course if it didn’t get higher than 104. While there was aspirin in the house it was used sparingly. We had basic over the counter medicines, but mostly we used herbs and natural remedies. We were given black tea for upset stomachs, yarrow tea for colds, blue cohosh for menstrual cramps, fennel tea for fussy babies. We used onion packs to treat chest colds and coughs. I remember sleeping with half of an onion pressed to my ear when I had an earache. Cold air for croup, steam for stuffy noses. Every morning, we received a teaspoon of cod liver oil by mouth, Vitamin C was dispensed like candy, and we couldn’t have a glass of orange juice without it being total ruined by a tablespoon of Brewer’s Yeast stirred into it. Resorting to a doctor was always a last, desperate option.
Mother woke me up several hours later. She had a glass of milk in her hand and a bottle of aspirin.
“You have something called rheumatic fever, it is pretty dangerous,” she said calmly. “And you will need plenty of rest.” She said rheumatic fever could permanently damage a person’s heart and handed me one white aspirin and a half glass of milk.
“Can I stay here, in your room?”
“Of course, that is what I made up this bed for.”
Of course. What seemed so obvious to her was still a lingering question in my mind. Why did this sickness warrant my mother’s kindness and protection? What was so special about it, that even Father approved? While I was suspicious of Mother’s attentions, I readily accepted the safety it offered me. As long as I was sick, I was safe. I slept at the foot of her bed at night and during the day I lay staring at the wall feeling nothing but relief and exhaustion. Sickness distanced me from the daily beatings and put me in physical proximity to my mother. At nights especially, I was so close to her I could hear her breathing while she slept. I could reach out and touch her arm that dangled over the side of the bed. I could kneel up on the mattress and rest my hand on the blanket over the bulge of her foot, or even stand over her sleeping face and admire her long, black hair coiled up on the milky, white of her pillow. She never once saw me.
I was given milk and aspirin with perfect regularity. That little white aspirin was a tiny tablet of protection, a shield against the whole world. But I was weak, and that little tablet tempted me, too. Some days when Mother showed up with the glass of milk and aspirin, I heard my voice say, she does love me. But there was a faint question mark at the end of it. She does love me?
The weeks turned into months. I worried about getting better, afraid of being strong enough to return to work. The fear that had once permeated my life had been reduced to the faraway sounds of gunfire, to mere smoke on the horizon.
“How are you feeling?” Mother began asking me every day.
So I started smearing pencil lead under my eyes creating dark, realistic shadows there, transforming myself into Tiny Tim Cratchit, all pathetic and sickly, and I stayed another week on the mattress at the foot of her bed.
One day, she brought laundry for me to fold while sitting on her bed. That was the first sign that it was over. It became harder to pretend. Mother waited for me to tell her I was okay, but I couldn’t say the words. One morning, in full resignation, I went out and gathered all the dirty laundry, took it to the basement and stepped right back into my old life. It was over.
That is where my story grows thin. I have looked out as far as my eye can go. I have reached the vanishing point, where fact and feeling meet and the eye can only imagine what lay beyond. The un-provable.
Throughout the years, I have looked back at the time I spent in my mother’s bedroom, wistfully remembering those months and trying to understand what it meant, why it mattered. Did I really contract rheumatic fever? Did my mother want to save me from the violence but didn’t know the remedy? As a mother myself, I have come to know that my own mother did love me, but her love was impotent, laced with her own fears, rendering it as helpless as she.
And though I didn’t trust her love I took it anyway, put it greedily in my mouth, and washed it down with a glass of milk.
SUSANNA BARLOW is a full-time writer. Her memoir Not in My House is about her life in a polygamous family and how she overcame the struggle of surviving abuse. It won First Place for Creative Nonfiction in the Utah Original Writing Competition 2017. An excerpt of her book was published in Artists of Utah 15 Bytes in 2018. She enjoys helping other writers with one-on-one writing guidance and as a developmental editor.
Featured image: Photograph by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash.