By Gilian Foley
Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
Katy and I were never allowed to fight in mom’s bed. It was the only condition of story-time. We would burrow into mom–Katy on the left, me on the right–and then she would read us the book. She was always warm.
A lot of families do this, of course. But it still felt special with the sort of crystallized, unaffected specialness of childhood memories. If I could, I’d like to frame it, and hang it on a wall.
The books changed, as we got older, even if the ritual didn’t. We read The Seven Easter Bunnies every night for a year straight. Then came The Berenstain Bears, until we realized how repetitive and predictable they were. Eventually, we graduated to chapter books. Katy liked Junie B. Jones; I told her it was babyish. Harry Potter is far more grown-up, don’t you think?
We would read for what felt like quite a while. Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe an hour. By the time mom set the book down, my eyes were fluttering shut. Mom would give us our treat then, in plastic pink bottles. The box read Ovaline, but that’s hard to pronounce, so we just called it chocky.
Chocky tastes like chocolate milk. Its label reads, “Nutritiously delicious.” It’s supposed to be a bit better for you, but that’s impossible to tell by the taste. Chocolate is just chocolate.
Half-asleep, we would sip chocky from our bottles. I always chugged mine, gulping it down as fast as my baby-throat could allow. But Katy drank slowly. I lay there for a minute, waiting for her to finish. My belly felt warm, as if I was keeping a secret. Almost as warm as mom, next to me.
“Ready?” Mom said, when Katy finally finished her turtle-like drinking. “Three, two, one!”
And then we chucked our chocky against the wall, hard as we could.
I remember a time, when I was maybe eight and I saw the news. Maybe I’d seen it before, but this was the first time that I can remember. Katy and I were latchkey kids, by then. Before mom got home from work, we had a few hours to do whatever we wanted. The world was our oyster, and we were laughing tyrants. Mostly, this just equated to us watching too much TV.
When I turned on the TV–I’d only recently learned to use the remote all by myself, and it was very exciting–it went straight to the news. Some guy with a microphone was talking about a Portland family that had been murdered. They’d left their door unlocked, he said. A mentally ill man walked through it. He shot the mother and her two kids, then himself. The two 8-year-old kids.
Kids, shot? My age? Katy switched the channel, and I stared at the Jonas Brothers in a blank sort of shock. I didn’t cry about it, but it stayed in the back of my brain. Like a catchy song, I couldn’t get it out of there. I would be playing soccer, and it would hit me. Eating dinner, or walking to school–one moment of weakness, and it would pounce. A suffocating fear, a sudden awareness of my heart. Does it always beat that fast? Two eight-old-kids, just like me. The dad drove home to an empty house.
This went on for a few days, before I talked to mom about it. “Mom?”
“Yes, Gadds?” That’s her nickname for me, God knows why.
“A man could just walk through our house and kill us. Did you know that?”
Mom wrapped me up in her arms. It wasn’t so much a hug as a squeeze. “No, he can’t. No one can. Our house is surrounded by a force-field of goodness that no one can break through.”
That’s her favorite saying. She says it during blackouts, or lightning storms, when she broke her arm. When our dog ate my flourless-chocolate birthday cake, and I cried so hard I started hiccuping.
I’m not sure that I ever really believed it. I’m naive, but not that naive. If she ever repeated that saying now, all wide, earnest eyes, I would probably laugh her off. Ridiculous; absurd; childish.
But when I remember story-time, that’s exactly my feeling. There was a sense of eternal safeness, huddled up in blankets and each other’s warmth, throwing something against the wall. Nothing bad could happen, snuggled into my two favorite people. The world couldn’t reach us.
Image Credit: Pigeon Press