When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. I turned around. They smiled and waved in their smoky way.
Then I didn’t see them. Not once, or twice, or ever again. —The House On Mango Street
Set The Hook
I am the oldest. The first child born in a country my parents moved to. My parents didn’t own a car when I was born so my dad borrowed one to take my mom to the hospital. I’m not breathing as I enter this world. The umbilical cord wrapped tightly around my neck. Call the priest. Baptized and Last Rites at birth. Stay in hospital longer than expected. The bill is going to be much higher than expected. My father is called into the billing office.
“Mr. Theriault, here is your bill. We need you to pay this before your wife and son leave the hospital.”
My dad looking at bill, “I can’t pay this bill. Can I pay you monthly for a year?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Theriault, we can’t do that. You need to pay the entire bill, or we can’t release your wife and son.”
“Wait… so you are saying you won’t let my wife and son leave the hospital until I pay the bill?”
My dad slowly stands, stepping backwards to the door, “So you’ll feed and bathe my wife and son and I won’t have to worry about them anymore, that sounds wonderful.” He walks out the office door and starts walking down the hallway. “Thank you… tell my wife and son I love them.”
“Wait Mr. Theriault!”
“No.. it’s okay, this is great. I work long hours and my wife will be too tired to take care of the baby and you’ll take care of them instead, see you later!”
“Wait… Mr. Theriault! Mr. Theriault… maybe we can set up a payment plan. Pay month to month… “
My dad pauses… “oh…. month to month, that’s a good idea.”
When my dad tells me this story later in life, I learn a lesson. Not the one he meant to teach me.
Growing up we never had a room of our own. We always shared spaces: we shared chairs, couches, and the carpet in front of the TV. In the back seat of my mom’s red Chevy Nova we sat squished like warm enchiladas in the oven.
After a day of school, a day of chaos, and trouble, and teasing, and disappointing teachers, we walked home together. In the warm afternoon sun we curled into bed. Back-to-back, Paul’s calf a pillow for Joe’s head, Joe’s foot a sock monkey in my hand. The warm sun our blanket. We slept. Our troubles melted away.
The White Whale
Roos! That’s what my teammates said whenever I stepped on the court freshmen year. Not my name, not my number… Roos… Roos was short for Kangaroos— a brand of sneakers sold at Kmart. While my teammates sported the latest Nikes, Adidas, and Converse basketball shoes, I played in my large white Roos. Not because they were some cool exclusive Australian brand, no… I wore them because they were the least expensive shoes you could buy at Kmart. I tried to convince myself that the built-in zipper pouch was cool, but it only made the shoes stand out. Luckily, or unluckily, I was used to standing out, for what I owned, or didn’t own.
Like Big Wheels.
Everyone on my block had a Big Wheel. Everyone on my block had a smiled plastered on their face after Christmas as they raced down the street and then pulled the handle near the right rear wheel and executed a perfect power slide. Everyone, but me.
Notice that back in the 70s, boys played while girls watched…
I had a Lunar Lander. Technically it was a “Wild Rider” but it had been adorned with stickers to make it look like something you would ride on the Moon. It had six wheels, two of which turned by rotating handles on either side of the drive. You could go forwards, backwards, or spin in circles, if you turned one handle clockwise and one handle counter-clockwise. I would constantly spin because my friends favorite game was to run their big wheel into my back, smashing a chunk of white plastic off at the same time. Sharks in a feeding frenzy. Me a slow moving three-foot square white whale. Little bite marks all around.
Crack, crack, chunk. Crack crack, CHUNK.
The oversized big wheels tore at my Lunar Lander and I didn’t mind one bit. The sooner my white pod was destroyed, the sooner I wouldn’t stand out so much. With every jolt, every crunch, I was closer to ending my status as hunted prey.
Crack, crack, smile. Crack, crack, laugh, crack [that one hurt] crack, CRACK…
and the wheel stopped spinning.
I slept on a nylon cot for two months when I was ten. I wasn’t camping. I wasn’t in a yurt in Norway. I was home, but it didn’t feel like home. My uncle Marcel was on the run from the Canadian authorities with my cousin Christian. Marcel slept in one room, with Christian, my parents another, my two sisters in the pink room, and me, Paul, and Joseph packed like puppies in another. There was no room for another bed so I slept on a blue nylon cot. There was no padding. The metal bars dug into my head, my arms, my legs, my feet. I felt trapped- both by the cot and our circumstance. Wait until my parents took in another stray, another wanderer off the streets, pushing us into more convoluted sleeping arrangements- it had happened before, it would happen again: the two bikers, Charles the marathon runner from England, the foster kids from the courthouse, the divorced guy who only wore a loose bathrobe around the house, Mary the homeless woman from downtown- all called our home, their home, for at least a while.
So I slept on a cot, until Christian was kidnapped by his mother. Taken from his preschool class, into a waiting taxi, far away from his unsuspecting father- asleep in the room I used to call mine.
There were no video games in the 70s. There were no cable stations, no computers, no cell phones. But there were bikes and our imagination, and in our imagination, we could fly.
Our flight lessons started early Saturday morning. An older teen with tools would construct the bike jump. Old plywood and two by fours quickly took shape. Before you knew it, there was a jump sitting in the middle of the cul-de-sac, just waiting for a young daredevil to take the first jump. Some of us were just content to land without killing ourselves, but the truly reckless wanted more. Before you knew it, they pressured the younger of us to lay down at the end of the jump, like logs waiting for the lumber mill. Three kids, jump. Four kids, jump. Five kids jump. The biggest risk was being the last kid in the row. You could feel the bike wheel graze your chest. Hopefully it would just graze your chest. When it did more than graze, you usually ended up with a huge bruise, or worse, but it was exciting… and better than rock fights.
People always told me how
loving my parents were. Our family went on a family retreat every summer at the Serra Retreat house in Malibu. My parents spoke at Marriage Encounter retreats, they talked about what it took to be a loving couple. I found it interesting that a loving family fought, cried, lied, and couldn’t wait to leave and move far apart from each other. It felt like going to parochial school. It felt like acting patriotic.
It’s easier to say the word
love than to understand what it really means. I’m still trying to figure it out.
- Lettuce Wraps: take a leaf of iceberg lettuce, spread Miracle Whip on it and roll it up.
- Powdered Milk: Pour water in a half-gallon pitcher. Add a few cups of dried powdered milk. Stir with a large spoon, make sure to find any unmixed spheres of powder and smush them against the side with a spoon until there are no more lumps in your milk. Refrigerate. Drink only when desperate otherwise use for cereal only.
- Ham Sticks: put a slice of deli ham on a plate, spread onion dip on it, then lay a long breadstick on one end and roll it up. Crunchy.
- Hors d’oeuvres: round Ritz cracker, put a teaspoon of Bob’s Big Boy blue cheese dressing on it, then put a little stewed tomato on top. Eat it.
- Easter: Jesus’ Tomb: Take a long oval plate and cover it with a mound of mashed potatoes. Cover that with a layer of Mayo. Cover the mayo with slices of hardboiled eggs. Sprinkle paprika over the whole thing. Like a deconstructed potato salad.
- Toad-In-The-Hole: Cut a hole out of a piece of bread, put it on a hot pan with butter. Drop an egg in the middle. Cook both sides. Cook all of the holes and serve them on the side like dollar pancakes. Cover everything in syrup. Maple syrup.
- Milk Bread: take a piece of sliced bread, cover it with a good layer of brown sugar, pour milk over the top. Sugar is good.
- Salmon and sauce: Make a white sauce with milk, flour, salt, pepper. Add canned salmon, cooked wax beans, and a few slices of hard-boiled egg at the end. Then pour everything over halved steamed potatoes. Warm and filling.
- Hot chicken sandwich. Use the leftover chicken from the roast chicken you had the night before. Tear it into pieces and heat it up. Put a piece of wheat bread on a plate. Put chicken on the bread. Cover both with gravy. Put another piece of bread on top. More gravy and then spoon some cooked peas on top. Use ketchup on the whole thing. Eat with a fork. I can eat this all night.
- Stuffed mushrooms: cream cheese + a can of clams + a little Worcester sauce + a little garlic powder. Bake at 350 until it’s browned on top.
These were but a few of the Unidentified Food Objects that made their appearance on our kitchen table. I ate all of them. I was hungry. Most of them I would eat again- except the powdered milk and lettuce wraps. Eating something unusual at a restaurant never bothers me, it feels like home.
Keep It Running
I’ve seen logs in fireplaces. I’ve seen people sit on a log. I’ve even seen people use a log as a coffee table. But I’ve never seen a log in a car. Well, I have… once. It was our car. There were many things wrong with our 1963 Chevy Nova, but the log that kept the back seat from crushing our legs between it and the front seat with the most obvious sign that our car needed some help.
And help it got.
To start the car I had to use a large screwdriver thrust between the electrical contacts of the starter located on the bottom right of the engine bay. Hold it wrong, and it would shock you. Then there was the headliner. My mom sewed a replacement headliner out of a floral fabric, but would often fall down so we would use duct tape to put it back in place. My least favorite job was sitting in the car feathering the accelerator so the car wouldn’t die. My mom would go in the store to shop and then put me in charge of very lightly pushing the accelerator so we wouldn’t have to ask a stranger for their jumper cables.
I wish my parents had kept that car.
Learning By Experience
- Watch cartoon Superman drill into the center of the earth. Go to preschool and climb to the top of the equipment closet and launch yourself headfirst into the center of the earth. Wake up briefly on a cot. Wake up again at the hospital.
- Tackle a kid on the playground. He has a sharp pencil sticking out of his back pocket. Notice the pencil stuck in your knee. Go to hospital. Watch white mass push out of hole when they pull pencil out. Once it heals get used to green dot on my knee because it never goes away.
- Make brother mad. Have him stab you in the back with a letter opener.
- Make brother mad again. Have him kick you off a wooden saw horse falling onto the blade of a large two handed saw.
- Climb onto a friend’s back. Play chicken in the front yard. Someone leaves a bike laying on the grass. Get pushed over. Land on the bike pedal. My hip bone pops out of my hip socket. When I stand one leg is a few inches taller than the other. Go to hospital and watch doctor pop it back in.
- Shivering with a high fever. Hallucinate that I am only a skeleton. No flesh, no skin. Think that I’m holding my mom’s hand but I’m actually in the kitchen trying to dodge traffic on the freeway.
- Boy Scout trip. Climb an old tree. Hang from a branch 12 feet in the air. Branch snaps. Land flat on my back. Tear both shoulder muscles. Spend the next few weeks with both arms in slings. Muscles spasm as they heal. Eating is an adventure.
- Another Boy Scout trip. Jump a stream wearing a full pack. Land on a rock knee first. Injure knee. Walk eight more miles to campsite. Two days later hike 12 miles out. Knee never the same. After every basketball practice knee swells up like a balloon. Elevate and heat to drain. Ice and wrap after. Quit playing basketball two years later.
- Boy Scout winter trip. Sled down a mountain. Realize that I’m going to fly off a small embankment into traffic. Put my hand down to stop. My thumb snags in an ice hole, ripping thumb back to wrist. Scout leader says it’s fine Saturday afternoon. See a doctor Sunday night in the emergency room: thumb is broken.
- Play tackle football with friends on New Year’s day. Get tackled. Hit head on metal sprinkler. Start throwing up later that night. Spend night in hospital. The nurse’s son plays in the NFL. Head hurts less than Joe Nelson’s leg.
Visit two seminaries in 8th grade. Consider going to one and then becoming a Catholic priest. End up going to regular Catholic school because my parents think it’s better than the public school. Watch every friend get kicked out. Get harassed constantly by a group of jerks. Learn that money and athletic ability matter more than Catholic values. Learn that none of my childhood injuries are close to those some of my friends picked up from- priests, brothers, coaches.
Sines Of The Father
My dad had a special belt. It was the belt he used for spanking us. Brown supple leather patterned with worn holes. The holes formed a continuous wave from buckle to tip. You would eventually go to the closet to get the belt for him, but not before waiting.
The waiting usually followed the yelling. Yelling so fierce that all I would hear is a steady ringing in my ears. All I would hear is the sound of me telling myself “I will never yell at my child like this.” When none of us would wilt under the yelling, when none of us would confess to the transgression, the waiting would start. You would wait in your room. We would go in order of age. First Paul, then maybe my sister, then me. All you could hear were the screams, the crying, the begging, the please don’t.
It was like watching roller coaster cars fall off a cliff. No escape. All you could do was wait.
I don’t remember ever looking at my dad when this happened. I remember the belt. I remember pulling my pants down. I remember my dad warning me that if I used my hands to protect myself he would turn me over to finish the spanking. When he was done he would have me kneel on the floor and pray aloud to God. I would always thank God for giving me such loving parents.
I remember the lesson my dad taught me when he hit me in the face with a coiled rope. I remember the lesson my brother learned when my dad shoved him into the wall so hard it left an imprint of his body. I remember the lesson I learned when I pushed my dad back in the hallway. As we got older we learned what it took to get away with something. We learned not to give away too much when we talked.
My dad used to tell us this story: “Your pépère used to be gone for weeks at a time on the railroad, when he came back he would punish us. If someone was lying, he would have all of the kids line up and then would pull an old shotgun out of the closet. He would load the shotgun and then have each of us tell the truth down the barrel of the gun while he held it to our face. He said if we were lying, God would make him pull the trigger.”
It was a good story. It made me feel sad for my dad.
But I don’t trust his stories anymore.
As a class we read The House On Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. After every chapter I ask the students to write down themes and ideas that pop into their heads based on the chapter. I also talk to students about the ideas and the writing strategies that Cisneros explores. Her writing moves me. It lingers in my soul. I’m amazed at how such simple language can resonate so deeply. Every sentence is a mentor text.
After reading a few chapters I have students write a chapter based on the story of their own street. We read, we write. We read we write. No vocabulary lists. No study guides. No outlines. No quizzes. No tests. Just a classroom of readers and writers. After a few weeks, we pick or make pictures for our stories, then we publish them online. The results are often stunning. I love reading their stories. But I need to remind myself of what it’s like to write your own stories, so while they write. I write. I don’t grade. I write.
The writing above is what I wrote this year. They do. I do. It’s not easy, but it’s important to remember the struggle. A class of writers. A family on Bushard Street.