Mud and Milk Money

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“You ruined Christmas!” When we got home from school, the tree was on the lawn in front of our duplex. A few weeks ago our neighbors house had a drug raid and there was still pieces of the foam from their sofa scattered over the burnt winter grass. It never snowed on the island, it just got cold, rainy, muddy and then frozen.

My step brothers had arrived just before Thanksgiving and all the 5 of us ever did was fight. “Your mom’s a bitch!” “Your dad’s an asshole!” “Fuck you!” “Stop eating all the food!” “Our mom’s gonna kick you out for being such a jerk!” “I hate you!” “Trust me, I hate you more!”

It all started because we were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with not enough bread, peanut butter, counter space or any of our 4 parents to go around. My not-yet step-brother was scooping wads of Jiff onto a knife, then dragging the edge over the plastic rim of the jar in a long, agitated sound that said “I’m eating as much fucking peanut butter as I can just so you’ll get really pissed and be the fight starter and then we can blame it all on you.” And, little fish that I was, took that bait, hook line and sink her. I think I swiped some peanut butter off the knife first, then slapped my not-yet step brother in the face and told him to share! and stop it!, then my sister and not-yet step-sister reached into the jelly jar and started swatting at the other two brothers who had just divided what was left of the bread. The ripped kitchen linoleum was dotted with what should have been sandwich fixings and all 6 of the children, 13, 13, 11, 12, 10 and 9-ish?, were screaming like they were on fire. Out came the BB guns. No white trash kitchen escapade is complete without someone getting shot by an air rifle. I think we might have had the dog by then too. Their dog.

Reid and Bryan, the two middle brothers, came flying through the kitchen with their guns. Amy and Katie slammed through the sliding glass door and leaped into the yard following the dog while I stayed in the kitchen to kitten scratch my obnoxious, one month older, not-yet step brother in his face and then stopped when I heard actual shots and bolted from the kitchen, through the open and peanut smeared glass door into the back yard. That’s when we heard the car.

My mother had bought a used, maroon, Chrysler Lebarron convertible. The convertible top was cracking, peeling, dirty, white leather. It smelled like desperation and a forgotten old woman and was just one more ugly, embarrassing, visible thing about my family that made me want to hide and die. She bought it because we needed a car. The used car lots on Martha’s Vineyard don’t have normal cars, like Toyota’s and Honda’s; they have old, rich people cars. Despite the fact that we weren’t old or rich we had this car.

We stood frozen in the yard. The sliding glass door open and greasy, revealed the filthy little kitchen which already looked like a mess even when it was put together. Rob started complaining first in his nasally, chattery whine, like he knew everything and the whole point was that it was clearly and distinctly my fault. Our parents had that “what the hell happened” expression on their face. They listened speechless to Rob. Then one by one, each of my brothers and sisters and not-yet step brothers and sister, agreed with him. ‘Yep, it was her, she hit Rob first and then all this crazy shit happened because she did that and you left her in charge but now this.’

Incriminating logic from my 9 year old baby sister who spent the afternoon making new posters, with our not-yet baby step-sister, for their dog walking business. While they giggled about getting paid to pick up dog poo, I looked for places where I could evaporate since you can’t run away on an island. My mother explained, with the graphic clarity of her own spit through her teeth, while she boiled pasta, how and why I needed to lead the child tribe into the land of Get-a-long Gang, singing and holding hands. I had to help her help us become a family, that this island was our big second chance and that ‘these kids’ (meaning the step-monsters) had had a really rough life with their real mother and we needed to love them and be patient and kind. My mother conveniently forgot that her ex-husband puked all over us, screamed, hit us, drank all the money and that we lived in the projects and saw a mail box get used as a weapon. This was her thing she did, which was to forget our sad stories and magnify the sad stories of other people, then force us to show up as more than we might really be. Eventually it would become one of my best strengths, but for a very long time it made my head fall off and spin around. Their bad time? I’m 13 and think we might still be in a bad time since there wasn’t enough food for lunch, but you want me to remember their bad time, let them trash talk you and me and us, steal all the food, take up all the space and have all the love? Or I’m out?’

So, I rebelled in the weeks that followed. I didn’t think I should have to try and have any more distress tolerance than anybody else in our 800 sq. ft. duplex with the dirty walls, not enough bedrooms and the carpet that was always wet and beach-sandy. I wasn’t any better. I didn’t have any more skills than anyone else in our family so why was I expected to make everyone friendship bracelets and tell stories about how if we’re all good the parents will take us on a trip to Disney when they save up enough money. Christmas got closer and we all kept fighting. That’s when we came home from school and found the tree on the lawn, next to the drug raid debris. My mother pointed at me and said I ruined Christmas and not only that, I broke her heart.

She was sitting in the living room and had that “I’ve had it” face  parents get because there’s no such thing as parenting school and she and her boyfriend had no clue how to raise the three kids they each had, mostly by mistake, let alone the now 6 kids they shared together. I guess, sort of like before when my dad would drink, my parents would fight, my mom would cry and I would manage my brother and sister and listen to her and reassure her, she was expecting me to be the angled spatula and smooth butter cream frosting over the fissures in our family cake. But I was 13 and instead said ‘fuck your cake.‘ until she said, you’re gonna eat this cake or you’ll be living on the street. She never actually said that, but it was somehow, in that moment made implicitly clear that if I didn’t immediately become a 70 lb, boundriless codependent and fix it I’d be out. So, I did.

I walked up the grubby, shag rug staircase and called a sibling meeting; the first of many. We squatted in a serious circle next to the ruffled daybed (with a trundle underneath; my baby sister slept on it till I was almost through high school). I explained that our parents wanted to kill most of us and I was pretty sure they were both clinically insane. I explained that due to the stress of their previously failed marriages all we had now was each other. Our dad was still drinking and probably not coming for visits and their mom was clearly depressed since she only yelled when she called to talk to our not-yet step siblings (if one of us answered the phone she would just yell the name of the kid she wanted to speak to instead of talking to you like you were a real person. So I would scream that kids name back into the phone, “BRYYYYYAAAAN! YOUR BITCH MOM IS ON THE PHONE!” and then drop the phone on the kitchen floor hoping it would break. I did that because I was 13.)

I invited us to empathize with our crazy parents. Then I brought up the subject of lodging, food and Christmas presents. I said if we had any hope of retaining those 3 things in this month of December we needed to start bonding, stat. I told them our mom had been taking $50 of my $75 each week I was making at the dairy farm and maybe we could use the money to like, hang-out. That’s when everyone started chiming in. They agreed our parents were crazy and our not-yet step brothers offered their own stories of how bad it was when they lived with their parents and the fights their parents had. Then we chimed in with our stories of, also, how bad it was and that our parents fought too. Then we started telling stories about what we remembered from going to the same elementary school and seeing our mom’s car or their dad’s car at each others houses even before our parents broke up and also, how that one school had some real assholes at it and how it sucked to have a lame winter coat. We laughed about getting picked on by the same kids, or having the same teacher who smelled like chicken nuggets and had a booger in his beard that one day and how you could win Mahs Bahs if you answered enough vocabulary quiz questions right. Winning at bonding.

It was all hands in. We made a pact right then. It’d been crap for us and it would be crap no more. We’d root for each other, stick up for each other. We’d figure out this weird island and be each others’ best, most fiercest friends, and figure out some way for each of us to get one of those purple corduroy Vineyard jackets so we could actually fit in for once. And we would fully commit to sticking with each other even if our crazy parents didn’t make it work. That was probably a big part of it. All this anxiety about getting involved with people who might not be there if the parents had another fight and for whatever reason, this relationship didn’t work. Not only was there not enough peanut butter, we were each afraid there wasn’t enough love to go around. But somehow, right then, we changed that and made enough love. We ripped open our hearts and said, here’s all the love I have and you can have it.  It was like there was love on top of love and it just kept pouring out. We felt like geniuses, like we’d outsmarted our parents by finding this great new resource.

That grey afternoon, we wrapped ourselves up in our hodgepodge of ugly winter coats and pilled hats and dirty gloves and tromped into downtown, swanky, deserted, Edgartown with our $25 and bought a round of nachos and sodas at David Ryans. It became a great tradition in our little crew. We made it work with milk money and I didn’t ruin Christmas.

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2 thoughts on “Mud and Milk Money

  1. Hey, just fabulous writing! It made me remember how Frank McCourt opened Angela’s Ashes:

    “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. …nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

    I love the wry humour in McCourt’s work and also see it in yours. I suppose none of us would have survived to write without humour. Not McCourt in the slums of Limerick, not you in the projects of Martha’s Vineyard, not me under the deceptive veneer of a middle-class “successful” family with a holiday house and yacht and race horses (puke).

    You really have something here; an honest warts-and-all account of an all-too-real side of America that’s not portrayed by Hollywood because it doesn’t fit into the national mythology or patriotic script. It’s interesting that many people in Limerick were mad with McCourt for writing down his unsanitised story, for those reasons. But, many are glad he did; and I’m glad you are writing down this stuff too.

    Happy Easter! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy Easter Sophie. I took a day off from writing to call family and paint instead. Thank you for this. After I read your comments I go back to see what I wrote- who? Me? Angela’s Ashes was a favorite book that got passed around in my family but I never read it. I’ll have to now. Wry humor, yes! My Papa and mom loved Fawlty Towers. I love the excerpt. Class extremes don’t “fit into national mythology or patriotic scripts” and I’d offer they’re both equally burdened with misunderstanding and (puke) some kind of rejection. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune created a documentary called Born Rich. I think it might have a tiny cult following. For better or worse when I watched it I realized there’s a certain amount of shared pain and sense of being trapped in both extremes of class. How much identity are we willing and able to lose to become something we’ve never been or want to be? Scary new life! Brave new worlds. Happy Easter 😉

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