The Window

One of the high points of this past week was discovering that one of my all-time favorite bloggers has come out of hiding and started blogging again! If you’re not familiar with 23thorns, please take a few minutes to go check out his most recent post. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s get on with things. Reading his post about irrational childhood fears made me start thinking about my own childhood and some of the strange things I was afraid of. And thinking about that reminded me of what was pretty much the only good line in the Three Investigators movie that came out a few years ago:

“Why aren’t you afraid of the things you’re supposed to be afraid of?”

You see, I had these four aunts that I’ve mentioned a few times here in my blog. They had some pretty strange ideas of what was and was not appropriate for children. They thought nothing of waking my sisters and me in the middle of the night to take us out to the pier so we could watch the Coast Guard bring in a dead body. They also told us awful stories about ghosts that they swore they had actually seen; I don’t remember much about those stories, other than the fact that one ghost had an “Uncle Sam beard” and glowing eyes.

In short, I was never scared of ghosts or dead bodies. I had no fear of monsters or ghoulies or any of the things children with normal relatives are afraid of.

I was afraid of a window in the aunts’ basement. Terrified.

When we stayed with our aunts at their house in town, we all slept in the guest room in their basement. It was actually a very nice little guest room in a finished basement that included a formal sitting room with a fireplace. In retrospect, I’d have to say that their basement was nicer than the upstairs portion of any house I’ve ever lived in since.

Nothing scary about their basement.

Except for that window.

The guest room was in the farthest corner of the basement, and one had to cross the laundry room to get there. The bedroom was simply furnished, with a big double bed against the outside wall and a rollaway bed folded up beside it. When we were little, Aunt Marian would sleep down there with us, and we developed a complicated system to determine who got to sleep where. Marian slept in the middle of the big bed. The child who slept on Marian’s right was on “the new side” while the child on her left was on “the old side” and the child who got the rollaway was “out.”

My problems started on the nights when it was my turn to be on “the old side” because that’s where the window was.

My aunts had made the unusual decorating choice of hanging a full-length curtain covering the whole wall. Side-to-side, top-to-bottom, the entire wall was covered by curtains. There was nothing scary about the curtains themselves.

To my way of thinking, however, curtains covered windows. There was simply no other reason for a curtain to exist. It didn’t matter how many times my aunts tried to convince me that the only window on that wall was a tiny casement window near the ceiling; I remained firmly convinced that the whole surface behind that giant curtain was made of glass.

Still not so scary, you say? Oh, I beg to differ. (Or as Aunt Marian used to say: “I beg to diffy.” But that’s a subject for another day.)

Think about what would be on the other side of a window that made up an entire wall. A basement wall. I imagined worms and moles and underground beasties that would have no problem breaking the glass and snatching a sleeping child who was dumb enough to fall asleep when it was her turn to be on “the old side.”

Later, when we were big enough to sleep alone downstairs, we added a whole new level of terror to the basement bedroom. It was an older house, and there was no light switch at the bottom of the stairs. That meant turning off the light at the top of the stairs and making our way down the steps, across the laundry room, and into the bedroom in the dark.

In the basement.

A dark basement.

With a big, scary window.

I am the youngest, and probably still the most gullible of the three of us. I think it goes without saying that I was usually the loser at any kind of rock-paper-scissors or what-number-am-I-thinking or even eenie-meenie-miney-mo challenge to see who was going to be left alone at the top of the stairs to turn off the light after the other two made it safely into the bedroom.

It was me. It was always me. My big sisters would holler up at me when they had made it to the bedroom, and then it was my turn.

Let me just say for the record that we are not stupid women. None of us. So it escapes me now why it never occurred to any of us to just turn on the bedroom light for the poor, unfortunate sap stuck at the top of the stairs.

Which, in case you missed it, was me.

I would flip the switch and let out a bellow and take off, screaming all the way down the stairs and across the laundry room. As soon as my toes hit the threshold of the bedroom, I would launch myself through the air in the general direction of the bed — because apparently I assumed the basement creatures couldn’t get me if I never touched the carpeting.

Since my sisters were usually in the bed by that point, and because I’ve always better at launching than landing, my landings usually resulted in a bit of bruising and a lot of swearing. Which then led to one of the aunts flicking on the light and hollering down at us to settle down and watch our language.

Really, I swear we are not dumb people in my family. I promise.

We just do really dumb things.

For example, my oldest sister came home from college one weekend and rearranged the furniture in that basement bedroom. My aunts never rearranged furniture. Ever. Nothing ever changed in their home. Ever.

So it was completely logical for me to assume during my next stay with the aunts that the bedroom was arranged exactly the same as it had always been. Furniture simply did not move at my aunts’ house. Ever.

Even though I was in high school and staying at their house without my sisters on that particular weekend, I still followed the same bedtime routine I had always followed: turn off the light at the top of the stairs, sprint down them and across the laundry room, and go airborne into the nice, big bed that had always been there.

And which was now not there.

As I recall, I did a magnificent Berber face-plant and went into a long, slow skid toward the curtained wall. At that moment, I didn’t care about the rug burns on my face. All I could think of was Don’t break the window!

So, here I am, nearly fifty years old, and I have a lot of fears in my life. I’m afraid of my children being hurt, I’m afraid of thunderstorms, and I have a weird love-hate attitude toward maple trees. I still hate basements and would rather go up in a tornado than take shelter in a Michigan half-cellar. But nothing in life will ever terrify me as much as the window in my aunts’ basement.

What about you? What were you most afraid of as a child?

 

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The Best Medicine

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The world needs more laughter. Even on the worst of days, even when the future is bleak and the present is worse, even when all hope seems lost . . . we have to look for reasons to laugh.  I know that laughter has never, ever solved a single major problem, but neither have tears. Especially not in my family.

We were devastated when Aunt Ida died. She was the first one of The Amoeba Squad to go, the first of the four sisters to go somewhere without her siblings. She’d been sick for ages; Aunt Marian often said that that Ida had “one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.” But still, her death rocked us.

Aunt Vernabelle took it especially hard, although I never really knew if that was because Verna was the most sensitive of the four or because she just really never liked Ida very much and felt guilty about that.  Either way, Verna’s grief was overwhelming. She cried non-stop for days; she cried herself sick and then cried some more after being sick. She couldn’t function.

It was during the visitation that Aunt Marian, the Head Aunt, decided that enough was enough. She turned on her sister and issued an ultimatum: Verna had twenty-four hours to get herself under control, or else. Now, no one was ever really clear on what “or else” meant, but the threat was sufficient to get through to Verna. She sniffled and sobbed and wept for the next twenty-four hours, but she also kept a running countdown: “I’ve got eighteen hours left to cry!” she’d wail. “Marian says I can cry for sixteen more hours!”

“The next time someone dies,” Marian grumbled after a while, “she only gets twelve hours.”

And we laughed. God help us, we all laughed, even Verna. That’s just how my family has always dealt with things beyond our control. We try to find the humor in humorless situations.

I’ve heard it said that humor is a defense mechanism, that a human smile is similar to the way a wild animal bares its teeth as a warning. Well, of course it is! I make the worst jokes and laugh the loudest when life is at its worst.

The night of my car accident, I had a wonderful nurse named Nadine. As I lay there in the Emergency Room, strapped to a backboard and immobilized by a C-collar, Nadine came in with a Shop-Vac to vacuum the glass shards off before cutting off my clothes. As I remember, she was quite enthusiastic about the job, very thorough about getting that glass out of every possible nook and cranny. And I do mean every possible nook and cranny. When she aimed the nozzle between my legs, seemingly in search of glass in the lining of my uterus, I let out a whoop and told her I didn’t usually allow such liberties without dinner and a movie first.

Poor Nadine didn’t know what to do. She burst out laughing, apologized, and kept vacuuming, although I’m pretty sure I heard her mutter something about not ordering the lobster.

Later that night, when they had realized the extent of my injuries and started preparing me for the ride to a bigger hospital, Nadine came back to put in a catheter. Let’s just be honest here: having a catheter inserted is not exactly a relaxing experience. It’s a major invasion of one’s private areas, and Nadine was definitely going for frequent flyer miles in my pelvic region that night. She had to keep telling me to relax, but by that point I was well on my way to a complete meltdown. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t cooperating.

“Honey,” Nadine teased, “would you spread your legs for me if I got the Shop-Vac again?”

For the record, no Shop-Vacs were harmed in the course of my recovery. But laughing at that moment gave me the strength I needed to get through the next few hours. It also made the ER doctor pause and peek into the room to make sure I hadn’t completely lost my mind. “I don’t think I want to know what’s going on in here,” he told us.

Here’s a simple truth about life: Sometimes, it really sucks, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can ever do to change that.  People die, people get hurt, and the world just keeps on turning. Our hearts may get broken, but they keep on beating. Sun comes up, sun goes down, life goes on.

We can laugh or we can cry. Or we can build a blanket fort under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position and do both, but eventually we’re going to have to come back out into the real world.

Might as well find something to laugh about while we’re at it.

And when I die, you all only get two hours to cry.

This is a Finish The Sentence Friday post: “The world could use more . . . ” hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee,  Shelley Ozand Anna Fitfunner.  Please take a few minutes to check out what some of the other bloggers did with this sentence!