Recycled Memories

I lived in only two homes growing up.  Some people move a great deal and know different cities and make different friends.  My parents were cautious people and that made me a cautious person.  It’s really not such a bad quality since children need stability.  My wife nags me sometimes to buy a bigger house somewhere and I always put her off.  “I’ll think about it, maybe next year,” I tell her.  She doesn’t believe me anymore, of course, but she still shows them to me.  She just likes looking at houses.  I’ve been thinking lately about my mother . . . how men and women are both never satisfied, but in different ways, and this leads to problems in marriage.  My wife doesn’t like me writing about her so I will tell a story about my mother instead.  I’m a man and sometimes I get them confused.  Maybe Freud was on to something, although I don’t think any of this has a thing to do with nipples and assholes.

Our first trailer was a brown single-wide.  The decor was depressing–cheap wood paneling, furniture upholstered in varying shades of baby shit, green shag carpet, and linoleum like a psychedelic hangover.  When I think back to the Seventies, I don’t remember disco.  That was just some bullshit on TV.  I only knew Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.  You were born into something wrong, something dissonant.  America had lost a war.  A President had resigned in disgrace after being impeached.  Working people like my parents could barely survive.  Every penny counted and they were at each other’s throats.  It was a place to escape so I spent as much time as I could outside.

In front of the trailer there were two large berry bushes hiding the hitch, not that it was ever going anywhere. The berries were red and inedible. These bushes grew everywhere in the trailer park but I never learned what they were called. The cat used to hide behind them and ambush robins. He was very good at this and would take them under the trailer to gnaw on them and come out with his whiskers covered in cobwebs.

There was a big iron swing set behind the trailer that was painted green. It was for public use so other kids gathered there. Sometimes the children would climb up the sides and look at each other through the pipe or yell through it. When I was four, I liked to play in the dust–spread it on the sidewalk, let it run though my fingers. I could play like that all day—not even bothering with trucks—and sometimes I would fill a bucket with water and make mud pies. There was this brown-haired girl with a freckled face who lived nearby. She liked the mud and the dust too, and we would play together blissfully for hours, hardly aware of the passage of time or how dirty we were until our mothers scolded us. This was a Garden of Eden, I suppose, without any apple trees and the garter snakes never spoke to anyone. They just got killed for sport by the cat.

The girl was lonely when I went away to kindergarten after turning five.  She knocked on our door two or three times a day that first week after summer ended.  My mother would kindly turn her away and inform me how much the girl missed me when I got home.  We remained friends but something had changed.  School was too bewildering and demanding for me to even think of her while I was there.  My skull was filled with the bright light of learning.

One day, some older kids bullied us into kissing on the swings. Our relationship was obviously platonic and this seemed wrong. An expression of consternation crossed the girl’s face but then she smiled and I felt myself lost in that smile, hardly in my own body anymore. Unbeknownst to me, my mother was spying on us out her bedroom window. Both our eyes were clenched shut as our lips drew ever so slowly closer. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my cheeks as I leaned into her. . . .

The moment was shattered like a plate by my mother screaming. She dragged me inside to my room. The humiliation of it was terrible and I blubbered that it was the teenage kids that made us do it. “Thank God I had been looking,” she said angrily before storming away.

I hardly played with the girl after that and she soon moved away.  I don’t remember her name, just as I don’t possess a distinct memory of any kisses that happened after that, only the one that was stolen from me.  My mother was a physically affectionless woman.  She never hugged or caressed my brother and me that I can recall.  She’s the same way with the grandkids which makes me sad for her more than them.  She always loved us but she could only express it in worry.  I think her own love frightened her.  Who knows why people are the way they are?  With family you just have to accept them.  My mother was tough as a dandelion root.

Five years later, we moved down the block into a white double-wide on a corner lot. The Eighties weren’t much better than the Seventies. All the TV shows were about rich people so you just felt subnormal for being poor. I was scared of the new trailer at first and thought it was haunted even though it was interesting to explore all the empty rooms and closets. My parents came very close to buying an actual house with a huge, picket-fenced yard. I so wanted to live in that real house with a concrete foundation. But my bedroom would have been in the basement and my father did not think this would be healthy. He always acted like I was going to get tuberculosis or something. I did appreciate the privacy of having my own bedroom in the new place. My brother and I shared a bedroom in the brown trailer and all we did was battle each other. I would tease him relentlessly from the top bunk and he’d hurl everything in the room at me. Now, at least, we could simply slam the doors on each other. We were happy for a time, but it wasn’t long before our parents were the ones fighting again.

There was a pantry off the kitchen with a washing machine and dryer, so my mother didn’t have to waste her Sunday afternoons at the laundromat. We stored crushed aluminum cans in Hefty bags back there for recycling. The city didn’t just pick them up like they do everywhere now. Once a month, we would load them into the back of the station wagon and take them out to the Western Mall parking lot where a mechanical behemoth called the “Golden Goat” was located. The whole process of recycling the cans was fun to me. You dumped the bags onto a conveyor and the Goat would make all kinds of rumbling digestive noises before spitting out payment in shiny quarters. One day there was an unusually long line of cars waiting to use the Goat. I kept silent and still as I could tell that my mother was greatly annoyed, although she was never one to swear like my father. After twenty minutes of tedious waiting, a bearded man in a dirty coat crossed the lot on foot to cut the line. His sack of cans was pathetically small. We were about the fourth car back. I held my breath knowing what was coming. My mother rolled the window down and yelled, “YOU GET TO THE BACK OF THE LINE AND WAIT YOUR TURN LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!!” The man’s shoulders wilted under my mother’s judgment and he slunk off out of sight with his 67 cents worth of aluminum. No one else had said anything or would have said anything. The incident was embarrassing to me although I respected her ability to stand up for herself. We probably made about $40 dollars that day. Recycling, like so many things involving my beleaguered parents, stopped being a good time after that. Fun was to be had with other children, away from the eyes of adults.

In high school, a strange bubble formed in the floor of our dining room along the half-wall to our kitchen. My parents ignored the problem for weeks and the bubble grew to the size of a speed bump. I was looking forward to moving out soon enough, so I found the whole situation rather amusing. I’d stand on it making wisecracks about feeling taller as my mother toiled away at the kitchen sink.

“Don’t jump on it,” she pleaded in frustration. “You need to just stay off there!”

Finally, they called someone. A pipe had ruptured underneath the trailer that made the wood swell. The plumbing was fixed but my father never bothered replacing the warped boards under the carpet. The speed bump was there to stay. It really wasn’t hurting anything and we never had dinner guests anyway.

My mother worked for over forty years in a nursing home caring for people who could no longer care for themselves. She was never paid justly, yet she took a quiet pride in her labors. It is not easy helping anyone. True mercy requires a toughness that can be easily mistaken for cruelty. All the same, she should have let me kiss that girl. My mother gave her entire life to the raising and support of her children. It made her bitter. My father hunted and fished while she hardly had time for hobbies. She read novels and enjoyed Chicago Cubs games on WGN, but she never went anywhere. She never had any friends. Nor did my father, come to think about it. He just sat around and drank beer while watching news shows or sports. I remember an intense fight between them when he drunkenly laid down the law about the division of chores. He decided because he worked overtime and she didn’t, that he should not have to help with the dishes or the laundry or the house cleaning or buying groceries. He would only do the outdoor work like mowing the lawn and shoveling the snow. This was an unfair arrangement, but he stuck to it. I helped her some with the dishes when I got a bit older. I probably should have done much more. I make up for it now with my own wife.

My parents divorced when I was in college. My father had a hard time taking care of himself after she left him. A year later he moved away to Roswell, New Mexico to stare at strange lights in the sky and never bothered any of us again. The trailer had seen too many years of hard living and wasn’t worth much. I think he sold it to the landlord for its value in scrap. I’m sure the aluminum siding was recycled.

These are not happy remembrances. I’ve tried to give my boys a better childhood while remaining grateful to both my parents for loving me, each in their own flawed way. Many people jettison their unwanted past like cigarette butts out a car window, but I recycle my memories into stories.

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