Des Moines, Iowa 1951
Julia, my older, red-haired sister, sat hunched beside me in our identical homemade plaid, red and blue pajamas. She shoved her shoulder into mine as if I were intentionally breaking her concentration and stared at Mom. Each time Mom hesitated, raising the spoon in mid-air, Julia blinked and pushed against my shoulder.
"There ain't no one to bring home any money now," Julia whispered, covering her mouth so Mom could not hear. "I told you he was going to die."
I ignored her and watched Mom. I wanted Mom to speak. To tell us the truth—that Dad wasn't dead, that she'd bring him home from the hospital tomorrow. I was so frightened my head ached. The clock ticked as loudly as the sharp pings of the Daisy Air Rifles Jack and Larry aimed at each other. Each tick echoed off the wall and bounced around inside my five-year-old heart and brain, knocking against the popsicle tears that had not yet crumbled. It was Mom who was to cry first. Not us. She was our teacher. Our guide. The person we mimicked.
It was 6 a.m. and I was tired. I wanted desperately to lower my head on my hands and close my eyes. Instead, I kept them open to watch Mom as she fed Eddie. I gazed at her; the smooth skin of her thirty-three-year-old face smearing into an oval fading image, then snapping back into focus.
Bea, ten months older than Eddie, banged her bowl. But no one stopped her. Arty, arms folded defiantly over his chest, wiggled on books beside Bea's wooden highchair. Claude, Larry and Jack, arms on table, eyes riveted on Mom's face sat to my left.
Mom swiped Eddie's lips and oatmeal stuck in his dark hair and in his nostrils, but no one smiled. No one moved.
Mom had been gone all night. When the door finally opened and she stumbled into the house, we raced from our two bedrooms to hear the news, only to be met by silence. Loud silence.
Then, as if released from a spell, she slid back and stood, placing Eddie in Jack's arms. Starting with Jack, she gazed deeply into each of our eyes, then standing back, spread her arms wide and choked out: "Come!"
Disengaging her torso, arms and legs from our touch, she said, "There's lots to do. Julia, find a dress. Larry, help Arty with his clothes. Claude, make sure you don't put on yesterday's jean. Jack, get your Dad's saxophone and Purple Heart. And, Joyce, don't you dare pick up a book until you find that pink dress I made for Bea."