Nine

January 25, 2011

It is my ninth birthday.

I shiver under the covers and calculate how many steps I need to take to get to my bathrobe hanging in the closet; it’s frigid in my room. I can probably make it in six steps if I really hustle, so I do, grabbing a pair of socks on the way.

Why isn’t the heat on? Mama does that first thing when she wakes up—she creeps quietly down the stairs and cranks the thermostat before she even makes coffee. I hold the railing in my stockinged feet and make my way downstairs, clutching the neck of my bathrobe tight.

Daddy’s at the kitchen table, coffee and newspaper  in hand, apparently immune to the cold—the man is like a lizard; he just adapts to whatever temperature he’s in.  I must be awake really early if Mama isn’t up.  I reach for the lever on the thermostat and then remember. Mama isn’t sleeping. She isn’t here.

It’s a school day, but I don’t have to go. Neither does my sister, which seems wildly unfair; it’s my birthday, after all. Why should she get the day off? I pour a bowl of Quisp, add milk, grab a spoon from a drawer and sit down across the table from my father.  He doesn’t look up from his newspaper but he knows I’m there because he’s removed the comics section and put it at my place.

I scan the comics and search for Andy Capp; he’s my favorite.  He’s always in trouble with his wife, Flo, because he’d rather be at the pub than at home with her. My sister comes into the kitchen, sleep-drunk and sour-faced. She’s not a morning person. She doesn’t say “Happy Birthday” and I don’t expect her to. As she pours cereal, I remove the Ann Landers column from my section of the paper and put it at her place. We slurp in silence, reading.

It’s stopped snowing but it’s actually worse—it’s clear and brittle outside and I know that it’s gotten too cold to snow. Daddy either doesn’t realize how cold it is or he doesn’t  care, because he  insists that my sister and I wear our Sunday dresses.  We know better than to protest, but I grab my warmest Danskin tights out of the drawer and slide them on.

Daddy doesn’t do hair.  That job goes to my sister. For the first time since I got it a few months ago, I’m grateful for my unflattering Dorothy Hamill haircut. My sister is ruthless with the hairbrush.  At least now I have hardly any hair to rip from my scalp.

I allow myself to get zipped up in my bright yellow ski jacket—why the heck do I have to wear a dress if I’m bundled up like this? On go the white snow boots and heavy gloves. Daddy hands me a hat but I balk; I didn’t go through hair torture just to slap a hat on my head.

It’s a 15-minute drive and some lady is singing Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue? on the radio and I have no idea what she means. How can brown eyes turn blue? I’m only in third grade but even I know that’s stupid.

We get to the hospital and Daddy makes us sit in the car, heater off, while he goes inside. I don’t know how long he’s in there but it feels like forever, and I have to pee but I know I’m stuck because Daddy won’t let us go into the hospital, even to use the lobby toilet.

He returns, opens the car door and tells us to walk carefully, because it’s a sheet of ice in the parking lot.  The snowplows have been through and I end up standing next to a huge pile of snow, gray and icy and mid-winter ugly.

Daddy points to window—a window so high up that I have to tilt my head almost entirely back to see it—and tells us to smile and wave. The wind whips right up my skirt and my knees are clacking like castanets and I feel silly waving at a window with nothing in it but then I see a flash of white and yellow, and it’s Mama waving back at me.  She doesn’t even look like herself, and yet she does, in the flimsy white gown, and there’s a tube coming out of her chest—it looks like that sucker-thingy we attach to the vacuum to get dirt out from underneath the couch.

I think she’s smiling at me and I wave so hard that I slip on the ice and tumble into the dirty snow,  Danskin tights ruined. Things turn to blur and my sister hisses at me to get in the car, yanking my arm hard.

When we get home, we strip off our winter clothes and retreat to our respective bedrooms. My sister won’t look at me.  I take the only present I care about, a book of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and crawl into bed with it, even though Mama would disapprove of loafing away the entire afternoon in bed. But everyone else in the house is doing it, so I imagine she couldn’t mind.

At some point, I fall asleep. Next thing I know, the doorbell’s ringing and I look at my digital clock; it’s after 5 pm. I open the door and it’s a lady who lives down the street named Judy. I don’t really know her but I know she has a son who’s older than me who still wets the bed at night and that she hangs her enormous brassieres out on the clothesline to dry in her backyard. She has a large, pink, store-bought birthday cake in her hands. I let her in and she bends down to hug me hard. It feels weird because she’s got little rolls of fat around her middle, and Mama doesn’t have those.

Daddy comes down and asks Judy to stay while he picks up dinner. She cuts me a piece of cake and even though I haven’t had dinner yet, I wolf it down. I tell her it’s good but it’s really not; the icing is bitter and cloyingly sweet at the same time.

When Daddy gets home, my sister emerges and Judy stays while we eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mama never lets us eat that junk, but Daddy says it’s a special occasion. While my sister and I eat, Daddy and Judy talk in hushed tones in the next room and I try hard not to listen.

Judy scrapes our plates and cuts everyone a piece of cake.  I don’t want one but it’s ungrateful to say no, so I eat it.   Judy puts her hand on Daddy’s arm, leans into him and says, “If you need anything, anything at all…”

Suddenly, I know I’m going to be sick and I bolt for the bathroom but it’s too late and then there’s neon pink all over the linoleum floor. Daddy orders me to my room and I want to brush my teeth, get the taste of ruined birthday out of my mouth, but I don’t dare.

When I wake up in the morning I make my bed, taking care to pull the sheet corners taut, just like Mama showed me. I will make my bed this way every day until she comes home; until I can show her those perfect corners and she’ll smile and say, “Well done, baby. Well done.”

Post to Twitter

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

J. Harker January 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

That was gut wrenching.

Very well written and gut-wrenchingly sad.

And now I need a hug.

Reply

Kelly January 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Such a bittersweet memory. On the one hand, the images of your father doing what he thinks is right — protecting you, dressing you the best he knows how, bringing you to wave at your mom — make me weepy. On the other hand, I am sad for the little girl who’s trying to make sense of it.

Reply

TKW January 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Kelly, that’s the heart of it. That my 9-year old mind remembers him as strict and unbending but he was there in silent ways, caring in the only way he knew how.

Reply

Christine January 26, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Our minds are weird and wonderful things. What they leave in their wake can be awful and beautiful. Your words here Dana, wow. How vivid and intense.

Reply

Erica@PLRH January 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm

That brought tears to my eyes.

I’m sorry that was such a hard birthday for you but thank you for sharing. It’s a story that will stick with me.

Reply

Jane January 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm

What a tough memory to have stored in that sweet heart of yours. Hugs to you, my dear, sweet blogging friend. xoxoxo

Reply

Jennifer January 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Oh man. Just… I’m awestruck by how you do that. Take me right back there with you. Amazing.

Reply

michelle January 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm

wow TKW

i feel your nine-ness

amazing writing

xoxoxo

Reply

Cheryl @ Mommypants January 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Gripping and heartbreaking and good lord it’s tough to be nine, isn’t it?

Beautifully written.

Reply

Nichole January 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm

It is so much easier to write about joy…about happy memories than painful ones.

You write with such delicacy that I feel that I am there with you, feeling what you feel, seeing what you see.

Such beautiful and graceful writing.

Reply

Katybeth January 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Through your writing I can feel the gripping cold; inside and out.

Reply

Bryan January 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Wow, you got me there. Great writing my friend. I hope you are doing well.
b

Reply

Cathy @ All I Want To Say January 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Not sure if this is real or fiction but it brought me to tears, reminding me of my own childhood and the countless days, weeks, months spent with my mom in the hospital and a father as emotionless as the story.

Reply

jc January 25, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Lots of hugs for your nine yo self, and the amazing writer lady you grew up to be.

Reply

Heather January 25, 2011 at 7:25 pm

I felt every last moment of that memory and there is an emptiness in the pit of my gut right now. (((you))) Thinking of you.

Reply

Ink January 25, 2011 at 8:34 pm

(((((((((((((((((((((TKW)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

Reply

Amanda January 25, 2011 at 9:06 pm

What a hard birthday! Thank you for sharing.

Reply

Rudri January 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Silence. I don’t know what to say. Hugs to you, my friend. xoxo

Reply

Maria January 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Oh Kitch! What a sad, scary, miserable birthday! Your writing is breathtaking. I WAS that nine year old girl with you. In so many ways, I WAS that nine year old girl .

Sometimes, grownups do the only thing they know how. Perhaps your dad was afraid to break down in front of you, to reveal his own fears, if he opened his mouth to wish you a happy birthday. Perhaps he knew that he could not lie to you.

Sending you light, friend. What women are we, that we can try like hell to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself in our own nine (or ten) year old daughters and sons? What kind of women? Survivors, that’s who we are. And how miraculous that we are still standing, in spite of it?

((you))

Reply

Melissa January 26, 2011 at 1:45 am

SO well done. I bet your Mama would say so, too.

Reply

Liz January 26, 2011 at 4:12 am

Wow. Speechless. Doesn’t happen often for me.
I assume this is non-fiction (it never occured to me it wouldn’t be, having read “you” so much, but I noticed someone asked), and all I can wonder: Are you writing a follow up to this????

Reply

Greg McB. January 26, 2011 at 6:44 am

Wow. What a touching story. You have a true gift, my friend.

Reply

Winn January 26, 2011 at 7:10 am

Your voice is so compelling; your sorrow and confusion speak to my heart. (((hugs)))

Reply

Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday January 26, 2011 at 7:46 am

Wow, that was a very powerful and emotional story.

Reply

Tiffany January 26, 2011 at 7:58 am

I know you’re snarky and funny…but damn you are a good writer and so heartbreakingly sweet I am speechless.

Reply

Lori @ In Pursuit of Martha Points January 26, 2011 at 8:15 am

Perfectly told.

I wish…I wish that you did not have this story to tell.

But perfectly told.

Reply

Gale @ Ten Dollar Thoughts January 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

Really lovely writing, Kitch. Truly. At first, with so much detail from so long ago, I thought it was a dream. Then about halfway through I realized it was all real. You can tell a story like no one else I know. If you ever write a memoir I would stand in line for days to buy a copy.

Reply

Jenna January 26, 2011 at 9:36 am

You need to write a book. A memoir. This was so amazingly written, beautiful, sad, it gave me the chills, and I would buy your book in a split second if you wrote one.

Reply

Gibby January 26, 2011 at 11:49 am

…I don’t really have any words right now.
But I wanted to let you know that I am here.

Reply

Stacia January 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

So I guess there will be no recipe for neon pink icing??

I joke, of course, but I’m reeling from this one. Every word.

Reply

wizzythestick January 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Oh wow….I’m rendered speechless by this…so sad

Reply

GEW January 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm

You had me, like everyone else, right there with you.

So much for a nine-year old body to hold inside. No wonder for the barfing. Gotta get that all out.

And also no wonder for the writing.

(((((TKW)))))

Reply

Nicki January 26, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I want to reach out and give you big hugs! This writing, this memory, this …

Reply

Contemporary Troubadour January 26, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Tears, Kitch. For the nine-year-old with the ruined tights. And for all that has drawn that memory to the surface now.

{{{{{{{{{TKW}}}}}}}}}

Reply

Sherri January 26, 2011 at 7:14 pm

So poignant – tucking your covers around your bed like your mama would have liked…. and the cold – I could really feel it …. I would have lent you another pair of Danskin’s :-)… would have read those Encyclopedia Brown books with you. What a touching memory … hugs to you and your sweet nine year old little self. You do have talent for this…. a gift for writing and reaching others.

Reply

faemom January 26, 2011 at 11:45 pm

That was heart-wrenching. It was also so well written.

Reply

camilla January 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Beautifully told TKW. I can feel the struggle of love and confusion through the entire family in your words. x

Reply

Futureblackmail January 27, 2011 at 7:18 am

I find it very interesting what a 9 year old mind remembers. As you remember the slight touch of your neighbors hand to your father’s arm.

This was very well written.

Reply

The Curious Cat January 27, 2011 at 7:27 am

Moving piece…reminded me of Nigel Slater’s toast somehow… xxx

Reply

Stephane in AK January 27, 2011 at 9:21 am

Hey, was it just your birthday?!

*raises glass of soda w/lime* Here’s to the befuddled but loving daddies everywhere–and the mommies who’ve got their backs.

Reply

Biz January 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

Such a touching post, I could almost picture myself in the kitchen being cold and reading Ann Landers. Hugs! (and thanks for your virtual hugs!)

Reply

Mrs.Mayhem January 27, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Oh Kitch, my heart breaks for the little girl, for you… no one should celebrate a birthday in that manner. I’m hoping this experience was followed by many birthdays full of joy. Big hugs.

Reply

Lanita January 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm

It is interesting to think of the fathers of the ’60s, silent and stoic, but always there for our nine year old selves. I remember eating Quisp more than I remember my father’s emotional response to anything.

Well done, my friend.

Reply

Allison @ Alli n Son January 27, 2011 at 1:49 pm

This just broke my heart. I feel like I’m you at nine years old. What a hard thing to go through. I don’t know the ending to the story, but I hope that you will share it with us. Sending you hugs.

Reply

Belinda January 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Your writing sparkles, Kitch. Not all birthdays and cakes are created equal and those farthest from the ideal are remembered the most. Hope you’re doing well. xx

Reply

TKW's Dad January 27, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Yes, TKW can write incredible blogs. The sad thing is that Dad’s have a very difficult time relating to Daughters growing up. Daughters are very sensitive, wonderful observing creatures that notice everything. Dads, not to make excuses but trying their best to raise and support a family are so preoccupied with other things that it takes us light years to eventually grow into the sensitive, observant creatures that we should have been during our childrens early years. Hopefully, as we mature with the years of parenthood we can somehow make up for our earlier shortcomings.

Reply

leslie January 28, 2011 at 9:12 am

UGGGGHHHH. Can I go back to bed and curl up in a ball?

Reply

TKW January 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

Ah, Daddy-o, it was a confusing time for all of us. You were there for us, in the only way you knew how. We were all a wreck, but we were wrecks together.

Funny, I only remember some of this detail about the day (eg: the song on the radio, the Encyclopedia Brown book) because I had a dream about it a few weeks ago. Kick Mama in the arse for me for stirring all this drek up again. ;)

You know how much I love you, brown eyes.

Reply

Barbara January 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

You really know how to reach our hearts, my dear. And I love the interchange between you and your dad at the end. There are so many misunderstandings between fathers and daughters….mine was strict and not much of a talker, but I knew down deep he loved us. He just could never show much affection. It may have been the way HE was raised. I wish we had gotten closer before he died.

(and re your comment on MY blog….why hasn’t Maida Heatter (my favorite dessert cookbook writer) written a book entitled: Maida Heatters Book of Lemon Desserts?)

Reply

Rocky Mountain Woman January 28, 2011 at 10:39 am

I wish I could go back in time and hug that little nine year old girl!

My youngest was 13 when his Dad died, it was/is heartwrenching….

Reply

Justine January 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I don’t know why but I can’t stop crying over this story. The sadness, the hope shadowed by hopelessness, and the unshakable thought about how seemingly ordinary moments shape us for the rest of our lives. I don’t know if it’s my age, or if it’s the fact that I’m a mom now, but my mind’s been unearthing childhood memories that haven’t seen the light of day in years. And I’m trying to figure out how each of them has impacted the person I am today. I’m not liking what I’m discovering – that my past has such a firm grip on me that it’s going to take some work for me to shake it off, or at least to make it matter less.

Gorgeous story-telling, Kitch.

Reply

Michelle January 28, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I feel like I’m right there the whole time. Beautifully written.

(I want to say thanks to you for the good wishes sent out to my sister. The kindness means a lot.)

Reply

Dawn January 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Beautifully written, heartbreaking story.

I think, when we look back at the ways our parents parented the thing we have to remember is that they did the best they could. Your Dad was dealing with so much. And it was obvious he loved you then. How difficult for all of you. Cyber hugs to you.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: