Go West, Little Man

It was drizzling rain and the smell of the dank earth hang in the heavy air. I sat on the back stoop,staring at my scuffed hightops, my  “clodhoppers”, willing the sun to come out so I could  run in the yard and climb trees. My brother was sitting inside, propped up with pillows in front of a pot of boiling water, breathing in the fumes from Vicks Vapo-Rub. He was struggling to breathe and this kind of weather always aggravated his asthma.

Pennsylvania is a damp humid place where mold thrives and not an environment for anyone so afflicted. My parents, my three brothers and I  lived with my paternal grandmother in a clapboard house with peeling paint on the porch posts and railings. The house was dark inside but I most feared the cellar. There was a door at the top and rickety stairs that descended into the pit below.When my mother disappeared into that darkness with a basketful of laundry, I was terrified and stood at the top of the stairs waiting while she struggled with her ringer washer to have clean clothes for seven people. My father never knew but she sometimes took in laundry or did ironing to make ends meet.

I had no one to play with so he was my sole playmate. When he was well enough we had the run of this little neighborhood and thought of all kinds of marvelous mischief. Even at 4, he had my back. We weren’t much more than a year apart, the result of a very unplanned consecutive pregnancy. But this worked out fine for us. Wherever I ventured, he was always just behind me. I was the one who took risks. And so it was always. And I was the one who sassed, who took my father’s scoldings as a challenge to defy him. I was the one who was beaten with a leather strap while poor Steve suffered with each “whack!” Even in those days, he wanted to save me. He wanted to stop the beating but he was so small and weak and helpless. He once told me that he still remembers that time and it made him feel emasculated.

Then he got much worse. He was in the hospital even though it was Christmas. One crinkled news clipping from “The Derrick” shows Santa Claus bending over a frail little child in a wheelchair. That child was my brother. Santa was visiting the children too ill to go home for the holidays. I suppose if you were that ill you wouldn’t be all that excited to meet Santa in person anyhow.

If you thought ,”People don’t die from asthma.,” you would be wrong. The wheezing fits wore him out and he couldn’t eat and his tiny body became so weakened that one day the doctor said to my mother, “I’ve done all I can. Now it is in God’s hands.” Chasing him down the hall, she shrilly cried out to the retreating back, “There must be something we can do.” He stopped and slowly turned to look at these desperate grasping -at-a-straw eyes. “Well, there is one thing. I’ve heard that a sudden change to a dry climate can help. I don’t know this for sure, mind you. But I have heard it.”

The night we arrived in Albuquerque, the plane landed in the middle of a record sandstorm. The doctor that was to meet our plane didn’t make it.  Later he came to the house where we were so generously welcomed to stay. After treating my brother, this small town doctor looked down at his shoes, feeling so inadequate. “I’ll be here at 7:00 in the morning…but I don’t know if Steve will.”  In the end, it was an old home remedy that saved him. Mrs Seifer was from the coal region of Pennsylvania as we were and she knew how to loosen the phlegm with a flu poultice made from lard, camphor and tincture of iodine. The women stayed up all night and kept changing the poultice, back and front until Steve  coughed up a copious amount of stuff and fell into a sound sleep.

New Mexico was a  a vast clear span of mesa, sand and tumbleweed as far as the foothills of the Rocky mountains. It could not be more different than the damp and rainy hills of Pennsylvania so conducive to mildew and lung ailments.

Coming to New Mexico felt like stepping out of that blackness into the light and space and fresh air. And Steve did get better. We flooded the shrubbery with the garden hose and built miniature bridges for our matchbox cars. We dug a deep “foxhole” and played war, shooting at the neighbor kids. Ironically, I wrapped myself in an old Japanese kimono my father had brought home from the Philippines and let the soldiers rescue me and my baby from the rubble. When Rathbone’s Bacon gave out headbands with a feather at the Piggly Wiggly, all the kids in the neighborhood joined one of two rival tribes and had a riotously fun time of killing each other. But Steve and I were still closer than any other playmate.

I was trying not to giggle when Dad was saying grace, Steve  kicked me a warning under the table. My father stopped in mid-phrase to reach for his belt, but today I felt conciliatory and promptly yelled , “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” , allowing me to get out of a whaling this one  time. Steve was never beaten with that belt himself. Was it because he always did as he was told? I was the youngest and the only girl. Why did Dad only beat me?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cheerfulwoman
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 06:57:39

    What a lovely memory of your brother (not the illness, of course, but the bond you shared). You have a talent for description.

    I’m sorry you suffered beatings. I have never understood parents who beat or bully their children.

    There is a strange pattern in one line of my family where the fathers favored one child over another, particularly with a sibling’s set of grandchildren. It is really odd to see that this was a pattern between several brothers, and makes me wonder how and where up the tree it started.


  2. leahmama1
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 10:58:45

    Yeah, I have noticed it in how my former husband treated our two Japanese daughters. One day when the older one was 10, I observed her watching “East of Eden” on TV and crying. I wonder how much she could identify with it and understand her own situation. You have probably seen that movie and how the father idealizes his older son and ignores the other one.


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