Monday, April 6, 2009

and waiting for ghosts...

When I spent summers at my dad's house in Michigan when I was younger, I spent a lot of time babysitting. I was nine when he remarried, and since my step-mother popped out a kid a year for the next three years, there was plenty of babysitting to be done. I don't, to be perfectly honest, remember ever being asked if I wanted to babysit. It was just assumed that I would. And so I did.

In addition to there being plenty of kids in need of watching, there was also ample opportunity to do the watching. My step-mother did not like being home, and spent as little time there as she could get away with. My dad was always at one of the supermarkets he owned, but as soon as he got home from work they would dress up and head out pronto. For one summer after the next, this was the basic schedule:

10 am: My dad would get up for work, shave, have a cup of tea and hit the road. My step-mother was usually right behind him getting up, but she didn't move quite as fast. She would sit and smoke cigarettes while she drank her coffee and woke up. The kids would be crawling all over her, since they'd been up for hours already. (Watched by guess who?)

11 am: She would make a huge pot of food for dinner and then retreat to her bathroom to fix herself up. Soon, she'd reappear in full make-up, four inch heels and designer clothes, wafting Joy behind her. At this point she would head out to meet friends to shop, lunch, play cards or spend the day at the manicurist/hairdresser.

6 pm: Pleading exhaustion, she would come in from her afternoon out and head into her bedroom to take a little nap. Sometimes, she would sleep on the living room sofa so she'd "be spending time with the kids", but it was always important for me to keep the kids as quiet as possible so she could sleep. A woman needs her rest, you know.

8 pm: She'd hang with the kids for a while watching tv and then we'd give them baths and get them ready for bed. They didn't go to bed - they just got ready for bed. All clean and pajama'd they simply continued on with the mayhem they'd been causing all day. At about this time, we'd call my dad with the grocery list of what we needed, so he could bring it home with him.

10 pm: My dad would come in from work, carrying the boxes of food we had requested, and the requisite shopping bag full of candy. I mean a grocery bag sized bag of candy. The kids would tear into it as he and my step-mother headed back into their bedroom to get ready for The Social Hour: Round Two. Soon they would waltz through in formal wear - floor length sequin dresses for her - suit and tie for him - air kiss the kids and head out the door again.

4 am: They would come home, smelling of cigarettes and good scotch, and collapse into bed.

Repeat a minimum of five times a week. For years. Or until my dad lost all of his money, which is a whole other story.

For me the most poignant moment of this entire schedule was when they both left the house at night. The kids were still wide awake, sticky and on a sugar high. And I would have the same surge of adrenaline and fear that I always did when they left. I was terrified to be "alone" in their house after dark, scared to death of being there most of the night with no adults around. They had a big ranch style house that was comprised of huge open spaces and vast walls of windows. The neighbors were far enough away that they wouldn't hear you even if you screamed, and for reasons I've never quite figured out, that particular house always scared the bejeezus out of me. Even as an adult I hated that house. Nothing bad had ever happened there, so I don't know where it came from. Well. Plenty happened there. Just nothing like that.

The house had an interesting story behind it, at least to a wildly imaginative teenager. It was a builder's house, and the man who built it spent the better part of two years designing and building it to his family's specifications. It was a lovely house, I'll give it that. Well, the big day finally came and they moved in. And moved out the very next day. Put it on the market the week after that. Sold it to my dad almost immediately.

And no one ever knew why.

I, of course, was convinced the house was haunted, even though there was never a shred of proof or evidence. It was certainly a house of bad luck, what with two of their babies dying, my sister almost drowning and my father going bankrupt. But as a teenager I wasn't so concerned with bad luck. I had more immediate fears. As I laid on the sofa in the family room waiting for them to get home, I kept wondering why the original owners moved out after just one night. What was right around the corner that I couldn't see? What was that noise? And why, oh why, couldn't they ever stay home? Just for a night. That was all I asked. Just one night to catch up on my sleep. And give my imagination the evening off.

I waited in vain.


Maggie May said...

Its amazing how you came out of it unscathed!
Surprising how children do. Probably helped you to grow up independent.
You write a good story. Childhood memories are very very clear, I find. or is it only so with those who have experienced trauma?

Frances said...

So you were trained to care and be practical and not give in to fear and weakness right from a young age.
Sorry you had those years of mini-slavedom instead of carefree childhood.
Hope you had more fun later.

Kaycie said...

I'm hoping you spent most of your time growing up with your mother.

What the hell did the woman do without you? And where are all of your half siblings now?

Cath said...

Oh wow how terrifying and lonely as a child.
As Maggie says - a wonder you came out, well, maybe not "unscathed" but certainly knowing what you would NOT do with YOUR children. :)
Sometimes we learn a lot from the direst examples.

the planet of janet said...

don't you wonder just WHAT they were thinking to handle life that?


but a fascinating story. now i'm curious about the story behind the house.

Iota said...

Sounds like child abuse to me. I'm sorry.

Did you ever learn the story behind the house?

Rositta said...

Fascinating but scary story. I can't even begin to imagine that type of childhood...ciao

The Gossamer Woman said...

What a brutal way to take advantage of you as a young teenager. I'm indignant for you! I hope you didn't spend large periods of your life living there, because it must have been awful. What were those people thinking? Did you tell your mother that this was going on?

What happened to your siblings?

Akelamalu said...

Social Services would have a field day here if made aware of children being left like that. I hope you escaped young enough to enjoy yourself? :(

the rotten correspondent said...

I'll follow this up with a post tomorrow, because this has kind of opened up a lot of memories for me. I'm finally getting to the point where I'm okay writing about all the Michigan stuff, so better out than it, right?

My mom did know about it and she was PISSED, but I didn't exactly help myself. I had really good friends in the neighborhood, and even though I could have gone to stay with my maternal grandparents (who were also PISSED) - I tended to stay at my dad's more to see my friends.

More tomorrow. Much, much more.

aims said...

My reaction? You've got to be F*****G kidding!

I'm wondering if your father ever realized what he had done.

As for the house - whoa! Sounds evil - sounds like it instilled a kind of evil as well. Ya - I'd be just like you though. Abused and used. And scared to death of the house.

Southern Drawl said...

Our childhoods can be haunting can't they? Your loneliness was palpable...

skywind said...

Oh, actually this is the case.
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