1941—Attic and Basement Adventures
I am 10 years old.
I sneak into the attic sometimes to light matches when my parents are out. There’s a big box of kitchen matches by the fireplace, so full that no one will notice a few missing. I can’t resist the thought of the match scraping a sandy surface and springing to life. The flame blossoms almost immediately, blue at the bottom, yellow at the top. A sulfur smell reaches my nostrils. Too soon, the matchstick starts turning black and shriveling as the flame begins to lose its life and flickers dangerously close to my thumb and forefinger. I blow it out and throw it on the floor just in time. I use eight or ten matches before I quit—no more. I don’t want to hear my dad shouting, “Who in the hell took all these matches?”, something I know will bring down the house once a culprit is identified. Part of the appeal of this exercise is the risk.
As a matter of fact, I do get caught one day when my parents pull in the drive unexpectedly and come in the house calling my name. What can I say that I’m doing in the attic? Looking around at my future bedroom? That will never fly.
There I am, with a box of kitchen matches in hand coming down the steps as my father turns the corner. With the murder weapon in my hand and the smell of sulfur in the air, I’m caught dead to rights. My father’s wrath is quiet and chilling. “You! What in God’s name are you doing up there with matches?” He runs his hand through his hair and leans against the wall, as though weary. “How many times have we warned you about fire! Your own father is a firefighter, for God’s sake!” Go to your room.”
This isn’t the worst. I know that they haven’t finished with me yet. I do know that I won’t be lighting matches again anytime soon.
The other forbidden fruit is a 100-pound sack of bread flour my mother keeps in the attic for her frequent baking projects. I love to go up, open the string on the flour bag, and plunge my arms deep into the flour. The cool virgin flour welcomes my hand and arm without resistance. When I’m in up to my elbows, I wriggle my fingers and pump my arm up and down a few times to experience the lovely, clean, almost liquid feeling. I imagine that it’s just like mercury. After a few luxurious plunges, I remove my arm and run quickly to the downstairs bathroom to wash the flour off my arm. This activity, too, is always done when my parents are gone. I never get caught. It will unleash my mother’s unholy wrath if I do.
I’m more afraid of my father than my mother, but Mother’s anger is more wearisome than scary. She makes me stand in the kitchen while she delivers a long harangue, usually at least 30 minutes by the wall clock. She outlines all my defects of character, including my lack of gratitude for my undeserved blessings and my failure to appreciate my kind parents and our beautiful home. I don’t catch many of the details of the lecture because I stop listening after the first 5 minutes or so, a fact my mother picks up from my glazed facial expression. “Did you hear what I just said?” she asks in a loud, sharp voice.
“Yes,” I answer woodenly.
“What?” she is now strident. That’s ‘Yes, Mother!”
“Yes, Mother,” I answer, putting as little feeling into my response as possible. It’s no wonder she gets angrier as we go along. I find the subtlest possible ways to grate on her nerves. If my father happens to be in the house, I hear him leave after the first few minutes.
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