BREATH by BREATH (excerpts) by Anna Marie Laforest (Copyrighted material, January 2016)
from Chapter 3, ambulance
She tucks our baby sister into the crib, the one Billy and I like to crawl under and sproing the springs, but this time we don’t, as we see her groping for something and walking funny. We run after her and see her collapse on her bed as if she has a tummy ache and head ache at the same time. She calls to Billy to pull the phone over to her, and tells him to dial dad’s work number.
There is a weird chill in the room, and I climb on the bed and cling to her middle. Wake up, mother. She feels freezing cold to me. Wake up, oh, where are her eyes, Billy?
I try to warm her with my body, she smells like bad snow, and I melt into her as best as I can as I cling and cling.
Someone strong tries to pull me away, but I know I must not let go of her. Mother, wake up, they are pulling us apart. I hang on with my arms around her middle, and kick backwards at whoever is trying to pull me off. I see strangers lifting mother and me onto a stretcher. We go down the stairs and out the front door in a bundle; I am still kicking and clinging for all I am worth. Then dad is there and it is as if I lose all energy from my arms as he lifts me off of mother and the strangers pack her into a large white van.
from chapter 9, The Malevolent Housekeeper
Our current housekeeper, the third and last, was my idea of a witch. She had short, gleaming black hair that stuck out straight from her head as if gel had already been invented. She had an ugly mole on her pointy white chin and a malevolent stare that Billy and I called “the glare.” She pulled my little sister’s hair hard, on purpose, when she braided it. She put vinegar in the frosting of the cakes she baked. She cooked dad’s favorite frozen corn for 40 minutes, pulverizing it. She stayed up late into the night blaring the volume of her TV shows, keeping me awake across the hall when I needed sleep for school.
I would slide half asleep out of bed and kneel on the floor, praying for God to make her turn it down, then pull myself back into bed and fall asleep swearing under my breath at her. She did not make breakfast for us, I still did that, and when I discovered how smelly eggs would turn at her touch, I was glad I had the morning shift. She had the surname of our local chocolate store, spoiling even that. The dreaded Mrs. S.
Mrs. S. would leave on Friday nights, and quiet time gloriously returned until Sunday evenings when she came back, only to turn the TV on, loudly, in her room again. I tried telling her that God didn’t allow TV on Sundays, and was met with “the glare.” I don’t know what she did around our house other than wreck dinners, because I was the one who did the dusting, vacuuming, and ironing that piled up for my Saturday chores, including handkerchiefs and sheets (no synthetic fibers yet). Dad swept the floors and polished the kitchen, and Billy took the garbage out.
By fourth grade my parish grade-school had become for me a land of mystical liturgy, renaissance music, and gilded art. It was fairy tale in a higher octave. Without knowing it, the nuns gave me a schema for survival. All I had to do was live inside the metaphors of theology. The saints did it. Christ did it. My dad was already a saint, or so everyone said.
And it was in fourth grade, during the evil reign of Mrs. S., that I discovered that the diocesan bishop was coming to our parish to confer the sacrament of Confirmation on us. All we had to do was prove we knew our catechism, then we could march up to the altar and the bishop would slap us on the cheek, and say in Latin, “Go forth, ye are soldiers of God.”
I could not wait to be transformed into a soldier of God... I could only hope the badge might have the power to shield my ears from the late night TV of Mrs. S. After several months of sleep deprivation from her TV, everything seemed to me to have a mean edge to it. If I went into the kitchen Mrs. S. would stop what she was doing and stare until I passed through. If I went to the cookie jar, I’d find she had crushed the cookies into crumbs. If I went out on the porch, she was there, and her red glare would follow me down the steps. Up in our room, my sister would be glum from her own wars with Mrs. S., and she would ask me to loosen her braids and tell her a fairy story while she hugged her stuffed toy horse and untwisted his mane.
The only safe haven was with mom, suctioning her tracheotomy and holding books up for her. I was glad she had lots of words to read. Words had magic. I hoped that she never heard Mrs. S’s curse to the neighbors over the fence– “That Mrs. A. can’t last much longer.”
I remember having a flu which made Mrs. S. angry because she had to clean the bathroom and bedding. She had broken my bottle of cold medicine the year before and I knew she was plotting to destroy my antibiotic this time too. I remember gathering every pencil I could find from dad’s desk and sharpening them. I took a stack of paper and started pressing the pencils in with all my might –“I H.A.T.E. Mrs. S.” Over and over I wrote this, in the darkest handwritings I could devise so she’d think the devil had done it, and left the papers scattered at her bedroom door and on her TV.
Meanwhile the beautiful mother-house nuns were preparing us for confirmation. Mom agreed that Grandma Rose would be a good choice as sponsor. She went to Mass every morning, and had stood in for mom at the mother-daughter pancake breakfast.
The smartest girls at school were prepped to answer the catechism questions and they were planted in the first ten rows. The rest of us were warned not to raise our hands, for any reason, when the bishop asked the questions. I thought I knew most of them, but was too shy to say them out loud. “Why did God make us?” “To love, honor, and something-something be happy in this world and in the next.”
And no matter what, we were to remember, if it rained, to take off our muddy boots and galoshes and leave them in the vestibule, wearing our best shoes to go up to the bishop at the altar.
The sacramental evening finally arrived and I pulled my best dress out and put on clean white ankle socks and my boots, as it was, indeed, raining, and I carried my black patent leather shoes bound together in a large rubber band I had taken off of the celery in the crisper. Any minute Grandpa Rose would beep the horn, with Grandma Rose in the front seat in her good hat and coat, and I’d scramble through the rain into the back.
Then -- why was Mrs. S. suddenly getting her hat and coat on? My heart sank. The blood drained from my face and stomach.
Nothing was explained. Not a word about where grandma was, that night or after. I felt totally betrayed. How could I become a soldier of Christ with my hated enemy at my side? It was not to be borne. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and stuffed the edge of a bath towel into my mouth to quiet my animal-scream. I clenched the towel in my teeth, and pulled on it hard with my fingers clawed, until I thought my teeth would tumble out.
I was numb and do not know how we got to the church. But the nuns had asked the students to meet them at the school first so that we could go over as a group. The sponsors would meet us in the church and sit with us there. Mrs. S. grabbed my patent leather shoes to hold onto while I tromped in my boots along the muddy walkways to the schoolroom and back. My chest felt as if layers of wrought iron were strapping it in. The sisters ran us through a hymn rehearsal and then we all walked back to the church and filed in.
Oh! A hundred beeswax candles had been lighted and I reeled from the scent of frankincense freshly decanted through the aisles. The organist was holding the soothing key of F, and singing in Gregorian chant. My chest broke free of its bands, and I re-entered my sacred world, eagerly taking my place in the 11th pew. I scanned the front altar for the bishop.
The bishop was thin-lipped and younger than our church’s ancient monsignor who collected crystal studded chalices. Instead of a chasuble, the bishop was wearing a long black cassock with violet red piping and flamingo-colored buttons. I could not wait to be anointed.
We were well past the catechism questions, and into the second Latin hymn before I realized that Mrs. S. had not joined me in the pew. This made me so happy I must have exclaimed out loud, because the girl next to me turned to stare.
When it was my turn I went up to the altar and became a soldier of Christ, free and clear. I was anointed, slapped on the cheek, and I float-marched back down the aisle. I took a deep breath of incense and beeswax and just stared, uncomprehending, at Sister Mary Manfred when she asked me half an hour later why I had worn muddy boots up to the altar, after all her admonishments.
It was dark, and the church vestibule nearly empty of families by the time Mrs. S. returned to get me. Crushing a cigarette under her heel at the bottom of the steps, she motioned for me to come out and get into the car. We did not speak on the way back, and I knew she could barely see me through the glow of Christ that emanated from my chest. I don’t think we spoke for three days, by which time I saw that my patent leather shoes had found their way out of her hands and back into my closet, still hugging each other in their large rubber band.