High school senior Ashley St. Helens
has suddenly found herself living a fairy tale life....
Which is not as much fun as it sounds.
Until... the other shoe drops.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Air of Sweetness

From before I said my first word, which was “thanks,” my parents encouraged me to be polite and well-spoken, to polish my best qualities, and to be kind to others, something I never realized until they were  both gone. They had been drawn to one another by mutual ideals of personal responsibility, generosity of spirit, and human potential. My mother wore flowered frocks and a wide smile at all times, and brought an air of sweetness to her every endeavor. My father surrounded her, at times like a garden wall, at other times like a large and exuberant puppy. He was absolutely dedicated to our family, and always begged my mom for more children. “But darling,” she’d always say, knowing she was playing a role, and that his playful begging was an act, since they both knew it wasn’t in the cards, “we got it right the first time; we don’t need any more kids.” And so it was that I felt special, and caught my small wishes for siblings before they could turn into actual longings. I was never lonely. My mother, the consummate housewife, taught me to sew, how to cook, and so many ways to clean that it never felt like a chore. And I loved to read; reading was a big part of our lives, always the reward for when the work was done. I did well in school, and always had friends, but never felt I needed them, since my family was so whole.

When I got to middle school, though, life got more complicated, as life does for all of us when we reach a certain age and the innocence falls away. You start wondering about Santa Claus, and then you start wondering about everything else. I wondered why my father was so distractible, and why my mother was so passionate about keeping things just so. I never got a chance to answer these questions, since the fates had other plans for us all. I was in eighth grade Science class when I got called to the office with the news my mother was in the hospital. It sounds funny to say she died in a tragic cleaning accident, but that’s what happened, and it wasn’t. My friend Cadwallader, a chemical genius, has explained the gory details to me, but let me just put this out there for all of our readers to know: never, ever, mix ammonia with chlorine bleach. And never, ever, ever, let toilet cleaner near drain cleaner. Enough said.

In tenth grade, my dad got married to Sylvia, a really nice woman from our church who was very kind and clear about how she wanted to take care of him (and after a few years of living alone with him, I was starting to realize how much he needed to be taken care of). I got two sisters my own age out of the deal.

After living in an empty house with dad for a year, our life, at first, was like a slumber party that didn’t end. Debra and Donna were light-hearted, and their focus on fashion and teen-hunks was refreshing and cheered me up. I wanted them to like me. But I was uncomfortable the way Sylvia would yell at them, build them up and tear them down, in a way I had never seen before; my mom was not like that. Sylvia would never raise her voice around dad, of course. And only little by little, around me. Then one day she yelled at me on the way out the door to school to “get my ass moving.” It was weird that what I felt was a sense of relief at her harsh words and tone, but for the first time, she was treating me as one of her own. And I did secretly hope she could be a good mom to me, that we could be close. Well, I decided, if that’s what it takes….

My father was clear from the start, that he intended to treat us all equally, and I was glad for him that his wish for more kids was coming true. “I don’t want to play my kid/your kids,” he said to Sylvia, as they discussed their wedding over dinner one night; “They’re all our kids.” I admired his attitude, admired him, and Debra, Donna, and I all grinned at each other. Sylvia nodded and seemed to agree with this idea—to his face. But over time it dawned on me what was really happening. Sylvia, when she wasn’t yelling at Debra and Donna, was caring for them, talking to them, helping them in all the ways a mother helps her kids. But when Dad wasn’t around, she never really talked to me much, except in that “move your ass” tone of voice.

One day he found the truth out, yes, one horrible, horrible day, the other most horrible day in my life.


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