Borrowed Children

Borrowed Children image

In summer, the aunts and uncles traded children, and like exchange students we packed our little suitcases to spend a week in a new home. All the aunts and uncles had children, except Cecelia and Arnold, who were, nevertheless, carefully included in this exchange program, and all of us cousins prepared ourselves for the time when it would be our week in their tidy ranch house on Dequindre Road. My cousin Marianne would say, “Big thrill,” and shake her hands at her sides, palms up. “I suppose they’ll drag out that boring croquet set.” Marie, who was a year older than Marianne and I, said that we should all be nice to Aunt Cecelia because she didn’t have any children.

In the 1950s, no one in our family was yet using words like “neurotic” or “paranoid.” To us, “Depression” was a period of financial crisis that the country had passed through twenty years before. The family diagnosed Aunt Cecelia as “kind of cuckoo.” Her specialty was “hysterical pregnancies.” Periodically, she would gain forty to fifty pounds. Then she would buy maternity clothes and wear them, telling the family that she was pregnant. After twelve to fourteen months, everyone joked that either Cecelia was about to deliver a baby elephant or she was having another hysterical pregnancy. Then she would shed the weight and tell everyone, “That goddam Arnie, he hit me in the stomach, he made me have a miscarriage.” To these remarks Arnold would reply with what used to be described in comic books as “tsk, tsk,” and then he would say, “Oh, Cecelia” or “Cut that out, honey.” Once, Cecelia said in front of everybody, “You think he’s so nice, but when he gets me home, he hits me in the stomach cuz he don’t want no babies.”

All of us cousins agreed that there was something wrong in Cecelia’s house. You knew it the minute you walked in. It was too clean, as if the antiseptic smell was covering something foul. Her furniture was all “modern”—a sofa with a plastic slip cover, a step table with a ruffle-shaded lamp, two matching chairs, and the only real attraction at Aunt Cecelia’s, her “Victrola,” a combination radio-phonograph-television in a blond wood cabinet. Cecelia and Arnold were the only ones of all the aunts and uncles who had a television. When she was in the mood, Cecelia would let us older cousins play her Lawrence Welk LP on the Victrola. On Sunday, she let us stay up until 11:00 o’clock and watch “Sea Hunt” and “The Loretta Young Show.”
Although everyone knew that Cecelia wasn’t right, they all felt that it was good for her to have children around once in a while, since her lack of them was apparently her whole problem. And so in mid-June it was again my turn and, despite the fact that last year their dog had bitten my leg and I’d had five stitches, I was off to Arnold and Cecelia’s for a vacation.
No one could remember exactly when Cecelia became strange. My mother thought it was when their father hit her over the head with a hoe. It certainly accounted for the nick on the top of her right ear. Sometimes I would look for signs in the family photograph album. I was certain I saw them in Cecelia’s wedding pictures—the beginning of her remote stare, the same one we kids now shrugged our shoulders and rolled out eyes over. My mother said, “She changed her mind, you know, just before the wedding, but the plans were all made; she had to go through with it.”

“I wondered if you was comin’ here for a vacation this year,” Cecelia said to me from the breezeway door. “How come you never come see me?” she directed at my mother.

“I gotta go to work,” my mother answered. “Call me if you need anything. Keep him busy. He likes to help out.” My mother dashed into to her car and disappeared down the long driveway.

Cecelia always made you do things. It seemed she saved up things she didn’t want to do, like weeding the strawberries or scrubbing bottom cupboards. But she could be distracted if you could think up something else really interesting. This summer I decided I was going to get her to help me make a puppet theater. Cecelia loved to sew and always had a project in progress. This summer it was a quilt, which we passed spread on the davenport, as she led me silently to my room. It was going to be easy to get puppets made, I thought.

Cecelia put me to work right away in the strawberry patch, weeding. There were no ripe strawberries yet, only tiny light green berries hidden beneath leaves. My first day at Aunt Cecelia’s I weeded all afternoon, up one row and down the next. Arnold and Cecelia’s land went from the road in front to the railroad tracks in the back, from the neighbors’ house to the electric tower on the sides—about four carefully tended acres. Everything green was clipped and all the little trees were staked with wires running from their skinny trunks to the ground.

At dinner time, Arnold returned from the Pontiac plant, slouching, carrying his cap and lunch bucket, patting his paunch and walking to the strawberry patch. “Ready to eat?” he asked, laughing. He laughed at most everything, in a witless and self-deprecating way.

After dinner with Cecelia and Arnold, during which my aunt asked questions like “You like school?” we settled down in the living room for television. Sometimes Cecelia painted by numbers or crocheted. Tonight she worked on her quilt. I watched her skill with admiration.

You could never just hug Cecelia. “Don’t I get a kiss?” she said when it was time for bed. Then she sat on her yellow decoration chair, stiff as meringue on a lemon pie, while I placed my lips lightly on her face. When you kissed her good-night, she always turned her head slightly to miss it, pursing her lips to kiss the air and then breaking into one of her mocking, closed-mouth laughs.

Sometimes during those long days at Cecelia’s I got a chance to snoop. She would be in the garden or taking a nap, and I could read the notes she had taped, face in, on the electric heating units that looked like television screens in the wall below window level. The notes said “Leave me alone” or “Stop watching me,” or “What do you want from me?” and things like that.

This summer, Cecelia had a picture of a Greek statue, the naked Discus Thrower, on a window ledge in the living room just behind the traverse drapes. I looked at it but didn’t touch it. I even asked her who it was. She told me it was John Bromfield. He was the star of “Sheriff of Cochise” on television. You never knew just when Cecelia was going to laugh, like when she said “Sheriff of Cochise” and bared her teeth by stretching her lips as far to the side as they would go and the bobbing her jaw up and down in an affected cackle.

The people who lived next door to Cecelia had three children who were often home alone. The oldest girl was near my age, about ten, and one day I noticed her lingering at the edge of the lawn as I pulled weeds from clusters of irises. Finally, the girl said hello and told me her name was Linda. She asked me if I lived there now and seemed disappointed when I said no.

Linda was dark-haired and skinny. She looked at me puzzled, as if she expected me to be telling her something altogether new. She laughed a lot and had a harelip. I asked her if she wanted to help me with my puppet theater. She said she would, and so, with her two younger brothers, we went to work in Cecelia and Arnold’s garage with crates and old cloth that Cecelia had given me. Linda ran home to get her puppet. I asked Aunt Cecelia to help me with my puppet. She told me it was dinner time and the little girl was supposed to go home, but that evening she did help me turn an old sock into a lady. “Sewing!” she said and forced her eyes to open wide. She clicked her teeth and said to the ceiling, “A boy that sews. Well I never heard of that.” Then she showed me how to make the dark threads crisscross on the white buttons so they looked more like eyes. Cecelia did have wonderful fabric scraps, that’s for sure—voile, velvet, silk, ribbon….

The next day and for the rest of the week, I talked often to the little girl. We walked along the edges of the property and up and down the raspberry rows. Sometimes we would play tag with her brothers. We could never play hide-n’-seek, my favorite game, because there was no place to hide, not like on the farm where I lived, with all its sheds and trees and ditches. All there was on Cecelia’s land was the house, where Cecelia stayed dusting or cooking with her shiny pots and pans, and the breezeway full of lawn furniture and the tiny garage where Arnold parked each afternoon when he came home from work at the Pontiac plant. There was, at the edge of the garden a small slope-roofed tool shed where the lawn mower was stored. Two sides of the shed bordered on the dog pen where Prince, the German shepherd, yapped and snarled and clacked his toenails on the cyclone fence.

One afternoon, the little and I scaled a fence post and climbed onto the shed roof. There we perched for the longest time, talking and laughing at Prince while he tried stupidly to reach us by jumping into the air and twisting from side to side with his tongue hanging out.

Aunt Cecelia came out of the house in her peddle-pushers, her pin curls freshly tangled around her head. “Get off that roof, both of you,” she said quietly. I did not talk back. We climbed down.

“You go home,” she said, pointing at Linda. And then efficiently and with no emotion, as the girl began to move away, Cecelia raised her hand and slapped her across the face. The little girl was lifted off the ground and toppled over backwards. She looked up, too stunned to cry. A trickle of blood moved down her chin. She got up and ran, without a sound, toward home.

I spent the rest of the day silently pulling apart my puppet theater and putting all the pieces, all the cloth, all the buttons, back where I got them. Cecelia paid no attention.

When Arnold came home, he and Cecelia took their croquet set out of the tool shed, and Arnold set it up around the front lawn, laughing about how much fun it was to play croquet. I told him I didn’t feel like playing. Arnold knocked Cecelia’s ball into the irises and she shook her mallet at him and said, “Are you my husband? I don’t know you” and went into the house making sounds of contempt by blowing air through her loosened lips.

On Sunday afternoon my mother came to take me home. She sat in the kitchen having coffee with her sister. I heard Cecelia tell her about “the little trash next door” and that “the two of them were up on that roof necking.”

When we were in the car, I tried to tell my mother what happened and I asked her what necking was. “Never mind,” she said, and wouldn’t let me mention it again during the long ride home.

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