I spent half of my childhood on Cape Cod with my father’s family and half of it roaming the dairy farm with my mother’s family.
East of America, there stands in the open Atlantic the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land. Worn by the breakers and the rains, and disintegrated by the wind, it still stands bold.
-Henry Beston, The Outermost House
ONE: FORMATION [OF THE CAPE]
My mother has told me several times that there is nothing like growing up on a farm: “We had a horse named Firecracker and we rode him almost every day in the summer. Then there was the fall when our dog Bandit ran in the pastures to get the cows. When the cows came into the barn again they knew their own stalls. They always returned to the same stall every day.”
When I was six I tried to run away from home. Our houses were arranged around a cul-de-sac called a court. I got as far as the neighbor’s house where my father found me trying to let their dog out of the sunroom so I could take it with me. He told me to follow him and we ended up in my room. He sat on the edge of the bed and I shrank away from him toward the wall. He lunged at me, pulled my pants down, and spanked me. He told me to never run away again. I vowed that I would as soon as he was too slow to catch me.
Ryan is my middle brother. My mom bought him husky clothes when he was little. Children called him fat on the bus to school. One summer night when we were staying at the farm for the fair, Ryan and I went to sleep on the pull-out couch in the living room. My grandparents stayed awake to watch the news. A sunburn on my shoulders kept me awake and I could hear them talking. My grandfather asked my grandmother why she thought Ryan was so fat. She said she didn’t know. He played soccer all year for the club team.
“Then why is he so fat?”
“It runs in this family John.”
The Cape house made strange noises at night. My grandparents bought it in 1996 right after the previous owners had died in a plane crash; then they both died. My dad said the house was cursed. There was a painting on the wall of my grandmother when she was twelve that I did not like to walk past at night. I slept in the master bedroom with my mother. “It’s okay,” she said. “At least they’re friendly ghosts.”
Our first family dog, Mandy, died when I was twelve. I found her one day when I got home from school and carefully climbed the stairs, listening for her cornhusk rustle breathing. She was looking up at me with watery, clouded eyes. I gulped in air at the sight of her two back legs splayed behind her like a slingshot. I bent to pet her and she slid over to me, somehow paralyzed. I spent the afternoon before my mom got home praying to god, asking him whether he could let a dog get into heaven even if they did not have souls. My snot made marks on the sliding glass door where I leaned and cried. Mandy stood a foot away from me like a seal, her back legs half on the hardwood, half on the carpet. She did not understand why I was crying. The whole time she never even whimpered.
When my dad’s parents were alive we used to take walks around the block at the Cape house. One time, When Ryan was two, he wanted to take a broom on our walk with us, and cried when Pop Pop tried to wrest it away. He held onto it for the entire walk as we pushed him in the stroller. When we got back, my mom was waiting in the driveway with a camera.
My mother is a soft-edged petal at the bottom of a mortar. Overripe. A woman of five foot two with soft arms. Whenever I come home I ask if she can make her special homemade chicken noodle soup. She always does. The arthritis in her knees is bad so my brother carries the laundry up the stairs for her. It sours in the basement until he comes home from college every other week. My mother wears turtlenecks with holes in the seams. I buy her new jewelry every Christmas since she separated from my dad.
Things that are not enough:
- The journals I get every Christmas, sitting on a bookshelf at home.
- The lemonade they make at the fair with mostly ice.
- The one winter at the farm when we could not go sledding on Christmas Eve.
- When my dad talks about his new lady friend as if she is hiding under the bed.