The summer after kindergarten was pretty messed up. But before I can explain why, I need to give you a little bit of history on my mom's side of the family.
I have the same last name as my dad, Birch. But my mom's last name was Stewart. And, I shit you not, my grandmother's name (Mama) was Martha Stewart. Unfortunately, she was the famous Martha Stewart's polar opposite. I didn't realize it at the time, but Mama had an insane hoarding problem. I didn't really even know what hoarding was until a few years ago. She had stacks and stacks of things all over the house. I didn't really have any friends to speak of yet, so I had nothing to compare it to and my mom was not exactly the world's greatest housekeeper either, so I just thought that everyone's house looked like that. You could barely get into most of the rooms in the house. Her bedroom was piles of papers and Harlequin romance novels, the guest bedrooms in the house were so full that you couldn't open any of the doors, there was a dining room table somewhere under all of the piles of crap in the dining room and it just kind of spread out from there. No one was ever allowed in the house. Ever.
Sadly it was more than just cluttered. It was disgusting. The linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchen were being eaten away by grime, it was impossible to tell what the original color of the carpets had been, the house was littered with dog and mouse feces (which smelled great), the lawn was dead and overgrown with weeds and the paint was chipping off the side of the house. The neighbors hated it. I didn't know what property value was, but I clearly remember hearing my parents say that the neighbors were complaining that her house was bringing everyone's down. When the earthquake hit in '89, I had to squeeze under a table because I couldn't get to a door frame like I had learned in school. I was buried under all the stuff that had fallen around me and it was pretty damn scary as a kid.
One day that summer, my mom went out to get her nails done and go shopping with my baby sister and my dad had gone out somewhere with my brother. That left me with Mama at her house. Mama had lived alone because earlier that year, my grandfather, 'Andad, (because I couldn't say Granddad and everyone thought it was so damn cute, so it stuck) had passed away. She had been all alone in that hellhole of a house unless one of her four kids came to visit. I think that's why she never minded watching me and my siblings. But she wasn't doing too well herself. She was grossly overweight to the point where her entire closet was filled with muumuus, she had circulation problems that caused her to walk with a cane and she had asthma, which looking back, was probably a result of the bad fumes in the house.
It was a very ordinary day. I had just come home from playing with the little blond boy up the street, Shawn, who was a few years older than me, Mama had made me a fried egg sandwich and I was all curled up in the living room watching my favorite show at the time, "The Elephant Show." Props to you if you remember it. All of a sudden I heard a crash in the kitchen and Mama had dropped a few plates. I went to go see what had happened and I saw her leaning on the kitchen counter for support. She looked really scared and she told me to grab her cane because she needed to sit down. I came back with the cane and she looked even worse. She told me that she was dizzy and needed me to get her medicine. I can't remember if it was pills or an inhaler or what, but I got it for her and helped her sit down in the hallway by the front door. I remember her looking me dead in the eye from behind the yellowing rims of her glasses and she said, "This isn't working. Call an ambulance now!"
In addition to earthquake preparation training at school, we also had a fireman come to class and teach us about 9-1-1 and how and when to use it. Never in a million years did I think that I would have to use it so soon. I tried to use the phone in the kitchen, but it was a rotary phone and I was too panicked to make it work. I ran into the living room, weaving in and out of obstacles blocking my path, and I dialed those three magic numbers that I had learned. I don't recall what I had said, but whatever it was, the first operator didn't believe me. She told me that kids shouldn't play tricks just because they learned how to dial that number. I raced back to Mama and told her that I had been hung up on and she told me that I had to try again. Finally, the second operator helped me out and sent someone on their way, but in the meantime things were looking grim.
When I got back to her in the hallway, she started breathing really deeply. She told me that it was suddenly really hard for her to breathe. I remember her grabbing my hand and giving me an insanely worried look. The front door to the house had nine square glass windowpanes on it and I saw someone approaching quickly. I figured that maybe the ambulance got there really fast, so I opened the door to let him in. It turned out that it was the postman. I needed an adult really badly at that moment so I told him what was going on. I remember saying in a tiny voice, "My Mama is really sick! Can you please help me?"
The postman looked a lot like the Micro-Machines guy and had a mustache and everything. Mama was having a hard time staying in the chair, so the postman told me to go grab some pillows and blankets and he would help me lay her down on the floor. I did what he asked and he did help her lay down, but as her breathing got worse and worse he did the unthinkable. He couldn't handle the situation and made some bullshit excuse and left a six-year-old kid with her dying grandmother. I could see how upset Mama was at that point and I remember the last thing that she said to me was, "Call Warren." Fortunately I could read really well and our phone had speed dial, or I would have been absolutely useless right there. I called my uncle and he came down as soon as he could. He got there right after the ambulance and the fire truck.
Her breathing had become so staggered at that point that it was barely happening at all. She couldn't talk anymore and just kept staring up at me. I was holding her hand the whole time, the front door wide open, so that anyone would be able to see inside and could try and help. But by the time the emergency vehicles came, I stopped seeing her chest move up and down and she was completely still. The medics moved me out of the way, shocked by the inside of the house, and put her on the gurney and took her away. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the last time that I would ever see her.
My uncle came in and he seemed like he was the only person who realized that I was there. I don't know if I was crying or not at that point because I don't think that I completely understood what was going on, but he told me that I had just done a very brave thing and he gave me a hug that seemed to last forever. I asked him if Mama was going to be okay and he just looked away and couldn't answer. We tried reaching my parents, but before the advent of cellphones it was really challenging. It couldn't have been too long before someone got home, but the rest of that afternoon was a blur.
That night I remember my mom getting ready to go down to the hospital and I begged to come but she wouldn't let me. She said that I wasn't old enough, but I knew that was a lie. She just kept crying and told me that she had to go say goodbye, but I didn't realize what that meant--that is until the next morning when I found out that she had passed away. "Passed away" wasn't a term that I was familiar with. I asked my mom what that meant, but when I did she couldn't do anything but weep. My dad stepped in and tried his best to explain to me what it was, but after all the kind euphemisms and straight out telling me that she had died didn't work, he simply told me that she was gone and that she was never coming back.
All I could think of at that point was that I would never see her again. I remember curling up into a ball on the floor of my bedroom and just repeating over and over again, "But, I didn't get to say goodbye... I'll never get to say goodbye..." I was absolutely crushed. The only interaction that I really had with my mom was when she was driving me to school, and my dad worked really long hours during the week, so we only really hung out on the weekends. Mama was really all I had five days a week. I was so angry at my mom right there. In my mind, I could have said goodbye, but she wouldn't let me. And as a snotty, selfish little kid, I kept telling her that too. I didn't take into consideration that she had lost her mom. I was just upset that I had lost someone.
Eventually, after all the poking and prodding, she blew up at me about a week afterwards and told me that the reason that I couldn't go was that she had already passed and she didn't want me to see that. I understand now that it was better that way, but for years when I was a kid I held that against her like you wouldn't believe. We would get in a fight or I would be sad and start crying about something completely unrelated and the angry words just spewed forth from my mouth. "You didn't even let me say goodbye to Mama!"
I don't remember the funeral at all, but I'm sure that there was one. I can't even recall if I went or not. I have a great memory, but I must have blocked a few things out, because that part is gone. About a month after she had passed, I remember that I needed to get a glass of water really early in the morning, like around six or so. I stepped out into the kitchen (which was always covered in slugs because the space under the door was too big and they would crawl underneath and come in) and got my water. I walked slowly to avoid spilling my water and to pop as few slugs under my feet as humanly possible. What happened next, I still have in my head all these years later against all logic.
I am an Atheist and have been for many years now, but as I headed back to my room that night I swear that I saw my grandmother's ghost in the hallway. She was there for about thirty seconds and waved and smiled at me and vanished. It's the one and only time that I ever saw anything like that, but it was so real to me. As an adult I am sitting here telling myself that maybe it was just the early morning light reflecting off of a picture in the hallway, or it was just my mind trying to provide closure or something that I can explain away. But as a kid, I kind of liked to think that it was her way of saying goodbye.
I couldn't go back to bed after that had happened, so I just stayed out in the living room watching early Saturday morning television. It woke my parents up and they came out to see what was going on. I tried to tell them what I saw, but my dad said that I just needed more sleep and my mom just got upset and went to go cry in the other room. It was a sad and creepy thing that scared me for months and still scares me a bit to this day, but it made me feel a teeny, tiny bit better. The downside to my "vision" was that my dad liked to watch "Unsolved Mysteries" on TV and that night an episode involving a ghost came on and the theme music gave me this terrifying association. To this day the theme song to that show still haunts me.
We had a lot of cleaning to do after she was gone. And I don't mean light cleaning. I mean, industrial strength, had to rent a sixty-foot dumpster for three days, cleaning. The neighbors were coming out in droves to see what we were throwing out. My dad had to scare one of them off because he was digging through the dumpster being nosey. Everything was just being absolutely gutted. It needed to be cleaned, but at the same time there was another reason--no one had ever found their will. This may seem like a minor thing, but when you have four kids in a family that don't exactly get along too well, things can get ugly. And along with all of the ugly things going on, there was one more stupid thing that pushed me over the deep end.
The boy that I would play with up the street from Mama's house, Shawn, didn't come around very often after she had passed. We were there all the time trying to clean more and more out of the house. (It took us a total of four years to even get that house anywhere near presentable with all of the cleaning and remodeling that had to be done.) When I had my fill of cleaning for the day I would ask if I could go over and play with Shawn and my parents would agree to get me out of their hair. Shawn, another toe-head blond, actually had a complicated living situation himself. His parents were divorced and he lived with his grandmother most of the time. I had no idea what divorce was, but I knew from what he had said that it was bad. His grandmother, Portia, was not a very nice lady and seemed to be one of the neighbors that shared the opinion that Mama's house was a menace to the neighborhood.
I remember one particular day where I went to see if Shawn could come out to play and Portia answered the door. She was a frail wisp of a lady with thinning grey hair. She loved to walk her dog and was always wearing these dreadful velour pantsuits when she would walk around. When she came to the door she looked at me with disdain in my worn clothes, my huge glasses and my messy hair. I nicely asked if Shawn could come out to play and she abruptly told me that he wasn't home. I was turning around to leave when I suddenly heard Shawn ask her who was at the door.
She lied to me! I didn't know what to say! I thought that maybe she was going senile or something, so I stopped her and said, "Wait! I see him right there! Hi, Shawn!" She rudely slammed the door in my face. I was taken aback, but apparently I didn't get the message because my dumb little ass knocked on the door again and she flung it open and told me very bluntly, "Listen and listen good. I'm sorry that your grandma died, but maybe it was for the best because it looks like you guys are finally cleaning up that eyesore. Shawn already has enough going on in his life, so he doesn't need you adding more to it. Please don't come back!" And she slammed the door again and let me just stand there like an idiot.
I was crushed. I slinked down the sidewalk back to the house and started crying all the way back. My dad told me that I had to be strong and that Portia "had always had a stick up her ass" so I shouldn't worry too much about what she had to say. The thought of an old lady with a giant stick up her butt made me laugh and feel a little better about it, but I still sat sulking on the front porch for the rest of the afternoon. That is until a few hours later when Shawn walked by the house walking Portia's damn little dog.
I ran over to him and asked him if he wanted to play and he told me in a very sour tone that, "I can't be your friend anymore. My grandma says your family is white trash and that I'm not allowed to hang out with you." I didn't know what white trash was, but I knew it wasn't good, so I told him that he was a jerk. He just laughed at me cruelly and said to me, "Whatever. My grandma says your house is so bad that the lawn isn't even clean enough for her dog to shit on!" I looked down at the little white dog and low and behold he was starting to make doggie circles looking for a place to do his doggie business. "Go on, little guy! Poop!" he told the dog.
And without any warning something inside of me just snapped and I pushed Shawn down to the ground. He dropped the leash and the dog ran away back down the street. He was tall and skinny and once I had him on the sidewalk I kicked him a few times in the side. I still don't know how, but somewhere in there his mouth hit the curb and one of his front baby teeth got knocked out. He cried out in shock and I stood there in shock. We looked at each other for a split second and then he picked himself up as fast as he could and ran back home.
I couldn't believe that I had actually hurt someone so badly. There was still a tiny bit of blood on the sidewalk from where the tooth came out. I was upset, but I didn't know what to say, so I just kept it to myself and hid in the backyard. I almost thought that I had gotten away with it too, but then about two hours later Shawn's mom got home from work and she marched down to the house with Shawn and I got into some pretty big trouble. I still recall her leathery tanned skin, her peroxide blonde hair and her smokers rasp. I think her name was Candy or Sandy or some other stripper sounding kind of name. Either way, it was the last time that Shawn ever really came down to my part of the street. And the rest of the summer was basically just as crappy. It wasn't until the school year began that things started to get interesting again.