House on the Prairie

The summer after sixth grade the lease ran out on the mustard colored house we had rented in town and my parents decided to move us to the country. I remember going with them to check out the house we would rent – it was a considerable distance from town, past the historic one-room schoolhouse that sat out in a field. The house sat down a long dirt driveway, in the middle of many acres of farmland. Upon approaching the property, one noticed a leaning barn that was not included in the lease and then the house itself. The house seemed to be hundreds of years old. On our first visit, we walked into the room that should have been the living room and saw that it held a threadbare mattress, shredded by animals, the material used for nests. It was filthy and felt dilapidated but it had potential, some charm and the rent must have been right. My parents signed the lease talking the landlord into a reduction in rent in exchange for work on the house.

Before we moved to the house we spent time scouring the walls and floors and hauling out all manner of debris. We repainted the floors and tried to situate the kitchen so that it would be a workable space. We painted the rooms and, as my parents did most of the work, I spent time exploring the property. I was grateful to be out of school where I had felt as though I was walking on eggshells each day, and though the world felt immense out there on the prairie, I felt a contrasting claustrophobia at being so far from people. I no longer had access to the library or the town swimming pool. We were on our own.

We moved in a hot month – July? August? Though it was warm outside, strangely I remember wind howling around the house and into the cracks in the walls. I remember my room felt skeletal, a stark contrast to the warmth of the house we had just left. The walls were there, but not the muscles or the girth. I felt unprotected. My dreams were consumed with memories of that tattered mattress in the living room and the animals skittering around who had used its fabric to build their own homes.

That month, everything seemed on edge. We tried to settle in and become familiar with the house and the land. My parents seemed overwhelmed and tense all the time. I tried to figure out how to diffuse the tension but every particle in the air seemed charged, ions fighting for space.

At night I sat at the top of the steps straining to hear clues. I knew the priest who was in charge of my dad’s job was not supportive. I had heard rumblings at church that the priest had planted some seeds about my dad’s weaknesses. In my mind he was out to get my dad; out to find the chink in his armor and twist the sword. My gut ached. The meaty parts of my legs cramped. My low back clenched.

One evening my parents asked me to babysit my little brother and sister so that they could attend a meeting at church. The mood was mediocre but I had hopes that they were going to receive good news. When they left and I had put my siblings to bed, I set about making brownies so we’d have a treat when they got home. As I mixed the cocoa with the butter I talked on the phone with the one close friend I had made in sixth grade. We speculated about the nature of the meeting. I was sure it would be exciting. It would finally break the tension. As we spoke, my stomach turned and tightened. I suddenly felt like I was going to throw up. I told her I had to go. I went to the bathroom feeling as though I was going to throw up but when I sat down on the toilet I saw blood. I had never had my period before and was all at once shocked and proud. I couldn’t believe this had happened and was excited to tell my mom.

My parents arrived home later than I expected and I bounded to the door, excited to hear the news and to share my celebratory brownies. When they walked in the door however, I instantly knew something was wrong. They looked the way I felt – nauseous and exhausted. They seemed smaller than I had remembered. The room was instantly full of heaviness and my dad looked like he had been beaten down. The shock was palpable. I felt foolish and embarrassed. Why had I thought there would be reason for celebration? I stood awkwardly in the kitchen, half trying to hide the pan of brownies, but there was no need. It was as if I wasn’t there. My parents were zombies. I don’t remember any words being exchanged. Everyone got ready for bed. I thought about eating the brownies or throwing them away. In the end, they sat on the counter, abandoned.

That night I lay in bed writhing as my legs cramped and my stomach churned. I felt jittery and tried to remember what life had been like the month earlier – before periods and old drafty houses. I always found it so fascinating that when one is feeling pain it’s almost impossible to remember what it feels like to not be in pain. I was afraid and confused.

I found out soon enough that my dad had been fired – or quit. At the end of the month we packed up again and moved north to stay in my grandparent’s lake house, another chapter done.

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