No More With the Neighbors
The year is 1964, things are quiet in our little farming town in upstate Illinois. I am six years old and just starting to learn about the world outside, the world off of our farm.
My first real friend was a boy named Michael Peck. Michael was a dark haired boy a little older than myself, who moved in next door. Michael found me wandering the tree line between our two properties one day. He was carrying a bird’s nest. At first I was a little leery of making a new friend but I was so tired of being by myself that even my tormentors became like company for me, and this new boy couldn’t be any worse than the others. Besides I’d never seen a bird’s nest, complete with eggs, up close before. Michael and I became friends. He was quite possibly the first person I trusted around my own age.
One bright and sunny summer day, one of those days when everybody is outside doing something, even the adults, Michael and I were playing around the back side of his parents’ house. Michael tossed a ball at me and I ran backwards to catch it. I inadvertently bowled over a toddler, one of Michael’s many siblings. Unnoticed by me until now Michael’s father sprung from a chair and as I was trying to get to my feet, the baby screaming under me, Michael’s father picked me up off his baby and pushed me away. I, more surprised than hurt, hit the ground again. I guess Michael’s dad had been barbecueing, for in his hand was one of those foot-long cooking forks used for turning meat. With this fork in one hand he leaned over me, screaming.
All I really remember was staring at the end of that fork as he waved it around accentuating each and every word, like a conductor leading an orchestra. Michael’s father was screaming something about me not paying attention and so on, but all I heard was him screaming, and all I saw was that fork waving around in front of my face.
My mom and dad sitting on our porch could see and hear everything. I looked over. My mother had gotten to her feet but my dad sat her back down. Michael’s father then through clenched teeth growled at me, saying, “Don’t look to your folks for help, you little sissy.” Then he leaned down and scooped up the toddler, handing her off to his wife now standing next to us. “Apologize to my wife,” the man screamed at me, “for scaring her to death. Have you not got anything to say?” he said, still sounding mad but not quite as loud.
I began to cry as I stood up and looked at my folks just sitting there on our porch. The man then said in a much calmer voice, “They’re not going to rescue you, son, now apologize to my wife,” motioning once more with the giant fork. “Oh it’s all right, look what you did, you scared the poor boy, and look, you made him cry,” Michael’s mom said in a kind but condescending way. She reached down with her free hand, as she was still holding her baby, and gently pointed me towards my house and gave me a little shove to get me started, saying, “Now run on home.”
As I made my little feet move I could hear them arguing about me and what had happened. As I made my way up the small hill to the porch of my house my mother was snapping string beans into a bowl, while trying not to look at me. I looked at her, then at my father who just sat there and grinned at me like it all was some sort of joke. I paused but only long enough to open the screen door and go inside. Grandma Berg was there. “No more with the neighbors, I think, my little lipschkin,” she said as she dried my tears, cleaned my hands and face with her nearly ever present rag, and offered me cookies. No matter what, Grandma always made me feel better.
Later, still angry with my father for not saving me from the man next door, I wasn’t speaking, keeping all of what I was feeling inside. I just couldn’t understand why Dad wouldn’t let my mother help me, or why he himself didn’t say anything or at the very least call me home, or something, anything besides just sitting there and letting me be yelled at by another adult. Then hours later at the dinner table Dad asked me why I was frowning and just picking at my food. More mad than sad I said, “You didn’t do anything when Mr. Peck was yelling at me.” I don’t believe I’ll ever forget what he said. The words are burned into my memory. Very calmly, but sternly, he spoke from the head of our dinner table. “My job is not to save you, kid, every time you’re in trouble. My job is to make sure you have food to eat, clothes to wear, new shoes every fall, and a warm dry house to live in. I can’t be there to save you. You’re not some little girl that needs saving, or coddling. Though sometimes you act like a little girl. I won’t tolerate that kind of behavior from my son. Geez, boy, figure it out. You are not going to be able to run home every time you get into some trouble. One of these days you’re just going to learn how to stand on your own two feet.”
When he finished there was a long moment of silence. Then Grandma said something in German and got up from the table. My mother followed her. “Now look what you’ve done,” he said. “You have upset the whole family. If you are not going to eat then you can leave the table. Go to your room and get ready for bed.”
Slowly I got down off my chair, then not wanting my dad to see me cry I ran to my room on the other side of the house. Later as my mother and father argued in the other part of the house, and as I stared out the window from the top bunk of my bunk bed, Grandma Berg appeared with a sandwich and glass of milk. She said, almost whispering, “My little wondokin, help Grandma eat this.” And she passed me half of the giant roast beef sandwich. “What you doing here in this dark place?” she said. “Thinking, just thinking.” I answered. “What you thinking, you always thinking, too much thinking for one so young. You must be sleeping now, dream the dreams boys dream, tomorrow is better day. Quiet now, no more you thinking. Sun coming soon, chores to doing. Grandma is old women, but Grandma knows things. Your father he is a hard man but he loves his little wobkin.”
She took the small plate the sandwich had been on and helped me under the covers. Grandma stood there in the dark till I fell asleep, quietly humming some old forgotten German lullaby.