From the outside, Vanya’s childhood looked idyllic: she rode horses with her father in the solitude of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and attended flamboyant operas with her mother in the city. But life for Vanya and her family turned dark when ghosts from her father’s service on a Pacific destroyer in World War II tore her family apart.
Set in postwar California, this is the story of a girl who tried to make sense of her parents’ unpredictable actionsfrom being left to lie in her own blood-soaked diaper while her Christian Scientist mother prayed, refusing to get medical help to watching her father writhe on his bed in the detox ward, his hands and feet tethered with leather strapsby immersing herself in the beauty and solitude of the wilderness around her. It was only decades later, when memories began to haunt her, that Vanya was able to look back with unflinching honesty and tender compassion for her family and herself. In this elegant, haunting narrative, Erickson invites us to witness it allfrom the gripping, often disturbing, truths of her childhood to her ultimate survival.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Vanya Erickson used to photograph and haul horses for a living. For the last twenty-five years she has been mentoring teachers while teaching writing and public speaking in the oldest continuously used schoolhouse in California. She loves hiking the High Sierras and coastal redwood forests, as well as dramatically reading aloud to childrenespecially her granddaughter and grandniece. Erickson holds a BA in comparative literature and a teaching credential from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her essays have appeared in a dozen literary journals and anthologies, and in the book The Magic of Memoir. Find out more about her at www.vanyaerickson.com.
Read an Excerpt
I was lying in a pool of my own blood. That's what they told me.
Throughout my childhood, the retelling of this story happened so often it became my bedtime story. There were three narrators: my mother, my grandfather, and the young woman who changed everything. I was too young to remember it, but this is what I imagine happened that day.
I was three days old, on the couch in my mother's lap, and she was trying to heal me. The storm outside howled as she squinted and leaned toward the lamp, the glow of the light softening her concentration. "Divine Love has always met and always will meet every human need." She was reading from her Christian Science manual, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. Her head bobbed at important words. The slam of the door interrupted her words.
"Buon giorno!" It was the signature singsong greeting from our mother's helper Eugenia, a young woman from Italy my parents sponsored in 1953. She brushed the raindrops from her hair and entered the room, stopping midstride as she took us in: the tiny blue veins decorating my eyelids, my limp arms, the bloody diaper.
"Signora! Perche sta sanguinando?" She moved to pick me up.
My mother didn't answer. She just placed her left hand over the front of my diaper, as if to hold me in place. I can imagine her elegant fingers fanning out, covering my chest like a shield. Years later Eugenia told me that something in my mother's eyes reminded Eugenia of an old beggar woman back home in Monteleone, Italy, wandering through the rubble during the war, quietly lost to her own demons. Eugenia wanted to grab me into her arms and run into the street.
"Guarda, la bambina!" Eugenia pointed at me then clasped her hands at her chest.
My mother looked up at these words, her eyebrows one dark line. She had no time to explain what she was doing. How could she make Eugenia understand? Besides, she had a healing to do. She returned to her prayers.
The teenager's arms spoke in outraged jabs, pointing to the street. "Prendi in ospedale immediatamente!"
My mother lifted her hand off of my body at this outburst, and heard the teenager's sharp intake of breath as it mirrored her own and immediately placed her hand back onto my belly, camouflaging the blood with religious conviction. Her voice was louder now. "God is the light and the truth. Let neither fear or doubt overshadow your clear sense of calm trust ..."
Eugenia ran to the phone, her index finger clawing the faded list of names and numbers on the wall. She knew my father was unreachable, so she dialed his father, my Grandpa Louie, who lived down the street.
She cried into the phone, "La bambina e molto malata!"
Although Grandpa Louie adored Italian opera, he did not understand her words, but they felt like a shattering of all that was good. He chased each syllable that leapt from her lips, comprehending the tone, understanding the terror.
Eugenia stood holding the door open as my grandfather peeled into the driveway minutes later. His long khaki legs rushed past her as he crossed the foyer onto the living room. "Margot! What's happened?"
My mother pursed her lips and lifted me to her shoulder. "Oh, I was just doing some thinking about ... the bleeding." Her face tightened for having mentioned it. She shouldn't have said it aloud.
My grandfather saw the red smear on my blanket. "Jesus, Margot! Get in the car."
I like to imagine that Mom was relieved to follow orders, to allow my Grandpa Louie, whom she adored, to come to her rescue, for she said nothing and put up no fight. Grabbing her big black pocket book, she rushed to the car as if it had been her idea, but she didn't stop praying. She knew it didn't matter where she prayed. Healing could happen on the couch, in the front seat of the Pontiac, or at the hospital. God was everywhere.
We careened through the streets, Grandpa Louie's uneven foot on the gas punctuating the journey in nauseating bursts. Twice he reached his arm out at sudden stops to shield us. The rain had let up, but the streets were still wet and the late afternoon sun reflected off the bumpers, forcing my grandfather to squint. I know he was much younger when this happened, but when I replay the story in my mind, he is old and his too-tight grip on the steering wheel shakes. His lake blue eyes dart from me to the street, his thin white hair floating above, like a cloud.
Years later as a young child, I would play all alone in his Pontiac, hoping to remember something that would help me understand what had happened that day. I'd sit in the driver's seat and pretend to be Grandpa Louie. I'd scooch to the right and be Mom, praying. I'd lie down between these two spots on the soft bench seat, curling into a tight ball, a bleeding baby, my face looking up toward the ceiling of the old Pontiac.
* * *
When Grandpa Louie pulled into the parking lot of San Jose Hospital, he burst from the car and shepherded us through the entrance to the emergency room, shouting, "We got a three-day-old baby girl here!"
A nurse rushed forward, peeling the bloody blanket away. "It's her umbilical knot. Did you pick it?"
Mom refused to respond to this silly question. The nurse had never met a Christian Scientist before. She didn't know that they didn't believe doctors or that they saw the body as a kind of mirage, an illusion created by evil. And she certainly didn't know mentioning my symptoms could give evil more power. No wonder Mom didn't answer. She was protecting me.
Mom closed her eyes and softy chanted, "There is no life, truth, intelligence or substance in matter ..."
"Ma'am?!" The word shot from the nurse's mouth, cutting the prayer short, as she grabbed me from my mother's arms and ran into the emergency room, my limp body, pressed to her chest.
Mom moved to a grey plastic chair, one of the many that lined the walls of the waiting room. She placed her pocket book on the seat next to her and reached inside, past the tissues and red lipstick, for her Bible. She didn't get up for water or food. She simply sat and prayed.
Grandpa Louie began to pace the glossy linoleum floors, his spidery legs taking him away from the sight of her. Finding a phone in the lobby, he called his son, my father, but he was in a meeting. Slamming the receiver down, he checked his watch: 5:00. He caught a glimpse of Mom with her head bent forward as he turned a corner and headed into the belly of the hospital.
Ten minutes later a doctor approached. "We don't have much time. Your daughter has lost a lot of blood and needs a transfusion." My mother looked confused, his words complicated, traveling from another world.
"Ma'am, do you hear me? Because of her massive blood loss, your daughter will have serious problems, most likely with her liver. There's also a good chance she will be retarded."
"Oh?" Mom was surprised the mention of retardation gripped her so. She looked up at him.
The doctor's smile was tight. "We have a donor who'd like to help. He's a new father, waiting for his child to be born upstairs. Do we have your permission?"
"Of course you have her permission!" My grandfather's shout came clear across the lobby. All heads turned in his direction. He had just completed another lap of the hallways. "Jesus, Margot, answer him!" Mom closed her eyes to my grandfather's roar. She mouthed a prayer.
The doctor nodded to the nurse at the desk, who was speaking to a tall black man, his face dipped toward the floor as he listened. They both looked over at Mom.
The nurse spoke softly as they walked forward. "Mrs. Erickson, this is Mr. Hamilton." She put her hand on the tall man's forearm. "He has your daughter's blood type. Will you let him help your baby?"
My mother looked up into his face and smiled. "Hello." She rose to her feet and offered him her hand. The heat of his touch rushed through her.
"Are you insane?" my grandfather shouted. "You can't put a nigger's blood in my granddaughter. What kind of a joint is this? You'll kill her!"
"Oh Louie, stop it!" Mom's voice surprised them all as she moved her body in front of Mr. Hamilton and stood to face my grandfather, hands on her hips. "Oh yes, she will have his blood."
And with this act of solidarity with her progressive politics, my mother bent her religious vows and saved my life.
* * *
This story affected everything, and was the birth of a great debate. Had my mother healed me? Or had the blood transfusion? It all depended on who was telling the story. But no matter the truth, I knew I was lucky. My earliest memory is of being four years old, lying on a blanket in the backyard of my home in Saratoga, California, looking up at the lush Santa Cruz Mountains, and marveling that I was alive.
I felt a deep connection with the Earth cradling my body, and if I could have, I would have burrowed into the earth like an animal. This rooted my tender love for everything. It was the small things that brought tears to my eyes: the dramatic calls of a mockingbird that perched on the chimney day after day; the long breath of the wind in the pine trees on a summer hike; the toothy smile of our retriever Brownie and the soft whop-whop of her tail against my leg when I came home from my best friend's house. I couldn't imagine a more magical life.
I can't pinpoint the exact day that things darkened, but it happened somewhere around my sixth birthday. One Saturday morning, the spring before first grade, my little sister KK and I were in our small TV room, when I heard Dad's voice. "Girls?"
Alarmed by the pitch of his voice, I jumped up from my perch in the warm bear-sized chair where I had been reading. KK looked up from her coloring, the blue crayon still in her grip.
"I just heard some serious news, kids." He appeared in the doorway, like a redwood, his gnarled boots the weathered trunk. As his breath slowed, one hand plucked a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his neck. Had he been running?
Dad pushed out his lower lip and blew a blast of air toward his forehead, causing his baby-fine hair to float above his head, unmoored. "I am sorry to say kids, but the Boy Scouts found a pair of huge footprints right behind our house." I looked over at KK. "You sure you want to hear about this?" We didn't move.
Dad took three strides across the room and yanked open the curtains. "Look." He squinted, surveying the mountain, as if on a reconnaissance mission. Nodding his head as if pleased with what he saw, he tapped on the window twice with his index finger. "Right there. That's where they found them." He peered back at us.
I looked out the window, past his finger. Last night's downpour had made everything on the mountain seem magnified, almost within reach. Each tree in the emerald hillside stood out clearly from its neighbor. The earth felt reborn as the sunlight kissed the moisture from the leaves. Was it really possible to see the footprints from here?
Dad's voice dropped to a whisper. "Now don't be frightened, but this next part's pretty gruesome. It seems they were hiking and they came upon some fur stuck on a branch, long white shaggy wisps of it, not matching the fur of any animal that lives up there. They followed its trail for hours and hours, and just when they were about to turn around, at the muddiest part of their climb, they saw gigantic footprints at the base of a tree, like some creature had been standing there waiting for its next meal."
I closed my eyes, seeing it all as if I were there on the mountain, my nose filled with the perfume of wet earth and pines and wisps of fur.
"Now here's the most shocking part." Dad continued, "Experts believe it was —" Dad paused here as we looked up "— the Abominable Snowman." Dad face was all grimace, lips framing clenched teeth.
"What?" KK asked. She spat the word out. "Bom-able?"
Dad smiled. "Ab-bom-in-a-ble. He pronounced it slowly. "It means horrible. Terrible. A real live monster. Say it, girls."
KK and I repeated the mouthful of syllables over and over. Each time the sound of it forced our mouths open, like a stranger struggling to get out. Although I liked the newness of the word and the resulting jolt it sent through my body, I shuddered at what was waiting out there on the mountain.
"Now, don't you two go running off to investigate, or you just might end up on the menu. I'll let you know when the coast is clear." Dad nodded.
"How do they know it's the Abominable Snowman?" I could tell KK's mind was gathering facts as she tilted her head sideways and squinted up at Dad.
"Easy! The footprints were almost three times the size of a grown man's."
Dad thrust out his hands demonstrating the length. "Can you imagine seeing that on the trail? When all you've got is some lousy scout leader to protect you?"
I covered my face with my hands so I couldn't see him, now certain the creature was peering at us through the uncurtained window. Where had he come from? What did he want? Where was his family? Wait! What if he was lonely!
Dad and KK continued their discussion, but I had muffled their words with questions. What would they do if they found him? Would he be sent to the zoo where he'd live the rest of his life in a rusted cage like that old brown bear we saw at the county fair? Why did we have to capture him at all?
With a sudden whoosh, Dad pulled the curtain closed. "So remember girls, don't go wandering around out there. You're only safe when I say so."
After he left the room, I couldn't help but wonder. Had I imagined it or was he smiling when he left? Had he really meant I was going to have to ask his permission to go outside? I realized I'd be doing a lot of asking, since that's where I loved to play. Or was he just making stuff up to get us to do what he wanted? I shook my head in confusion. Adults were strange. You never knew what was really on their minds.
Later I asked my big brother Walt what he thought. I figured at twelve he knew a lot. He just laughed and shook his head. "Oh, man, I can't believe you fell for that! There's no such thing as an abominable snowman, you dope. He's just messing with you."
After that I wasn't sure whom to trust, and figured I had to follow my gut, but I always looked out at the mountain whenever I left the house, never completely able to get the abominable snowman out of my mind. Was it possible Walt was wrong? Maybe Dad really was trying to protect us.
* * *
One day in the fall of 1960, a couple months after the start of first grade, Dad swung his battered green toolbox onto my bed, right next to me. I had just come home from school and was still in my frilly school dress, plopped on the bed, thumbing through The Cat in the Hat. The hinges of the toolbox complained as Dad lifted the lid, a metallic question mark, like the pop of a wall furnace that made my head turn. What was Dad's toolbox doing on my bed?
Inside, a mismatched collection of rust-spotted tools lay like a sleeping family in two trays that looked like bunk beds. A mockingbird called from the rooftop as Dad searched the toolbox. He fingered a pair of needle-nosed pliers, the ones with red handle grips that made them look like they wore pants.
He looked at me, and smiled. "There are several kinds of pliers, and they each have a different use."
I tried to pay attention because sometimes his stories got exciting. As if setting out on a hike, his words were twists and turns on the trail, and I'd lean into the grit of his story as he led me deeper and deeper into the woods, until they got too scary and Mom would say, "Oh, Mack!" and I'd squeal and run from the room.
But now I couldn't concentrate. It hurt when I pushed my tongue against my front tooth for the hundredth time, but I couldn't stop. Dad continued talking, and I'd catch a word or two, but nothing anchored to my brain.
Earlier that morning, I'd felt my tooth wiggle and I'd run to Mom. What was happening? I'd found her in her "reading the Bible spot" sprawled across the bed in her red satin robe. She'd put a manicured finger on the page to hold her place, and looked at me. "We all lose teeth, honey."
"But why?" I didn't get it. But she didn't say anything more.
At school that day as I worked my tongue against it, my teacher put her hand on my shoulder. "The tooth fairy says it's not quite ready to come out yet, dear. In a few of days, your parents will know just what to do. They'll place a little bit of gauze over the tooth and twist it right out."
Gauze? That sounded like medicine to me, and my mom didn't believe in medicine. She believed in God. Would my tooth come out anyway?
"Open your mouth," Dad said now, bringing my attention back to the pliers again. I looked up at him as a lawn mower growled to life next door.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Boot Language"
Copyright © 2018 Vanya Erickson.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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