I can remember coming into the house after school. The front door was at the end of a long hallway, which led to our kitchen. Just inside the kitchen doorway, to the left, was a small, oak, rectangular table pushed up against the wall, with a warm light above it and a few chairs tucked around it. Often enough, when I got off the bus, an extra car in the driveway would indicate a visitor. There were times I would silently pray, as the bus slowly came to a stop, that I would, “have the house to myself today.” A friend of mom’s meant: it wasn’t my house, it wasn’t a quiet, private, and restful house, but more like church picnic or a pot luck, without any contribution of food. A visitor meant: rote questions upon entering the kitchen, and having to make eye contact and more thinking. I didn’t like to share my kitchen, my mother or the warm glow of the light above our table. I would consciously and strategically take a sharp right up the stairs to my bedroom, until all signs of the herd were gone evidenced by a jingle of the front closing and blessed silence, or until hunger got the best of me. There were times I would hold out, even though all I had that day may have been a bag of Doritos, bought by the loose change in the bottom of mom’s purse, for lunch. I would tip toing around upstairs trying to be undetected, invisible, a meaningless target for conversation. I would pretend I wasn’t there, until I heard that front door shut and an engine start up. Maybe that’s where I learned to view people as invaders of my privacy. I’m an introvert, which translates into, people avoider. Introverts need rest and refreshment in order to feel energized and able to exist and connect in a loud sometimes overwhelming sea of people. Back then I wanted quiet and alone time to think and process the world I already didn’t know how to fit into. I was trying desperately to figure it out. It was like air to me, and it seemed I suffocated a lot. Now, I still want that processing time, but at least I can plan it, although I don’t live on a farm anymore.
The time when I would give in to my stomach and head down to the kitchen, out of desperation, because there was no lunch money in the bottom of mom’s purse that day, I always felt eyes boring holes into the back of my head as I opened the fridge. If I was in a somewhat cheerful mood I would feel the weight of saying hello and engaging in a conversation. If I wasn’t, yes and no answers proceeded forth with an heir of irritation in my tone. My mother would scoot out of the room when I entered as if she was on break and I was her relief. I would be pressured to say something or smile and be friendly. I guess at some point I learned what the author of, “the way of the introvert” calls, ‘the dog and pony show.’ But it was work, work, and work! It isn’t that I hate people, I just don’t like them as much as my mother does. They exhaust me, they stress me out and they expect from me things I don’t like to give, like tedious chit chat and quick witted responses.
It was just my mother and I living in that big old farmhouse … and all her friends. It was like living in a group home my sister said. A group home resonates with us. My mother worked in a group home down the street for years, doing ‘over nights’ with mentally challenged adults. Lucy, was one of her clients and she loved my mother. Lucy would escape during the day, on a regular basis. We would see Lucy limping up the driveway. She had one leg was shorter than the other. Her big black afro blowing in the breeze. She always creeped me out a little because of the traike in her throat. A traike is a cylinder shape plastic breathing tube. Lucy’s was permanent. She was born perfectly normal, but was hit by a car at 6 years old and had brain damage. Once or twice I went to work with my mom, who could handle just about anything as a nurse, but I had a difficult time seeing people in wheelchairs, and drooling; their hands bunched up around their face and their fingers curling in tight grotesque ways, something else I couldn’t seem to process. I understood what a group home was, a cluster of different kind of needy people living together, who couldn’t really care for themselves. Our house was like an outpatient group home with a revolving door. I didn’t know it then, because it, was what it was.
There were the regulars and the part timers, and “the overnighters”. The friends I hated, the friends I liked, the friends I avoided like the plague. The ones who cared about me and the ones who were just being polite while they waited for me to leave, so they could have my mother’s full attention back. It was a situation that seemed to work well for all parties involved except for me. Most of them were needy in some way, needy and despairing, lonely, desperate for something they apparently found in my kitchen and it was not food, trust me. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is looking over the crowd and seeing the multitude He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd; he said to the disciples, “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” (Matthew 9:36) Jesus must have sent the sheep to our house. The harvest was plentiful alright and it seemed to me that my mother was single handedly laboring to bring them all in.
Kenny was among the regulars. I really didn’t like Ken too much. He had a big nose, sleepy eyes and a goofy personality and he was there every day. His clothes seemed too baggy or too casual or too forward. He always had on a t-shirt advertising some Christian rock band or a big cross with words like “God Rocks” or “how saved are you?” It was a little too evangelically aggressive for a 13 year old. Maybe it was his way of being a witness, maybe those declarations are more telling of a person’s timid-ness, than their boldness. Ken wanted desperately to find a woman and get married. I think he was lonely and unloved. He met his wife at an event my mother had…cowboys for Christ, or Jews for Jesus or a singles bible study, a wife and a family in one shot. We finally stopped seeing Ken, every day. She had a pretty face, even though Kenny was short with a big gut. We didn’t know her that well. She had a daughter in the psych ward and four more at home. I think his story sort of scared me, life is short. Maybe that was on one of his t-shirts. Ken died in a house fire with his new bride and her 4 children shortly after his wedding. Then we stopped seeing Ken.
Wendy, another desperate single. Wendy was overweight and slightly annoying. I could only take her on certain days. Although she was sort of like an aunt to me because I knew her before I was even born, which she reminded me of every time I saw her. When she was in a good mood, she would point one chubby finger at me and move it in a circular motion and say slowly, “I remember you when you were just a baby” it felt like something you would say to someone you hadn’t seen in 10 years, not something you would say if you saw the person last week. It felt like she was ready to eat me up. I wonder if she always saw me as a 6 week old baby. She would always try to get me to sit on her lap. Or she would stare at me until I spoke or smiled. She had big expressive lips that she curled over her overlapping front teeth. Wendy was highly excitable, but could easily switch if she was in a bad mood. She would get angry at something someone would say, usually a mean comment. She had a strong sense of justice and protection of those weaker and smaller then herself which was pretty much every one. She would flare her nostrils and her upper lip would move down over her overlapping front teeth. Then she would look away in disgust. She worked at Shaw’s supermarkets for the longest time. And after she finally got married to Michael, they moved in next door to us. Wendy treated me like a peer and that’s not to say she treated me like I was older, a peer meaning she was my peer. She always acted like a 13 or 14 year old girl in a big 35 year old body. Wendy had large thick glasses. Her hair was black and unkempt and greasy, the hair on the very top flattened, I always wondered how it got flat on top like that. I would picture her sleeping with her feet on the ceiling and her body straight up and down. Who goes out like that, I wondered? But then again maybe she came to our watering hole, when hers was dry like on the worst days when you don’t care about a shower or changing your clothes or brushing your teeth, and you just want a safe place where you can be accepted and refreshed. My best friend Jenn and I, who was also a neighbor would like to “get her goin”. Wendy would say, “don’t get me goin” , secretly hoping we would, and we’d rile her all up, and she would hoot and howl, and flap her hands. She was so incredibly loud you really can’t imagine, and she would laugh with a guttural southern accent, and then a high pitch, sustained howl, like a cat in heat.
Wendy was raised in a home for mentally challenged children although she herself was never diagnosed with mental retardation, Jenn and I had our doubts. My mother always said, ‘she probably learned a lot of the same behaviors as those in the home’. Knowing what I know now, my guess is she was on some spectrum, since there are so many available to on these days. Wendy was around a lot until she married Michael in a light blue wedding dress. I think what haunted me about Wendy was her un-predictableness. After she got married and moved next door she mostly stayed in doors with every shade in her house pulled down, maybe hiding the fact she slept with on the top of her head. Years later when I saw her, old age didn’t look good on her, it didn’t seem like it fit. She looked worn down, an angry part took over, the dry part, the uncaring part. I think she gave up, and plus my mom lives in another state now.