Mostly a true story

 

 

Pet rabbit

When I was seven or eight, my father caught a rabbit.  As in, saw it by the side of the road one winter evening, stopped the car, and chased it down.  I don’t know what possessed him to do this.  He’d been drinking and we were poor; presumably he saw it as an opportunity to bring home a pet for my younger sister and me.  Also, he liked a challenge.  This was a man who swam in the winter, in the Adirondacks where winters (and lakes) are frigid. He believed swimming in icy waters kept him from catching colds.  I don’t know if that was true.  It is true, however, that he is still alive and 82 (though he no longer drinks or chases rabbits or swims in winter).

My sister and I were happy to have the rabbit.  A rabbit is soft and cuddly, and lives longer than a goldfish — especially our goldfish, which we had not had much luck keeping alive for very long.  My sister kept wanting to hold hers; I kept forgetting to feed mine.

But this is not really about rabbits or pets or fathers who chase wild rabbits through the woods until they catch them.  It’s about memory, and the illusionary nature of what we think we know.

What I thought I knew was this: my father chased a rabbit through the woods, caught it and brought it home.  We kept the rabbit in a pen in the yard.  I came home one day from school, or from playing, and learned that the rabbit was dead, which was bad enough, but then later sat down to a dinner of rabbit.  Our rabbit.  I am still traumatized by the memory.  Especially after toting it around in my bag of recollections for so many decades.  (It’s a wonder I am sane.)

After rummaging through my memory recently, I decided to fill in the gaps of this particular story.  I called my sister, first.  She remembered the rabbit incident.  The neighbor’s dog killed it, she said.  They gave us a black bunny to make up for it.

What neighbor, I asked?  I didn’t remember the dog-as-rabbit-killer bit, or the black bunny replacement.

The people who lived next door, said my sister.  An old couple, they drank a lot.  I think his name was Bill.

Even with a nudge, I can’t remember the people who lived next door to us. I can vaguely picture the house — it was smaller than ours — but in my mind it always sat empty.

Okay, but Mom cooked the rabbit for dinner later, I said.  I remember that.

I don’t think she cooked it.

She did!

Maybe.  I suppose she could have.  I remember eating rabbit when we were kids.

Then, I called my mother.  Remember when Dad caught that rabbit and brought it home?

I think so, she said.  We built a little pen for it.  We went somewhere for the day and I forgot to leave it water until after we got home, and by then the rabbit was crazed from being so thirsty.

Is that how it died?  Amy said the neighbor’s dog killed it.

I don’t remember how it died.

Did you cook it?

(I asked nicely.  Not the least bit accusatory.)

No.  Someone would have had to skin it.

Finally, I called my father, the man who caught the rabbit.

Our rabbit, I said.  Amy claims the dog next door killed it.

No.  The dog that killed it belonged to the family who lived on top of the hill. Your brother dated their daughter in high school.

Did Mom cook the rabbit?

There wasn’t much left of that rabbit after the dog got through with it.  The people felt so bad they gave you ducklings.

Amy said we got a black bunny as a replacement.

Could have been, my father said.

So, there you have it.  Mostly a true story, except for the rabbit being cooked. For the life of me, I don’t know where in my psyche that piece came.  A bad dream, perhaps, fused with the memory by virtue of proximity in time.

To this day, though, I will not eat rabbit, nor will I ever as long as I live.

That part is completely true.

 

 

 

 

 

Shine a light

Tom with fire.jpg

My brother and his trusty Bic lighter.

The boy in the photo above is my brother Tom.  My mother named him Thomas, but we all called him Tommy.  At seventeen he dubbed himself Tomas (pronounced toe-mas, accent on the second syllable).  He took to wearing sunglasses and being quietly mysterious.  It was the first of many personas he would try on for size while looking for how he fit in the world.

It wasn’t easy for him, figuring it out.  He had a handicap from the start: Youngest of seven; born colicky, and needing a lot of soothing in a busy, boisterous family. He was often lost in the fray.

At two he fell through the heating vent in the bedroom floor, bumped accidentally by another brother as they jumped on my parents’ bed.  He landed in the dining room below, barely missing the table. Astonishingly, other than scaring the hell out of us, and knocking the wind out of himself, he was fine.

When he was three, I dumped scalding hot food on him.  Also an accident.  A pressure cooker containing what was meant to be our dinner exploded when I tried to lift the lid.  Tommy was standing by my side.  I was blown backwards, while lava-hot meat and potatoes shot straight up from the pot and rained down on his back.  I can’t remember how long he was in the hospital, but I do remember feeding him ice cream there.  The scars never went away.

After that he managed to make it through the rest of his childhood and adolescence with only the usual bumps and scrapes.  But he was always kind of quiet and a little aloof.  He liked to climb trees where he would sit for hours looking out at the world.  I asked him a few times what he thought about up there, but he wouldn’t tell me.  I think he was dreaming what life could be.

Tommy lived with me three times in my life, beginning when he was Tomas at seventeen.  I lived in Colorado then.  He wanted to finish his last year in high school somewhere other than where he was born.  We joined the local Y and worked out together, ran around the indoor track together, then went for donuts afterwards.  He wore his sunglasses and skipped classes and shared falafel with the homeless guys who hung out in the park.  At the end of the year he went back to my mother.

The next time he came to live with me I had just moved to Rhode Island.  He slept in my basement and got a job as a cook in a nursing home within walking distance of my apartment.  Eventually he met someone, and moved in with her.  He got a job at Electric Boat and learned how to weld the seams of atomic submarines.  In his down time he helped my husband and I build our house.

He had a baby with the woman he lived with, a boy who looked a lot like him.  He took photos and put them in an album where he wrote things like from father to son and, a man with song and dance not to mention poise across the pages. Then the woman took the baby out of state and had Tom sign a paper relinquishing his paternal rights.  He signed it because “it was what she wanted”, but it broke his heart to do so.  He never saw his son again.

He tried to fill the hole by being a fabulous uncle to his nephews.  He took them for walks and held their hands and watched cartoons with them.  He listened to their dreams and understood.

The last time Tom lived with me his life had begun to unravel.  By then he’d been diagnosed with a disease that would increasingly stiffen his spine and cause him pain.  A few days after he moved in with us, he simply stopped going to work.  He was tired of smacking his head on the insides of the submarines he was welding.

When I turned 35 Tom told me that I was old, being just 5 years from 40, as though 40 was near to the end of it all.  He must have believed that, since he took himself out of the equation at 33.  I’ve written about that choice in a more oblique form elsewhere on this blog.

Today is Tommy’s birthday.  By his thinking he would be old.  To the rest of my siblings–Amy, Kathy, Jaime, S.K.–and myself, he is still and will always be the youngest, the most fragile of us all who, nevertheless, keeps us buoyed and connected to one another by the memory of his life.

Happy Birthday, little brother.  Tonight the light in my window shines for you.

Uncle Tommy with my the Boy, taken two weeks before he left us on our own.

Uncle Tommy with my Boy, taken two weeks before he died.