Not every game that I played with my parents required so large and so mathematically sophisticated an apparatus as our beanbag tic-tac-toe set: with its ever shifting planes of experience—Xs and Os—victory and loss—all poised on invisible pins and ready to pivot from pleasure to pain to panic—that nightmare land of indecision—at the slightest provocation.
We also enjoyed simpler pastimes, such as hide-and-seek.
This is the 1970s. Everyone is seeking something: personal fulfillment, the meaning of life, cheaper gasoline in Fort Erie, Canada. Devout as my parents were—Southern Baptists—they were both under 30 for most of the 70s and were pulled along by gravity toward Niagara Falls along with everyone else floating toward oblivion in the latter days of The Age of Aquarius.
As far as I could tell, at the lucky age of 7, my parents’ mania for self-destruction seemed pretty normal, even tame, compared to others. It consisted of: family devotions, fondues, and a slimy, soupy, tomato, spinach and cottage cheese gruel—cooked in a Crock Pot—that was supposed to be a newer and more nutritious take on lasagna and that I refused to eat because it looked too much like our kitchen rug.
When I needed a snack and my grandparents were out—our home was a duplex—I liked to share granola and yogurt with the harmless hippies who occupied a cozy second floor studio in the apartment house across the driveway. The narrow stairs and dark passages of that building reeked of incontinent old men and recently incinerated flying carpets, but their comfortably cushioned rattan and bead bedecked abode was always sunny. The syrupy atmosphere of love it exhaled into the hallway when they opened the door smelled of beeswax candles and cloves.
Like my parents, they were both in their twenties. They had no children. The man enjoyed an average-sized penis. His wife —I think it was his wife—possessed a voluminous bush of black pubic hair that contrasted very sharply with the milky curves of her hips. She might have been a model if she had shaved her legs and armpits like my mother.
They used to walk around naked at night. Because of the size and the position of their bamboo shades, I could never quite make out their faces when they were naked, just their genitals. I pointed this out to my brother, Kyle, one evening. We were sharing his pine-paneled bedroom with a cage full of pet rocks bound for Brother Johnson—a traveling evangelist—a gag gift cooked up by my mother and some other ladies from church. Kyle seemed more interested in getting back to sleep than spying on the neighbors. I soon drew down the blinds and meandered off to Dreamland myself.
I forget the names of the hippies now. I was better friends with their half-breed poodle, Pepper, really. She taught me how to bark.
Maybe there was more going on behind the scenes than met the eye. I was barely 4 feet tall and missed a lot. The truth is that—apart from cartoons—much in the world fell beyond my comprehension. Things were constantly appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in our household with a random regularity that tended to mystify my mother.
Take the box of Ayds, Mom’s delicious little chocolate diet cubes. They would somehow metamorphose into crumpled up plastic squares whenever she went to look for them, even though they were hidden in the highest, most oxygen-deprived region of our kitchen cabinets.
After that, my own math papers—marked “See Me” in red pen by Mrs. Miles—underlined twice—began materializing inside my toy box. Then: a lovely golden trinket, decorated with a piece of pink coral, a souvenir of a dart game at a fair in 1965; I had noticed it in my grandmother’s cedar chest. It turned up one Saturday afternoon sandwiched between the cushions of our living room couch, when we were vacuuming.
Or consider The Case of the Spectral Spatula. While she could always be depended upon to find something to use during a disciplinary emergency—a spatula, a thick black belt belonging to my father, the back side of a pink hair brush—Mom could never be confident how her nuclear arsenal would be stocked at any given time.
Mom had an inquisitive mind, but she was not a physicist like me. She took night classes in the art of upholstery instead of melting crayons with a magnifying glass. She re-did the couch on the sun porch in a rough and rusty plaid fabric. She dabbled in ceramics with her friends, Angie and Rita.
While the three of them were seated at the kitchen table—chatting, glazing, and sipping sweaty glasses of unsweetened instant iced tea—Mom might easily be provoked into searching for a spatula. Especially if she heard me slam down the key cover on our upright player piano. On the fingers of my brother. (I wanted to play, too.)
Aroused by a scream, she boiled up like a volcano from the depths of the sea and began going through drawers. She found every spatula, wooden spoon, plastic spoon, slotted spoon, serving spoon, and runcible spoon in North America had evaporated.
Short-tempered and Italian, Angie reacted immediately and decisively in these sorts of situations, like Mussolini. Besides an older boy, Freddy, she and her husband, Dave, had two daughters, the same age as my brother and I.
She said, “I would kill both of them, Kathy.”
Rita was a redhead of Scottish ancestry, less hot-blooded and more phlegmatic. She was rather fat and loud and had a good sense of humor, but she understood the need for discipline every bit as much as Angie and my mother. In addition to her own boys and girls, Rita and Tom took care of a crippled foster child named Charlie.
Mom marched us upstairs and demanded that we explain—or at least account for—the missing spatulas and spoons and other artifacts. She promised ten licks from a doubled-up length of orange Matchbox racing track, if we did not. What could we say? She might demand we grow wings and wheel about the sky like angels. We were not angels. We were boys. What did she expect?
Why she turned to us for an explanation of quantum mechanics—Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—I have no idea. Kyle could no more offer a solution to the problem of the missing spatulas than he could account for Schrödinger’s Cat. He pulled down his pants, bent over with his hands on the bed, and burst into tears, hoping the saltwater would dilute the sting.
I was under no such illusions. Crying made things worse, in my opinion. The best I could manage was a kind of sullen defense of the facts as I saw them. The deployment of spatulas was not in my department. I suggested that she ask dad, because he was bigger than all of us.
I’m not sure that she spoke to my father about the incident when he got home from work or what he might have said to her if she had. All she discovered from me was that the more she required a spatula, the less precisely the coordinates of any particular spatula in Western New York could be controlled, determined, or known.
A nimbus of mystery pervaded the whole atmosphere of the house for the next few days. It was unusually chilly outside and in. Mom adjusted the thermostat. A funny smell from somewhere in the basement—the furnace, I suspect—drifted upward whenever the weather turned cold.
It seems pretty clear to me now that this warm but obnoxious gas—a mixture of Love and Despair—was the most elusive member of our family. Love and Despair are both fairly equal in skill, and when it comes to hide-and-seek, fairly expert. They both approach the game like God: you know they are there, you can hear them quietly breathing. But, unless you can grasp the elusive nature of Life, you will search high and low for them forever and still come up empty-handed.
After Life, I guess, my mother was the second best player of hide-and-seek in North Tonawanda. Like Life, it took a determined effort to find her, if she really decided to hide. My father could always find my brother and me pretty fast. We didn’t rate in the cosmic scheme of things. But he was helpless when it came to Mom. She was his spatula.
The poor man wandered from room to room on tip-toes, opening closets slowly at first—then quickly. He peered beneath beds. He looked down the laundry chute for some reason. He pulled out a pair of streaky Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear that had gotten stuck. Finally, and angrily, he yanked aside our opaque shower curtain—like Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
The Norman Bates impression was all in vain. My mother may have had her ample bosom, but she wasn’t Janet Leigh. She wasn’t holding her breath in the bathtub expecting a maniac. Our shower didn’t work anyway. Mom only hung the curtain there for decoration. To deceive guests.
After he had ransacked every room in the house—basement to attic—bowels to brain—my father stood at the top of the stairs, looking down disconsolately at the front door. He squeezed his jowls and he drew his cheeks to his chin in exasperation. He called out to my mother,
“Okay, come on out, Kath, we give up.”
I thought it was strange that my father said “we,” as if he were speaking for all of us. I knew exactly where my mother had been hiding the whole time.
She was not given to giggling under a pile of dirty clothes like us. She did not play hide-and-seek just because it was fun. She played to win. She was patient. She could wait. She still was young. She could keep silent in her secret hiding spots for hours, years if necessary. She knew exactly where the floor creaked, she knew which hinges squeaked: she carried a sort of sonic map of the entire house in her head. She shifted her position throughout the game.
She was like that Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who popped up in the Philippines in 1974—bayonet in hand—surprising everyone—including Emperor Hirohito.
Maybe that is why my boyfriend is Japanese.