It was another muggy summer night in the Midwest. The window was open, but for what reason she wasn’t sure. The air was sticky and humid, not the slightest bit of wind was coming through that screened in window. The loud hum from the box fan was always a welcome sound. Not sure what it was that comforted her. Maybe the sound helped lullaby her pain, to help her keep her mind on just that moment – the stickiness of her skin, her damp hair clinging to her face and neck, her little torn night gown with its faded pink hearts. At five years old she had so many burdens on her tiny little shoulders. She didn’t understand them; she didn’t know they were burdens. She never knew it was heartache she felt. All she knew is that it was hard to fall asleep most nights. It wasn’t just the heat that kept her awake. She never understood why she couldn’t fall asleep. She would lay there staring into the darkness until all she could see were hundreds of little red dots. It reminded her of a television channel on the old tv’s that had nothing playing on it, and all you saw was what her daddy called “snow.” She would close her eyes so tight hoping they’d disappear, but they were still there. They were always there. Why wouldn’t they go away? After awhile she got used to this happening and even tried making them change colors because red was getting boring. Anything to keep her tiny mind from wandering to more grown up things – like, if there was money to pay the electric bill that month.
When you are a child everything becomes a game. Somehow everything becomes less painful when you make believe. Imaginary places, imaginary things – these were the things that got her through. She had a brother only fourteen months older than her. Having someone so close in age made for some fun times, as well as some knock down drag out moments. Even though she was the younger sister, she was always the one who took care of her brother. He was never quite right. It wasn’t until a few years later that all the madness and insanity inside him began to take form. He was an odd boy – very shy, withdrawn, and talked out of the corner of his mouth – never making eye contact with anyone for more than a few moments, except for his family – he was always most comfortable around them, especially his baby sister. At 6 years old he had just finished kindergarten and despite social awkwardness he was moving on to the first grade that fall. His sister was quite opposite. She was talkative and outgoing. She was upset when he was going to kindergarten and she had to stay home. “Why can’t I go to school too, mommy?” she asked pouting and crossing her arms. “Because you can’t read yet,” her mommy said, hoping this would suffice her. Being the stubborn little girl she was she marched over to her little stack of golden books in the corner of the dining room and picked one up exclaiming, “Yes, I can read, mommy!” and she began to read aloud knowing very well she was making up words. Her mommy laughed. “Nice try, but you also need to know how to spell and write your full name, and you need to know your phone number and address by heart before you start kindergarten.” “Then teach me,” the little girl demanded. Her mother smiled and said, “Well, you also need to learn how to tie your shoes, so let’s start with that.” Her mother was gentle and sweet, but never had much self worth and married the first man that showed interest in her. The little girl’s father was a rare breed… he was crazy to be blunt. He believed he was a prophet of God called to speak to the masses. He was a dreamer. He believed one day God was going to raise him up. They would be millionaires, and as a family they would travel the world ministering the gospel. He sat around every day playing his guitar and singing his songs to God. The thing was – he was very talented. He wasted his talent chasing after a dream that would never come true. He spent hours playing his guitar, praying, or reading his bible. He ignored the fact he had a family to take care of. He wouldn’t allow his wife to work, so the little girl and her family lived off the government.
They lived in the projects, but the little girl just saw it as home. This is where she grew up. This was all she knew. To her standing in line at the soup kitchen every Wednesday was fun because at the end of the meal they would go to this big window were a lady would hand them two brown bags of groceries. You could always count on a brand name cereal like Lucky Charms or Trix. Plus, there was always a pack of bubble yum for the little girl and her brother. The little girl was never ashamed when on the middle of every month her mother would give her and her brother a one dollar food stamp each, sending them through the grocery line to buy a small piece of candy for twenty five cents, so she could get the change back to buy freezer bags or feminine products for herself, since they had no cash. And you most certainly can’t buy those things on food stamps. Sometimes she would send them through the line twice just to get enough change, if it was feminine products she needed. Back in those days you would get booklets of food stamp and you would receive back change if the total didn’t round up to the exact dollar, unlike now where you use a card and the amount is deducted. Since things were always tight they rarely ever had cash, so the little girl and her brother knew the drill and went through the line, handing their one dollar food stamp to the cashier. The cashier always gave one of two looks. The first was a look of compassion and the other look was disgust. It was a few years later, when the little girl began to grow up that she grasped the full understanding of the situation. To her at the time, it was normal. It was normal for mommy and daddy to stay at home and not have jobs. It was normal for daddy to stand over her bed in the middle of the night with a belt and spank her for not doing the dishes, or for not folding the laundry, or for grinding her teeth. It was normal to wonder if they would eat tomorrow, or what was in that can without a label that they were given from the shelter. Could it be peas or fruit cocktail, there was only one way to find out – open it. Powdered milk was milk, government cheese was the only kind of cheese, and spam was meat. This was normal. This was life.
So, as she lay there trying to find some comfort in the heat of that summer night, she thought about how she would be starting kindergarten that fall, and maybe she could make a friend. She so wanted friends. Her father was very strict and wouldn’t allow her to go to or have sleepovers. She wasn’t allowed to be a little girl. Being a girl seemed to be a sin to her father, and even worse, as the years went by it came to prove that turning into a woman was the ultimate sin, but that story is for another time. She wanted to see what was out there? Did everyone’s mommy and daddy act just like hers? To her, life as she knew it was normal. The burdens on her tiny shoulders were normal, but yet something inside her knew there was something more out there, and dare she imagine – better. As she lay there she heard the train whistle in the distance – even through the loud hum of the box fan, and she smiled as her eyelids began to droop. Life was beginning for her and it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but even at her young age of five, she was already strong enough to handle it.