Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Animals

My parents divorced when I was two years old, I have no memory of them being together.

When I’d ask my mother “why,” she’d tell me that he had an explosive temper, that he was loud, impatient, and uncouth; and that us kids made him nervous.

Mom liked to invite her girlfriends over to play cards during the day. They’d drink beer, saving some to set their hair; and our pet parakeet would sip the foam from their glass, and pull the bobby pins from their fermented tresses.

She told us that my fathers erratic behavior made us kids nervous; and about the time he came home early, and angry, and how he embarrassed her in front of her friends; and how my sister Colleen climbed into the attic to escape his  fury, screaming that ants were crawling all over her when there were no ants in sight.

We left Greenwich in the dead of night.  Mom packed everything she wanted, including the parakeet and us two kids, into a 1960’s Studebaker she nicknamed Betsy; and headed to Dallas, a small community in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Surrounded in rural simplicity, we settling into an old country farmhouse on a dead end street that butted up to a wooded hillside we kids called "snake mountain."  Our yard included an overgrown apple orchard and a badly weathered barn with an attached, two-car garage.

A few blocks away lived Mom's aunt and uncle, both of her brothers, their happily married wives, and an eclectic click of cousins.   Their outpouring of hospitality added immediate calmness to our disjointed lives, but despite their efforts, it was obvious our brood was not intact and I, the only one with dark hair, stood out amongst them all as a constant reminder of my father.  

“If you wrap a towel around their head you can’t tell them apart,” my mother would say when asked which one of us kids was Colleen, and which was Shannon.  “They’re only 15 months apart - practically Irish twins."

The only other one with hair my shade was Aunt Pauline and Uncle Zibe’s forever roaming mutt; a scottish-rat terrier mix that folks called by his full name, Blacky Martin.  Blacky was infamous for breaking into people’s houses and impregnating their purebreds.  Every dog in the neighborhood looked a little like Blacky.  Their blood line no longer apparent,  they ended up just like me; with sleek dark hair, and a stubborn, fiercely independent, unruly temperament.

I remember passing Blacky as I wandered down the hill to an old Purina feed store in the center of town. In the back of the store was a large barn where they stored bundles of hay.  They would stack them one on top of the other, creating mounds of soft cushion, perfect for jumping.  I would leap from one bail to the next; sometimes I'd jump so high, I was convinced I could fly. Everything about this place made me happy.

Occasionally I would steel salt licks and wads of hay, things I would need for the pony I was destine to have. I even had a name for him, it was "Chester."

After a report card of all "S's," I dialed my father, stretched the kitchen phone cord to the far end of the pantry, cupped the receiver with both hands, and begged for my faithful foal.

I don't know much, but I know I am his favorite.  I'm his "Black Irish," and my pleading is hard to resist.  His YES is no sooner celebrated, than it is squished when mother gets word of the deal; but I was determined not to let her stand in the way of my fathers devotion and so, with my minds eye in full bloom, I envision a life with my imaginary horse Chester.

In my dreams, I sneak Chester down the serpentine trails of snake mountain, and, into our barn in the dead of night. I ride him across open fields, feed him apples, and, watch his long, scratchy tongue lap at the salt licks, as I brush his sleek, dark mane.  Chester was my favorite thing in the world, next to my Dad.

All was well until I started inviting people over to see Chester.

Camille was new to the neighborhood, having moved from Connecticut; the same state my Dad lived in. Her clothes were much cooler than mine and she lived in a new, split level house. I liked her and I wanted her to like me, so I invited her over for a ride on Chester.

"Do you want to come see my pony?" I asked

"Where did he go?" she questioned.

"He must be off gallivanting," I'd tell her.

"Gallivanting" was a term my mother used often when she spoke of my father, and to me it sounded like so much fun.

"Oh well, Chester's not here right now, but here is his stall, he sleeps here- and this is his hay, and these are his salt lick. He really likes his salt lick."

Sometimes, when I missed my Dad the most, I'd sneak out of my bedroom, down the slippery staircase, and, out the back door to the barn. There, I'd snuggle beside the ever growing mounds of hay, and drift off to sleep.


Being “Black Irish” only got you so far.  Colleen was clearly, everyone else's favorite.  She was coined, early on as, the pretty one.  The one with the golden curles, a beautiful smile and a sunny disposition.  She was the older one, and in her own words, “she was the boss of me.” She got to stay up 30 minutes later, she was the first to ride the big yellow school bus, and the one who got everything new.  And she got Davy, she always got Davy, and I got Micky. They were the best part of the Monkee’s. The Monkee’s were bigger than Elvis and better than Lassie.  And we were just sisters, and I was little and she was big. They were the reason we raced each other down our staircase, around the pantry corner, to our still black and white TV every Monday night at 7:00.

I was convinced that, if it weren’t for her, I’d have everything I ever wanted. I’d have her side of the room. Davy’s picture would hang right next to my bed. Davey’s face would be the first thing I’d see every morning and the last thing I’d see before mother made us turn out the lights.

If it weren’t for her I’d have those cool, baby blue sheets. I’d have the bigger pillow, the better blanket; and I’d have her “Bummy,” her best friend “Bummy,” her NOT REAL Easter basket bunny rabbit; but I wouldn’t have sucked him till he turned gray. She hugged the pretty pink stuffing out of him, pulled the tickle from his tail.

Everyone knew she loved Bummy more than me.

Why does the yellow brick road have to hang on my side of the room, from my part of the ceiling? That long, dangling, double-sided sticky tape weighted in misguided flies. I can no longer lie on my bed of mismatched sheets, stretch my legs up high and point my toes or I’ll touch it; and I'll never sleep without my blanket pulled way up over my head, because I know, some day, one of those flies will come unstuck, and land right between my eyes.


1 comment:

  1. I liked reading this one because it was like a piece of local history through someone else's eyes... I also have a brother who's a year older, and I can really relate to this. Good job, Shannon...


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Shannon E. Kennedy


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