I have a Ph.D. in philosophy now, but in the early years of my formal education, I was a marginal student at best. As a child, I rarely paid attention in class; in second grade, I took Get Smart paperbacks to class and read them under my desk while class went on around me. In sixth grade, my teacher nicknamed me “who me” because every time he called on me, I responded, “Who? Me?” Once in history class that same year, I was called on and had no idea what we were even discussing at the time. I had been busy designing a new wardrobe in my mind for my SuperBall. I glanced quickly at the picture in our textbook; it was a shot of some soldierly-looking types in a field. “So?” my teacher said archly, glancing around at the rest of the class. “What is it?”
“Um,” I guessed, “A weapon?” Laughter all around. Mrs. Fitzpatrick said, “Well, I suppose you could really hurt someone with it, but no, Anne, a scythe is a farming tool, not a weapon, just as it says in your assigned reading for today.” More laughter. I felt weirdly proud of being the cause of so much merriment in class, and I kind of appreciated the wit of that teacher’s remark. Those sorts of interchanges, though, were steady, and did nothing to help me win good grades.
There was a bit of chaos at my home in those grade school days, and my mom would go to teacher conferences with no idea of how I was doing in school. Intermittently during the term, she would ask me if I had any homework, and I almost always said I had done it already. Then my mother would go to conferences and find out that I simply had not turned in six of ten assignments. She would come home and yell at me, and I would cry. She would lay down a rule such as “no TV on school nights,” but I knew that I had to be just a little bit patient and she would get preoccupied and stop keeping track, so before too long I could be back to my after school TV habit of Star Trek, followed by reruns of I Love Lucy and the Dick Van Dyke Show.
It didn’t help that until eighth grade, I shared a bedroom with my sister Susan. She was five years older than I was, and a chronic night owl. She would be up most nights well past midnight, doing things like her homework and cleaning our room. With all the lights on. Susan would get mad that I was such a slob and pile all my things on my bed. One night when I was in the fourth grade, I got fed up and threw my things off the bed and onto the floor. It was one o’clock in the morning. Susan reacted by taking those things and throwing them off our little balcony and into the snow. I screamed bloody murder about that, which woke up my mother and she ran so quickly toward our room to find out what the trouble was that she ran into the metal banister that girded our stairs and broke her toe. There was hell to pay about that, and I learned never to scream in the middle of the night about my sister again.
As much Susan tormented me, she was also my best friend and, during those times when my mother was juggling an alcoholic husband, an elderly and failing mother, a rebellious older daughter and two teenaged sons, Susan mothered me. When she was in the fourth grade, her school had an elaborate Spring Fair; it was a big deal, sort of a Parish Fair, and any children who went to Christ King were encouraged to bring their younger siblings for a whole day. I was five years old at the time, and I was over the moon with excitement about going to this fair. I had only just started dressing myself—my mother always dressed me, until HER mother came for a visit and told her that a five year old should be dressing herself—and I picked out a perfect outfit, a yellow dress with little white daisies. I completely forgot about underpants, and no one noticed—at least, no one noticed until I got to the school, where Susan noticed. Immediately. It was a short dress, and it would not be long before everyone saw, as my grandmother used to say, “All the way to Clare.” Susan snuck me into the Girl’s Bathroom and put her underpants on me; her dress was longer and she figured that it would be less likely to be noticed if she “went commando” that day. Her underpants were much too big for me, but she had found a piece of rope somewhere in the classroom and used it to cinch the panties around my waist.
We left the bathroom and started in on the Fair. All went well until we had exhausted the indoor activities—a bake sale, fortune-telling, a craft sale—and ventured out to the playground. One of the boys in Susan’s class lifted her dress to show her panties (no one had the slightest concept of sexual harassment in those days) only to find that she wasn’t wearing any. I remember that moment with utter clarity, and everything after that moment is blank. I have no idea what happened after that, and when I asked my sister, years later, what happened when she was “unveiled,” she claimed that she had no
memory of any such event. That was Susan, always—she remembers her childhood as utterly perfect, and if others remembered problems? Didn’t happen. Or, more correctly, she didn’t remember it happening.
Susan genuinely loved me and wanted to help, but she wasn’t very old herself. One day when I was in the sixth grade we had an assignment to carve something out of a large bar of soap. I put the bar of soap into my schoolbag and forgot all about it until the weekend before the project was due. My parents had friends in town that weekend, my dad’s old gang from his one year of college at St. Mary’s of the Lake in Chicago. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the party was sounding very merry. I remembered the soap and scooped it out of my schoolbag to show Susan. “I have to make something out of this by Monday,” I whined. “I don’t know what to do with it.” Susan took the soap out of my hands and examined it; it was a straightforward white oblong bar of Ivory soap. “Whittle it into a heart,” she suggested. That’ll be easy, and it
will look good.”
I got busy, finding a short bladed knife in the kitchen drawer and starting to carve. What I hadn’t realized was that my pudgy, sweaty hands were going to make the soap get progressively slipperier as I worked. I had no artistic talent whatsoever, and by the time I was finished, the heart was gray from my sweat and dirt, a bit foamy because of all the sweating I did, and grotesquely misshapen. The heart was about two inches across on one surface and about one-half inch across on the other surface. I showed it to Susan and she said, “Well, I think it’s fine. Why don’t you show it to mom and dad and see what they think.” Dutifully, I trotted off to the living room with my soap heart; as soon as I entered, a woman in a halter sundress saw it and burst out laughing. “Oh my God,” she shouted, “What is this?” Everyone looked over and saw my soap heart, and everyone reacted as if it were the funniest thing they had ever seen. Shyly, I looked around and beamed; I wasn’t sure just how I had become the center of attention, but I liked it very much. I loved hearing those adults laugh.
Mrs. Fitzpatrick, of course, did not laugh when I brought my soap heart to school. In fact, she scowled. And when I saw the other projects, I realized why. There on the window ledge sat the other soap sculptures: dinosaurs in precise detail, charming boats (one with its own soap anchor), a bunch of grapes with carved leaves. I put my misshapen grey soap heart next to them and sighed. I knew I would get a D. Again. And I did.
In that same school year, I had to make a collage. I had no idea what a collage was; almost certainly, it had been explained in class, but I never listened to what was going on in class. I came home and told Susan I had to make a collage. “What’s a collage?” Susan asked. “I think it’s a collection of things on a piece of paper,” was my response. So Susan found a piece of green construction paper and we opened the “junk drawer” in our kitchen, methodically removing about 20 random items—a match stick, a piece of gum, a nail—and we glued them to the piece of paper. Voila! A collage. Not only did I get a terrible grade on my collage, but it didn’t even get hung up on the wall with the other collages, which had themes and things.
I think it was that same year, but might have been a year earlier or later, that I was assigned a homework project involving clay. I was supposed to make clay from a recipe given to me at school and then sculpt something out of the clay. I took it home to Susan and she and I followed the recipe, but our clay refused to be three dimensional. I ended up “sculpting” a bunny rabbit head on a piece of paper out of the clay, so that my project was more like a fresco than a statue. I think it also looked a lot like the profile of the then-ubiquitous Playboy Bunny. Again, my homework was not displayed with the others.
In fifth grade, our teacher entered us all in an essay contest. We were given a specific topic and told to write about it. The topic was “Industry’s Role in Pollution Control.” I dutifully brought this assignment home to Susan, but for some reason she misunderstood the sentence, and thought that our topic was “Industries Roll in Pollution Control.” This struck both of us as a very odd image, and we had no idea what we supposed to say about that. An entire Industry can’t roll, and even the vision of such a thing was absurd. And what where these Industries rolling in? Grass? Mud? How could an entire Industry roll in a concept such as Pollution Control? I don’t remember the entirely of the essay I handed in, but I do remember that it began with the sentence, “The little fish could not swim past the red schoolhouse because it was black.” My essay was not a winner. My grade was not good.
Susan did an awful lot to make me feel less alone in the world. We were sisters, and for many years, we shared a room, so we fought viciously, but we also loved each other and counted on each other in hard times. Susan did have a quirky side, and I was often her accomplice in some escapades that, looking back, were ill-advised to say the least. The summer I was going into second grade, we shared a room, a big bedroom over the garage. Marbeth still lived at home, and our brothers shared the other bedroom. The room over the garage had a linoleum floor, which was less than ideal. It had never been designed as a bedroom, especially a girl’s bedroom; when my parents bought the house, it had a grand piano in it, which the previous owners said we could keep for free if we wanted it. We did not want it, and they had to get it out of there. The sellers took the grand piano, but they left the scarlet red walls and the black drapes with red Chinamen imprinted all over them. Interestingly, Susan and I didn’t mind the walls or the drapes as much as we minded the floor. It was cold in the winter, but that wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was that it was brown, and it was linoleum. Our friends on the block had cute pink bedrooms with candy-striped wallpaper and flowered bedspreads; our in-closet working sink just wasn’t compensation for living in a room that looked less like Gidget’s bedroom and more like Lily Munster’s.
Susan was always thinking, always trying to imagine ways to improve our situation. On this particular hot summer day, she approached me with the bursting confidence of a used car salesman. “Anne!” she said. “I was at Mayfair the other day and I found out that Klode Carpet throws out those sample squares of carpet when they get dusty or they stop selling that color. I bet that if we went there and asked, they would let us have those squares of carpet!” Trying to understand why this was such Great News, I slowly said, “And…?”
“And, we can bring them home and sew them together and make a carpet for our bedroom!” she crowed. “It will be a patchwork quilt carpet and it will be so cool! We can cover the whole floor with it for free!” We were both pretty sure that our parents would be thrilled to receive a beautiful patchwork carpet free of charge. They would be amazed at our entrepreneurial spirit and grateful for our creative contribution to the household. It was a pure win-win situation. I was in.
Off we went to Mayfair, about a one mile walk from our house. We arrived at Klode Carpet and asked for their rejected carpet squares in our sweetest, most polite voices. The manager of the store was brought in and he and the salesperson looked at the two of us somewhat dubiously. “Are you girls sure that you want these carpet squares?” they said, looking at the two of us with some concern. (I was six years old and still a skinny little kid; I didn’t plump up until second grade. Susan was going into fifth grade, and the two of us could not have looked strong enough to carry home the amount of carpet they had stored in the back of their store.)
Of course, we had no idea how heavy carpet actually was, and so we nodded vigorously that yes, we wanted all the carpet squares that we were willing to give us, that yes, we had a way to get the carpet squares home, that we knew exactly what we were doing, and that we had a Very Important Craft Project which would require all the squares they were willing to
Klode Carpet had a lot of carpet squares, and they were willing to part with all of them. They helpfully provided us with a box, and even loaded the carpet squares into the box. The box of carpet squares was roughly twice as tall as I was and three times as wide. It resembled a telephone booth in height and size, at least from our perspective. Wanting to get out of there before the people at Klode Carpet changed their minds and reneged on this gift, Susan and I each heaved up one end of the massive box of carpet and walked out of the store, trying valiantly to look jaunty and in control.
Once we got out to the parking lot, we put the box down and rested. I was starting to have my doubts about this whole enterprise, but Susan’s determination was unflagging. She exhorted me that yes, we could get this box of carpet home together, and then just think! We would have a beautiful, warm checkerboard carpet for our room! For free! We heaved the box back up and started for home.
It was a death march. I don’t know how we did it; I do know that it took all day. We would walk as far as we could without collapsing under the weight of the box, and then rest until the pain in our arms and shoulders was at least bearable. When we were no longer near tears from the pain, we would pick the box up again and walk as far as we could. That box of carpet squares did make it to 2337 Swan Boulevard that day, and we were both sore and stiff for the better part of a week. But we did it! We could just about see that beautiful carpet already!
While the box of carpet squares was still in the garage, before we tried to work out how we were going to carry it upstairs to the bedroom, I asked Susan, “How are we going to turn this into a carpet?” I am not sure why this question hadn’t occurred to either of us earlier, but it had not. Susan thought for a few minutes and said, “We can staple them together!” I brightened up.
“Yes! That will work great, and the staples will hardly show!” By this time, we needed something to remind ourselves of why we were undergoing this pain; also, we still hadn’t figured out how to get the box up the stairs, so I suggested that we start making the carpet right there in the garage, while we waited for someone who could still feel his arms to come home and help us with the box. Susan thought that was a capital idea and went into the house to grab the stapler.
We decided to start with two of the prettiest-colored squares, but realized immediately that carpet is actually a great deal thicker and tougher than the construction paper we usually used the stapler for. Even when we got our father’s heavy duty stapler from the basement, we couldn’t figure out any way to get a staple through even one piece of carpet, much less staple together two. I was distraught. Also, exhausted and hungry and sore. “Well?” I said to Susan. “What now?”
Ever the optimist, Susan said, “No worries! We’ll just get Daddy’s hole puncher, punch holes in the squares, and tie them together with Marshall Field’s gold string (our mother saved all gift cords from Marshall Field boxes, so we had a considerable supply in the Box Closet.) She went back into the house and emerged a few minutes later with a lot of gold Marshall Field string and a hole puncher.
The moment she tried to punch a hole in a carpet square, we both knew. This carpet was never going to happen. The hold puncher didn’t even disturb the pile on the square, much less penetrate any part of it. We couldn’t face the reality of it that day, not given the sweat and hope we had invested in that box of carpet. “We’ll go out tomorrow and buy a bigger hole puncher,” Susan said, and I nodded vigorously. “Sure! Tomorrow we’ll be rested, and we can get right back to this! Can we get something to eat right now?”
We did not go out the next day to get a bigger hole puncher. We pretended the box of carpet squares had never existed. After a week, our mother asked what on earth we intended to do with that giant box of carpet squares in the garage, and Susan sheepishly said she had no idea. My mother set it out with the rest of the trash, and the garbagemen took it away. We lived with the linoleum floors until the day we moved out of that bedroom, and said no more about it.