Whenever there was a holiday like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day (my father’s favorite celebrated with a ham stabbed with slabs of pineapple and clove), Easter, or even a birthday, I got anxious. I would start to worry about whether my mom would hold the dinner at our house to celebrate. We lived in a bi-level house; I remembered faintly our first house even though I was just two when we moved down the hill to the new section where they were beginning to raise up many bi-levels and ranches.
I remember the kitchen where Snoopy, our green parakeet in his cage hung by the sliding glass doors. There was always light coming into that room. I don’t remember ever feeling afraid. It was a comfort to know Snoopy was there. My mom would let him out and he would sit on my shoulder or walk around the table. I remember his life there in the kitchen before the move. I remember my grandparents and uncle coming to visit.
In that house, we sat upon a mountain of sorts, and that winter before the move when my mother became pregnant with my sister, my father took me sledding. In 1972, the snow was deep in New Jersey. We weren’t touched yet by changing weather patterns or global warming. There are many photographs of me bundled up being pulled by my mother in that little red sled with a heart carved in the back that Papa Jack made me. I was sad to leave my home.
When we moved, Snoopy came with us and his cage rested now in the mustard-colored kitchen by the entry to the dining room. This house was bigger, and now we had two rooms to eat. We ate in the kitchen for regular meals and in the dining room for formal celebrations. I was thankful that celebrations were far and few between. I was about four when I started to see the Hand in the window. That room always felt dark to me. The two windows on the upper floor of the dining room didn’t let in much light and the furniture my parents bought for their new dining room was dark and heavy. The carpet was a pea green. My father always said that someday when they had a little more money, he’d have a deck built and open the wall here too with a sliding door but that never happened while I was still living at the house. It happened years later after they retired, and I was already off and married. And while the Hand was now gone, the deck was a new worry I had when I brought my own children over. I hated eating meals on the deck, having toddlers who never sat long and liked to move along the edges to look down.
The Hand always faced the window open-palmed. It was broad and tan — definitely a man’s hand. It didn’t move and it seemed to hover with nothing attached to it but an arm but one I couldn’t see where it ended. At first, I only told my mother in whispers as to not upset my grandparents, but she didn’t feel the need to whisper back. “Don’t be silly; there is nothing there,” she’d announce loudly.
Papa Jansen always looked up. Mommy looked through her cat eye glasses with the little gems at the points as she brought food from the kitchen to the table. “She thinks someone is outside the window.” Grandma Jack would reach her arms out; “Come to grandma. Here, here; there is nothing to worry about.” But my mother’s dad, Papa Jansen, would look towards the windows, his eyes, darting back and forth searching the dark.
All too often when the Hand appeared, the chandelier lights would flicker. Papa Jansen every time would stop eating, fork mid-stream, look up and say, “Isn’t that strange.”
Over the years, I learned to ignore the Hand but couldn’t ignore the strange happenings to my family. There was the death of Snoopy. I wasn’t convinced he died of old age. When I looked out those windows to see my father burying him in our backyard, I was full of anger, an anger I couldn’t explain.
In a tantrum, I screamed, cried as I saw the shovel reach into the earth over and over. Snoopy was contained in a little shoebox next to the hole my father was digging. “Why is daddy taking Snoopy away?” I sobbed.
My mom told me that she saw the bird and he was definitely dead, but “in heaven now.” She reminded me that God was there. “Remember when it thunders and lightening, how the angels bowl with God.” This was something she always said each time we sat out a storm. “There’s another strike; I bet God is winning just like your Papa Jansen.” Papa Jansen had been part of a bowling league for years even after Grandma Jansen passed from ovarian cancer and a new wife took her place.
Despite my mom’s reassurance about the bird’s passing, I still saw Snoopy and was confused why I was the only one in the family who could see him. The cage was gone so Snoopy was free to fly wherever he pleased.
Shortly after when I was five, my uncle died. Mommy said it was of “sickness in the head.” She was washing dishes in the kitchen when she said it, pointing a wet, soapy finger to her bottled blond hair as dad called it.
She was trying to cover the fact that he killed himself, but I knew better. I overheard her phone conversations with Aunt Lily. “You know his head told him things.”
Papa Jansen, who was a mechanic mastermind became fixed on doing 1,000-piece puzzles to cope. It wasn’t enough and he was sent to a hospital where my mom said they were shocking him to help him with his sadness. I imagined him strapped down to a bed, like a Frankenstein where a mad scientist drove electric waves to his brain to make him alive. None of this worked even though Papa Jansen still walked and talked and sometimes ate but I could see he was dead, not like the bird was dead, a different kind of dead.
From time to time Snoopy sat on my shoulder comforting me even though dad buried him in the backyard. Only then did my anger began to dissipate. I remained upset that his cage was no longer in the kitchen where I could see him every morning once mom uncovered the cage to wake him up.
I loved his chirping. And still love the sound of birds in the morning outside my window as an adult. I took to hanging bird feeders all over the backyard to attract woodpeckers, cardinals, yellow finch, and even the sparrows. My children complain. “You’re feeding the squirrels mom; how many more birdfeeders do you need?” It’s an impulse I can’t control; there is a Snoopy in each free bird singing to the sunrise.
Uncle Howie was dead, dead, not like Papa Jansen and not like Snoopy. He was not there anymore. Just like that. I’m not sure where he went but I hold onto the four-leaf clover he found in our backyard and gave to me. My mom pressed the clover between an index card and laminating paper and after 45 years it is still as fresh as it was when I was five. I think maybe he might come back as one of the birds I see at my feeders, free from his own mind, free from what mom later called schizophrenia.
I did my best to keep away from my little sister during those early years at 1111 Algonquin Trail. While I was overjoyed at first that I would have a sibling, picking out a gift for her at the hospital, the pink elephant I imagined she would cling to like I clung to my Cat Cat, I grew to fear her as she grew. Despite my being the oldest, she grew taller than me and was big-boned, and unlike Tommy from Kindergarten who everyone called the fat kid who got flush in the face just from walking, she was strong.
I was slight, wasn’t much of an eater, small-boned, and smaller than the rest of my classmates. She was quick to understand that her size could be used against me but also her harsh words, and her ability to do unforgiving things like to color the faces of my baby dolls, and later my Barbie dolls.
She never came to the table for my birthday dinner despite my father’s banging on her bedroom door. When her July birthday came, she invited her friends to swim in our pool in the backyard. She told me I wasn’t invited, that I wasn’t welcome, that I could never be friends with her friends. Somehow it went unnoticed by our parents but our shared friends felt for me and would sit out on the front porch and strike her party year after year.
The Hand seemed to move from something forbidding to something comforting. I was the only one who could see it. And I knew I was chosen after a while to be the only one who saw it. By the age of ten, five years after the death of my uncle, my grandfather snapped a little bit back to life, he remarried a woman my mother hated and became entranced with the Rubik’s cube, a passion that went from solving one side of the cube, matching its colors to a strong need to accomplish getting all six sides the same color. Once he met this challenge, he challenged himself to go faster and faster and began timing himself.
The Hand seemed to get inside my head and dared me to bury dead bugs I would find around the yard. In the front yard, we had a little flower garden that I thought was a perfect burial ground. And I coerced my best friend Kelly to look for bugs with me. “Look, look, I would say, do you see their souls going to heaven?” Kelly would squint at the air, trying to see what I saw but just couldn’t find the little lights I saw ascending into the ether.
One summer when my mom came home crying that she hit a squirrel up on the hill we used to live by, my city friends, at my beckoning marched up that mountain with me, I with a shovel in hand, to retrieve the squirrel, bring it back home to bury it in our flower patch. They too squinted into the thin air, while I observed the orb that floated around a bit before it disappeared.
As I became an adolescent the memory of the Hand was something long forgotten. I became your run of the mill teenager, reading Teenbeat and Tiger. I took tests that told me what kind of boys would like me, tried make-up on, overdoing the blue eyeshadow and baby pink lipstick, shifted from a gangly kid to a young woman with curves, though I never grew very tall. The years passed and Snoopy no longer visited.
In my college years, I became intrigued with the occult, reading every book I could get my hands on. It was in a history and religion course at the Catholic college I attended that piqued my interest. I began reading tarot for my friends who became just as addicted as I was. Then we began playing with the Ouija Board. It was all fun and games until I started dating Ryan.
One night Ryan and I decided to go to Blockbuster and rent a movie, order in Chinese food at his parents’ house. I had fallen asleep. Ryan gently shook my shoulder at the end of the movie, “Hey, you probably want to get up; it’s getting late.”
“Yeah,” I sleepily responded. “Boy, I had the weirdest dream,” I added. “I was in this room we’re in now but there was this little girl who kept peeking at me from behind your couch.” Ryan went white. “What did she look like?”
“Well, she was blond; her hair was long and parted down the middle, maybe ten or eleven years old.”
Ryan was from a family of eight children, his sister, Karen died before he was born. After pulling an all-nighter, I learned that his sister Karen died of drowning in the bathtub at the age of twelve. When he pulled out a photo of her, “yeah,” I said, “that’s the girl I saw.”
Ryan and I parted ways and I soon met my husband to be. After getting engaged we were partially gifted his deceased grandmother’s house that his parents rented out. We had little money after taking out a mortgage and took on the job of painting the house ourselves. For sixth months we went after work each night and spent all our free time on weekends there. That January I took down the kitchen cabinets that were in bad shape, and because it was a messy job, took them to the cold garage to sand and prime. I kept hearing a cat, sometimes meowing and sometimes I heard the faint sound of a cat eating dry cat food. The crunch, crunch was getting to me, yet there was no cat to kick out. The family who pitched in on weekends laughed. “Hey, I think the paint fumes are getting to your head,” they’d respond.
It would be years later that I would learn at a Thanksgiving when my in-laws were telling stories that I wasn’t crazy. “Remember when Mema hit Richard’s cat, and it was dead in her garage about a week before anyone found it.”
When I was thirty, my husband and I and our two young children, just two and four-years-old took a family trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, making stops along the way to first Utah, Salt Lake City, where we flew into, and later to Nevada to see Hoover Dam and Las Vegas. But it was really the tour of the official headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that had the most impact.
I felt it was important as a newly hired professor of History at the local community college that I explore anything that had to do with the history of religion in the United States. I was entranced by the idea of visiting Temple Square and during a tour, our guide stopped at a portrait of Brigham Young, who said that as the successor of Joseph Smith, that he had prayed for wisdom as King Solomon had. And very simply, the tour guide said, he was blessed with wisdom. In that moment with my daughter anchored on my hip, I closed my eyes and prayed for wisdom. The tour guide had promised that God grants anyone the gift of wisdom if they pray for it.
The rest of the trip went as expected. We stopped at Hoover Dam, peered at the looming white cement looking wall, stayed in Las Vegas but did not gamble, not that my husband and I are gamblers, but still we had small children in tow. We watched the sunset on the Grand Canyon and eventually returned home.
It was in the weeks that followed that the world felt more colored, more vibrant, that I could almost read the thoughts of others, felt more bound than ever to nature.
My husband and I added rooms to our house for our growing family. I wanted to mimic the breakfast nook my Papa Jansen had at his mansion like home on Spring Lake. After Grandma Jack died at 93, the same year I was pregnant with my daughter, I used a little of my inheritance to add on this beloved room. It was a hexagon shaped room where we had a fish tank and a small TV where the kids could watch Thomas the Train videos over and over while they had breakfast or lunch.
At night in the glow of the blue light of the fish tank, a man began to make an appearance outside the windows of the breakfast nook.
At first, I accused our eccentric next-door neighbor, Richard, the same man whose cat was killed by Mema. He was known for stealing women’s clothes off lines and walking the neighborhood adorned in whatever he looted; there were also stories that he had been a peeping Tom.
I wasn’t comfortable living next door to him and when one morning I found a dead feather plucked bird on the windshield of my car parked in the driveway near his house, I begged my husband to move. He reported it to the police and things seemed to be quiet for a while, but then the man outside the window reappeared.
This time I wasn’t afraid. He was dark-skinned and seemed to be covered in black feathers. He called himself Raven though I don’t know how I knew that. And I knew that he then began to stretch his wings and fly with me over my car, or shrink himself, and appear on my shoulder just as Snoopy had done.
He wanted something from me. I knew that too. He wanted me to see everyone for who they really were. I could hear their thoughts. I could see their insides. I could predict the next pregnancy, death, sickness or tragedy. I also knew this was no stranger. Somehow, I knew that the Hand that reached up towards that dining room window belonged to him, this being, this half bird, half man. Like the Hindu- god Garuda or Thunderbird, the shapeshifter of the North American native tribes, whose beating wings created the thunder and wind of tremendous storms—from which lightening sparked from the bird’s eyes.
It was my protector, my friend, the one that showed me the orbs of dead things, the death of living things.
After my father’s death, my mother started talking of things I was never aware of, like how our house, or the land we built it on, was actually once underwater. That all the houses are built on top of swampland, that “your father never liked the soil here; they brought in all this rocky junk that we couldn’t garden well on.”
She is telling me this story as we watch her new neighbor’s house across the street pour out water from an underground stream they accidentally tapped into as construction began the once New Yorker’s to be pool. “They have a big problem,” said my mom, who peers over to the yard from her now bent position that has taken her stature down to my size.
Despite the now built-up development, a lot remains next to my mother’s property where nature resides as possums and raccoons, and river rats and a stream remains under the tangle of trees and underbrush.
She says now that she can see their “eyes there at night. I don’t like living alone, but I can’t move, can’t leave our burial ground of pets in the backyard.”
It was something I had heard my sister guilt my mother with. The years of dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes even, and yes Snoopy lay under the woodpile, lay there under the deck that now reaches to the dining room where that chandelier still flickers.
Christine Redman-Waldeyer is an Associate Professor of English at Passaic County Community College. She has been published in numerous journals including Caduceus, Catalyst Book Press, Contemporary American Voices, Exit 13, Lips, Mom Egg Review, Paterson Literary Review, Presence, Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Seventh Quarry, Shot Glass Journal, The Texas Review, Verse Wisconsin, among others. Poetry books include "Where We Nest" (Cyberwit), "Eve Asks", "Frame by Frame", and "Gravel" (Muse-Pie Press). She is a co-editor of "Writing After Retirement: Tips from Successful Retired Writers," (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014). She recently published "Being Spanish" with Spillwords and was a nominee for May's author of the month.
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