“I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
As some of you know, I was severely injured as a young child and ended up having to endure twenty surgeries from the time I was five until I went off to college. I wrote a memoir about that experience—Face—and finished it three years ago while doing my MFA at Antioch University LA. I am in the process of revising it, but want to share it with you as I do. So, today’s post is the first part of Chapter One. I will be posting pieces from the book in serial fashion throughout the next few months. I welcome your feedback and thoughts.
Face, A Memoir
June 17, 1961
I had a brand-new bike, cherry red with chrome fenders: my first two-wheeler. Did my dad teach me to ride it? Did he run along beside me as I pedaled, holding the back of the seat until I found my balance, tipping from one side to the other, then finally discovering that middle place where you know you’ll never fear tipping again? I don’t remember. But I know it was a Saturday, the first day of summer vacation, because after breakfast my older sister went around the corner to her friend’s house instead of to school.
The heat and humidity of a Michigan summer already gripped the day. As I went out to the garage to get my bike, I could feel my blue t-shirt grow damp and cling to my back and stomach. When summer takes hold in Michigan, moisture settles near the ground, sucking everything down with it. By late afternoon, people would be sitting immobile behind screened porches, praying for the whisper of a breeze.
Mom had shooed my brother and older sister and me out after breakfast. We lived in downtown Muskegon, where neighborhoods were arranged in blocks of small clapboard or brick-faced houses, with alleys that bisected each block. The narrow streets were lined with tall maples and oaks, which scattered acorns and, when the temperatures dipped, dropped leaves like graceful magenta and citrine flags signaling the coming winter.
Our neighborhood was filled with kids, and it was never long before a dozen or more would gather. Soon there’d be a game – Hide and Seek, Hop Scotch, Tag – it didn’t matter. We’d play for hours, coming home only for meals. Adults didn’t worry.
My new bike had a white basket on the front handlebars and red streamers that fell from the hand grips. I had finally mastered riding on my own and was anxious to show off for my friend, Annie, who lived across the street. But on the way, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Medema, who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the apartment building next door.
“What a beautiful bike, Marcia,” she said. “And a two-wheeler! Wow. I noticed your dad was helping you balance on it. When did you take off the training wheels?”
“Yesterday!” I said, and smiled proudly. “I can ride all by myself now.”
“Well, that calls for a celebration. Want to come up for some cookies and tea?”
I liked Mrs. Medema. A widow, she lived next door and often babysat for us. She always wore a dress under an apron, stockings and thick black shoes. Her gray hair was cut short and curled. Three other widows lived in the brick building, but only Mrs. Medema paid any mind to us kids. She lived on the second floor, and her apartment was cozy and bright with sunshine. I parked my bike on the sidewalk in front of her steps and carefully set the kickstand. Then I walked up the narrow stairs with her, holding her hand.
The smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies filled the apartment. My mouth watered as she took a blue-and-white ceramic plate from the cupboard and put four warm cookies on it – two for me and two for her. She reached for her blue bone china teapot above the stove, poured hot water from the kettle into it and filled a silver tea cylinder with loose Earl Grey leaves. “We’ll let it steep for just a minute,” she said. “Let’s go sit at the table.”
She carried the teapot and the plate of cookies over to a small table near the window, then turned back to get two tea cups and saucers that matched the cookie plate. She placed one cloth napkin beside each cup, and poured the tea.
“Is your mom busy this morning?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said, lisping. I had lost my two front teeth just a few weeks earlier. “Molly is crawling all over the place. And Chuckie keeps trying to break my toys.”
“Your dad at work?”
I nodded and bit into one of the cookies. My dad, my grandfather and two of my uncles owned Meier Cleaners. Dad worked every day but Sunday, when we walked four blocks to St. Joseph’s for Mass and saw my grandparents and most of my aunts and uncles and cousins. After Mass the families would linger in front of the stone-faced church, catching up on the week and exchanging the latest gossip. The monsignor, Father Stratz, would wander through the crowd in his colorful vestments, nodding and smiling at the adults. I didn’t like Father Stratz. Short and squat, he had a full head of gray hair, a thick German accent, and he scowled at the kids who ran between the adults.
A slight breeze came through Mrs. Medema’s screen as I bit into a cookie. I could see my friend’s house across the street, and then I saw her in the front yard.
I took a sip of the tea and ate the second cookie quickly.
“Thanks, Mrs. Medema,” I said through the gap in my teeth. “I have to go now.”
I ran down the stairs, grabbed the handlebars of my bike and pushed up the kickstand with my toe.
At the corner, I carefully looked for cars before crossing. I started into the intersection, where there was a four-way stop. A man and woman in a tan sedan had stopped at the corner. I was halfway across the street when he began to drive forward. I was so startled I stopped and watched. I didn’t understand why he didn’t stop. I shrugged up my shoulders and turned my body as if to fend off the blow.
Roscoe and Muriel Benn were driving home from the market. I imagine they were in a rush: Their children and grandchildren were coming that evening to celebrate their grandson’s fourth birthday, and Muriel was anxious to get home to clean and prepare.
They drove down Fourth Street to the stop sign at the corner of Fourth and Mason. As they approached the stop sign, Muriel was fussing.
“Can you go a little faster, Roscoe? I still have to make the cake and get the roast ready to go into the oven. You’ll have to help with the potatoes. This darn arthritis. I can’t work the peeler anymore.”
Roscoe pulled to a halt at the stop sign, paused, then drove forward through the intersection. Muriel heard a strange scraping sound. Then she noticed people on the sidewalk yelling at them. What were they saying? She rolled down the window. “Stop,” they were screaming. “Stop!”
Roscoe braked and the car came to a halt about halfway down the block. People were running toward them, surrounding the car. Muriel didn’t understand what had happened.
“You’ve hit a child!” they yelled.
Muriel looked at her husband of forty years. His face was the color of fresh Michigan snow.