Looking back on childhood moments, Margaret (Meg) Graham recalls some clues to what happens to her later in life. Excerpted from Web of Tyranny.
Later in her life, Margaret would remember the summer of 1956 as that time when she’d still had illusions about what life could be.
Even with the backbreaking, seemingly endless chores, there was still that camaraderie amongst the workers. Even Lucy helped keep things light, chattering away about her plans for the evening. Margaret listened and pretended she had Lucy’s life with Lucy’s parents. Uncle Joe and Aunt Noreen laughed a lot. They even had a television set and when Margaret had the good fortune to visit at their house, hanging out with Lucy’s younger sister Nanette, the whole family sat around on the couch eating their dinner on TV trays and laughing along with the I Love Lucy show. Sometimes Margaret thought that Aunt Noreen, who was Father’s sister, must have grown up in a different family. They were total opposites. Father was all stern and uptight, while Aunt Noreen laughed and joked and seemed to enjoy being with her kids. Just like Father’s other sister Molly, who had all those stories to tell. Even Uncle Victor and Aunt Janice seemed so different from Father.
Margaret couldn’t figure any of it out back then. Later she would come to believe that it all had something to do with Father being the eldest child in his family. The one who had to drop out of school to work the farm. The one who had to give up his own fun and lightheartedness to help bring in the crops.
But in her tenth year of life, Margaret Elaine Graham only knew that the father who had once loved her had turned on her. And her life had somehow shaped itself into Before and After. First there had been love and acceptance. Then there was coldness and disapproval. And fleeting moments of secret fun and freedom meted out in small portions, to be grasped and cherished. As rare and unexpected as a stash of jewels. And just as precious.
* * *
The summer before Margaret turned twelve, she decided she would become Meg. Her parents still called her Margaret, but her school chums and even her cousins went along with her new nickname. She’d decided on the name after reading Little Women, even though she knew she was nothing like the character Meg in the book. Actually, she saw herself more as the Jo character. But her cousin Elizabeth, who was actually a first-cousin-once-removed, insisted that Meg fit the eldest of the March sisters to a tee. And Elizabeth decided that she would be Jo. Secretly, Margaret-who-now-was-Meg believed that she would someday grow up to be a writer, and that meant she had to be Jo.
She was spending a lot of time with Elizabeth during that summer of 1958, because Father was building a house for Elizabeth’s family. For some reason, the adults had decided that Meg could tag along and hang out with Elizabeth, who now called herself Liz.
Normally, Liz stayed alone during the days while her mother worked as a housekeeper. Liz’s father Alvin had died when Liz was only four, leaving her mother Elsie to somehow manage on her own. Every month Elsie received a small payment from Social Security…The adults called it her “widow’s pension”…But she had to work outside the home, too, in order to make ends meet, something not too many women did in those days.
Elsie, her daughter Liz, and her son, Alvin, Jr., had been moving around from one grim rental to another until the church decided to donate time and materials to build a small house for the family. The church congregation, made up primarily of near and distant relatives, had done the charitable thing and pulled together to help the young widow and her family. Because Vincent Graham had built many houses over the years, he had been called into service.
This kind and charitable side of Vincent Graham was one that felt strange and unfamiliar to Meg. Not one to question her unexpected good fortune, though, she was happy to spend time with Liz, and because of the arduous labor involved in building the house, Father was too distracted to notice Meg.
Liz directed their activities that summer. When they weren’t reading and talking about the books they were reading, they hung out in town, peering into shop windows and catching the glances of cute guys.
To Meg, the sudden, unexpected freedom felt like a reprieve. She couldn’t figure out how sometimes she came under close scrutiny from her parents, while other times she had moments of relative peace.
But that summer, Meg had two whole months with nothing to do but hang out with Liz, read books, and dream about the life she would have some day. Of course, she knew that by August, she would be up to her elbows in peach fuzz again. But for now, she and Liz could hang out in town or in Liz’s room at their current rental. Even though Liz and her family lived in one-half of an old house that had been converted into apartments, the place felt wonderfully exciting to Meg. For one thing, Liz had free rein in the house while her mother worked.
One day Meg and Liz baked cookies. They kept mixing the ingredients, plopping the dough on the cookie sheets, and shoving the finished product into the oven, and before they knew it, every counter in the tiny kitchen was filled with cookies. Then, looking at what they had created, they burst into hysterical laughter. They sank down on the floor, still chortling over the mess they had made while tears coursed through the dough, splattering on their faces.
And Meg thought she’d never been happier, not in her whole life.
They’d cleaned the kitchen up then, grabbing a handful of cookies. Plopping down on the old sofa, they felt content. But just when they had started playing Monopoly, Father appeared and it was time to go home again. In the doorway Vincent Graham loomed like a storm cloud, chasing away the feelings of freedom and lightness.
Meg compliantly followed her father to the car and rode silently beside him out to their farm.
She played this little game with herself whenever she wanted to escape notice, like now. Closing her eyes tightly, she pretended that her whole body could curl up into a tiny ball. And if she were really quiet, she would become invisible. She would escape the searing eyes of Father.
She always feared that somehow Father would know that she and Liz had wandered around town, flirting with boys. Someone from church might have seen them and tattled, and Father would have to punish her. Because flirting with boys was a really big sin, according to Father. He made scathing remarks about boy crazy girls, who would surely grow up to shame their families.
Sitting on the upholstered seat of their car, hardly daring to breathe, Meg caught a glimpse of his face as he drove. He seemed lost in a world of his own, and she began to exhale slowly. They were almost home now, and her mind flew ahead to her room, imagining how she would rush there as soon as the car stopped. She had almost convinced herself that she had once again escaped the wrath of Vincent Graham, when he suddenly turned, his eyes hard and cold, and flatly spoke: “Tomorrow, you’ll be staying home. Your mother needs you to watch your little brother.” Just like that. And she didn’t even know if she’d done something wrong, or if her father, unpredictable and arbitrary, had just decided that she’d had way too much freedom.
Of course, it could have been worse. At least she’d be with Mother, who, while often distant and moody, was at least not cruel and punitive. And babysitting her two-year-old brother Gordon wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.
But that’s how Father was in those years. Harsh and cold. Or hot-tempered, like a flash of fire that could sear right through her skin. For any infraction, she could earn the blistering heat of the peach limbs across her legs. She could almost feel the sting of her father’s favorite weapon as she slid out of the car, making her escape.
When little Gordon had been born in the fall, two years before, Meg had suffered still another in what felt like a series of betrayals. It was bad enough that most of the time she couldn’t figure out what was expected of her. But at least she’d thought she knew her place in the family. Youngest child, for one thing. But Gordon’s birth had changed all that, and because it was such a total surprise, Meg felt completely stupid, as if someone had played a prank that everyone else understood except her. She had noticed the bulge in Mother’s belly months before the birth, but when she’d asked about it, Mother had dismissed her with a short little remark that she was just gaining weight. And like the fool, Meg had bought it. So when Father came home that October day, handing out ice cream bars, like some kind of celebration, and made the announcement that they had a new baby brother, she had glanced in shock over at Vernon, who had just stood there, avoiding her eyes. She was obviously the last to know, and now Father was acting like she should be happy about it.
And the worst of it was that he’d been born just days after Meg’s own birthday.
When they’d first brought the wrinkled little guy home from the hospital, Meg’s eyes had fastened on that tiny little head and the way Mother was cuddling him so lovingly and felt the piercing pang of jealousy. She’d mumbled something like “he’s cute”, while secretly thinking he looked like a spider monkey. Mother had retorted: “Of course, he’s cute!”
Everything had changed then. Meg had more responsibilities, watching after her baby brother as he got older. Sometimes she watched him all day while her mother and father worked out in the fields. But she didn’t even mind watching him as much as she hated that the little bit of love and warmth she’d once gotten from Mother now belonged to Gordon.
That was another reason she’d felt so blissfully happy hanging out with Liz. Like a caged bird flapping against the confines of her prison, she’d been set free, allowed to spend hours a day in Liz’s company. Like the bird released from confinement, Meg had enjoyed the sensation of the wind under her wings as she soared magically, hoping that the feeling might go on forever, while knowing deep down that it would be short-lived. So now she knew. Her time with Liz had ended.
Even as her bitter thoughts lingered on all the things left undone, all the plans she and Liz had still had for their summer days, she secretly tucked the memories of what they had done away into a place in her head. She knew that she could take out the recollections and reexamine them whenever she wanted, reliving the experiences. She often did just that even in the midst of chores. Her mind flitted about, selecting one memory or another, and for a few moments, she felt the magic of each experience all over again.
She would later look back on that summer as the final days of an all-too-short childhood.