For the first few seconds of every day, before reality hit, she felt her body floating in a cloudy tangle as she came up from her dreams. Beautiful dreams of sunny days filled with music, ice cream and lots of laughter. She could still remember a time when her days had been like that; she’d been much younger then, granted the indulgences of early childhood. Those moments usually happened in the warm, cozy rooms at Grandma’s house, when she’d had a feeling that everything would work out somehow.
But she was not at Grandma’s today, and as she tossed aside the heavy tangle of sheets and blankets, she knew she wouldn’t be going to Grandma’s again any time soon. Father had other plans for her. Her summer days would be full of farm chores, beginning in the early hours of the day and ending only when the last box of fruit had been emptied and the last peach had been cut and placed on the trays. In the shed, with its overhang that shielded from the hot summer sun, the smell of ripening fruit made her gag, but she had to stifle the urge. Otherwise, she could end up with a far worse punishment than cutting fruit all day.
Margaret shuddered as she recalled some of those punishments.
At least when she worked in the shed, she was surrounded by the friendly faces of aunts and cousins. Living within five miles of each other, the Graham relatives, especially the women, rallied around one another during harvest season. As she worked, she pretended to be a fly on the wall, listening to the adult’s conversations; they hardly noticed her and when they talked in those hushed tones, her ears perked up.
That was how she learned about Aunt Noreen’s heart condition and Aunt Molly’s foster child, the one who was expecting…When Aunt Molly’s voice fell into that whispery tone, Margaret knew that secrets were being revealed. Lola’s pregnancy and the dilemma about what would become of Lola’s baby after the birth.
Of all the aunts, Aunt Molly could tell a simple story and make it fascinating. Every day of her life sounded like melodrama. Even her physical ailments seemed like something out of a storybook. No matter what else was happening with her though, Aunt Molly always had a friendly word for the younger members of the family. She and Uncle Chester had only one child of their own; Charles was an oddly quiet boy who seemed misplaced in that family.
Before Aunt Molly had started taking in foster children, Margaret recalled summer nights when she had been allowed a sleepover at her house. In the tiny little cottage next to the meandering canal, Aunt Molly made up a bed for Margaret in the sleeping porch. While she lay there, Margaret would study the walls of the tiny room, her eyes following the pattern of the knotty pine; wide awake, she reflected on Aunt Molly’s warning words as she tucked her in. She’d spoken of the evils in the world and how Margaret had to be very careful to stay away from the field workers who roamed their farms during the summer. Because the men who worked the fields had evil intentions where young girls were concerned.
Aunt Molly’s warnings introduced fear into her life, like opening a door onto a dark netherworld. But in the mornings, all the blackness disappeared as Aunt Molly cheerfully served breakfast in the tiny little nook that looked just like a booth in a diner.
So in the summer of her tenth year, Margaret Elaine Graham paid attention to all the melodrama swirling around her and made up stories of her own to add to the mix.
She imagined that Cousin Lucy, who had turned fifteen that year, must have more excitement in her life than she could handle. Eldest daughter of Aunt Noreen and Uncle Joe, she sashayed into the shed every morning dressed like she was going out on a date. Today she had on tight Capri pants and a little white shirt with a Peter Pan collar; it seemed just a little too snug for the occasion, so Margaret knew that she must have a secret lover. She probably met him during lunch break. They would rendezvous down by the barn, behind the bales of hay; or maybe, they would meet down the hot country road at the next farm, behind the rows of grapes. Down where the packing boxes could be pressed into service as couches or chairs. He was probably one of the fruit pickers’ kids. Maybe that boy with the mysterious and brooding expression, the one whose jeans were too tight. Or maybe he was an outsider, a city boy working on a farm for the summer.
Margaret sometimes wandered down behind the grapevines, hiding in the foliage, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lucy kissing her boyfriend. But no matter how hard she tried, Margaret never caught her in the act. She sometimes wondered if Lucy’s boyfriend was something that she’d made up in her head. But then she remembered hearing Vernon and Lucy whispering their secrets and laughing. No, she wasn’t imagining things.
Sitting on the empty packing boxes one day, Margaret flashed back to a time when she and Vernon, three years older, had made trains out of them. Lining them all in a row, turning them right side up, they could sit inside the boxes, pretending they were train cars.
Now Vernon was too old to hang out with the likes of a ten-year-old. He followed Lucy, or even Charles, and they would disappear behind the barn. Probably smoking cigarettes.
Left to her own devices, Margaret listened, spun fantasies in her head, and tried not to be noticed. Sometimes, if she was really lucky, she could sneak off during lunch break and read a couple of chapters in her library book. She had to be very careful, because Father wouldn’t tolerate her reading those books. They were just adventure books, or sometimes love stories. But Father thought the books were frivolous and ungodly. If he saw them, he would toss them out in the incinerator. Margaret knew this because it had happened just last year.
She still shuddered at the memory of her father’s face as he’d shouted condemnation and lit the match to the blaze that had engulfed the trash, consuming her precious book. She had a hard time putting this new version of her father together with the daddy he had been, because once upon a time, Vincent Graham had been her hero. Sometimes Margaret could almost see traces of that daddy in his face; in the evenings, when he sat there reading his newspaper, all the sharp lines in his face disappeared. Or when he sat back in his big chair, falling asleep after dinner, she recalled how she had once trailed along after him when he took the milk cans out to the road. He would lift her up and put her on the cart; she could feel the breeze in her hair, smell the heavenly aroma of the countryside, and feel safe. Back then she’d still called him Daddy.
When had it all changed? Her memories blurred. One minute she was childlike and carefree, with Daddy tossing her in the air; then he was this stern Father with the gruff exterior and the harsh tones to his voice.
In the background were the blurry images of her mother Mary. The mother who did nothing to soften Father’s tone, but who did allow Margaret to tag along to town on shopping day, and even let her go to the library to check out books. Books she warned Margaret to keep out of sight.
Margaret loved the smell of the library. In the little village, the library shared quarters with the post office. From the main door, the post office portion veered off to the left. But to the right, the wonderful library beckoned with its shelves and shelves of unread books. Margaret felt immediately drawn to the shelves containing her favorites. Sometimes she just wandered up and down the aisles, taking books down and examining them. Feeling the spines of the books and inhaling the scent of the ancient pages.
And then she would sigh with the sheer ecstasy of being a part of something so magical.
* * *
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.
* * *
Beginning junior high that fall meant big changes. For starters, Meg’s boyish figure had suddenly blossomed, even though she could still barely notice the budding boobs. Plus, she wore clothes that Mother made; baggy, extra long garments that shouted “homemade” and covered the slight evidence of her new body.
Most of the girls had changed over the summer. But Della Manning had changed the most. Everywhere she went, boys followed, their eyes bugging out. Della looked like a woman, with boobs like Marilyn Monroe. And she wore tight tops, emphasizing those curves. She seemed to strut when she walked, swaying her butt in those tight skirts, while sneering at the girls who didn’t have what she had.
For some unexplained reason, Della especially hated Meg. Maybe because Meg spent so much time daydreaming, with stars in her eyes. Or maybe because she got good grades and enjoyed the positive attention of the teachers. That particular blessing also earned her the nickname “Teacher’s Pet” from some of the kids. But nothing hurt as much as Della’s sneers and taunts. Between Della and her cronies, girls who, like Della, had cool clothes and wore makeup, Meg’s life became a living hell that year.
It started with the taunts about Meg’s clothes. “Did your mommy make that outfit? Wow! Did she get that material from the feed store? Hey, it’s Farmer in the Dell!” Some version of these same words met Meg everywhere she went in the first days of school. She tried to ignore the girls, turning away and seeking out her old buddy Josie. But even Josie acted as if the sight of Meg embarrassed her.
Eventually, Della and her crowd grew bored with teasing Meg and moved on. But the scars remained. And something had changed between Meg and Josie, a loss of that special connection. She still spent time with Josie, playing jacks in the school corridors, but it wasn’t the same.
And then one day she met a new girl. Betsy Van Houten, whose long, dark and somewhat drab hair shielded her thin face like a curtain. Betsy rode the same school bus, and on the first day Meg noticed her, she was reading a Nancy Drew book. One that Meg hadn’t read yet. And Betsy told her she had every one of the Nancy Drew books and would let her borrow some if she wanted. A special connection began that very day.
Mother let Meg go to Betsy’s house after school sometimes, or Betsy would come to Meg’s. But Meg liked going to Betsy’s best of all, because there she didn’t have to worry about Father suddenly appearing and spoiling things. She had learned over the years, especially lately, that none of her friends liked coming to her house. It was like a curse, having parents that nobody else wanted to be around.
One day, Meg ran alongside Betsy up the winding driveway to her house, eager to tell secrets and plunge into still another Nancy Drew mystery book. Even though Betsy had read them all already, she enjoyed rereading them with Meg there. But first they entered the tiny kitchen with its chipped linoleum floor, where Betsy got down the big old cookie jar. With glasses of milk and handfuls of cookies in a napkin, they took off for Betsy’s room.
Betsy’s house stood behind the main house where the Murrays lived; they actually owned this little house, renting it out to the hired help. Meg hadn’t really thought about it, but she guessed that Betsy’s father probably worked for Mr. Murray. Betsy shared her room with her brother, the tiny space divided by a curtain on a rod hung from the ceiling. Her bed was a mattress on the floor, and her closet space behind still another curtain completed the room’s furnishings.
While Betsy pulled her favorite book from the bottom of the box, Meg stared at her face in the chipped mirror on the door. A full-length mirror, it reflected back an unforgiving image. Meg saw a sallow complexion, without makeup. She frowned at the straight brown hair that hung down her back. She seldom paid attention to her looks, but with the smirks of Della’s crowd still ringing in her ears, she had to wonder what they saw when they looked at her.
“Do you think I’m ugly?” Meg turned suddenly to Betsy, her eyes demanding the truth.
But Betsy shook her head, jumping up to hug her friend. Together they stood before the mirror, Plain and Plainer, and Meg knew the truth. But Betsy denied the evidence before them.
“We just have other, more important things on our minds,” she insisted. “If we put makeup on and had our hair trimmed or curled, we’d be gorgeous, too!” Betsy laughed, enjoying the thought, but also priding herself on their more lofty aspirations. Being beautiful was such a temporary thing, anyway.
But hours later in her own room, Meg consulted her mirror and decided that Betsy was right about one thing. Makeup would certainly help.
But that was out of the question. Father had really strict views about cosmetics. It wasn’t that he thought she was too young for makeup. Even Mother didn’t wear any makeup. It was a church rule.
One time, just last year, when she and Josie were still hanging out, Meg had tried on some of Josie’s lipstick. She’d stared at the unfamiliar face in the mirror, suddenly queasy inside. She could almost hear Father’s voice shouting at her, and she’d quickly rubbed the lipstick off, afraid that a trace of it would remain and that Father would be able to tell.
She lay down on her bed now, closing her eyes. She pictured herself many years down the road wearing beautiful clothes purchased in a department store. She would have her hair cut in a professional hairstyle and her face would be tastefully made up. She would saunter elegantly into a restaurant, where her handsome husband awaited. And they would dine on beautifully prepared and served foods, murmuring softly to one another. And afterwards, they would dance to the music.
Dancing was another forbidden fruit. Father equated dancing with being seduced by the Devil. If it weren’t so serious, it might even be funny. But Father’s strict and oppressive rules were no laughing matter.
* * *
During her thirteenth year, Meg began to obsess on the betrayals of her body. For one thing, she hadn’t started her period yet. Like a badge of womanhood, this sign of maturity eluded her. Josie and Betsy had both started theirs, and Meg was seriously beginning to wonder if something was wrong with her. But then during August of that year, while she cut fruit in the shed, she felt it. The moisture in her panties. The sign that all the girls had described. She quickly ran up to the house, pleading the need to use the bathroom. And once inside, she sent up a silent prayer while she checked her panties. And sure enough, there it was. The telltale brownish reddish stain that heralded the most important event of her young life!
For the rest of the day, she felt like she was walking on air and saw everything with new eyes.
And when she looked at the women, she knew she had just earned her membership in a special, secret club. One that none of the men could begin to understand. As a woman, she had special powers now. She couldn’t wait to call Betsy and tell her all about it.
Betsy listened and shouted: “Hooray! Now you can finally stop worrying that something is wrong with you!”
They both laughed at the silly imaginings of Meg’s mind. But underneath the laughter, Meg shielded a very private fear. She still knew that something was wrong with her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what that something was. It hovered on the edges of her mind like a gnat underneath her eyelid, and every time she thought she could pinpoint the source of the feeling, her mind went blank.
She wouldn’t even begin to put it together for several more years.