Here is Michelle Berry’s “Childhood,” the third in Numéro Cinq‘s new essay series (click on the “NC Childhood Series” tag to see the others), a gorgeous, lively, poignant tale of a nomadic youth and the bond between a writer and her brother growing up. Very human, achingly real. For the truth is these essays are also about what they do not tell—growing older, looking back through the haze of memory and the struggles of adulthood. Most of you are already familiar with Michelle through her “What it’s like living here” essay earlier published here. I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology. She’s energetic, comic and prolific. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year.
By Michelle Berry
A Robin Hood record with a book attached to the sleeve. My brother remembers I coloured all over the record book, red and blue crayon. He still doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have no recollection of it.
“Why,” I ask him, “would I have done that?”
“You were always doing things like that,” he replies.
Like the time he got a Swiss Army knife for a present and, sneaking into a barn in Virginia, climbing the huge bales of hay and jumping down to the floor, my brother tossed me his Swiss Army knife for safe-keeping. I can still see the glint of the metal as it twisted through the air – slow motion – and disappeared in huge mounds of hay.
“I was six years old,” I say. “You should have known better than to throw it to me.”
“Still,” he says. “It was a great knife. We never found it.”
I thought my father rented a metal detector but he has no memory of this. I think we did apologize to the farmer for sneaking into his barn.
I worried for a while that a cow might have eaten the knife in a mouthful of hay, and then I would imagine someone cutting into a steak one day and finding it.
The long road trip of my childhood.
Moving, traveling. There was a lot of both.
I was born in San Francisco, spent my first year in Claygate, England – first word: “hoss,” because they clip-clopped down the street carrying young girls going for a ride – lived in Virgina until I was seven, then Victoria, B.C.. We traveled across the country in a huge moving van, my mother driving the car behind us with our cat, Sassafras. I sang, “Leaving on a jet plane,” with my hand surfing wind out the van because my teenage cousin from New Jersey had taught it to me while she played the guitar. Every day in the van or car we had a new gift to keep us busy – colouring books, puzzles, snacks, mazes. We saw Prairie Dogs in the Badlands standing on their little back feet watching us watching them. Every motel we stayed in had a roadside pool. Once the gas in our U-Haul moving van was siphoned out of the van somewhere in Pennsylvania. Super Bowl this year my husband and father made silly jokes about the Steelers misspelling their name.
Houses. We had many houses. Rented mostly. Some bought. Faculty housing in downtown Charlottesville, a creek and a wood behind the house (Piss-wiss creek, we called it, because every boy in the area would, well, you know….). The house we owned in Stony Point, our neighbours had horses and cows. There were always woods. A huge snake came across the grass towards my father. He had cut the head off its mate with a penknife while my mother held the body with a rake in a moment of self-defense and panic. There were cottonmouths and skinks, rabbits, and a huge black cat called, “Black Cat,” who met its match with a cottonmouth.
My memories are hazy, snapshots of time. Stories that have been told over and over to you, by you, until you can actually see them in your head.
This is also how I write my novels, my stories. I see the characters in my mind and I follow them along, see what they are going to do, watch them. And report on them. Just like I watch my past. Just like the images that flash unorganized and fuzzy.
There was the time I put a wad of well-chewed gum over my eye – I was an instant pirate – and it stuck to my eyelashes and eyebrow. I can still feel the ice my mother put on my brow to make the gum come off.
When we moved to Victoria we vacationed several summers in California while my father did research at the Huntington Library and my mother, an artist, created. We traded houses with families, took care of their pets. One house had a giant poodle who was as surprised as my parents to find them in his owners’ bed in the morning as he bound crazily in and jumped on them, legs wonky and muppet-like. And a Siamese cat who peed on everything, the wooden cutting board – remarking on our cooking skills, perhaps? – in my purse. We drove down the coast, after our ferry ride to Port Angeles, our car loaded with clothes and food, a ghetto blaster and headphones, an invisible line drawn on the back seat between my brother and me. If either of us even put a finger over it, voices were raised. We stopped at road side rest areas, ate our Lebanon bologna and American cheese sandwiches on – special treat – white bread. Potato chips. Root Beer.
I always remember the food. Something I eat now can take me back immediately. Friday night treats of Cream Soda and Doritos chips. My mother’s lasagna. Haddonfield Cream Donuts from my grandparents. Once, when we were visiting my grandparents, my husband and I mailed one solitary cream donut to my brother who was studying law in Vancouver. We froze it first, on the advice of my grandmother. We paid the cheapest postage rate (we were students too) and so, a week later, mushy and probably stale, my brother received it. And ate it. And loved it.
There was the San Francisco kite market when I was about ten years old. A pierced and tattooed motorcycle gang in the Chinese bakery, swarming the place — we sat mute in the corner, terrified, as they silently engulfed the place with their presence. They were demanding protection money and the Chinese staff moved around them like shadows. I remembered one rider’s nails, so long they curled, the polish silver.
There was the house in Palo Alto that was all glass. A screenwriter’s house. Friends were staying there and invited us to visit for a couple of days. I had artichokes for the first time there. Dipped the leaves in melted butter, pulled them through my front teeth. They had two refrigerators, I remember, a richness that seemed incomparable at the time. They had a pool that was lit up blue at night, and the hot tub was red. We ran from floor to floor of this glass house watching our parents out in the hot tub, drinking champagne. Or maybe they watched us run from floor to floor. The story has been told both ways. I can see it from both points of view.
You’re Lucky You Weren’t Killed
There was the house in Victoria, our third one. My parents let me roller skate on the hard wood floors before they refinished them. I roller skated in the dining room. We had a rope swing out back from tree almost to patio. We would swing out, grab hold of a branch, drop to the ground. The distance felt high and long. Daredevils, we were. My brother was Evil Knievel – I was his younger assistant. I’m the one who broke the tree branch, almost killing myself. My father took the swing away after that. I can still hear the crack as it just missed my head.
“You’re lucky you weren’t killed.”
Gerbil mazes created out of all the wood we could find, built wildly throughout the backyard. Whole days spent racing them. Week long Monopoly tournaments. Plays we staged, magic shows. We were a bike gang for a while. I had a banana seat and streamers on my handle bars. We developed our own photographs in my mother’s home-made bathroom darkroom. The one of my watch, black and white, that could have been a U.F.O. if you looked at it the right way. Which might have given my brother a great idea, although if I really think about it, I’m sure his idea came first. He spent weeks with a fishing line, two paper plates and half of one of those plastic eggs nylons used to come in. A camera and some darkroom skills, getting the lighting and angle just right, he almost fooled one of his friends. Yes, a U.F.O. had flown over our backyard. Here’s the proof.
I remember childhood as exciting and busy. We were always creating something, destroying something, up to something. Arguing, yes, there were noogies (my head is still dented, I’m sure) and twisted arms. But there was also laughter. A lot of it. My job was to make my brother laugh. It still is.
I did the dishes – strengthened my ballet calves by doing plies at the sink. I baked chocolate chip cookies for my father, just to make him happy – I still do. I’m pretty sure I made my bed every day, even if I didn’t fold or put away my clothes. My mother says, “I remember you being a very nice little girl.” Of course that changed when I became a teenager.
I know (I think I know) that I didn’t destroy that Robin Hood record – but who did? And does it really matter? Because the story, although reflecting badly on me, is only that, a story. “Remember when Michelle wrecked my Robin Hood record?” They still like to get me agitated about it. Worked up. Defending myself. But it has become family lore and even my own children roll their eyes at me and say, “Sure, Mom, sure you didn’t colour on the record.”
I really should get my brother a new copy of Robin Hood, at least a cd. He is, after all, having his own first baby soon. A boy. Maybe someday he’ll have a devilish little girl too, and she can be falsely accused of cracking the cd case, or breaking it in half. I’ll get him a Swiss Army knife too. And some hay. I’ll get him all those things.
To make him laugh. To continue the story.
(Post design by Gwen Mullins)
This is wonderful. Thank you. One feels like the girl in the pictures (the little Michelle Berry: the one who tells stories to herself, who has the job of making someone laugh) is actually writing it.
Lovely! “I always remember the food” too. I enjoyed following the thread of the brother-sister relationship and your beautiful ending.
This is a beautiful portrait of childhood. I love the uncertainty of the record colouring memory in the midst of so many other distinct and wonderful memories. This was clearly a childhood rich with creativity, free play and love. Lucky for us readers that this got rolled into the adult writer. Thank you for sharing, Michelle.
thank you all above. These are wonderful comments. It amazes me (and humbles me) that anyone but me would be interested in my childhood.