About 2:00 in the afternoon on a very special summer day, I would be sent up to the north window to keep watch.
There is a little landing three-quarters of the way up to the second story where the staircase turns for the final four steps up to the narrow hallway that runs past two small bedrooms on the left. The first of those is my brother’s and the second one mine. We inherited those rooms in our turn after they had been occupied and left by five older siblings over the previous 15 years. Then the hall turns right to the last and largest bedroom that faces west. That large one is all spruced up today, because Company Is Coming From California.
So I am sent up to The Window At The Landing to keep watch. We don’t have a telephone, but two days ago we got a postcard that confirmed what the letter received last week said: they will be arriving about 2:30 on this afternoon. Some of those summer days, it might one or two of the unmarried aunts (“unclaimed blessings,” Dad called them) who would have ridden the Greyhound Bus to Glendive and then been escorted from there by other relatives. It might be the Uncle who was gassed in the trenches of France in World War I, arriving with his wife. The most important visits of all were when either of our sisters would arrive with their husbands, all the way from California, every three years or so.
So I’m on that landing that lets me see over the trees, watching the mailbox 3/4 mile across the fields, where the red scoria road begins. When I see a car turn toward the farm at that corner, I raise the alarm by calling, “they’re coming!!” accompanied by my thumpety-thumpety-thumpety-thumpety drumbeat on the stairs as I fly down to the kitchen. Mom has 45 seconds to get her everyday apron off, put her company apron on, comb her hair quickly, powder her nose, turn the coffee on and set the fresh cinnamon rolls on the table ready to be served the minute The Company is in the door.
Farm kids in the 1950’s could be described as existential~~grounded in existence or the experience of existence~~even though some of those summers included headlines about important events elsewhere…like a 17 million dollar park called Disneyland opening in California in 1955 or the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. Our world consisted of what we saw or did on that day. We were always very present. We didn’t get distracted much from the basics of life for the simple reason that there were no distractions. There were no nonessentials, very few options and not many electives. “Having company come” was always a major event.
Then when I headed up those same stairs on a dark winter evening, I would often wonder: was my brother waiting around the corner just above the landing to scare me? Sometimes he was. It didn’t do any good that I knew good and well he might be there. It didn’t help a bit that I also knew good and well he would never do anything to hurt me. We each play our role: I go up the stairs, hoping he’s not there. He yells a bit, jumps up and throws his arms around. I jump out of my skin. He chuckles as he goes into his room and quietly shuts the door behind him, and I try not to make noise as I hurry into my room and shut my door.
That landing at the window was also a good place to just stand and look. Not look for anything in particular. Just look. Over the years, I did lots of thinking on the landing at the north window, looking and thinking, turning problems over in my head. Looking….thinking.
One day I stood there thinking about how conscience worked. And specifically, about how my conscience worked. The question I eventually posed for myself was this: Is it possible to deliberately do something that I know is wrong? Can I choose to go against my own conscience? I was about 9 or 10, old enough to understand the role of conscience, but not old enough to realize that I probably did “wrong things” every day, even knowing they wrong. So I was thinking very specifically about deliberately doing something I know is wrong, knowing as I’m doing it that it’s wrong, and doing it for no other reason than to find out if it were possible.
I need to find out.
So I leave the window on the landing. I traipse down the stairs through the big hallway that leads me tto the living room. I walk past Mom where she sits at the dining room table reading a magazine and drinking her coffee. I go through the kitchen, down the back stairs, past the landing where the back door led to the outside and on down to the basement. And there it is.
There it is. The Kingsize Box Of Tide.
My research is designed this way: in order to test whether I can consciously act against my conscience, I have come to the basement to see if I can pick up the Kingsize Box Of Tide and dump it on the floor. Or~~and here was the heart of the issue~~would some Great Invisible Force manifest between my hands and the box? Between the box in my hands and the pouring motion? Would I be stopped? My inquiring mind really wanted to know.
I pick up the Kingsize Box of Tide and dump it on the floor. And there ya go. I’m here to tell you that it IS possible to deliberately do something that is wrong.
However, on the day in question, this is exactly the point where things started to break down a bit, because now I had a new problem: where should a child report such research? Such thought-provoking discoveries?
I had learned by experience that my parents appreciated it when we thought things through and they were forever wanting us to learn new things. So, based on that, I left The Kingsize Tide Pyramid there on the floor and went back up to the dining room to explain my research to Mom~~the question I had posed, the experiment I had designed and what I had learned.
Turns out she just wasn’t all that interested . She certainly wasn’t interested in my original question or my ability to find my own answers. I mark that day as the very last time, out of perhaps a total of three times it happened, that I got switched across my butt with the metal yardstick. I also had to clean up the Tide.
Some time later, around the same age, I destroy my lovely brown bangs with a scissor, because I want shorter bangs. Apparently being a slow learner in such things, I try again with the existential explanation: I really, really, really wanted her to understand how I had already come to peace with The Big Bangs Disaster before she even saw it. The minute she lays eyes on me she does that giant inhalation that always signals danger for any feathers or flies that may be in the vicinity and I start talking~~fast.
“Mom, I’ve been thinking about it. Now that I have cut my hair, it has been done. It’s there, in the past. So ifitwasgoingtobesomethingthatwasdone (oh boy…it’s not looking good….talk faster…)….Ididn’treallyhaveanychoice. I had to do it.” (slowing down now….judging by the look on her face, she’s not grasping the nuance of the thing) “I had to do it. So it could end up being done.”
That time I don’t remember being punished. I believe she just took a nap.
Mom took lots of naps. Long naps.
Especially during the summer.
I was really, really quiet when she took a long nap.