Three months ago, a moving van pulled up in front of the empty, two-story house across the street. Two men opened the side panel, lowering a plank. But instead of furniture, what emerged was a scene from Noah’s Ark as, two by two, goats, cows, horses and pigs mindlessly clomped their way down and disappeared through the neighbor’s door.
Weeks went by without as much as a snort or whiny. Occasionally unidentifiable figures could be seen through the curtained windows, moving back and forth. An unmarked delivery truck would arrive every Monday, pull around to the back and then drive away ten minutes later.
One day, wanting to be neighborly, and satisfy my curiosity, I cooked a pot of grass, oats and carrots and walked it over. As I clanged the bell which hung above the doorpost, I heard the thunder of hooves running frantically up the wooden staircase, and then just as quickly it was quiet, like the aftermath of a shooting. Leaving the kettle of food by the front door, I slowly walked back to the banality of my house as I felt a hundred eyes staring down at me, but I resisted the temptation to turn. The next morning when I opened the front door, the empty pot was on the welcome mat.
For weeks I sat by the living room window in my favorite recliner, alternately reading the latest bestseller and then casting a vigilant eye for any possible movement from across the way, determined to unlock the mystery that had moved into my neighborhood.
Early one morning, an obsession took hold of me, and that’s when I ran across the street and kicked down the neighbor’s door to find they had moved out. I walked from room to room, but not as much as a piece of hay was in sight; the house was spotless, and eerily quiet. My legs felt weak as I stepped over the door on my way back home. Halfway down the walk, I had the premonition to turn around. As I did, I felt something brush passed me, but when I looked, nothing was there.
A few weeks later, when another moving van pulled up across the street, I drew the curtains.
In the early ‘60s, when my older sister, Bonnie, and I were growing up in Fresno, California, we had two kittens named Mitsy and Jeremiah. They were black with white paws and looked almost like twins. I don’t remember where they came from. I just remember dressing the kittens up as if they were dolls and playing house with them in the bedroom we shared.
One day after coming home from school, my sister and I went looking for them, but they were nowhere. We asked our mother who was washing dishes if she knew where they were, but she said she hadn’t seen them. My father’s blue Dodge was in the driveway so I knew he was home. I assumed he was in the backyard picking walnuts off the tree. He often did this to keep the squirrels from getting to them first.
My family lived on an acre in the rural section of Fresno. Our ranch-style house was built by my father in 1952, the year I was born. Except for help with the plumbing, he did all the construction himself. The house was on the front of the lot; the backyard was divided into two areas, with a seven-foot high wood fence that separated them. The yard directly behind the house had a kidney-shaped pool and a cabana with a kitchenette, a toilet and a shower; in the other yard was our playhouse, my mother’s clothesline, a vegetable garden, grapevines, berry bushes, a variety of fruit trees and, of course, a walnut tree. On the other side of the chain-link fence where our property ended was a bridle path where people from the neighborhood would walk or ride their horses. A ditch ran alongside the path; about six months out of the year it was filled with water. During the months it was empty, Bonnie and I would climb down into the ditch and look for anything we thought might be valuable. One summer I found a fish in a large puddle of water. I named it Gus and kept it as a pet. Because we never knew when it would fill again, we always felt anticipation that water might come gushing from around the bend and sweep us away. But that never stopped us from playing there.
My sister and I had given up our search for the kittens and were sitting at the dining room table doing our homework. From where I sat, I could see my father walk into the kitchen carrying a paper bag filled with walnuts. He left them on the kitchen counter for my mother to store away to use in her baking. Without saying a word, my father walked down the hall towards his study at the back of the house where he spent almost every evening sitting in his upholstered green chair bent over his roll-top desk. He would have an open Bible on his left side and a notebook in front of him on which he wrote his thoughts. I remember many nights walking into the kitchen and looking down the hallway and seeing my father’s small figure in his dimly lit study. He was a sullen, religious man.
It was early evening and still light outside. My mother was cooking dinner, but she stopped to carry the bag of walnuts into the garage. When she opened the door to the outside, Mitsy and Jeremiah raced into the kitchen, dripping wet. Bonnie and I ran over to them. My mother rushed to the laundry room and brought back several towels to wrap the kittens. Their startled eyes suggested that they had escaped some frightening ordeal. We dried the kittens, comforting them until they calmed down. Through all this commotion, my father never left his study. Knowing him as she did, my mother intuitively walked down the hall and into the study, closing the door behind her.
My sister and I had a habit of eavesdropping whenever our parents had one of their “discussions,” but for some reason this time we stayed in the kitchen with Mitsy and Jeremiah. About 15 minutes later, my mother walked out of the study, alone. “Girls, come with me,” she said. Still holding the kittens wrapped in the towels, Bonnie and I followed her to the other side of the house, into her bedroom. By then my parents had been sleeping separately for over a year. We sat on her queen-sized bed with its turquoise bedspread, my mother’s favorite color, as she told us that my father had admitted to trying to drown the kittens by putting them inside of a grocery bag and throwing it into the ditch. They had fought their way out and had come running back home.
Of the few memories I retain of my childhood, this is one that stays with me. I didn’t see my father throw Mitsy and Jeremiah into the ditch, so I don’t know if what my mother told my sister and me was true. Perhaps they had accidentally fallen in the backyard pool. My mother did have a habit of saying derogatory things about my father and then ending with, “But don’t be bitter.” This was her circuitous way of gaining our allegiance while simultaneously discrediting my father, a childish maneuver, but both my parents were children in many ways—needy and emotionally immature. As different as they were, they had that much in common.
Now in my 50s, my parents having divorced when I was 21, now both deceased, I see my mother and father as simply two people who had their own individual hopes and dreams for a happy life. But married to each other, they never had a chance.