Fake Cheese; The Grilled Cheese Sandwich
1975, I was four years old. Winter time in Ohio. It was cold and I remember my mom bundling me up to take me to a new babysitter because the other one, well, it was a bad situation.
My mother was working at two different bars in town and also helping my dad run the body shop that they owned. My grandma was a cook at the Gaslight Inn so I needed to go and be taken care of in the afternoons.
When I walked into the house it seemed cool. The women was young and she was smiling. She laughed with mom and I remember thinking “Well, this is going to be much better than playing with paper dolls and then being sent to the basement!” I had no idea. I just had no idea how complex humans could be. But, I was about to find out. Yes, I was.
My mom kissed me goodbye as I stood there with my little hat my grandma had made for me, my mittens. I stood there in front of this smiling woman, waiting. I hoped we could maybe play blocks. Maybe go outside later and play in the snow. I didn’t know.
Other kids came a little later. I don’t remember if it was one or two, that first day. My memory has fragmented. I apologize. However, what follows is crystal clear.
This woman wanted to cook lunch from dirty dishes. She wanted us to eat grilled cheese baked in an oven, made with cheese that was squeezed from a container that was molded. There was fruit that was bad. There was fruit that was good. She was giving the children the bad fruit and keeping the good for herself.
I told her I was not hungry. I was not mean. I was not hateful when it was time to eat. I simply stared at my servings and put my hands in my lap as the other children tried to pick their way through the horrid fare. They, were hungry. Of course, we were all hungry. I, however, refused to accept that, this woman, was being just mean, to children she was being paid to care for. You see, she was smiling as she served this food to us. She smiled and she curved her lips up meanly. So, I smiled and told her I was not hungry. I did this because I knew she was sick and sad inside. Some part of her was broken.
She considered my eyes, sizing me up. I knew I was in trouble. I remember the little boy’s cadence beside me “just eat the thing, just do it” then the little person beside him “come on, it’s ok! Just today! Try it!” Honestly, my days are probably mixing because this scene that I am describing happened for many days following this first day, however, the first day is set into my mind the most because I think I thought she could have just killed me and have been done to set the tone of our ride. Alas she decided not to do so. Instead she chose the snow. Cold would be my fun. I was wearing thermal underwear and socks.
I remember her sitting in her chair watching me. Sit. Sizing me like I was grown. I sat up a little straighter. The little boy touched my hand and I shoved him away because I was afraid he would get hurt too. I instinctively knew anyone near me was going to get hurt.
Quicker than a snake she struck. She flew across the table and grabbed me by my hair and drug me to the back door. She opened the door and threw me outside into the snow. She yelled “Enjoy the cold you little bitch! When you learn to enjoy dirt like your mama? You can come in!”
I didn’t understand. I didn’t know then that she had once loved my daddy. I didn’t know that a woman could hurt a child because of her jealousy. I didn’t know that brokenness could cause abuse that could kill hearts. I did however know that I could die in the snow. I was so very cold.
I stood looking at the snow. I don’t know how long. I can’t even begin to imagine exactly how long each day I was outside. I did not die nor did I lose fingertips or toes, therefore, I must not have been outside for a horrifically long period of time. I do remember the coping mechanisms I taught myself though.
The first week I remember telling myself not to look toward the house because I wanted to make certain I would not cry and make the other children cry. I was afraid she would hurt them. I was afraid that they would end up outside with me. The little boy was the weakest of all. I knew he would never survive outside. He would tell his parents and then the babysitter would end up in jail or worse. I figured if she saw that I was tough she might learn that my mama was tough too and she’d learn something.
So, that first week, I didn’t look at the house. I stayed near the house and scooped out a little burrow in the snow and stayed in it. It kept the wind off me. The sun basically kept me warm and I could watch the sun glint off the snow. The crystals looked pretty.
I remember listening to her sing from the window. Repetitively. The loudest music she could find to attempt to ruin my crystals. Anything to remind me she still was there. I stared at my crystals. Remembered that my mother would come. My mother always came back. My mother always came back with the warm. Out frost. In fire. I had learned that chant as a little girl It’s an old one. “Three sisters came from the east, two brought frost, one brought fire…” Have. Mercy. My life, you cannot make this story up.
My last day in the snow was a rough one. It was bitterly cold. I remember being inside the house, the power was out inside the house and even the other children were more indignant than usual. They were vigilant that Tinker Bell was not going outside today. Neat was staying inside. So, they were doing everything they could to lay down little “issues” to keep me inside.
Cars were left in the hallway and almost tripped over. Cigarettes were lost. Doors locked. This woman almost lost her already broken mind because she wanted Tinker Bell in the snow to suffer. See, she wanted me to hurt. She wanted to hurt me because she hurt. I let her. It was ok. I was strong even in my youth. I let the other children see. I understood her hurt, almost. I didn’t really, back then. I do now. I have been the hurt and I have caused the hurt.
That year, 1975. I suffered in the snow and almost died as a little girl because of my father’s transgression. I survived because my mother showed up early.
The power went out at the bar, or so I heard. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe mom had a twitch in her ear. Maybe she heard a train. I know this, my heart was beating too slow that day. I remember the ice crystals dancing in front of me. I remember seeing the hawks flying above me, dancing.
This little girl here was waiting for her mama. Mama came. She charged into the front door looking for me. Somehow, she knew she wouldn’t find me inside. The kids told her where I was. She came and found me, scooped me up and put me into the warm car. I remember her kissing me. I remember her face being hot, wet. I remember she was vibrating. I remember her telling me to stay put and I remember she covered me from head to toe with a blanket and a tarp from the back of the car. I felt like a dead person. I was in complete darkness and it was good. The car was filled with exhaust. It was perfect oblivion.
My mother proceeded to clear the babysitters house of children. I hear she took them to the neighbor’s houses who then called their parents.
The rest of the story took many years for my grandmother to tell me. I begged for the truth. All of it, I wanted to know what had happened. The “why”. What had I paid the price for? I just wanted to know. I felt that I needed to understand the lesson at least. I was owed that. I needed the justification.
My grandmother explained to me that I had done a good deed. I had taught the children to be honorable. I had taught the women to look inside of herself. My mother had taken the children to safety. My mother went inside that house and sat down with the women. Her first instinct was to whip her ass. I do think she may have battled with her. I do not care what my grandmother said. Well, I do, actually. Perhaps they battled, perhaps they did not. Does it matter? A price is always paid.
We decide how long and how much to pay. We decide the cost.
Suffer. How much? Will a child pay? Or will you pay? Will I pay?
Something to think on today. I’m not sure. I’m not certain it’s worth the cost. There is much to consider. More to write. Many more words. Many more succinct words for you to eat. Wait.