like family-paula mclain

i believe this selection came from a list that i made one day after the spice at the centre for women and trans people at uoft. after making a delicious lunch, i was allowed to camp out with a pile of bust magazines up to my eyebrows. while i can relate to the situation of being bounced from family to family, my alienation came from those who actually gave me life, yet a) bounced and never looked back, and b) stuck around but never missed the chance to remind me that i was a burden to try to keep dropping off on someone else’s doorstop and resign defeatedly to keep me if i found my way back, breadcrumbs or not. i’m fascinated muchly by siblings, and how folks who came from the same parents and grew up in the same homes eating the same food could turn out so different. the unspoken spoken here is how the girls learn to relate to each other in fleeting yet clinging ways-it’s like they adjust to the fact that they could be separated at any moment, so they don’t get too attached to each other. as time goes on, they also start to see that they’re each other’s only constants.

“Part of me would rather have been playing outside with the other kids, but I hated not knowing anyone. On the first day, Mrs. Just assigned Marcy Levesque to show me around, and I thought she might be my friend, but at the morning recess, when she asked me if I needed to go to the rest room, I said, “No thanks, I’m not tired.” She thought I was kidding and laughed; then when she realized I didn’t know that rest room meant toilet, she laughed even harder. The library was easier. I liked the way the books smelled, and how after time, my hands smelled like them, like dust and old paper and other people’s stories.” (91)

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4 thoughts on “like family-paula mclain

  1. “To think you were extra bratwurst was to believe you were above it all, too big for your britches, a princess who wouldn’t abide the pea. It must have been a German phrase. Hilde was a full-blooded German. She was born in Germany and lived there until Bub brought her back in 1957 as his GI bride. Everything was so new to her-she had never been in the States before-and he felt bad about leaving her home alone all day when he went off to work. So he started bringing her by his mother’s in the morning and picking her up on his way home. They got along right away, Noreen and Hilde, cut from the same cloth, as they say, a phrase that more than suited them because they made all their own clothes on Noreen’s rickety Singer using the same Butterick patterns: tent blouses with V necks and square patch pockets, polyester pants with sewn-in seams down the front.” (17)

    “When Hilde wasn’t dieting, the fridge fairly oozed with gross German food; when she was, there wasn’t much but the prepackaged dinners from Weight Watchers that looked like they wouldn’t satisfy a hamster. She always stuck to the diet at first, doing exercises in the kitchen, lifting cans of cling peaches over her head, grabbing onto a chair back to do leg lifts. Then, invariably, she’d fall off, forgetting to go to meetings or weigh-ins. It looked hard, losing weight, but my sisters and I had the opposite problem. Bub decided we’d been starved in our last foster home, and he started a weight-gaining contest to right this wrong. Whoever could gain ten pounds the fastest would get a new pair of pants. I don’t think any of us considered that gaining ten pounds would probably mean we’d need a /bunch/ of new clothes; we just started chowing in the spirit of competition. The morning the contest began, I ate a whole package of link sausages and four hard-boiled eggs. Penny took a big forkful of butter and swallowed it without chewing. We didn’t even get sick, just kept eating: hero sandwiches as big as footballs, whole pizzas, ice-cream floats in the huge plastic cups they give you Coke in at 7-Eleven. The whole time, Bub looked on and smiled as if, when we were eating like that, he could nearly see us as his daughters.” (18)

    “All you had to do was look at Hilde, her mouth in a hard line as if a ruler had slapped it there, arms crossed severely over her heart, to know there was no map, no access, no turnable knob to the door that was her-at least not for me and my sisters. She could be warm-I saw how eagerly she mothered Tina-but I didn’t feel any of that directed at me and didn’t see any warmth directed at Penny or Teresa. To us, she was a mom-sized armadillo, all shell and no shelter-and it made me nuts. I simultaneously wanted her to love me and hated that I cared. I looked to my sisters to see how they were handling the problem of Hilde’s impenetrability, but found no help. As far as I could tell, Teresa didn’t give Hilde a moment’s thought. Maybe it was too late for her to want anything from a mother, all the comings and goings adding leathery layers to her own shell. And Penny, maybe Penny wasn’t protected enough. Although she wasn’t getting any more affection than Teresa or I, she didn’t stop trying to find it, cuddling up tot eh petrified log of Hilde on the couch after dinner, leaning forward to touch a fuzzy wand to Hilde’s hair in the car. And if she couldn’t get love from Hilde, then she would take it where she could get it. That’s why she called back to the Fredrickson’s house and why she stayed after school every day to help her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Munoz, clap her erasers, following her from one corner of the classroom to another as if Mrs. Munoz had sugar in her pockets instead of chalk nubs.” (123)

    “When I walked into Bub and Hilde’s room, I told myself I was looking for something to soothe my stomach, but instead went right for Hilde’s dresser. On the top sat a few pictures of Tina, some Avon perfume bottles, an old hairbrush with grey-green lint in the bristles, Kleenexes. I unscrewed the lid on the perfume bottle shaped like an upside-down lady’s fan. It smelled like vanilla, but when I got brave and put a dab on my tongue, I found out it tasted like rat poison.” (136)

    this is a hard lesson-finding out that taste and smell, or any other combination of two senses, do not always work in tandem. my time came with scratch and sniff stickers-blasted scratch and sniff stickers that used to be en vogue.

  2. the others:

    “Tina had more new clothes and nicer ones than we did, and received double allowance, but we weren’t overly jealous. How could we be once we learned Tina was the reason we had come to the Lindberghs’ in the first place? Bub and Hilde had planned to have several more children after Tina, and although they tried for years to conceive, these attempts were foiled by what Hilde mysteriously termed “female problems.” They might have given up if not for Tina, who wanted siblings as much as she had ever wanted anything. We were the solution. Adoption was too permanent, but foster kids were like ponies bought at auction-you could always take them back.” (30)

    “Although I didn’t really miss Tina outside (she was way too bossy and confused me because I was used to taking orders from Teresa), I was surprised to see her give up so easily. She’d wanted sisters and ordered us, like shoes from a catalog, to be delivered at her door. Now here we were, and she was inside like an old lady, knitting a blanket for a winter that would never come. Maybe she just couldn’t get over the fact that we were one another’s sisters first, that she couldn’t be the center of attention because our center had already been formed long before we knew her. Or maybe she was jealous because we were encroaching on the space and the people she had owned outright until we came, like Krista. Like Bub.” (107)

    “I had a toy box and a closet full of clothes that Samantha Fredrickson said I could keep, no matter what happened. Sometimes I’d go into the closet and press into the bright row of my new dresses the way my sisters and I liked to do with racks of clothes at the department stores. /But these are mine/, I told myself, fingering the hems and sleeves and buttonholes, nodding so that my face rubbed clean cotton.” (86)

  3. although blood is allegedly thicker than water; some of us know some awfully thin hemoglobin:

    “Thinking back to that day, I often wish I had stood at the Clapps’ picture window awhile longer just watching him, drawing the moment out. If my sisters and I had walked to him instead of run, whispered instead of yelped with joy, perhaps time would have shifted just enough to let us keep each other.” (60)
    “I nodded but felt confused. Our mother was gone too, an there was no /always/ attached. We had been always-less for some time, and because of that, I was ready to try anyone in the space her leaving left: Donna or the women in the grocery store, the mothers in line at McDonald’s who said “Hush now” to their children in a way that made me think they didn’t mean /Be quiet/ as much as /There, there/.” (74)

    “What a strange thing, I thought, that you could unlearn your family. I felt it happening even with Keith and Tanya and Granny, who I’d known always. We visited less and less every year-it seemed there was always some track meet or school event or sleepover to get in the way-and when we did go, it took half a day for my body to relax and remember Granny’s things, the smell of her bathroom, the sound of her humming around in the kitchen before breakfast. When we left to go back to the Lindberghs, we all felt sad and told Granny we’d see her soon, but we didn’t see her soon, and the process would start again, skipping like a record.” (158)

  4. the lessons we must learn:

    “In truth I didn’t remember it at all, not a thing, and although I didn’t want my sisters to think I knew less than they did about /any/thing, I wasn’t at all surprised. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t remember, so much, in fact, that I had begun to regard my brain as its own complicated thing-sometimes a doctor, sometimes a drawer, sometimes a deliverer of memories like mail. When something big got lost, I just thought of it as a tonsil and heard the brain-doctor saying, “It has to come out. You won’t feel a thing, and later there’ll be ice cream.” (89)

    “Somehow we knew what to do. It didn’t matter that we were all under sixteen and wanted breasts more than world peace; that we had stringy hair and were wearing the same cotton shorts we wore last year and the year before. We sat up straight and threw our shoulders back. We crossed our bare legs and tossed our ponytails and let shy smiles work their way across our faces: We were rare. We were lovely. There was nothing like us for fifty miles, and those boys knew it.” (153)

    “Me, I didn’t eat lunch and hadn’t since seventh grade. We got lunch tickets from the Welfare Department, but I threw them away, every day into the same open can. They were stamped /Free/ on the back, and everyone knew only poor families got free tickets-the same families that waited in line downtown for hunks of cheese and powdered milk and baby formula. I didn’t want anyone to think I was like those poor people. In fact, I didn’t want anyone to think I was like those poor people. In fact, I didn’t want to be different in any way. If people found out I’d been given away not once, but over and over again, they would feel sorry for me. Easier to lie and say the Lindberghs were my parents and always had been. I could be anyone, really. I could be no one, sitting cross-legged behind the last stack in the library with my bag of corn nuts.” (175)

    “Money was so tight that I’d sometimes steal food from one of my roommates, Mara, who received welfare checks. At twenty, Mara was unmarried with no job, no education, no prospects and a two-year-old son. It was hard to feel too bad for her, though, since all she ever did was sit around on the sofa watching soaps, ordering in pizza and Chinese noodles, leaving the leftovers to congeal in Styrofoam on the coffee table. When I’d take a can of soup from her side of the pantry and eat it cold, right out of the can, I couldn’t help thinking about all those free-lunch tickets I threw away in high school, and I almost laughed, thinking of how I wouldn’t give much thought to digging through the garbage for them now.” (244)

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