I was shocked. I didn’t know such things were possible.
After spending years – at least two- treating books, pictures, and papers of every kind with respect, this was some kind of twisted revelation.
My mom finished cutting the photograph. She held up the piece she had cut out.
It was the shape of an oak leaf.
She fixed the photo oak leaf on the end of a tooth pick. Touching it to her paint, like a rubber stamp, she began stamping the shape of an oak leaf onto her painting of a tree.
Less than four years old, I sat and stared, wide eyed, at the thought of the millions and millions of leaves on every tree.
One year, when I was home from school for Christmas, mom had found one of her paintings from back in the day. Our house was full of Bob Ross style paintings done by great grandparents, but her paintings had all vanished a long time ago.
It was unframed, leaning against the wall for lack of a permanent home.
It was a painting she had made when she was a teenager- I think- before Dad and before us kids had come along.
It was almost photographic.
A deep well or pit, in an overshadowing forest. It had a worm’s eye view that looked up, almost out of the pit, but took in the sides and floor as well. The floor was deep clear water. Who knows how far down the pit actually went. A little strand of a waterfall was pouring over the edge of the pit, into the depths below. It glistened, shining in sunlight that must be finding its way through the canopy somehow.
Ferns hung over the edge of the pit and clung to niches in its sides.
They glowed in the murk around them, shapes made of green fire. Their veins and fibers visible, the ferns were suspended in time and space, perfect in detail.
Grandpa, her father, had died that year. She had found the painting in some storage room, while helping Granny clean out the old house.
After leaning against the wall for a while, it disappeared.
“I’m not your mom. I’m a crow.”
She was saying this in an almost joking tone of voice, but I was starting to get scared. She wouldn’t stop saying it.
“But Mom, if there were a crow living in your chest, controlling you, your heart wouldn’t work. You wouldn’t be alive.”
I was a little over five. Me and my two younger sisters and her were alone, out in the country house. We had moved here because the gun shots you could hear at night in the city scared her. But the empty sky at night, the wind moaning in the boards of the farm house, the endless solitude- they were scary too.
“Well, she’s not here. I locked her in the freezer and took over her body.” She grinned.
Eventually, she admitted that she was our Mom and wasn’t a crow.
Apparently this was her form of stress relief.
Nearly grown up, standing at the kitchen table I listened to Mom. She was talking about her younger brother.
“Oh, he says Grandpa abused him. But none of the rest of us remember it that way. He’s making it up.”
We were sitting at the kitchen table, with a piece of paper. Mom had sketched out train tracks. They were wide at the bottom of the page, as if you were standing on the tracks. They got closer together and smaller and smaller as they streamed away from you- till they met and disappeared in the center of the page. The horizon spread out like wings, from either side of their meeting.
She was showing me how to create the illusion of distance.
The closer anything was to that point, the smaller you drew it. That made them seem farther away.
She tapped the point with her eraser.
“That’s called the Vanishing Point”
She had spent her entire childhood drawing. She had drawn in sketchbooks, drawn on pieces of butcher paper, drawn while the kids had laid on the floor and watched TV together, drawn with chalk in the basement of her grandparent’s house. There was even a story about the bunk bed getting drawn on at night.
Mom had learned about the Vanishing Point. She knew how to use it.
At our Grandpa’s house, there was a stone fireplace. Grandpa had built it himself, despite how poor they had been most of the time. It was topped by a wooden mantlepiece- a single solid piece of wood, rugged, yet polished and smooth.
As a child, I would run my hand over the surface of the wood, marveling at the strange texture.
A lifetime before that, the beam had been laying on the concrete floor, surrounded by piles of unplaced stones and tools. It’s surfaces had all been flat and straight.
Possessed by whatever unmentionable emotion that had possessed him, my mom’s younger brother had gone into the room alone. He had taken a hatchet that was lying nearby. And he had smashed the entire face of the beam.
Then my Grandpa had walked in.
Over the mantlepiece, it’s warbled surface sanded deep enough to hide the hatchet strokes, was a pair of horns. They weren’t deer or elk horns, with multifaceted surfaces and many conclusions.
They were cow horns- almost as long as a man is tall. Their strong beautiful lines curved up into two graceful points.
They could impale you, I thought, if they swung just right.
They were Longhorns. My Grandpa was a Cowboy.
We were having Bible study, our morning routine. Sitting on the floor with my sisters, Mom was reading to us from Isaiah- Isaiah 64.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
“When it says filthy rags,” Mom pointed out to us. She had been reading up on it. “It means menstrual rags. It’s not just that the rags have dirt on them. It’s not just gross. It’s that that blood should have helped you get pregnant, but it didn’t. What should have brought life, was wasted. ”
Women were saved through childbearing. Menstruating was the result of God’s curse on Adam and Eve. Being pregnant erased the curse.
Our little brother was asleep in the other room.
“This is what our good deeds look like to God. Filthy menstrual rags. No matter what good things we do, without Jesus’ death, it’s worthless.”
Maybe I was eight. Maybe I was ten. Maybe I was fourteen. Every year seemed the same, with the wind rolling past outside.
I crawled through the scrub, weapon in hand, scanning the trees through a paintball mask, watching for movement. Some shots went past me and I got up behind a tree, safe in the direction they’d come from. I peered out.
Across the gully, a mask appeared from behind a tree. I shot reflexively, and paint splattered across the goggles.
‘Dead’, the masked person got up and went to the edge of the trees, out of the playing field.
After the game ended we went to meet the dead, outside of the trees, and laugh and talk about the game.
It turned out it wasn’t my uncle who I’d shot. It was my crush’s Dad. The father of six boys, his oldest son was the same age as me. The boy claimed that the guys at the professional paintball course called his dad ‘The Jackal’. There were stars in his eyes when he said it.
The dad was impressed. “Good shot!” he complimented me.
I considered it lucky. I decided I needed to improve.
My mom’s younger brother was one of our few adult relatives who would play paintball with the kids.
I remember sitting, listening to him explain the difference between cover and concealment, watching him sketch out on a sheet of paper the different formations a squad could take to move under fire. There were combat manuals at his house that he refused to say how he acquired. Rumors about weekend training courses that he went to.
He was considered a little obsessed with self defence, but he never came across as a gun nut. He avoided things that would make him look like a hick. Or poor.
In our games, if he was on your team, he would organize the players more knowledgeably than the other dads. You, move- now you, cover him. And so we would move through the woods behind Grandpa’s house.
My sister, youngest of the three, was telling the story.
“One time, back when we lived in the city, she told me that she had had other kids before us.”
My sister’s eyes got a little wide as she laughed at the joke.
“She said they didn’t mind her, so she put them on the curb and the garbage man took them away.”
None of my grandparent’s kids were named after Grandpa. None of them were named after Granny.
My Grandparents met when they were sixteen. One time (while they were broken up?) Grandpa had met some other girl. In the endless stories Grandpa would tell me when I was nearly grown up, sometimes he would talk about her. She was a dream girl.
Her family moved away. He never saw her again.
My mom was named after the Dream Girl.
When my mom got to be a teenager, she became quite shapely and beautiful. She dated a lot of boys and would go on long walks with them, out in the woods.
One of them, an older boy, was very attached to her. He went into the Navy when she was still just sixteen. She broke up with him when he left. He ended up becoming an alcoholic (and killing himself?). To his dying day he blamed her for his ruined life.
Granny has told me that she didn’t like my mom as a baby and toddler. Her first baby, the older brother, had been so quiet and compliant that she thought she had this parenting stuff figured out. Then my mom had come along and had a will of her own.
That little squirt made her so mad.
I remember my mom once telling me that when she was a teenager, she was so scared of her mom that she threw up every day.
But Grandpa would protect her. She was his favorite kid.
It was Bible study. It was me and my sisters, mostly. The boys were too little to understand. She was explaining the Holy Spirit to us. She had, perhaps, run into some difficulty and was searching for a metaphor.
“The Holy Spirit is like an Alien.” she said finally. “It’s like, when you pray and ask Jesus to come into your heart, there’s this alien that comes down to live in your brain and control your body. After that, if you struggle against him and don’t let him control you, you’ll end up doing evil, ungodly things like you did before you were saved.”
It scared me so much. I wanted so badly for her to stop talking- to stop saying this. I wasn’t able to make words come out.
I didn’t want an alien in my brain, controlling my body.
“But if you submit and let him control you, he’ll make you do good and be kind to people instead.”
She was completely serious.
“I wouldn’t run away.”
We were talking about the end of the world. About people coming to kill you for your religion.
“I would just stand there- and let them shoot me!” she said. She seemed exultant and a little blissful in her martyrdom.
I ran the pictures through my mind like a movie. In the movie, we were standing in the mouth of some cave, where we were hiding because we were Christians. Mom went out of the cave for no apparent reason, exultant and blissful, and was shot.
And I was left with a dead mother and five younger children.
Papers were churning out of the printer. They were churning out slowly, because of how old the printer was, but churning they were.
Mom collected them up, said goodbye, then was out the door.
Grandpa was dying. He had fought prostate cancer for years and years now.
But this year he was dying.
Granny insisted on taking care of him herself, at home. She had been a nurse after all. She could tough out anything. She could do it.
The stress and grief and the weird things Grandpa would say on morphine seemed to be sending her into complete emotional and mental breakdown.
Mom was over there a lot. Most of the time, it seemed like. And when she was home, she was on the internet, looking up websites and printing off articles for Grandpa to read.
Their shared passion was the Apocalypse. It always had been. How God was going to destroy the earth and the human race- slowly- using meteors and plagues and starvation and Sci-Fi Demon-Locusts from the Pit of Hell- before destroying the universe and damning to an eternity of pain the vermin who had refused to love him enough.
I turned away as the car backed down the lane. I was sitting with my baby sister, watching a fuzzy VHS video.
She was my mother’s eighth child. She was two. Everyone thought she was adorable. With Mom gone, she seemed to be alone all the time.
I was showing her the Ninja Turtles. They lived in hiding, underground, taking care of each other and generally being awesome. Their enemy was Shredder, of course, like my childhood crush had told me all those years ago. But they had another enemy- Krang.
Krang was an alien brain, exiled from his own world. Shredder had built a body and given it to him. Time and time again, the turtles kept Krang from taking over the world.
We snuggled together and watched the movie. She loved it.
A few weeks ago I was at the store with Mom. We both had a few things to pick up. She was looking for something.
“Oh, where is it? This store is exactly like the one in Pontiac, but they put everything in different places.”
We found the office supply section. She stood in front of a wall of thick packages and contemplated.
“Copy paper is getting pretty dear” she said finally.
“Do we really need it, if it’s that expensive?” I asked. Dad, the family’s main provider, had a brush with cancer a couple years ago. Now his lymph nodes were swollen for no apparent reason.
“It’s more important to me that the kids can draw.” she told me and picked up a package.
“Do you ever draw any more?” I asked her.
“Oh, no. It’s been so long, I don’t even know if I still can.”
My little brother came to me.
“You know the Lego Bible, from the library?”
The seventh child. The older boys tend to leave him out. He acts too young for his age- even according to homeschoolers.
He can solve math problems like its no one’s business.
“What about it?”
“Mom said it makes God look too mean.”
The Lego Bible was a big hit when it first came home. Mom and the kids were admiring how exactly it’s photographs reproduced the Bible- in every detail- right down to Mary’s pregnant belly. I couldn’t bear to look at it.
“Well, like the story Jesus tells where the rich man makes a wedding for his son. And then sends soldiers to kill people who wouldn’t come to the party.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Jesus really did tell that story.”
“And Revelations. It makes it look like God is killing people for no reason.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. God is so powerful, he could just blow the planet up and be done with it. I don’t know why he does all that stuff in Revelations. But it does say he does it.”
His eyes flashed. He thought he had a solution.
“But it was made by an atheist, after all!”
Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? Not many theists seem to be able to picture the Bible as if it were really happening.
And even in such a simple way- using children’s toys as graven rubber stamps- who else would dare create photographic images of God?