There is Jane, brown-eyed and cherubic, who in high school will cling to the balance beam with her toes, refusing to fall off. She succeeds by sheer force of will. It is Jane's hand-me-downs I wear and her bed I climb into during thunderstorms.
Then there is me. I take ballet lessons instead of piano, try out for plays instead of sports. I don't realize until later that I am the classic middle child, doing what I can to get attention. I am not as good as my older siblings and not as cute as the younger, so I strive mostly to be different.
Next is Patty, and then Amy, the baby, lanky and blue-eyed, the only one with mounds of curls, chasing after all of us, forever trying to keep up.
My father is proud of his family in a Catholic, fill-the-pew sort of way. His children sit in descending order, Steve in an ironed shirt and clip-on tie, the girls in poof-sleeved dresses, veils of lace bobby-pinned to our hair. My mother is proud, too. Straight-backed and beautiful, she holds Amy, always the baby. There we sit, our patent leathers swinging and sometimes kicking, as the priest walks down the aisle in his embroidered brocade, swinging his censer, the rich incense stinging our eyes.
Dad sells insurance for Metropolitan Life. Mom, a registered nurse, stays home with us kids, washing and folding, and carrying in bag after bag of groceries. For a while my Uncle Sandy lives in our basement, his bed and tin clothes cabinet separated off by curtains and a rug. On Sunday mornings we thunder down the stairs and jump on him as he tries to sleep off his Saturday night. He is our favorite uncle, mostly because he lives with us, but also because he has a magical way with broken-spoked bikes and skates without keys. He fixes Amy's favorite push toy without her even asking, though taking out the popping balls that make so much noise that his head hurts. When he is at work, up to his knuckles in the grease from someone's car, we jump on his bed and try to peek at the covers of the Playboys he has hidden on the top of his clothes cabinet, always straightening his blankets and pillow afterward, and giggling with guilt.
In the summer we barely clear our dinner dishes before disappearing down the block for our nightly games of Kick the Can and Capture the Flag, the older kids forced by parents to let us little ones play. In the winter we switch to King of the Mountain on the hard-packed snowbanks, or build igloos out of the chunks the snowplows leave on the curb.
The year I am in kindergarten the whole family climbs into the station wagon for the drive to Borgess Hill. It is the steepest and iciest in town, and we pile as many as we can fit onto the sled, me in front, Pat behind me, Jane behind her, and Uncle Sandy in the back. Steve runs behind, pushing, his boots churning on the snow, and then jumps on as we fly, the wind ripping screams from our mouths. Halfway down we tip, and the metal runner of the sled slices over my boot and breaks my ankle. For weeks Steve, four years older, has to drag me to school on the same sled, my cast in a plastic bread bag to keep it from getting wet. One day he stops at the top of a hill and gives the sled a shove, and I hurtle down the sidewalk, lugelike, between the snowbanks.
The year I am seven the snow is so deep that drivers put orange Styrofoam balls on the tips of their car antennas so they can see each other at intersections. We kids dig a tunnel from our house to the neighbors', then burrow back home for hot chocolate, our scarves and mittens dripping in the hall.
At Christmas we line up every year, oldest to youngest, Amy standing on tiptoe and still not reaching high enough to hang her stocking on the hooks that line the mantel. In the summers we pose again, draped on the sign of the year's campground or national park, our beagle Penny out front.
Don't you take the picture, Dad says to Mom. You always cut off everyone's head.
Copyright © by Janine Latus
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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