I was ten when my mother informed my siblings and me that she was divorcing our dad. We weren’t surprised; we’d all known there were problems. Our main concern was whether we could stay in our house.
We lived in a three-story Victorian complete with servant bells, a garden room, and a swimming pool. The show-stopper was the ornate wooden banister that led upstairs, where the three bedrooms all had domed ceilings and floral-patterned wallpaper — pink flowers in the girls’ room, blue in the boys’, and trailing green vines and roses in the master bedroom.
Unfortunately our mother had been unable to find a job that paid enough to allow us to remain there. A FOR SALE sign went up in the yard.
Months went by without any offers on the house. Desperate, Mom decided the reason it wasn’t selling was the upstairs wallpaper; she had always disliked it. We loaded into the station wagon and went to the paint store, where Mom said we could pick out the colors for our bedrooms. After some negotiating, we exchanged our first choices — dark purple and navy — for lavender and light blue.
The next week we spent the blistering summer days in our un-air-conditioned upstairs stripping wallpaper. The acid in the stripper burned our arms and hands. (We were constantly taking off the hot rubber gloves our mom supplied.) Several times we almost succumbed to the fumes and had to lean our heads out an open window and gulp fresh air. Our mother narrowly averted mutiny with promises of take-out burgers, malts, and fries for lunch and dinner, plus a transistor radio tuned to our favorite rock-and-roll station.
Painting was a bit easier but still a chore. Exhausted herself by this point, Mom told us just to do our best.
If you didn’t look too closely, the final result wasn’t bad. We were relieved to have it done and waited with anticipation for the buyers to start bidding.
Weeks went by with no takers. Finally Mom got a call from the realtor. We stood around as her face dropped; then she started laughing. She hung up and told us the house had sold, but the buyer was lowering the offer because her favorite part of the whole house, that beautiful wallpaper upstairs, had been removed.
The drive home from New York City was two and a half hours of total silence. My mind was on the infant daughter I’d just relinquished by signing a one-page document. My mother’s thoughts were undoubtedly on the shame I’d brought her.
Five days earlier I had given birth to a daughter. They’d never even let me see her. At twenty-two I had no husband and was so under my mother’s control that it hadn’t dawned on me I had any say in how the “situation” was handled. I had tried to hide the fact that I was pregnant, but at six months I was hospitalized with phlebitis, and my mother took charge. The child would be put up for adoption, she said. From that moment on my pregnancy became something that was happening to my mother and had little to do with me.
Around nine o’clock we arrived at the farm, where my stepfather waited. Had he been able to rid himself of me by signing a one-page document, I’m sure he would have done so.
Entering the house, I began to sob. If I was going to be difficult, my mother said, I should go upstairs to my room. I did and cried myself to sleep.
I was awakened by the sound of the phone ringing. It was after midnight, so I knew it couldn’t be good news. Downstairs my mother screamed. Through two closed doors I could hear her keening as I cowered in bed.
After a while my stepfather opened my bedroom door and told me that my brother and his pregnant wife had been killed in a car crash. Then he shut the door, leaving me in numb disbelief.
I lay there trying to block out the sounds coming from the bedroom across the hall, but I couldn’t hear anything else.
My daughter was never mentioned again. I sometimes wonder if my mother, in her grief, ever thought about the other grandchild she lost that day.
I’ve always preferred to live and work on upper floors: in dorm rooms, classrooms, offices, bedrooms. I like the upstairs. I can see so much more from there.
From July through September I work as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service, living in a fourteen-by-fourteen-foot house of windows atop a mountain in central Idaho. My job is to watch for “smokes” and, if I see one, call it in on a hand-held radio so firefighters can come put it out. But mostly I just watch.
I watch cumulus clouds slowly develop into thunderheads. I watch lightning, rain, and hail. I watch the American flag flap violently in the wind. I watch airplanes and helicopters fly by. I watch birds — finches, wrens, woodpeckers, hawks, bluebirds, and this morning a cedar waxwing (I think). I watch the flowers change and the berries ripen. I watch chipmunks, badgers, deer, and elk, and occasionally bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars. I watch sunrises and sunsets. I watch my “want to read” book pile grow smaller and my “ought to read” pile stay the same.
When you live with a volatile parent, you need a plan for escape.
On most days my brother, my sister, and I had the house to ourselves after school. At first we might have a snack or listen to music, but as the hours wore on, we would grow restless and irritable. Any minor friction between us would quickly escalate. If I angered my brother, he would chase me around with a coat hanger or pin me to the floor, pinch my nose, and let long strings of saliva almost drip into my mouth. Occasionally he would torment my sister instead.
Even when we were fighting, though, we were united by fear of our father. Starting about 5 PM, the sibling least involved in the scuffle would keep watch at a window for our father’s rusted red Subaru. As soon as it began to snake its way down our curving suburban road, the cry would go out: “Upstairs!”
I can still see my brother’s fist cocked back, ready to strike, when the sound of that word froze him in place. Like cockroaches we would scatter to our rooms. The schoolbooks would come out, and our mouths would shut.
My father sometimes hit my brother, but, despite constant threats of violence, he never laid a hand on me.
Now middle-aged, I wonder: What would have happened had there been no upstairs to run to?
During our early years on the farm in the foothills of Northern California, Mark and I made part of our income by breeding Tibetan mastiffs. When Diva, our chocolate-brown female, whelped her first litter of four puppies, we soon learned that her maternal instincts were underdeveloped: Each time the puppies started to nurse, she would stand up, bewildered, and try to shake them loose. Even with me in the pen encouraging her, she had no interest in feeding her offspring.
I was at a loss for what to do when Jabba, our alpha male and sire of Diva’s litter, lay down next to her and began licking her face and ears. Reveling in the attention, she allowed her little ones to nurse while Jabba kept her distracted. After the puppies had drunk their fill, he carefully licked each one clean. Jabba repeated this routine for days until Diva grew comfortable with nursing.
From the attic window of my study, I had a view of the entire quarter-acre dog pen. This vantage point allowed me to observe all kinds of interactions among the mastiffs. For example, Jabba might rise, stroll over to a rambunctious male pup, and put him in his place with a warning growl.
One day I got up from my computer to stretch and, from my upstairs vantage point, saw all the dogs forming a circle around Jabba. They sat very still, even the frisky youngsters. This was odd. I went and got my binoculars. With them I could see Jabba was sitting next to the unmoving body of Imman, the alpha female. She was twelve — pretty old for a dog of that breed and size. We’d been expecting her to die. What I hadn’t expected was how the dogs gathered to honor their matriarch. I felt profound admiration for these creatures, whom I’d been living alongside for years without any real clue about who they were.
For two hours the dogs maintained their vigil. Then slowly, one by one, they got up and left the circle until only Jabba remained. He stayed beside Imman all night and through the next morning. Finally we took her body and buried it on another part of the farm. For days afterward the dogs remained subdued. The younger ones did not engage in their typical rough-and-tumble play, and Jabba barely ate.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dignity with which those mastiffs mourned the passing of one of their own, or the bond of kinship so evident among them that day.
Nevada City, California
On Saturday nights after dinner our whole family — all eleven of us — climbed the stairs to the wide bedroom hallway and said the rosary before a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
The upstairs was both a haven and a place of exile for us kids. We were often sent to our rooms as punishment. When our firm-but-fair father ordered one of us upstairs, he would station himself at the bottom step like a lion at the gate. As the offender cowered past, he would deliver a smack on the back of the head or a kick in the butt.
As youngsters we went to bed every night at 7:30. The girls slept on the left side of the hall and the boys on the right. Our parents knew there would be a little horseplay, but if we got too rowdy, our mother would send our dad up to make us settle down. As he started up the stairs, he would pound on the wall and in his deepest voice say, “Who’s not in bed up here?”
Once we heard that voice, any kids on the wrong side of the hall had to dash back to their proper side while being sure not to run into Dad at the top of the stairs. We didn’t dare look to see how close he was, because if you made eye contact with him, you were caught.
One winter night my brother Dickie and I were on our sisters’ side when we heard our father coming up. I dashed safely to my room, but Dickie, bringing up the rear, knew he would never make it. As he passed the statue of the Blessed Virgin, Dickie dropped to his knees, put his head to his hands, and started praying at Mary’s feet. I’m pretty sure his prayer was a sincere one for help.
Impressed with Dickie’s ingenuity, Dad let my brother off scot-free.
St. Paul, Minnesota
In my childhood home there was an attic closet where we weren’t supposed to go. This wasn’t an explicit rule, like “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t ride your bike beyond the third fire hydrant.” But my brother and sister and I all knew it nonetheless.
The middle daughter, I liked breaking rules, and at nine I began exploring the attic closet. It held mostly cardboard boxes of sepia-toned photographs and newspaper clippings and outdated clothes. It smelled like old books and dust.
The best part of the closet was the rack of pressed and ironed jackets that must have belonged to my father, though I couldn’t imagine him wearing them. To me they looked like the sort of clothes that spies wore in movies. My favorite jacket was navy blue with brass buttons on the sleeves.
After a few months of visits to the attic closet, I invented a private game. It was a version of dress-up, except when you played dress-up, you became a fireman or a princess or a doctor. In this game I wasn’t someone else; I was me — the real me. It was as though I were putting on the skin I was supposed to have.
Almost afraid to breathe, I slipped into my favorite jacket. The sleeves fell beyond my fingertips, so I rolled them up, careful not to cover the brass buttons. I stepped into some scuffed-up leather shoes and selected a red silk tie. I didn’t know how to tie it, so I wore it as a belt. It was more of a fashion statement that way.
Part of me wanted to bolt downstairs, find a mirror, and take in my appearance, to see myself exactly the way I wanted to be. But another part said, Wait. Because I knew in my heart that if I looked in a mirror, I wouldn’t really project the image of masculinity I dreamed of. I would look like a nine-year-old girl playing dress-up, with my stupid round face and idiotic braids. I would look ridiculous, and the world would laugh at me, and the magic spell of the closet would be broken.
So I didn’t go downstairs. I just stood in my jacket and belt and shoes and thought about cutting my hair short. I thought about kissing a girl. I thought about a future where I would be strong and big and would wear a jacket like this, and nobody would laugh.
Eavesdropping from the stairs is how I learned all my family’s secrets as a child. I would press myself against the wall of the second landing and listen to the adult conversations below.
During holiday gatherings I might hear dirty jokes and gossip about subjects that, in the 1950s, weren’t mentioned in front of children. When my mother told me she was thinking of divorcing my father, I already knew he had been having an affair, and also that they had been arguing for a long time because my mother did not enjoy sex.
If I heard someone approach the stairs, I would sprint quickly back to my room, my heart pounding. I enjoyed the thrill of being a spy.
Where do children in one-story houses go to learn secrets? When my husband and I shopped for a house, I wouldn’t even consider a ranch. Homes have stairs.
St. Louis, Missouri
My mother was widowed, and my older brothers and I grew up in boarding schools in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1967 I graduated and moved to my family’s apartment in Philadelphia. An African American police officer and his wife were our upstairs neighbors. Their name was Brown.
I was mostly on my own that summer: one brother in Vietnam, the other out of town, my mother in nursing school and working as an overnight caregiver. I had a part-time job, and, despite warnings from co-workers, I sometimes accepted rides home from men I didn’t know. I was petite and full figured with strawberry-blond hair, alabaster skin, and a dangerous combination of youthful invincibility and naiveté.
One afternoon a man dropped me off a few blocks from my apartment, and I walked my usual zigzag route the rest of the way. Moments after I latched our kitchen door, that same man burst through the flimsy lock and chased me around the table. I darted out, ran upstairs, and banged on the Browns’ door, shouting, “There’s a man in our apartment!”
Naked except for his boxer shorts, Officer Brown strapped on his gun belt and followed me down the stairs. At the bottom, my attacker stood in our doorway. As Officer Brown’s legs appeared behind me, the man’s expression shifted from ferocious determination to indecision, then to surprised terror as the holster came into view. He made a panicked escape.
Afterward my upstairs neighbor gave me a fatherly talk, one of the few I have known, and for which I will always be grateful.
Alma Sojourner Wynne
My father was a formidable character with a violent temper. In his sixties he adopted a strict health-and-fitness regimen and planned to live to be a hundred, but at seventy-eight he went to his doctor complaining of fatigue. Tests revealed that he had a rare form of blood cancer. The doctor gave him two years to live at best.
Too weak to leave the house, my father was confined to his downstairs La-Z-Boy, but he refused to acknowledge his decline. To avoid incurring his rage, my mother went along with his denial. This meant she couldn’t order a hospital bed to set up for him downstairs. He slept in his chair.
When my younger brother visited and saw how close our father was to the end, he phoned me and my other brother, insisting we come home as soon as possible. I made the four-hour drive from New York to Pennsylvania. My mother anxiously greeted me at the door and instructed me to tell my father I was there only to visit. I refused to go along with her charade. “Dad is dying,” I said.
My father was in such pain, it was difficult for him to move or speak. We decided we should get him upstairs and into bed. Each of my brothers took an arm and began to lift Dad from his chair. Though our father angrily insisted he would stay put, he couldn’t match the strength of his sons. As they eased him up the steps, my father shouted, “I’ll sue you! You won’t get away with this!” By the time he had made it to the top, he had cursed his entire family, but the trip upstairs had exhausted him. His resistance gone, he got into bed. Within a few hours he entered a coma. Two days later he died.
When Hurricane Harvey first hit my sleepy town outside Houston, it was a bit anticlimactic. I didn’t lose electricity, the rain was minimal, and the wind was much less intense than I had expected. Lulled into a false sense of security, I went out to eat the following evening, a Saturday. As I headed home, lightning struck, and the rain poured down, but still I felt little concern.
The next day I awoke and raised the shade to see my once-beautiful yard covered in several feet of muddy water. The rain continued to fall, and I grew worried. Monday brought more precipitation. Neighbors were evacuating, but I decided to stay, thinking I could always go upstairs. I began identifying markers: When the water hits this plant, it will be bad. If it gets to the top of the mailbox, we’re really in trouble.
When the water began to seep into the living room, I threw down towels and blankets, but nothing stopped it from inching forward. I grabbed my two big dogs and my geriatric beagle and headed to the second floor. The big dogs, used to being outside, had never climbed stairs. I wouldn’t have thought I could carry a seventy-five-pound malamute up a flight of stairs, but I did. I sat in bed with the dogs while the three cats stared from their perch above my dresser and several feet of water overtook the ground floor.
The dogs barely moved from my side for days. When the rain finally stopped and the water started to recede, I ran downstairs, grabbed the portable induction cooktop, and turned my upstairs bathroom into an impromptu kitchen. The dogs and I ate rice and chicken and lay in bed until the water was low enough for us to leave.
My older brother and I thought the man who lived with us for five years was our stepdad, but apparently he and our mom were never legally married. This “stepdad” started coming on to me when I was eleven. I resisted his advances, and he began hitting me instead, with his hand or a belt.
After a particularly brutal fight with our mother, he finally left, taking the rent money with him. We were homeless for about a month before our mother found a job and rented a two-story condo.
Oddly I didn’t start hurting myself until after my abuser was gone. It was as if I had steeled myself to survive those years, but when I finally let my guard down, I was lost. People didn’t talk about “cutting” in the eighties, and I didn’t go to therapy.
Mom’s new job required her to be gone a lot. One night, when she was out of town, my sixteen-year-old brother had a party. While his guests did drugs and listened to loud music, I went upstairs to the bathroom, took a razor blade from the medicine cabinet, and sliced my wrist three times. (When I look at the scars now, the first cut appears hesitant, but the third was deep, as if I became more determined as I went.) The amount of blood scared me. I held my wrist to my shirt, which was soon covered in red.
Some of my brother’s stoned friends applied bandages and told me I would live. My brother said only, “The next time you want to kill yourself, let me know. I’ll give you a gun so you can do the job right.” Then he went back downstairs to the party. I understood he was trying to scare me into never doing it again. After all we had been through, he needed me to live.
A couple of months ago I heard from my brother’s wife. She was concerned because my brother wouldn’t get off the couch. When I talked to him on the phone, I could barely hear his voice. He let me know that he had recently gone off an antidepressant he’d been taking for years. He’d done fine for a while, then regressed. He had started taking the medication again, but he still didn’t feel right.
“Do you feel like you want to kill yourself?” I asked.
“I’m not going to say I do, and I’m not going to say I don’t. I just feel like I can’t go on.”
I packed a bag and was on the road in minutes. When I got to his house four hours later, he was sitting by his pool, looking worse than I’d ever seen him. He hugged me tight and said he was glad I’d come. Then he told me he wanted to drown himself in the pool or lie down in the street and wait for a car.
The next day, on my brother’s forty-ninth birthday, I drove him to a mental hospital. He sobbed on the way.
When the admitting nurse interviewed him, she asked if he ever abused his sons.
“No!” he responded.
“Have you ever been abused?” she asked.
He looked at me and then nodded. “By our mom’s boyfriend.”
“Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse?”
He nodded again.
I visited him in the hospital, and we had the best talks we’d had in years. He thanked me profusely for helping him.
How could I not? I knew just how he felt.
My maternal grandparents lived in a two-story Victorian with a wrap-around porch shaded by wisteria — the sort of place guaranteed to make an imaginative girl think of ghosts and mysteries. The only mystery I discovered there, however, was my great-grandmother, whom I called Great Gram. I never saw her outside of her upstairs room, where it seemed she lived, hidden away, year after year.
Whenever we visited my grandparents, I crept upstairs to knock on Great Gram’s door.
“Eve, dear,” she would say, addressing me by my mother’s name. “Do come in.”
Great Gram was a small woman who always wore a modest housedress, sturdy black lace-up shoes, and flesh-colored cotton stockings. She kept her gray hair, turning white, pulled back in a tight bun. Soon after I arrived, she would go to a dresser and get the Civil War medals her husband had earned in the Indiana Infantry. She would drift away from the present (this was near the end of World War II) to tell stories of a different war.
Great Gram was my grandmother’s mother, but I never saw my grandmother go near her. My grandparents’ housekeeper took care of Great Gram.
One spring my mother asked her mother if we could bring Great Gram to our house to see the garden in bloom.
“No, you cannot,” my grandmother said.
“Please,” my mother said. “What’s the harm?”
“Her place is upstairs. She’s fortunate to have a room. Leave it alone, Eve.”
My grandmother died when I was eight years old. The following year Great Gram passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Later, as an adult, I was researching family history when I asked my mother why Great Gram had been banished to her room.
“Your grandmother couldn’t forgive people,” Mom said. “It was her lifelong failing.”
She proceeded to tell me that my grandmother had two older half-brothers from her father’s previous marriages. The younger, Will, whom she adored, developed tuberculosis in his teens, and Great Gram insisted he be sent to live in a sanitarium. He died there at the age of nineteen.
Though sending tuberculosis patients away was a common practice, my grandmother blamed Great Gram for Will’s death. So when Great Gram developed dementia, her unforgiving daughter confined her to that upstairs room, isolated from family, just as Will had been.
A few years ago my husband and I hiked across the Grand Canyon in a single day. Park rangers frowned upon such one-day expeditions because many hikers overestimate their abilities, but we were confident.
We left the North Rim at 5 AM, hiked down to the bottom, crossed the canyon, and then climbed up, up, up, finally reaching the South Rim at 6 PM. We had hiked twenty-four miles in thirteen hours. Mute with exhaustion, we stumbled through the crowds of tourists clogging the sidewalks and made our way to the lodge where we’d reserved a room for the night.
Our room was upstairs. No elevator. I almost cried.
Maureen C. Towne
My son Nick’s room is right above mine. Loud music reverberates through the ceiling. I can hear his heavy tread as he walks back and forth to the locked closet where he keeps his stash.
Nick is an angry young man. One night I called his father from my locked bedroom because I was afraid our son might hurt me. Nick was appalled I would think such a thing, but the anger in his voice still made me shrink away.
Tonight in bed I watch the movie Marvin’s Room. In one scene Meryl Streep’s character expresses disbelief that her sister (played by Diane Keaton) could take care of their difficult father and aunt for twenty years. And Keaton replies that she’s been lucky; that it’s been a privilege.
The exchange sticks with me after the movie is over. I hear the heavy footsteps overhead go from bed, to closet, to bed again, and I think about the experience of raising my son. Hasn’t it been a privilege to be the mother of a sensitive, smart boy who often finds the world too much to deal with? (Hence the stash.) A creative kid who writes poetry as well as computer code. A son who has good reasons to be angry: an abusive father and stepfather — and a mother (me) who allowed the abuse because she didn’t know how to live without a man or a bottle.
I go upstairs, knock on my son’s door, and call his name. He opens it, still in his boxers. “What is it, Mom?”
I throw my arms around him and say, “It’s a privilege to be your mother, Nick. I love you.”
Bewildered, he says, “I love you, too,” returning my hug.
Within a year he is dead: an inadvertent drug overdose. Now the upstairs is silent. In my despair, I’m glad I was at least able to tell him how important he was to me.
West Orange, New Jersey
For three years my wife and I lived in the burned-out steel town of Youngstown, Ohio. My entry-level assistant-professor job paid barely enough to cover the bills. The best place we could afford was a cavernous house from the 1920s. Once elegant, it was now grimy and drafty and needed new plumbing and wiring, a new furnace, a new water heater, and a new roof.
We spent a lot of time upstairs. Instead of keeping our son’s crib in our bedroom, as we had in Arizona, we could now give him a room of his own, big enough for both the crib and the bed he’d soon be occupying. We spent many hours playing with him on the floor there, gluing together construction-paper sculptures and reading books. I painted fish on the bathroom ceiling so he could look up at them every night while I gave him his bath.
The house had no air conditioning. On hot, humid summer nights we shut off all the lights, turned on the window fans, and lay naked on top of the sheets. During the brutal winters the ancient furnace in the basement heated only one bedroom well: the upstairs guest room. We moved into it, the three of us getting into the big bed together to keep warm. We played games, watched movies, made plastic-bead necklaces for each other, and danced to music on the radio. When we were hungry, I bundled up in a coat, scarf, and gloves and went downstairs to the kitchen to fix a picnic, which we ate in bed.
I eventually took a higher-paying job at an East Coast university, and we left Youngstown. No more leaky plumbing and faulty wiring. No more steaming summer nights without air conditioning and frigid winter days without proper heat.
I had no idea what lay ahead. Over the next several years our little boy developed scoliosis, which required corrective surgery that left a scar from his nape to his tailbone. My wife had two miscarriages. Finally, after a difficult pregnancy, our second son was born. When he was twelve, we divorced.
What I wouldn’t give for just one more sweltering night or frozen day upstairs in that shabby old house.
In my teens I worked as an emergency medical technician with an ambulance service in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While my peers were out partying, I was responding to crises caused by too much partying.
It was an odd job for someone my age to have, and I saw many things a teenager should not. I soon learned that when someone met us at the door and simply said, “Upstairs,” it was bad. If there had been a chance we could help, the person at the door would have urged us to hurry. A calm person directing us upstairs meant suicide, a gunshot death — accidental or intentional — a drug or alcohol overdose, or sudden heart failure.
In my early twenties I switched to a career in law enforcement. For twenty-nine years I still dreaded hearing that calm “Upstairs.”
I was seven in 1964 when my parents divorced and my mother, my younger brother, and I went to live with my maternal grandparents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
My Hungarian grandmother had been forced into an arranged marriage to my German grandfather when she was eighteen and he was thirty. You might think that he would have been in control in the relationship, but my grandmother was a strong-willed matriarch, almost twice her husband’s size. She handled the bills, talked to the repairmen, and generally ruled the house.
My grandmother was often violent. Being from the old country, she probably believed she was doing the right thing when she beat my brother and me with umbrellas, wooden spoons, belts, and anything else she had on hand. Our grandfather disapproved but didn’t get involved; he just muttered in German and turned away.
I remember one time, trying to protect us, our mother stood with her back against our bedroom door to prevent her mother from entering. Our grandmother beat our mother that day instead of us.
To avoid our grandmother’s wrath, my brother and I began to spend time under the wooden stairs to the cellar. It was our safe place. We covered the concrete floor with old rugs and blankets and kept books, games, toy soldiers, and flashlights there. A battery-operated radio played the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, and Dave Clark.
My brother had lots of neighborhood friends, and when he was off playing with them, I would hide under the stairs by myself, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, just thinking. I grew to find comfort in the smell of mildew, dust, and dirt.
One day my brother and I came home through the cellar door and started up the stairs to the kitchen when we stopped. There was blood on the wall.
Upstairs we found our grandfather sitting at the kitchen table, his arm in an improvised sling of gauze bandages. Our grandmother, who was preparing dinner, laughed as she explained how they’d had a fight, and she’d gotten so tired of him that she’d thrown him down the basement stairs. Our mother sat on a chair, smiling, though I could tell she saw no humor in any of it.
I realized then that no place was safe.
St. Petersburg, Florida
My mother gave birth to twelve children in fifteen years, nine of them girls. We lived in a four-bedroom ranch, and as the house filled with new babies and toddlers, the five oldest children were moved to the unfinished basement. We slept down there with the furnace, oil tank, washing machine, dryer, well pump, and sump pump, each of which made its own creepy noise. If we needed to use the bathroom at night, we had to climb the stairs in the dark.
As our mother succumbed to the physical and emotional demands of raising twelve children under the age of sixteen, she began to spend her days locked in her bedroom. She refused to go down to the basement to do laundry, and on Saturdays our father supervised us in sorting the mountain of clothes into piles of “dirty” and “clean enough to wear again.” We were often startled by centipedes that scurried out from under something damp — probably the bedsheet of a child who had not made it upstairs to the bathroom during the night.
My siblings and I were largely unsupervised during the day, and the basement became a place where neighborhood children could do things that were forbidden in their own homes. One day my younger sisters and their friends met in the basement to smoke cigars. Someone threw a lit butt into a wastebasket, and the contents caught fire. The flames spread to a rack of clothing.
Alerted to the situation, my mother emerged from her room, ran down the basement stairs, grabbed a curtain, and threw it over the burning clothes. My oldest brother doused the fire with the bucket of water we used to mop the kitchen floor. The only loss was some hand-me-downs a younger sister had inherited. My mother called my father at work to let him know what had happened. Then she went back to bed.
That night our father came home and assembled us all in the kitchen. Placing a carton of cigarettes on the table, he said, “If you’re going to smoke, do it upstairs.”
Our neighbor, a kind, affable man with a thick New England accent, hired me to come over on Saturday mornings to help him with yardwork. It was my first job, and he paid me two dollars an hour. After I’d finished weeding and raking, his wife would sometimes invite me in for lunch with their two toddler girls.
I was ten the first time it happened. My neighbor’s wife had run to the grocery store, and he invited me to come inside for a rest. “The weeds aren’t going anywhere,” he said. I followed him upstairs to the guest room, where the sofa bed was the only place to sit. He shut the door to keep the kids out, then sat down too close to me. He turned on the television, and we watched pornographic videos. He draped his arm along the backside of the sofa, not quite touching me, but I felt as if he would any minute.
I never told anyone. Each week I continued to walk across the street to his yard. If his wife’s car was gone, my shoulders tensed. I’d rake more slowly and carefully dig up the weeds instead of yanking them. But eventually I’d see him in the kitchen doorway, motioning for me to come upstairs.
When I was thirteen, I started playing softball on Saturdays and stopped helping my neighbor with yardwork. My younger sister took over the job. One afternoon I was in my room doing homework when my mother called me down. Two police officers stood in the living room, notepads open. My sister had made some accusations against our neighbor, and they wanted to know: Had he ever touched me? Had he ever done anything inappropriate?
It didn’t occur to me that telling the truth might make it stop, or that my sister might be depending on me. Feeling only shame, I shrugged and said, “Not that I can remember.” Then I walked back to my room and shut the door.
In the wake of the San Fernando Valley’s Northridge earthquake, my upstairs neighbor, a Frenchman named Philippe, began vacuuming day and night. Sometimes the noise woke me at three in the morning. When I asked, in the most polite tone I could muster, what was going on, he said, “I vacuum when I am nervous. It calms me.” Philippe didn’t apologize or promise to stop, so I moved.
My next apartment was a studio owned by a retired gambler named Lou. I’d taken the tiny place because the rent was cheap and Lou said my new upstairs neighbor traveled for work and was rarely home. Soon after I unpacked, though, the man upstairs lost his job and spent most of his waking hours (and many he should have been sleeping) watching videotaped NASCAR races on a big-screen TV. I would often sit up in bed to the sound of Richard Petty’s engine roaring through my skull. Earplugs were useless; the TV was planted squarely above me, and the noise shook my ceiling. I even tried sleeping in the bathroom with the faucet running, but to no avail. When I asked my neighbor if he’d lower the volume, he scowled at me, a cigar dangling from his lips, then slammed the door.
The last time I had a neighbor above me was when I was working overseas. The newly separated woman was living alone for the first time in twenty years. Each night she put on techno music and clacked across the wooden floors in high heels before going out. I’d have a few hours of blessed reprieve before she returned, walking a bit unsteadily now on those loud heels. I would sometimes hear a wineglass shatter on the kitchen tile. As a prelude to broaching the subject of the noise, I asked her if everything was OK, and she broke down and told me her life was in ruins. She couldn’t sleep.
After a great number of moves, I finally bought fourteen acres with an old schoolhouse on it. My forest home is all on one level, with no other houses nearby. Occasionally a squirrel traipses across my roof, but my days of living beneath my fellow humans are over.
Asheville, North Carolina