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Secret Thoughts of a Sensitive Child

Mom wants us to stay home but we can’t make a sound. That leaves plenty of time to write poems about how I’m wasting my life being quiet and bored. We have to keep our doors open so Mom can listen for the noise she says we’re not supposed to make. Her ears are always tuned and ready for any vibration, whisper, or whistle that might fire up a fit of fury. Desperate for comforting harmonious melodies, I sometimes put my radio directly up to my ear at volume level one. It’s often when my music isn’t on that Mom yells from the kitchen that I’d better turn it off.

Thank goodness we found out my Grandma was putting dirty dishes in her apartment cupboard. It made Mom ask her to move in with us. Her social security checks are helping to pay the mortgage. With Grandma in the room between me and Toni, I think I’ll be less bored. Maybe I’ll even write a poem about Grandma and her dishes.

My Grandma’s thin body and black horn-rimmed glasses make her look simultaneously delicate and thorny, like I often feel. My Mom’s mom is the widow of a grandfather who left the world way before I joined it. I can’t imagine somebody living on the Earth at a different time than me any more than I can envision Grandma ever having been a wife to somebody. Both are just too weird to fathom.

Mom said Grandpa died of a heart attack back when she was still in grade school. The shock of it made something go haywire in Grandma’s head.

“It can’t be cured,” Mom said, which gave me a powerful flash of déjà vu.

You only ever see Grandma in patterned polyester dresses, with the unfinished look of her knee high hose rolled halfway up both calves. Cut short and completely silver, her hairstyle is all curls because they need no styling after a shampoo.

Grandma does quite a bit of sitting in her bedroom staring at the wall, with the exception of going to the bathroom and heating up her own soup for lunch. Since all I’m really competing with for Grandma’s attention is her wall, I know she’ll be thrilled to listen to me talk about my deep thoughts and grand ideas.

“Hello … Grandma?”

I knock at her open door even though I’m already inside her room. She doesn’t look up at me. I just saw her standing up a minute ago taking pills from the prescription bottles on her dresser top. Little red and blue ones. I know she can hear me.

She’s the one I need to talk to. I’ve spent all afternoon brainstorming various solutions to all the problems of the world. They’re ready to be heard. I don’t bother telling Toni about them because she’s made it clear that I’m weird for going on about the problems of animals and forests and homeless people when there’s nothing I can do about it.

From this perspective just inside Grandma’s doorway I can see into Toni’s room. She’s been working on a massive artistic concoction for hours, a two foot tall striped house made with rolled strands of colored Play-doh. Toni didn’t bother to invite me to see her art. So Grandma and I won’t bother her with our ideas about saving nature from development and taking war away from the planet.

“Hi Grandma,” I say louder this time, moving towards her bed where I can sit and face her. Her soft gray hairdo looks puffy. Her body posture stays concave. You’d think she’d fallen asleep in her chair but at closer look, she’s actually awake and scowling at her lap with open eyes.

“You’re not busy.”

Grandma hugs her arms around her body, completely cloistered. While I wait for her to say something, I flick bits of lint off of her bedspread. Her lips stay pressed together in a furrow.

Yanking the wad of bubble gum out of my mouth, I roll it between my palms until it forms a perfectly round ball. Chewing the dirty wad a second time is a stale blueberry mistake.

Grandma’s Birds of the City calendar swings as the central heat switches on, blowing air up from the floor vent. Pigeons, it says in big green letters.

“I was thinking about something really neat today. Did you ever see a dead pigeon? I haven’t.”

I offer as much fervor as I can muster, guessing that Grandma must be interested in pigeons if she’s going to look at one on her wall for a whole month.

“Hundreds of them are running around the city, but you never see a dead one, you know? I wonder where they go when they die, don’t you? Maybe they only die every hundred years or something. What do you think?”

The central heat switches off, making the room seem extra silent and awkward.
Grandma keeps quiet, her eyes focused on her lap. Now I know what it’s like when I clam up when Mom is trying to talk to me. It’s just weird. Stretching the blue wad of gum back out of my mouth makes it snap in two. I force the rubbery mass back together by rolling it into a thin wormy log.

“Praise Jesus!”

They’re the last two words I would expect Grandma to say. The words explode from her lips like something forced her to say it. She makes eye contact with me for a split second. Then she relaxes, exhaling with this low toned hmmmmmm that is less like breathing and more like she’s trying to spook me. It’s working. After an even longer spell of dead silence, I twist the gum into a pretend jewel for my ring finger and get up to leave.

On the way past my Grandma, she uncrosses her legs with so much gusto she accidentally kicks my shin with all her might.

“Ouch!”

“Praise Jesus,” Grandma blurts a second time, looking straight at me with an untrusting look.

“Where you goin’?”

Grandma wonders why I’m headed outdoors during the peak of a flash rainstorm. There’s no way to explain how warm downpours delight me.

“Don’t go far. Your mummy’s soon home.”

Grandma calls my Mom mummy, and every time she does, I picture my Mother wrapped head to toe in white gauze.

“I’ll just be outside, Grandma.”

My Grandma must have a passion for predicting and derailing the peak of my excitement. Her pressed lips and clenched jowls make it clear that she disapproves of my forthcoming street gutter bliss. In fact, every time I finally get ready to do something fun, whether it’s opening up my Easter Basket, reading a Mad Magazine, or beating my sister at arm wrestling, Grandma appears with a sneer, forecasting that trouble is brewing if I don’t stop enjoying myself.

“You’d better hurry back in,” Grandma warns.

I never listen to her, though. I’m fed up with my good times always being on a timer, people constantly saying “time’s up” on my fun before I’m done. I roll my eyes mockingly at Grandma and keep walking, letting the screen door slam behind me for effect.

Just being barefoot in a cleansing cloudburst lifts my spirits five notches. I relish in the asphalt warmed rainwater rising around my ankles. The storm passes in seconds. Streaming sunlight returns, making the lingering drizzle visible. High speed spillway water tapers back down to a mere trickle.

I comb our wet lawn with curious toes, fishing for spring clover, examining surfacing worms and slugs. In a tangle of crabgrass lies a rare treasure; a small eggshell. Sprawled nearby, a hatchling catches my eye. She’s purple and featherless, perfect and lifeless.
I’m fascinated by her new beak, her slick body, those eyeballs that bulge under tightly closed lids. She’s much more real than the bird embryos we have floating in jars of formaldehyde on the shelves in science class. Her freshly expired absoluteness makes me look at her in a very devoted way. I imagine how this tiny creature might have looked if she’d been able to grow feathers and fly alive in the sky.

I name her Wonder because she makes me think about life—about what life has to show me and what I’m supposed to think about the things it shows me.

This delicate creature needs to be safely adored for awhile before she gets buried in a nice grave. Leaving her for a moment in the mist, I rush to the kitchen to get a container for her. Inside our cupboard there’s a roundish juice glass shaped like the top of a wine goblet without the stem. It’s as close to an egg as anything I can find. It will protect her. I grab pieces of silverware; a fork to gently lift the bird’s droopy body and a spoon to steady her head. Positioning the bird in the glass exactly right means she’ll be lying just like she would have lain in the egg itself.

Post storm sunshine projects a subtle spotlight on the hatchling as I deliver her into the glass. Her sun-polished body glows a faint yellow-orange. Wonder waits in the goblet  on the front lawn while I prepare her burial spot out back. The earth is soft from the rain making it easy to dig an area as wide as my open palm and as deep as two pine cones.

“Hey Mom,” I shout from the back yard when I hear her car drive up. I’m excited to show her the body right before I bury it.

“Holy shit, Jenna, what are you doing putting a dead bird in my good glass?”

“It’s Wonder ...” I call, tensing with trepidation for what’s about to happen.

From the grave I can see Mom snatching the glass off the ground. I sprint towards her just as she’s lifting the lid on the outdoor garbage can to dump Wonder away.

“Don’t!” I plead. But it’s too late.

Plop.

I’ve never seen anything worse than Wonder’s little purple head falling limp next to soda cans and boxes of instant mashed potatoes like she’s a worthless equivalent to the garbage beneath her.

“But Mom, I made her a grave,” I say, dropping stiff tears.

Mom’s already got the trash bag all bundled up though, not yielding. I follow steadily behind her wondering how people get to the point where they think it’s normal to throw a tiny body in the garbage and leave it at the side of the road to be loaded up in junk trucks, like the earth’s birds are rubbish just because they’re dead.

With a brave swipe, I grab my Mom’s arm tight. “Wonder’s in there!”

“Jenna …”

Mom’s arm easily resists my clasped hand. But there again, something changes. She sighs. Her eyes roll to the sky in surrender. With a light toss, she deems the garbage bag dumped and ambles into the house.

My heart soars when I find Wonder. She’s stretched out across a white pizza box next to Mom’s rejected goblet. The box becomes a sturdy cardboard stretcher that I use to carry her with great concentrated concern. It’s because I understand she’s even frailer now after having been unfairly insulted and so roughly handled. My heart marches ahead of me to the backyard burial ceremony.

I release Wonder from the box into the small hollow I’ve dug. Before I cover her with ground, I take a moment of silence to lie down in the wet grass and stroke her shiny body. 

“Wonder, how is it that I could be born a person and you could be born a bird?”

Her head shifts ever so slightly when I straighten her feet.

“And why would a bird as pretty as you live just long enough to hatch from an egg and then still die?”

I can wonder all I want I guess. But the truth is there are some questions about life that just don’t offer easy answers.

I cup my hands into scoops, bulldozing an ample pile of dirt on top of the animal’s body. Once the ground on top of Wonder’s grave is patted down flat, I mark it with her broken eggshell, feeling particularly close to the true center of my heart.

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