I awoke to my mother’s weeping and walked over the jail bars’ shadow the Venetian blinds made on the kitchen floor. Her chest heaved as she smoked across from me at the table, sobbing about doctor’s bills and my father’s lousy job, how we were going to end up in the poorhouse like she and her brothers and sisters did after their mother died: No toys to play with, no friends, rats. She’d work herself up like an opera singer, When your mother dies you’re nothing, you’re nobody, you wish you were dead. I was maybe two and three and four, and doubt that I thought to comfort her. I don’t even know if I wished she’d stop waking me up with her crying. Because when her weeping petered out, I listened to the quiet of the ticking clock, watched her skirt swing as she stepped to the stove, and thought her beautiful as I hoped my brother Eddie wouldn’t wake up so I could be alone, like that, with her for a while.


I sat on the metal milk box on the back porch, the towels and sheets flapping on the clothesline as my mother screamed in the house, If I hear that goddamned, son-of-a-bitching door slam one more time, I’ll murder you. Up a slight hill on her own back porch, Patty Ryan, who was three years older and an only child, her blond hair in long thin braids, beckoned for me to come over, which I did, running. But Patty stopped me at the border of her yard, “My mother won’t let me play with you. Your mother swears too much,” her freckles brightening as she tried not to smile.


Eddie pretended to be the army man shooting down a swath of enemy army men he’d amassed on the floor of his bedroom. In our bedroom, Patty pretended to be a cat, a dog, a raccoon, a skunk. In the kitchen, I pretended to be a mother, holding my newborn baby sister, Janet, who was sort of purple and completely bald with a wrinkly old man’s face. Adults said she was beautiful, and I wondered if I was missing something. Still her skin was soft as a gum bubble, and she felt warm as a puppy’s belly as I hugged her against my still-flat chest—my own living doll, smelling of real baby powder. My aunt Antoinette was visiting because my mother had a nervous breakdown, and Dr. Spignezzi said he would have checked her into the hospital if she didn’t have four kids to take care of. In the kitchen as I warmed the bottle, my aunt stroked my hair and said I was a good little mommy. I was nine. I shook a drop onto my inner wrist to test the temperature, then watched Janet’s face as she sucked and stared into my eyes as though she could see deep inside. When she made a load in her diaper, I said, P.U. you stink, and held safety pins in my mouth to change her. I did this even when my mother started to cook and mop and iron again. Evenings after dinner when the weather was good, it was my job to take my baby sister for a walk to get us out of my mother’s hair. Down by the elementary school, I kicked on the stroller’s brake then walked away backwards, waving, Bye-bye, bye, Jannie, I’m leaving you. No matter how many times I did this, she eventually scrunched her face and cried. I waited till she cried so hard she hiccupped to run back, pick her up, and hug her tiny delicious trembling bones, telling her it’s okay and promising I would never ever leave her.


Beverly Donofrio is the author of Looking for Mary, Astonished, and the New York Times bestseller, Riding in Cars with Boys, as well as several children’s books, including the award-winning Where’s Mommy? Her essays have appeared in many national venues, including The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Los Angeles Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Slate, and on NPR. She has taught memoir writing around the country and is currently on the faculty of the Wilkes University MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Photo by Lauren Crux