Copyright© 2008 Jennifer Sue
All Rights Reserved.
That fateful summer changed me forever. I was forced to grow up as I temporarily became the head of my family.
Admin Note: Originally published on BigCloset TopShelf on Tuesday 12-30-2008 at 8:53:16 pm, this retro classic was pulled out of the closet, and re-presented for our newer readers. ~Sephrena
Mom loved the sea and worked as a waitress. We lived on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod just outside Chatham and inherited mom’s love of the restless water. For as long as I could remember we never had much money and lived in the poorest section of town. Most of our wardrobe came from thrift shops and it was a major treat to be able to eat at McDonald’s. Then mom became ill and things rapidly went down hill. When the busy summer season ended last fall mom lost her job because of absenteeism due to her ongoing worsening illness. Unable to find another job due to her illness we had been forced to go on welfare. We were unable to keep our small apartment and had been forced to move into the only housing our meager resources allowed. It was a small summer cottage on the shore. Now as the summer season was once more upon us we were about to be evicted from the ramshackle building we'd lived in since January. The small building had no central heat and sat right on the shore. Every winter storm that howled and blew off the ocean sent chilly gusts right through the thin walls. Only our love made the near shack our home.
The school year had just ended and unlike most boys I was not looking forward to summer. I knew our lifelong struggle just to survive would get worse. That momentous night I lay in bed tossing and turning while trying not to disturb my sisters who were blissfully asleep in the bed beside mine. The quiet talk I’d had earlier that evening with my Mom had left me quite disturbed.
All evening mom had been depressed, even quieter than her normal stoic self. For the last two weeks she’d been so ill I had to help her do almost everything. After we'd put the girls to bed mom sat me down. I could tell by her desperate voice and her pallid clammy skin that she was in a great deal of pain.
"Kristopher, you have to take charge and keep the family together," she ordered in a soft voice that would accept no arguments. Then she sat silently for a few moments.
I looked at her with great concern and helplessness as she bowed her head to hide her tears. I sensed something was very wrong. As I thought about her order, I recalled what she'd told the twins as she tucked the girls into bed.
“Lyndi, Teri, I want you to always remember that I love you very much,” she told them. “You know I’ve been ill and I really need your cooperation.”
“Of course, mommy,” Lyndi replied as Teri nodded agreement.
“I need you to promise to do whatever Kris tells you whenever I go away,” mom declared.
“We always try to do what Kris says,” Lyndi answered.
“I know,” mom smiled. “But I really need you to promise to do what Kris tells you to do.”
Sensing the desperation in mom’s voice, the twins promised. I’d been deeply disturbed by mom’s demand for the twin’s promise. As we left the room, mom looked at me.
“Kristopher... I need you to take especially good care of your sisters,” mom whispered in a voice I could barely make out.
“You know I always do that,” I replied uneasily.
“I love you, Kris,” mom answered. “Please remember that.”
“Sure,” I said totally confused by her questions.
With a sad smile she laid her head on her heads. Fifteen minutes later I realized she wasn’t going to say anything else so I gave her a warm hug before I too went to bed. I stopped in the door to our bedroom and glanced back at her. I could see that mom was crying and shivering. How I wished I could ease her pain and suffering. Tears of sadness and frustration were trickling down my cheeks as I climbed into bed.
As I tried to fall asleep my thoughts wandered. As the oldest I was used to being in charge and my 9 year old twin sisters pretty much did listen to me. I wasn't thrilled by this responsibility but then what 12 year old boy would be? Over the years I'd learned to take care of my sisters and myself and had done some things I wasn't happy about to insure our safety. The kids at our school constantly teased us about our worn clothes and ill mother. Personally I also faced the additional teasing most smaller than normal boys suffer. I was the smallest guy in my class and despite the fact I was three years older, my twin sisters were as big as me. The girls and I also shared our builds... we were slim blonds with fair complexions. Additionally I had a light sprinkling of freckles across my face and my hair was long overdue for a major trimming. As our finances declined I'd been forced into many fights to defend myself and sisters. These were fights of desperation and were not always fought fairly. My record proved that despite my diminutive appearance I was no sissy for I seldom lost and the few I did were close enough that my opponents didn’t relish a rematch. Our bullying classmates learned to leave us alone. As could be expected under such circumstances we had few friends so this forced the three of us to be close.
Finally I dozed off. After midnight I awoke in a sweat sensing something was wrong... very wrong. Over the sounds of the wind and waves breaking upon the shore I heard the door creak and listened as someone shuffled across the warped, weather-beaten boards of the porch. MOM! I leapt out of bed and peered out the window into the gloomy darkness in time to see that despite being barely able to stand she was stumbling across the beach heading towards the pounding surf. Hurriedly I dressed and rushed outside. The sound of the waves crashing onto the shore were barely audible over the thumping of my heart. Once outside I couldn’t see mom so I followed the erratic path left in the sand by her staggered gait until it disappeared in the angry swirling breakers ebbing and flowing upon the shore. Vainly I searched the choppy water for some sign of her. Fearfully I called out for her as I waded out into the chilly water until my knees were covered. The incoming waves slapped my stomach as they surged angrily onto the unyielding beach. With the undertow trying to pull me out further I was forced to retreat.
I don't know how long I stood staring into the swirling surf wondering why she’d walked into the ocean. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I numbly trudged back to the house feeling a great weight settling upon my shoulders. Now I knew why Mom had told me to take charge and had made the girls promise to listen to me.
As I forlornly entered the small house, I saw an envelope resting on the rickety table. Mom had scrawled a note on the back.
"Kris, I’m sorry. By now you know I'm gone. As difficult as it may seem, it's really better if I die this way. I have cancer and it can’t be stopped. During the last months you’ve seen how rapidly I’ve been going downhill. I know at best that I only had a few days to live. Even waiting one more day would have left me too weak to do what I need to do... or by now... what I’ve done. You know I love the sea. Now I've gone home. Please remember that I chose to end my life this way. If I’d grown any weaker you’d have insisted on getting me to a hospital where I’d die hooked up to machines. That is something I could not do. Also, once the authorities realized how ill I was they would have to place you and your sisters into foster homes... most likely separate homes. Your only chance to keep you and your sisters together is for you to get to your grandma's farm. I know if you show up she'll take you in. Take care of the girls and keep the family together. I love all of you. MOM."
It was my turn to lean my head on the table and sob. Once my tears were exhausted I spoke. "I understand, Mom," I whispered to her knowing she'd hear me. Once I'd gained control of myself I opened the envelope. In it was $50.00 and a letter.
"Carol, it’s wonderful to hear from you after all these years. Unfortunately I'm afraid I can't help you more than this $50.00. Your father died 5 years ago and it hasn’t been easy keeping the place up and making ends meet. If you can get here I can use your help to keep a roof over all our heads. More than that I can’t do. Oh Carol, if only you had come to me when you discovered you were pregnant. I'd have helped you despite whatever your father did. I love you, Mother.”
The post mark was 5 days old. The return address listed an RFD box for Neavitt in Maryland. It also confirmed another suspicion I'd always had. Dad had never married Mom. O’Brien... our last name... was the same as grandma's. I swallowed a huge lump in my throat. The discovered pregnancy had been me. I was grandma's then 15 year old daughter's love child. Mom had told me one night during one of her sicknesses how she ran away to save my Dad from her father’s wrath. I didn't remember much about my father since he abandoned us when he found Mom was pregnant with the twins. I hated him for abandoning us. I had no idea if grandma knew if I was her grandson or granddaughter much less if she knew of the twins, but from the tone of Grandma’s letter I doubted she knew anything about us. In my innocence I started formulating a plan knowing I couldn't tell the girls about Mom. I had Grandma's address and considering mom’s last note reasoned that was the best place to go.
I gathered our meager belongings and what little food we had in the house. Into our worn canvas sea bag... mom had told me it had been my grandfather’s navy seabag from WWII... I put three blankets, three plastic mugs, a long handled frying pan, a plastic 2 quart storage container, a dishrag, a pocket knife with a can opener, spoons, forks, knives, and an almost full box of wooden matches. Exhausted, I sat on the porch and looked out to the sea... and mom.
As the sun came up the bright rays woke me. I woke up the girls and told them Mom had gone to sea, hinting without actually telling them so that they'd assume she shipped out as a cook on a fishing vessel. In a firm voice I told them we had to go to grandma's and we couldn't let anyone know we were without an adult or we'd be split up into foster homes and mom would never be able to find us.
The girls were sad that mom left without saying goodbye until I reminded them that in her own way mom had said goodbye last night when she’d made them promise to do as I said. We dressed and gathered our best clothes... most of our clothes were virtually rags anyway and I wanted to travel as light as possible. Thus, we took few spare clothes.
Anyone seeing us as we left, the beach house would have seen nothing amiss. We wore jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers with the leading child carrying a seabag. Our shoulder length blond hair hung loosely about our shoulders. The girls were excited about our journey as we trudged into town. Amid the crush of tourists we were virtually invisible. At the local bus station I discovered $50.00 would only get one of us to New York City. Trying not to let the twins know of my disillusionment we left. As we walked I desperately tried to think of how to get to grandma’s house. I knew that hitchhiking was way too dangerous so our only choice was to walk. At least that’s what I naively thought... after all we had no car and walked everywhere. Leading the girls to the local library I found the map section and plotted a route that would keep us off the interstates as much as possible. The girls eagerly wrote down the route numbers and towns along the route I selected. It was nearly noon when we left the library.
As we walked out of town I tried to flesh out my meager plan. We had all summer to make the trip. The nights were warm. We’d sleep wherever we could find or make shelter. I was sure I could somehow earn money along the way. When I told the girls of my plan to walk to Maryland they weren't too happy. They’d been looking forward to the bus ride. Fortunately they remembered their promise to mom to listen to me so off we went.
Having just completed the sixth grade I really had no concept of how long the trip would take, how hard and tiring it’d be, or the ultimate cost I'd have to pay. Looking back, I really think if I had known those things I would never have attempted the trip. Ignorance is bliss so we began our odyssey.
As the day wore on we hiked along the side of the Massachusetts State route 28 singing and laughing as our spirits of adventure lead us on. After about an hour we were sweated so the girls pulled their shoulder length hair into bouncy girlish ponytails high atop the backs of their heads. Because of my need to preserve myself from being labeled a sissy I resisted putting my hair into a ponytail... I thought real guys didn't wear their hair in ponytails. Stubbornly I walked on. I began to envy my sisters while brushing stray hair from my eyes. After another hour of brushing hair out of my face and sweating I began to reevaluate my position on guys wearing ponytails. Over the years I’d seen a lot of men in ponytails at our resort hometown. At our next rest stop I pulled my hair into a ponytail... but unlike my sisters made sure to tie it close to my neck. We'd covered about seven miles when then girls said they were hungry. Leaving the girls sitting on the curb resting I went inside a mini market. A loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, a jar of Tang, and a quart of milk cost $15.00. After a curbside meal of sandwiches and milk we packed the left overs in the sea bag and we set off again.
We'd traveled about 2 more miles since eating and the sun was setting so we settled into a heavily overgrown area near the road beside a stream. We were beat, filthy, and tired of the roaring and stench of the big trucks and all the dirt and debris they flung into the air as they rumbled past. Our initial excitement for our odyssey had evaporated. We were too bushed to do more than settle down for the night. Wrapping ourselves in our blankets the girls snuggled up to me for warmth and comfort. They fell asleep almost immediately but my fears and doubts about the correctness of my decision kept me awake until my fatigue finally won out. We managed to cover 9 miles that first day.
In the morning we were once more up with the dawn. After picking bits of trash from our hair we washed up in the stream. The girls made sandwiches while I mixed the Tang into water I drew from the stream. When we’d finished our breakfast, we cleaned up and set off. We played a game by looking at the trucks and cars whizzing past trying to identify the state from which they came. We saw few interesting sights and grew disgusted with the litter which was evident everywhere. We hiked 17 miles during nearly eleven hours taking a five minute break every half hour with a 45 minute stop for lunch at midday. That night we settled into an abandoned gas station finishing off our bread. Once more snuggled together our exhaustion helped us fall asleep quickly.
Upon awakening we discovered it was pouring. Having no raincoats or umbrellas the cool rain quickly drenched me when I stepped outside to answer nature's call. I refused to let the girls go outside and found an old bucket which would crudely meet our needs. I shivered as we gathered some debris from inside the building by the open rear door and lit a small fire. Sitting by the small blaze I slowly dried. We caught rainwater in our mugs, mixing in the Tang, drank freely. After a boring day we curled up together having gotten nowhere. The girls wanted to go home so I told them our home would be with grandma. That night we slept fitfully awakening several times from nightmares.
In the morning we awoke stiff and chilled. We'd have to get something to keep us dry and warm if we were to continue. Looking outside I saw the sun shining! Hurriedly we gathered our things and rushed out into the radiant warmth setting out with renewed hopes. By lunch we were once more beat and hungry. Stopping at another mini market I spent $10.00 to buy some fruit, bread, and garbage bags. As we ate I answered the girls’ question about the garbage bags telling them they'd keep us dry during rain and warm at night. Early in the afternoon we left route 28 for route 151. I didn’t say anything to the girls about our dwindling finances... I’d already spent $25.00 of our $50.00. After walking 16 miles that night we again made our camp by a stream.
Shortly after setting out the next day the itinerary I’d plotted took us back onto route 28. As we walked I stopped whenever I saw an opportunity to do this or that job to earn money. Whenever I did this I made the girls stay out of sight. Most of the people just told me to get lost but a few told me they wouldn't trust a scruffy boy off the streets to not rob them blind. Despite the frustration of not finding work the day was interesting as our trek took us past Otis Air Force Base. There was a near constant stream of planes coming into or out of the base. That night near the intersection of route 28 and US route 6 we made our nests in a large drainage pipe. This day we covered 15 miles.
When we awoke on the sixth day of our odyssey the sky was overcast. It began to rain as we ate a meager breakfast. Seeing the way the water filled the pipe and ditch that had served as our shelter, somehow I managed to keep my anxiety from showing. I vowed never to spend another night in a place that could be so easily flooded. With our heads poked through the garbage bags to cover us we silently walked down route 6 through a day of on again off again rainstorms. We actually covered 21 miles that day... further than any previous day... because none of us wanted to stop and rest in the chilly weather. That night, chilled and weary, we settled into a home that was under construction.
The following day we finished the last of our food so once more we had to stop at a mini market to replenish our supplies. It took another $15.00 to restock our meager portable pantry. After exiting the store I couldn’t hide my anxiety and the girls began to realize we were running low on cash. As we walked along I again unsuccessfully tried to find work. Despite the warm and muggy day and our growing frustration we made good progress. After traveling 17 miles we camped by a stream just off route 6 where it meets route 177.
On our 8th day the area was rapidly urbanizing. There were few opportunities to earn any money and I wanted to cross the Narragansett Bay. We traveled along route 177 passing from Massechusetts into Rhode Island then turned north on route 77 and finally route 138 where we stopped for lunch. After squeezing through a chain link fence we followed a hiking/biking pathway beside the limited access road to cross the Sakonnet River. Once across we continued beside route 138. We stopped for the night beside the Portsmouth Evangelical Friends meetinghouse sheltering in the west inside corner. That day we trekked 16 miles.
In the morning of day 9 we moved on. Heading into a nearby mini market we spent the last of our money to replenish our supplies. The girls knew we were broke but sensed my worriment and wisely kept quiet. By noon we reached the scariest part of our journey when we reached the Clairborne Pell Newport Bridge. This was part of a toll road and had no pedestrian area. There was a 12 inch high by 18 inch high concrete curb with a heavy wrought iron railing. At first the girls were quite skittish as we walked out on the two mile long bridge. The wind generated by the cars whizzing past us buffeted us. We kept one hand firmly on the guard rail as we crossed as quickly as we could. After we crossed the bridge the girls giggled when I told them we were traveling across the islands of Rhode Island. Halfway through our smooth trek up Conanicut Island we stopped for lunch. That afternoon in a stifling heat we crossed the mile long Jamestown Verrazano Bridge. Fortunately it had a bike/pedestrian path. Thankfully the increasing late morning heat was broken by the breeze off the water. Two hours later after traveling 14 miles we settled into a house under construction for the night.
By the tenth morning we were almost like zombies. Apparently my growing despair over our financial insolvency was contagious since we spoke little as we trudged along. Silently we left state route 138 and began to travel along the famous coastal hugging route of US route 1. Despite our malaise we covered a fair distance. That night after a 17 mile hike we made our camp in Burlingame State Park. The campfires and joy of the other campers eased our depression. The campground public showers were quite a pleasant treat.
The next day we simply abandoned our trek to rest and play in the park. We met other kids our age and forgot our troubles for a while. One of the mothers noted our meager lunch and invited us to join her family for the evening cookout. Hamburgers and hot dogs never tasted so good! It wasn’t until our hunger was sated that I realized she’d watched us devour the spread she’d put out. When she said she’d like to meet our parents I realized she was afraid we were orphans or runaways. Fortunately I was able to signal the girls and we managed to fend her off. After making our thanks we headed back to our camp, gathered our things, and moved into the woodland away from the camping area.
Sleep that night was restless as we jumped at every sound. Before dawn I roused the girls and we set out. As we trudged along the road we kept a sharp eye out for police. It wasn’t until we crossed the border into Connecticut that we were able to relax. We ravenously devoured the last of our food. We all realized that if we didn’t find someway for me to earn more money we’d have two choices. Become thieves or turn ourselves into the authorities. Since we were not quitters, we set out once more hoping for a miracle.
Just after lunch and about a mile past the state border we smelled the most mouth watering aroma: donuts... cakes... pies... fresh bread! It wasn’t difficult to spot the small bakery in the strip mall we were passing. Like moths to a flame we were drawn to the store. Standing outside we drooled while looking in the large display window at all the mouth watering goodies. It was then I realized what the line from the poem The Night Before Christmas meant when it says 'visions of sugar plumbs danced in their heads'. When I saw my drooling sisters my heart fell. Without any money there was no way we could afford anything.
Still salivating, I told the girls to wait while I went inside to see if I could work for some of the treats. Going in I asked the smiling man behind the counter if I could talk to the manager.
"I'm the manager," he said. "What can I do for you?”
"We just moved here," I lied. "My mother had to go to work this morning but we didn't have a chance to pick up any food and she didn't leave any money to get some. I was wondering if you had anything I might do for you in exchange for a few donuts."
Enticed by the aromatic smells the twins drifted inside until one stood on each side of me... their will to follow my orders overcome by temptation. I smiled weakly and put my arms about them. "These are my sisters," I said as we all looked pleadingly at him.
"Well, I really don’t need any help,” he stated as a look of hardness filled his face. “I never give anything away.” Then his expression softened as he saw our crestfallen response. “But since you offered to work for your goodies I'll see what I can find for you to do,” he added with a smile. “Wait here girls." With that he went into the back.
I couldn't believe it. Finally someone who'd give me work! Maybe I should've had the girls with me when I'd asked others for work. Meanwhile the girls burst into giggles. “Knock it off,” I snarled while looking at them and sternly. "He'll throw us out if you don't settle down. What’s so funny anyway?"
"He thinks you're a girl,” Teri giggled. “Didn't you hear him call us GIRLS when he told us to wait?" She and Lyndi resumed giggling but this time much more softly.
The truth of her words hit me hard as I blushed. I had been so excited by his offer of work that I completely overlooked his inclusion of me as one of girls! While the girls continued to titter I numbly absorbed that not so little detail. At first I tried to figure out how I'd overlooked his innocent declaration of my apparent girlishness. It was totally out of character for me to miss anything that remotely questioned my boyishness. Although I severely chastised myself I quickly rationalized away my not noticing his comment to my anxiety and the stress of our situation. Then my thoughts moved to how I could straighten him out as to my true gender. Before I could think more than that I felt his hand on my shoulder.
"Well young lady, if you and your sisters will dust and sweep my storeroom I'll see you get enough goodies to last a few days. Fair enough," he asked as he looked into my face.
"S... s... sure we'll do it," I stammered so delighted with his offer and the savory temptation of the promised goodies that I momentarily forgot all about correcting his misconception. Then as my boyish indignation resurfaced his kindly smile made me decide to keep his error a secret.
“Good,” he declared. With that he led us into the back where he gave us brooms and rags so we could get to work.
The girls were still giggling about my 'girlhood' when he returned carrying a tray on which he had three donuts and three cups of soda. "Here's a little advance on your pay," he stated with a smiled before returning to the front counter.
We dove into the snack with gusto. Everything seemed fine with the world as we filled ourselves with the sweet treats. As we ate the delicious food I saw the happiness in my sisters and I thought about what had happened. It was very sobering to realize this man probably wouldn't have helped us if he'd thought I was a boy. All my life I'd seen but never thought too much about how adults treated girls differently than they treated boys. Girls were seen as weaker and people were a lot more sympathetic towards girls than they were towards boys if they were in similar circumstances. Even my sisters and I had always lived by society’s code: girls were cute and adorable while boys were crude and rough. This new understanding forced me to analyze how I had approached the people I'd asked for work. My eyes were opened as I realized I’d had a swagger in my step while trying to show I was man enough to handle any job. Those people were obviously put off by my tough guy image. I shuddered at the revelation and rubbed my contented tummy.
All my life I'd had to fight to prove I was a boy so people wouldn’t dump on me for thinking I was a sissy! Now I realized that people had been dumping on me because they thought I was a guy! That certainly was a bizarre twist of fate. Looking at my sisters as they contentedly licked their lips I began to understand my effeminate appearance could, for the first time in my life, be of benefit to us. After all, by outward appearances we were dressed virtually alike and even had our hair back in ponytails. The fact my ponytail was at the nape of my neck while theirs were high atop the back of their heads made little difference. Perhaps if people assumed I was a girl they'd be more willing to help us. As I finished off my jelly filled donut I determined not to dispute anyone who assumed I as a girl... but to appease my insulted boyishness I vowed not to tell anyone I was a girl. If they made the mistaken assumption that I was a girl it'd be their fault not mine. In this way I preserved my male pride.
Looking at the girls I quietly told them my conclusion and made them promise not to reveal my true sex if anyone made the mistake of thinking I was a girl. Thankfully they understood and agreed... but they continued to snicker. After finishing our snack we set to work and quickly had the room spotless.
"Well, you've certainly done a good job,” the manager stated after inspecting our work. “I knew I could depend on three girls to do a good job cleaning. It must be in your blood."
While I cringed at his reference to cleaning being a feminine domain I realized exactly what a male chauvinist was. It shamed me to realize I'd been one..
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.