I don’t remember agreeing to it. I was only eight years old, but this mattered not, because there was no escaping it. We were off to Crestbrook Bible Camp in the Pocono Mountains with my father’s Bible-thumping family. A two-week retreat surrounded by a picturesque lake. It reflected about a billion evergreen tips poking high into the clouds. I recognized beauty and vivacity, but I was too young to know what hate was.
We stayed in one of various apartment-like cabins that obviously hadn’t been cleaned since the 1950s, most with decks that connected to rickety wooden docks that dangerously lead out to the lake where sad little rowboats were tethered by some old straggles of jute. The camp had scheduled meals, appointed prayers in addition to church services, singalong spirituals around the campfires, arts and crafts, and no way out. I’d be stuck there with my older brother, my father, and his sister’s family all whom hated my Jewish mother. She’d been staying at a mental hospital somewhere in Los Angeles. Again.
At crafting time, I made a cross out of match sticks and my first handmade book called, “The Book of the Lamb.” My aunt Dolly gave me such praise for that thing, but not for its impressive hand-sewn binding or my painted illustrations of Jesus; she’d only thought I’d at last comprehended the Rapture now that my mom was out of the picture. But all I knew, I only missed my mother to such a painful degree, it felt as if someone carved a deep hole out of my heart with an ice cream scooper without one ounce of regret. Even at that age, I wondered, was all this normal? Were my parents trying to set a record to see how many times they could break up? Somehow, I knew, in no sane world did I live within a healthy family.
Equally confusing, I developed a crush on a boy I saw in one of the precarious rowboats on the lake, about my brother’s age, maybe 10; he had curly blond locks that fell to his shoulders. I followed him around the campsite when I had nothing better to do. Then, one day I saw him in a dress and realized he was a girl. Funny thing, I still liked her and followed her just the same. However, I soon possessed a growing feeling there was something very wrong with me. When the guilt of being a sexual deviant became overbearing, I left her alone.
When the family got back to Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, Dad talked to and me and my brother about getting baptized. Did we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior? At the time, I suppose I did. I never heard of Jesus Christ being anything other than the Lord and Savior. Plus, I knew that’s what my dad wanted. That was what my uncle Kermit and Aunt Dolly wished for too.
As it turned out, the two Jewish kids from Los Angeles getting baptized was a big goddamned deal. We were even in the town newspaper. I found out later, when my dad told my mom what he did with us, she said, “You can dunk them in all the holy water you want—they’re still Jewish!”
Since my mother was absent, my dad’s family portrayed her as an abhorrent, mentally ill human being, unfit to provide a stable upbringing for children. They made her out to be satanic, because she was not religious: an ungodly Jew. But my mom was religious enough. She believed in God and told me so, many times. I wondered if my parents ever talked to each other about such things, or anything for that matter. Perhaps they could only scream and yell. Maybe they fought exclusively for sport.
My parents stayed 3,000 miles apart that year. Angry. Stubbornly bicoastal. Seemingly forever, to me. The longer I stayed with my father’s family, the more coerced I became. I felt as if half of me was unworthy. It seemed important to be baptized and cleanse the Jew out of me. Otherwise, I didn’t belong. I considered, maybe, if I took the peculiar holy bath with the pastor, something magical was supposed to happen.
Afterward, I didn’t feel happier, but I began noticing the rolling, lumpy hills of Lehigh Valley loop-de-looping around me like emerald-covered sound waves swelling through me in pulsating vibrations. Was id God? And maybe Uncle Kermit wasn’t as friendly as the Sesame Street frog (because he’d often beat my brother for refusing to go to church), but at least I’d lose myself on the winding roads to and from the chapel, silencing screams, deadening sounds, while my attentions following butterflies that skittered back and forth between the sunlit pastures. Later, I’d learn this was called disassociating.
Sometimes, the family would take long drives off the main highway, under covered bridges near bevies of woods—trees so dense they’d take the sky away. At least my bible thumping family gave me that.
At their charming vegetable farm. They put me in charge of gathering green beans, snapping off the tips, and placing them into wicker baskets. I’d clean them in the outdoor sink while Buck, Kermit’s old Bassett hound lay beside me. Then, when chores were finished, my brother and I would run for what seemed like miles in the back yard along a hedge of wild sunflowers that bordered the property. That land that just kept on going and going. Something nonexistent in Los Angeles. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a memory that doesn’t even exist at all, and it’s really just a fantasy. A prayer I made to God.
I suppose I did pray then, but only direct to God. No middleman. I usually prayed wishing my mom would come and take me away. Perhaps without her, nature seemed a façade. Too sad an experience to have without her.
I precipitated a fantasy of her coming to take me away. Maybe she’d arrive in a two-passenger spaceship that hovered down from the clear-blue sky. It would raise me up into her arms. Pink smoke and glitter would fall all around us. Back to Los Angeles we’d go and live happily ever after in a duplex near Miracle Mile near my grandmother. I’d wish for this constantly while I walked home from school. Yet, every day played out just the same. At the end of the school day, a loud speaker in the classroom would dismiss each group of students, one at a time.
“Bus 15, Bus 24, Bus 33,” and so on.
After all the lucky bus kids were cleared, the kids that walked home were finally let go.
“Walkers are dismissed…Walkers are dismissed.” They said it twice.
I waited for that female voice to say those long-awaited words while the minutes passed—well after three o’clock I might add. I’d watch the clock above the teacher’s hair-doo: click, click, click…our house was so close, I could smell hickory chips baking in the fireplace. It didn’t seem fair.
Then, one day in the fall, when walkers were lastly allowed to leave, I started skipping up the street home alone, and lo and behold, I saw my mother in a taxicab. I thought it was a hallucination. I could hardly believe it. She was waving me towards her into the cab. I didn’t even have time to pinch myself, but it was real.
Once I came to her, she was crying and hugging me, kissing me all over my face. We rolled away and headed straight to the Philadelphia airport. Excited, but scared, I knew I’d just been kidnapped. I knew my father would be worried and angry. What about school? What about clothes? I didn’t have more than the ones on my back. This fantasy come true all at once became wonderful, yet aberrant, because I wasn’t paying much attention to her disposition. I forgot all about her manic depression, what we called her mental illness at the time. In the moment, I only knew I wanted my mommy. But by the time we got to Los Angeles, I began to remember it all very clearly.
She’d been staying at a sleazy motel in the south end of Korea Town. It was so rundown; I remember rusty orange water coming out of the faucets. The whole building smelled of mold, and I could swear I heard live chickens in the room next to us. And Mom? She was messed up. How I didn’t I see it until then, I can only say I was eight years old. Now it’s very clear of course. Her hair was wild and undone. It was the first time I saw her roots, almost all gray. I didn’t even know she dyed her hair back then.
The next morning, she was so depressed she could hardly acknowledge me or function. She cried on and off: optimistic one minute and in a black hole the next—what is known as rapid cycling. We never left the motel. She sat on the floor most of the time, either on the phone with her mother or fighting with my father about how she wanted to take care of me from now on. I could hear my father through the receiver screaming at her, which only made her shiver with anxiety. She’d bang the receiver on the rug and yell, “No, no, no!” I kept thinking; how can she possibly take care of me?
When she wasn’t on the floor on the phone, she was sitting on the stinky blue couch—stained with I don’t know what—punching herself in the head. She kept saying she was a loser. I’d scream and try to physically stop her, but she was a mess. I swung between crying for her and ignoring her. I admittedly felt relieved when she’d take a tranquilizer to sleep. I guess I’d forgotten how bad it was, though I’d seen much worse, but this time, no one was around to take care of her except me.
When she slept, I did my homework, not knowing if I was staying or going. Having my mom back was not as glittery, or magical, as I had dreamed.
Three days in, she began to realize the obvious. She couldn’t take care of me. She could hardly make me a bologna sandwich. When her manic episodes subsided, she went a bit catatonic. In a sort of robotic state, she put me on a plane back to Pennsylvania with a TWA chaperon by my side.
Up in the air, I waited five hours while the same ten songs played over and over inside my headphones. They were the same songs that played when I was flying with Mom toward California. During that year, I would fly on that same route, back and forth between their squabbles, listening to those 10 songs. They became the soundtrack of my life. The lyrics to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac reeled in my head as if the song was written specifically for my family. “What you had, and what you loved…” That line was especially true no matter which direction I was flying.
Now that I was back in Fleetwood with my Dad and brother, things weren’t so bad. In fact, a couple of weeks later something amazing happened. It was something so marvelous that I didn’t think about anything morose or sad. Because, on Thanksgiving day, it began to snow.
Late in the afternoon, my dad hollered for us to come to the living room window to come see. And there it was. As if God was shaking a giant box of instant mashed potatoes over Pennsylvania. Real snow quickly speckled upon the grass in the front yard. It was the most magical moment in the history of our world. We’d never seen such a thing before, and we hurried outside. We skidded around on the grass in our west coast sneakers, ate the snowflakes as they fell from above, and gathered up enough snow on the ground to throw at each other. Not quite enough to pulverize the other’s faces, but enough to experience the biggest joy of my childhood. The last thing we wanted to do was eat Thanksgiving dinner. We did anyway, and the turkey made us tired. I remember going to bed early thinking about snowflakes and holding out hope for our family. Always the optimist.
Perhaps a miracle would fall from the sky. Why not? Snowflakes did.
The next morning there were blue skies, and everything was covered, thick and white. The rooftops and trees, the ground. Everyone’s cars were coated in big, fluffy cotton dollops. Icicles hung below windows, like melting diamonds stuck in time. I couldn’t wait to see them up close, so I ventured out in my snow gear and wore my red, hand-knitted red mittens that Aunt Dolly made for me.
I visited the icy windowsills and got a better look at these strange specimens. Upon my inspection, I noticed sunshine on the ice, causing the tips to drip and realized they were slowly melting, which caused me to well up in saddening thoughts:
Nothing good, if it ever was from the start, lasts forever.
Now I knew, it was only a matter of time; I quickly ran over to each windowsill in the neighborhood, and with my mitten fingers, I began plucking the icicles off the ledges one by one. The differing lengths made interesting sounds. At the next window, I’d pull them all off in one motion. They made a noise like someone swept a mallet across a xylophone while ice broke away. It reminded me of a cartoon sound effect. It made me giggle a bit.
I broke off as many icicle rows as I could, destroying them before the sun could melt them away. The more I’d break, and satisfying the sound, the more I thought I could possibly and magically make everything a little better. For now.
Carol Es is a professional visual artist and writer from Los Angeles, now living in Joshua Tree, CA. She is also a professional musician (drummer), working all her life in all three capacities. She’s written for the Huffington Post, Whitehot Magazine, and Coagula Art Journal and been published with Bottle of Smoke Press, Islands Fold, and Chance Press. She has self-published numerous artist’s books that are featured in the Getty Research Library,Brooklyn Museum, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts (to name a few), winning awards from the National Arts and Disability Center,Asylum Arts, the Bruce Geller Memorial Award ‘WORD’ grant from the American Jewish University for writing, and is a Pollock-Krasner Fellow in the visual arts. She has exhibited solo shows at the Riverside Museum, Torrance Museum, and the Lancaster Museum of Art and History.In 2019, her first memoir, ‘Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley’ was published with Desert Dog Books. She is currently working on her first novel, ‘Queer as Mud’ to be published in the fall of 2020.