“And You Know What Strawberries Mean…”
by A.D. Shaffer
Another Friday evening. Another game of UNO. The fold out card table consisted of Mother, her best friend Patty, Patty’s son David and me. Occasionally, my sister Vicki would join in the game; subjecting us to her tarot card theory and her rotten daughter Tamika.
Vicki, overweight and deserted by her husband, possessed views very contradictory to the Southern Baptist rhetoric which ruled Mother’s life. When not present, Vicki became the topic of discussion. When David, seven years older my elder, was not there to show me his rabbits or let me watch him blow something up, I found myself playing UNO with the adults.
I often found myself with the adults. Unlike other children who craved imaginative playtime, I wanted answers. Often, I didn’t have questions…or if I did, I didn’t want to let the adults know I was onto them. I would listen to their conversations and laugh when they laughed, though the meaning unclear. Listening to catch some glimpse of reason, logic, and purpose.
The separation between my mother and me was clear. I believed the adults were up to something, keeping some hidden meaning stored in the dark like the potatoes in our tater-bin.
Mother’s saying would always taunt me, “Hey Patrice…’and you know what strawberries mean!’” They would both cackle, and Patty would blush. Her round cheeks lit up in embarrassed flames, her knowing eyes crinkled and glazed in watery knowledge; Mother’s mouth wide agape, large glasses pressed in folds of happy fat.
I did not know about the mysteries of strawberries.
I never laughed when strawberries were mentioned. I thought if I stayed still enough, they would forget my presence and disclose valuable information which I could use against them.
Born during Mother’s thirty-seventh year, she always called me the miracle baby. Her womanly change had already begun. She told me that her intuition told her she was pregnant, and though Dr. Buck told her pregnancy was impossible…she simply knew. Strawberries, I presume.
My siblings were between eighteen and twenty three years older than me. The Miracle baby. Their childhoods were extremely different than mine. Siblings to me acted more like aunts and uncles; their children were my age.
My father, who Mother always called Murph with disgust in her voice, was my hero. Typical Daddy’s Girl. Although young, I knew that my parents did not get along. I knew Mother was up to something, wielding my father’s checkbook and baking casserole after casserole. I sensed a battle coming, and I was on my father’s side. Using UNO nights to glean as much information as I could. Hiding behind the living room curtains till my father got home, listening for clues while she gossiped on the phone.
One day Mother gave me a picture of her and me. My father’s absence from the picture irritated me. She said that he didn’t like to go to the store, and refused to get his picture taken. I felt that he would have taken a photograph with me, if she had not been present. The picture held no importance to me; I tossed it among my toys in my play room.
“I’m tired of you siding with Murph!” she said one day while I was arguing with her. “One day I may not be here anymore!”
Anger boiled deep inside me. I ran to my room to search for the discarded picture. I remember searching through tears. Sometime later, she found the picture in my book bag. Convinced that I carried it with me everywhere to have her close to me at all times.
Perhaps strawberries had failed her, she did not know everything. I carried that photograph with me so if she deserted us, I would have a picture handy so the police could find her. I knew that being a young child; I could not take care of my father. I did not know how to make casseroles, but I did know that my father hated them, much like he hated Mother. However, he and I were doomed to her care. Who else would take care of us? Grandma already took care of Pup and Aunt Sally. I knew Grandma could not desert them and move to our house.
Mother’s accomplices were Patty, Vicki and Grandmother. I often thought it strange that Vicki went grocery shopping with us. Mother pushing a cart. Vicki pushing a cart. My father’s checkbook paid for both. My father’s checkbook present more than he in dealings which included Mother.
I understood the checkbook’s power one night when I heard my parents arguing. They only argued in my father’s room. By this time, Mother moved her bed and belongings into my room. “Angela has terrible nightmares and is convinced there is a ghost in her room. I have to sleep in there with her, Murph.”
The ghost didn’t bother me anymore, as Mother already told her to leave. The only time in my life I felt the need for Mother’s intervention. The ghost was an old woman who sat in a rocking chair and knitted. She did this in the far corner of my room; I could see my toys through her – this airy apparition. When Tamika first discovered the ghost, I did not believe her. I talked to my nephew Josh – who was my age and more logical than his cousin. He and I decided to embark on a mission to disprove Tamika’s belief. Josh was the first to run down the stairs and seek help from his Grandma. I stood there, watching the ghost knit; she reminded me of Grandma-tippy-toe, my father’s grandmother. When the ghost reached out to touch my hair, I screamed and ran off.
Mother stomped up the stairs, complaining of her list of chores to complete before my father got home. “Listen here, lady!” she yelled into my room while the three of us children huddled at the bottom of the stairs, “Get out of my house! Leave my children alone! You are not welcome here.”
I shook in disbelief, would the ghost truly listen to her?
I never saw the ghost again. Strawberries. What other powers did Mother possess?
I bunched up in a ball on the staircase, positioned catty-corner from my father’s room. They left the door open just a crack. My father spoke so softly, a polar opposite of Mother in every form. I sat there for what seemed like forever, only hearing my father speak once.
“You will not take my baby away from me, Judy!” he said.
Mother ranted, you could hear her a mile away. She stuffed her clothes in bags and yelled at him, “Don’t you dare wake up Angela!”
I remained hidden, gently crying tears of anger and fear. Learning to cook casserole my next challenge in life. I would grow up and take care of my father. When I could take her insults thrown at my father no longer, I crawled to my bedroom and pretended to sleep. I jumped when I heard the front door slam. I hoped my father would come to check on me.
I heard silence. My father probably assumed that I lay sleeping. I got up and crept to his bedroom. Shocked at his absence, I found Mother there, weeping.
“Oh, darling!” she cried, embracing me, “We will be fine without him.”
“Where is Daddy?” I asked, escaping her clutches and frantically searching the room.
“He is gone. We are getting a divorce. We will move in with Vicki until I can find an apartment for us.”
“I’m not going anywhere! This is my house.”
“Angela, your father and I are separating. You will have to come with me; your father doesn’t want you. And besides, if you live with a man he will touch you where your swimsuit covers.”
Her trickery worked. Her words instilling un-thought of horrors in regards to my father. I still wandered the meaning behind the strawberries, I wandered about my mother’s secrets. The why behind her backstabbing words about my father. Why must Mother always be against my father? I knew that he wanted me, I heard him that night on the stairs.
We moved in with my sister across town, and then we moved to Elderton, Pennsylvania. Forced to share a room with Tamika, I lost my privacy and my playroom.
The child custody case began before the finalization of the divorce. My father saw me on weekends. Lovely trips to the flea market or home cooked goodness at Grandma and Pup’s house. I became my father’s faithful spy, telling anything about Mother that I discovered.
But my discoveries failed. Mother’s secrets stayed safely tucked away in her hidden language and midnight plottings.
The fateful night came when Vicki and my brother Gino loaded the Uhaul truck. Mother cornered me in the dark hallway. She told me she had a secret to tell me. I thought my time had come to know about strawberries, and in a way, I suppose I found out. Strawberries exemplified the lack of communication and understanding between Mother and me.
My father, she hissed, was in the company of a witch. Together, they would kidnap me and sacrifice me to the devil. We must escape! The plot unraveled before my eyes like a ball of yarn down the stairs. Hastily, we moved to New Mexico to live with my brother Bill. He would protect me from my father. Traveling at night so the witch couldn’t find me.
I didn’t see my father for seven years. The only time I was permitted to speak to him was on a pay phone, in a different town, for brief moments. Mother with a constant fear the call would be tracked. Mother’s fear that my father would capture me, the Miracle Baby. Derangement engulfed my mother, and I a helpless victim on the strawberry express.