Memoir: And you know what Strawberries mean…

“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.

Picture c/o:


Memoirs: The Arizona Payphone

The Arizona Payphone

by A.D. Shaffer

The wind whirled different in Arizona. At seven years of age, the desert went on forever. The horizon golden beneath azure with stretching scrapes of plum infused warmth. The sand softer here than the stinging dirt in New Mexico, but the loneliness the same – how small the desert makes a person feel. The interstate cut the desert in half, but all views produced the same spanning scope of sand and sky.

The payphone shone like a portal back to real life. Back to my house, my playroom, and my Daddy. But this was the desert – I could see the payphone, but it could take an hour to get there. Nothing changes in the desert. Where you were going looked the same as where you came from, seemingly endless. Mother said he was a sinister man to begin with, a stingy control freak who expected her to perform ridiculous tasks. I had no idea who she was talking about. Daddy was none of those things. He was a hardworking man who found little joy in life. If he was not at work, then he worked at home. When I was child I was his helper. Having small hands to reach where he never could, I crawled through the crevices when we dug out the basement. I stocked the shelves while he built my playhouse. I pushed him on the swings to check if the cement was set – he did not trust it for me to swing first.

“If it holds me, babe, we know it’ll due for you.”

After three pushes for good measure, we switched. I loved the feel of the air whizzing past as I went higher and higher.

“But will it hold Mother?”

“Hell no!” he said, “Between her and your sister Vic, I daresay the damn hillside wouldn’t hold. No, this is for you only, but I’m sure you’ll have to let those two brats on it. She’ll guilt you to it. But this swing set belongs to you, and you don’t have to put up with anybody’s bullshit.” He meant my nephew Joshy and niece Tamika. Joshy and I are three months apart; Tamika is a year younger. We grew up like cousins. Weird since birth.

Thinking of my father made me smile. In his world, I was not obligated to please other people. I did not have to humble myself or accept pity. I was not looked at like a burden to be dealt with accordingly. I was never shoved to the side. Tiny memories of his world led me to crave pride in myself, to reach for what I wanted, to play my hand to the best extent afforded.

I rushed to the payphone before Mother fully stopped the van. The change slick with sweat as I fed the phone and dialed numbers engraved upon my brain.

Mother saw victory when she heard Gloria’s forced niceties coming from the receiver. I knew she would only give me three minutes. She said if I talked a second longer that Daddy’s lawyer could trace the call. Expose our location. Jeopardize my very soul. Later, she would tell me that Daddy didn’t want to talk to me, and that is why I had to speak to his new girlfriend instead of him. I kept my lips pursed during the interrogation. I knew things she did not. The things I knew proved her a liar. I silently began constructing a safety net around my brain in efforts to keep out her poisoning attacks. I learned early the abilities of manipulation. In my childhood I cloaked my mind. As time wore on, I would exchange the net for walls of isolation. Thanks, Mother.

The things I knew to be true were acts or words experienced first hand. Early on I was aware to the “being” and “seeming to be” dichotomy. Mother, for example, seemed to be the jolly troop leader, devout Baptist, doting grandmother, and respectable wife. I watched Mother in action. She complained all day and night of the responsibilities looming ahead of her. Sweating and cursing then weeping for cursing.

“All day long,” Mother lamented, “my fingers worked to the bone! Nobody appreciates all the time, all the energy…and when I have so many other important things to do!”

Confused, I wondered why she offered to help when she clearly did not have time to spare. Time that could have been spent on keeping up the house. Mother was a talented stacker. She never cleaned, just piled things up: books, papers, recipes, patterns, coupons…oh! the coupons. I was with her when she volunteered. I was with her the majority of the time.

“Oh! Of course I’ll do what I can,” she would say, “Poor {insert pathetic soul lost from God}, she just can’t get ahead. Always ends up with the wrong {man or job}. If only she’d come to Jesus! We are barely making ends meet here, but I’ll cut Murph down to one cheese sandwich in his lunch. It will be fine. Angela doesn’t need another activity. I bet she’ll forget she was ever in gymnastics.”

I never mastered the cartwheel. I blamed Mother and the “poor soul” — whoever she was. Mother taught me to reduce myself so as to better other people. If I had something I should give it away. Jesus said wealth was poison. What madness. I developed a hatred for her and the poor souls. My whole life has been a rage. Why must I fend for myself, but bend over backwards for everyone else in the world?

“It’s a crock of shit,” Daddy said on the phone, that windy night in Arizona. “Don’t you listen to anything that woman says, babe. Whatever I give you is yours; don’t give it to somebody else. Don’t let anyone give you any shit. You are worth as much as anybody else is. More, really, because I love you. I’ve got a pretty good lawyer, we want you to come home.”

“We’d love to have you home, Angie Dawn!” Gloria said. “We miss you!”

Daddy spoke quietly. Mother never knew he was talking to me; she was too caught up on Gloria’s voice. Her eyes gleamed when she snatched the receiver from my hand, slamming it into its cradle.

“The nerve of that man! Not only am I to accept another woman in my house, answering my phone! But also that he couldn’t even bring himself to speak to my poor little angel. Wouldn’t even talk to her! His daughter! Instead she had to talk to the witch!”

I closed my eyes and cast my net. I wished and wished that Gloria really was a witch. A powerful one who could conquer Mother. A witch to set me free and rid me of my captor…take that, Jesus.

Picture c/o: