By Patricia Kirk, Department of English
by Christina Bunker
When I was in the third grade, my family moved to a small, Polish catholic town in Connecticut, where we lived until I was in the tenth grade. We bought a Colonial saltbox built in 1770 that my parents tore apart and renovated. The work formed the background narrative of my adolescence: the constant state of deconstruction in which we lived and the gradual emergence, from the rubble of plasterboard and rotten shingles and rodent skeletons, of a structure that had endured two hundred years pretty much intact. It still moves me to think of my mother moving about in the wreckage of that house when we came home from school, clutching a scraper in one gloved hand, her hair matted with plaster dust, her eyes big with the enormity of what had been her own bad idea. With no particular vision beyond the romance of milk cans and braided rugs-with no experience at all in building or unbuilding, minimal tools, and little natural affinity for the slow, chaotic, filthy work involved-my mother removed the layer upon layer of drywall and carpet and flooring that had insulated centuries of previous inhabitants from the Connecticut winters to expose hand hewn chestnut beams, split wood floors, and a chilly bounty of space that contrasted eerily with the cozy New England reds and yellows and greens with which we furnished the house and papered the walls.
It was a cold house. There wasn't enough coal or wood or heating oil in the world to keep the big rooms warm, and the heating never really worked right the whole time we lived there anyway. So we wore sweaters indoors all winter long. To read a book, which was my favorite activity at that age, I wrapped myself up in afghans and quilts and hardly dared to move my hand out of the warmth to turn the pages. In the coldest months, the only way to get really warm was to bathe, but even then the hot water took so long coming from the water heater down in the basement that it arrived only barely warm. Although I had been glad, even as a child, to exchange our boring Southern California suburb for a world of snow and woods and ponds full of frogs, secretly the cold diminished my enjoyment of winter somewhat. The thermos of hot chocolate that our dad sent along with us to the pond where we skated was never quite hot enough when we finally allowed ourselves to drink it, maybe fifteen minutes after we arrived. And our hands were still burning with cold as we sat at the kitchen table spooning up the watery snow cream we made by pouring cream and maple syrup over a bowl of soft white snow we had scraped out from under the hardened surface of drifts that collected against the house. Once, before my sisters and I had graduated from footed pajamas to beds of our own, we discovered that the polyester covers we had brought with us from California created exciting sparks if we rubbed them hard with our flannelled toes. We rubbed and rubbed until we wore long holes in the covers. We only got in a little trouble. "We were just trying to get warm," we lied, and I think out parents pitied us.
Mornings were the coldest times of all. Sometimes, I could see my breath as I lay in bed. Although I have always been a morning person, it was hard for me to leave the warm spot I had created for myself between the sheets and get ready for school. When I was in the ninth grade I had to get up especially early-at the same time as my dad, who commuted an hour to work-because I went to a Catholic high school an hour and a half away by bus, and my dad had to drive me to the bus stop in town. I lay in bed with the covers clutched around my neck as long as I could every schoolday, fully awake, listening to the noises of early morning: the crackling of ice on the roof, a squirrel rolling nuts around in the attic, rats and mice running through the walls, my dad moving around in my parents' bedroom, water coursing and knocking in the pipes when he showered and shaved, and the vague chirps of winter birds waking up. Finally, I leapt out of the covers and into my uniform-skirt, jacket, knee socks, shoes, and all-and then ran down to the kitchen.
Whichever of us, my father or me, got downstairs first made breakfast for us both: usually hot cereal of some kind-oatmeal or Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal. I made a mound of cereal into a volcano filled with butter and then covered it in sugar-white for wheat, brown for oats-and surrounded it with a moat of milk. We ate quickly and silently, bent over our bowls, enjoying how the hot steam rose up and, at least momentarily, warmed our faces.
I don't remember which of us made the oatmeal on this one particular morning, but, when I took a bite, I noticed that the usual mixture was studded with dark, swollen-looking brown things, which I thought were raisins, but they didn't have any taste. When I asked my dad what they were, he said, with his usual morning gruffness, "Shut up and eat." So we lowered our faces into the steam again and ate. Finally, he too noticed the brown things in his oatmeal and got up to check the box. It was full of rat turds.