I was always stuck in the middle with my older sister Tricia, who pinched me violently if I so much as breathed on her. I was also within reach of my father, who would swing his arm around to smack at us when we would start fighting bellowing “Shut up, by Jesus!” This was usually the signal to toss our baby onto the front seat with my mother. By then he had crawled over each of us, poked us in the eye, pulled our hair and made everyone shove him away.
The trip was almost completed when we reached the one bridge from the mainland to the island. It was a conflicted moment for me. Crossing the bridge meant getting out of the smoked filled car and into my grandma’s kitchen but the fear of crashing down into the river below mostly outdid the relief.
I knew it was only a matter of time before we all died crossing that bridge. Those swaying steel cables would snap from the weight of our car and the whole bridge would thunder down into the water below. Maybe those with a window seat might live since they would fight to get out first. I knew I would drown.
As soon as we started crossing the bridge I began making my deal with God. “I promise to stop making up such dramatic lies in confession. I promise to stop bugging my younger siblings. I promise to eat all mother mother’s casseroles and not complain about anything anymore.” I never kept any those promises so I knew it was only a matter of time and I would be plunging towards my death with my bossy older sister screaming in my ear.
My terror was not helped by my father’s favourite ritual. He would stop mid-way across the bridge, open his door and look down through the crisscrossed bottom to the gushing rapids below. All the others would lean out the window to look below. My brother would usually spit or thrown out something to watch it fall. The deafening sound of the water was enough for me. “Nope, nobody would survive THAT fall,” Dad said, every time, clicking his teeth with relish and then taking a swig of his beer. It was over 25 years since Richard Delaney, my mother’s previous boyfriend, had skidded on ice in front of the bridge and plunged down off the cliff into icy waters below. My father always had to stop on the bridge to mention Richard.
Grandma’s farm was past the village of St. Anne’s. When we drove through, my father would nod hello to everyone while my mother did her running commentary about the ugly blue of the Dupont’s house or the Gagnon’s living in a trailer off their property or how the O’Brien kids were still running wild. I would hold my breath and look for the two grand oaks side by side, marking the driveway to my grandmother’s farmhouse. Our car would hardly be up the driveway, the dust not even settled onto the windshield when we would jump out. “You kids wait until the car is stopped”, my mother would yell. We never did.
In the summer we would rush over to the riverbank where we would shove each other to see who would the first to fall in with their clothes on and get into trouble. Our mother would eventually catch up to us screaming the whole time “Stay out of the water. There’s the under tow!”
In winter we would run up the steps of the porch, through the back door, right into the kitchen. My stomach would start to rumble and my mouth water when the smell hit me. “Where are they?” I would ask Grandma, even though I knew the beans were in the oven and the cinnamon rolls in the parlour covered by a tea towel. Then the boredom would set in.
Grandma had raised 14 children between an avalanche of chores. After my grandfather died, she renovated the farmhouse by moving the pump to the kitchen sink and installing a flush toilet. It was a delicate machine: No longer than five minutes to do your business and you to ask to flush. I couldn’t stand looking into the bowl and seeing coloured water. I wanted to pee on fresh water. As the eldest, Patricia always had to use the bathroom first, so I started lying and saying I went number two just so I could flush the toilet before I used it.
Since children could break things by simply looking at them the rules of the house were simple. No children in the dining room, parlour, den, Grandma’s bedroom, front porch, bathroom or cellar. In the 18 years I visited my Grandmother, no one ever sat in either the parlour or dining room. Outside the front porch, barns, gardens and river were off limits. On the rare winter afternoon when Grandma felt it was too cold for children to be outside, we were allowed to watch her ten-inch black and white television with fuzzy reception in the kitchen. It got turned off if we fidgeted or argued over programs.
I was glutton for my Grandmother’s baked beans. My greediness pleased her. Grandma confessed to me once that she was intimidated by my mother’s home economics degree. Mom was filled with nutritious facts. At the dinner table she nagged us about our vegetables by listing all the key vitamins and minerals they offered. Even though she knew about the science of cooking she was a terrible cook. Most of her meals were bland, white and limp, and sometimes downright disgusting. Grandma would look into the distance and say to no one in particular, “Ah, it’s your mom who is the fancy one around here. She’s been to school. I’m just a simple cook.”
I would look at her in astonishment each time. My mother made cakes from a mix, squeezed cookies from a tube and combined tuna, noodles and potato chips for dinner. My Grandmother could take butter, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and create a masterpiece. “I wish everyone cooked like you, Grandma,” I would reply. She would smile and stroke my hair.
Grandma thought all her grandchildren quite spoiled. She equated good behaviour with no complaining. We were a noisy crew. My brothers were weepers, my sisters were screamers and I was a nagger. During a visit my younger siblings were upstairs sleeping, recovering from the chicken pox. I was feeling left out since I never caught the virus. My older sister had gone with my parents to visit relatives on the other side of the island. I was alone with Grandma who was making bread. For short time, I imitated her, using the little piece of dough she had given me, pressing, pulling, slapping down, pressing, pulling. I soon got bored and wanted to play the organ.
“Grandma,” I whined, “why can’t I go play the organ? There’s nothing to do here. Why can’t I play the organ? I promise not to touch anything else. Nobody every lets me do anything. How come I can’t go into the parlour?”
She did not reply but scooped up her dough and slapped it down into the pans.
“Grandma, how come I never get to do anything here? How come I can’t go play the organ?”
She lifted up the bread pans and put them on top of the stove.
“Grandma, please just let me look at the organ for awhile. I want to play the organ. How come I can’t play? I promise I’ll be good. Grandma, Grandma. Are you listening to me? How come no on ever listens to me?”
Grandma threw down her tea towel. Grabbing me by the upper arm, she dragged me over to the stove. She lifted up the circular lid of the stove and poke me hard in the back so I doubled over to look down into the red-hot coals of burning wood.
“Do you see that?” she hissed. I nodded yes. “Well, that’s what hell looks like and that’s where you’re going if you don’t start behaving. God hates a whiner.”
I went to sit in the rocking chair, rocking in silent terror contemplating the fiery torments of hell. I always thought hell would be cold like the water below the bridge. Half an hour later, Grandma gave me the first cinnamon roll to come out of the oven. I saved some for the trip home, putting the final piece into my mouth as we crossed over the bridge of death.