Excerpt from ‘Kin: A Memoir’

Excerpt from ‘Kin: A Memoir’

Grand Marais, Minnesota, 1978-1979

Most mornings, the first sound I heard was either a mosquito, tinny in my ear, or the rusty springs of the rough-hewn door as it closed behind my father when he left to stoke the stoves in the other buildings or to wait tables in town. The second sound was my sister’s easy breath. She fell asleep rubbing my mousy, fine hair between her fingers, a process she called fuzzying, so before I could move, I had to loosen her chubby toddler fingers from the tangled loops of my hair, and I did this as carefully as if I were untying a knot in a thin gold necklace, so she would keep sleeping.

In Grand Marais, Minnesota, there were only a few weeks in summer when a fire in the stove was unnecessary. My father kept ours packed with wood and poked the coals regularly, but some mornings the heat seemed feeble against the cold, since the bare plywood walls of our room in the Bunk House were uninsulated, and I had to will myself to leave the pocket of warmth trapped beneath the heavy quilts. It felt like leaping into the northern shore of Lake Superior, which was just across the road and vast as an ocean, but visible only in winter when all but the pine trees were bare…

The four of us shared half of the Bunk House, which was about the size and length of a singlewide trailer, and sometimes my mother divided it further by using an old bedsheet as a curtain, so she and Dad could have privacy. Despite our small living space, we weren’t terribly crowded because we didn’t have many possessions: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. The Bible was clear that people who collected too much stuff on earth were idol-worshippers, in love with the carnal world and at best only halfway committed to the Kingdom of God. Misti and I had no toys or dolls because they were essentially idols, graven images. My mother disagreed with this idea because she thought little girls needed to practice if they were ever going to learn biblical woman- and motherhood, and I wholeheartedly agreed with her, but she said so only in private.

I did have my complete set of the Little House on the Prairie series, which she chose for my birthday, a special edition so the spines and matching cardboard case were baby blue instead of buttery yellow like the ones at the library. Dad made the gift even more special by hanging a small wooden shelf above my side of the bed I shared with Misti, and the matching set of books complete in their case on my very own shelf was my most prized possession.

I never tired of reading those books, especially Little House in the Big Woods, because no matter which chapter I chose, I could see myself in the story. Laura Ingalls lived in the wilderness and, though she loved her father best, found being good impossible. Jealous of her sister’s golden hair, Laura smacked her across the face hard and had to be spanked. She loved sugar and spoke out of turn. She played tricks on people who treated her badly because she was poor. She embarrassed herself by hoarding pebbles from the shores of Lake Pepin, tearing the pocket of her dress. I didn’t tell anybody, but I thought about her like she was my best friend.

And just like her, I was happy to play with wood chips and thimbles, thrilled to receive simple tokens for birthdays or Christmas, which, like all holidays, we were not supposed to celebrate, though each year my mother conspired to create our own secret Christmas celebration together. In the few private moments we had between our schedule of meals and women’s Bible study, school, which was more Bible study, chores, and evening services, she’d gather Misti and me on her bed and retrieve a handful of treasures from the back of her drawer, tucked carefully behind her clothes. She’d pass the bright Christmas tin of peanut butter candy and pinwheels my grandmother sent and watch Misti and me gobble them down. Then, while we ate, she’d work her way through the small stack of cards, pointing out the fancy foil sticker seals on the envelopes, reading the addresses aloud, and asking me to guess who sent each card more than a thousand miles to us.

■■■

During free time there were a few places I liked to go. There was a small wooden sandbox next to the school, and Misti played there while I checked my secret hiding spot, a nook I constructed by propping a small board against a covered corner of the sandbox. It was a holding tank for any special rocks or other treasures that I found but wasn’t quite ready to commit to my collection, and any turtles, frogs, or moths I kept until they managed to escape.

Then there was the creek, cold as ice water, and though I loved to play in it, I was not allowed to get my clothes wet, and my hands went numb if I spent too much time sifting through the rocks and sticks that settled there. So, after we played in the creek, I dragged Misti across the yard to the greenhouse of buckled lumber and clear plastic, to warm our hands. I loved the bitter tomato plant smell inside, and the way that, no matter how cold the day, the air inside the greenhouse was always warm and balmy. It was a small space though, and Misti got impatient being stuck inside, so we wandered to the swings, where I pushed her until Mom came to find us, to take us back to our room and get cleaned up for supper and the evening service. She combed her hair and ours and changed our clothes for cleaner ones when they were soiled. She gathered the things she used during church and I did the same, mimicking her in every way I was able, gathering my baggie of markers and a fresh stack of paper in case I would be allowed to draw.

Eventually, I would also bring along my half-size guitar, another birthday present, which Dad took me all the way to Duluth to buy. He told me to choose the finish and even a strap, so I could stand and play during praise services. I chose a deep caramel finish and a bright blue strap in a pattern like the edge of an Indian blanket. Our school had made a field trip to the nearby Grand Portage Indian Reservation for a demonstration of old arts, where Chippewa women wove blankets and worked deer hides with stones and men hollowed logs into canoes and pressed the hides around tipis. When we were there, I played a game in my mind where I was a pioneer girl, lost among the Indians, combing the dirt for colorful beads that might have been left behind, like Laura had when she and her Pa stumbled on an abandoned Indian camp.

Back inside the Tabernacle, Peter was already being fed, but the smell of beef liver filled the air and made me feel sick even before it was plunked steaming and swelling onto my plate. When we sat together at the table, Dad said liver was a rare treat and nudged me to eat it. I gagged. He skewered a piece on a fork and pressed it toward my mouth. I gagged again. He put ketchup on it, hoping to hide the taste. I felt guilty and tried to bring a forkful to my mouth but gagged again. He grabbed me by the shoulder for a cursory trip to the outhouse, where he reminded me to be thankful for what I had and spanked me with his flat, open hand.

He wasn’t too angry, and the spanking wasn’t very hard, a small price to pay for not having to swallow the fibrous, netted flesh or the slimy worms of onions surrounding it, all dripping in blood juice. By the time we walked back to the table, Mom had removed the plate, so I wouldn’t have to try again. Dad said he was going to take a walk, and she pushed a buttered roll into my hand under the table. There was a dessert, and before he left, Dad said I shouldn’t have any, but though Mom agreed with him and said I should listen, I could tell by the easy nod she gave him that she’d helped make the dessert, a simple vanilla custard, and set a dish back for me.

For the last time of the day, the tables were packed away and the folding chairs arranged, this time into rows with an aisle down the center. One of the men lugged a heavy wooden pulpit to the front of the room as the grown-ups milled around and caught up with each other. Mom unfolded a small blanket on the floor in front of her chair and gave Misti a board book, so familiar it no longer held any magic. Still, my sister kept quiet and fell asleep every night before the service was over.

The services followed a loose pattern. They were always led by an elder and opened with a prayer and extended Spirit-filled praise service, where all the adults spoke in tongues, which I thought, even though I did it, too, sounded like baby talk, and I had to be careful not to giggle about it. While the adults’ hands were lifted and their eyes were closed, I peeked around, especially fascinated by one woman who always stomped her foot while she repeated Shalalabubububah over and over again.

Between sets of songs and tongues, when hands were lowered and quiet filled the room, prophecies and visions were shared. The visions were passed forward on slips of paper and read to the room, and the prophecies were spoken aloud, spontaneously, and all began with Yea. Both were full of familiar signs and symbols: I saw complete darkness everywhere I looked. Suddenly there was an eruption in the sky and it opened up. Much light appeared and it formed like a crown. It looked like the crown you see on the Statue of Liberty. I then heard the word Liberty. Mom had the gift of both visions and prophecy, regularly jotting down the things she saw on slips of paper and handing them to me to pass forward. I liked trying to guess which were hers when they were read aloud, which wasn’t very difficult, because hers always contained chains, flowers, witches, and swans, not the dumb statues and kitchen appliances in some of the others.

The praise services got rowdy. Several people played guitars and tambourines. When I brought my guitar, I used a notebook Dad put together for me, where he wrote out the chords for many of the songs we sang. When I played well, he let me know by raising his eyebrows at me and sometimes squeezing my shoulder.

When the praise service ended, usually about the time we all felt tired, it was time for the teaching, usually given by the elders, and on rare occasions by traveling ministry, even by Brother Sam via the same cassette tapes of recorded sermons and Bible studies we listened to in our rooms at night on battery-powered tape players. Some of Brother Sam’s sermons were difficult to fall asleep to, because they were lists of the many prophecies of Revelations that had already come to pass in the End Times where we found ourselves. His sermons made me worry about my grandparents back in Kentucky. Were they too worldly? Had they sacrificed enough? Grandpa Roy refused to go to church. It seemed impossible, but the sermons were often terrifying and boring at the same time.

What I found most impossible was sitting still for hours, listening to one person, any person, talk. By the end of the day, even though I had played outside and explored the creek, even though I did not mind school or Bible study, I felt like I had already spent hours sitting in a hard metal chair, trying to keep my legs from swinging, to avoid making unnecessary racket by rustling the pages in my Bible or dropping something loud against the floor. During evening services, I felt so bored I could hardly concentrate, and tried to put off asking to use the bathroom long enough that Dad might nod in permission. The slow walk from my chair to the outhouse and then back felt like a little recess.

To distract myself in the meantime, I often read my red birthday Bible or studied one of the illustrations inside, memorizing all the details in the picture. My favorites were the ones with women, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah; Rebekah at the Well; Manna from Heaven; Gifts for the Tabernacle; the Birth of Jesus; and Jairus’s Daughter Healed.

I had flipped through the pictures hundreds of times and knew them all by heart, especially the coins and symbols in the back, the bronze lepton, or “widow’s mite,” the Ethiopian’s chariot. When we traveled to Body conventions, where we could disappear into a crowd of hundreds of people, I was allowed to draw and make crafts during sermons, but in Grand Marais Dad was quite a bit stricter. Drawing meant I couldn’t pay attention, and how else was I supposed to learn discipline and self-control?

I flipped to the book of Judges where I knew I’d find the story of Jael, one of my favorites, when Deborah, the warrior woman and judge, advised the military commander Barak to go to battle against King Jabin, but Barak was scared and asked her to come along. Because of his lack of faith, Deborah prophesied that Jabin’s army would be defeated once and for all, but by a woman instead of by soldiers.

The two armies battled on the plains, divinely flooded by torrential rain and the overflowing Wadi Kishon; the brutal soldiers of Jabin’s army lost ground as their horses and heavy iron chariots became mired in an endless sea of mud. The terrified leader of Jabin’s army, Sisera, fled the battlefield and found himself in the neighboring camp of the Kenites, knocking at the tent of Jael. Jael had to have been terrified coming face-to-face with her bloody, battle-crazed tormentor, but she welcomed him inside and cared for him. She covered him with a blanket and gave him clean fresh milk to drink. But she must have put something in the milk, because Sisera fell into such a deep sleep that he did not wake when she used a stone mallet to drive a tent stake, the only weapon she had, through his temple and into the ground below. The battle was won and she became a hero, immortalized in song: Extolled above women be Jael, extolled above women in the tent. He asked for water, she gave him milk; She brought him cream in a lordly dish.

It seemed miraculous to me, two women defeating an army of men, Deborah with her wisdom and Jael with her might. And it seemed even more miraculous that I, thousands of years later, was reading the lyrics of Deborah’s Song, the same song that Jael and the Israelites sung in the camps that night while dancing around their fires. I felt proud that my mother was named for Deborah.

After I finished the story, I checked in to see how much time had passed, but Misti was still awake and my father was highlighting passages in his Bible, which meant we had at least an hour to go. I asked to go to the bathroom, but he shook his head no. It was too soon. So I asked if I could use my markers to draw, and he nodded, visibly disappointed in me. Around the room the other kids were quiet and content, perfectly still in their seats.

Then I had an idea. Instead of drawing, I would use the markers to highlight my Bible like my father did. I knew he would be proud to see me paying attention, focused on the Word. I flipped to random pages and ran my markers over passages, my face thoughtful and contemplative like his. I switched out the markers to color-code different passages, also like him. It felt like important grown-up work.

The rest of the service passed quickly. Misti was sound asleep by the time we sang the final song of the night. But when I looked over at my father who was watching me, his face was unhappy and confused. My stomach knotted up, and the skin on my neck felt electric, like an alarm going off. As the service ended, the adults took their time bidding each other good night, but Dad told Mom he was taking me back to the room. She asked if everything was okay, and he said he’d explain later.

We walked in silence back to the Bunk House, but I was still hopeful. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done wrong. I thought maybe I had made too much noise when I was highlighting, preoccupied with the work. His face was like a barricade between us, like a moat. I asked him what happened, but he didn’t answer. The closer we got to our door, the more panicked I felt, as it dawned on me what was about to happen.

No, Daddy, no. Please, no. I cried quietly, looking behind me. I knew if I made a scene, it would only embarrass him and make everything worse.

He ignored me, but when we were back in the room, he asked to see my Bible and I showed him, falling all over myself, shifting from foot to foot, talking quickly in stutters, practically hyperventilating as I tried to explain that I was doing what he does, highlighting passages, paying attention. He asked which passages I chose and why, and I drew a blank, struck dumb, stupefied with fear. He asked again, How did you choose the passages you highlighted? and pointed out one place where I used my dark purple marker, showing me how the verses beneath were illegible beneath the inky block I had carelessly, irreverently filled in.

That was when I realized I had ruined my first Bible, the one he let me choose in Duluth. Just as we had with my guitar, he made a special trip for it. From all the stacks of Bibles, he let me select the one I wanted, and a zippered case to match. He even bought me lunch while we were there, fresh salty fish pulled from Lake Superior—big fish, not the tiny fried smelt we ate all the time, which were hauled in by the men with nets and buckets. In Duluth we ate on a restaurant porch that looked out over the water, then walked together along the water’s edge in a park full of flowers and pine needles.

He had trusted me with my own copy of the Bible, and I ruined it. I knew I would never have done the same to my Little House books. The horror of my mistake began to sink in. I’m sorry, Daddy. I won’t do it ever again. I promise, I promise. When I panicked, I couldn’t think straight and said the same things over and over again. I couldn’t beg fast enough.

Usually he used his belt, unbuckling it and jerking it through the loops of his pants in one snapping motion, but this time he was so angry he grabbed the butterfly-shaped flyswatter we used to kill mosquitoes. The swatter whistled through the air like a swarm of wasps descending, covering my lower back, behind, and legs, occasionally stinging other places, a shoulder, an elbow, as I jumped and danced around him, trying to block the stings with my hands and the backs of my arms.

My mother stepped on a wasp nest when she was only twelve, the year her father died, and I thought it probably felt the same. She’d told me the story dozens of times, how her eyes swelled shut and her own mother and aunties swaddled her in creek mud and rags. The mud cooled the stings and drew out the venom, and she lay like that for days, with only her nose and mouth exposed, so she could breathe. When the swelling finally went down and they undid the cocoon of her, she had started her period. The stings had scared her young body into womanhood. She hadn’t been ready, but then, she said, no one ever is.

With each swat, he said a word, like the stings were punctuation. How. Can. You. Do. This. I felt so sweaty I wondered if the wetness I felt on my skin was blood, though of course it wasn’t. I wondered if I would start my period or pee on myself, the most embarrassing thing, so I held my privates with one hand and tried to block the stings with the other.

When I looked up at him, he was sweating, too. I started to count silently, inside my head, because sometimes that helped the time pass. Eventually I stopped paying attention and balled up on the floor. Instead of the stings, I thought about Jael and Deborah, about thomsonite, and about my mother, how I wanted her with me.

When he was finished, he sat on the floor next to me. I thought I smelled pee, but I checked and I hadn’t wet myself. Exhausted, he reached over to pull me into his lap, a puddle of tears, and we were both crying. He told me he was sorry, and that he hated having to whip me. He said it was the hardest thing, disciplining a child, and he should never do it when he was angry. He was going to work on that. He said this was how God must have felt watching Jesus be whipped, and that he knew I didn’t mean to do what I did, he only whipped me because he loved me, it was all for my own good.

I nestled deeper into his arms, my relief bordering on bliss. After a whipping, he was softer than at any other time. He touched my face and told me he loved me. It felt like a fresh start, and I promised myself and him that I would try harder to behave, to listen more closely to my conscience, which he said would guide me.

But there was another feeling, too, small and hard in my chest, that I tried to ignore as I soaked up the flood of his affection, a feeling like the one I had for Peter, when I gave him a drink of water and stared into his eyes. I tried to push it out of my mind, to pretend it wasn’t there as Dad cradled me, rocking me while I cried, my breath catching like hiccups. It was a feeling I didn’t want to have, so wicked I thought it might kill me if I let it grow inside my heart. I was afraid the tenderness I felt for my dad would disappear, and I would be left with only the one feeling, a question really: Why are you like this?

Mom pushed through the door carrying Misti and looked at me and Dad as she walked through the room to lay my sister, still sound asleep, carefully on the bed. I felt overwhelming relief—the discipline was finished, my sister was sleeping, my mother was with me again. My relief turned to happiness, and I wondered if I might even have time to read my books. I was often allowed to stay up a little later after a particularly bad whipping.

Mom pulled me from Dad’s arms, walked me to the bed, and undressed me, touching the bright red butterflies blooming on my skin with the soft pads of her fingers. She dampened a washrag with some of the cool water from our jug and pressed it against each winged welt. She changed my panties and pulled my nightgown over my head. “What happened, Shawna Kay?” she asked.

I told her about the Bible and said I was sorry. She didn’t comment on the punishment or my mistake, just tucked me into bed, worry covering her face like a veil. I wondered what she was thinking, because that scared me more than the whippings, that she might also be angry with me and decide I was too much trouble. She might wash her hands of me, leaving me alone in a world full of people who felt like strangers no matter how much time I spent with them. I loved Misti, but she was an easy puzzle I had to solve every day, and Dad was as unpredictable and distant as the God of the Old Testament. Without my mother, I would be truly alone.

She kissed my cheek and pulled the covers up to my shoulders, laying her head briefly on the pillow next to mine so we could stare at each other. After a minute or two she made a silly face, and in spite of myself, I smiled.

Dad was in the next room getting ready for bed, lighting our oil lamp with its colored kerosene. He put a tape into the tape player, but instead of Brother Sam’s voice, it was Ann Kinsley’s, a woman from The Body we all loved to listen to, her voice ringing clearly through pretty old hymns, the same ones my Grandma Betty loved, like “Blessed Assurance.” Dad chose the tape for me, so I could fall asleep to my favorite songs. Mom nodded over her shoulder, pointing out what he was doing and how sorry he was. She wanted me to forgive him.

He called her name and she rose and left, pulling the sheet curtain behind her. ■

Shawna Kay Rodenberg holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Consequence, Salon, Village Voice, and Elle. In 2016, Rodenberg was awarded the Jean Ritchie Fellowship, the largest monetary award given to an Appalachian writer, and in 2017 she was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. A registered nurse, community college English instructor, mother of five, and grandmother of one, she lives on a hobby goat farm in southern Indiana. Her debut memoir, Kin, is forthcoming in June 2021.

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