Nineteen Hundred Days
Prologue and Chapter 1
This living room holds a curious mix of memories for me—some good, some disheartening, and some I have yet to fully understand. The new memory I will create here today with my daughter Sadie will fall into one of these categories, but into which one, I’m not sure. The discussion I am about to have with her is just the beginning—the memory will need to play itself out.
I still call this Aunt Birdie’s house, even though my name is now on the title. With four bedrooms and a big backyard, it suits my growing family. My wife and daughter keep petitioning for a dog, but I haven’t yet caved in to that request.
I take a deep breath before I begin the task of reducing a complicated saga—one that consumed my life between the ages of twelve and seventeen—into terms a five-year-old will understand.
“There’s something I want to explain to you, Sadie.”
“That’s okay, Daddy. I don’t have to know what you do at work.”
“No, sweetie. It’s not that.” I develop user interfaces for a toy manufacturer. She asked me yesterday what I did at work all day. I explained it to her as best I could, using her LeapPad as an example, but managed to completely lose her. “This is about your grandmother.”
“No, your other grandma.”
“What other grandma?”
“Grandma Tess is your mom’s mother. But I have a mother too, and she’s your other grandmother. Her name is Grandma Rose.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I know you didn’t.”
“So I have two grandmas?” Sadie looks confused but seems to be receptive to the idea. “Where does she live?”
“Well, that’s what I want to explain to you. Since before you were born, she’s been in, sort of like… She lives far away.”
“What’s she like, Daddy?”
This is a difficult question for me to answer. I haven’t seen my mother in a while, and given where she’s been, the years haven’t been very kind to her.
“Well, I know one thing,” I say to her. “I’ll bet she’ll be happy to meet her sweet little grandchild for the first time.”
She giggles as I tickle her. “Yes, you.”
“Why is she coming to see us?”
“Actually, she’s going to move here.”
As I search for the right words, I am taken back to the day when it all started—the extraordinary chain of events that has for better or worse shaped my life.
Someday, when Sadie is old enough, I’ll tell her the whole story. It’s one she should know.
It was a Tuesday morning in September of 1998. My dad had just gotten back from driving my mom to work. I was in my sister’s bedroom doing schoolwork with her when I heard the phone ring. My dad was in the kitchen, and I could hear snippets of his side of the brief conversation but couldn’t make any sense of it. The next thing I knew, he was standing in the doorway of Lucy’s room.
“I gotta go. You two squirts behave while I’m gone, ya hear? Your mom needs me for some damn thing or another at what’s-her-name’s house. Ben, you’re in charge. Lucy, do whatever your brother tells you to do.” He gave us one of his don’t-ask-any-questions looks.
I was twelve and Lucy six.
Every morning, Dad drove Mom to her job, then came home and drank beer until it was time to pick her up. Some days, it was apparent he had stopped somewhere on his way home to have a few. Occasionally, he wouldn’t even bother to come home at all after dropping Mom off, and my guess was that he just drank all day at some dive bar until it was time to pick her up. I don’t remember him ever going to a job himself.
Mom worked as a caregiver for Mrs. Abigale Washington, a wealthy old lady who lived in Rock Falls, a thirty-minute drive from our house. Mrs. Washington claimed that she was a descendant of George Washington, but Mom had her doubts. Mom described the woman as eccentric, crabby, and demanding, which may have had something to do with her not buying the George Washington connection.
After Dad left for the second time that morning, I got Lucy started on a science project—the life cycle of a butterfly—and then turned my attention to a paper I was writing. We were homeschooled, such as it was. Back then, there didn’t appear to be many requirements for homeschooling in our state. Perhaps that’s changed by now.
Before work each morning, Mom would give each of us a lesson plan for the day that she pulled from a box she kept in the hall closet. Half the time she was too tired after work to check our work, but I always checked Lucy’s. I had once asked Mom why we didn’t go to regular school, and she’d given me a vague answer. I later found out from Dad that she’d been relentlessly bullied in school as a child because of her hand-me-down clothes and lack of the same material things the other kids had. She didn’t want us to go through the same thing.
On that particular Tuesday, given his history of frequenting bars whenever he had the opportunity, I wasn’t too worried when by midday Dad hadn’t come home. Lucy and I kept busy most of the day with schoolwork. But when neither of our parents was home by six-thirty—their usual time to get home after Dad picked Mom up from work—I knew something was wrong.
“I’m hungry, Benny,” Lucy said. “How long do we have to wait for them?”
I checked the fridge for leftover pizza from the night before, but it was gone.
“A little longer,” I told her.
“How much longer?”
“An hour. How’s that?”
“I guess,” she said as she rolled her eyes.
We watched two episodes of Family Feud while we waited. At seven-thirty, I put a package of frozen lasagna in the microwave while Lucy set the table with some of our mismatched plates and silverware.
“Where do you think they are?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Sounds like Mom had trouble with Mrs. Washington or something.”
“Let’s call over there.”
“I don’t know the number.”
We lived halfway between Cattail Creek and Sunfish Slough in a small, ramshackle house we rented in unincorporated Whiteside County, Illinois. Years of neglect from irresponsible tenants had taken a big toll on its condition. All it took was a moderate rain or a few inches of melting snow to flood the backyard and then our storm cellar. That’s one of the things I remember most about our house—the dampness. You could feel it on your skin. Mom used to refer to it as clammy. Regardless of the season, it always felt cold and clammy in our house.
An uncommonly long driveway leading up to it made our home invisible from the road, even in winter when foliage on the many spruce and hickory trees that surrounded us was sparse. My parents were somewhat reclusive—the house suited them.
As Lucy and I ate our dinner that night, the aftermath of a slow sunset gradually diminished the scant natural light that came through the kitchen’s filmy windows, making our being home alone a bit more foreboding. When we finished eating, we rinsed off the dishes and went into the living room to watch more TV. We had satellite television, but the dish on top of our roof didn’t always work right. Unfortunately, this was one of those times. I remember Dad climbing up on the roof to jiggle things connected to the dish until I yelled up to him that we had a picture. At twelve, I wasn’t about to climb up on the roof.
“This is boring,” Lucy said. “I wish Mom would get home.”
“Want me to read you a book?”
She loved those books. I hated them.
“How about the one with the toad and the frog instead?” I offered.
“I want Pippi,” she said with conviction.
“Why don’t you change into your pajamas first—that way you’ll be ready for bed when the time comes.”
I retrieved the Pippi book I hated the least, and when Lucy returned in her pajamas, I began reading about the superhumanly strong, red-haired, freckled imp of a girl. By chapter four, when Pippi gets stranded on a deserted island with her pet monkey, Lucy was sound asleep, her head on my lap.
I wouldn’t say that Lucy was helpless without me, but she did depend on me. Looking back, I’d say my attention to her needs was more than the average big brother had to give to a little sister.
We had never been left alone overnight before. Sometimes Dad didn’t come home after a night of drinking, but Mom had always been there to tuck Lucy into bed and tell me not to stay up too late. I carried Lucy to her room and slipped her into bed without waking her.
The evening dragged. By nine o’clock, there was still no sign of our parents. I thought about calling the police, but I wasn’t sure what to tell them without causing a ruckus within my family. Once before, when Dad had had too much to drink and was out of control throwing things and yelling at Mom, I had gotten scared and called 9-1-1. By the time the sheriff arrived, Dad had passed out on the sofa and Mom had cleaned up the mess. After she told him everything was fine, the sheriff eventually left. I got yelled at but good. Mom ended the parental rant by telling me I was lucky Child Protective Services hadn’t come and hauled us away. I didn’t understand much of what my parents had been fighting about then, but I later deduced it had to do with the fact that my dad wasn’t Lucy’s biological father, and that was the first he was learning of it.
I tried the TV again and got reception. After watching it for another hour or so—most likely programs I wasn’t allowed to watch when my parents were home—I fell asleep on our dilapidated brown-plaid couch—a place where I had taken to sleeping as soon as I’d decided I was too old to be sharing a room with my sister.