Hell of a Family

Hell of a Family

Even our wily little ingénue Marianne, who professed not to know how to spell the word, easily recognized it on the wall and quickly upon her discovery (careful, of course, to straighten the hem of her dress) bolted upright and out the bathroom door to be the first to sound the alarm.  Hell was inescapably obvious even to this five-year-old. 




From Hell to Hello

Perhaps a teacher friend said it or a priest or a cop or that flat-chested Arizonian waitress in my dream who asked me to “have some more foodish,” and not to quote her, then patted the netting of her blonde head and smiled impatiently.  Perhaps she had said it because it was so damned hot and her matted hair looked more like dollops of melting butter than hair, and that was all the dream I could stand because I knew I’d heard her also say that just being hot is not about Hell.  It’s not about anything, which was to say Hell is about everything because everything that Hell is is not necessarily not hot; it’s everything else we know.   I was being reminded about Hell, the Hell I’d seen as a kid every time I went to the bathroom, our bathroom.  And I knew I didn’t need any reminding.

Where Hell comes from, where it goes, where it stays when it gets here, or who’s to say who gets it and gets to keep it or who makes it and makes it where everyone can see it is what Hell is all about.  And everybody seems to know that.  To put it simply, Hell is not a mystery or, better yet, not anywhere near mysterious.   We’ve all figured it out.  In other words, for all the figuring, Hell’s not much to dream about, especially when you’re not a kid.  And I’m glad I’m not dreaming about that Arizonian anymore because nothing—or is it everything—is more unmystifying than a dream about any kind of Hell.  Not that Hell or what it represents is absent any connection to the unmysterious.  I don’t know anyone who knows at least everything about Hell. 

No; I take that back.  I do know at least nine people, including myself, who once claimed to know absolutely nothing about Hell, which is not to say all about Hell.  This Hell is the Hell my dreaming was reminding me about, the Hell that ended up scratched into the wall of our bathroom, right where anyone and everyone who settled themselves onto the only seat in the room could see it.  There it was, spelled correctly and in capital letters: H-E-L-L.

We were all dumb—that is, speechless.  We’d had enough catechism to know what Hell in all upper case on our bathroom wall meant; someone was going to get it, meaning hell, probably also in all upper case.  So we didn’t know what to say, except for Marianne who found it.  She was agog in her chicken little sort of way and, well, hell bent on showing Hell to anyone who would let her.  “See!” she’d point to the word, careful not to touch it.

Mom was agog, too, but in a different kind of way, the way a stone gets excited just before it falls and crushes the poor soul who is guilty enough to be passing under her precariousness as one of the usual suspects along a path of ordinarily heinous kid “crap.”  She didn’t really say “crap.”  The sound of the word she uttered upon seeing Hell was altogether lost for the tightening of her jaw and the clenching of her teeth.  Mom would have said kid “Hell!” but given the circumstances, a more visceral expression of her concern was in order.

She may have even thought for a moment that it was an instance of misguided Graffiti, but such a thought would have diminished the glower of her first reaction.  For Graffiti is an Italian word, which puts it geographically, if not philologically, close to a Vatican perturbation: a necessary imprimatur for Mom in order that she give such a momentary thought about Graffiti any lasting credence or usefulness, especially in this particular incident.  Graffiti is the plural form of Graffito, which means simply something scratched on a wall or surface, usually in a very public place.   And, while there was no more public place than the bathroom in our house (other than the place where we consumed everything that in one form or another eventually ended up in the bathroom), Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Mom’s only other arbiter of definitions for anything with less than a Vatican sanction, defined Graffiti as “[i]nscriptions, figure drawings, etc., found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs, or at Pompeii.”  While Catacomb sounds early Roman Catholic, in Webster’s definition there’s no mention of the Vatican or our bathroom wall, which puts the entire incident in the realm of, God forbid, some kind of pagan domicile.  So, in that single moment she allowed herself to contemplate Hell, Mom would have ruled against likening it to mere Graffiti.  Webster surely had not contemplated the opportunity of inscribing Hell on a Catholic family bathroom wall; nor, for that matter, had Webster consulted Mom about a proper Catholic response to the incident, leaving Mom just one Catholic recourse; she was apocalyptically bent on defining what had been carved on her bathroom wall as sin, and most probably mortal sin. 

It was a sin the penance for which could potentially sustain a Biblical economy.  Holy Water, Incense, Bible, Scourges (not to mention a host of Flagellation devices) and Burlap sales would have otherwise rocketed to the high heavens for this kind of sin.  The only problem was that Mom had already done her penance by being the widowed mother of eight.  Neither Hell nor that proverbial high water was going to give her cause to pay more than she already had, monetarily or otherwise. 

We were the ones who were going to pay, and, while it wasn’t going to be strictly Biblical or economic, it was going to be Catholic.  Mom decided the only thing to do would be to put her oldest, all six of them, on her own proverbial spit and trust that some kind of Angel would guide her hand when it came time to roast them.  So she put us in our bedrooms, closed the doors, and delivered a recommendation that we spend what could be the rest of our natural lives quietly and reverently contemplating the evil done by etching—worse than scratching—the word Hell.  This silent, reverent, cloistered contemplation, she concluded, would have to exclude contact with the innocent Frank and Marianne, the two youngest, who would have to spend their days in a little Eden watching summer re-runs on TV and playing out of doors when it wasn’t too hot without the company or corrupting influence of any older siblings.  One of us in the bedrooms—“and you all know who you are”—was going to have to pay for exposing all of us to Hell.  It was the only Catholic way.

And it was a just way because it was summer and it was Phoenix, Arizona, and it was the swamp cooler come-what-may time of year, which was just like living in a brick oven, the brimstone kind, if you get my drift. 

Like many a home in Phoenix in 1961, our three-bedroom house had on its roof a swamp cooler—a name befitting a horror movie title of the B movie variety and perhaps even more befitting the Hell that had been etched below.  But all of that notwithstanding, our swamp cooler was a rooftop fixture that resembled an oversized cube of metallic chimney. Only, instead of spewing out, it sucked in hot air (the only kind available) through its gridded, removable panels, and then fanned the air across water-soaked straw mats lining the inside of the otherwise hollow aluminum box.   The water percolated down through the mats and out a garden hose that ran from the base of the cooler across to the edge of the roof, where it at last hung in true serpentine temptation down to a spot in our back yard.  We could call it Eden because the spot was always verdant for always being wet, but it was aptly much more like a swamp.  Since the water was continuously running and we were continuously hot, we often found this serpent in the swamp convenient for quenching our thirst.  Mom often warned us not to drink from the Fruit of this Tree: sinister germs and an unholy taste in the water.  But in our Biblical ways we were more like Adam and Eve when they strayed from the path of righteous healthfulness. When it came to doing as Mom bid us do when she, oddly, was not all seeing and all knowing, we usually snuck a drink from the cooler hose. 

Perhaps as punishment for our naked disregard we were responsible for maintaining the source of this unholy water.  It was an irony that would not have occurred to us, given that such weighty matters as these are seldom foremost in the thoughts and prayers of those preoccupied with religiously making themselves scarce lest Lord Mom catch us somewhere in the house or yard when it comes time to do something really constructive about the encroaching heat that we were all prone to dread almost as much as doing something about it.  These water-soaked straw mats had to be changed every summer, and each of us in our own turn, according to age or proximity to Mom when she decided it was time, was given the task of ascending a ladder to the roof and removing the previous year’s straw mats, replacing them with new ones.  The task was indeed, in the Catholic heart and soul, a hot opportunity for upward mobility.  We could offer it up, that is, as true martyrs to a higher salvation, that is, a higher elevation; that is, we had no choice.   Besides, it not only gave us a close look at the inner workings of our house’s cooling system—something Mom suggested as compensation for our efforts and something we were profoundly curious about until the task was ours to do—it also gave us a good deal of respect for the poor soul tapped for the mission to the cooling system; and, since he (sometimes she) had no choice, it also gave us the benefit of getting up early in Phoenix, Arizona, to listen to Mom shout instructions to the chosen one who was working quickly and hastily in order to get off the roof no later than, say, 6:00 a.m. 

“Don’t put your foot on it,” Mom would shout.  “Stop kicking it.”

Sometimes she would add, “I told you there’s more than one!”

But I’m digressing up here on the roof.  I was telling you about Hell below.

It was down below in the bathroom where it was supposed to be a lot cooler.  For the air, once cooled down by the cooler, then flowed throughout the house by a simple network of vents.  There was, of course, one vent per room, which really meant one vent per person, so long as that person called dibs on the spot in the room where the stream of air from the vent, like the vector of a landing approach, touched down.   But dibs did not always work, especially when the dibber was younger and smaller than someone else in the room.  Funny, Mom never warned us about that Catholic consequence; it must have been a universally accepted precept in the Catholic Church that knowing where and how to put oneself when it came to swamp cooling was naturally intuitive, and nature, like a younger, smaller sibling, was something we were put on this earth to overcome—unless we were that smaller sibling, in which case there was no overcoming anything, naturally or religiously.  And so, it was Hell below, especially in the bathroom. 

The bathroom, as we all knew, had only one seat and it, naturally, sat where no cooler air blew.  The coolest spot in the room, in the strictest sense of the word, was near the small frosted-glass window just above the bathtub on the other side of the room.  When the window was open, cool air blew through the room, blew through, that is, the window.  Where one would naturally sit, naturally next to the locked door, naturally offered very little in the way of relief—from the heat.  It made perfect sense that the word HELL, functioning like a marquee, ended up on a wall where it would, naturally, attract the most attention.

While Mom stood there observing it, looking, I suppose, to see whether it would go away, we stood there observing her.  We were all horrified:  Mom for the indignity of the act; we for the indignity showing on Mom’s face.  Kids are not supposed to understand irony; they’re supposed to be Cherubs whirring about in the hallway near the bathroom door wondering to themselves whether Satan had really done what he (or she) did and how in heaven’s name did it have anything to do with us.  But at the very moment Mom had finished glaring at the wall and turned her attention to these little Angels we understood that the word was never meant for her; it was, like the tolling of John Donne’s bell, meant for us.  In other words, we were doomed.

“Who did this?” Mom demanded.

We thought she knew and was merely playing us the way The All Powerful and All Knowing had asked Adam and Eve about what had happened to the apple.  Being Adams and Eves ourselves, we each in turn played back the only way we knew how:  “It wasn’t me.”

Oddly enough, Mom was nice about our punishment.  She sat us down in the living room, glared at each of us, and quietly asked again, “Who did this?”

We looked around at each other.  No one looked any guiltier than before.  No one confessed.

“I want to know who did this.” Mom began again.  “Until I do, you’re going to stay in your rooms and not come out.  Now, who did this?”

This was her third “who did this?” and still no one confessed.   And, as we all knew, three’s the Catholic limit, unless it’s Lent—then it’s nine.  But this was summer and Mom went no further with the inquisition.  While her thoughts may have suggested a direction for us to go that was more appropriate to how she obviously had summed up the situation, her right hand, extending only the index figure and not dropping the thumb, pointed only in the direction of our bedrooms.  And off we went very quietly and carefully, taking those special measures so as not to temp our Lord Mom and her wrath in any other direction than she and it had already pointed.  Mom closed the doors without a word.  And, like our Biblical ancestors, we ended up on the other side of a proverbial flaming sword.

Not so much that it was a sword, but that it was flaming hot once on our side of the door. We looked at each other.  Dan had already taken up a position near the window, so we soon were only looking at him, longingly.  He was the first to speak:  “Who did it?” he said, sounding a bit like Mom in the way he seemed to be accusing all of us for not getting any cooler air.

“Yeah; who did it?” Mark echoed, moving cautiously toward Dan, cautiously enough to get some of the breeze that was escaping out the window. 

“Yeah!” I added, knowing better than to approach the window.   We were passing around the accusation like a hot potato.

Dennis was the next to speak.  He must have been reacting to my metaphor about food.

“Yeah; did Mom say we don’t get lunch?”

We played this game over and over, every time we were returned to our rooms.  Mom did let us out three times a day to pray the Rosary. God and Mom fearing as we were, we offered no resistance to this our only sanctioned periods of exercise.  These calisthenics usually went something like this:

  1. A sign of the cross, moving and alternately bending at the elbow the entire right arm in a kind of slow spiral while lightly touching the forehead, sternum, left and right shoulders (careful, too, not to jab the forehead with the point of the little metallic crucifix one clutched between the index finger and thumb),
  2. Mouthing an entire “Apostles’ Creed” (usually accompanied by a curt “stop playing with the Beads,” especially around the time Jesus “descended into Hell”)
  3. Pinching one Bead for “Our Father” (heavy on the “trespasses” parts)
  4. Squeeze a Bead, two Bead, three Bead for the first three “Hail Marys” (no smirking at the mention of “womb”—Dan, who was going to be in 5th grade, seemed to be the only one that that prohibition made any sense to; on the other hand, “now and at the hour of our death” made perfect sense to everybody)
  5. Pause briefly for the first “Glory Be” (and so much for the warm ups; we’d only just begun; it was each time we got this far a “world without end” about to commence)
  6. Then headlong into the circle of Beads for the First Mystery (the Sorrowful Mysteries during these times)
  7. Squeeze ten more Beads of “Hail Marys”
  8. Another “Glory Be”
  9. The next Mystery

10.  Another ten Beads of “Hail Marys” . . .


And so it went through all five Mysteries until finally we completed the circle of Beads and Mom could get to the point she had been heading for throughout this entire episode of Hell.   There was actually no mystery, as far as she was concerned.  She would recite the Fatima theme: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially,” her voice at this point, like her jaw, were bulging, “those who have most need of your mercy.”  No one said a word.  No one looked at anyone either—except Marianne and Frank who would want to know if anyone had gotten it yet.  Or maybe they were just wondering whether it was time to eat and who might perchance not get any.

Mom also fed us after each Rosary, but provided no dessert.  Something she made a point of it by also reciting another Fatima theme: “There’s no dessert.”  Not that we usually had dessert, but Mom usually didn’t make a point of it. 

Then we’d get some time alone in the impious bathroom.  Mom even let us close the door while we were in there.  But we knew she was right outside, so no lollygagging in front of the mirror pretending to be Elvis.  When our time was up, Mom would open the door, and stand there.  She had us trapped in the very room with Hell.  We’d stand there, too, and look at the same walls she was inspecting for new signs of Hell.  We’d even look at the ceiling in case something like Hell ended up on it while we had been in there.  We’d always be careful not to look at all at Hell.  Finally, Mom would again ask, “Are you ready to tell me who did this?”  To which we would eventually stammer as quietly as we could while looking only at the floor, “I don’t know.”

We were soon back in our bedroom, asking one another loudly, “Who did it?”  This went on for nearly a week.  I’m not sure what went on in the girls’ bedroom—probably a lot of knowing looks at one another and an occasional shrug of the shoulders accompanied by a little prayer they’d made up: “Yeah; they did it.”

On the day we finally got out, on the day Mom finally felt her vacation from us was over, Dennis and I both confessed to Hell.  But I also have to confess Dan put us up to it.

“We’re never going to get out of here,” he began one morning after we’d been returned to our rooms from the breakfast rosary, “unless one of you’ve got to say you did it.”

We looked at each other.  “Who did it?” we asked.

“Who cares?  I’ll give you my boys scout knife if you’ll say you did it.”

Our eyes began to grow wide, just about as wide as our gaping mouths. 

“Really?  You’re serious?”  We said together.  Had we known the word, we would have said, “You’re that desperate?”  Offering his knife this way was proof of Dan’s desperation.  He’d offered his knife to us many times, but always in a murderous sort of way.

“Yeah; say it was you and I’ll give you my hat and wig, with the arrow in it,” Mark added as if on cue, sweetening the prize for one of us to take the fall.  He’d gotten his green bowler hat legitimately enough as a prize from a church casino night a few months before.  We didn’t know where he’d gotten the straw wig with the arrow, but it made him look as though he’d been shot through the head.  We’d all laughed when we first saw it; it was going to be Mark’s Halloween costume, if ever we got that far in life.  Dennis and I had longed to have such possessions as a knife, a bowler hat and that wig with the arrow in it.  The boyscout knife had a cork screw and all kinds of blades.  We didn’t understand the purpose for most of them, but knew that we wanted it just the same.  It all was awfully tempting.  We looked at each other, then at the booty.  Fortunately, we hesitated just a little too long.

“Look; I’ve got 16 cents I’ll give you,” Dan pleaded, pushing his hand down into his pants pocket and pulling out several coins to show us.

Dennis grabbed the coins and said, “What’ll I say?”

I smiled, giggled, in fact, relieved that the choice was made and Dennis was it.  I looked at him and nodded happily, approvingly, knowing full well that Dennis was a generous soul and I’d eventually get everything he was getting except the trouble.

“Just tell Mom you did it.”  Dan coached Dennis.  “She’ll let us go and you’ll probably have to say an extra Rosary.”

We trusted in Dan.  He wouldn’t steer us wrong.  He knew about the womb and all those other Mysteries in our prayers.

“The worse that will happen,” he continued, “is that you’ll probably have to go to church more for a little while,” which, as we all knew, was probably going to happen anyway.  We all nodded in agreement.

So, if that was all, off Dennis went—our redeemer—to find Mom and our salvation.  We waited eagerly for the bedroom to open and for Mom to announce that the culprit had finally confessed.   We waited as close to the window as we each could get.  We waited for nearly an hour until we noticed from our perch near the window that outside in the yard was Dennis—our redeemer—playing with Frank and Marianne.  We looked at each other in disbelief and then did another take out the window to make sure what we were seeing was real.  Dan said something like “fudge.”   Mark and I merely shook our heads; we hadn’t yet acquired Dan’s vocabulary.

At the end of our next Rosary, after the Fatima pronouncements, Mom announced, not our release, but that Dennis was not the culprit.  The real culprit was still at large, well, had not yet come forward; I mean, was still somewhere in the house – in the boys’ bedroom Therese and Joann were obviously thinking as they said one more silent prayer.  It was back to the bedroom, now minus our Redeemer Dennis.

Mark and Dan offered me all the prizes they had offered when Dennis gleefully volunteered.  Dan even offered the money he’d given to Dennis, money which Dan was certain he would recover just as soon as he could get Dennis alone.

“Mom didn’t believe Dennis because he’s too stupid.” Dan said, taking another tact.  “She thinks you’re smart.  She’ll believe you.  The worse that will happen is she’ll think you’re stupid, too, and let you out.”

I agreed and was soon standing in front of Mom confessing.

“Daniel told you to say you did it, didn’t he?  You’re saying this just to get out?”  The worst had happened.  Mom thought I, too, was stupid and had guessed the whole scheme.  I learned years later that she had been listening at our bedroom door.  But it didn’t change the fact that she thought I was stupid for following in Dennis’ footsteps.

I confessed that I confessed so I could get out to play just as Dennis had.  I lied about Dennis’ motives.  I don’t think he was in it just to play; he was genuinely interested in that money that Dan subsequently and easily recovered, and which Dan never did passed on to me.  

Mom sighed that kind of sigh a widowed Catholic mother of eight makes (perhaps all mothers are the same) when prayers and punishment have not paid off and time away from her children must come to an end.  

Even though Mom gave up a pretty good lifestyle for herself and we were all let go, no one celebrated—especially Therese and Joan, who were not about to confess to anything and who were certain their brothers were guilty of everything including the way the cooler only blew cool air out the window in their room. 

And years later, after Mom had died, Dan finally confessed that it was he who had put Hell on the bathroom wall.  Hell, Mom had decided, was not to be removed ever—world without end.   Mom wanted it to be a reminder to us.  So there it continued for months to remind us until Dan made it a little more inviting, if not pleasing.  For Dan also confessed to being the one who later took his boyscout knife (the one Dennis and I never did get) and took the Hell out of the inscription on the wall by adding an ‘o’ at the end of the word.    It was still Hell in the bathroom for years thereafter, and that, I suppose, was how Mom wanted it; only now with each visit to Hell one was met with a friendly “Hello.”


One Response to “Story 008 – From Hell to Hello”

  1. Bethany Reid Says:

    Patrick, I’m visiting to see what’s new! I love all these essays and I think you should publish them in a book. “God and Mom” — a powerful pair.

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