Braking suddenly at the end of a dark dirt road, Mom almost slams into a cow. When the dust cloud clears, we see that not just a cow, but a whole herd of cows is surrounding our car, and ignoring this fact, Mom looks at us with a triumphant smile.
My sister and I peer fearfully out the window at our new home, but our vision is distorted by the onset of twilight and cattle. I think my mother has planned the twilight part, taking her time down the winding back roads, waiting for darkness to descend before finally pulling down this dirt lane. Even though she firmly believes this move is a grand pilgrimage to bring us closer to God and nature (and cows), she is not crazy enough to believe her daughters are going to be willing pilgrims.
She claps her hands excitedly as the animals begin to moo and cries, “Listen girls—the cows are greeting us—Alleluia! This must be a sign.” These last five words, uttered in an awestruck, hushed tone, are a permanent fixture in our mother’s vocabulary, and although we are only 7 and 8, we are starting to wise up to the fact that signs are often used to push her own agenda.
“Mom! Can’t you see they’re mooing in protest? We are disturbing their natural habitat!” I yell, hoping the tremor in my voice isn’t taking the forcefulness out of my statement. “We’re not country people!”
This is a continuation of the argument we have been having for the last seven days, eight hours, and 10 minutes, the last installment beginning just after we moved most of our stuff out of the U-Haul and into a barn at Sparrow Ridge, a dairy farm owned by Mr. and Mrs. Kaufmann from church. They’re the ones who “helped us out” by telling Mom a week ago about the abandoned property she’d described to us as a Charming Little Country House.
Mom ignores me and unbuckles her seatbelt, but we are all still frozen in our seats. I can’t tear my eyes away from a particularly angry-looking cow, who is chewing slowly and staring at me through the window, daring me to open my car door. Alysia groans and buries her head in her hands.
“Well, let’s just see. If I honk the horn a few times . . . .” Mom lays on the horn in three long bursts. “See there?” The cows scatter like slow, fat mice, and we eventually inch our doors open, preparing to snap them shut again if we see any sudden movement. The cows just ignore us, so we each grab a box. We walk closer to the Charming Little Country House, and when we realize that it is actually a Dumpy Little Country Trailer, we start shrieking our protests.
“Ohhh, now don’t worry, “Mom shushes us. “This is going to be great, girls, like camping!”
I walk hesitantly up the three metal steps and try the door, which swings right open.
“Hmmm—no lock? I’ll have to find a padlock or something,” Mom mumbles, as I step inside and grope for a light switch.
My sister stumbles into the blackness after me and screams, “Find the lights! Find the lights!” I run my hands all along the bumpy walls, bravely ignoring the fact that I might be caressing all types of grotesque country bugs. After several fruitless sweeps, I start to get a little scared, only because we’re standing in total darkness in an abandoned, unlocked trailer in the middle of a field, and it’s possible that something more intimidating than insects, something like a hockey-mask-wearing murderer, is lurking in the gloom. I hear shuffling noises suddenly and just as I’m about to purge the scream that’s gathering in my throat, a small beam of light shines in my direction, and trembling, I splay my fingers in front of my eyes and peek out between them. Mom is holding the flashlight we keep for emergencies.
“There are no lights, girls. This trailer doesn’t have electricity, but look, I brought plenty of candles, so it’ll be cozy!”
Her words echo in the silence that follows, and one of the cows makes a guttural noise like it’s clearing its throat in the awkwardness of the moment. Fear quickly turns to fury, and I find it hard not to throw the nearest object I can reach. I contemplate the tall, oblong Sacred Heart of Jesus candle poking out of the box at my feet, but grudgingly acknowledging that hurling it might hurl me to Hell, I restrain myself and kick the box instead. This is all God’s fault again.
God started talking to my mom shortly after Mom divorced Dad. That was when Mom met Sister Helen, a nun at our parish who talked constantly about being Moved in the Spirit and Doing the Lord’s Will. Almost overnight, Mom started hearing God’s message—“Go to Ohio, Bernadette.” So we went.
We came to Ohio because of the Charismatic Church here, where they throw their hands in the air, and wave em like they just don’t care. They speak in Tongues, too, which is really strange—a room full of adults, each speaking, or singing, really, a different made-up secret language at the same time.
Sister Helen came to Ohio too, and for a while she lived with us, but she temporarily moved out to start her own artist’s center in an abandoned fire station. Mom and Sister Helen are big on abandoned places. They’ve hatched countless plans over the years to move into houses that are falling apart to fix them up for a profit, but the fixing-up part never seems to happen. A few times we’ve been able to live in really big, empty convents or monasteries for free—the Church lets struggling families care-take for their properties sometimes. Mom is happiest then because she feels like we are living as close to God as we can get, although eventually, the Church kicks us out to make way for the next group of nuns or monks. In three years, we have moved a total of 5 times, and by now we’re used to moving because Mom says we have to go where God wants us to, but tonight I have to insist that God’s got bats in his belfry.
There is no way, I claim, He wants us to go without electricity and all other modern conveniences. We are used to not having a TV (because everyone knows TV is the Devil’s Workshop, eye roll), but there is no moral reason to live with no lights, no refrigerator, no telephone, no running water, no toilet. My mom counters with the reassurance that as soon as she heard about the trailer from the Kaufmanns, God was clear about what He wanted us to do.
“Go to the country, Bernadette,” He had said.
God’s rural wishes aside, we all begin to debate basic comfort and sanitation issues, and Mom has fast answers for most of our questions. A store up the road has pay phones, and we can use them to make collect calls to Dad and Grandma, who will both flip out when they hear where we are. I will have to defend my mother because even though I secretly think she is crazy, I don’t want anyone else to think so. She tells us there is a well with cold spring water just a couple miles down the road, and for bathing, all we have to do is heat the water on our camping stove and use it to take sponge baths, which is a concept I can’t yet force myself to grasp. After several explanation attempts, Mom gives up and informs us that the Kaufmanns have offered the use of their shower from time to time, and we will take them up on that, she promises. A cooler packed with ice will suffice for a fridge. It’s early June, so we won’t have to worry about not having heat yet, and she says we’ll move again by the time the really cold weather blows in. The toilet is a tough one. Mom avoids addressing it until there’s nothing else left.
“Well—we’ll just have to do like the pioneers and set up some sort of outhouse behind the trailer . . . .”
“OUTHOUSE?” my sister screeches. “What about in the middle of the night, when it’s really dark and we have to go really bad? Are we supposed to climb around outside in our nightgowns and hope we don’t step in cow poop?” She stamps her foot on the word “poop” and I imagine that she is actually putting her foot through a cow pie. I have to laugh out loud, and misunderstanding, my mom laughs too. I realize she now thinks I’m developing a sense of humor about all this.
“Ohhh, don’t be silly!” my mother answers, still giggling. “When you have to use the bathroom at night, you’ll just use a plastic bucket—we’ll keep it in the hallway and dump it out in the morning.” My sister’s mouth opens in a wide, speechless O.
“Oh boy—bed pans! Ma thinks of everything, don’tcha Ma?” I say in my best Laura Ingalls, hoping my sarcasm will jostle Alysia out of her catatonic state. Something better comfort her, I think, because as our mother speaks to all our protests, she’s busily lighting candles and unpacking boxes. I know we’re going to stay.
Next morning I wake too early to a glorious choir of cows, even louder than the night before. I can see them out the open window, grazing in a field a couple hundred yards away. My mother wakes at sunrise every morning to chant from a Latin prayer book, so she’s awake too and watches me as I stare out at them.
“See, they’re not so bad,” she says soothingly. I tell her she’s right. That in fact, I envy them.
“If I were a cow, I wouldn’t mind living like an animal,” I huff, rolling off the single mattress the three of us slept on all night. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look in the cooler for my breakfast!” I stomp down the narrow hallway, half-expecting her to follow me with a reprimand, but she chuckles instead. I feel guilty.
Last night, my sister and I get up from bed after my mom is asleep and have a meeting in the kitchen. My sister is sobbing, and she swears that she is going to go live with Dad. This is not an original idea. We have discussed it a million times, but Mom has custody and wants us to stay with her. Sometimes I want to go live with my dad as badly as my sister does, and now feels like one of those times, but I know deep down that’s never going to happen. If Mom ever agrees to let us live with our dad, I know that I won’t leave her alone, and Alysia won’t leave me. So I propose a temporary solution. We’ll soon be going to West Virginia to visit our dad for two weeks, like we do every summer. If Mom hasn’t moved out of this place by the time those two weeks are over, we’ll just refuse to go back. Alysia nods solemnly, and even if she’s not totally comforted, I know she is grateful, anyway, for the reminder that soon we’ll be leaving here for Dad’s. This is what happens when things seem really hopeless. I give my older sister a pep talk and pretend I’m not worried, and when I’m sure she’s not worrying anymore, I worry.
Content, though, with my temporary solution, I resolve just before drifting off that I will have a better attitude about our new home, for Alysia’s sake, but I’ve already broken the resolution with my morning “cooler” tirade. I slurp the remaining pool of milk straight out of my cereal bowl, wiping my mouth with the back of my arm and cocking my head to listen for the dumb cows. They’ve stopped mooing, and I slowly cat-stretch across the cooler I’m sitting on, languishing in the heavenly silence, until Mom suddenly bursts from the bedroom, singing “This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made!”
“That the Lord has made,” my sister echoes weakly, at my mother’s wildly-gesturing cue. Mom makes us sing this particular hymn with her in a round, over and over again on long car trips, and when I hear it, I know it’s going to be hard to stay positive. I cringe when I hear them start the second verse but smilingly join in when I notice Alysia’s searching look. After three rounds, Mom stops abruptly and asks, almost pleadingly, “How would you all like to walk down to the well with me?”
“Well, Mom, we’d love to, but unfortunately I don’t think we have anything to carry the water in,” I say, sorrowfully. Alysia and I exchange smirks. I’ve learned to think quickly when it comes to making excuses, a skill my dad always says I’ve learned from Mom.
“Oh, yes we do. I come prepared!” she announces with a proud, irritating look on her face, throwing open the flimsy door and hopping down the stairs towards the car. From the doorway we watch as she opens the trunk and unloads six empty milk jugs. Sighing, I turn to get dressed.
As soon as I emerge in shorts and the new flip-flops I just got from my dad, I have to squat in the tall grass behind the trailer, christening an area which will become our new, open air “outhouse,” and then join Alysia and Mom in picking up two jugs apiece and starting down the dirt lane. It’s a sunny day—birds are chirping, the cows are again incessantly mooing, and a warm breeze is blowing the scent of freshly cut hay all around us. The walk is long and all downhill, so Alysia and I gain momentum and begin skipping and swinging our empty jugs, feeling silly and close to happy.
Around 20 minutes pass, and Mom finally stops us at the well, a small brick enclosure about the size of a bus stop. We have to step down inside it to get the water, which runs from an opening in the wall into a sort of trough (Mom’s confident that it’s only used by humans). The water is clear and ice cold, and my fingers tingle as I plunge two jugs in until they fill completely, then I climb out and stretch on a rock while my Mom and sister fill theirs. I smile when I hear them gasping and giggling at the shock of the freezing water, and feeling a welcome lightheartedness in my chest, I think, Maybe things are looking up.
Ten minutes later, noonday sun beating down the halfway point of a dusty, gravelly hill, the breeze is gone, and I am trying to balance my now broken flip-flop on the sole of my right foot, squeezing the detached rubber thong between my toes while carrying two gallons of ice cold spring water in my frozen hands. It occurs to me—as I give up on the lopsided flip-flop, taking both shoes off and staggering in the sharp, poking field grass on the side of the road; as I am attempting to carry the jugs while keeping both flip-flops tucked under one of my arms; and, finally, as I am forced to suddenly stop and look down at my left foot, which I have just planted into a crusty-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside, fly-infested cow pie—that things are most definitely not looking up.