In my latest blog post, I mentioned remembering only one snit in my long life. I am now prepared to tell you about it.
I was an only child until I was eight. I had also been the only grandchild on either side until I was seven, when mother’s two sisters-in-law each had a daughter. A week after my eighth birthday, my mother produced the long-desired son that my parents had expected me to be. Then when I was nine, my father’s father died, leaving my father’s 13-year-old half-sister to come live with us. Six months later when I was ten, I got a new baby sister. I found losing my position in the family disheartening. I was, in fact, very upset.
Thus amply stoked, I staged my memorable snit on a damp April, 1941 afternoon at our house in Fairmont, West Virginia. I was 13 at the time, little brother Benjy was five, Isobel was three, and former aunt Gertrude–now referred to as big sister Trudy–was 16, but away at boarding school with her horse. (Because Trudy had money of her own and had grown up on a farm where her great passion was horseback riding, she received a horse for her first birthday with us. I felt this entitled me to receive the collie I currently craved. Because we already had three dogs, my parents felt otherwise.)
Isobel was born with a birth mark on her forehead, for which she was taken to a dermatologist in Pittsburgh for an annual treatment with dry ice. Mother, 41, had planned such a trip for the upcoming Snit Day. Two nights before the big day trip, mother had a dental disaster. Because her dentist was also in Pittsburgh, she was able to make an appointment with him. But this raised a new problem: Who would hold the wiggly three-year-old while the dentist fixed mother’s tooth? The solution was to take Louise, 20, the family nursemaid, with her. This raised another problem. My grandmother, 66, was staying with us and could take care of Benjy until his nap, but was going out to a festive bridge party at 1:30 p.m. Bessie the cook, 62, could listen for Benjy at naptime, but it was my job to come straight home from school to babysit him until mother’s return.
Because Benjy preferred to be outside but it was a rainy day, I established him on our wide front porch. He had his tricycle, a ride-in red toy car, a fleet of smaller trucks and cars, and a few other toys. I established myself on the living room sofa, facing the many windows and French doors that opened onto the porch, with the newly arrived issue of Life magazine.
All went smoothly until I heard the telltale sound of a ball hitting the one section of solid wall. I rushed out and ordered Benjy only to throw the ball there, since of course if it hit a window or the French doors, it would break the glass. Returning to Life, it seemed only seconds later that I heard a crash and the tinkle of breaking glass and saw a baseball rolling down the floor toward me. A stricken Benjy stood looking aghast.
Gob-smacked, I dropped Life and stared as if mesmerized at the ball coming to a stop in front of me. Benjy’s ball was better known to me as the “forbidden-to-Benjy family baseball” which lived in my old toy box on the porch, filled with grown-up outdoor game paraphernalia. I wondered how it was that I was smart enough to know to tell Benjy that “his” ball could break windows, but not savvy enough to realize I should be taking it from him. Both of us were going to get Holy Hell from Mother. “Benjy, get in here!” I shrieked.
Benjy came to stand nervously beside me and I began a mini-inquisition.
Q: You didn’t believe me when I said it could break windows, did you?
Q: Why were you using that baseball?
A: I was bored and looked in the toy box, and it was on top.
Q: Your rubber balls bounce better. Why weren’t you using one of them?
A: My two balls were on the lawn, out in the rain.
Q: How did they get there?
A: I was trying to bounce them on the ceiling and they fell off the porch.
Benjy went into the next-door playroom and played quietly, while I hid the ball under a sofa cushion and tried to think if I could do anything to place myself in a better position with Mother. When the Pittsburgh travelers arrived half an hour later, Benjy and I both rushed to greet them. First in was Louise, carrying a sleeping Dibble (early Benjy-speak for Isobel). Mother followed looking tired, and both Benjy and I gave her a hug. “Did your tooth get fixed?” I asked. “All better,” she answered. “And what about Dibble’s doctor?” I asked. Mother smiled and reported that Dibble’s next appointment was in a year and a half, and would probably be the last needed. “I’ve simply got to get out of these clothes. Come upstairs with me; I want to hear all about your afternoon together.”
We went upstairs with mother to her bedroom and milled around idly while she swapped her Pittsburgh clothes for more comfortable ones. Sitting on the chaise to put on her favorite at-home shoes, she looked at me and said “Plops, you look like you have something to say. I tried to keep my voice calm and not gleeful as I reported on the use of the illegal baseball and the shattered window. Mother scooped Benjy onto her lap facing me and said “Don’t you know how long we had to wait to have a little boy who would who would track in mud and break windows?” Benjy’s eyes were twinkling and he grinned from ear to ear. It felt like a “Nyah Nyah on you!” grin, and I exploded. Breaking into sobs, I yelled at Mother and said the only children she loved were Benjy, Dibble and Trudy, and I rushed, weeping, from the room, slamming her door and mine, and threw myself on my bed in hysterical sobs. I was too undone to eat dinner, and expected a lecture in the morning which was never given.
When thinking this through recently to write about it, I had a revelation. It seems to me that Benjy had it at the time, 79 years ago. I realized for the first time that Benjy had understood at once that Mother’s remark about her precious son had eliminated any further remarks on the ball, the broken glass, or my laissez-faire style of babysitting. His grin meant “We are getting away with this!” and I was too blind to see it.
Enough of snits! Wear your masks–the life you save may be your own; keep your distances, and some day you will get yet another blog post from me.