Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.1]

The next morning was Sunday. I partially watched Looney Tunes while Mom sat cross-legged on the carpet and finished painting a sign, a large white board covered with outlines of stenciled letters and a sketch of a woman’s profile with long wavy hair. There were some other things lightly penciled on the board that I couldn’t make out, but I didn’t get too close while Mom was painting.

Mom mixed two colors of paint in a bowl, yellow and dark brown, and stared out the window, stirring until all the yellow was gone from the paint. Putting the bowl down and shifting to her knees, she gracefully gathered her own long, silky golden brown hair in her hands behind her neck, twisted it up in a ball, and weaved a pencil through it to keep it off her face. Mom had makeup on today and looked very pretty. She rolled up the beige sleeves of her blouse, dipped her brush in the golden brown paint, leaned forward, and braced her elbow against the carpet for the first stroke.

The tip of her tongue stuck out between her pursed lips, as it always did when she was concentrating. With her paintbrush, she steadily traced over the pencil lines she’d made. Every so often she would use her pinky finger to wipe away a stray mark of paint, but within fifteen minutes she had the words filled in and shadowed. The sign said “Korner Kurl: Ice Kream and Hair Kuttery.” The other objects on the sign turned out to be a triple-decker ice cream cone (strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate) and some scissors. It looked beautiful—perfect, like a professional had done it. Mom didn’t seem that happy with what she’d done, though. She just leaned the sign up against the couch to dry and told me not to touch it, then she went into the bathroom to wash up.

Road Runner had just ended and a Bugs Bunny came on—the one with the fuzzy maroon-colored monster who tries to catch Bugs but ends up getting tortured himself instead. Just as the monster was getting his “manicure,” my mom came out with the hairbrush. I arranged myself on the floor, facing the TV, and sat very still. She grabbed my hair into a pony tail and started brushing the tips. Then she brushed down from the middle. Then from the top. She snagged at a tangle and I yelped, “Ouch!” She caught it again and I held my breath. The third time she pulled hard enough to yank my neck back and I started to cry.

“Be quiet!” she said. “It’s not my fault your hair’s a rat’s nest.”

Dad came out of the bedroom. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said. He shot a suspicious glance at my mom, who threw her hands up and walked to the kitchen. Dad helped me up and asked if I wanted to go to Grandma Shultz’s house with him; he needed to help Grandpa with something in the garage. I tried to hide my glee as I ran to get dressed. I heard my mother ask Dad when he’d be coming home. She always got mad when we went to Grandma’s. She said no grown man spends that much time at “his mommy’s” house unless he has a screw loose. I’d stopped urging Mom a while ago to come with us because she always said, “They don’t want me there.” Dad would say, “That’s not true and you know it.” And, then when Dad was about to leave, Mom would say, “You’d rather spend time with your mother than me anyway.” Dad would say that wasn’t true either, but he did like to go where he wouldn’t be nagged.

This day, he just said he didn’t have to answer to her and out the door we went. Jumping off the porch step, I said, “Race ya!” Dad and I sprinted through the front yard toward Tina, Dad’s 1961 turquoise four-door Chevy Biscayne. It was warm outside, and I was wearing my favorite white painter shorts and blue and white polka-dotted shirt, one of three identical outfits that mom and I shared. Mom had several fun outfits she loved, including pink denim overalls, and an orange Hawaiian Muumuu, so I’d begged her to find miniature versions of them for me.

Dad let me start the car. Grandma only lived one and a half blocks away—about a 45-second drive. I hung my arm out the window and let the warm wind wiggle my fingers around. Grandma was out front bobbing up and down in a patch of flowers. She waved and smiled at us as we turned past her and drove down her long driveway. I jumped out and ran in through the back. She met me in the kitchen and gave me a big hug.

“Hi Grandma!”

“Hey, look what I have.” Grandma pointed to the little curtained window sill above the sink. There sat fresh tomatoes and strawberries from her garden.

“I got these out of the garden Friday. Do you want to come see if any more are ready?” Grandma grabbed my wrist and led me to the vegetable garden behind the garage. We got down on our knees and rooted for anything red. I found lots of “half-and-halfs,” which Grandma said to give a few more days. But together we found four “ready tomatoes” and seven “ready strawberries.” Grandma used her red and white striped shirt like a bowl to carry them inside where she washed them and placed them on the windowsill.

Grandma took one of the ripe tomatoes off the sill, sliced it into discs, and placed it on a plate in front of me at the table. She doused them with salt and took a big bite of one, letting juice run down her chin and onto the floor. She laughed and grabbed a towel to wipe her mouth. Then she dropped the towel to the floor, put her foot on it, and pretended to do The Twist while making the drips disappear.

I asked her for some sweet tea with crunchy ice. She dashed over to throw some ice cubes in the little hand ice churn that hung on the wall. Making silly faces, she cranked and cranked.

“Do you want something else to eat, Honey?”

“Do you have any of those popsicles from school?”

Grandma worked in the high school cafeteria and often brought home cookie dough, frozen individual pizzas, and plastic tubs of mashed potatoes. The flavored shaved ice that came in triangular cardboard cups was my favorite.

“Let’s look.”

She found a cherry one and cut it open for me, then she sat down on a kitchen chair, flopped her right arm over the back, and sighed at me with a smile.

“So what do you want to do?”

“Can I look at your jewelry?”

Grandma led me to the back of her spare bedroom and opened the bottom dresser drawer. She pulled out a large cedar box full of costume jewelry. We both put on lots of it and looked at ourselves in the vanity mirror. I asked her to put on The Shark song.

“Good idea,” she said.

As Grandma boogied and lip synched to Louis Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife,” I jumped on the bed and tried to do the ragtime dance she’d taught me.

Suddenly, we heard the sliding back door slam. I jumped off the bed while Grandma turned the music low and quickly took off her necklaces and tossed them around my neck. She pretended to dust herself off and turned toward the door where my grandfather, who towered above her in the doorway, startled her.

“Mary-Gin, is lunch ready? The damned bit broke, so Mark and I are going to the hardware store.”

“It’s warming on the stove. I’ll get your plates.”

Grandpa left to wash up. Silently, Grandma pushed her shoulders back, put her hands on her hips, and animatedly mocked Grandpa’s words. Then she stuck her tongue out at the empty doorway where he’d just been standing and winked at me.

While Grandpa and Dad ate their lunches, Grandma and I sat quietly at the table. Afterwards, I helped Grandma dust the house with a huge purple feather duster until Dad and Grandpa returned with the new drill bit.

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