Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.12]

We always spent Christmas Eve with my Dad’s whole family at Grandma Shultz’s. There were eleven of us grandkids, including Mindy, whom I was especially excited to see. I’d saved some of my allowance to buy her a pair of green mittens, like my own, that looked like frog hand puppets—big eyes on the knuckles and a tongue on the palm. Dad and I went early to help Grandma. Mom was coming later for dinner.

Grandma’s house was extra-warm and smelled wonderful. She’d draped red and silver tinsel garland in waves along the length of all the walls and over the fireplace. Little Santas, reindeer, and snowmen were perched on every flat surface. I went into the fancy “blue room” at the front of the house, with its plush baby blue carpeting, pearl-colored Victorian furniture, and crystal chandeliers, to check out the Christmas tree you could see from the street. The tree was always a huge white one decorated with blue lights and gold angels. Gold and white faux presents were arranged under it. We usually weren’t allowed in the “blue room” except for Christmas time, and there were “no shoes allowed.” Grandma set up the kids’ Christmas tree down in the black and red carpeted basement with oak paneled walls. That’s where all the real presents were. But that door would stayed closed until after Santa came in a couple of hours.

Grandma was beaming, dressed in black velvet pants and a red and green sweater with gold Christmas trees on the front. She had on earrings, makeup, and heels for a change. She gave me a huge hug and let me taste a piece of the roast she was stirring in a huge pot on the stove. It melted in my mouth. She handed me a cup of hot apple cider and I sat at the table. She told me to go put my mittens on the furnace vent so they’d be nice and warm when we were ready to go home. “Little Drummer Boy” began playing from the stereo. I asked her to rewind it for me two times.

“Grandma, did Santa come yet?”

“I haven’t heard him yet, but I bet it will be soon, after he knows all the kids are here.”

“How does he know who’s been naughty or nice? Is he watching us all the time?”

“Well, he has helpers all around who watch and report back to him.”

“So they see everything?”

“Yes. Are you worried? Have you been naughty, Michelle?” Grandma teased.

“Not soooo much. Maybe…once or twice.”

“Well, did you say you were sorry and ask God for forgiveness?”

“Yes,” I lied. I’d apologized to Dad, but I’d forgotten to ask God for forgiveness!

I excused myself and slipped into the bathroom to say a quick prayer. “Dear God, please forgive me for killing Burrhus. I didn’t mean to do it. I’ll be kind to all animals forever in the future. Please don’t think I’m evil.” I felt tears coming again at the memory of Burrhus’ pain.

I wondered if God would talk to Santa in time to tell him my prayer.

Mom arrived and asked Grandma if she could help in the kitchen, and then my cousins started trickling in, first my Aunt Patty’s four kids, then my Uncle Stue’s two kids. Mindy’s family was last, as usual, because they lived out in the country and getting two hyperactive boys cleaned up and out the door was probably no easy task. They tumbled through the door in a heap, shaking and stomping snow off their boots, just as Grandma was putting the food out on the dining room table. Card tables for us kids were set up in the living room. Mindy and I sat together so we could show each other the contents of our purses. Mindy’s dad had a rule about cleaning their plates, so I let Mindy slyly transfer her pickled beets onto mine. They could hitch a ride incognito to the trash that way.

As usual, the adults took forever to finish. Around eight o’clock, Grandma turned out the lights and told us all to be quiet. And that’s when we heard the sleigh bells and footsteps on the roof. I sat frozen in fear, imagining Santa angry with me and his huge reindeer stomping up above. After a few minutes, Grandma turned the lights back on and we saw Uncle Stue at the top of the steps bellowing that Santa had left presents. We lined up on the stairs from oldest to youngest and then raced toward the tree when Stue said “Go!” There were even more presents than last year. Grandma always stashed some of her wages from the cafeteria away from Grandpa each year to ensure the pile of presents covered up the whole bottom half of the tree. Our parents came down after us, and we all found places to sit while Uncle Ed asked my older cousins to help him pass them out.

My name was called exactly six times, like everyone else’s. Mindy and I got the same presents, only the sweaters and socks were in different pastel colors. My mom and dad sat next to each other on the couch and I squeezed between them, relieved. God must have told Santa in time that it was “okay” to give me presents. He must not think I’m evil after all. My heart lightened.

After playing with our presents for another hour or so, we went home. I could barely sleep, thinking about Christmas in a few hours. The next morning I awoke to presents under our own tree. Shirley sat under the tree in a brand new plastic cage that had a deluxe system of tunnels for her to explore. I got Pretty-Cut-N-Grow-Doll hair replacements, clothes, a tape recorder, and some new books.

Mom got Dad a new travel shaving kit and a black leather bag, a new tea mug, running shorts, and thick speckled winter socks. Dad got Mom a coffee pot, a new set of knives, and something in a medium-sized box he told her to open last. When Mom unwrapped the last present, her eyes lit up at the sight of the writing on the box. He’d gone to “Elegant Ann’s,” a lingerie shop down on the square. Mom carefully took off the top lid and moved aside the tissue paper. Then her face froze. When I leaned forward to see what was in the box, I saw a light yellow-colored pair of flannel pajama pants and a matching long-sleeved top. They looked delicate and soft. Not even taking them out, Mom slowly lowered the box of pajamas onto the carpet in front of her and took a long deep breath. Her shoulders slumped.

“You have to be the only husband who wants to see his wife in something so boring,” Mom said.

“You don’t like them?” Dad said, genuinely surprised.

They’re fine. I just want to know—what’s wrong with me?”

“Jesus Christ, Bobbi. Don’t start.”

“No. Really, Mark. I just want to know. Am I that disgusting to you that you want me to keep covered up?”

“Michelle, go in your room for a while, okay?” Dad said.

I lifted Shirley’s cage, lugged it to my room, and sat it gently on the floor, leaving the door cracked a little.

“Why do you want to ruin Christmas like this, Bobbi?”

“Don’t change the damn subject. I want to know why you bought me these ugly fucking pajamas. I think you owe me that.”

“I don’t owe you anything. I thought you’d like the fucking pajamas, okay? I wanted to get you something comfortable. You’re always borrowing mine, so I thought I’d get you a nice pair of your own. They weren’t cheap.”

“So is this how it’s going to be forever? Because I don’t think I can take it anymore.” Mom’s voice was rising.

“Take what?” Dad said.

“You never touch me or kiss me anymore, so I just want to know what’s so wrong with me? I know you think I’m stupid because I don’t read all those books like you, but is there something physically wrong with me now too?” Mom’s voice got louder still.

“No. I’m usually just tired from working all hours of the day and night, or it’s not good timing.”

“Bullshit, Mark. There are plenty of chances, but it never occurs to you. Your head is always in your goddamn books! Why don’t you want to spend any time with me? You spend all your time with Michelle or your mother!”

“Calm down. You’re getting hysterical again. I’m not going to get into this with you on Christmas.”

“Why don’t you just admit that you hate me and find me disgusting?”

“Shut up, Bobbi! You’re acting crazy.”

“No, I’m not! And, don’t call me that! You are doing this to me!” Mom shrieked.

I heard Dad throw something.

“Well, maybe I don’t find your shit interesting, Bobbi! I don’t like to sit around and watch TV all day! I don’t like bowling, and I don’t like to go out gossiping at the local bars with stupid assholes from high school!”

Mom could barely talk over her sobs. “Yeah? How come your mom is the biggest gossip I know? You don’t seem to mind that!”

“You’d better shut up!” Dad growled.

“I hate you! Why don’t you just leave! Go to your mommy’s! And take Michelle with you! She doesn’t want to be around me either. You’ve turned her against me!”

Throwing his hands up, Dad said, “This is crazy! I can’t do this anymore.” He stood to fetch his shoes.

At this point, I came out of my room and followed him, begging him not to leave. He wouldn’t look at me and said he was too mad to talk about it. He told me to go back to my room.

Dad put his coat on as he walked toward the front door. I followed him again, begging him to stay. Mom turned to me and screamed for me to go back to my room and stay out of it. I stood paralyzed and helpless in my doorway, watching them.

When Dad reached the front door, he turned and pointed a finger at my mom. “Don’t talk to her that way. You are the problem, not her.”

“She’s all you care about! Don’t you dare leave!” Mom screamed, grabbing onto Dad’s arm.

Dad yanked his arm free and opened the door. He stepped onto the porch. When Mom followed, he turned and pushed her back against the door. He stepped off the porch and took two steps into the snow. Mom jumped off the porch and grabbed him around the bottom of the legs. He tried to unlock his right leg from her grip so he could take another step, but she wasn’t letting go. I stood horrified as Dad dragged Mom through the snow. Her face looked like she was screaming, but no sound was coming out. Her long hair was tangled under his foot. Dad jerked free and got into the car. I was standing on the porch, screaming for Dad, when Mom limped past me, covered in snow, back into the house.

“Are you happy now? This is all your fault,” she said to me, going into the bathroom and locking the door.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t want him to leave.”

I got into bed and sobbed into my pillow. I couldn’t imagine where he would go that he couldn’t take me with him. I couldn’t believe he was never coming back. Eventually, I fell asleep and when I woke up, it was dark out and Dad still wasn’t home yet. Mom was on the couch watching TV, biting her nails. When Dad finally came back, I was eating SpaghettiOs on a TV tray. Without saying word, he gave me a dejected smile and walked straight down to the basement. I waited about twenty minutes then followed.

I stood next to him at his desk. He was reading an article in an old magazine about B. F. Skinner. There was a picture of a half-naked baby sitting in a crib-size box, looking out a plexi-glass window.

“What are you reading, Dad?”

“Oh, some people on TV the other day were criticizing Skinner because he built this crib for his daughter. People say he was doing experiments on her and that she was neglected in the box. I looked up the original article about the ‘baby tender’ Skinner made to see for myself. Of course, people got it all wrong.”

“They did?”

“Yes. He wasn’t doing experiments on her at all. He and his wife just wanted a place where their daughter could be as comfortable as possible when she slept. They could set the temperature in the box warm enough that she wouldn’t have to be bundled up in uncomfortable clothes. They didn’t keep her in there any longer than any other parent puts their child into a regular crib. She was out of the box most of the time, playing and learning like any normal child. She just wasn’t frustrated when they put her to bed. There were some toys for her to play with in there, too, just like any other crib would have. She liked being put into the box and turned out to be an artist when she grew up for heaven’s sake. Ignorant people made up rumors that she turned out crazy. I swear Skinner’s the most misunderstood person on the planet.”

After a few moments of silence, I climbed into Dad’s lap. “Dad, you really aren’t going to leave for good, are you?”

“No. I just needed to get away from your mom so I could think. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

“Do you really think Mom’s crazy?”

“No. I shouldn’t have said that. I just don’t like her behavior.”

“Are you going to make up? Are you still mad at her?”

“Well, we have some things to work on.”

“Is that because of me?”

“No. This has nothing to do with you, Michelle. Your mom and I don’t have much in common anymore. We don’t like the same things. I’m not sure what we’re going to do.”

“But, you aren’t going to leave again?”

After a small but noticeable pause, he exhaled a slow, “No.”

Changing the subject, he asked, “Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas?”

“Yes. Shirley loves her new cage. Do you want to play school with me?”

“Sure. You start and I’ll be right over.”

When he was ready, Dad walked over and put a Beatles album on the stereo. First, I pretended to be the teacher to Dad and the classroom of dolls and animals. Dad made the dolls goof off when I wasn’t looking and straighten back up before I could catch them. After school, I asked to play house. I told Dad to be the dad and said I’d be the mom, and that Dan and Dorothy were our kids. We cooked dinner and fed them pretend food. When the song “Yesterday” started, I felt sad and asked Dad what the words meant. He said it was about someone losing someone they love. I wanted to know what “wrong thing” he said that “made her leave,” but Dad said he didn’t know. I wanted to hear the song again, so we went to the stereo.

When the part came where she had to go, I told Dad to go around behind the furnace where I couldn’t see him. He did and I imagined hard that he was really gone for good. Tears came to my eyes, my throat burned, and my heart ached. After a minute, Dad came back and I was so happy to see him. My life was restored. Dad told me not to be sad, and I said I was just pretending. When I asked, he played the song again two more times and hid behind the furnace. Both times, I felt the deep pain in my chest, and both times, at the end of the song, I examined the feeling of life without him and the feeling of relief when he came back. One thing was clear; I could not bear life without him.

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