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My eighth grade year had a definite beginning, middle, and end. The beginning had started out promising enough: my best friend Diane and I with our roller skating, the big shots at our kindergarten-through-eighth grade Catholic school, pre-boyfriends, all that. October brought trouble, though: my parents separated.
When I think back to that time in terms of physicalities, I remember my mother losing weight, and her fingertips—cracked and bloody—frostbitten from shoveling the snow off of our front walk. I remember my father’s hair, grown out long like Elvis’s, and the smooth white band of skin on his left ring finger where his wedding band used to be. After five months of living apart from me and my mother, my father returned with no apologies to reclaim his position as head of household. Life quickly returned to normal: we visited over dinner at the table each night, my parents came together to see my next school band performance, and my father started singing in the church choir again.
I knew that I should have been glad he was back, but anger had begun to brew inside me. I didn’t recognize these feelings at first, because I had never felt them before. I thought I must be feeling what my mother was feeling, and since she was glad that my father had returned, I assumed that I was, too. It was better than the alternative, right?
I knew that our lives would have taken a sad, sorry turn if my father had not returned. I assumed that instead of driving to see my siblings and their kids in my dad’s station wagon, we’d have to take the Greyhound bus. I assumed that instead of having big dinners with homemade dessert every night, my mother and I would continue to have small dinners with no desserts, since I didn’t have a sweet tooth anyway. Instead of having two parents in the house, I would only have one sad parent around. None of that was very appealing.
Plus, I loved my father, in the profound and inexplicable way that only daughters can love fathers. I had good memories of him: When I was three he’d take me onto his lap after dinner and draw farm animals for me at the kitchen table. When I got a little older, he always said yes when I asked him if I could bring a friend to the beach with us, camping with us, fishing with us. I remember digging potatoes out of the ground with my father, picking blueberries with my father, gathering firewood with my father. I’m certain that my mother was along for these events and outings, but I don’t remember her as clearly as I do my father.
My father swung axes and shot guns; my father came home with truckloads of wood, dead deer strapped to the top of his car, strings of fish he’d speared out of frozen lakes. My father jumped off of docks into chilly lake water, shouting and laughing, swimming straight to me under the water like a shark.
My mother just took care of me.
The end of my eighth grade year arrived in June of 1983, marked by a graduation ceremony and family breakfast at our church. My parents came together. Diane and I shined that morning: we had feathered hair, and wore peasant skirts with silver belts. I have faded Polaroid pictures of me and Diane standing by a tree with our hair blowing in the wind, our arms around one another, and one each of Diane and her mom, and Diane and her dad. Her parents had split up and stayed split up. I felt lucky on that day.
A few weeks later, my Saturday chores completed, I decided to work on my suntan. My sisters had always sunbathed on the flat roof outside their bedroom window, which was now the roof outside of my bedroom window, since I’d moved into that larger room. I put on my swimsuit and gathered together a blanket, a pillow, my baby oil, a glass of iced tea, and the book I was currently reading, Clan of the Cavebear by Jane Auel—the only book that has ever made me cry. I made a few trips through the window onto the roof, bringing all of my supplies out there, and finally settled on my stomach, my book laid out in front of me.
The story is about a beautiful little blonde girl from modern times who gets separated from her parents on a camping trip, then rescued and raised by a primitive band of ugly cavemen. The cavemen think Ayla is strange and unattractive, but she is loved and accepted by all except for the evil son of the clan leader, Broat, who is jealous of the positive attention that Ayla generates. Years later, Broat forces Ayla to have sex with him, resulting in the birth of her son, gentle Mandah. In the end, Ayla must leave the clan to rejoin the modern world, and she decides—with great sorrow—that it would be best to leave Mandah behind. The book ends with Ayla walking away from her clan and Mandah, the sound of her wailing child filling her ears.
I sobbed through the final pages of Clan of the Cavebear, my tears mixing with baby oil and sweat. I finally put the book down to wipe my eyes, and saw my father toiling in his garden below, his sleeves rolled up, his pants all dirty. I watched him pulling weeds, pruning his raspberry bushes, completely absorbed in his work. I thought to myself, I will never leave my child, and cried into my pillow like I had never cried before.