Terese Svoboda
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

I lived in twelve houses in 1932. The Depression was all opportunity for my father, one house on the prairie foreclosed after another, the more for my father to fix up and resell. People had to live somewhere while they slid into poverty. The houses sometimes still had butter in the icebox–not butter exactly, but fake butter, the kind that made you wish you had lard instead–and torn clothes wadded in the backs of bureaus, and spilled salt everywhere. For luck? To poison my father’s opportunity. My mother scrubbed those floors clean of the salt, my father painted them over, we ate sandwiches my mother made out of whatever was left in the cupboard with that so-called butter darkening the slices, and sometimes she sewed the torn clothes into short trousers for me.

I was small and remember best being lost in houses I didn’t quite live in. I would peer from window to window of a row very much like those in the last one, crying because I couldn’t find a door. My mother usually worked in whatever parlor sat behind the porch; she never left me alone in those houses, but she wouldn’t budge, hearing me–I had to run to her. My stuffed rabbit or wooden pistol, I left it behind, I sobbed. My sister, always at me, yelled Stupid. She always knew what really happened to the toy, and would my mother even suspect her? Here, my mother said, you have sunshine flooding in, it’s so cheerful. I wanted to escape to my father, who worked outside, putting in those shiny windows. He would come through the door, wipe away my tears, and pick me up in the crook of his arm, putty knife in hand. His other hand usually ended in the next house contract he’d just signed. He would say, with the German accent he never lost–with a lot of excitement–This new one is not worth a Continental. He meant he got it cheap, the currency after the Revolutionary War worthless, the war that he said won the country freedom. Freedom, he’d repeat, and shake his head as if he couldn’t get enough of it. Then he’d peel off a swag of putty from his knife for me to play with, but not eat.

Almost all the money he made went into land. A family needed only one house to live in, but to feed us required land that bore crops. It was a simple enough plan, and in two years he acquired enough acreage in the same spot to make a go of it. My sister, eight by then, lectured me about how important having a farm was for our family. She had Shirley Temple curls that I pulled in retaliation, but she could talk me down in five seconds because she had words for everything: tractor, field, sorghum.

She stuck out her tongue.

My mother said she couldn’t scrub out another house without laying down a carpet and going into labor, we had to actually move to the farm before the new baby arrived; my father couldn’t just rent the land out and buy another house. My sister told me real labor wasn’t just scrubbing, and her eyes got wide because of our mother, so I felt afraid about not going to the farm, about the numerous “touch-ups” my father had to make before loading the car again.

They were at the actual end of finishing when a Marjorie woman–that’s what my mother called her–walked up the steps and inside and lowered herself to the floor, threw her arms across the planks and wept. My mother had just swept the floor so you could do that. I had just done it.

You’ve stolen my home, she cried. I don’t have anything else.

My mother didn’t stop peeling the paint off a closet wall, my mother peeled faster. My father came into the room with a roll of wallpaper and backed out. Marjorie had already started cursing. Even then I could tell this was language beyond crying, this meant to do us harm.

My father came down with diabetes a year after we settled on the farm. “Came down” made it sound as if he would soon recover. My mother now had my baby brother to wrestle into humanness, along with nursing my father, who couldn’t tolerate insulin. He had seizures from too much sugar, and seizures from too little. In the morning his face was gray, and by evening it was the color of raw steak. When my mother took the new baby on the train to California to show him off to her mother, my father proved he could keep house with a photograph of him hanging up the laundry, his swollen body making him look like all the other farmers.

In California my mother read in the Ladies’ Home Journal that vinegar cured diabetes. Vinegar made cabbage live forever, why not people? She never unpacked from the trip back, she tucked my father in the rear seat and drove us south to the clinic the magazine suggested. My father clicked his hinged ruler open and closed all the way.

The South was the place to fix people. You had a cough, you went south. Your heart was giving you problems? South. A twisted testicle? South. My mother knew how to repair houses from my father, why couldn’t she fix a few of her own while we were there? Without a baby crawling underfoot–my brother learned walking because I chased him–she took on the repair of hinges, slid plates of glass back into place, and painted, painted, painted. My father went into treatment with the thirty or so other patients. He was soaked in brine, he drank vinegar-almost-wine until he staggered, he ate sauerkraut and pickles. Nurses with special acidic measuring devices kept track of his improvement. Some patients went home cured after three days, some stayed on for months. My father was tough and getting tougher, the vinegar was running in his veins as if he were already dead and preserved, yet his energy, he said, was returning.

When the pickling was proclaimed perfect, he drove home, and my mother planned: We will plant a cherry tree beside the barn and you will not cut it down like that Washington. My father loved to clear land, and trees were one plant he despised. She, in her turn, chaffed at his Revolutionary War obsession. We’ve had enough war, she said, with the Great one. Nothing is better than cherry pie, she said. She clucked her tongue when she couldn’t express how much better.

On the long trip back we sang “Silent Night” in German the way my father liked it, and all the new crooner songs. My father could walk! It turned very cold back at the farm in a few weeks, and of course it snowed, and my father trudged through it. But not for long. Mother curtained off one end of their bedroom with fabric found abandoned in an old drawer in one of those houses, and he lay down on the bed. It was too late to try insulin, his kidneys were shot.

My mother served him gelatin with sugar, sugar cookies, and sugar with sugar. I was the one who brought all the delicious treats into his new room, who saw him destroy the gelatin mold but eat little, touch the chocolate with a cold finger and bring the finger to his lips, and offer the rest to me.

Nobody said You are going to die back then. You suffered from diabetes and the Good Lord, whatever he was up to, knew when it was time. But time did not move very quickly, at least not for me, going on sixteen by then. My brother and I worked from sunrise to set all that summer. My father could barely drive the dump truck while I stood in the back, grasshoppers all over me, holding tight to the side so as not to slide down into the elevator’s hole when he poured out the grain.

Right after harvest, we went to Louisiana for the cold water treatment. Did my mother believe in it? She said at least in the South it did not snow. I drove the old Olds. She sat in the back with my father and applied washcloths to his forehead, and my sister and brother took turns with the map. My father must have been in his forties by then, but looked ancient, wrinkled like something sat on. I drove straight through, six states in a row, with him asleep, despite my sister, insistent about listening to the radio.

My brother liked girls already, and as soon as we found a cheap motel, the two of us went out on the town. He passed a Spanish girl on a side street, with a crisp bow tied behind the back of her skirt, and he pulled it. She turned on him and blacked his eye. It was his fault and he deserved whatever she could get away with. My mother said nothing when she saw him, that’s how worried she was about my father. The treatment for my father–submersion in ice water–wasn’t easy; he screamed.

I don’t remember hearing him screaming. I remember him leaning through one of the windows of an abandoned house, a window that still needed a pane, to lift me up off the floor where I’d left a pool of tears, saying, One man’s sorrow is another’s gain.

Really, I don’t remember what he said except that he said it in German, the same as when he died, and no one knew what he said then either. We were too young, too dumb, and too sad to find out. With half the insurance money my brother bought a Continental and shaved off the roof so he could call it a convertible and pick up girls. I joined him on a double date and we both married the girls, so I guess at least this Continental wasn’t worthless.

It was only last week when I was standing under the cherry tree that I saw the houses, a whole city of them, rowed in the back cornfield as if seeded there. My doctor said I am old and my vision is bad and sometimes this causes people to see things and sometimes it’s just the blood, getting squeezed in the head because of my diabetes, but I wanted to get the pickup and drive over and hear my father’s hammer. I did do the drive.

Terese Svoboda is the author of 18 books. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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