Author’s Note: My family lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, when I was born, and remained there for two years before beginning a series of moves that would take us to Maryland, California, Michigan, and New York. Between Michigan and New York before our mother left us with our father. My memories before that rupture became hard to hang on to, and impossible to corroborate.
DOWN ON THE SIDEWALK, SOMEBODY IS SCREAMING.
A warm breeze comes from tall, curved windows, and the round second-story room is filled with sunlight. My big sister was just here with me, but now she’s not. I want to look out the window, but now more grownups are shouting, and I pull back.
This is my first memory. I was two and Patti was four, and we lived with our parents in our grandmother’s brick row house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.—a corner house with a round tower and circular rooms on each of three floors.
Patti and I, up before the grownups, had been playing tag. I was the one chasing and Patti was the one running, and she was going too fast and ran into the window screen. The screen fell out, and so did she. She landed on the sidewalk two stories down, just missing a spiked iron fence. Our father ran downstairs to see what happened, then back upstairs to get his car keys, and by the time he got back to the street somebody else had taken Patti to the hospital. She broke an arm and a leg.
As we say in our family, that’s the story I got.
In fact, my own memory consists only of the image of that sunny room, my sister there and then not there, shouting, confusion, fear, and shame. My next recollection—another visual memory, with no story attached—must be from some weeks later; we’d moved from our grandmother’s house to an apartment in Annapolis, Maryland. I remember Patti dressed in white wrappings, having to be helped up and down, not being much fun. I learned the term “body cast” years later.
We told about Patti and the window whenever kids compared stories about scars and accidents and close calls. Our tale always had the parts about playing tag and a window screen, and our father running up and down stairs. Sometimes she missed the fence by feet, sometimes by inches, but this version was the one we could tell without our father getting angry or our mother starting to cry.
The summer Patti went out the window, our parents were five years into a marriage that would last another decade. After they split up and our mother left, Patti ran away from home. She was seventeen, I was fourteen, and we grew up with infrequent contact, little relationship, and few opportunities to review old stories.
I’m not sure, now, exactly when it was we had the telephone conversation, only that we were both adults by then and that she had something different to say about how she went out that window.
We hadn’t been playing tag, Patti said, but we had been naughty—dressing up, putting on brand-new dresses we’d been told not to touch because they were for someone’s wedding. Listening to my sister, I had an unbidden image of brushed nylon, smocking, pastels—maybe pink and mint green?—and could almost remember the irresistible pull of something beautiful and forbidden.
Our father was the one who found us, she said, and he became enraged. She mentioned a therapist and hospital records and the fact that it had been her right arm but her left leg that were broken, and how she had recovered or reconstructed her own memory of what happened that day. Did he push her? Throw her? She was sure of one thing.
“My arm was already broken when I went out the window.”
Irene Hoge Smith is a graduate of the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis writing program. She has been published in Prick of the Spindle, Amsterdam Quarterly, Vineleaves Literary Journal, Wisconsin Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Stonecoast Review. Smith is completing a memoir about her mother, the late Los Angeles poet francEyE, who, after fleeing a bad marriage and four daughters, lived with Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s. Website: Irenehogesmith.com.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new nonfiction, fiction, and poetry selected annually from thousands of submissions. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, it is an independent, nonprofit literary publication. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.