This House That Jack Built Serves Peanut Butter and Jelly

There were many things nibbled on that night, but the piece de resistance, the center of attention, was undoubtedly the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As I opened the jar of peanut butter I thought of Mary.

She was gone now – nobody really knew where the family had disappeared to – one day that Fall a truck pulled up, the furniture was loaded up, and that was the last anyone heard of them. No goodbyes or forwarded mail address note left on the door . . . no marigolds in pots or stray windchimes left behind.

I’d decided, towards the end of the summer, that I’d bring along a packed lunch for her girls as well as for my children for a day down at the tiny ‘beach’ at the foot of the mountain bordered by the glassy lake decorated with its aluminum wire fence. When I’d pulled out the lunches from the cooler, saying that I’d brought enough to share, her face had convulsed in an odd manner. “We don’t need to eat,” she said. And once again the sense of something like a brick hitting the heart gathered around everyone near enough to hear her. “We eat when my husband gets home.”

I didn’t understand then. I don’t understand now. Mary told me she’d married her new husband to have a good father for her girls. But was she acting as a mother who wanted to be a good mother to her girls? Was it about the girls? Was it about having a ‘family’? Or was it something else? What were the parts that composed this picture?

With another dinner knife I now spread the jelly on top of the peanut butter, then layered the other slice of bread on top to make the final sandwich which would be cut into little triangles for my babies before tucking them into bed.

The snow was a solid five feet high, glowing in the moonlight like an alien environment. My own husband was not home. He hadn’t been home for several weeks. I took a bite of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich – the rich harshness of the peanut butter edging off the taste of the soft grape jelly. Walking to the front door, I opened it upon the snow which lay like a barrier, a flat surface unyielding and packed like dense fiberglass. Balancing the sandwich on the nearby window ledge, I reached for the small shovel I’d brought in before the snow began. I lifted it over my head to edge it in at the very top of the wedge of snow, and started to push the edge in, the snow falling into the house by necessity. There was nowhere else for it to go. From the top of the pile down to the bottom would be the way to do this, would be the way of escape for the three hundred foot walk down the front yard to the car, then we’d take it from there, somehow. We had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, at least. I could still send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That would undoubtedly be the worst of it.

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This is part three. The previous parts are in the previous posts.


Mary’s Sandwiches

I sat cross-legged on the blanket with my two babies – our treasures set before us – the delicacies I’d climbed up onto the kitchen chair to pluck from the furthest reaches of the high wood-planked cupboards. Pastel colored tiny marshmallows, breadsticks, rusks, cheese, salami, mandarin oranges, baking chocolate, crackers, roasted peppers, marzipan, big soft pretzels, bean dip! Nothing ‘matched’, none of these foods were anything that ‘mattered’, really. They were just the usual things that somehow live along the edges of the kitchen. Like the Tree That Grows in Brooklyn. Weeds of food. But set out on that blanket on the floor cocooned in the tiny house under five feet of snow and all the world a solid frozen white, the forest with its trees fat and heavy falling towards and almost over the rooftop of this encapsulated scene where we sat talking nonsense and singing nursery rhymes – these ‘nothing’ foods became the most magnificent feast one could imagine.

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Mary, the blonde wisped woman, didn’t have a car. I’d stopped to ask if she wanted to go to the grocery store with me, since town was a good five miles from this steep mountain with the perilous rutted roads we’d somehow both ended up living on. She never wanted to go.

“Tim gets the groceries,” she’d say. Tim was the man at the head of the table. Tim was her second husband. Tim, she’d married to have a ‘good father’ for her children. Tim’s job was as a guard at the State Prison. Tim, left Mary day after day in their home with no money, no car, and not enough food.

The women of the town started talking about Mary. Her girls had been dropped off by their stepfather at more than one of the fun summer things planned for the town kids, and  everyone agreed – they were ‘nice kids’. But there was that one big problem: children were supposed to bring their own lunches and snacks for these day-long summer activities. And Mary’s girls always turned up empty-handed. They’d said they ‘weren’t hungry’, that they would eat at home later – and that’s what Mary said too when asked about it. That they would eat later, they didn’t need a snack they didn’t need a lunch they didn’t need anything all day long.

The other children shared with the girls. Some did. Some were instructed by their mothers to not share. “I don’t care how poor she is,” was the trumpeted final opinion voiced by first one then all who would say anything at all about it. “She can still send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Anyone can afford to send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

The thing was, I thought it likely that she didn’t have peanut butter and jelly in the house. And I also knew that she would not accept help.

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This is part two of the story, part one can be found here.

To be continued.

The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

What is a dream made of? It can all come down to a question of peanut butter and jelly.

The snow was now four feet high, solid-packed like a roll of compact cotton batting spread out for a miniature Christmas pageant – and still the flakes fluttered down through the light haze of the moon.

I took the large blanket in my arms and threw it high, fluffing it out to catch the air before it settled onto the living room floor for our pretend picnic. One baby came out of his playpen to be set in the middle, with an apple to bat at nearby with his tiny round feet and hands. My other baby didn’t need to be called. If her brother was there she was there, a year and a half older, all of three headstrong years old and ready to shape the universe to her whims.

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She opened the door cautiously when I’d knocked that evening, the woman – one child on my hip, the other hiding behind my leg. She looked a bit ghostly but then she always did, her blond loose hair trailing round a thin face with light-blue eyes, her lips always trying to hide the broken tooth. It was summertime, a full summer evening with the chatter of all life in the air, the earth seeming as if calling all the names of all things to come out and play, stretching out a hand for a soft dance, the world smiling close and gentle in its sapphire dusk.

“I’m sorry,” she said, in almost a whisper. “They can’t come out now. They’re eating dinner.” Behind her was a rectangular wooden table, where her three daughters sat with plates of food before them. Each one was a smaller image of her mother – blonde and wild-rail thin, long arms, knees everywhere and feet in cheap flip-flops, eager skittish girls always ready to run shrieking and laughing while pushing their shared battered bike up or down the side of the mountain on the steep precipitous hill careening downwards to the flat gray lake at its foot – the lake, which promised the town a deprecating and hesitant leisure, along with a generous side of  stench of the diesel fuel from the tiny houseproud motorboats.

But the girls at the table – they were frozen in place without moving. Their heads did not turn, their hands did not lift, their waists did not twist around, their feet were as quiet as statues. There was food on their plates, their hands gripped forks and knives. At the head of the table stood a man, with his back to the door. His head turned slowly, smoothly towards his wife and I at the cracked-open door.

“Oh. Sorry!” I dropped the words out, almost whispered out, unintentionally. I hadn’t meant them to be particularly soft, or fearful. But the man’s face was rigid, stiff – his dark eyes challenging. The girls still did not move except to poke at their food with a fork or a knife. Their eyes stayed glued to their plates.

“We’re having dinner here,” the man said slowly and the room seemed to fill with a freezing glassiness that could have been broken into a million jagged pieces. He turned back to the table. “The girls are learning how to behave at the table.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” I murmured towards the wife. Her immovable face framed by the wisps of escaping hair nodded as if she was afraid it might fall entirely off if any larger movement was to be taken. “See you another time.”

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Part two of this story can be found here.