People sometimes ask me, “What the hell is wrong with you? Were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?”
The answer is maybe. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, since my parents were very old and tired when I was born. I may have been dropped by accident when one or the other of them fell asleep while holding me. They never confessed to it, but there are several dents in my skull that make me suspect that I was dropped on the noggin on the regular.
Anyway, this story is not about the dents in my skull but about how my dad and his brother-in-law and partner in crime, my Uncle Earle, made a little girl’s Christmas wish come true and thereby caused her to have a head injury.
The year I turned seven a girl named Debbie moved next door. She was almost exactly the same age as me and was in my class in school. We became what are now called “frenemies.” We hung out together and did stuff together and were deeply, bitterly competitive with each other. I could twirl a baton. Debbie could not. Debbie couldn’t twirl for shit. I mercilessly flaunted my twirling prowess in front of her, twirling not one but two batons simultaneously, throwing them up high in the air and casually catching them behind my back. I bragged about how I was going to be the head twirler for the marching band when we got to high school, making her seethe with rage.
Spoiler alert: I wasn’t made head twirler. Maureen DeFasio was.
Debbie retaliated by doing cartwheels, jeering at me as I stood watching her, red-faced with fury. No matter how hard I tried, and believe me, I tried hard, I couldn’t do a single cartwheel. I flopped over and hit the dirt, as if I had no bones. Debbie would rub in my humiliation by doing back flips. I couldn’t do those, either.
Then Debbie upped the ante by getting a swing set. It came from Sears and it had two swings, a shiny metal slide and two of those rings that gymnasts use to pull themselves up and flip over.
To say I was envious was an understatement. I wanted a swing set so badly that I could practically taste it. I begged my parents to get me one, but they refused, on the grounds that it would ruin the lawn. My parents, middle-class suburbanites to the core – were very proud of our lawn. In the suburbs at that time having a well-cared-for lawn was a sign of moral superiority. Ours was regularly doused with pesticides and meticulously mowed to verdant perfection by my dad every week, using a hand-pushed mower with rotating blades. My parents cherished their lawn and didn’t want it getting messed up.
That meant no swing set for me.
Until a Christmas miracle happened.
It happened on Thanksgiving, but it involved my Christmas present from Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma. The present was (you guessed it) a swing set!
When Uncle Earle and Aunt Alma showed up at our house on Thanksgiving, Uncle Earle pulled open the back of their station wagon and hauled out a big box.
“What do you think is in here?” he asked me, grinning.
The box had a color picture of a swing set on it so I took a wild guess.
“A swing set?”
“Correct!” Uncle Earle said. “It’s your Christmas present. You’re getting it now so you can have fun playing with it before it gets too cold.”
Devoted readers may recall another Christmas present that my dad and Uncle Earle gave me. It was a little metal barn, part of a farm-themed play set. It got blood all over it because the metal pieces were wickedly sharp and my dad and Uncle Earle were very drunk when they assembled it. Finding a blood-smeared barn under the Christmas tree, with my dad and Uncle Earle passed out next to it was quite the Yuletide surprise, let me tell you.
The swing set was just as bad as the bloody barn, but in a different way.
For starters, my dad refused to stabilize its four metal legs by anchoring them in cement.
“It’ll ruin the lawn,” he said, once he and Uncle Earle got it put together. “Just be careful when you’re swinging on it and it’ll be okay.”
Was I careful?
I was at first. I got on and swung. Debbie came out and watched from the other side of the fence which separated our back yards.
“You’re swinging like a baby,” she said.
“No I’m not,” I said.
“Yes you are. Baby, baby! Jill swings like a baby! Ha-ha!”
That did it. I gave a mighty push, thinking, The heck with you, Debbie. I’ll show you.
The swing went up pretty high, almost looping over the top rail. I laughed contemptuously as Debbie looked on in awe.
“Ha-ha! You’re the baby! You are!” I jeered. “Look how high I…” That’s as far as I got before the swing set toppled over. I sailed out of the swing and onto my mom’s rock garden. My head hit a rock and I blacked out. Debbie, I discovered later, ran into her house and turned on the TV, settling down to watch cartoons, the picture of innocence. She didn’t tell anybody what happened because she thought she’d be blamed for goading me to swing higher. To her credit, she later apologized.
I’m not sure how long I lay there among the rocks, unconscious. My mom was busy making Thanksgiving dinner and gossiping with Aunt Alma. My dad and Uncle Earle were in the living room watching football and drinking beer. It wasn’t until Mom happened to glance out the kitchen window and saw the overturned swing set that she realized something was wrong.
She went outside, untying her apron, angry that I’d managed to knock over my new swing set. She found me sprawled in the rock garden, apparently lifeless.
I woke up to her screaming and pouring the contents of the bird bath over me. I suppose she thought that if I wasn’t dead the cold water would bring me around. It did.
“We gee wazzoo? How you make do this? Razum numkur,” I complained, soaking wet and completely fuddled.
Mom dragged me across the street, moaning and speaking gibberish, to Dr. Daniel’s house. He was a retired dermatologist who’d gotten his medical license way back during the Depression. Dr. Daniel knew more about psoriasis and acne than he did about head injuries, but even he could see what was up.
He shone a light in my eyes and noted that the pupils were different sizes. Then he asked me how many fingers he was holding up.
“Buzzum? Grakus? Floop,” I replied. Then I threw up on his shoes.
“She’s got a concussion,” he told my mother. “Keep her awake. Don’t let her go to sleep. If she goes to sleep she might sink into a coma.”
And that was that. He went to clean off his shoes and my mother dragged me back across the street.
My head hurt. I didn’t eat any of the Thanksgiving dinner, which happened to be a real turkey that year and not one made out of Spam. (Devoted readers may recall how my mother lovingly crafted a turkey one year out of whatever red, gelatinous substance Spam is. She’d seen a Spam turkey in a magazine and was captivated by its originality.)
Mom followed Dr. Daniel’s orders to a T. She didn’t let me go to sleep, not for five days, having misunderstood him to mean that she should never let me sleep again. By then I was hallucinating fish coming out of the walls. A second visit to Dr. Daniel cleared it up. I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead for twenty-four hours.
When I woke up the swing set was gone.
“It was too much trouble,” my father said. “I gave it to a man at work for his kids.”
And that was that.
Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t get a concussion.