A Summer day
That day marked absolute failure and regret, though all I did was spill the milk. I left my refuge for the sake of my stomach.
I can feel it now. That time. That girl. That beautiful house and my beloved woods.
The rickety old bridge spanning our creek shakes as I skip across. I drag my feet through soft grass in a bright clearing to the path. Salmonberries cluster on either side, and cool mud squishes between my toes as I climb the hill.
Footfalls pound ahead. My big sis — long hair flying, her face red and creased as she cries — races toward me.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, dread as a tight knot in my middle.
Sobbing, she disappears down the path behind me.
I’ll never catch her. She’s too fast. I can’t return to the creek, though. What if Mom and Ruby need me? Worse than seeing is not knowing.
I continue up the hill, past the overgrown garden, and to the house.
Sunlight fills the kitchen as I push the door open. Dad’s angry voice storms out. I clutch tight fists, draw in a deep breath, and step across the threshold. Crusty dishes climb high, reaching the African violets in Mom’s bay window behind the sink.
Dad, in his hickory shirt and logging britches, thrusts one hand toward the garbage crowded corner. “I work every day just to come home to a pigsty!”
Mom stands before him, my little sister Ruby tucked against her pudgy side.
“Who did this?” Dad shakes the paper box, an old wooden soda box we use to store newspapers, and milk drips from the corner.
I hadn’t cared when the jug tumbled into the paper box that morning. After all, it was close to the garbage can.
Dad turns, his mouth pulled ugly on his tanned face. “Did you do this?”
His nostrils flare. “Get over here.” I pad across the floor on bare muddy feet, and look up at him.
“Why didn’t you pick this up?”
“Laziness is sin. All you had to do was clean up your mess.” He points to my mom and sister. “Now your mom and sister are crying. It’s all your fault.”
Ruby’s little sobs hunch her shoulders. Mom stares with that blank, stunned look, her face mottled red from tears.
“Look at them. You hurt them.” He leans down and assails my nose with stale coffee breath. “If you had just cleaned up the milk.”
No. If he would be happy instead of always mad, we would be okay. Mom says all she wants is peace.
I look at her. Pink lips pinched, chin trembling, Mom avoids my gaze.
She thinks it’s my fault too. “I . . . I’m sorry.” A sob breaks from my throat. I hang my head. My ears hurt from Dad’s bellowing.
“You think you have it bad. This is nothing compared to my childhood. My dad was a boxer during the war. He’d get drunk. I couldn’t even look in his eyes, or he’d say I was disrespectful. He’d double up his fist and punch me.”
Dad’s voice thickens with emotion, his eyes fill with tears. “My body would slide across the floor. I’d wake up hours later, blood dried to my head. You kids have it good.”
The pain inside me climaxes at the recount of my daddy being hit, hurt, abused. I hate it when he sounds like that — so pained and broken.
Crying out to God
Finally he relents, telling me to clean up the mess as he storms away. The door to his room slams, sending a shudder down to my toes.
Sobbing, I run to the soggy paper box and lug it away. I can’t look at Mom. This is all my fault. I hurt her. Made her cry. I made Dad angry, and I hurt him too.
I haul the box down to the big garbage can outside, toss it in, and race back to the salmonberry patch. On the bridge, I sit and wrap my arms around myself. “Hold me close, God.” Like the Bible says He’ll do.
I’ve never been the cause of one of Dad’s blowups before. I should have known better than to spill the milk. Dad had been stewing for days — sitting in his big chair at the table with the Daily World opened to the classifieds and his closed Bible beside it. He’d pour over his Bible for hours.
Whatever he’s searching for I don’t think he finds, because he keeps going back.
Why can’t Daddy just be happy?
Another memory comes to my mind. Daddy pushing me on that huge swing over the creek. I’m flying high into summer sunlight while a harmony of leaves fill the air; then I’m falling. The ground is crashing up at me, the pit of my stomach floating. I scream and kick my feet.
On the ground, Daddy, his arms wide open to catch me. He’s so strong, his arms and hands hard from working in the woods. He lifts me from the swing and, kneeling beside me, hugs me.
Amid my tears, the slightest smile curves his whiskery face, then his gentle warning about panicking on the swing. How if I kick my legs and hit the ground, they could break. He’s always warning us girls, teaching us to be safe. Why can’t he be safe?
A hiccup sounds behind me on the trail.
Ruby tiptoes onto the grassy plot, having followed me from the house. She cradles a dolly in one arm as she nurses her beloved thumb. Her gaze lifts. Something beyond me holds her attention.
I turn. On the other side of our little bridge, her eyes swollen and face blotchy, my big sis watches us. She casts a leery glance to the path leading home.
I wipe my nose with the back of my hand and stand up. “Want to make water lilies?”
Ruby grins and Sis shrugs, yet she crosses the bridge to our side.
On the outskirts of the blackberry patch, buttercups cluster in happy groups. We pluck a few handfuls and meet by the creek, where we rip off the stems and carefully drop the buds in. It’s a little tricky. You must land them just right, or they tip and don’t count as water lilies.
Our lilies twirl in a trail downstream, around a bend.
“There they go.” Ruby’s voice blends with the trickle of the stream.
All the water lilies are gone now, not a trace or even a petal in the dark waters.
They will drown, but at least we don’t have to see it.
“It’s OK.” Ruby turns her face to me, her round cheeks bunching as her eyes sparkle. “We can always get more.”
Our creek remained a sanctuary, with thousands of hopeful water lilies floating downstream. God provided comfort for us in the natural beauty of the woods and in the security of our sisterly bonds. Just two of the many ways He “held us close.”
We escaped years later when Mom had the courage to leave. Incidents like the spilled milk had crippled me inside, though. I didn’t realize how much until college when I wrote this creative nonfiction story showing how God used a painful experience in my life for His good purpose.
I’d held that memory of the spilled milk and pain I caused my family in the back of my mind with the grinding regret and shame. Once it was all out on paper, I saw my mistake for what it was: the opportunity to love and forgive.
As for my daddy — my beautiful, wonderful, fragile, flawed father — God mended his brokenness. Once he’d lost everything — his business, his wife, and his children — he turned to the heavenly Father who does not fail, and he found the strength to change. He found the healing he had needed for so many years.
When my dad’s hurts spilled over to us kids and when my mom was too weak to protect us, the theme verse of my childhood was Psalm 27:10: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close” (NLT). God held me close through countless hurts and disappointments. And I praise God that He did the same for my dad.