Try not to think about roaches


There's a reason you hear that scary music in the background. (Photo courtesy of; scary music courtesy of yearstricken's brain. Try listening harder if you can't hear it; I can.)

I’ve been giving some thought to cockroaches lately. (Notice that I didn’t begin as I so often do with something like, “Roaches are on my mind.” That is too creepy, and I would then plant a disturbing image in your mind that would be very difficult to get rid of, especially if you have ever seen Planet Earth: Caves on the Discovery Channel or on video. If you kept your eyes open during the scene in the cave that was filled with millions of roaches feasting on bat guano, you probably slept with a can of RAID beside your bed for at least a week, or possibly for the rest of your life, if you’re like me. We don’t have a lot of bat guano lying around in our bedroom, but roaches will eat just about anything. And for all I know, as I lie in bed, I may very well look like a pile of bat guano. It’s one of those questions that I find hard to ask my husband.)


Why am I using up my limited number of brain cells thinking about roaches? I blame it on my first grade teacher at Ascarte Elementary School, Mrs. Severe. (Yes, that was her real name; and no, she was not severe.) She has always been my favorite teacher because she taught me to read. During that time, the public school system provided education starting from first grade, not kindergarten. In the fall of the year I turned five, mother felt it was time I started school. She had put up with me all day for five years; now it was someone else’s turn. So, the school allowed me to start, with the proviso that I had to keep up.


Although my sister was 18 months older, she was one grade ahead of me because she was born in the middle of the year, and I was born in the beginning.  However, just as she wanted to keep a wide space between us when we shared a double bed, having just one grade between us was not wide enough for her, so she skipped a grade. We always attribute that to the fact that she is smart, but I vaguely remember that it had something to do with “cooties.” Mine, I believe.


But back to roaches. I lived in Okinawa, Japan for a number of years, so I am familiar with the small, scurrying kind, as well as the large, flying ones. But recently I read this article about the leaproach. This roach can leap a distance of 50 times its body length, has “extreme” bulging eyes, and its favorite food is grasshopper poop. Which leads to the important question: why I am obsessing over a leaping roach that lives in South Africa?


Maybe watching all those horror movies as a child created the need for the adrenaline rush that can only come through an adventure in which I face terror (or peek through my fingers at it) without backing down. Right before I am overwhelmed or overtaken, I escape and live to tell about it. Now, when I read an article about something that can scare or startle me, like leaproaches, my imagination takes over. Sure that peaceful-looking field, humming with grasshoppers, looks like a nice place to take a walk. But, folks, there are tens of thousands of roaches in there. Don’t look now, but they’re starting to leap! Somehow I always escape, finish reading the article, and not only live to tell about it, but live to write about it as well.


Fear of the dark


(K) The older, photogenic one

When my father died, I was eight and my sister (K) was ten. Mother’s world collapsed and she found it impossible to function. She stayed in bed under heavy medication for days, until our oldest sister (C) told her she would lose us to daddy’s relatives if she didn’t get up and start living again. Our oldest sister was 23 years old at the time and already a mother of three. We lived a complicated childhood, visiting our oldest sister and her children but hiding it from our father. He wanted nothing to do with mother’s past.

When mother got up out of her bed of despair, she couldn’t get any more medication from the doctor. So she self-medicated. And nothing dulled the pain better than booze.

Together with her best friend from work, mother began to “run the roads.” It’s what she called bar hopping. There’s something lop-sided about this story that no amount of explaining will set right. Mother said that daddy was the one she loved like no other, and yet within two months she was out most nights, drinking, dancing, and looking for love. I don’t try to explain it; I just tell the story as I know it.

During that era, I don’t think it was unusual to leave children our ages alone at home. But maybe at night it was. Mother needed somewhere to go, to find companionship, and to have a few drinks to help her forget. The bars all had a Happy Hour, and although she never found happiness there, at least the drinks were cheap. Rather than leave us at home, she would take us to a theater to let us watch the latest movie, often a horror movie. This provided me with lots of reasons to fear the dark.

Before the years struck me so hard

A few years ago, I was talking with my sister (K) and mentioned all the scary movies we saw when we were kids like The Blob,

The Tingler, The Fly, and House on Haunted Hill. I remember sitting the theater, my feet on the chair tucked under my dress, clutching my sister’s arm, thinking that if I held on tight enough the monster couldn’t get me.

She asked me if I remembered what happened after the movies on those nights mother dropped us off. I told her I didn’t have a single memory of what came before or after.

Have you ever heard someone tell a story about an event that you were part of but that you have absolutely no recollection of? What she told me stunned me.

More than once, after the movie or double feature was over, we waited out in front of the theater long past the last showing. One of those times, we were still there when the lights were shut off and the last person left the building. Then mother would show up smelling of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and sweet perfume. Beautiful, lonely, half-drunk, working hard to forget her pain, and doing such a good job that she forgot her girls out there in the dark, lonely and afraid.

For my sister the horror show started after we left the theater. She was too young to carry so much responsibility, but she had no choice. I clearly couldn’t take care of myself. I think the fear I felt during the long wait in the dark was too real, the sense of abandonment too raw to face, so I transferred it to the movies and thought they were the source of my terror. My sister was the brave one and faced the darkness for both of us. And for all these years, she has had to carry the memories alone. I cannot remember. And that’s one of the reasons I love her.

Much of my childhood I lived under water; the people and events blurred and distorted. Light is refracted when you are below water, so things are recognizable but they don’t line up. I’d come up for air now and then, then dive back under. Some of it I understand; some I don’t. I know one thing: I cannot watch horror movies. They make me afraid of the dark. I know, too, that love is strong and can carry the memories we cannot bear ourselves. But even love feels lonely sometimes.