First chapter of the book I'm writing of the same name:
The Unfriendly Skies
My mom planted gardens in two parts of our property in Barrington, Illinois. The first was against the east side of the garage where she grew annuals like tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans. The second was on the north side of the house near the chimney. It was less of a working plot and more of a self-sustaining perennial garden that included rhubarb and horseradish. The rest of this space contained Lilies of the Valley. My mom cautioned us against eating any part of that plant but it was an unnecessary warning: I had no interest in consuming flowers.
Rhubarb was a different story. She warned us against eating the leaves and the raw stems but neglected to tell us why. The stalk looked amazingly similar to the celery we did eat, and to a curious 5-year old boy, warnings about celery seemed silly and unnecessary. Besides, didn’t Uncle Ted make delicious rhubarb pies? If Uncle Ted could eat them, so could I.
It was a cool but sunny October day. The sky was a pale blue and a few puffy clouds interrupted its vastness. My mom had harvested all of the annual vegetables but the rhubarb and horseradish were still present and hardy. I looked around the back yard and no one was there. I glanced up at the kitchen windows overlooking the back yard. Again, no one. I snapped off a piece of a smaller rhubarb stem, hoping that my parents wouldn’t notice the change in size. Furtively, I brought it to my mouth, took a bite, and tried to swallow it. “Tried” is the operative word here.
Immediately, my throat swelled up and I couldn’t swallow. I desperately spit out the chunk of rhubarb into the lily patch to cover my transgression and began to panic. My distress was a combination of not being able to swallow or breathe through my mouth and getting caught. Dad was at work but if my mom caught me, she would punish me through shame and guilt, and then warn me that more punishment would follow “when your father gets home.” It’s not fair that she strapped him into this “executioner” role but he always seemed willing to take up the ax.
I plopped down against the chimney, hoping that my mother couldn’t see me through the kitchen windows. I consciously breathed through my nose and drooled out spit and partially chewed rhubarb pieces onto the ground in front of me. Then waited. I don’t know how long it took, and it seemed interminable, but the swelling in my throat eventually and gradually subsided. I know now that oxalate crystals in the stems and leaves of uncooked rhubarb lodge into the mucus membranes of mouth and throat, causing immediate swelling and destruction. Even if I had known that as a 5-year old boy, such knowledge wouldn’t have calmed my fears of impending death. That was the second time in just over a year that I stared straight into my own mortality. It wouldn’t happen again for another 51 years.
When the throat edema receded enough for me to swallow, I stood up and brushed away my tears. I tried to talk aloud but the words came out like I was twisting a balloon with my hands. I waited some more and when I felt steady again, decided to find my mother and tell her that I almost died. Yes, I would be punished, but certainly she would show some mercy to her almost-deceased eldest son. This delusion of childhood, that parents will not judge their recalcitrant children, often persists into adulthood.
I decided to enter the house through the front door, hoping that the slight delay might work in my favor. Instead, I found my mom sitting on the front steps, wearing an apron over her dress, and wringing a dish towel in her hands. Her face had an expression of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. It is one of those memories that gets sand-blasted into our minds because of its intensity, importance, and pathos. There is a physiological explanation for this but the real impact is psychological.
“What’s the matter, Mommy?,” I managed to squeak out, all thoughts of rhubarb and death-by-oxalate banished from my mind. She waved at me to come sit next to her on her right. The stairs were made of concrete and my dad had painted them black some time after we moved in. I believed blue would have been better. I sat down and my mom pulled me close to her with her right arm across my shoulders. She wiped away tears from her face with the dish towel that was now in her left hand, and pointed to the blue skies beyond the opening in the tall trees of our neighbors, the Moehling's, yard. One cloud hung at the 12:00 o’clock position of the opening but the rest of the sky was a deeper blue than I remembered in the garden. “I was looking up there, Mike,” she replied.
“But why are you upset?,” I asked in my best Big Boy tone despite the throat swelling.
“There is a bad man in another country who wants to bomb us,” she replied. “I was looking for the planes that drop the bombs.”
“Why does he want to do that?”
“Because he’s mean and our President wants to stop him. Why are you talking funny?”
I knew the jig was up but didn’t expect a passive reply from her. “I accidently ate some rhubarb,” I lied.
“But you’re better now?, she asked, still looking up at the gap in the trees.
“Yes. Who is this mean man and why does he want to bomb us?”
“His name is Khrushchev and he hates our country. I’ll show you a picture of him inside some time. From now on, stay out of the garden.”
We sat on the stairs awhile and waited for the bombers to appear. Towards late afternoon, my mother decided to go inside and make supper in time for my father’s return from work. Afterwards, she forgot to tell me that the Cuban Missile Crisis had been resolved, and for years I continued to look up through the Moehling’s trees for enemy jets. I guess my punishment for eating the forbidden rhubarb was an expectant and anxious fear of destruction from the unfriendly blue skies.
And from then on, my personal image of Satan was of a short, fat, balding Slavic man who yelled when he spoke.
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