Monsters in a Bag
Even as I reached down into the wire trash basket to retrieve a tied bundle of comic books, I knew something was wrong. On the cover of the top book, a dark, hairy-faced man, with pointy fangs, stood in a moonlit cemetery, staring in terror at his hands, now nearly claws, the culmination of his transformation from human to monster. Equally disturbing cover art dominated the other books.
Still, I rationalized; they were comic books, right?
Carrying my treasure, I walked back towards our blanket, spread just feet from the tiny lapping waves of Long Island Sound. My mother, younger brother and sister, grandmother, two aunts, and several cousins were already packing up to return to the house.
“What do you have there?” my mother asked.
“Just some comic books I found.”
Stashing them in my beach bag, I joined the family parade in the trek across Bayville Avenue and down Fifth Street to my uncle’s summer bungalow, our escape from Manhattan’s heat in that summer of 1953.
In the bedroom, I pushed the comics far under the double bed I shared with my siblings.
That evening, while our mothers and grandmother prepared supper, we children walked barefoot down the dirt road of Fifth Street, stopping to pet dogs and say hi to kids sitting on the front steps of other summer cottages. We were our own little gang, nine of us, the oldest, thirteen; the youngest, a year- old baby, we hauled along in an old stroller.
For me, a couple of months shy of ten, and my brother and sister, who had known life only in a tight three room city apartment, that July and August of sunburned skin, swallowed sea water, Monopoly games on the kitchen table, fireflies in jars, rides on bicycle handlebars, and walks “to town” - the few stores in the center of the tiny village - that summer offered our very first taste of freedom: an hour or two a day beyond the protective watch of our mother.
But when I found those comic books, all was nearly spoiled.
While the other children searched for bits of kindling for our evening fire on the crab grass front lawn, I sat behind the bedroom door with my new comic books.
In seconds, I was terrified and sickened, but simultaneously too curious to stop reading. Rather than the talking animals or the super heroes of the comic books I loved, I was introduced to a host of monsters, living and dead, involved in sadistic acts of torture, mutilation, and execution. In one story, a sculptor renowned for his skill in capturing the perfection of the female body, murdered young women and then used their bodies as casts for his artistic masterpieces. In another, a dagger-wielding skeleton, with pieces of flesh hanging from its bones, stalked nighttime city streets in search of victims.
That night I woke screaming.
My mother rushed me into the kitchen before I awakened any of the other children.
I could not stop trembling or crying. Even as my mother held me, assuring me that I was safe and had only had a bad dream, I could not shake the vision of my father, who, during the week, was alone in our city apartment, being stabbed to death in his bed by a night visitor from the grave.
Of course, I refused to tell my mother any details of my dream.
A few months earlier, when she had found me copying pictures of nude men and women from a “how to draw the human figure” book, my mother confiscated the book. When my father insisted she give it back to me, she duct-taping the offending pages in a sleeve she made from a brown paper bag. Unable now to turn to any page past those on perspective, I spent hours drawing railroad tracks and country roads receding into the distance.
My mother did not see the danger in her determination to keep me safe and innocent by shielding me from the world she viewed as threatening and intimidating. Although my father did not advocate deliberately exposing me, or my siblings, to the grotesque or sinister, he had enough trust in us to expect that when we stumbled upon them anyway, we’d not react with irrational fear. And what safer place, he thought, to learn the realities of life than in a book? Before I could even read, I understood the power and control a book afforded me. I could choose to turn the page, close the book, or go to my father to further explore a discovery or concern.
Seeing the “censored” art book, my father, without a word to either my mother or me, took a pair of scissors to the paper bag and released the tied off pages before returning the volume to its place on his bookshelves.
My mother disapproved of my father’s allowing me full access to his own books, a privilege I enjoyed flaunting. I deliberately picked up book she would think inappropriate, knowing my father would overrule her objections. Recently, after hearing my father discussing the book with a college professor who lived in our building, I read the first couple of pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Understanding nothing, I put the book back on my father’s dresser.
After that, accepting my limitations, I stuck mostly to my favorites: old copies of National Geographic, Hilaire Belloc’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, and The Kingdom of Nature, a worn volume which contained hundreds of illustrations of animals in the wild. A picture I studied often, torn between fear and wonder, was of a man caught in the tentacles of a giant jellyfish. Nearby, in a small boat, several other men, powerless to help the victim, watched in horror as he met his painful fate.
In the case of my newfound comics, I dared not let my mother think that her concern over my reading choices had been vindicated.
Once I stopped crying, she gave me an aspirin and sent me back to bed. As soon as I closed my eyes, though, the images in the comic book again began their relentless battle with my reason.
Although reason won, the victory did little to relieve my suffering.
When I screamed the next time, my mother took me into the living room and there the two of us sat until morning. When, on the following night, I refused to go to bed at all, my exhausted and irritated mother picked me up, plopped me into the bed, and ordered me to stay there.
Minutes later I was sobbing and vomiting.
The next two nights were just as bad.
Finally it was Friday, and my dad arrived in the late afternoon. He had gifts for us, new sand shovels; and the usual comic books, Archie for me, Superman for my brother, and Little Lulu for my sister.
Before I could scurry off to read, however, Dad grabbed my hand, and without a word, led me down to the empty beach, stopping just as we reached the water’s edge.
Bending down to pick up a handful of stones, he asked, “So what’s this your mother tells me about nightmares?”
I was angry that my mother had told him. I was his “big girl” – not a baby.
“I am okay now,” I assured him, “I just missed you so much.”
He threw a stone into the water. “Want to tell me about your dream?”
“Just scary stuff. A monster.”
“Was it chasing you?”
“No, it was hurting you.”
Dropping the stones in his hand, he turned around and picked me up. With my thin legs circling his waist and my arms around his neck, I collapsed in tears against his chest. The more I sobbed, the tighter he pulled me to him.
I blurted out the whole experience.
He did not scold me for reading the horror comics nor for being afraid. He did not demand that I give them to him. He did not tell me what I already knew, that the books were fantasy, make-believe, even silly, and that neither he, nor anyone else, would ever be stabbed to death by a skeleton. He did not promise me that he would never die, nor suggest that I was too young to fear the death of my parents or myself.
He just held me, giving me what I needed most, his presence.
What I did not tell my father was that I felt responsible for his death in my nightmares. The monster got him only because I had abandoned him, left him alone in that apartment. Of course, that was ridiculous! But, I missed him so much the days he was not with us; I could not bear the thought of losing him forever.
When my father did die, seventeen years later, I felt responsible again. A young mother then, I had left my children home with my husband to join my mother keeping vigil over my ill father. Sometime after midnight, we fell asleep, she on the floor next to the bed, and I in my father’s armchair.
An hour later, I was awakened by my mother’s screams.
Again, I had failed to be there to protect my father.
Real death had taken him when I still needed him to help me through moments when reason and emotion collided. And to guide me whenever my maternal instincts, intense like my mother’s, suggested that I protect my children by securing life’s monsters in a paper bag. With my father’s death, I understood that for the psychological health of my young sons, myself, and even my mother, my own growing up had to occur right then.
For several weeks after my father’s death, the summer nightmare of my childhood haunted me once more.
Back at the beach house in the summer of ‘53, I sat alongside my father, throwing small dry twigs into the evening fire.
Only Dad could let a marshmallow catch fire and then blow out the flame at just the right moment, leaving a perfectly toasted treat. I wanted to sit there all night, eat a thousand marshmallows, and never, ever, sleep or dream again. When my mother announced that it was bedtime, my father insisted that I was old enough to stay up a little longer than my sister and brother.
An hour or so later, when he carried me inside and lowered me into my bed, he reminded me that he was nearby and safe, and that I was safe too.
The adults and the older cousins continued to sit around the fire. Through the open window, I could hear them talking, occasionally hushing each other when they feared their noise might waken one of us sleeping children.
Once, I got up and glanced outside. I saw the red tip of my grandfather’s cigarette. He and most of the others sat in dark shadows, but I could clearly see my father’s smiling, handsome face, illuminated by the last flickers of the fire. Now that he was close to me where he belonged, my world was back in order. I did not have to be a grown-up yet; he would let me fall back into childhood when I needed to.
Later, I felt my father standing over me and knew he was hoping my sleep was peaceful. But, I wasn’t asleep, not quite ready yet to test my mettle in the dream world. As my father crept out of the room, my eyes sprung open, thankful for the tiny nightlight that allowed me to see my cousins in their cribs, my sister alongside me, and my brother sprawled across the foot of our bed.
The aroma of fresh coffee, the clatter of dishes, and the scraping of chairs, suggested the commencement of adult discussion in the kitchen. As soon as I realized that I was the topic of conversation, I sat up. My father summarized the story that had frightened me and caused my nightmares. My mother and aunts became defensive, insisting that if they had known what I had found on the beach, they would have taken the books away from me.
“She figured that,” my father said. “That’s why she hid them.”
None of the adults agreed with my father that I had done nothing wrong, and I don’t think I did either, at least, not that night.
The day I took those comic books from the trash can, I opened the door to darkness, a door that no one had the power to ever close again. My father had not taken the books from me, and, I am sure, he expected that I would will myself to look at them again. In a bungalow kitchen, he defended my right to discover, even in a stack of ghoulish horror comics, evil and death, as well as man’s ultimate helplessness in facing either or both.
For the rest of that summer, I slept better on the weekends when my father was with us. On other days I still had nightmares, some in which the skeleton slasher pursued my father; others in which the skeleton chased me.
But, without fail, morning always came, calling me out to spend the day in the light. I discovered that buying the Railroads in Monopoly was often a better strategy than building hotels on low end properties; when the tide was low, I pulled clams out of the gray-green muck along the shore line; I helped my boy cousins paint a fence and I watered my grandmother’s marigolds; I learned how to swim, how to make pancakes, how to bait a hook; and, I read my first Classic Comic, Cyrano de Bergerac, a gift from my father.
The summer was saved.
The monster did not kill my father, and I had seventeen more years before I’d have to be the grown-up in the family.