I liked the nighttime because it was quiet and I could think. I had my best ideas in the middle of the night.
I'd lie there, wide awake in my bed, staring at the ceiling, staring at the window, staring at my hands in the light of the streetlamp and sometimes the moon. I had been reading about "Brownies" which in folklore were little like hobgoblins except that they helped out around the house, usually in the dead of night because they did not want to be seen. I was reading about Brownies because I had just joined the Girl Scouts and at my age we were called “Brownies” for the fairy folk. Brownies would do housework in exchange for food or sweets and they usually made their home in an unused part of the house. Since I liked to nap and play during the day under my bed and in my closet and because I liked to clean and had insomnia at night, I felt some kinship with the Brownies and so I got the idea to clean at night, when my parents were asleep. I wanted to help out. I wanted my mom to have a break and so I snuck around my dimly lit bedroom and I picked up whatever I could, as quietly as I could, dusting my nightstand and sweeping under my bed.
I woke up my sister the next night, explaining with some quiet enthusiasm this plan to help mom with the housework. She complied, willing but unmotivated. She helped for a few minutes before her tiredness took over and so I let her go back to bed. I think I was lonely, l was looking for a way to be helpful and to occupy my overworked and worried brain and I didn't want to be alone in that worry.
She still mentions this midnight cleaning practice to me. She does not remember it as fondly as I do and I do remember it fondly; that late night housekeeping was a way for me to keep from worrying. It was a saving grace to feel as though there was something I could do to help, something within my small and delicate grasp to navigate the increasing stress of my parents’ fracturing marriage.
One night after dinner, my dad sat on the couch and opened the big family bible we kept on the shelf next to the "Lives of the Saints" book series. It was musty and it creaked when the binding was tried. He flipped through the pages as we sat around him on the couch; my mother was in a chair across the small living room. I remember the couch pattern, the feel of the texture, waffled and rough but I cannot remember the chair, only my mother's face as my dad paged through the heavy golden bible.
He'd never called us all into the living room for this before.
In my memory he'd never opened that bible. But I had. I would sit in the corner of that room, on the floor, in front of the built in bookcases that framed the decorative fireplace. I sat next to the five-foot statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that my dad had gotten from Catholic hospital that was closing across town. My dad always seemed to hear about these buildings being torn down, whether it was from his co-workers or his many brothers, he found a way to "scrounge" as he called it. The day he came home with the Sacred Heart statue he rushed into the house, excited.
He told my mom that he had a surprise in the car but that he needed help getting it out. His younger brother, Chuck came by and helped him remove the statue from the back of the truck he'd borrowed to obtain the treasure. In the process of moving it, they'd managed to bump it badly enough to crack the plaster around a number of the fingers, something that disturbed my dad because the statue was blessed. It was sacred.
Catholic artifacts, like statues that are blessed, cannot be thrown into a dump somewhere. Anything blessed in the Catholic tradition must be either buried or burned. My dad had saved this statue from being burned or buried and saved the hospital administrators some hassles in the process.
The statue stood taller than most of us kids and resided in that quiet corner of the room, keeping watch over the bookcase and the dinner table. Because of the rough ride into the house, he was missing a few fingers on his right hand, leaving only the thick wire hanging from his forward facing hand. I had to be careful when I sat on the metal register beneath those wires to keep from having them scrape my scalp. I would wedge myself beneath his injured hand with the gilded family bible and run my fingers over the outside of that book. I would hold my face close to the pages to take in the smell and I would read the names written in the front, names of our family.
When my dad opened the book as we gathered around him on the couch, he told us that we should pray together as a family every night after dinner. He said he would read a bible story and we could talk about it. It was my first exposure to what I'd understand later was a "family bible study."
That night we fidgeted and whined in the eyesight of the Sacred Heart of Jesus but not too much.
It was new and we were eager to hear from our dad. He was so often absent, so often unavailable. We swam in the attention when it came but my Dad's family bible study only lasted a few nights. We were so young, grade school at best. It was new and my mother and father were exhausted parenting the four of us, fighting my dad's posttraumatic stress disorder that was at that time still undiscovered. It was the giant in the road all the time and we did not know how to get around it.
Every effort just stopped until we fumbled through it, throwing rocks at that Giant's enormous sandals and shouting with our tiny voices. We hoped we were better for it; we took the failures as a kind of victorious defeat because we were all still alive. We'd try again, something else, something new, another healthy eating plan, another family time adventure and in it would be some kernel of goodness, some kernel of truth. I found the that goodness sitting on the floor under that five-foot statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with fingers broken down to wire, while I paged through that enormous golden book that creaked when the binding was tried. I found it in the quiet of the night, dusting my nightstand, sweeping the floor beneath my bed, putting books back on shelves and toys back in bins, setting things in order. I found it though I did not recognize it at the time.
This excerpt is from Angela Doll Carlson’s upcoming book, “Nearly Orthodox—On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition,” due out from Conciliar Press in Summer 2014.
Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”
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My sister was only about 6 when my insomnia first kicked up.