The summer before third grade, I was walking from our bedroom to the kitchen and liking the soft sunlight coming in through the screen door, landing in sprinkles on the floor. I was hoping I’d find some chocolate cupcakes in the kitchen for breakfast. We used to have cereal and bowls to match different brands of cereal that Mommy had gotten at some supermarket promotion. Mine was light blue and had bears that went with the Sugar Pops cereal, so every morning I had to eat Sugar Pops. I hated them. Mary Ruth got to eat corn flakes. Kathy got Cheerios. One day Kathy complained about us always having to eat the cereal that matched the figures on our bowls, and Mommy said, “So, you don’t like cereal now. Is that it?”
“No, no,” Kathy replied, “We just don’t want to eat the kind that matches our bowls all the time.”
“Well alrighty then, girls, if you don’t like cereal, you’ll have cake instead. How’s that?”
This was, I think, supposed to be a punishment, and sometimes if she makes coffee cake with nuts and fruit that looks like it’s from the inside of a fish, it is. But usually it’s chocolate cake and cupcakes we get from the Burney Brothers outlet that sells leftover stuff from the day before. Day-old anything doesn’t fit into Hinsdale, so we have to drive a long way to get them. But Kathy, Mary Ruth and I are happy to ride along to pick up the goodies. Eating chocolate in the morning is the last thing I think of as a punishment.
So there I am in the hallway enjoying sweet summer freedom before the start of third grade. I’m picturing myself biting into one of those cupcakes—they have the fluffiest, sweetest whipped cream in the center—and I hear Mommy giving Kathy and Mary Ruth what for.
“I can’t really blame Laura. She was too young to know any better, but you two, you two, you two were so intolerable, you drove your mother, your very own mother, Mary Agnes, to hang herself. Yes indeed, she committed suicide, just up and killed herself, because she couldn’t take it anymore with you, but you’re not going to do the same thing to me. I won’t let you. You’ve made all of the O’Neills and your father suffer. Oh, how they’ve all suffered because of you, but not me. Do you hear me? You’re not going to get me like you got her!”
I freeze there in the sunlight and take a deep breath as her words sink in. Right off the bat I know it isn’t true about me being too young. Whatever it is, if Kathy and Mary Ruth are responsible for something bad, I know I am too. I feel so strange. It seems like all of the floating dust particles in the shafts of sunlight are suddenly vibrating wildly.
And then I remember a time on Richmond Street when Kathy and Mary Ruth were both in school, but I hadn’t started kindergarten yet. Mommy and I were having lunch in the kitchen. I had just learned the story of Cinderella. I was thinking about how awful her stepmother was to make her work all the time and not let her go to the ball. I said to Mommy, “Stepmothers are really mean.”
She looked at me and she looked like I imagine Captain Hook would look if he didn’t have his mustache. She said, “I’m your stepmother, so I suppose you think I’m mean then, don’t you?”
I was very confused. I didn’t know what to say. I just took a bite of my butter and sugar sandwich and smiled as I chewed. I thought she was playing some kind of trick on me. I was trying to figure out what it was.
“Okay, since you’re not talking, you really must think I’m a mean old stepmother. So little miss dissatisfied, you can just find another place to live.”
She left the kitchen and came back with a little gray suitcase and said, “Here I’ve even packed your bag for you. If I were so mean I’d have made you do it yourself. Now get off that chair.”
“That’s not mine,” I said, scowling at the suitcase. “Mine’s red and sparkly.”
“That broken down old thing? I threw it out ages ago.” She yanked me by the wrist and pulled me to the front door, opened it, pushed me through, and put the suitcase beside me.
“Goodbye,” she said, and slammed the door.
I sat there, stunned, but not altogether unhappy. I thought I’d really rather live at Gramma’s anyway. I picked up the suitcase. It wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. I clomped down the stairs and on to the sidewalk, suitcase bouncing along beside me. I thought maybe if I just started walking I’d figure out how to get to Gramma’s
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