Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hamburger Helper

When I was nearly 13, my brother got high. Really high. So high, he wanted to fly. He was sixteen and well versed in the most popular ways to self- medicate in the 70's. After following our older two brothers into the drug culture, he had many resources to procure his drugs of choice. It was 1976, August, quite near my birthday.

Using an exterior roof ladder on this particular steamy Oklahoma night, my brother Mark climbed to the highest peak of a local junior college, somewhere between 3-4 stories high while he was simultaneously 3-4 Quaaludes high, and he jumped.

If nobody was there to see it, did he really fly?

My four best friends and I celebrated my 13th birthday just over a week later in a large, smelly tent in our backyard. The tent smelled as a tent should smell. I just don't happen to care for the smell of tent. I understand some people do. Just a hint of freshly opened tent smell can invoke fond childhood memories, a love of nature, visions of travel with the world stopping at the entrance of that smelly old tent.

We didn't speak of my brother at all that night in the musty old tent. We had cake and ice cream and my battery operated 8-Track with plenty of KC and the Sunshine Band tapes to keep us entertained. I don't remember what I got that year. I remember wanting a record player but it was probably too expensive, like the very first VCR's, fax machines, computers and so on. I had to wait.

As a little girl, Mark was always my favorite brother. He was gentle and shy. He didn't seem to want or need to be heard and most importantly he did anything and everything I asked him to do. Mom used to call him my little puppy dog.

The best of times were the shows I made him perform with me. We would practice for hours, prepare invitations, invite anyone who happened to be in the house at the time and actually charge for admittance. He was much too introverted to sing by himself but he happily accompanied me by doing the whistling part of Otis Redding's, Sitting by the Dock of the Bay.

Somebody had to do it. I couldn't whistle without laughing.

When it came time to perform, I would intentionally make him laugh during his big whistling part. It was fun for me and the audience ate it up. "Try again", they would scream! We would rewind the tape and attempt to whistle along but the great irony and sad truth of a happy whistle is that it is silenced by the slightest smile.

Eventually Mark grew out of his boyhood and out of playing with his little sister. He turned to the business of becoming a man but first, he had to survive our household. Before he jumped, I would find him passed out in the hallway, lying in an empty bathtub with bleeding wrists or standing next to my bed while I pretended to be asleep. It is difficult to understand but there was a potent mixture of fear, embarrassment and pity that kept me from telling on him. I can only recall it happening a few times before I learned how to defend myself by lying on my stomach or stretching and yawning to mimic a person about to wake up.

A month or so after Mark jumped, everything seemed to go back to normal. Mom and Dad got up very early in the morning to have coffee, read the paper and sit in the quiet for a few hours before heading off to work.

"God Dammit Joyce, are you making that mother-fucking, dried up, shit in a box, Hamburger Helper, again", Dad screamed as he walked in the door after work.

I could hear him from the sanctity of my upstairs bedroom and knew it would be one of those nights. He was not a drinker, he was unhappy, unfiltered and quite probably bi-polar. Being the only other female in the house, I took her side against my father. I often encouraged her to leave him. "Why do you stay with someone who treats you this way?" Didn't she deserve the opportunity to steal away a few moments of relaxation by skipping a step or two and substituting powdered cheese from a box?

I want very much to think of my mother as a strong woman but I can't get the word stoic out of my head. His mental beatings extended to my brothers and eventually to me. There were regular fist fights as soon as my brothers got big enough to take him on and our house was never without a series of holes punched through drywall, doors and even the occasional window. My mother was stoic through every last excruciating moment of it.

That night, after she was berated for her supper scenario, she never stopped to acknowledge him, she didn't look up from her one-skillet dish. She didn't glove-up and grasp the handle of that cast iron culinary weapon, searing him with boiling hot packaged noodles, as I would sometimes imagine her doing.

No, she finished dinner with her characteristic unflappable determination and asked me to wake my brother and help him into his wheelchair so he could sit down and eat with the family. Mark was unquestionably the most squeamish, painstakingly fussy eater that had ever lived. During a kitchen remodel when we were all little, my parents discovered what must have been two years worth of peas stuffed into the cushion of his assigned spot at the table.

But he loved Hamburger Helper like no other.


  1. This made me stop breathing. Hungry for more. Write damnit, write.

  2. Thanks Babe. I will keep writing. I need to see how this ends!

  3. What a good day today is - you're in my reader! I've wondered for so long how you were, did you create a new blog and I didn't know, were you still writing. Keep it up sister, I need to read your words.

    1. Hi Leiah. So nice to see you here and how wonderful to know you kept me in your reader this entire time. I am gearing up to start writing again. Had to clear out the cobwebs in my brain. Not sure what form this new writing will take but I will keep you posted sweet friend.


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