Playing With Fire
(Tokoni May ‎07, ‎2009)

My mom was a little mad. Actually, she probably was a LOT mad. Quite insane at times, actually. Today they would probably classify her as a manic-depressive. Or maybe just a maniac. Or more than likely, given to psychotic episodes. But back then . . . back then, they didn’t care. After all, she looked normal enough on the outside; could keep control of herself in public.

But not when we were alone. Not always.

I was born and bred into a military family. Dad was often off to war, TDY, taking extended tours in foreign countries – or at the very least, gone all day. Leaving us (my slightly older brother) and I alone. With HER.

And mom was mad.

The Match Game

I remember one day my brother and I were playing in our room. I was four, maybe edging towards five. (I can ‘date’ things by where we lived – we moved so often!). Our room? A small affair – single frame bunkbed pushed up in the corner (I had the bottom rack). A dresser, small and narrow, in the middle of the facing wall. Wood floor, not many toys. (We never had a lot of toys, my brother and I.)

I don’t remember what we were doing – playing on the floor, doing a little bit of nothing, door is partially closed (it faced the bunkbed). The walls are white, and the one window facing in has a pale, cool white light filtering in through sheer curtains.

Suddenly, my mother bursts in. She is SCREAMING, her face a contorted knot of pure anger. I mean this woman is MAD – and not just with insanity. She is pure hell on legs; a torrent of hot rage. In her hands she holds a pack of matches. You know the kind – paperback book, fold-over sleeve, slender pale gray sticks nodding their phosphorus heads inside.

“I’ll teach YOU to play with matches!” she screams. And she keeps on screaming that. Over and over again. I don’t know who was playing with matches – it wasn’t me. I don’t even really know what matches are, much less how to play with them.

Then she starts stripping the matches off the book, one by one, dragging them across the strike pad and tossing them on the floor as their head burst into flame. The bed. Anywhere else she can. I can still see that hand pulling the matches across – the head exploding into a cloud of smokey sparks and fire – then arcing to the floor before they barely are lit.

My brother and I are in terror – for me, a mild kind of terror (I guess I’d gotten used to this sort of behavior already) – and we are rushing around like frightened mice, blowing the matches out as they are hitting the floor. I’m not stupid – I know wood burns – and this floor is a freshly polished one (that I know now; I didn’t know it then.) We don’t dare step on them (that’s how you put a fire out, I know — even at that age we’d been called to help put a forest fire out — another story for another time.) We are barefooted.

Eventually, she runs out of matches and steam and storms out, leaving my brother and I to pick up the spent sticks, rubbing out the carbon stains on the floor, and (for me at least) thanking our lucky stars she didn’t catch the whole room on fire.

My brother is shaken and sobbing. I don’t care. The matches are out, the excitement is over.

I go back to playing. My brother sits on my bed and cries.

Life as usual in what I’ve been told was an unusual household.

Go figure.


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