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All in the family

When we were kids, we spent little time wondering about the dynamics of families -- our own family or others. A normal family life was defined by whether there was breakfast in the morning, what time we went to bed at night, whether there was a new outfit to wear to school on the first day. My sisters, my brother and I, our mother and father all coexisted in a mostly pleasant state of meeting basic wants and needs. Sisters were good playmates when you needed one; a brother and his friends were even better. A mother was good for fixing dinner and applying cold packs to blackened eyes and bruised knees. A father was good for pushing you on a bike, playing Swing the Statue in the back yard at night, lap sitting and tickle fights.

Our neighborhood was dominated and defined by a large pack of kids who swarmed the sidewalks and the lawns by day, went in briefly for a light summer supper then re-emerged after sunset to catch lightning bugs in jars, jump rope on the street beneath a street light, play Kick the Can and lie in the cool damp grass.

One summer, it became evident that some families were different than our own.

On a July day, Mrs. Sizemore started throwing out the contents of her house. Her back yard was three yards down from ours and connected to the back yard of the McCrackens, the next street over. The yards were separated by a high chain-link fence and were as different as two yards could be. Mrs. Sizemore's yard of neatly mowed Bermuda grass had white metal lawn furniture and no flowers. The McCracken's yard of overgrown trees and vines, piles of loose brick, broken tricycles, stacks of flattened cardboard boxes and leaning sheets of corrugated tin beckoned us with its mystery. The Sizemores had no kids; the McCrackens had six and one on the way.

Our yard resembled the Sizemore's yard more than the McCracken's.

That day, the day of my next-door neighbor Marcia's birthday, Mrs. Sizemore threw out her entire set of World Book encyclopedias. She threw out winter coats, pots and pans, dishes and serving spoons, her husband's T-shirts, his Sears Craftsman tool set, the long thick drapes from their windows, even the Venetian blinds.

As the day wore on and the July sun rose higher and whiter in the sky, the neighborhood kids started pillaging the goods piled up at the Sizemore's back fence. Shirtless McCracken boys hung over the fence like monkeys, handing over slips and summer dresses, cans of Spam, a set of wrenches. From a box of chipped china, I pulled out a coffee mug, painted with daisies, for my mother. I tucked the "L" encyclopedia under my arm, grabbed two Reader's Digest condensed books and ran home.

Inside our dark house, curtains drawn against the sun, my mother ironed while watching As The World Turns. I gave her the mug.

"Where'd you get that?" she asked, her voice surprised and pleased.

"At Mrs. Sizemore's," I said. "She threw everything out of the house."

"Oh dear," said my mother. "Is Mr. Sizemore at home?"

He was not and Mrs. Sizemore, I told my mother, was in a big hurry to get rid of everything.

"Why is Mrs. Sizemore throwing everything away?" I asked.

"She's not feeling well," my mother said, then slipped in the kitchen to call someone on the phone.

My mother made me return the cup and the encyclopedia and the Reader's Digest condensed books to the giant pile, still growing, at Mrs. Sizemore's back fence. By now the McCracken boys had rigged a pulley system over the fence to lift the heavy stuff. They were hauling up a kitchen chair when Mr. Sizemore came running across the yard in his work clothes.

"Put that back!" he yelled and the skinny McCracken boys dropped the loot and ran into the tangle of their back yard. Mr. Sizemore looked at the pile of stuff from his house and ran his fingers through his short hair, shaking his head from side to side. From inside the house we could hear the distant howls of Mrs. Sizemore, like a wounded dog.

By now it was time for Marcia's birthday party and since her daddy, Joe, worked at the local bread bakery, he always borrowed the Sunbeam Bread carousel for the party and parked it on the street in front of our houses. Until darkness fell, we rode the ponies round and round, eating cupcakes and honey buns while the Sunbeam bread jingle filled the air.

At the Sizemore's house down the street, all the lights were off.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • All in the family

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