An Unnatural History

Heidi Schulz

I start in the Meet the Family Gallery. There, behind glass, are wax figures posed in life-sized dioramas. My dad, smaller than I remember, is reading a Louis Lamour western in his recliner. The chair is a worn green, and the handle that operates the foot rest is broken, but it will still work if you push hard enough. In the corner of the display, a television flickers, unwatched. 

The figure is a good likeness. You can see the lines on my dad’s face, a roadmap formed from a life spent working outdoors, installing and repairing milking equipment on dairy farms. I want to sit there with him, to breathe in the faint, warm scent of cows that always clung to his hair, his clothes, and his skin, but from a nearby hidden speaker I hear the sounds of a basketball game being piped in, and I pause. Televised sports were repellant to me as a child. It occurs to me that perhaps this was the point—TV tuned to something my dad isn’t even watching, so that it may function as a mild deterrent to anyone tempted to encroach on the space he has carved out for himself. I will wait until the game is over. There will be time later. There always is, isn’t there? 

In the next diorama, my mom is talking on the phone with a friend. She stands in the kitchen, a dingy carpet—once mustard-and-brown, now brown-and-brown—at her bare feet. I wonder who decided that carpet was a good idea for a kitchen, but I find no helpful placard to illuminate the mystery. My mom’s back is to me. I cannot see her face, but I know she has been crying. She is always crying. Undiagnosed clinical depression, a nearby sign explains. She will receive help, it says, but not until after I am an adult. The phone she speaks into is cream-colored, a handset held between her shoulder and ear, receiver affixed to the wall near the stove. A long cord, knotted and tangled, stretches between them. I get the urge to touch this connection between my childhood home and the outside world. To wind it around my fingers, to put it in my mouth and chew on it, but the museum glass prevents me. 

The next scene, like all the others, is static, but I can read motion in it. It depicts my older sister, though all I can see is one leg, clad in bell-bottom jeans. The rest of her is already out the door, getting out, getting away. Her closet door is open. Hanging inside is a nearly finished dress that she has made for me, just in need of hemming. My sister treated me like a living doll, dressing me in sweet clothing, brushing and braiding my long, blonde hair. She was the one I went to in the night when a bad dream forced me from my bed. I would curl into her, safe and warm. 

The placard says what I already know: We are ten years apart in age. She is leaving home to marry her high school boyfriend immediately after graduation and will move with him several states away. I am seven. The next week, I will ask my mom to cut my hair short. No, shorter than that. Even shorter. But I will cry loud broken-hearted sobs when it is all sheared away. The pile of golden waves lying limp on the bathroom floor will not be the loss I am mourning.

Behind another sheet of glass, my brother.  He is older than me, but only just. The glass is murky. There is no helpful signage. Try as I might, I am unable to understand. I turn away.

My baby brother, six years my junior, holds a soccer ball and grins out from his box. He smiles like a first grader on school picture day. I smile back.

There is no display showing myself as a child, and I am pained, but unsurprised, at this oversight. Still, I would have liked to have had the chance to see myself, to press my hand to the glass, sending love to this young me, to whisper that it will all be all right. But she has been forgotten. 

I cross through the Grand Rotunda, its domed glass ceiling casting patterns of light and shadow on the floor, to the Disposable Pets and Other Living Creatures Zoo. I spend a moment counting kittens—so many!—brought home, or birthed from ones brought home, from cardboard boxes outside the grocery store, “Free Kittens!” written hopefully, desperately, on the side. The cats lived outside, for the most part. We would leave food and water out, pet them when they came around, exclaim over the newest litter, and cry when a passing car hit one. The dogs were also free, no longer wanted by their families, or rescued from the humane society. They were untrained and barely housebroken and barked at every passing thing. My parents took them home for a time, and when it didn’t work out, returned them like overdue library books. These continual goodbyes broke my heart, but it wouldn’t take long before another dog arrived, licking any remaining trace of tears from my face. Along with the tail wags and the cuddles, the new dog would bring high hopes that this time would be different—as if the problem was in the animals themselves and not the lack of training and care they received. I do not need to read the collar tags displayed under glass to remember all their names. 

A large aquatic tank holds frogs and crawdads and salamanders my brothers and I caught from the creek that flowed under a nearby highway overpass. I wonder if one might be the miracle newt we rescued from the belly of a garter snake—never mind that we were the ones to group the two together in a big yellow popcorn bowl filled with dirt and weeds pulled from the garden. The pair was left alone for a few scant minutes, but when we returned, we found only one animal: a newly lumpy snake. My just-older brother picked him up and squeezed, forcing the snake to regurgitate his meal. I wonder who was more surprised to find the newt alive: us? The snake? Or the newt himself?

 At the back of the zoo are scores of mice, scurrying under couches and beds, jumping from silverware drawers, leaving droppings everywhere. And though I don’t want to admit it to myself, the biggest ones are rats and not mice at all. The rodents make me feel ashamed. As do the insects: generations of sugar ants, fleas, an occasional roach, and the more exotic silkworms—brought in from a batch of green walnuts—dozens and dozens dangling down from the ceiling. I do not linger here. 

Instead, I climb the stairs to the museum’s second floor, which is something my small childhood home did not have, to a collection of holes. A sign urges me, “See how many you can find!” There are the adorable gaps in my baby brother’s jack o’ lantern smile, left behind when his baby teeth fell out. There are the masses of small puncture wounds dotting the house’s siding from our homemade “ninja throwing stars,” crafted of horseshoe nails and electrical tape. There is the beginnings of an underground fort my just-older brother and I spent an entire summer digging at the end of the garden. Our fort never advanced beyond the hole-in-the-ground stage, but it was enchanting nonetheless. A cool place to sit and talk on a hot day, before things changed. Before the holes my brother punched in his bedroom wall that no one bothered to patch. Before the holes he drilled through my bathroom door—their true, twisted purpose evading me until long after I grew up. Before the holes he drove into his veins.

I walk through another door, another hole, into a hallway. To my right is the Pleasure and Escape Research Library, crowded with the westerns my dad preferred, and my mom’s favorites, memoirs penned by people who survived childhood abuse. For the youngsters, a nearly complete Encyclopedia Britannica—less than a decade out of date—and a handful of fairytales and picture books bought from the flea market, garage sales, and, one delightful time, from my elementary school’s Scholastic catalog. I page through bootleg photocopies of Dick and Jane. Baby Sally has skinned her knee, but Mother draws a smiley face on the bandage and everything is right again. 

My mom used these books to teach me to read, but even after I had mastered the basics, she continued to read aloud at bedtime until my baby brother was born. My favorite story was The Velveteen Rabbit, and I requested it over and over again, firmly believing that loving hard enough was a transformative kind of magic. I still find myself believing that, sometimes.

My worn copy of The Velveteen Rabbit is on a low shelf, catalogued with hundreds of books checked out from school or on weekly summer trips to the public library. Higher up, the picture and chapter books give way to the reads I favored as I grew older. I spy the Sweet Valley High series shelved next to titles by V.C. Andrews and Stephen King, with classic literature interspersed among them. I still remember the day I returned Little Women and checked out ‘Salem’s Lot. Being only ten-years-old, I thought Salem referred to the name of the town where I lived. It didn’t, but I found the surprise introduction to horror thrilling. In summers and on school breaks, it was not uncommon for me to stay up all night, lost in a book.  

My dad was an early riser, four o’clock most mornings, in order to be at a dairy before the first milking. When people talk about him now, they always remark on what a hard worker he was. He worked early, and late, and weekends—for scheduled maintenance and emergency calls. When something needed fixing, he was there. Occasionally, if I had not gone to bed before he had to get up, he would invite me to go to work with him. I said yes every time. We would stop for chocolate milk and donuts, and while he drove, I would tell him about the book that I had been unable to put down. At the dairy, if I was still awake by the time we arrived, he would introduce me around as his “helper” and arrange for me to assist in bottle feeding the young calves.  I reveled in the days—a handful each summer, and once, an overnight trip—when we could escape home together instead of just him alone. 

 The museum’s cafeteria serves chocolate milk, as well as syrupy sweet Kool-Aid—red, blue, or purple—though the meal options are limited. They have been prepared by someone standing barefoot on a dirty kitchen floor, phone pressed to her ear to drown out the demands of her children. This chef does not enjoy kitchen work but does it anyway. All of it, every day and every night. Today’s special is a slightly burned hamburger plate served with milky gravy, a shriveled baked potato drowning in margarine, and canned green beans. But if that doesn’t satisfy, there are abundant fruits and vegetables from the garden—raspberries, gooseberries, currants, apples, grapes, and cherries; tomatoes, corn, cabbage, peas, beans, and lettuce. On summer days, there was no need to go in for lunch. Everything we might want to eat was right at our fingertips with no need for anyone to prepare it.

Another set of stairs takes me to the museum’s top floor, where a brightly colored banner invites me to view my childhood home, meticulously recreated in 1:12 scale. Miniatures are delightful. Even the ugliest of artifacts becomes charming when reproduced in dollhouse size. 

The house and garden sit on a low table, a panel of buttons stretched along its length. I press one and a light comes on, illuminating the backyard, where a little boy doll, my baby brother, swings on the swing set. The play structure was an awe-inspiring creation, with three swings, monkey bars, a sandbox, and a platform—our “treehouse”—built about five feet off the ground. Our dad made it himself over late evenings and on the weekends he wasn’t away at work, welding pieces of pipe together and sinking them into the earth with cement. Strong enough to last. The garden too, was his, with nearly a quarter-acre of rows straight and meticulously weeded. My dad was a firm believer in work being its own reward, but projects such as these did have the added benefit of keeping him too busy to help with household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Those were women’s work—even when the woman was too overwhelmed or sad to manage on her own. 

The next button illuminates the kitchen. I stoop to get a good look inside. Someone has been making homemade bread. My mom didn’t like to cook, but she didn’t mind baking at times, when the mood struck her. Two shiny loaves are lined up on the counter to cool. A hidden fan blows the scent out to me and my mouth waters. I have a sudden craving for homemade raspberry jam, the berries fresh from our own backyard.

A third button lights up the dining room. Looking closely, I see pin-prick dots of green on the ceiling above the table. My mom thought they were mildew, but my just-older brother and I knew the truth. One night, when our dad was working and our mom was in another room feeding our baby brother, we invented a game. It didn’t have a name, but its rules were simple: 

  1. Quietly stand on your chair.
  2. Balance a single canned pea on the handle end of a broom.
  3. Without allowing it to fall off, thrust the broom up as high as you can reach, and smash the pea on the ceiling.
  4. Don’t tell.

Giggling as quietly as possible, we both followed the rules, and we both won. 

This game is one of the secrets we have shared between us forever, like the loose section of fencing around the nearby industrial pond, what really happened to all our mom’s forks, and things I don’t want to think about. But then the light comes on in the living room, and I spy a jean jacket, big enough for a teen-sized doll, flung over the arm of the couch. I can’t pick it up and look, museum glass keeps me from touching, but I know what I would find in the pocket. I remember the day I borrowed my just-older brother’s jacket to run outside and get the mail. I didn’t know what the hypodermic needle was for—it would be months before I learned what heroin was—but I knew, somehow, that it was bad. I employed Rule 4 and put it back in the pocket without a word. 

I don’t want to push any more buttons, but a light comes on in the back of the house just the same. Here is the doll the jacket belongs to, leaning against the wall outside a locked bathroom door. In his tiny plastic hands, he holds a shotgun rifle, barely bigger than a toothpick. I don’t know what I had done to set him off that day—his emotions were often wild and unpredictable—but something prompted him to get one of our dad’s guns from the unsecured cabinet in our parents’ bedroom. I ran to the bathroom, placing a hollow door and a flimsy lock between us. I waited there, feeling small, humiliated and powerless, though not truly afraid. I had grown used to bumps and bruises, but I couldn’t imagine he might hurt me in any lasting way.

I was wrong. 

One day, less than a year later, while “playing,” he pinned my arm behind my back, and threatened to stab me with a hunting knife. I didn’t like this game. I attempted to wriggle free, but he just held me tighter. He thrust the blade toward me, and I tried to knock it away with my free hand, but it didn’t stop him. At the last second, he turned the knife and crashed its handle into me. It took me a few moments to realize the blood I saw dripping on the floor came from my hand and not my chest. I still bear the scar—white and shiny, two inches long with six pairs of tiny dots where the stitches held the gash together. But that was later. For now, the gun.

In my memory, no one besides the two of us was home while I sat in the bathroom, waiting for rescue. But here, the mother doll lies in her dollhouse bed. The room is dark, her head turned toward the wall. You don’t have to see if you refuse to look. 

The dad doll is, of course, at work. I wonder which method of looking away is worse, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The results are the same.

I straighten, stretch my back, and move through a long corridor. At the end, I find The Hall of Broken Things. The other exhibits are clean and well-lit, with informational signage to help provide context; here everything is grubby and dim, the flickering bulbs overhead too weak to illuminate dark corners. Broken artifacts are piled together, with no apparent attempt at curation or cataloguing. It is up to me alone to make sense of it. 

There, lying across a purple bike with a rusted chain and a flat tire, are the saloon-style doors that once separated the kitchen from the dining room, ripped from the hinges by small squealing children attempting to ride them. Heaped together are countless cassettes, their tape pulled out and too tangled to be wound back in, headless Barbies, plastic toy dishes melted in an Easy Bake Oven, G.I. Joe and Star Wars action figures left outside so long their rubber backbones rotted and broke, severing the tie between torso and pelvis, two halves no longer whole. 

I find some of the frogs from the creek in the dusty piles, and backyard birds captured with homemade traps and snares. Their parts are strewn about, bones, wings, and beaks smashed. Why? In fits of rage? Some kind of warped curiosity? Wanton cruelty? The inner workings of a mind that is also broken? Perhaps if I could understand, I would be able to rewind the clock and give my just-older brother the help he needed, the help our parents were unable to offer—though I believe they would have, if they only knew how. But I don’t understand, not really, even now, and the clock itself is broken. Its pieces lie tangled in heaps. 

We are all here, this family of mine, somewhere among the cast-offs. In an overlooked corner, I find myself, forgotten and alone. There is a smile painted on my face, bright and sunny though you can see the storm underneath, if you take the time to look. Recently, after years of therapy, I called my mom, now my only living parent, and asked why she refused to see me, why she didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t give me what I needed. 

“Your brother needed more,” was her reply. 

I pick myself up from the floor and wipe away the grime and cobwebs. I cannot fix everything in this vast room, but I can, and will, and do, repair myself, over and over and over. It is the work of a lifetime. I find the exit and begin. 

Heidi Schulz

is a New York Times bestselling children’s author. She lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband, their young adult kiddo, and two unruly dogs—both beloved, but only one beliked. After a semester break that lasted 25 years, Heidi is currently back in school, working on undergrad degrees in English and Anthropology. When not at her desk, you can find her adding to her ever-growing stack of bedside reading, swearing at her sewing machine, or obsessing over vintage Halloween decorations.

Art: “In a Nutshell” by Robin Young

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