We were rat pickers, my brother and me. I was ten years old. He was nine. Folks didn’t throw much out where we lived. We kept our eyes open for move-outs and evictions, scored our first radio flyer. It was rusty and didn’t have wheels, a jewel in the rough to us. We hid it under the tenement
behind tumbleweeds and rags, took the rear wheels off a broken tricycle and a couple other loose ones we found lying around. Wobbliest wagon you ever saw, perfect set of wheels for the Sterner brothers.
Lo he has no wings, they whisper in the dark. Ghosts and flying things, the arrow finds its mark.
Winter 1960 – 1961
The cold November wind blew through the holes in my jeans and placed its lips on my fingers. My ears felt like twin icicles, giggling freeze in my brain. These minor discomforts were in no mean way able to dissuade my gladness of spirit. A wheel came off the wobbly wagon I was dragging down the sidewalk. I whistled Jingle Bells and dug deep in my coat pocket until I found the bent nail I knew was there. I turned the wagon on its side and pushed the errant wheel back over the end of the axle. I was sure when I found that old nail it was just the right size to put into the hole to keep a wheel from falling off. I pushed it in, bent it a little bit so it wouldn’t fall out, then righted the wagon and was on my way again.
Today I had a date with the soldier lady at the Salvation Army Store. She had been putting back broken toys for me since summertime. I had three shiny quarters in my pocket and dearly hoped that would be enough to buy each and every one of my brothers and sisters something special. This promised to be the best Christmas yet. Momma had filled out a state form when she picked up the family’s monthly allotment of commodities and hoped to get a ten-dollar gift certificate for each of the children. She could redeem the certificates at a store downtown in exchange for gifts. They had no cash value so we were sure to receive a new toy or two. Momma would have preferred to buy us clothes and Daddy would probably want whiskey or tools. I was very appreciative of the fact that the certificates were redeemable, if Momma got them, only for the purchase of toys.
I opened the door to the store and a bell hung from the top hinge jingled loudly. The lady came from the back and told me to come on in. The wagon squeaked loudly as I pulled it through the crowded and cramped aisle. I was the only customer in the store, the only other person in the building besides the manager lady. She told me the wall to wall merchandise was an expression of folks’ generosity during the winter and holiday season.
Each item was there because someone with a big heart had found it within themselves to give to others. There was a picnic table in the back room and the lady told me to go ahead and take a seat. She fixed me up with hot chocolate and sugar cookies.
“You can call me Joe,” she said. Just then the bell on the door rang out. She gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder on her way out of the room. “You make yourself at home. I’ll go take care of this customer then you and I will get down to business.”
I had never met a woman named Joe before. It seemed a bit strange to me that she had a man’s name but she sure was a nice person. When she finished with the customer who rang the bell, Joe returned and poured herself a cup of hot chocolate. She seemed to be one of those people it’s easy to be quiet with. She and I sipped our chocolate and ate cookies in a comfortable shared silence.
When we were through snacking, Joe led me to a far corner in the storage area. She wrestled a large carton out of the corner. “Well, here they are,” she said, “I chose toys I thought you might be able to fix and that our handymen had set aside. Everything in this box is broken, mind you. You’ll probably have to use parts of one to fix another. A lot of tough decisions in that box.”
I pointed proudly to my wagon. “Just like I did with my wagon.”
Joe smiled. “A wonderful job. Yes, just like that! You’ll be a busy boy for the next month, just like one of Santa’s elves.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am…uh, Joe,” I mumbled. “That’s a whole bunch o’ toys and I only got seventy-five cents. There’s no way I can afford all this stuff.”
“Hmmm.” Joe tapped a finger on her chin and said, “Tell you what, you come by here when you can for the rest of the week. I’ll have you sweep the floor and empty waste baskets, little jobs like that. There’s a lot to do around here and I’ll never be able to get it all done by myself. At the end of the week, you give me the seventy-five cents and you can take the box of toys home with you.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I got one more day of school before Thanksgiving break and sometimes I have to babysit my brothers and sisters.”
“You’re a busy young man,” Joe said, “and I can see you take your responsibilities seriously. I won’t take no for an answer,” she said finally. “How ‘bout you sweep for me now while you’re here? That way you can take the toys home with you when you leave.”
“Wow!” I said, “That’d be great! I’ll run home and ask my Mom if it’s okay!”
“You’re welcome to use the phone here to call her,” Joe offered.
“We don’t have a phone at home,” I said, “But it ain’t far. Is it okay if I leave my wagon here?”
Some people acted all weird, like us Sterners were aliens or something, when they found out the family didn’t have a phone. Joe just said, “You run along. I’ll watch your wagon for you while you’re gone. It’s safe with me.”
This was another one of those times when my feet didn’t touch the ground. I flew home like I had wings on my shoes. I remembered the front door was locked so I went around to the back. It wasn’t locked. I threw it open and barged into the kitchen, eyes alert for Momma. And there she was… laying on the couch naked. And Daddy was on top of her. He was naked too. My feet started walking backwards toward the door but my eyes refused to disengage from the fuzzy flesh tones of my naked parents.
“You wait outside,” Momma called from the couch, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
I went outside to wait. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to whatever it was she’d have to say. She joined me pretty quick. She put an arm around my shoulders and asked me to sit down next to her on the back steps.
“Tommy, I thought you were going to the Salvation Army to look at toys.”
“I was,” I said, “I mean I did and… where’s all the kids?”
“I laid them down for a nap,” Momma explained. “Linda went to sleep on our bed, so Daddy and I…”
“I know,” I said too quickly.
“There is nothing wrong with what we were doing, Tommy,” Momma said.
“No, naps are good for you,” I agreed hastily.
“All right buster,” Momma said, “Maybe we’ll talk about this later.” She hugged me and shivered. “It’s cold out here, don’t you think?” Momma didn’t abide the cold well.
“I ain’t,” I said with renewed enthusiasm, now that we weren’t going to talk about ‘that’. “I ran all the way back and wasn’t a bit cold.”
“So I see,” Momma said. “Where’s your wagon? I was sure I’d hear that squeaky old thing long before I saw you in the flesh.”
“Joe’s takin’ care of it for me,” I replied. “See, if I sweep and empty the trash and stuff, she’s gonna let me have this whole big ol’ box of broken toys for seventy-five cents. I can fix ‘em up Momma, I know I can.”
Momma squeezed my shoulder. “Slow down a little bit, Tommy. First of all, who is Joe?”
“She’s the soldier lady,” I answered excitedly. “She was grouchy at me this summer when she caught me lookin’ in the window all the time but now me ‘n her are good friends.”
“An army lady named Joe,” Momma smiled. “You still haven’t told me why you came home so soon and in such a rush.”
“Sorry. See, it’s like this,” I explained, “Joe’s gonna let me do some, what she calls odd jobs around the store. I just hurried home to see if it’s okay with you if I stay awhile and work.”
“Where are you going to keep all these toys until Christmas so the kids don’t see them?” Momma asked.
That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had been so busy thinking about getting the toys, I hadn’t thought about where I would hide to work on them.
“I don’t know, Momma. I have to be able to get to ‘em but I don’t want the kids to see ‘em ‘til Christmas.”
“I’ll make a place in mine and Daddy’s closet,” Momma offered. “We might even be able to rig you up a lamp in there. That way you can do your fixin’ and nobody will know.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and doubted Momma would be able to talk Daddy into it. Children were never allowed in Momma and Daddy’s room unless one of us was ordered to go in there and rub Linda’s back or bounce her on the bed.
“I’d like that,” I said finally, “It would be just perfect.”
“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” Momma said. “You can go back until seven and don’t forget, you have school tomorrow.”
My unexpected good fortune pushed Momma and Daddy’s naked bodies to the back of my mind. They would visit me later. I hugged Momma and gave her a kiss. “Thank-you! I’ll be back by seven!”
True to her word, Joe had me sweep and clean and empty the trash. It was a reward in itself to toil in the service of such a good person. My final chore, and with Joe’s help, was to lift the carton onto my wagon. I swept out the corner where it had been. Joe had a hot plate hooked up in the back room. She fixed us grilled cheese sandwiches while I picked through the box of toys.
“Let’s eat.” she said, “I’ll bet you’ve worked up an appetite.”
“I can always eat,” I replied. “Thanks.”
“No, thank you,” Joe said. “You did a fine job. This place was a mess. Now I’m ready for the holidays, thanks to you, my friend.”
I felt heat rise to my face in a bright red blush when Joe called me her friend. It just felt too good.
“It’s fun cleaning and lookin’ at all this neat stuff.” I said, “Doesn’t feel like work at all.”
“I suppose by now you’ve noticed there’s nothing in that box but toys,” Joe remarked.
“That’s right,” I agreed, a big smile on my face. “Tractors and trucks for my brother Jackie, Lincoln logs, Tonka toys, blocks and dolls for Phillip and my three sisters.”
“There’s nothing in there for your parents,” Joe observed. “What do they like?”
I felt bad for a moment for not having thought of gifts for Momma and Daddy. “I gotta think about that,” I said.
“Finish your sandwich,” Joe said, “I have to lock up. When you’ve finished eating, we’ll have a look around, you ‘n me. I’ll just bet something will catch your eye.”
After she locked the front door, Joe and I walked through the store. I had never been the only customer in a closed store. I wondered at all the used merchandise and the donations it represented. There must be a lot of rich people in the world and this place was proof that some of them were pretty nice folks. We came upon a section of books and that reminded him of Daddy.
“Daddy reads cowboy books. He really likes the ones by that French guy.”
Joe sorted through boxes and shelves filled with nothing but books, books and more books. “Here are a couple by Louis La’mour. Is that the author you were thinking of?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but he has that one there.”
Joe dug some more and came up with a couple I didn’t think Daddy had read. “How about your mom,” she asked, “What does she like?”
I glanced around the room until a puzzle caught my attention. “She likes puzzles and scarfs.”
Joe helped me pick out a thousand-piece puzzle. When finished it would be a beautiful mountain scene. Momma and I could put it together and glue it to some cardboard and hang it on the wall. We had done that before. The last thing I picked out was a dark blue scarf. It felt soft like I imagined silk would.
“There,” Joe said, “Now all we gotta do is settle up.”
“Oh yeah,” I laughed and handed her my three quarters.
“One more thing, then you can go home, Sir,” Joe said. “I have to get the name and address of anyone who works for me so I can fill out my employment forms.”
I felt like a big shot, getting my name on the employment rolls and everything. I gave her the information and she wrote it down.
She helped me wiggle the wobbly, top-heavy wagon through the store.
“Take this,” she said. “This isn’t for working. This is a gift from me to you.” She handed me a wooden box. There were paints and brushes and decals, tacks and small nails, all the things I would need to fix those toys up so they looked better than new. I hugged her, an impulse reaction that embarrassed us both and put the wooden box on top of the toys.
Once outside, I made sure the box was balanced on the wagon and started down the sidewalk with my happy load.
Joe stood in the doorway of the store watching me. “Are you okay with that?” She sounded worried.
“I’m fine and thanks!” I called back as I slowed down for a crack in the sidewalk.
“You come back and keep me company sometime,” she called after me. She went back into the store before I could answer.
I got an ache in the bottom of myself sometimes just thinking about all the nice people I left behind. Moving every couple of months, with Daddy’s drinking and all the problems associated with it, I never had time to gather those people up and keep them close.
As I neared the back door, Momma heard the squeaking wagon and, for my part, I stood back and waited until the door opened. Momma stood there with a smile and a glow on her face the likes of which I hadn’t seen for quite some time. Daddy came past her and lifted the box all by himself. He could see right into the top of it. I sure was glad I had the foresight to hide Daddy and Momma’s gifts in the bottom of the box. Daddy winked at me. “You got your work cut out for you, Kiddo!”
Adults are confusing critters to contemplate, I thought to myself. And not just my parents, most adults I had known in my life could be fighting like cats and dogs one day and naked on the couch the next. When it came to Momma and Daddy, your best bet was to just be thankful for the good days and run for cover the rest of the time. Well, this was one of those good days and I was thankful. Daddy set the box in the corner of the closet and showed me how to operate the on/off switch on the trouble light he had hung from a hanger in the closet. I would be able to close the door and work away. No one would even know where I was when I was in there. When I came out of the closet, Daddy and Momma were standing there with an arm around one another. I felt as if something was wrong with me because it just made me feel like crying.
I thanked my parents then went to see what my brothers and sisters were doing. They had been told to stay in the bedroom while Daddy carried in the box. As so often happened in our lives, when I was the happiest, Jackie was the most miserable.
“They made us stay cooped up in here while they were doin’ it on the couch,” he carped.
“They just wanted everybody to have a nap,” I argued.
“You’re a liar, Tommy,” Jackie accused, “You even came in an’ caught ‘em in the act. I heard ‘em talkin’ about it. Daddy saw the door open a little bit an’ snuck over here an’ conked me in the head with it.”
There was a dent and scratch in Jackie’s forehead.
“You shouldn’t o’ been listenin’ to ‘em all sneaky like,” I said.
“Me?” Jackie said indignantly, “You go in an’ catch ‘em doin’ it an’ you’re some kin’ o’ hero. I’m standin’ by the door an’ I near get my head knocked off!”
“Hey Lily!” I decided to play with and tickle my sister to get away from Jackie. He was messing with my good mood. Phillip piled on top of me and it wasn’t very long before Jackie joined in. I was the oldest kid in the family, even including all the cousins, and everyone would always pile on and try to hold me down. We wrestled and rolled around on that old blanket on the floor. All except for Linda, who was usually with Momma and Daddy if they were home.
It was tricky business, fixing those toys. When Momma and Daddy were gone, I would have Jackie take everyone out back to play if it was warm enough. If not, I’d talk Jackie into tending to and entertaining them in the house. We struck a deal whereby I would allow Jackie equal time to roam the neighborhood. Those toys were about the only true secret I ever kept from my brother. To my knowledge, nobody but Momma and Daddy and Joe ever knew about me and the box of Salvation Army toys.
Speaking of Joe, the day before Thanksgiving a wonderful thing happened. A nice old Grandma and Grandpa couple knocked on our front door. They said they had a gift for Tommy Sterner and his family from Joe and the Salvation Army. They brought in a humongous basket with a big ol’ turkey and all the stuff that went with it. There was hard candy and fudge, lots of really good stuff to eat, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was like the bag of groceries Jackie had stolen, only better. We didn’t have to hide this food. Momma was suspicious of the couple and the basket until she found out these nice people weren’t going to read the bible to her or ask her to join them in prayer, none of that religious stuff. She claimed to have made her own peace with God and refused to listen to preachers and bible readers. Daddy wasn’t home so she and us kids got everything put away and chomped down a good part of it before he showed up.
That night, when Momma put the turkey in the oven, I was allowed to stay up and keep her company. She was in a thoughtful and quiet mood. There were tears in her eyes but I was fairly sure, this time at least, they were happy tears. Daddy came home and he didn’t like it much that people had come while he was gone and left food at the house. He was always suspicious of what he called ‘handouts’. He wasn’t too drunk, though, and didn’t let his negative feelings ruin Momma and us kids’ high spirits.
The next day we ate like kings and queens. The sun was out so Daddy had to go finish a roof. He almost took me with him but changed his mind at the last minute. I did my best not to let it show how relieved I was. Momma put the turkey and the rest of the food out on the table. She took a good portion out for Daddy’s part and some white meat for work sandwiches then told everyone to have at it. And have at it, we did. That turkey was a bare bones skeleton when we were through with it.
This particular Thanksgiving stands out in my mind and heart as one of those rare occasions, a day when Jackie didn’t get plinked, slapped, or sent to a corner a single time. He tried to fight it but from all appearances, just for a little bit, he was happy. Momma sat back rubbing the top of her belly. The baby was due sometime within the coming month. Phillip, Lily and Linda had mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie all over their faces. They were a sight to see.
“I wish we had a camera,” Momma said wistfully.
I brought her a cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie. She had those tears in her eyes again.
“This is how it should always be, Tommy,” she whispered. “It is a wonderful holiday, thanks to you and your friend Joe. You’re a good boy.”
Us kids were in bed that night when Daddy got home but I woke up and heard him clunking around. Our happy Thanksgiving time had gone to bed with us. I heard Momma crying and Daddy calling her names. I put my hands over my ears and tried not to think about the knife under the stove and Daddy’s naked back when he was doin’ it to Momma. That would be a perfect time to get him. I considered getting another knife and having Jackie help me but pushed the thought away. I wasn’t sure what Daddy would do to me for sticking him with a knife. He would beat Jackie to within an inch of his life just for thinking about it. I was sure of that.
The night of knife and spaghetti changed me in a forever way. I learned to totally slip out of himself and, like Momma said that time, just go away. It was a scary process because I didn’t have any control over it. It was like when I attacked the fat boy who was torturing the cat. I wasn’t myself. A monster climbed inside my brain and looked out through my eyes. I was bound to protect Momma and my brothers and sisters. Whoever the monster was, it had come to protect me and me only. This Thanksgiving night, like so many others, somewhere beneath the screaming voice of my father, the monster just took me away.
© 2017 artwork, music & words
conceived by & property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner 2017 ©
Momma’s Rain (review)
by Martha A. Cheves, Author of Stir, Laugh, Repeat
Reading Momma’s Rain filled me with many feelings, most from my own childhood. When I was in elementary school there were kids that I feel sure fit in with the life lead by Tommy and his family. And just as it happened when Tommy went to school, we kept our distance from these kids. We never gave thought to the possibility that these kids were possibly being beaten at home, that they might be hungry, and not just hungry for food but also for a kind word and a little friendship. We never gave much thought that they might be smart, even smarter than we were. After all they had to be to survive what they went through daily.
Author Tom Sterner has written a book that will break the hearts of every reader. It will also wake the reader up to the injustice most of us seem to perform not only as children but also as adults. It’s made me see the man or woman on the street with a different eye. One with even more compassion for them and their challenge to survive. I recommend that you not only read Momma’s Rain but that you also teach the lessons learned to the kids and grandkids in your life
Now I wait impatiently to read the continuation – Momma’s Fire. It can only get better for these kids, I hope.
Momma’s Rain is hard to put down. It is profound in feeling. Sterner takes you deep inside the abyss of alcoholism and poverty to the trusting tender relationship between mother and son with each occurrence launching a valued life lesson.
Sterner meticulously collected the straws of his lost family life and spun them into an explicit account of a family whose focus stayed faithful to their bond, “We stand our ground, fight our fights, lick our wounds and keep our mouths shut.” Now that Momma is gone, her story is being shared. Momma lived side by side with her grief. Like the tears that ran down her face, grief was a thunderous driving rainstorm. It can open up to the emergence of the sun and with a rainbow of promise for the future. Hopefully, by telling this story, the family and the people who read this book will see the rainbow.
An emotionally stirring book embracing the boundless promise that no matter what – there is hope. Momma’s Rain – highly recommended.
Sherry Russell MS BCETS BCBT
Conquering the Mysteries and Lies of Grief
paperback @ amazon $12.68 Buy Kindle version here – $2.99
via Tom WordWulf Sterner