By Rebecca Hope
Whenever my siblings mention the frying pan incident, I laugh along with them, even though I find it tragic and far from funny. Why do I mask my true feelings about something that happened almost fifty years ago?
As a college English professor, each semester I ask a new batch of students to evaluate David Sedaris’s essay “Let It Snow,” in which he describes with a comedic slant the day his alcoholic mother locked him and his siblings out of their house during a snowstorm. How would the narrative be different without humor? Rarely does a student think a serious approach would improve the essay, and I agree. Humor helps us process the pain of our dysfunctional families, which is one reason to laugh about the frying pan.
Beyond that, though, I learned at a young age that I had a job to perform with my feelings—they weren’t my own. When I was four years old, my family went through a trauma that I knew little of. The small Wisconsin farm where my parents had raised nine children—of whom I was the youngest—had been lost to foreclosure. My aunt had purchased a house for us in Chisago City, Minnesota, and the day we moved in—it must have been the day of the auction—Dad called us all into our new dining room. Perhaps the table had been sold since everyone sat on chairs in the middle of the otherwise empty room.
Dad pulled me onto his lap. “Well, Becky, how do you like our new place?” A weighty import that I didn’t understand hung in his words.
They all turned their eyes on me—my brothers, my sisters, and my mom. Instantly, I knew my role. Simply by being happy and cute, I could make their tired, sad faces smile. I don’t remember what I said—something cheerful—and the tension in the room dissolved as they chuckled at the adorable baby of the family.
So perhaps I laugh at the frying pan story to continue my long-running role among my siblings—that of recasting sad memories and melting away our common pain.
That day—the day of the frying pan—was one of those rare, freakishly hot early spring days. It was the last day of April, but the temperature reached the mid-eighties. When I came home from school, Mom was outside with the pitchfork, turning over lumps of dirt. After she lost the farm, her only garden was a plot at the side of the house. She lived for that garden and the vegetables she grew there.
As a ten-year-old, I didn’t share Mom’s horticultural interests. Instead of joining her, I plopped down in front of the TV to watch my favorite afternoon shows. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle because I always got a kick out of the “Fractured Fairy Tales” with their surprise endings. Eventually I heard Mom come into the house, and I gravitated toward the kitchen. Now that I have kids of my own, I understand why. From the earliest days of life, Mom equals food, and children suddenly become hungry when Mom appears, even when they were contentedly occupied before.
I hoped Mom was making something good for supper. No, not yet. She was at the sink scrubbing her hands. Dried dirt from the garden flaked off her bare feet onto the floor.
Mom’s bald spot glistened pink with sunburn. That patch of scarred skin at the top of her head was her badge of bravery from when she had tried to save Esther, her second child, from the Fire. During the World War II years, my parents had farmed on Dad’s uncle’s place in Wisconsin. One fateful day Mom filled a kerosene lamp from the tank outside—which the gas company had mistakenly filled with gasoline. When Mom lit the lamp, it exploded. She quickly threw Lois, who was three, onto the lawn and ran back into the house for the baby. She rescued him but suffered severe burns searching for the toddler in the flames. Esther perished. Mom spent more than a year in hospitals—first for her burns and then for schizophrenia, which the trauma precipitated. My mom wasn’t like other mothers, but other mothers hadn’t sacrificed as my mom had for her children.
As Mom stood at the sink, her arms seemed to grow redder by the second. Her fair Swedish skin wasn’t used to the sun yet, but when she gardened, she lost all track of time. No pain or discomfort could dampen her zeal to subdue the earth.
I crossed the kitchen to the corner cabinet and peered inside. Maybe I could find some Cheerios to tide me over. Mom pulled some hamburger from the fridge and set it on the counter, then crouched down to find the frying pan in the cupboard.
At the sound of Dad’s car pulling into the driveway, I quickly rummaged for a cereal bowl. To my dismay, they were all dirty. Now it was too late to make my getaway. Dad’s footsteps were already clunking on the porch.
I had learned never to be downstairs when Dad got home from work. He’d be in a foul mood more times than not, and he’d often launch into a tirade the minute he walked in. From my bedroom upstairs, if I covered my ears, I couldn’t hear the words. Just the angry rise and fall of Dad’s voice, shouting questions that Mom never answered, blaming her for everything he could think of. In my bed with my pillow over my head, I’d recite comebacks for his standard complaints and will Mom to say them. But she never peeped. She just let the scalding words rain down.
I wished one of the other kids were home. What was the point of having a big family when no one was ever around? Lois had married before we moved here, and my oldest brother, Dave, had joined the Navy to avoid fighting in Vietnam. My brother Dan hadn’t been so lucky. He’d been drafted by the Army and was stationed over there. Every day when I got off the school bus, I’d check the mailbox, hoping for a mud-stained Airmail envelope. They didn’t come that often, but the whole family was excited when they did. The next oldest, my sister Rette, a senior this year, worked after school at the old folks’ home down the street.
How I missed the fun my closest siblings and I used to have together. Tim, Jon, Ruthie, and I played Tarzan and Gunga Din in the living room, jumping between the couches and chairs, pretending the rugs were quicksand. We took turns pulling Markie, who was two years older than I, around the floor on a blanket as he screamed and kicked ecstatically. He loved being rescued from quicksand. He had cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk or speak, but he pouted and moaned something awful if he couldn’t be part of our games.
Now all of a sudden everyone was older. Tim and Jon worked at the mink ranch every day after school—they were saving up for cars—and Ruthie, who was in seventh grade, stayed after school for activities or went to a friend’s house. Markie lived at Cambridge State Hospital because Mom wasn’t able to care for him at home anymore.
That meant only I was around for Dad’s daily yelling.
Even though I had expected it, I jumped when the kitchen door crashed open. Dad was madder than usual. Between the bordering patches of gray hair, his bald head shone with sweat. As his angry eyes glared through his black-rimmed glasses, his plunging dark eyebrows pushed them farther down his nose. His feet pounded the linoleum, and he slammed his lunchbox onto the yellow kitchen table. Mom faced him blankly, frying pan in hand. I pulled the Cheerios box to my chest like a yellow shield.
“You’ve been digging out there! I told you not to make the garden bigger!” Sweat trickled down his face, and he shifted in his steel-toed work boots.
With today’s heat, he must be itching to take them off. When I was little, I used to rush to greet him each night, and we made a game of removing his boots. They were so heavy that I’d barely been able to lift one of them.
“We can’t possibly use that many vegetables! You’ve got jars from five years ago in the basement.”
Mom stood as still as a statue. I couldn’t tell if she even heard him or if she’d learned to block him out.
Dad raged on. “I don’t want you canning anything this year, do you hear me? Just plant what we can eat, and we’ll use up what we already have.”
This was a common peeve of his, and as much as I hated his yelling, I knew he was right. Mom was obsessive-compulsive about canning. None of us knew that term back then. We just knew it wasn’t normal to can and can and can. A few years later when everything fell apart and Mom and Dad were both committed to the state mental hospital, we found Mom had been canning jars of sugar water. At this point, she only canned foods she grew in her garden and fruits she purchased by the crate in late summer.
Dad’s eyes dropped to Mom’s dirty feet, and his lips curled in disgust. Glancing around the kitchen, he noticed me, perhaps for the first time, but his expression didn’t change. His gaze passed to the stack of dirty dishes in the sink, and he scowled. He hated coming home to a messy kitchen—that was one of his favorite things to yell at Mom about.
This was not the sunny way Ozzie Nelson came home from work. But then, Mom wasn’t exactly Harriet or one of the pretty, stylish housewives on the commercials. She was just a mom who made fudge and cinnamon rolls and had the softest lap in the world.
I knew Mom wasn’t perfect. One time I’d seen her sneaking a ten dollar bill from Dad’s wallet while he was asleep. I felt so ashamed to think that my mom was a thief. When I told Ruthie what I’d seen, she explained that legally husbands and wives shared their money. That was a revelation. Because Dad was the one with the job and the one who paid the bills, Mom had to beg him for every dollar. Dad forbade Mom to buy crates of peaches and plums for canning because it was wasteful, but according to Ruthie, it was Mom’s money, too. I felt funny about that—it was like a math problem I didn’t know how to solve.
Dad ranted about the dishes for a while. Stuck in the corner, I couldn’t get away without walking between them.
Mom still stood at the stove with the frying pan dangling from her hand. I wanted her to shout back, defend herself, fling his own faults in his face. But silence was her weapon, and she brandished it like an expert. Did she know it made his blood boil, or had she hunkered down in that private place her schizophrenia created for her? I always thought it was the latter because, except when Mom’s psychosis was at its worst a few years later, I never heard an unkind word or angry expression pass her lips.
When Dad couldn’t get the promises from her that he demanded, he stepped closer to her and glared at her feet. “Get some shoes on! How many times have I told you not to go barefoot in the kitchen?”
This was ridiculous. We all went around barefoot during the summer. Why shouldn’t Mom? And why should there be separate rules for the kitchen?
Dad’s red face looked like a volcano ready to erupt. Suddenly he raised his foot and plunged his work boot down on Mom’s toes.
Horrified, I backed into the corner and squeezed the cereal box flat at the sides. Mom writhed in pain and swiveled to escape the weight. They danced clumsily for a few steps, bodies flailing. Dad hammered out a vicious tap dance, trying to nail her foot to the floor. Mom kept hopping free. He stomped again and connected.
As Mom spun away, her arm circled upward, and the frying pan met Dad’s temple. His glasses zoomed from his face like an Apollo rocket and crash landed against the metal leg of the kitchen table. They broke in two. One piece careened under the table, and the other skidded to the bench, where it smacked into stillness with a sickening clatter of breaking glass.
The frying pan clanged to the floor as Mom flew back against the stove. Pain wracked her face. Blood bubbled up onto her toes. Dumbfounded, Dad staggered sideways. Without his glasses he was as blind as Mr. Magoo.
I watched it all in stunned silence, rooted in place by disbelief.
“Becky, help me find my glasses.” Dad’s level voice roused me.
It never occurred to me to talk back or disobey. I was a good girl who had been trained to ignore my feelings. Knowing what I’d find, I scrambled under the table. “They’re broken, Dad.” I lingered in the temporary hideout.
“Let me see.”
I scooped up the fragments and slithered out with an army crawl. I emptied the worthless offering into his waiting palms.
Shaking his head, he poured the pieces onto the table. He crooked his arm so his watch nearly touched his nose. “The clinic closes in fifteen minutes. Come with me to help me see.”
I froze. No. That was impossible. You couldn’t help someone else see. Besides, I knew nothing about driving. But no one else was around, and Mom had never gotten a Minnesota driver’s license.
“Come on.” Dad grabbed the largest piece of the frame and one broken lens and headed for the door.
I looked at Mom, who had limped to the sink for a wash cloth. She’d be okay. I ran to the back door for my shoes. I’d slip them on in the car.
Dad backed the car out of the driveway as smoothly as ever and at the end of our block turned onto Old Towne Road. Heart thumping, I peered hard through the windshield. I was seeing for two now, and both our lives were in my hands. My stomach burned and churned. Steadying myself, I pushed my fists down into the upholstery.
“Good thing I know this road like the back of my hand.”
So Dad said. But I remembered when he told us how he’d nodded off for a second on his way home from work one time and ended up in the ditch. That’s why our car had a smashed-in front fender.
“I’ve gotta get glasses tonight. If I don’t show up for work tomorrow, no matter what my excuse—they’ll fire me. The head steward said he won’t help me anymore.”
Even we kids knew Dad had a reputation for being lazy. Only many years later did I understand how debilitating his anxiety and depression were.
With such high stakes, he had all the more reason to not talk—and just concentrate on the yellow center line. He had to keep to the right of that. What if some kid dashed across the street? I had friends who lived around there, and they weren’t always careful when a ball got away.
“It’s red, Dad,” I warned. “The light’s red.”
“I see it. Thanks, honey. It’s funny how a guy can see more than he thinks he can—when he needs to.”
I was glad he was being nice now. This was the way I liked him. But I wouldn’t let myself relax; we still had three miles to go.
What would become of Mom if we never returned? I remembered how devastated she was when Dad moved Markie to Cambridge. She’d already lost Esther in the Fire, and then she lost the farm she loved. Mom couldn’t handle losing another child—especially me, her baby.
So far, so good. We made it through the first stoplight. Strangely, we had met no cars on the first road. I figured God must be keeping them away, so I kept praying. Please, God, please don’t let us get in an accident. I glanced sideways at Dad. His eyes were squinted to slits—maybe he could see something. Or maybe angels held the steering wheel.
As we drove east toward Lindstrom, I peeked at the side mirror to see how many cars were lining up behind us. All those drivers were probably angry at us. But just because someone’s mad at you doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. They don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing even when it makes perfect sense to you. No one knew Dad couldn’t see. If they did, they’d be glad he wasn’t driving any faster.
Finally, he pulled into the clinic’s nearly empty parking lot. Relieved, I let out my breath. It was five minutes to six. Inside the building, Dad wandered toward the counter holding out his broken glasses frame. The receptionist took his arm and led him down the hallway.
I plopped into a seat in the waiting area. I should feel better—we hadn’t died on the way—but my hands were still shaking. Dad yelling was nothing new. But that huge boot rising over Mom’s tiny foot, coming down so hard! I shifted my feet under my chair, curling my toes within my red Keds, feeling Mom’s pain. The churning in my stomach doubled—like riding the Octopus at the fair. My chest felt like it did at the bus stop in January when the windchill was ten below zero.
Despite all Dad’s yelling, he had never hit Mom or us kids. I couldn’t believe he’d been so cruel—to purposely stomp on her bare feet that way. For that he deserved to get clobbered.
Strangely, seeing Mom fight back brought no satisfaction after all. Instead, it had made things worse and put us all in danger. And, really, she hadn’t exactly fought back. It was pure reflex—she just happened to have the frying pan in her hand. Still, maybe this would teach Dad a lesson. Maybe Mom would stand up for herself now—now that she knew she could.
Soon Dad emerged wearing new glasses. The ride home was happy.
When I told my brothers and sisters about the incident later, they loved it. They, too, had always wanted Mom to stand up to Dad, and they thrilled to imagine him on the receiving end for once. Though I insisted that Mom hadn’t hit Dad on purpose, they retold the story in their own way, relishing Mom’s new assertiveness—which, of course, never materialized. She remained passive; Dad continued to bully. But he never physically harmed her again, as far as I know.
Though the frying pan incident didn’t change my parents much, it affected me. It taught me how to hold competing perspectives in tension—because both sides can be both right and wrong at the same time. Some math problems have no solution.
Unfortunately, it also deepened my resolve to avoid conflict at all costs, and it perpetuated my habit of laughing at things that weren’t funny—of using my emotions to please others. It would take marital battles of my own decades later before I would unlearn some of those toxic leftovers from frying pan day.
Now that I have a healthier view of assertiveness and conflict, I can choose to laugh at this story when my siblings and I get together. In fact, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Growing up with two mentally ill parents took its toll on all of us, and we’ve all struggled to overcome those effects in our own ways. Humor helps us heal from those dark, dysfunctional days, so I wink at their false spin on that long-ago event. Mom and Dad—whom I remember with fondness and empathy—have passed into the arms of their Heavenly Father, where life’s inscrutable dilemmas find their ultimate answers at last.
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