We were a postwar family – both my parents were born just before WW2. And taking a page from the veterans of that massive war who came back damaged and in desperate search of social isolation, my parents relocated to a prefab suburb of trailer-quality bungalows on massive lots. “A place where you could throw a ball,” I heard a neighbor’s father say.
Our barracks was just like our neighbors’ barracks, and we’d all wait by our picture windows for our dads’ tanks to roll into the driveway at five-thirty each day. What else was there to do when you weren’t throwing a ball?
Our main enemies were the lawn weeds and insect infestations of the suburban cartoonscape. We heroically doused these parasitic insurgents with the latest army-issue biopoisons, when we weren’t chopping them up with the noisiest machines we could buy on credit at the hardware megastore.
The human animals in our house were all expected to maintain stiff upper lips because this is what helped the English-speaking good guys to win all their nasty wars against foreign evil. Sometimes this protruding lip turned into a snarl, and there were times when my mother reminded me of Johnny Lydon of the Sex Pistols.
Once our French-Canadian grandparents died, hugs and kisses in our Anglicized household were limited to X’s and O’s as a cutesy sign-off on personal letters. It was as if our parents were rationing affection to prepare us for real life, where “real life” meant World War Two and the hunt for Germano-Japanese scalp.
Into this suburban military compound of emotional marasmus fell little sister Charlene. The baby of the family, she started out in life getting non-stop hugs and kisses from affection-starved older brothers and sisters like myself. But as she got older and less cute, all the sibling affection dried up in favor of sarcasm and psychological torture.
We honed the art of cold, distant personal relations while watching TV with our parents and interacting with the people in the identical bungalows around us who were watching the same shows. Hugging became something nostalgic that nowadays, only actors do.
Instead of accepting our natural human vulnerability and neediness, we learned to be poker-faced schemers so that we’d win our own personal wars. Prepared by New York TV writers for the adult lives we would eventually drive to, we were then ready to face any Nazis or Soviets we might come across at the mall.
Charlene grew increasingly desperate for affection as she neared nine-years old, so my mother temporarily suspended the house-ban on pets and allowed her to get a small gerbil, “as long as you clean his cage and I don’t have to look at him.”
About two weeks after she brought Theodore home from the pet shop, Charlene woke up screaming because she had accidentally crushed him in her sleep.
When my mother came out of Charlene’s room that morning, I asked her what happened, and she looked at me with a firm gaze and said, “Theodore’s dead.” It was like getting bad news from the front from a concerned corporal.
That same day after school, my mother held a military funeral for Theodore in the back yard, and her and Charlene – the only attendees – fashioned a cross out of sticks, and buried him about three inches deep in the chem-tech lawn.
She got a new gerbil a week later, and killed him exactly the same way. I later found out her M.O.: Late at night, the noise from the nocturnal rodent would wake her up. Vulnerable and semi-conscious, Charlene would then take the helpless creature out of his cage, and start to hug him very gently until she fell asleep …on top of him …silently crushing him to death.
By the fourth gerbil, there were no more tears shed, and the ceremonial burial was replaced by the sound of a toilet flushing and my mother saying, “so long, comrade.”