All the Fishes
Come Home to Roost
An American Misfit in India
Rachael Manija Brown
(Rodale)Part IWhen I was seven or so, my mum and dad sailed off to Europe on the Normandie. "Keep a stiff upper lip, son" was what my dad said and mother hugged me and gave me a kiss in the air somewhere in the vicinity of my left ear. They weren't given to grandiose farewells.I was a bit young, so I can't remember the good-byes, early that summer, but I can remember the rest of it with a singular clarity. Mum and Dad had parked me with Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, there in the lower reaches of Metuchen, New Jersey.Mr. Anderson was stocky, sported severe glasses, little hair, and a no-nonsense manner. Mrs. Anderson was thin, nervous, and severe --- with severe glasses and pulled-back hair. There were the two of them and me and Ralph and Mary and Dave and Leslie and Walter and Sadie and Fred and a couple of others.They were all my age, except for young Walter, who was five or so. He came in somewhat late to the summer residence. I remember that his mother wore beauty spots and a blue veil on her hat. She seemed quite loving.
The house was a big one, three stories, but bare of trees and garden, and fairly isolated from the rest of the community. There was a smelly garage (dust, decay, spent oil), a smelly dog (half Cocker Spaniel), and a Jungle Gym. Only they were called something different then.
I remember the cross-bars well because Dave got to hang from them for a half-an-hour or so each day, around lunchtime. What it was was that once when Mrs. Anderson rang the bell for lunch Dave didn't want to stop playing right away so Mr. Anderson told him that each day after that, around lunchtime, he could hang on the cross-bars for a half-hour, hanging by his arms until they called him. I remember when he finally came to lunch, his eyes were red and his face was wet.
Ralph's task was easier. Early on, he had complained about the breakfast toast being burned. So each day, Mrs. Anderson made up some burnt toast for Ralph to eat for breakfast. He was required to eat all four pieces. After that, he never complained about the food, or anything else for that matter.
Mary's discipline was, I believe, the hardest. She had had trouble with math in primary school. Mrs. Anderson was to help her make it up. Each day, right after our noon nap, she and Mrs. Anderson ascended to the third floor of the house, where she paddled some math into Mary's bottom with a belt.
We'd be playing in the back yard and could hear Mary yelp. "No, no, no," she would cry. "No, please no," she would cry. Sadie and I and even Ralph and David would giggle about her "tough" math lesson. So much for peer support.
The hardest of them all to break was little Walter. Ah, he was a fighter, even at that age: big shoulders, muscular legs, a big little man. Mr. Anderson wanted to have him take some castor-oil his first night there, after his mother and her lovely beauty spots had departed.
Walter, evidently, did not take well to castor-oil. He resisted so vigorously that he got Mr. Anderson's famous temper up. Mr. Anderson picked him up and threw him in the empty bath-tub, and when he still wouldn't open his mouth, grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him down the hall into the master bedroom. There was sound of struggle, and then silence. I remember seeing a streak of red down the floor. And I remember Mary, brushing her teeth next to me. We were giggling because Walter was learning his lessons, there in the home of the Andersons, there in the sunny summer of 1938, at the time our parents were off seeing the Old World, in all its violence, and we were learning, all of us, something about the New.