The Box

It’s a rainy day and we are dressing and undressing Barbies in Allison’s room. I am seven or eight and am sitting at the foot of Allison’s bed. Allison is nine or ten and is happy I am with her. She never wants to play by herself or with my green plastic soldiers. My older brother Charley won’t play with my soldiers either. He’s three years older than me and only wants to pitch and catch. Mother says we aren’t allowed to throw baseballs in the house. I don’t like playing with Charley anyway. My soldiers are stuffed in an old shoebox at the foot of Allison’s bed along with my plastic Indians and cowboys.

Mother says I can’t have any of my friends over this afternoon. I have to find something to do with Allison. At least with Allison, who is a year-and-a-half older than me, the game won’t end with her sitting on top of me, drooling spit on my face – a frequent punishment reserved for me by my bother. Not today. Charley is off with Daddy watching the Pittsburgh Pirates. They went into the city this morning. Charley said I couldn’t come because I am too much of a baby.

“Am not.”

“You still play with dolls.”

“Do not.”

Daddy scuffed my head and said, “Next time.”

At my suggestion, Allison and I decide to put sparkly outfits on her Barbies so they can go to the grand ball with Ken…

Allison’s Barbies and their clothing – gowns that Allison has made with bits of material and loose stitches – are everywhere on the white bedspread.  Finding the right gowns will be fun.

I can see the rain through the window behind Allison sitting cross-legged at the head of her bed. She is studying her Barbie.

“I know a secret,” she says.  

“Do not.  What?” 

I finger the red saffron material I’m about to put on my Barbie. 

“Do to.  It’s in Mother and Daddy’s room.  Want to see?”

“I don’t want to go there.” They keep their door closed.

“What if she catches us?”

I can hear her in the kitchen with the washer and dryer.

“You’re a scaredy cat.”

“Am not.”  

“You are too and I know something you don’t.”

“Do not. What?”

“It’s a secret. Holly said she will kill me if I tell Charley or anyone.”

“She will not. Mother won’t let her.” – but then, maybe, she will. My oldest sister Holly can be great, but she can be awful too. Holly does what she wants, especially when she babysits us on Thursday nights.

If Holly is involved, this raises the secret to a Bobbsey Twins or Hardy Boys mystery. If Holly doesn’t want Charley to know, what could it be? Will Charley hate her all the more if he finds out – more than he does already because she’s the oldest?

But why does it have to be in Mother and Daddy’s room?

Their door is always closed, and we aren’t allowed to shut our bedroom doors. Holly shuts her door or, if Mother insists, only opens it a crack. When Holly slams her door, we know she’s mad. Charley doesn’t have a door; he shares his room with me. When he’s mad, I wish I could lock our door from the hallway. Our room is next to Allison’s and I could sleep with her, even though she’s a girl.

Mother and Daddy’s bedroom is at the other end of the hallway. When we open their door on a Saturday or Sunday morning, the smell is always different: stinky, morning sun mixing with sweat and perfume, socks and underwear.

What could be in their room?

I know what’s on their dressers. Mother’s dresser is long and low and has a mirror behind it on the wall. On her dresser are an assortment of earrings and necklaces, scarves, lipstick, and makeup. Mother can be really pretty when she wants to be, like when she dresses up on Thursday nights. Daddy’s dresser on the other side of the room is taller. If I pull over the chair from the corner, I can find all sorts of things on his dresser: white plastic collar braces, coins, keys and tie clasps, and schedules of baseball games.

Charley and Daddy wouldn’t let me go with them. I am not a baby.

My dresser is full of stupid stuff, like jacks without the ball, or a yoyo that never works right – and it isn’t my fault – or a shirt Mother says needs to be put away, or my clip-on tie for Sunday school. Mother and Daddy’s dressers have stuff to finger and smell if only to figure out where it came from, what it does, what’s going on. Not broken stuff.

Between the two dressers is their large bed and it is mysterious. Daddy, who was once a boy, sleeps with Mother, who was once a girl, on that very bed.   Barbie never even kissed Ken. Yet they sleep together every night and kiss each other. At night, when a thunderstorm thunders above the house, I run to their room, open their door, and hide between them. Allison does too.

Other than Charley or Holly, who wouldn’t?

“You have to promise not to tell anybody. You got to promise.”

“I promise” – but I know I’ll tell if Charley starts hurting me.

“What is it?”

Allison is dressing her Barbie in a tight blue gown.

“I can’t tell, but it’s in Mother’s closet.”

Oh, their closet!

Holly goes into their closet at Christmas and pries open the boxes on the shelf above their suits and dresses. She always teases us with what we got from Santa. Holly, I knew, knew better than they knew what was in their closet. Holly is a teenager. She knows everything.

“Holly showed me.”

“Did not. Where?”

“Did to. I’ll show you.” Allison carefully places her Barbie dressed in her beautiful blue gown down onto the pile of Barbie clothes spread out all over the bedspread. She gets off her bed and opens her door.

“Are you coming?”

I follow Allison out of her room and walk slowly behind her down the hallway of our one-floor “L-shaped,” ranch house. We stay along the inside wall away from the windows where Mother could see us from the kitchen. We go past Holly’s room and my younger brother Jerry’s room and stop at our bathroom. Holly is away with her girlfriends from high school and Jerry is down for his afternoon nap, and, like every Sunday afternoon, we are under strict instructions not to wake him. Allison has me wait by Daddy’s work desk next to our bathroom in the hallway alcove. His big desk is littered with papers; I spot the black telephone; next to it are telephone books along with other books and papers stacked on top of them; all around on the desk are loose pads of paper with his and Mother’s scribbles on them.  

Allison goes by herself through the archway on the left and into the dining room that separates our hallway from the kitchen and living room. She is quiet and on tiptoes. Allison can be really sneaky when she wants to be. That’s why I have to stay where I am. I am more of a bumbler. Mother says I need to practice being careful.

Do not.

Allison sneaks around at night. She walks in her sleep and carries her trash can throughout the house. Mother and Daddy will be watching tv and suddenly there is Allison with her trash can. Or, if they are already in bed, in the morning her trash can is sitting in the living room or the kitchen. Mother always tells me to take it back to Allison’s room while she gets my cereal ready. I never told Mother, but sometimes Allison visits me with her trash can before walking out to the kitchen. She doesn’t visit Charley. He’d smack her.

I finger the dials of the phone and, by chance, knock the receiver off the cradle, which bangs the telephone books and sends papers fluttering to the floor. I quickly pick up the papers and put them back on the desk; I put the receiver on the cradle and step away from the desk, just as Allison comes back into the hall.

“Mother is talking to Mrs. Coffrets.”

We both know what that means.

Mrs. Coffrets is one of the ladies in Mother’s art class on Thursday nights. There’s a group of them – men and women – and now they’re all friends, and they talk all the time – boring stuff: golf, Bridge, people from the country club, getting together. Mrs. Coffrets doesn’t have children, but Mother will be on the phone with her for hours.

Allison leads to me to Mother’s door, peers back through the archway into the dining room, then, quickly opens the door. We go into their bedroom and Allison quietly closes the door behind us.

The room is dark and already I regret being here. Why couldn’t Holly or Charley show me? Allison’s a tattle tale – I know her, she’ll tell Mother it was my idea, and Mother will believe her. Allison gets away with everything. I’ll get spanked by Daddy.

The curtains are not closed, but adjusted to keep us from looking into their room when we are outside. The sheets have been pulled off of their bed, and Mother has placed a pile of folded clothes on the mattress to be put away later. The nightstands have paperback books on them. Mother is reading something about Tournament Bridge. She loves this card game and plays with one of her friends from art class, some man from the Country Club. I don’t like him. Holly says he hates kids.

Bridge is more complicated than Crazy Eights; Mother plays it a lot. I like War or Fish. Charley hates cards.

I go over to Daddy’s side of the bed; he is reading something called “Atlas Shrugged.” I pick up the paperback and stare at the picture.

“Put that down before you knock something over.”

“Will not.”

“Get the chair.”

The chair in the corner has Daddy’s clothes on it: Daddy’s pajamas. I put them on the bed and drag the chair over to Allison as she opens the closet. There’s no time to look at what’s on their dressers. Allison has slid open the door on Daddy’s side of the closet. She places the chair in front of Daddy’s suits.

She stands on the chair and reaches up to the shelf. In the back behind the sweaters and extra coat hangers I can see a file box of some sort. She struggles to reach it.

“Help me!”

“No. Let’s get out of here.”

“I’ll tell. I’ll tell Mother you were going through their stuff again.”

“Was not.”

“Yes, you were. I saw you.”

I hate her.

“Get me the phone books.”

I hate her. I hate her. I hate her.

I run to their bedroom door and slowly open it, peeking out: no one is in the hall, the washing machine and dryer are running in the kitchen. I don’t hear Mother.

I slip out the door and close it behind me. I run to the desk. I am reaching for the telephone books, when Mother steps out of Jerry’s room. She sees me right away.

“Jonathan, what are you doing?”

“Oh!” I knock papers everywhere.


Mother comes up the hall as I back against the wall, staring at her trying to think of what to say. Why isn’t she on the phone with Mrs. Coffrets? What if she goes into her room? Already I can feel Daddy’s hands stinging my bottom.

“Pick up the papers, Jon. What were you doing?”

I quickly stoop to pick up the papers and promptly bang my head on the side of the desk. I fall down on the floor and grab my head. I am about to burst into tears, but do my best to hold back. The pain is awful!

Mother looks down at me with her hands on her hips and shakes her head. I am a bumbler, a bumbler, and I just showed her how I could hurt myself while bumbling my effort to gather papers that I bumbled by knocking them off the desk.

She feels my head.

“You have quite a serious lump there. Maybe we should go into my bathroom and put something on it.” Mother’s bathroom is in their bedroom and the bathroom door is right next to their closet.

“No, no. It doesn’t hurt. See.” Half blind, I begin pulling the papers together. Allison will kill me if I walk into their room with Mother. Beside I hate the medical stuff Mother keeps in her bathroom. Going with her always ends in pain, a Band-Aid, and teasing from Charley.

She rubs my head. “Hmmm… That’s a big boy, but you’ve got to be more careful.”

“What were you doing, anyway? Where is Allison?”

Suddenly I feel sick. She’s going to find out. I’m going to be told to go to my room until Daddy gets home. I pick up the papers and avoid her eyes.


“I had to pee.” I lie as I put the papers on the desk.

“Did you wash your hands?”  Oh no. I barely shrug my head. Why did I say that?

“Go wash your hands.”

I hate washing my hands. I hate washing my face too, oh, and brushing my teeth. Bathrooms should be just for peeing.

“You and Allison are awfully quiet. I was coming down to see you. Are you behaving?”

“We’re playing with her Barbies.”

“Good. Let Jerry sleep … and stop going through this desk all the time. Did I hear you pick up the phone earlier?”

“It fell over.”

“On it’s own?”  

The phone rings and I jump.

“Jonathan, calm down. Why are you so fidgety?”

Mother picks up the receiver.

“Hi Polly, that wasn’t long at all. Hold on for a moment.”

“Take the phone,” she says, “When you hear me get on in the kitchen, hang up. I mean it. I don’t want you listening in. I’ll bring you and Allison a treat shortly.“

“Is that little Jon-Jon?” Mrs. Cofferts asks through the receiver. Her voice is high. She is one of Mother’s friends from Somerset and she is nice. Squishy nice.

“Yes, mam.”

“When are you coming back to my house? Didn’t you have fun?”

Allison has opened Mother’s door and is gesturing me to hurry. One afternoon Mother had Allison and me stay with Mrs. Coffrets when we were supposed to be running errands.

“Yes, mam.”

My Mother’s has picked up the phone in the kitchen. “Hang up, Jon.” she says.

“Tell your mom you want to come to my house again sometime. She can run her errands all afternoon and we’ll play.”

“Polly…“ Mother says. “Not now. Hang up, Jonathan.   I hang up the phone.

“Get over here,” Allison whispers.

I move the papers from the telephone books to the chair. I grab the phone books and run to Allison who opens the door wide enough to let me through; she closes it quietly behind me.

“Did you hear? Mother is bringing a treat for us. We’ve got to get out of here.”

Allison puts the phone books on the chair in front of Daddy’s suits.

“Get up there and grab that box. You’re taller.”

What? Me? No way.

“Jon, I’ll tell. I’ll tell Charley you were playing with my dolls.”

“Was not. You’re a liar.’

“You were too. You know you were.”

Oh, how I hate her.

I get on the chair and slowly step on the telephone books. They shift under my weight. The top cover feels like it is tearing. I hold onto the pole holding Daddy’s suits and reach up onto the shelf. Behind Daddy’s sweaters is the grey box. I find the handle and bring it down to Allison.

She grabs it from me and runs to the door. “Put everything away,” she says as she cracks open their door to see where Mother is. Quickly she is out the door. I know she has carried the box back to her room.

She is such a creep, leaving me here to cleanup.

I do not want to be alone in Mother and Daddy’s bedroom. I jump off the chair, knocking a phone book over, and run after her. Then, I stop and realize we are going to be in big trouble. I run back to the closet and drag the chair back to the corner of the room. I pick up the phone books and hide them behind Daddy’s shoes.

I can’t get out their door fast enough. 

Allison is on the floor in her bedroom on the far side of her bed. Her back is against the wall and I can barely see her head above the bed.

“Close my door,” she says.

We are not allowed to close our doors, but I join her in a minute and watch her go through the box. I can see right away, it’s only paper.

“These are secret papers,” she says.

“They are? What are they?”

Allison shows me some: something about Daddy being honorably discharged from the Army; another says Daddy and Mother were married somewhere by some Presbyterian minister, one says he graduated from college, and another says he was born in Ohio. Ohio! Where’s Ohio?

It is clear, these papers are not what Allison is looking for – she pulls out a white envelope near the bottom. This is the one she wants. She shoves the other papers back in the box and pushes the box under her bed.

“Guess what this is?”


She opens the envelope and pulls out tightly folded papers that are stapled together. The typed words look official. She gives me the papers, but I can’t read it.

“What does it say?”

Allison gets real close to me, “You can’t tell anybody. Not Holly. Not Charley. Not anybody.”

“I won’t. I swear.”

Allison whispers in my ear, “Holly is adopted. She is not our real sister.”

What? That can’t be. No. No. No. That’s horrible. That’s wrong. That’s a lie.

Holly’s our sister. She will always be our sister.

“Look,” she says, pointing to the text. “Mother had Holly and Daddy adopted her.”

What? Holly had a different father? Mother wasn’t always with Daddy?

But she has always been with Daddy!

I start to cry. I don’t know why, but I hate this.

“It’s not true.”

“Holly found out and showed me. She was a baby.”

“But I love Holly.”

Allison starts crying too.  

“Are we all adopted?”

Is it just like Charley says when he is on top of me? “– How could I ever have such a baby for a brother?”

“I don’t know,” Allison says.

We pull the box back out from under the bed and go through all the papers. No other adoption envelopes are anywhere in the box. We look at each other.

“I love Holly too,” Allison says.

We put Holly’s adoption papers back into the envelope and push it way down to the bottom of the box. We stuff as many other documents on top of it as we can find, but, really, I want Allison to tear the envelope into thousands of pieces.

This is all wrong. I wipe my eyes.  

“What are you two doing?  Why is this door closed?”

Mother is in the doorway of Allison’ room. She has opened the door and in her right hand is a plate of cookies. Allison kicks the box under her bed.

“Playing Barbie,” she says looking up at Mother.  “We didn’t want to wake Jerry.”

Mother comes into the room. “Here, get up on the bed,” she says as if the day is wonderful and the afternoon isn’t raining.

“Here are some Oreos.”

I love Oreo cookies. I know exactly where she keeps them in the pantry; the Oreos are always on a high shelf next to the Graham crackers and the potato chips. Watching TV after school Charley, Holly, Allison, and I separate the cookies and scrape the white icy-filling with our teeth.

I stare at Mother as she places the plate on the bed. Now I am not so sure I want one. Not from her. I don’t want to play with Allison’s Barbies either. Not with her. Instead, I don’t know why, I pick up my shoebox of Indians, cowboys, and soldiers.


Categories: A Fictionalized Biography, Memoir, My Family Story

4 replies

  1. Powerful imagery of childhood. I felt like I was there! The emergent emotional gravitas of pure innocence is captured so well in your words. I enjoy your writing very much.

    • Thank you, Ray, for your comments. Discovering information about one’s family when one is too young to understand it is fascinating. In the right context and at the right age this knowledge could have been shared in such a loving and positive way. Unfortunately, that’s not how it happened.

  2. I was terrified for Jonathan and Allison in this piece. It was so well written, I found myself holding my breath…scared to death that they were going to get caught. The feelings of overwhelming confusion and sadness were genuine and beautifully revealed…as always. I really love these family stories of yours.

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