Here’s an excerpt from The Way We Did It, a memoir about growing up Adventist in a particular time, place, and family. This is about the day that I learned for sure that I couldn’t keep a secret.
At summer’s end I discovered that Daddy had been right all along; the cabins in the woods were not our home, but temporary way-stations on an apparently endless perambulation. We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in Paradise, ninety miles from the cabins and the only world I really knew, and just a few blocks from the church school—close enough for Pam to walk each morning and afternoon. Her arrival each afternoon was the high point of our days.
I missed the daytime camaraderie of the camp, though nights were easier.
Daddy stayed in the woods, sleeping alone in our cabin, eating in the cookhouse with the single loggers. He came home on Friday afternoons. Momma, her belly big and round, stayed home with us in the tiny house.
The first week in November, she took us downtown to buy Daddy’s birthday present: black jeans, wool socks, and bright flannel shirts—work clothes, practical gifts. “Now don’t tell him what we got,” she told us. “We want it to be a surprise.”
“We won’t tell,” said Pam and Marie virtuously.
“You either, Bodie,” Momma said, giving me the evil eye.
“She always tells. Bodie can’t keep a secret,” Pam said.
“I can, too,” I retorted angrily. But Pam was right. Secrets had a way of just slipping right out of my mouth.
“Don’t tell, Bodie,” Momma said again. “If you do, I won’t tell you what the present is next time.”
“I won’t,” I promised. I would have promised anything right then, so elated was I at being in on the secret.
And all week long, while Daddy was off in the woods at work, I didn’t tell. Pam, Marie, and Momma reminded me often. Thursday came. At lunch time Pam burst in the door. “Momma, there’s a birthday party this afternoon and I got invited. Can I go?” Momma asked a few questions and then agreed. When Pam didn’t appear that afternoon I asked where she was. “She’s at a party,” Momma said. “She’ll be home in an hour or so.”
But she wasn’t. Sunset, and no Pam. Suppertime, and no Pam. Momma fed us vegetable soup and toast, moving stiffly between stove and table, rubbing her back and her swollen belly. We had no telephone. Finally Momma wrapped us in our coats and hustled us two doors down to a house where there was a phone. She dialed the party house from the bright, warm kitchen. No answer. She called the school. No answer.
“Let’s go find her,” Marie suggested.
“We can’t,” Momma said. “She might get home while we’re gone.” Momma called the party house again. Her finger trembled a bit in the rotary dial. Still no answer. It had been more than three hours—surely far too long for a Thursday night children’s party. Momma’s face paled, and her lips got tight. I saw her rubbing her stomach again. She hustled us back down the dark street to our house, worried lest Pam had arrived in our absence. We waited.
Finally, a little before seven p.m., Pam arrived home, chilled and rosy, laughing and full of the party. They had had supper. They had played games outside. That’s where they must have been the first time Momma called. The people had brought her home so Momma wouldn’t have to load us all into the car in her condition. Momma put us to bed early that night. The next morning, Friday, Momma took us over to Iris’ house.
Iris had moved to town about the same time we had, leaving the camp just about the time that the cold mornings began to creep out into the days, and the first Canada geese flew overhead. She and Iris made divinity. I don’t know what they talked about over that divinity, but afterward Iris loaded us all in the car, drove Momma to the hospital, then took us home and stayed with us.
We all loved Iris, but it felt funny, not having Momma there. I was too young to really understand that Momma’s big belly meant that a baby was coming, let alone that the baby was coming far too early; it was barely November, and the baby wasn’t due until the middle of December. We played quietly with our toys and talked to Iris. At lunchtime she fixed us hot dogs.
“We can’t eat those,” Marie declared. “They have pig in them.”
“No they don’t,” said Iris brightly.
“Yes, they do. I learned it in Sabbath School,” snapped Marie. “Hot dogs have pig in them. The Bible says we can’t to eat pig, so we can’t eat hotdogs.”
I wondered where the Bible it said “don’t eat hot dogs,” but I didn’t question Marie’s assertion. I couldn’t even remember more than one quarter’s worth of memory verses. What did I know?
“These don’t,” said Iris. “They’re a special kind. They’re all beef.”
“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said mulishly.
“No they don’t,” Iris said, her voice rising. She leaned down and held the package where Marie—who could not yet read—could see it. “See?” she asked. Her crimson finger nail stabbed at the package. “It says right there—all beef!”
“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said again, setting her jaw. Iris gave up and fixed her a peanut butter sandwich. I ate the hot dog. It was delicious. “I’m telling,” Marie muttered. “You aren’t supposed to eat pig.”
But that afternoon the hot dogs were forgotten. Daddy came home from the woods camp, found out Momma was in the hospital, and went up to check on her. He came back a little later, loaded us into our green and white Ford station wagon, and drove us out to the Caterpillar dealership. Before we left, though, he made sure all the car doors’ locks were firmly pushed down. Daddy had customized our car. The door locks could be pushed down, but once down they were flush with the door and could only be pulled back up again with a key. Our car didn’t have safety belts—Daddy considered them government interference into his private affairs—and our back seat was often laid flat. We four girls scrambled around in what was in essence a small room while we drove down the road. It seems odd, now, that he would consider safety belts effete and foolish but go to the trouble of installing locks that made us prisoners in the car.
That day, like all the others, we girls rode in the back until we got to the Caterpillar dealership, waited while Daddy used the special key to let us out of the car, and then went inside with him and stood quietly, as we had been taught. Daddy leaned on the counter and chatted with the man behind it, ordering parts, checking on back orders, passing greasy bits of machinery across the counter to the man, who turned them over, poked at them, muttered, and then passed them back. We ignored the conversation, as we had long ago learned to do, but then something caught my attention. “Yep, it’s a boy,” Daddy said proudly. “Six weeks early, and on my birthday.” Then he smiled. And that was how I learned that Matt had come to live with us.
After he finished at the CAT dealership Daddy drove us up to the hospital and left us locked in the car while he went inside. He came back out and drove us home, then arranged for our minister’s daughter to babysit us over the weekend so he could go up to the hospital with Momma.
Late Sunday afternoon he drove us up to the hospital again, this time to bring Momma home. He left us locked in the car yet again and went inside for Momma. We bounced and chattered. And then we saw Momma sitting in a wheelchair, holding a tiny blue bundle.
Momma had made two baby blankets before Pam was born, identical except for color. One was pink; the other blue. Five times, she had packed the pink and the blue blankets to go to the hospital. Four times she had held pink-wrapped bundles on her lap on the ride home. But now, at last, she had shaken out the blue blanket, wrapped it around her baby, and lifted him in her arms. Matt was an achievement. We all knew it. He was something new, something special, something different. He was fresh. He was a crisp blue blanket, rather than a tattered pink one.
Momma wouldn’t let us see him in the car. “It’s too cold,” she said. “He doesn’t have any winter clothes on.” Was he naked in there? I wondered. With just that thin blue blanket? It seemed vaguely indecent. At home we rushed into the house ahead of Momma. “Get out of the way, kids,” Daddy snapped when we crowded close as Momma came through the door. “Get back.” We got back, Momma came inside, and Daddy closed the door behind her. And then, at long last, Momma bent down and smoothed the blue blanket back and there was Matt, his head covered with fine platinum down, his lashes smooth crescents against his cheeks. Most babies are not beautiful, but Matt was, pink and gold and perfect, and so very tiny.
Matt was even tinier than my dolls. Daddy could hold him on his forearm, and his feet still didn’t stretch to Daddy’s elbow. “Can I hold him, Momma? Can I hold him? Let me…let me…let me,” the three of us who could talk clamored.
Little Sally just jumped and screamed and held her arms up.
“Go get a pillow,” Momma told Pam. “Sit on the couch…all the way back.” Pam sat, and Momma laid Matt on the pillow. Pam leaned forward, her arms gently encircling Matt on the pillow. After a few minutes Momma lifted Matt and Marie scrambled onto the couch, pulled the pillow onto her lap, and held Matt.
And at last it was my turn. Marie grudgingly handed me the pillow. I smoothed it over my lap and lifted my arms. Momma leaned down and laid tiny Matt gently on the pillow. I could barely feel his weight. I looked down at him in his fuzzy blue suit, then leaned forward as Pam had done and gently encircled him with my arms. I wished I could lift him, hold him close, hug him tightly to my heart. But it was not to be. The pillow would stay, an impenetrable barrier both protecting and isolating him.
Momma helped Sally hold Matt, then lifted him and carried him into the bedroom. “He has to nurse,” she told us. “The doctor said he has to eat often, because he’s too small.”
Later we got to tiptoe in and see Matt again, this time in bed beside Momma. Daddy’s wrapped birthday presents sat beside the bed. And that reminded me—Friday had been Daddy’s birthday. But Momma had been in the hospital, and now was already in bed, Matt sleeping beside her. How could we celebrate Daddy’s birthday? But Daddy had the answer. “Let’s just do it in here,” he said.
“I’ve already got my best present.” He smiled at Momma.
I looked at the packages. The small one was socks; the medium one was work pants, the large one new flannel shirts, I reminded myself. But I mustn’t tell. It was a surprise. “Can we do it now?” I asked, bouncing on my feet. “Can you open them now, Daddy?”
“Just be patient,” Daddy said.
“You’re gonna love it, Daddy,” The words rushed out, propelled by the secret I must not tell. “It’s a surprise and I know it’s just what you wanted.”
Daddy reached for a package and sat down on the bed. Pam and Marie each took another and moved to stand beside him. Daddy’s thick-fingered hands moved slowly, so slowly. “It’s just perfect, Daddy,” I said, my hands clasped tight, gripping the secret.
He peeled back a folded corner, carefully teased the tape free.
“We-got-you-socks-and-shirts-and-new-work-pants,” I blurted.
Daddy stopped opening the package and looked up at me. Pam, Marie and Momma glared. “Why did you tell me?” Daddy asked. “Now it’s no fun to open it.”
“You’ve spoiled Daddy’s birthday,” Momma said. Even baby Matt’s innocence reproved me.
“You can’t keep a secret,” Pam and Marie said. “We knew you’d tell. We’re never going to tell you a secret ever again.”
I looked at Momma lying in bed, at Matt beside her, at the half-opened present in Daddy’s hands, the gifts Pam and Marie still held. There was no repairing it. A secret told cannot be untold. Daddy’s birthday had shattered around us.
“There’s not point in even opening them now,” Daddy said mournfully. My family looked at me. I looked back. Where could we go from here? Because I had been so excited about Matt’s coming and about the presents, so certain that Daddy would love them, I had ended up snatching away the very thing I had wanted to give more than anything. I still wanted to give the presents, but now Daddy wouldn’t accept them. Pam and Marie stood, angry and uncertain, the scorned gifts in their hands. The birthday had ended before it had properly begun.
We were trapped, I by my family’s anger, they by their assertion that there was no point to a gift if it wasn’t a surprise. If Daddy opened his gifts and expressed pleasure he was contradicting what he had just told me about the joy of a gift being destroyed if the secret was told. If he didn’t open them and express pleasure he was punishing Pam and Marie for my big mouth.
At last Pam found the way. “But you don’t know what color they are,” she ventured uncertainly.
“No,” said Daddy, smiling at her, relieved. “I don’t. I wonder what color you got me?”
“Open it and find out,” she said joyfully.
Daddy bent over his present again, started working the paper loose.
I opened my mouth. “It’s—”
Daddy’s head jerked up, and his eyes pinned me in place.
“Don’t tell,” Marie hissed, her face furious.
I snapped my mouth shut. Daddy, Pam, Marie, Momma, Sally, and Matt picked up the shards of Daddy’s birthday, piecing it carefully together again, finding their way back to a celebration. But they left me behind. I didn’t even wonder why—I knew. I had told the secret. I had spoiled things. I could not be trusted. If it hadn’t been for me, Daddy’s birthday would have been perfect, just perfect.