Chapter 1All that I am now, all that I ever will be began the summer of 1954. It began with a snake, a witch and an overgrown patch of rhubarb. It ended in fire, murder, tragedy and a priceless legacy that I often neglect until faced with demons.
It's no surprise the memories are clear and shining. I've turned those events over in my mind until they are like stones tossed in the sea; all the rough edges are worn away and all that remains are smooth surfaces that reveal shining striations and inner radiance and my remembrance has the polish of sapient truth.
We found the snake the week before school was out, which was two weeks before we found the rhubarb. It was a warm spring day and Polly and I were meandering home from school.
Suddenly, she stopped beside the mud-encrusted roadside ditch. "Look! It's shedding its skin. Rick says they're helpless when they're shedding. Let's catch it." She shoved her book bag into my hands, preparing to jump the ditch.
Polly was my best friend and fearless. Rick, her big brother, was fourteen years old, even braver than Polly and our main source of information about non-human earthly inhabitants. I, on the other hand, was almost twelve, wisely cautious and not at all convinced that Rick's knowledge was infallible.
"What if it bites?" I asked, clutching her book bag and remembering the tire-flattened rattlesnake we'd seen last summer on this very road.
"It's a water snake, silly. If it bites, it bites. No poison. Look, it's taking its skin off just like a glove." She made a lunge, missed and landed on her knees. "You see that? He moved anyway," she cried in disbelief. "Wait'll I tell Rick."
I looked at Polly's mud-browned knees and drooping ponytail and couldn't help giggling. "And wait'll your mother sees you!"
"Ah, she's used to...hey! Look. It left its skin. This's even better than the snake. Mom doesn't make me put things back that aren't alive." To this day one of the things I like best about Polly is her ability to turn defeat into triumph.
She held the tattered snake skin up to the sunlight. It was like a slice of fog through which we could see the shadowed outline of the snake's striped skin pattern, the ghost of its former inhabitant.
"You scared it right out of its skin."
"Sure did." She grinned as she carefully slipped the trophy into her lunch box.
We picked up our sticks and resumed walking home past the edge of town. We didn't live far enough out to ride the school bus, just about a mile from the town limits. We had an old house with fifteen acres and Polly's folks had an old working farm about half a mile beyond our place.
"I wonder why people don't shed their skins like snakes," Polly wondered outloud. "You know, just throw away your skin when you outgrow it and grow a new one."
"Yeah, I'd do it every time I got a pimple. Just shed my skin." I cast a quick eye in Polly's direction. "And you'd have to shed yours 'cuz it wouldn't fit in front."
Polly gave me a scathing glare, pulled her cardigan sweater across her burgeoning breasts and lapsed into a silence that lasted a full minute. I was sorry I mentioned it.
"Have you started yet?" she asked finally.
"Your period, dummy."
"Oh. No. Have you?"
"No and I don't want to either." She swung her stick savagely at a morning glory vine.
"Hey, that's Miss Congreve's place," I warned in a harsh whisper. "She sees you messing around, she'll get us for sure."
Polly glanced quickly toward the old house we were passing. Morning glory vines twisted through the teetering fence that enclosed the weed-tangled front yard. The house was shadowed by ancient oaks, gnarled ivy and a towering camellia. Peeling white paint created a scaled facade of mottled gray. The upstairs windows were veiled in shreds of curtains that reminded me of the snake skin in Polly's lunch box.
Every Halloween people told stories about how Miss Congreve was a witch. We were too old to believe in such things, but just the same we never trick-or-treated Miss Congreve - except for Jimmy Wallace the beginning of sixth grade, who said he did and had a wormy apple to prove it, which he claimed was poisoned and which he subsequently gave to the librarian who'd fined him for overdue books. We'd all waited to see if the librarian took ill. When she didn't, we lost interest and Miss Congreve's reputation slipped a bit. Still, it didn't hurt to be careful.
Polly and I quickly slipped past the Congreve place before starting to talk again.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Why not what?"
"Why don't you want to start?"
Polly gave me her barely-patient look. "Because I don't want to grow up. Do you?"
"No. I just figured I didn't have a choice."
"I know," she agreed with a sigh. "Rick says that I'll start being a sissy when I grow up."
"He's crazy. You'll never be a sissy."
Polly looked cheered. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Growing up is something we can't choose about but being a sissy is. And you'd never choose to be a sissy."
Little did I know that Polly would spend the rest of the summer making sure that neither one of us made that choice.
Up until then summers were a lazy, dreamy, childhood-time, a time to lie on the grass under the lilac bushes and stare into the infinity of a leaf-laced blue sky; it was a time to run through lawn sprinkler rainbows or to wade in the murky, irrigation ditch-water, a time to steal peaches from wooden boxes on the back porch, most of all, a time to be a kid.
Looking through the family photo album I see my twelve-year-old self though the camera's unflinching eye, a long-legged gawky girl with lank, neutral-colored hair falling over my sun-squinting eyes. I stand slightly hunched because Aunt Effie is resting her heavy hand on my shoulder and because I'm afraid someone might notice that my straight asexual body is showing a traitorous inclination to curves. There's nothing in that long-ago summer photograph to indicate the fears lurking beneath my forced grin, nothing to indicate that I'd already looked a witch in the eye or that I'd see the face of death two times over - nothing to indicate that before the autumn apples would ripen I would have shed the skin of childhood.
Our country had put Korea on the shelf; McCarthy's shrill accusations were tin instead of steel and Eisenhower's avuncular grin secured the White House. Closer to home, Pine Point City Council finished paving Elm Street, the Water Commission resigned over irrigation fees and the school board voted to require a loyalty oath from all teachers.
But none of that had anything to do with me or Polly. At least we didn't think it did. My parents named me Joanna Marie Anderson, but Polly always called me Jo. I still prefer Jo.
My mother taught high school social studies and my father sold logging and mill machinery, which meant that Mama was home during the summer and Daddy was gone on sales trips at least one week each month. People still tell me they were a handsome couple. But in my sixth grade view Daddy was a genial, detached authority figure who interfered little in my childhood activities. Mama was a convenient source of lunch money and strange pieces of information that I didn't use until my third year in college. She was also a good friend.
Although I was their only child, they cut me no slack. Politeness was expected, responsibility a way of life and a large vocabulary a necessary means of survival. And I was expected to carry my load around the house, which included summer canning.
Since my mother firmly believed in the economic and nutritional advantages of preserving our own food, my summer memories are sectioned off by the colors and smells of whatever was in season. It began right after the end of school with rubied strawberries filling the house with their sweet promise of preserves and jams and it continued right on through the rich gold of apricots and peaches, the garnet of cherries and finished with the burnished-copper blush of pears.
"Just look at it, Joanna," Mother pronounced, looking at flats of strawberries as if she were surveying a king's ransom. "Mr. Hibbard sent these over as a thank-you for tutoring Johnny in history last winter." With a conspiratorial wink, she added, "And Johnny doesn't graduate for three years." She put on her apron with the yellow and red embroidered rooster, handing me the one with a red and green apple print. "Let's get to work before it gets hot." I pulled the stool up to the sink and we began.
As the radio droned in the background, we talked sporadically while washing, sorting and stemming the berries. I ate one berry for every ten I stemmed.
Mama was listening to a report on the Army-McCarthy Hearings but she still noticed my rate of consumption. "You're going to make yourself sick if you keep eating those, Joanna."
"My stomach's pretty resilient," I assured her, voluntarily cutting back to one for every bowlful stemmed. "Polly tried to catch a snake the other day and scared it right out of its skin. So she put the skin in her lunch box."
"What's she plan on doing with it?" Always the teacher, she added quietly, "It might make a good school project."
"Mrs. Riley opened the lunch box and almost had a conniption fit. She made Polly throw it in the incinerator."
Mother laughed. "Well, maybe it's for the best. It might have smelled up the house over the summer." She paused, then smiled mischievously. "But I sure wish I'd been a little mouse in the corner to see Alma's face when she opened the lunch box."
The ring of the phone sliced through our laughter. "I'll get it," I cried, jumping down from the stool.
"Hey, Jo." Polly's voice had an unmistakable ring of adventure to it. "You still got that dress of your Aunt Effie's with the green leaves all over it?"
"Well, bring it on over."
"Mama, can I go over to Polly's?" I asked, holding the receiver against my chest.
She paused over a pot of bubbling strawberries and glanced around the kitchen. Wiping her forehead, she nodded. "I suppose so. We can finish this later. I'm a bit tired myself."
"I can!" I cried into the phone, surprised at the reprieve.
"Great. Take the creek and I'll meet you halfway. And don't forget the dress."
Mama was lying on the sofa as I came down the hall with Aunt Effie's dress under my arm. Stella Dallas was on the radio but Mama had her eyes closed and didn't seem to be listening. The screen door slammed behind me as I ran out.
"Be home by 4:00," she called after me.
For someone heading out on an adventure, maybe I should have been more aware: aware of the fact that Polly's adventures always led to trouble, aware of the fact that in all my life my mother had never taken a nap in the middle of the day. But even if I had noticed, I couldn't have stopped what was coming any more than that snake could have stopped shedding its skin.
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