I have a scar under my chin, right at the end where it meets the jaw. You can’t see it unless I’m hanging upside down, which is a rare occurrence these days. I’d forgotten about it—hadn’t seen or touched its roughness for years. But then my granddaughter cracked her chin open jumping backward into a swimming pool. All the blood reminded me of when I was five and jumped off a wall.
Like Humpty Dumpty, when I landed I cracked open—but just my chin. It didn’t hurt. It was only when the TWO GIRLS started screaming. I guess the blood cascading from my chin scared them. And these were girls who didn’t scare easily.
Isn’t it amazing how childhood memories remain so intact? I see the action of The Chin Drama roll in my mind as if it’s streaming from Amazon Prime. It’s only now I realize how that day affected the rest of my life.
It happened a short while after we’d moved to our new house. We’d lived in an apartment complex that was filled with growing baby-boomer families. At Edgewater I’d played all day long with Chi Chi and Linda and the rest of the gang. Photos of those days show me smiling with a toss-of-the-head nonchalance.
But there were no girls in the new neighborhood. Well, except for the TWO GIRLS up the street and they were wild. How did I know? It wasn’t only the uneasy feeling I had when I was around them—they’d proved it.
One afternoon, when Mother had sent me upstairs to rest, the girls appeared on the porch outside my room. I’d been listening to Helen Trent and was in the world of radio soap opera so I hadn’t heard them. I still remember how shocked I was to see them tapping on my window, both of them mouthing against it, “Let us in.”
I glanced at my closed door, then rolled off the bed. I was sure this wasn’t how Mother envisioned my rest period playing out.
“How did you get up here?” I whispered through the small space of window I opened. My bedroom was on the second floor. Outside was a large deck no one ever used, although there was a door that led out to it.
“There’s a ladder against the side of the house,” Gretchen, who was ten, said. She scratched at the window screen like a cat after a fly.
“Go open up your door, and we’ll come inside and play,” Katrina said.
My stomach tightened at their words, and I stepped back from the window. The girls seemed like evil wizards, repelling and enticing me in the same moment.
“Come on, come on,” they whispered in unison. “Open up, open up.”
I didn’t want to let them in. That would be going behind my mother’s back. Besides, my room would never feel safe again if they roamed through it. I didn’t have many toys and I treasured them. Something told me they’d treat them roughly. What if they broke my pink, plastic telephone? I’d wanted it forever and Santa had brought it last Christmas.
It turned out I never had to make a stand. Before I could make a move, we heard Mother coming up the stairs, calling my name. The two girls scurried from the window, across the deck to where I could see the top of a ladder. They clambered over the side of the house and were gone.
I always suspected Mother knew they’d been there. The ladder belonged to the handyman who was doing some painting—he must have said something. In any case, I knew she didn’t like the girls—thought they were a bad influence and too old for me. But with a new baby who cried a lot, she still had me go outside to play with them.
Gretchen and Katrina Berger roamed our neighborhood from one end to the other. They looked alike with blond, messy hair and long limbs covered with cuts and scrapes. We lived on East Boston Terrace, a street that was a circle. Although it was in the heart of the city of Seattle, there were lots of woods around. I’d always been afraid of monsters and knew they lurked in the woods—they were called Boogeymen back then. There was also a haunted house. It had slid from its foundation and lay in ruins down a ravine. Rumor had it that a baby had been killed and was buried under the huge blocks of broken cement.
One afternoon that same summer, the TWO GIRLS came to get me. I really didn’t want to go, but Mother shooed me out the door. We walked by the Peterson brothers, who were shooting rats with their bows and arrows. The biggest brother held up one. Big and fat, it was skewered on an arrow, blood running down its gray body. When it opened its eyes and stared at me, I screamed and ran across the street. The other children couldn’t stop laughing.
Further up the street was Mr. Nichol’s house. He always gave us a nickel on Halloween. The girls ran to his driveway and started climbing his retaining wall.
“You’re not supposed to go on other people’s property,” I called out.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Gretchen said. She was so nimble she was already at the top, walking its narrow space as if it were a tightrope.
Katrina was right behind her.
So what was I to do? I knew it wasn’t right, but I felt I had no choice. I started to climb the wall. I wasn’t as strong as they were, so it was a struggle to pull myself up. As soon as I was standing next to Gretchen, she put her hand to her forehead.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she wailed. “Good‑bye, cruel world!” With that she jumped off the wall.
“Good‑bye, cruel world,” Katrina, in her turn, yelled. And jumped.
Now I was alone at the top of the ledge. I looked down to where they were standing. It seemed very far away. But, like a lemming, I cried, “Good‑bye, cruel world,” and jumped.
My landing wasn’t as elegant as theirs but it was safe. It felt like I’d scraped my chin on the rough cement, nothing more. Or so I thought. The TWO GIRLS’ screams and pointing fingers told me otherwise. I guess I’d developed an Eric the Red flowing beard. I put my fingers to my chin and they came away bloody.
Gretchen ran to get my mother while Katrina slowly walked me toward my house, blood streaming down my front. “Maybe you should hold onto your chin,” Gretchen suggested.
I did what she said, but it didn’t help matters much. The blood just ran through my fingers.
Halfway home I saw my mother running toward us, Katrina at her side.
My mother screamed when she saw me. “Merciful heaven, what have you done?”
“I scraped my chin when I jumped off the wall,” I said, thinking she wanted a literal answer.
“Yeah, Mrs. Thal, we were just playing, and Cynthia followed us up on the wall,” Katrina started to explain.
My mother cut her off. “She’s only five. What were you girls thinking?”
She turned her back on them and steered me toward the house. When we passed the Petersons, I could see the boys staring at me. They probably think I’m more of a wimp than ever, I thought. But then the oldest Peterson boy straightened into a salute. His two brothers did the same. I became the wounded warrior of East Boston Terrace that afternoon.
At my house Mother made me sit on the back step outside the kitchen while she went inside. In a minute she was back with a couple of dishtowels.
“Put these under your chin and press tight,” she ordered, leaning over me. That’s when I noticed her hands were shaking. “And don’t move.”
She went back into the house, calling to Allie Mae to come and bring diapers with her. I sat with the cloths pressed tight, afraid to move a muscle. But I really wanted to touch my chin—was it all still there?
It felt like I was alone for a long time, but it was probably only minutes before I heard the screen door open. Then Allie Mae was sitting next to me.
“Oh, baby, what did you do to yourself?” she crooned, exchanging the bloody dishtowels for some of Pammy’s diapers. She put her arm around my shoulders and held me until Mother came back with her purse and car keys.
“I’m taking her to Dr. Clein,” she said. Her voice was so shrill I knew I’d done something really bad. It was my fault—I shouldn’t have followed the girls, but I didn’t mean to get hurt. Katrina and Gretchen had no trouble getting up on the wall and no trouble getting off of it. Why was I so clumsy?
“Okay, Mrs. Thal. I’ll take care of the baby, don’t you fret,” Allie Mae said. “Pammy and I will be right here when you get back. I can stay as late as you need me.”
She gave me a little squeeze and helped me up. I leaned against her side as we went into the garage. Inside my mother pushed up the garage door, muttering to herself.
Allie Mae opened the front door of the Studebaker.
“No, put her in the back. I don’t want her getting blood all over the front seat,” Mother said.
Allie Mae rolled her eyes, then helped me into the back of the car. I sat huddled in a corner, holding Pammy’s diapers to my chin. I was afraid my blood would drip on the upholstery.
“How could you do this to me?” Mother asked as we drove to the doctor’s. “I have so much to do. We already have a new baby, a new house, a new business to take care of. I can’t take much more.”
Was she going to say, “Good‑bye, cruel world” and jump? I wondered.
“What if you’d been killed? Then what would I have done?” she asked as we pulled into the driveway of our pediatrician’s office. I had no answer.
Dr. Clein’s office was a small, one-story brick building built in the 1920s. Just driving by it gave me a stomachache. Dr. Clein’s sister, Esther, was the receptionist. She had a perpetual scowl and a witch’s hooked nose. But she wasn’t the only scary thing—a monster hung on the wall. Looming over the room, his arms outstretched, he wore a loose-fitting suit of rough cloth. His head was made of metal. Daddy explained that Dr. Clein had been in the Navy, and this was his diving suit from those days. I’d shuddered, thinking Diving Suit was the sea monster’s name. I knew he was there to threaten little girls who cried when they got a shot.
I began to whimper as we approached the door, partly out of fear of the monster, partly because my chin was beginning to hurt. The white diapers had turned crimson in the car.
The sickly-sweet smell of ether and antiseptic hit us as soon as we pushed the door open. My mother had called ahead so they were expecting us. Esther came around the desk and patted my shoulder, then beckoned us to follow her. As we walked next to the monster, I stayed as close to Mother as she’d let me get.
And that’s it. My memories—so clear that I remember the broken pavement in front of me as I walked home, so clear that I remember my blue pedal pushers and white blouse spotted with blood—end at Dr. Clein’s office. I don’t remember getting stitches. I don’t even remember going home.
I never had to play with the TWO GIRLS again and I was relieved. Their frenetic energy made me nervous and restless. I didn’t want to be like them—no, that’s not entirely true. Honestly, I couldn’t be like them. Yet a part of me yearned to be. They’d also opened a Pandora’s box filled with questions about freedom and fearlessness that I didn’t want to know about.
For a long time the scar under my chin was red and raw. It throbbed, especially in the cold. Mother said it was another reason I should never go skiing. And as for riding a bike? Much too dangerous.
I became a skittish, introverted child, happy to be screened in, loath to try anything new.
As a teenager I outgrew many of my fears. As an adult I’d thought I’d conquered them. Yet as I think back sixty years to that leap off the wall, I understand my life would have been different if my landing had been smoother. Or if my parents, instead of hemming me in, had said, “Hey, let’s go back to that wall and try the jump again. You’ll get the hang of it.”
Neither of those things happened. Instead my wounds have lasted a lifetime.
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