The Broken Brick by Vesta Tobin

If I were to paint a picture of the first 18 years of my life, your heart might break for that little girl who grew into a strong, courageous woman.  Home was big, 200 years old, uninsulated and drafty.  The outside of our home wore chipped and faded white paint.  Behind the house rose a steep hill, perfect for sliding down in winter and not too high for walking back up it to slide down it again.  When I was about nine years old, all of the Tobin children planted five thousand spruce trees all over that hill. Our sliding days were gone in the face of potentially high profits selling those trees in ten years. Our father told us that the money from these trees would come to us kids when we reached high school.  I believed him that day.  Parents don’t lie,  do they? 

            The house sits on a bumpy and pitted gravel dirt road.   Across from the house lies a huge garden, cared for by an army of Tobin children.  Many a kitchen fork was lost in that garden while weeding  young baby carrots and and swiss chard.  Next to the garden is a big wood barn with a garages sized opening.  Stalls for animals sit next to the empty garage area.  At the end of the barn lie some stairs leading up to the loft.  It runs the full length and width of the barn.  A two hay bale size opening overlooks the garden. The barn loft is a great place to hide in a game of hide and seek.  I love jumping into the snow from that window.  It is a little scary and also safe when the snow is deep. 

            Behind and beside the barn are several small outbuildings in various stages of disrepair.   

            I love the cow pasture, a small hill that leads to a small bubbling brook at its base.  I built my very first home on the hill when I was about eight years old.  I fit into it for one summer only. 

            When I have time free from multiple chores, I love to turn right as I leave the house and take the rocky gravel road toward Pembroke.   The nearest house is a mile distant as is our mail box.   I like to stop at the potato field about 500 yards down the road where we grow bushels of potatoes every spring.  I sometimes lie in the grassy part of the field and watch the clouds float by.  I feel so peaceful and happy in these short moments. 

            On another day, I might turn left from the house and walk down the same gravel road running downhill toward that little burbling stream.  At the bottom of the hill, I can walk down a steep path toward the brook, or turn left and go up another hill and field to a huge sawdust pile, created by lumberjacks felling our old, tall straight pine trees. 

            Years later, I learned that selling the wood from our forests helped the family survive the hard times when Parker, our father either couldn’t or wouldn’t work. Every time I visit this spot I want to  jump right into this sawdust pile that is taller than my nearly six foot father, but I dare not.  My mother Vesta says that i could get buried in it.  Instead I drink water from another little brook up here and then look for lady slipper flowers.  It is illegal to pick them but no one will know out here.  We live a mile from any house in all directions.  My parents own about sixty-five acres, spanning nearly half a mile on both sides of our home.  The land itself is a paradise, unlike our home. 

            I share a long narrow upstairs bedroom with my beautiful blue eyed sister Kay. We are Irish twins.   This room with its low slanted wall is unheated, and cold.  It has a broken window pane.  With money earned from my first job I fixed the window myself at age sixteen.  Hunger is an all too familiar feeling except for the times when the family is lucky enough to grow a beef cow.  A slaughtered bull means six to eight months of full dinner plates.   

The Tobin family home is a casual working farm with chickens, unless we end up eating them all, a huge garden, and the occasional beef bull.   Barn cats roamed everywhere living on mice and whatever other critters they could catch.  They reproduced randomly.    Suze, our scruffy old dog was the only animal allowed in the house. She probably has fleas, but I don’t care.  I love her anyway. 

            Our land was beautiful and peaceful.  If only life in our home could be just as  peaceful and happy.  

            Nine children wander through the old ramshackle house, each doing their assigned chores, mostly in silence.  We learned at our father’ s knee that children should be seen and not heard, an oft repeated dinner time phrase.  Outside, soft breezes caress the worn, faded and chipped clapboards on the outside of this big  old house.  The sun shines bright and warm.  I hope for a happy day. 

A deep authoritative voice suddenly bellows through this peaceful atmosphere.  “Vesta!  Kay!  Come here!  Right now!” 

I am just a little five year old girl.  I tremble in fear.   My name is Honey.  No one calls me Vesta, unless I am in trouble. 

            I run toward the demanding voice as fast as I can, although I really don’t want to answer the call at all.  But Parker, my father is bigger, faster and uncontrollable when he is mad.  Run I must. 

Panting from exertion, I stand at his knee, my nose no higher than his popped out belly button protruding from a shirt that is way too small.  I try to look and not look at him at the same time.  Sneaking a peek and then looking down at my shoes works best.  I know I can’t challenge Parker with my eyes, my body or my words.  I wait. 

Karen is here now too.  “All right,’ he says, “Which one of you broke this brick.   

            He is holding an old dusty brick, broken at the edge in his meaty palm, hand extended outward for us both to see.   

Karen starts crying.  I am scared and also curious.  A broken brick?  How could it be special?   I shift my eyes, head down, toward the open screen door.  All I see are the edges of a holey screen door, and a tumbled pile of very old bricks.  And one broken brick is bad, I think.   

            “Who broke it?”  he demands, his voice now a deadly calm.   

“I didn’t do it,“  Karen cries.  “I didn’t break it.” 

I peek up toward Parker, his mouth a thin line, eyes cloudy and hard.  I know that once he gets an idea into his head, nothing will shake it out.  It gets stuck stronger than a big old oak tree, long grown and deeply attached to the Earth.   

Eyes wide I stutter fearfully taking a big risk.  I don’t want Kay or myself to get spanked.  He hits with a belt and it hurts.  “Me either. Those bricks are old.  Maybe nobody broke it.” 

I know a storm is coming, but I had to say it.  “One of you broke it and I will spank you both until the guilty one confesses,” He growls loudly.  “Now who did it?” 

I am so afraid.  I can feel the pee dripping down my legs. I want to throw up.  My mind is racing faster than I can speak.  Is there a way that neither of us will get in trouble, spanked?  Why should both of us get hit when neither one of us broke the darn brick.  It’s not fair.  

I   sneak a look at my dear sister Kay, 10 months younger than me.  Her huge blue eyes, as big as a lake, are raining rivers of tears.  “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it”,  she keeps repeating over and over.   

My heart hurts.  I’m not afraid for myself.  I don’t remember yet, but I have already experienced far worse abuse than a spanking from Parker.  I don’t want Kay to get hurt.  She doesn’t deserve to be hurt.  Neither do I for that matter.  I’m afraid, but I’ll feel even worse than the brief pain of a spanking if I don’t do something to save Kay.  Suppressed anger roils in my tummy.  Standing strong and lifting my eyes to look this crazy man in the face, I speak.  “I broke it” .   I cry now. 

I am scared of what he might do to me.  I also know that if you let him feel strong and in power, he won’t hurt you so bad.   I speak again.  “I broke it.  It must have been an accident.” 

Parker is not yet ready to stop being mad.  I think that he gets a feeling of power from hurting us kids.   He continues.  “How did you break it?  You did it on purpose didn’t you? 

How can I answer?  I am no good at lying.  I just want to protect Karen.  I don’t want Parker to hurt her, or me for that matter.  But better me than her.  Other people’s pain hurts me a lot more than if someone hurts me.  I don’t care if Parker hits me. 

Feeling wet where I peed, helpless in front of his rage, I whisper,  “I don’t know.  I don’t know.” 

I blank out.  I don’t remember if I was spanked or not.  Years later, I learn that I deal with trauma by dissociating.  It is how I protect myself.  When a child grows up in a war of physical abuse and more, somehow, God, the Universe, our inner self provides a way for us to survive.  And survive I do.