Our tiny family moved to Sunflower, Kansas in 1946. Post-war housing shortages made the town a magnet for veterans. It had row after row of charmless cramped apartments, a drug store, a grocery store, a school and a movie theatre. Gangs of unattended but safe children my age ran the cinder alleys like packs of dogs. I did the first of a life-long series of dumpster-dives, discovering a treasure-trove of discarded makeup that I’m sure was loaded with lead. It was in Sunflower that I had snowball fights, organized a doll show, wheeled kittens around in baby buggies,and started school.
But Sunflower was also the site of my awful, original sin.
My sister was born in June, two months after my fifth birthday.
I was sent away to stay with my grandmother during my mother’s confinement. When I came back, puzzled and homesick, I was introduced to a blanket-swaddled, crying, odd-looking creature and there was a crib for her in my parent’s bedroom.
As an adult, I can understand why my shell-shocked parents, caught in the vortex of guilt and confusion in creating a malformed baby suffering from an unknown birth defect syndrome, unintentionally pushed me out of the way to make space for their grief. But in addition to feeling abandoned and frightened, I was furiously, ragingly jealous. As I stood on tip-toe to get a better look as my mother changed my sister’s diaper, I saw the horror of a freshly repaired umbilical hernia. My baby sister had no belly button. I knew, as only a magic-believing, all-powerful, jealous five-year-old can, that this was all my fault. In the next few years the disaster I had unleashed continued to unfold.
I knew that her disfigured face, her umbilical hernia, her cleft palate, her congenitally dislocated hip, her years in a body cast, her stumped fingers and her low normal IQ were my jealously come alive. This was surely my original sin. No one ever told me differently.