One of the stories Lily told her daughter started like this: “On a Saturday summer night in 1946, Thor barged into my life.” Lily was the youngest of the five children who never referred to him as their “father.”
Lily and Carl Doty’s cramped apartment was upstairs from his widowed mother’s house in the little town of Chambers, Minnesota. Carl, home from serving in the Navy, worked at the flour mill and at weekends tended the bar at Bernie’s, a few blocks away. On this night, even though her husband was gone, Lily felt nothing but peacefulness and pleasure rocking and nursing three-month-old Sheila, until she heard a clunk—clunk—clunk of heavy boots on the wooden steps that clung to the house’s back wall. The bang—bang—bang of a fist on the door came next. She was sure that her mother-in-law, a heavy sleeper, had long since gone to bed downstairs. Lily almost didn’t answer the door. Who could be stopping by after nine at night? But, Lily later told Sheila, “I couldn’t hide like a frightened mouse. I was a wife and a mother. An adult.”
After hearing this story so many times, Sheila, at ten or eleven, began to make up her own mental pictures of Lily buttoning a bodice with one hand, pushing fine blonde hair back, and tucking a pink blanket around her. Then, Lily answered the door.
Standing under the porch light, a brown felt hat pulled down so that it almost concealed his heavy-lidded, pale-blue eyes, a fist raised and ready to pound again, stood her father. “I hadn’t seen him in years and stared at him, speechless,” Lily would say.
“Been to Bernie’s. Heard about my new granddaughter.” Thor announced with his gruff-as-an-ogre’s voice.
Sheila imagined Lily pulling her close so tight that she yowled.
“You never stopped screeching while he hulked at our door.”
“Great lungs.” Thor stared into Sheila’s flushed, scrunched features.
“Several times I tried to cover your face with the blanket,” Lily continued.
Tiny fists flailing, Sheila tossed the blanket aside.
“Your look seemed to declare, ‘Do not touch!’”
“Aren’t you going to invite your father in?” the ogre said.
Lily thrust out her pointed chin and, for the first time ever, stood up to Thor. “I have to put my baby to bed.” With that, she slammed and bolted the door and collapsed against it. “A minute or so later, I heard his heavy boots descending the stairway.”
A bit past two on Sunday morning, after the bar closed, Carl tiptoed up those same steps. He entered the apartment and found lights ablaze and his wife, wide awake and frightened.
“Why did you tell him I was here?”
“Never did!” Carl’s brown eyes snapped, darkening to almost black. “If I find out who told, they’ll answer to me.” His fists clenched, ready to strike. “He came in. I ignored him. The boss would’ve let me come home early if we figured Thor was headed this way.” Bernie Olsen, along with everyone else in Chambers, knew of Thorvald Norstad’s meanness.
“It’s all right,” Lily said, relaxing now that Carl filled the apartment with his presence. “He won’t come back. Sheila was in my arms and yelled as soon as I opened the door. She scared him off.”
Carl gently held Lily. “Don’t worry. I’ll never let him hurt you again.”
“Your father gazed into the bassinet at you.” She would smile at Sheila. “His face, a moment before scary, returned to an easy smile, dimples deepening. He touched your cheek at your very own dimple, and said, ‘None the worse for her ordeal.’”
“Little as she is, Sheila has good instincts,” Lily told him.
“You’ve got a headache, don’t you?” Carl lifted her chin. “Let’s get you into bed.”
Later, Sheila knew that he poured her a tumbler full of whisky, too.
Lily would end her story with, “You sensed danger and wickedness the minute it came near.”
This became her mother’s myth: Sheila attracted good and repelled evil. Though sweet of face and disposition, Sheila possessed a powerful voice to go along with her fiery red hair.
Lily also said, “You’re the strong one. Take care of your little brother.” According to other stories of her mother’s, Tommy, three years younger than Sheila, was weak like Lily and seemed to attract trouble wherever he went.
Having heard it over and over again, this became one of Sheila’s stories.
* * *
Each summer as she grew up, her mother’s family never failed to gather for a picnic reunion in some Minnesota town to which the relations could easily drive. These get-togethers were always the same. Women toted covered bowls and platters of fried chicken, potato and macaroni salads with mayonnaise that soon curdled, fruit salad with runny whipped cream, and homemade pickles, as well as cherry and apple pies, chocolate and angel food cakes, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, and sugar cookies. The married women, housewives all, tended to the set-up, serve-up, and clean-up—while catching up.
Sheila would watch her mother listening to the other women, especially her older sisters, Magda and Selma. These women gathered at a long stretch of picnic tables, carried over and lined up by the men. Lily sipped from a bottle of Hamms, ran her finger over a scratch on the table, and occasionally dropped in a remark about some ongoing health complaint—headaches, cramps, lack of energy—while the rest of the women concentrated on weddings, new babies, and funerals.
Since Sheila didn’t want to play softball with the cousins, she was told by her mother to stay nearby. At the fringes of clustered adults, she huddled on a blanket with a book open in her lap.
Off to one side, the men would lounge beneath shady oak trees on lawn chairs, smoking, drinking beer, and talking livestock, crops, weather, and coming harvests. Only Carl Doty worked in the city, but he held up more than his share of the conversation with remarks about a demanding, always frustrating, job as an electrician where he answered to a “dumb shit” shop owner.
After the men and the women, still grouped separately, had stuffed themselves with too much food, and tongues had loosened from plenty of beer, without exception, a time of painful recollections came before packing up to leave. They’d nibble at crumbled cookies, and most of them would drink strong, black coffee. Now, the Norstad siblings compared hurts and shames and wicked deeds done to them by their father. These early evening ponderings closely resembled what might have been called “group therapy sessions” rather than end-of-the-day summings-up.
This telling ritual invariably started for the men when Carl said something like, “What do you think the Old Man did with his riches?”
The two Norstad brothers, Hans and Peter, would shake their heads, befuddled by the mystery of it all, and regretful because he sure hadn’t given anything to them. Meanwhile, the other married-in men sat, not saying a thing, perhaps disgusted by the nature of Thor’s misdeeds or bored by the repetition.
Thor had deserted his wife, Emma, and children in 1935, when Lily was only eight years old. Emma died a few years later, her illness caused, the siblings agreed, by difficulties maintaining a farm situated on dry, barren land. Magda and Selma finished bringing up Lily and cared for the house, while Hans and Peter managed the fields and livestock. Occasionally, the family received word from renters that their father, roaming the countryside, had sold some of his more productive land. Alliances with several women, apparently resulting in no half-siblings, were also reported. The last one to see Thor had been Lily in 1946.
With this part of their memories covered, the men slipped into talk of other paternal abuses—beatings, deprivation of food, lack of proper clothing.
Off to their side, still sitting at the picnic tables, the married-in women spoke loudly of their own troubles. Magda and Selma, in tones so quiet that Sheila barely heard and wished that she hadn’t, spoke to Lily of terrible things Thor had done “to his own daughters.”
Aunt Magda, glancing over toward her brothers, whispered to Aunt Selma, “At least…weren’t violated…personal ways.”
“…lucky ones…” Aunt Selma whispered back.
“…never the same…” Revulsion would twist Aunt Magda’s ruddy features.
Aunt Selma returned to the handiwork in her lap. Scrutinizing it—pulling on a thread here, tying a knot there—speaking no further.
“Lily…favored one…spared,” Aunt Magda seemed compelled to say, and louder, “He was long gone when you were still a child.”
“I had some beatings,” Lily always responded. “Mama died before I was grown.”
“You were far from alone. You had us.” Aunt Magda would sweep a hand to include Aunt Selma, and then softer, “What…trials compared to…loss…”
“Quiet now. What’s past is past.” Aunt Selma would reach her hand out to stroke Lily’s shoulders that were scrunched up to her ears.
The picnics ended with important things said: offenses recounted, assurances repeated.
It was not their fault.
* * *
On this particular picnic, held at the Pine Falls City Park in 1960, when Sheila was thirteen, the weather was of primary concern. The humid air made clothes stick to their bodies. Black clouds threatened to open with a deluge. When they weren’t looking toward the sky, the other big topic was politics because of the upcoming national election. They were all Democrats.
Uncle Hans said, “Do you think Kennedy can possibly win? Being a Catholic?”
“Here’s hoping,” Uncle Peter said, and everyone nodded.
“That shouldn’t make any difference.” Carl had grown up Catholic, yet stayed home while his converted wife and children headed off to Mass each Sunday.
Sitting on her blanket, Sheila turned from her book and assessed her father, noting how his dark features stood out against the Norstad blondness.
These others, all Lutherans, grew silent, eyes cast down, except for Aunt Magda, who said, “I don’t care if Jack Kennedy is Catholic. What a fine-looking man.”
“With such a beautiful wife and little girl.” Aunt Selma pursed her lips. “She’s expecting, you know.”
Once the ominous weather that never changed, the presidential election, and the mundane had been fully discussed; once the food and beer had been consumed, the siblings got around to the same old thing—the cruelties of their father.
“What do you suppose he did with the return on your crops?” Carl began the litany.
“Put it toward another repossessed farm.” Uncle Peter’s white stripe of forehead wrinkled toward his receding hairline.
“Profited from that owner’s bad luck,” Uncle Hans’s back slumped turtle-like.
“Those farmers got a share. More than Hans and me ever saw,” Uncle Peter added.
“The hell you say.” Leroy’s words were hoarse from a constant wad of tobacco. He was Cousin Beverly’s second husband and a newcomer. Sheila found him to be strange—the way he nudged Ronnie, Beverly’s older child, and leered at the girls; the way he talked to Beverly’s ten-year-old daughter, Laurie, criticizing her ruffly pastel shirts in a teasing way that still made the girl squirm.
Sheila wanted to holler at him to leave Laurie alone. Of course, she stifled her words.
And, there was the way Leroy listened so intently to the men’s stories.
“It’s every word God’s own truth,” Uncle Hans said. “Wily as an old wolf. By this time probably long-dead.”
“Never missed.” Uncle Peter sneered. “Father’s are supposed to lead their families.”
Thor had cheated his sons only once. He offered the young men, who were in their early twenties, parcels of land and a percentage of the profit for their labor. After harvest, he secretly pocketed every cent. From then on, Peter and Hans sought out dependable wages paid by honest local farmers.
Sheila had heard too many stories about her awful grandfather. She wasn’t a little kid anymore. She decided to sneak off to her father’s Chevy, parked across the baseball field, where she could finish her book—Gone with the Wind—undisturbed. Edging away from the adults, she saw that no one looked at her anyhow. Waving cigarettes, spilling coffee, or in the case of her mother, beer, fussing with handiwork, they’d never miss her.
She hunched down in the car’s backseat and, as dusk gathered, read those last few pages. With Scarlett’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day,” Sheila held the book close and wept. Gradually, her misty-gray eyes closed and she dozed off, never putting it down.
“Wha’cha doin’ out here all by yourself?”
Leroy’s gravelly voice awakened Sheila with a jolt. She kept her eyes tightly shut, thinking, he must be headed to the outhouse. If I stay quiet, he’ll go away.
Leroy eased open the car door and slid in next to her. “Why d’ya want to be holed up reading?”
She’d heard him ask questions like this of other girl cousins: “How come you wear that orange lipstick?” or “Is that all you do—play softball?” or, to his stepdaughter, Laurie, “Don’t you want to help your mother with the food? Make the men happy?” These girls—there were four in addition to Sheila—turned fidgety, stammering confused replies.
“Because this is where I want to be.”
“Snippy—snippy.” Leroy’s lip jerked up.
“You can’t make me feel bad.” Sheila clenched her jaw.
“Why would I want to do that?” Leroy took Sheila’s book, fingers trailing across the front of her yellow halter top. He moved in close enough so that she could smell his spicy aftershave and a sharp, acrid odor underneath. “What’s special about this?” His words were tinged with amusement. “Gone Wi—”
Sheila grabbed for it as Leroy held the book high and rested his other hand on the back of her neck. “You want?” That hand squeezed hard enough to make a sharp pain shoot to her head. “Be nice.”
She stretched to a taller sitting position, and Leroy’s hand slid down, resting on the bow at her mid-back. She gave him a shove and frantically peered toward the faraway adults. Talking and talking and talking. Please see me trapped. No one looked her way. Scarlett came to mind. Sheila said, “Get away from me!” She jabbed Leroy with her elbow.
“You’re a tiger.” He grasped her wrist. “Real uppity.”
“If you don’t leave this car this minute, I’ll scream so loud they’ll all come running.” Would anyone hear?
“I just wanted to look at your storybook.”
“Go away!” Sheila let out a wail. And, like she had done as an infant, never stopped hollering until Leroy jumped from the car.
“All right. I’m gone.” He threw the book at Sheila, grazing her cheek with its hard corner. Slamming the door, he said, “You can’t fool me. You wanted attention. You’re a little tease.” He spat a long stream of brown onto the ground.
“You’re dead wrong.”
Sheila waited, rubbing her face, watching his retreating back. After he slipped like a weasel back into the group, she began to consider, Did I say something to him? Did I look at him in some way? Sheila couldn’t think of a thing she had done.
A few minutes later she ran across the grass to where Lily sat.
Her mother casually put a thin, bare arm around Sheila’s waist. “Almost time to go,” she said, oblivious to the girl’s breathlessness. Lily’s white, sleeveless shirt and navy-blue pedal pushers, that she had taken so much time pressing earlier in the day, were rumpled and stained from serving and cleaning. “Have a good time?” She tipped a bottle to her lips.
Sheila considered what to say. I can’t upset her. A sickness would follow. She pictured her father’s fury and could hear his words—He’ll have hell to pay! It would ruin the picnic for everyone. “I had fun.”
“What happened to your face?”
“Scratched on a branch.”
“Be more careful. You don’t want to scar.” Lily stifled a hiccup and turned, with a defensive expression, back to the conversation.
Aunt Magda was telling about how their mother pampered and indulged Lily. “She knew how to get her own way.”
* * *
The storm held off until their dark drive home. Sheila pressed against a corner of the backseat, behind her mother. In the flashes of lightning she watched ten-year-old Tommy, head against his window, feigning sleep. Her father hadn’t caught him smoking behind the pavilion.
Sheila had seen him, and warned, “Dad’s gonna give you one heck of a beating if he finds out.”
“How will that happen? You won’t tell.”
She never would.
After the picnics, Carl talked about his wife’s family and their ordeals for a good long while. The monologues always ended when Lily said, “I sure was lucky that you came along to save me.” Carl would push his spread hands into the wheel, steering with his large palms.
On this drive home in 1960, after he had hashed over the same territory and Lily reiterated her good fortune, after another crack of thunder, Carl turned to a new subject. Sensing the change, Sheila quit worrying about Tommy as well as Scarlett’s future, and tuned in on her parents.
“I don’t know what it is about Ronnie. He reminds me of the Old Man.”
Ronnie wasn’t that much ahead of Sheila—fifteen maybe. She found him to be boring with his round, bland face and heavy-lidded, pale-blue eyes.
“Why would you say that?” Lily’s voice tightened.
“His look.” Carl took a drag from a Lucky Strike. “That waiting-to-take-advantage look.”
“I don’t see it.”
“It’s there,” he persisted. “I know Ronnie’s had it hard. Good thing Leroy came along. To father the boy. Beverly’s damned fortunate she found someone to marry her with two kids in the bargain.”
Sheila recalled those nudges Leroy gave Ronnie when a girl walked by, his head swaying with the movement of her hips. And, the way Laurie turned red when she got the least bit close to him.
“You can see how much he cares for Laurie. Complimenting her in that backhand way of his.” Carl took another drag. “Mark my words, Ronnie should be watched.”
“You’re right,” Lily agreed the way she always did. “So, you had a good time?”
“I enjoy being with your family. You know that.” Avoiding a deep accumulation of rain, Carl swerved to the middle of the road, then quickly straightened the wheel.
Sheila wondered if Ronnie was really like her evil grandfather. Is that how he looked? Ronnie was a tall, heavyset kid—bigger than the other boys, but he never fought with them. He stared at the girls, but he never did anything—anything that she knew about. Not like his stepfather, Leroy. Sheila shivered, recalling his slithering hands. How could Cousin Beverly stand him? Did she know he acted like this? What about Laurie? Who should I tell? Can I tell anyone?
Her mother was happy. The storm had held off and the picnic had been another success. There’d be no headaches this night. Her father was happy. In his usual way, he’d sparked up the Norstads. Sheila didn’t know if Tommy was happy or not. Soon, she’d be home to her own dry bedroom, all her books, where she could forget about this day. It would be a whole year until another family picnic.