I always thought I disliked eggs, that they weren’t my thing, until I made the connection between them and 1975. (My clenching stomach served as the time machine.)
It was the summer of my twelfth year, when we drove from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson River Valley. While I lay on the floor of our curtain van, I listened as my mother and sisters wept their way out of Colorado, and 2000 miles of clouds passed by.
A year earlier, during the final stretch of my father’s medical residency, their voices grew loud enough to wake me in my basement bedroom. Later I watched as he emptied bottles down the drain, demanding to know her hiding places.
“Watch your mother,” he said. “She’s sick. Don’t let her get more.”
My stomach clenched.
The warnings continued after we arrived at West Point, and soon after, my mother left, taking the youngest two with her. I entered Junior High, the 5th school of my elementary career, the following week. One of our first assignments was to go to the fabric store “with your mother” to buy a yard of material.
My stomach clenched.
I flushed with embarrassment and relief when my new friend, Trudy Conti, asked her mother if I could go along with them. I watched as Mrs. Conti hesitated. Later she laughed as she wrapped the tape measure around my undeveloped breasts.
I missed my mother.
Mrs. Conti was German. She made a delicious noodle called Spaetzle, and Trudy shared chewy fruit candies sent by her grandparents. Trudy was born in Germany, but she hadn’t been there since she was five. That’s when her mother met and married her stepfather. Captain Conti was now an esteemed West Point TAC (a professor at the military school) who in his spare time molested his stepdaughter.
“Tell your mother,” I urged Trudy, from the floor of her television room, inside our sleeping bags.
When she finally did, Mrs. Conti slapped her: “Do you want to go back to Germany with nothing!”
We were too afraid of Captain Conti to tell anyone else. I once watched him swipe the back of his hand across Trudy’s cheek right in front of Eisenhower Hall. He spied her talking to boys after the movie.
Trudy spent a lot of time with boys. She developed early. In the hallways of schools and theaters and football stadiums, boys would grab her breasts and buttocks, and Trudy would laugh. But I saw the sadness beneath her dismissal.
When Mrs. Conti wasn’t home, Captain Conti took Trudy into the bathroom and locked the door. He showed her how it changed and grew hard. Other times, he lay behind her on the couch while they watched television, and then turned her toward him to put his tongue in her mouth.
Mrs. Conti taught us about our periods when they came. She showed us how to use a calendar. How to count the days. When to expect our next bleed.
I don’t remember much else about the months without my mother. My father was the one to care for us in her absence and that was… strange. He’d been away most of my life–first at college, then medical school, then his internship and residency. But now he had a day job at the base hospital.
On the evening of the neighborhood block party, he seemed embarrassed without a wife, but he rose to the occasion, preparing a “Caesar Salad” in his mother’s large wooden bowl in which my mother served popcorn. I didn’t even know he could cook.
“It’s my specialty,” he pronounced.
We stayed at the party until after dark, and even though it was a school night, our father was magically warm and cheery, and didn’t send us right to bed when we got home. My sister and I watched him from the couch with cautious delight, sensing he had slipped into that soft place so familiar and unsettling in our mother.
During the bulk of her absence, her laissez-faire parenting was replaced with his operating-room autocracy. Breakfast was served at 8. His favorite. Just the way he liked them. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t hungry and didn’t like them runny. “Eat them,” he said of the over-easy eggs before me.
My stomach clenched.
More than thirty years later, I find myself living next door to a friend with chickens. “Jodi’s eggs are the best,” my son proclaims again and again, encouraging me to give them a try. And so I do–even the green ones–and to my surprise I find that I almost enjoy them every once and awhile.
Recently, however, I’ve done something alarming. I’ve taken an an egg for breakfast four days in a row. My stomach clenches–and I don’t know why. Until I track it back thirty years.
I’ve made this trip at least once before–with my father. I was in my twenties, teaching middle-school at the time. A speaker came to talk to the kids about sexual abuse, encouraging them to “Tell someone,” and I realized that I was among those who “never told.” And so I did, a decade too late.
My father listened and assured me that he could have handled Captain Conti. He would have taken him aside and threatened him with exposure and insisted on weekly reports from a psychiatrist. (My father outranked him.)
Although it didn’t change a thing about what happened to Trudy, I felt better.
After my freshman year in high school, my father retired from the Army, and I never saw my friend again. Trudy moved with her family to Texas. She wrote me about her boyfriend “Brownie” and sent a long of photo of her, older, but with the same smile–sad and hopeful.
I think of Trudy whenever my dad comes to visit. I rework that time over and over again in my mind to see if I can’t find some way for my twelve-year old self to tell; but my friend’s confidence is too precious, and Captain Conti’s threat too looming; and even as an adult, I’m not sure that it would have turned out any better for Trudy if I had.
My father is older now, still a physician, but no longer practicing surgery. He finally sits still long enough for me to make him breakfast. I fry him up some of my neighbor’s eggs–just the way he likes them–and we eat them together.
(privacy note: the name of my childhood friend has been changed)