“When the lights go down in the city…”
I can’t remember the first time I spent the weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Perhaps I was four? Five? Old enough to sleep in the four-poster twin among the tiny blue paper flowers peeling from the walls in gradual curls. This was before the two extra rooms were built onto the kitchen for Great-Grandma to move in, and before they chopped down the apple and pear trees in the far corner of the backyard.
Matthew, of course, being the firstborn, had slept in this very bed many times before. I wonder if he also began on his back, eyes wide, clutching the flowered quilt under his chin as if it could save him from the heavy darkness. He never voiced his fears.
The nightlight was worse though. Instead of providing a false sense of safety, as it was intended to do, the amber ring of light illuminating the wallpaper cut through the pitch and allowed foreign shadows to gyrate across the room. I had to wait until the symmetrical spotlights crossed over the wall opposite the window — which was above my head — then pass over to the adjacent wall as the latest car drove by the house before I felt safe again. Sometimes I talked to Jesus until my eyelids dropped, and sometimes I sang myself to sleep.
My older brother and I shared a bedroom at home because our family of four recently became five, but the house only had three bedrooms. There was no way either of us was going to sleep in the same room as crying baby Jakob. My pink canopy bed sat parallel to the far wall, and Matthew’s queen, which was closer to the ground, was parallel to mine with a three or four foot gap in between. We must have thought Mom and Dad couldn’t hear us once they said goodnight and left the room because we threw off our covers and hopped from one bed to the other, giggling like mischievous leap frogs until one of our parents came back into the room and demanded we go to sleep. Other times Matthew and I made up conversations about nothing in particular or we traded stuffed animals, which were to us like the blanket to Linus in Charlie Brown. He gave me his favorite Dalmatian dog, and I let him sleep with my bear for the night. There was no nightlight in our room, but I do remember the moon shining through the window would cast a silver shadow on the end of Matthew’s bed.
Only one night at that house on Rickard Drive really sticks out in my mind. I like to think it’s because Matthew was there with me, but maybe that’s just me romanticizing my older brother. He couldn’t have been more than eight, which makes me six, the night the lights went out in Oswego, Illinois. We might have been watching TV, or eating dinner, or maybe we were doing both at the same time as was the tradition at Grandma and Grandpa’s because we weren’t allowed to at home. Whatever we were doing, though, all activity stopped when the lights flickered then went out. Complete darkness. Rain beat down on the roof as the wind whistled through unseen cracks in the windows and doors.
I helped Grandma light every candle we could find as the boys went in search of a high-powered flashlight, but I wasn’t scared of the dark. I wasn’t even scared of the impending shadows. Matthew was nearby. With the flashlight, Grandpa also brought a 5-gallon bucket full of water up from the basement like a magician pulling a white rabbit from his hat. I never did find out where the water came from, and neither Matthew or Grandpa explained. I suppose Grandma knew, but I never thought to ask. Somehow we passed the time, not knowing what time it really was, and I stuck to Matthew like gum on a shoe. He didn’t try to scrape me off. If I annoyed him that night, he never complained, so I soaked up his comfort to keep the shadows at bay.
I asked him once if he was ever afraid that night in the candle-lit dark. He looked at me the same way he had when I backed into his new motorcycle and sent it crashing into the door of his Cadillac. “What are you talking about?”