Authors: Novella Carpenter
It was at one of these parties that my mom met Tom, a commune member with dark hair and a mellow pot smoker’s demeanor. He would become her long-term, but also long-distance, boyfriend.
In 1978, when I was five and Riana seven, we moved to Washington State. Mom got a teaching job there. Mom asked Dad if he cared if we left. He said that he didn’t. We met up with Dad one last time at the Ponderosa Café. We had been living in a teepee at my mom’s boyfriend Tom’s house that summer, shaking earwigs out of our clothes every morning and gazing up at the starry sky at night. Riana and I perched at the sticky counter at the Ponderosa while my mom waited, parked outside in the car, stuff packed for Washington, chain smoking Salems. We didn’t know it then, but she was terrified of Dad, what he might do. His tempers were epic.
At the café Dad descended upon us with kisses and hugs, smelling of wood smoke and tree sap, professing his love with a force that scared us. We hadn’t seen him much since the
divorce, and he was starting to fade from my reality. He ordered us Dr Peppers and burgers. While we ate, he stroked our hair, and seemed to jump out of the stool with his frenetic, cagey energy. Then he was gone, driving a different truck from the last time we saw him. Then it was our turn to disappear.
Feral sisters: Riana and Novella on Hood Canal, about to go oyster hunting, 1978.
fter sending Dad my request to see him, I didn’t have to wait long for his reply. The next day he wrote that the huckleberries would be ripe in August, and that would be a good time to visit.
The same day that I got his e-mail, I also got my period. I looked at the blush of blood, like a squashed thimbleberry. For the first time in my life, I regretted getting my period. I didn’t know then that this would happen to me nine more times before it was time to set off for Idaho to reunite with my father. Becoming a mother would be more difficult than I had thought.
When I first got his e-mail invitation I was thrilled. I grew dizzy with the things we would do together: We would go foraging! Maybe bow hunting! The missing years would knit together. We could fill each other in on what had happened, what mistakes had been made, and what we had learned from our long absences. I imagined the lost
woodlands of my childhood, the lush forest of Idaho, the sleepy town of Orofino with its sweet, clear river.
I could romanticize all this, as I left Idaho, and pretty much my dad, for good when I was five.
When we left, Mom portrayed the move away from Idaho as a big adventure. “There is a big ocean and giant mountains,” she told us while she drove away from Orofino headed to Washington State, “and salmon.” My sister and I were game. Of the many teaching jobs Mom applied for, she had gotten only one job offer: Hood Canal school, a K–8 on the Skokomish Indian reservation. The rez was on the Olympic Peninsula, on what’s often called the wet side of Washington State. Idaho rubs up against Washington’s eastern border, which is known as the dry side.
We drove for miles through the Palouse—the golden hills of wheat that roll through Idaho and eastern Washington. Then over the pass that marks the separation of the dry side from the maritime side of Washington State. Our things were packed into milk crates, which rattled against the back windshield. Our two house cats came along with us, panting in fear, crouched under the backseat.
The final miles of the journey brought us to the road to our soon to be home near Union, WA. The road was called the Purdy Cutoff. It was carved out of a lush forest of cedar and Douglas pine, hillsides thick with ferns and the constantly thriving blackberry vines. Even in the height of summer, the hills were blanketed by green moss. The August sun strobed through the leaves and hit the windshield. “It’s like
!” we gasped. Mom’s boyfriend Tom told us that we had hobbit feet—tough and calloused from walking around the ranch barefooted. Mom had read us JRR Tolkien’s book, priming us for the journey. Tom had left Farm Out by
then. He was getting his PhD in soil science at the University of Idaho in Moscow, and so stayed in Idaho with the promise he would eventually join us in Washington.
Our car heaved up on the gravel parking spot next to the cabin, which lay along the shoreline of the Hood Canal. The rental house—our new home—was tiny, painted green; it lay at the foot of some treacherous stairs. There was a small lawn, and a pier with a dock that gently rocked in the briny water. The fine green algae that grew on the dock looked like fairy hair to me, waving in the gentle waves. My sister and I had never tasted salt water before.
Everything was different, compared to Idaho. Instead of morel mushrooms, there were golden chanterelles. These grew on the steep hillside next to the cabin, glowing as they emerged from the moss-covered forest floor. The Clearwater River was replaced by the murky Skokomish River. Instead of the red-winged blackbirds who nested in the duck pond at the ranch, there were seagulls with their yellow beaks and beggar’s nature. There weren’t soft, dusty thimbleberry bushes, just the aggressive blackberry brambles. Chinook salmon, not rainbow trout, were sold by the Skok tribe, wood-smoked until they were orange and drenched with the taste of alder.
The cabin Mom rented was really meant to be a summer cabin—it had no insulation. But it came with furniture and it was cheap. Her new job was teaching fourth grade. She was thirty-seven and this was her first professional job. She shopped for schoolteacher clothes like corduroy skirts and cardigans and got a perm. Riana and I cried in terror when she came home from the hair salon, her long straight hair gone.
My sister and I dove into the new landscape and searched for what it had to offer. The ocean became our larder. Riana and I walked down the beach, carrying our oyster knife with
us. We shucked the oysters right there on the rocky shore, gulping them down, brine and all. Eric, a towheaded kid who lived a few docks down and was as feral as we were—but in a maritime way—recognized us as allies, and taught us some of his tricks. He motored us around the canal in his dingy and showed us how to catch Dungeness crab. The secret was rotten chicken backs. We tossed the rotted flesh into crab pots, sunk the trap into the water, and waited. It took only a few hours before the cage became full of writhing crabs. Eric showed us how to tell which ones were the males by the marks on their bellies, and those were the legal ones to take. We pulled blue-black mussels from the dock pilings and steamed them until their tender orange flesh was revealed.
We weren’t living on the ranch anymore, but life was still wild. A few weeks after my sixth birthday I walked down the pier and encountered a sea lion. He had been slumbering peacefully as I approached. He was covered with short brown hair and reeked of salty rot. As I stood next to him he opened his eyes and considered me. We contemplated each other for a while, then I reached out and patted his rump. His fur felt stiff yet soft. He made no move. Mom spotted me from the kitchen and let out a yell. Sea lions are known to be aggressive, knocking people into the water. Gouging them. Not my guy. He gently slipped into the water with a backward look, almost apologetic.
In 1980, Mount Saint Helens erupted. Though the mountain was 140 miles away, plumes of fine gray powder shrouded the sky. The devastation was epic: the blast was four hundred times stronger than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb; one hundred and fifty square miles of old-growth forest were destroyed.
As an eight-year-old, I was hopeful about the blast. Maybe
I wouldn’t have to go to school? I dreaded the classroom. One of my grade school teachers wrote the following evaluation about me: “Novella, as you know, is not a normal child, and never will be.”
• • •
When I was in second grade we moved again. It was so cold in the winter, and the landlords wanted to raise the rent on the cabin. We relocated away from the shores of the Hood Canal and into Shelton, a logging town ten miles from the canal. I learned to replace the beach’s larder with Mickey’s Deli, just across the alley from our new house. I had never had such immediate and direct access to candy before. I became a regular, slurping up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups instead of oysters. I quickly forgot about wild things. By then, Dad was almost completely forgotten.
Sometimes someone from school would ask “Where’s your dad?” knowing it would get a rise out of me. Not having a dad, I sensed, made me different from the other kids. I knew he was a logger—that’s what the postcards he had sent said. So I repeated that, saying that he was in a logging camp, and so he couldn’t come home, he could only send postcards. Some of the other kids in Shelton (home of the Highclimbers) had logger dads. I studied their dads’ clothing: Levi’s cut off at the shin, red suspenders, steel-toed boots. I imagined my dad dressed like that too.
I began experiencing pains in my leg. Debilitating pains that kept me home from school, where I would fry bacon and watch
Young and the Restless
. My mom took me to a doctor and after a session of X-rays and exams, he asked to speak with her alone. I’m pretty sure that’s when he told her that I was faking.
My mom, ever resourceful, came up with an idea to get me to go to school: stuffed animals. In addition to several house cats, I had a dizzying array of stuffed animals. What if Novella, she asked my teachers, could bring some of her stuffed animals with her to school? Every day I arrived at Evergreen Elementary with a plush polar bear, or Cookie, my stuffed monkey. They helped me make friends and get through the day.
I distinctly remember one day when, at recess, I deliriously tossed my polar bear into the air, a gang of children surrounding me in awe and delight. I knew in my heart of hearts that the polar bear I held in my arms was not real, not like the sea lion on the dock of the Hood Canal was real. The white plush toy was just a surrogate, an image I could make alive with my imagination. In a similar way, this was how I started to think of my dad. Because he was never around, it became natural to think of him however I wanted. In my mind, I created my perfect dad: friendly, helpful, loving. And best of all, my dad surrogate could shape-shift for my changing needs.
We got along fine without Dad. Mom had a good job and was frugal with money. She also made lots of friends, and started a garden at our new house in town. Tom came to live with us in Shelton every summer, on break from school, giving her a break from being a single parent.
Then, right after she turned forty, Mom woke up one morning to find her left eye had drifted off to one side. She couldn’t focus. Doctors didn’t know what it was. They told her to wear an eye patch. I didn’t understand and it freaked me out. To me, it seemed that Mom had turned into a pirate. She felt exhausted all the time, and needed to take long naps after work. She didn’t know it then, but her immune system
was attacking the myelin sheaths that lined her nerves. Eventually she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Instead of drawing our family closer together, Mom’s illness allowed me and my sister to run more wild. While my mom napped on the couch, Riana, who was just in middle school, was off smoking pot with high schoolers. I was in fifth grade, stealing money from my mom’s wallet to buy more candy. I had a major sugar addiction. I was giddy with the freedom my mom’s illness offered. Dad was only in the picture in that he sporadically sent us child support money. I began to value the money more than actually seeing him. I definitely didn’t fear any disciplinary action that he, as a father, might have delivered. Except the one time Mom actually used Dad as a form of punishment.
• • •
By 1984 Riana and I were both out of control. Riana got busted shoplifting a pair of Guess Jeans. I was twelve and was sure I could get away with anything. Candy no longer held as much of an appeal—I had discovered cigarettes. I would fish cigarette butts out of the ashtray of my mom’s Honda Civic (dubbed the rice burner by locals) and smoke them. When I took a hit from the bent cigarette, it tasted like burned mint, then I would feel my brain go frail and empty and almost pass out. It was a fantastic trick.
Then one day I almost burned down an apartment building. My accomplice was my new best friend, a good girl who lived down the street.
My new best friend and I sat on a bare mattress in the middle of an empty apartment that I had found a couple doors down from my house. We were puffing away. I noticed she wasn’t inhaling but didn’t say anything. I loved going to her
house because her mom was a homemaker and would often bake us cakes. Their house had hardwood floors and smelled like Murphy wood soap. Our house, in contrast, had funky blue shag carpet that always smelled of cat pee.
I had filched a pack of matches from my mom’s purse and started striking them, watching the flame come and then burn out. After a while, I held one of the matches up to the lacy curtains that hung in the window. The flame surged and bolted up the curtain, disintegrating the whole thing to the rod. “Cool,” my new best friend and I giggled. I burned another curtain while she watched.
Some of the unburned curtain fell to the floor and I gathered it into a pile on the mattress. “Watch this,” I said. The mattress caught on fire almost immediately, melting the polyester lining and searing a black hole into the middle. We ran. The blaze and smoke alerted the landlord and we were caught. I had to pay for the mattress and curtains, and she and I weren’t allowed to play together anymore. My other punishment: Although we had had virtually zero contact with Dad since leaving Idaho, I was sent to live at his house for the summer.
• • •
As it happened, Dad was living in the Rough House. After we left Idaho for good, Mom tried to sell her half of the ranch which included the Rough House and ninety acres. No one was willing to buy an unpermitted house in the middle of nowhere. Then Dad offered to buy it. He had reunited with his high school sweetheart, and though he had almost no money of his own, he cajoled her into buying the house and the land.
Dad met up with Mom for the daughter handoff in
Yakima. Riana came along with me, and we brought our cats too. Mom went to Tom’s house in Moscow that summer; Dad took us back to Orofino, up to the ranch.
It was like we had never left the ranch, everything was the same. We climbed up the wide wooden front porch where Riana and I had learned to pee standing up. I clamped down the front door’s black metal latch and swung the door open into the kitchen. The sink was to the right; the woodstove where Mom cooked us pancakes was still there on the left. I scampered down the low-slung set of stairs that led to the living room and felt the cool red clay tiles. The windows, covered in spiderwebs, looked out over the Idaho hills.
Though the house looked the same, Riana and I were very different by then. We had fully embraced the greed-is-good ethos of the 1980s. I watched the television show
and fully related to Krystle Carrington. I was a hick girl in a hick town living in a house that smelled like cat piss, but I liked to imagine myself flying in helicopters and striding through my twenty-three-bedroom mansion. When I got rich (winning the lottery), I wrote in my diary, I would buy “mass clothes” and a mansion for my sister and mom. I also planned to buy a three-story condo in California for my best friends. Dad was not included in the distribution of my fantasy prize winnings.
My sister and I had turned into rabid consumers of trendy garments like Coca-Cola polo shirts and Benetton sweaters. My sister, smelling of Giorgio of Beverly Hills, liked to take a crimping iron to her hair; I rolled mine up in hot rollers and slept on them at night so I would have spiraling princess hair. “The bigger the hair, the closer to god,” was the ideal, and hairspray sealed my tidal wave of hair.