The first time I heard the phrase “mind like a steel trap” was when my father, PigPen, had a quiet sit-down with my siblings. My mother was elsewhere. Likely still asleep in her bed.
“Mom’s been sick in the mornings lately. You’ve noticed, I’m sure,” he began.
We had only one bathroom back at the tiny house that had what my mother described as “cardboard walls”. We nodded to PigPen, yes.
“So it’s only in the mornings. And her appetite is weird. And she’s gaining weight. Sensitive about all that. Which means…” He waited.
“She’s pregnant,” I answered.
He pointed to me like I was a contestant on the Price is Right. “Mind like a steel trap,” he said.
I had never heard the phrase before and so juggled with it. Like a raccoon? A bear leg getting caught? Was he complimenting me? I could not be certain. But my mind also ticked through the idea that Mother was going to have a baby. I was 12 years old. There would be 13 years separating us, which was odd when I thought about it. But not totally unusual since our parish had many families with disperately aged siblings. One family named all 10 children with the letter M – Marvin, Maureen, Michael, Monster, etc, and the ones my age had grown adult brothers who were already married.
There might have been some noise, some chaos in response to our parents’ news. But there was also excitement, which grew. Something new was coming to our house, and hopefully it would be a good thing. Mother swelled up all over, not just in baby growing real estate. We ate a lot of tv dinners on tv trays in front of the tv, never before done since we always ate cooked dinners at the table, tv and radios off. Mother’s cooking was much better but, to be honest, there was excitement in uncovering foil from the top of a 4 course meal in compartments like children did on tv. Mother was having a baby and all we got were these lousy dinners.
One evening she and PigPen discussed possible names with us, PigPen jotting down notes in a pocket-sized notebook that cost him 10 cents. I was convinced the baby was a boy. I urged them to consider the name Benjamin. Mother said, “It would be asymmetric if this one were a boy. Girl, boy, girl, boy, boy.”
I’d heard the word asymmetric before.
I countered. “But no one else has your brown eyes, the dominant trait,” I said.
“So they say,” my brother, the German, added.
When Mother was showing off her intelligence, I wanted to join her, meet her at her level. I knew I was deficient.
Still, I lobbied for Benjamin so strenuously that I had no capacity for hearing anyone else’s suggestions. I think they all may have just shrugged their shoulders and gone with it.
The last time I successfully exerted my will over something intractable were two times. The first effort was willing my hands to grow large enough to wear and operate my new first baseman’s mitt. The mitt from K-Mart fit PigPen’s hand perfectly. That it would also work for a fifth grade girl was impossible. PigPen put grease all over it when we got it home, and put it under his mattress and slept on it for a few days so that there would be a fold, which hopefully would help me wield the thing. It did not take long for me to single-handedly catch the burning throws from Beth Hurley at shortstop.
The second triumph of will came when PigPen bought a guitar that was too large for my hands to cover the neck. I could not play a single chord on this guitar, but I stared at my fingers and stretched them over the fret through the hours, days, weeks, until I could cover a B7 without it sounding like jazz, something off, something not quite right.
The children in my family all had common first names. Technically, our parents did too except officially they had really unique nicknames that their own parents had given to them, and they’d stuck. Perhaps my insistence on a Benjamin was one to reset our family trajectory. The name wasn’t too foreign, but it wasn’t common either. There weren’t any at school. Just off enough to skew original.
For a moment, I also considered suggesting the name Henry. The top of my right knee sported a wart that no topical treatment could remove. It looked like a button, rectangularish and flat, like in an elevator, only my wart wasn’t smooth. I would stare at it during gym class. A couple of my friends would show off their double-jointedness. Feel this, they would say, everyone feeling less inhabited in their gym shorts and T shirts. I kept my face blank while feeling their joints. I offered up my wart, the button, which was pushed repeatedly. I named it Henry. I decided that if the baby were named Henry, my button pushing friends would make the connection, and doom my baby brother. So Benjamin it was.
Until Mother rushed to the hospital with my sister and PigPen and … gave birth to a brown-eyed girl.
Once the shock wore off, I ran up a couple of blocks to the little store that sold all kinds of candy including novelty items like banana taffy, Jolly Ranchers, and occasionally cherry bombs, along with magazines, paperback novels, camera film, and tobacco products. I grabbed up the entire box of bubblegum cigars. They came in pastel colors of pink, green, and yellow, and flavors corresponding to their color. It was a temptation I risked due to the occasion. Normally I would chew the gum, and then swallow it despite many admonitions by everyone that eating gum meant a lifetime of digestion problems. It was delicious. Why not continue that deliciousness to the very end, was how I saw things.
I handed out those cigars to neighbors, family, and even mailed some in a soft brown package to my Mother’s cousins in South Africa. How cool would that be, to get tasty gum announcing another child with a common name to our go along get along family in America? When I first heard Mother telling me her cousin lived in South Africa with her husband and children, I said, “We have relatives in AFRICA?” I tried to picture them but came up blank.
“South Africa,” she corrected me. To me, it sounded like saying “South Bend, Indiana” but it was still Indiana. I told some friends at school “AFRICA!” Their eyes went wide. They said, “They’re black?” “No, white!” No one knew what to say so we never brought it up again until Apartheit became more known to us in the US, but then that was in high school where we had 40 minutes of politics once a week.
The little baby was very cute and very round. I could not remember what I thought of with the other siblings, since we were born more closely together. The fifth baby stood out as everything we were not, so we treated her, or at least I did, with an approach I had not applied to the others. Or I think I did. More helpful, more open, more happy. With this sister I would not fight, while being forced to share a bed at Grandmother’s house. No pinching, no teasing, no competing. All that was done with regarding number 5.
We moved house again, and I moved away to various fits and farts in college. I became the sister who was away. 5 grew up in a house I didn’t really know. When I returned for holidays and visits, there my parents would be, changed from the last I’d seen them, along with 5 who grew in fits and farts all her own. So different a childhood than mine. So much her parents’ child in ways that suited them and more novel than any Benjamin could be.