As I adjust the suspenders on Ellen’s outgrown snow pants, I ponder the word accident. Debbie Mandell had a skiing accident, broke her leg, and everyone signed her cast. Patty Zinn broke her foot by accident, playing golf with a baseball bat. She got a walking cast and could still run around the bases. It never occurs to me that accident means Mommy will be in the hospital for five weeks. That she will make the headlines of the Schenectady Gazette, “Woman Hit by Bus.” That the photo will show snowbanks on the corners of Balltown Road and Route 7 even more colossal than those at the end of the Thompson’s driveway. That the police will detail how an impatient bus driver rushed a red light, hit Mommy broadside, threw her barely hundred pound body out of our two ton Ford station wagon, across four lanes of traffic, and onto another snowbank the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Daddy picks me up from Thompsons, and my brother Bruce from Peter Snell’s. We slither out of our soggy snow pants and hang our frozen mittens on the heater grate. Daddy pops my favorite TV dinner, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peas into the oven, and we wait. I have no idea he’s been waiting for the doctors to remove Mommy’s ruptured spleen, set her broken collar bone and pelvis, and re-inflate her punctured lung. I have no idea that while I was heaving snowball after snowball at the invisible bad guys, Daddy was waiting to see if Mommy’s brain still worked after sloshing around in her skull like the contents of a snow globe.
In the morning Daddy drops Bruce and I off at the Palmeris, family friends. Mrs. Palmeri is even shorter than Mommy and always tan. She gives us strawberry Pop-Tarts, and we watch Captain Kangaroo with David Palmeri until the school bus comes.
After school Mrs. Spath, a gray haired woman I’ve never seen before, is in our kitchen making ham steaks and succotash. She doesn’t know I don’t especially like ham and Bruce hates succotash because it contains lima beans. But every day the old lady in the belted black dress comes back to do our laundry, vacuum the living room, and sweep the kitchen floor while I am learning to add fractions and find the lowest common denominator.
My teacher, Mrs. Harrington assigns me a new seat in the front row next to the new girl, Amy Garfield. We both have braided ponytails, hers ash blonde, mine strawberry. After lunch, Mrs. Harrington drones on about explorers. When she pronounces Francisco Pizarro’s last name, it sounds like something you do with arrows in the boy’s bathroom. My eyes bug out, and Amy and I stifle giggles. She invites me to sleep over. Since Mommy is still in the hospital, Daddy gives an easy yes.
Friday after school, I ride bus number four instead of bus number twenty-two, and Amy and I get off at her stop. We walk into a motherless kitchen. Amy gets a Pepperidge Farm chocolate cake out of the freezer and hands me a fork. We hack at it until the whole package is gone. She shows me the phone in her tiny room. It has a long, curly cord, and we take it into her closet to make prank phone calls.
When her mother comes home from work, she says we can sleep in Amy’s older brother’s room because he has a double bed. There is a TV right in his room, and we stay up way past the Flintstones watching Jack Parr. The audience is laughing, but I don’t get the jokes. When the only thing broadcast is the Indian chief test pattern, Amy turns off the set, and hauls a movie projector out of her brother’s closet. I fall asleep watching home movies of her father and her whole family skiing down Mt. Fujiyama in Japan where he was stationed in the Air Force before the divorce.
I don’t see Mommy until they take all the tubes out and she can smile. She lies cranked up in traction as I tell her about Lum Fung’s Chinese restaurant where Daddy takes us after church for Sunday dinner. So far Bruce and I have tried moo goo gai pan, egg foo young, egg rolls, and won ton soup. There is a huge picture of a horrible dragon hovering over our table.
After Easter, Mommy comes home, but not before I’ve learned what it is to have a kitchen without a mother in it, that a parent can leave you with no evidence of his existence except grainy films taken in a foreign country. Not before Amy shows me the broken down piano in her garage and teaches me to play both parts of “Heart and Soul.”
The monstrous snowbanks eventually melt, revealing pot holes all over the road. God has fought off my icy Armageddon and given me back what I didn’t realize I had.