I don’t know how many places we lived after Rainbow Village. Always moving because of unpaid rent or just because he thought he'd found a better deal. One of the places we moved to was his mother's trailer in Lindbergh. Living next door to my mother-in-law guaranteed vermin and constant verbal abuse. I did my best to avoid her and going into her house. This of course led to more accusations of laziness and uppityness.
Estella had decided to raise rabbits for research labs. She had read somewhere this was a get-rich-quick scheme. The Med Center in Columbia was always doing research. It was perfect. She'd be rich. The rabbit's cages were all over the house; their droppings fell to the carpet. They made the house smell. She could never understand why I would clutch Nathan so tightly when we would be at their house. They would tell me to make a pallet (folded blanket) and put him on the floor. I couldn’t. I wouldn't.
One day we were summoned for Sunday dinner with my mother-in-law and George. The table was in the kitchen, next to the washing machine connected to the sink with the wastewater draining in the front yard. The propane gas stove was filled with dishes cooking under the watchful eye of Estella. She was a cook by trade.
The bathroom attached to the kitchen had no light fixtures. It had a window, so during the daytime you could see where the roaches and the mice were. At night, it was a different story. The bathtub was usually black unless someone cleaned it for a bath. I never knew what made it so black.
As we sat down to eat, there was fried meat on the table. I had long since mastered the skill of cutting a whole chicken and frying it for supper. This was not a chicken. There were green beans with potatoes flavored with salt pork. Biscuits, gravy and other standard fare graced the table.
We crowded around the feast she had prepared. What was I going to do? I knew I had to eat. The safest thing on the table was the potatoes and green beans. While overcooked and unappealing, they were the best option. I knew I had to eat the meat. I knew if I didn’t I would be disrespectful to Estella. In addition to the harangue I would get from her, Alvin would continue it when we went back to our trailer next door. There was no escape.
Like the cats that tormented the mice in her living room, she started. She shoved the meat in front of my face. I took a piece. She said take another. I did. She smiled. Nathan was on my lap. Almost like a security blanket or a defense shield, I clutched him tightly. I was thankful he was too young to be given meat. I broke a small bite of potato and put it in his mouth.
I pushed things around on my plate for a while. I was examining the bone structure. Like a culinary trivia game, I studied to determine its origin. I had no idea.
She must have known I was uncomfortable. After all, I was that city-girl, the uppity one. Finally, I tasted it. It wasn’t too bad. I just wasn’t sure what I was eating. That bothered me a lot. Once she knew I had tasted her creation, she asked me how I liked it. I lied and said it was very good. Then she asked me, do you know what it is? I said no, I don’t.
She had me. She was ready for the kill. She knew I was afraid of her. She had planned this. She said, it’s a squirrel. George went hunting and killed him a squirrel. It’s good isn’t it? Fighting the surge of nausea, I smiled and said yes. She continued, I bet you ain't never had squirrel before? I said, No.
As the carnival fun house mechanical woman on the Coney Island boardwalk she laughed. She said Hell, that ain’t no squirrel. Everyone was laughing by now.
You thought you were eating squirrel!!
That’s one of them there rabbits I raise. It died.
So, I cooked it. I have a few others frozen in the freezer.
I’ll give you one to take home.
The frozen rabbit sat in the back of my freezer for a long time. Too afraid to throw it away but never planning to eat it, it just sat there. Sometimes I wondered if it really was a rabbit. It looked like it could have been a cat. One never knew with these folks.
I managed to find a way to never eat there again. Nevertheless, we continued to visit. She was my mother-in-law. Nathan was her grandchild. They were now my family. Alvin had half siblings who lived in Kansas City. Occasionally we would go visit. One night we were on our way to his brothers. That 1951 Chevy tank blew a rod. Late at night we sat along I-70. Eventually we rode back to Columbia in the cab of a semi. I trucker picked us up.
Alvin’s oldest sister Gloria was just like her mother. While she and her mother would often fight, she also targeted me with hateful words and actions. A family tragedy, the death of her teen age daughter in a car accident took us to her house for a few days. I did my best to stay out of everyone's way. This was not the time for trouble.
Trouble found me. Gloria was telling her mother that she'd had a biopsy that was benign. She said she had cancer. I may not have finished high school but I knew that benign did not mean cancer. I knew that malignant was the term for cancer. Foolishly, thinking to reassure her that she did not have cancer, I politely corrected her. All hell broke loose. I learned to keep my mouth shut at all times.
I think I learned to keep my mouth shut too well. It took a very long time to find my voice. With my hair nearly long enough for a bun and my dresses covering my knees and arms, I was the picture of a godly young woman. I was no more a woman than a little girl playing dress-up with her mother's clothes.
Behind the doors of that trailer, behind the image of holiness, was a very hurt little girl and her infant son. Soon we'd go off to Bible school.