When I was 10 years old, my mom & dad were separated, and my mom and us kids went to stay with my cousins and my aunt & uncle for awhile. It was a very traumatic time, as you might imagine. I worshipped my dad and missed him terribly.
I had always tried to win my dad’s favor. I wanted to stand out from the rest of us five kids, by more than just the virtue of being the oldest and a girl. Also, I had learned a rather disconcerting fact, from overhearing many a conversation as I was growing up. ‘Little eyes have big ears,’ you know. My dad, like a lot of fathers, felt proudest that he had produced a son, which was my 7 year old brother, the only boy among us.
Consequently, I spend a lot of time trying to impress my dad with how tough I was. In front of my dad and his visiting friends, I smilingly squeezed down cheese crackers with horseradish on them, though they made my eyes water and my throat burn. And, I ate my full-sized shredded wheat biscuit, made soggy by pouring hot water over it, in milk and doused with salt and a generous amount of pepper. My dad always ended up beaming with pride at my feats of daring, and that made me very happy.
Well, with my dad not around, I guess I ended up transferring my need for fatherly approval to my stern Uncle George. A self-employed descendent of Portuguese immigrants, he was always busy working, at his job or at home, just like my dad. But, unlike my dad, Uncle George liked to hunt, and he had two younger brothers that he took with him, Larry and Tony.
I had what I thought was a secret crush on Uncle Tony. But somehow, Uncle George had found out, and had threatened to tell him about the fact that I had recently begun sucking my thumb again, probably because I missed “the good old days” when my dad was around. That threat had worked better than the Tobasco sauce they had tried using, to get me to give up that childhood habit ‘cold turkey.’ I wanted Uncle Tony, who was probably 14 or so at the time, to like me. So, that habit had to go.One morning, I woke up early and strolled into the kitchen to find my uncle, clad in a camouflage coverall, sitting at the breakfast table, with his hunting rifle propped up against the wall by the door. “Uncle George, can I go hunting with you?” I asked, trembling.
My uncle sat there chewing for a very long minute, as I felt my face turning bright red with a mixture of embarrassment and fright. I kept my eyes on his face, waiting for a sign as to whether I should run or stay, but he didn’t look up.
Finally, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Before anyone goes hunting, they have to learn how to clean what they shoot.” I was stunned and disappointed, but there was no turning back now. And before I knew it, I found myself blurting out, way too quickly “I can do that!”
“Be ready when I get back,” was all he said, as he got up from the table, picked up his cap, and grabbed his gun. He disappeared out the door, without another word, as I stood there in my bare feet on the cold linoleum floor, with tears brimming down my cheeks. I wouldn’t get to go this time.
For the next four hours, I readied myself and the bathroom sink for the all-important task of cleaning something. I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. It might be a rabbit or a duck. I hadn’t thought to ask my uncle what he was hunting that morning. But, that didn’t matter; I was going to clean it, whatever “it” turned out to be.
After I ate my breakfast and hurriedly got dressed, I scrubbed and bleached the bathroom sink, and laid out plastic on the floor, like my aunt showed me to do. Then, I literally paced the floor, going from the bathroom to the kitchen, to look at the clock on the stove, and back again, until my uncle finally strode through the door, carrying his gun and a burlap gunny sack with my surprise cleaning project in it.
He proceeded to pull out a chair from under the kitchen table, and sat down heavily, dropping the sack by his side on the floor. I was bursting with curiosity, which I tried to hide, because I thought looking over-anxious would be taken by my uncle as a sign of immaturity on my part. I wanted him to hurry up and show me what was in the bag, and let me get started with my highly-privileged task, before I did something childish and somehow disqualified myself.
Well, Uncle George knew how to drag out the suspense. First, he had me pull his muddy boots off. Then, I had to take them outside and brush them off. I knew I had to do a good job, or I wouldn’t get to my greatly-anticipated cleaning task.
After, brushing every speck of dirt from his caked boots, I hesitatingly entered the kitchen to find Uncle George silently eating his lunch. I just about couldn’t stand it any longer. But sure enough, without even looking back over his shoulder at me, he reached down to his side, grabbed up the sack, and tossed it towards the bathroom door.
I rushed over, grabbed up my prize, went into the bathroom, and quickly closed and locked the door behind me. I felt all flushed when I opened the burlap sack to see what was inside.
Inside was a bird with multi-hued brown feathers, a white ring around the neck, and a beautiful dark-green head, which flopped over limply, as I held up the sack to dump the poor dead bird into the sink. It was a pheasant.
Ugh! When the bird fell into the sink, deep red stains were mixed with the soft, brown feathers, and it smelled kinda funny. I didn’t want to touch that bird, never mind clean it! I didn’t know what to do next.
After staring at the beautiful, but very dead pheasant for a few more minutes, I thought maybe I should start pulling out some feathers. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, though, without having to touch those sticky bloody places. “I know, I’ll rinse the blood off under the faucet,” I thought to myself, relieved and rather proud that I now had a plan.
But, my elation was short-lived. As soon as I started running the water over the bird, the water began to turn red and fill up the sink. Now what?
I turned off the water and started to cry. I had no idea what I was doing. I prayed that no one would want to get into the bathroom and end up seeing how totally lost I was. Fear made me cry even harder, but I dared not make a sound. I didn’t want Uncle George to find out that I couldn’t do the important job he’d given me.
After a few minutes, I decided that I’d wait until my uncle finished eating and went back outside. That was one thing I could count on: as long as it was daylight, Uncle George would be outside working on something.
Sure enough, I heard the kitchen chair scraping across the floor, and knew that Uncle George was getting up to go outside. I waited until I heard the door click and then slowly unlocked and opened the bathroom door. My aunt was busily clearing the table and I wasted no time asking for her help with a plan.
“Aunt Rosemarie, what do I do?” I pleaded in utter desperation. She stopped what she was doing and went over to the kitchen drawer to get out a sharp knife and handed it to me. “Be very careful with this,” she warmed. ” I’ll show you what to do with it after you finish plucking all the feathers.” I had never even been allowed to touch sharp knives before that day, so I was excited that, after today, I would be more grown-up, and Uncle Tony would be sure to notice. My aunt then led me into the bathroom, put the knife on the edge of the sink full of bloody water, and began showing me how to grab handfuls of feathers and pluck them out. “I’ll come help you finish, after you get all the feathers off,” she told me, assuringly. Then, she went back to her kitchen, humming, like it was no big deal.
Mildly relieved, I went to work pulling out feathers. I tried to avoid the bloody spots, and concentrated on the cleaner side of the bird. As the minutes passed, I plucked and pulled and plucked some more. I’d get an itch and have to stop and wash my hands, then scratch and get right back to work. Over and over again, the same thing happened. Itch, wash, scratch, get back to work. After awhile, it got to be too much trouble to wash. So, I just tried to wipe the clingy feathers off on my clothes, then scratch and keep on working.
Of course, I didn’t always get all the feathers wiped off before I started scratching. So, the next thing I knew, I had feathers in my hair, in my collar, on my socks, and all over my clothes. And, there were piles of feathers all over the plastic at my feet. There were, literally, feathers everywhere—including all over the pheasant. I had been plucking for what seemed like hours, yet the bird still wasn’t completely cleaned. And it smelled awful!
I felt the tears welling up in me again. I could hear my aunt in the kitchen starting on supper! Just how long had I been doing this? I wiped my sticky, bloody, feathered hands on my sides, and looked around the corner into the kitchen. Six o’clock. I had been working for 6 hours. and I was no where near done! And, just then, my uncle strode through the door into the kitchen.
I quickly shut the bathroom door and collapsed in a pile of feathers and tears. I don’t know how long I was there, but finally, my aunt came to the door and told me to stop and eat supper. She grabbed a clean towel to put on my chair at the table. I slipped out of the bathroom and closed the door behind me, so my uncle wouldn’t see what a poor job I had made of the cleaning job he’d given me.
Supper was chili, and since I was having so much trouble with the pheasant, I decided to try to impress my uncle with my chili-eating ability. I ate three whole bowls, then excused myself from the table to get right back to my bird.
Once back in the bathroom, though, I was faced with the stark reminders of my failure. There were so many clumps of feathers scattered on and around the plastic on the floor, that it looked like a pillow had exploded. Yet, there was that awful bird, still lying in the sink, still sporting quite a few feathers. And I hadn’t even gotten to the part where I’d get to use the sharp knife yet.
As I grabbed a clump of feathers and began plucking half-heartedly, I started to feel warm and sweaty all over. I was really disappointed that it had taken so long to accomplish so little, and it would still be several more hours before I would be finished. That thought swept over me like the warm, sweaty feeling of a minute ago, but this time it was a cold, clammy feeling. I wiped my mouth off with the back of my feathered hand, getting a few of the feathers stuck on my lips. I tried to spit out the feathers, but instead, they stuck to my tongue. The more I tried to spit them out, the farther back in my mouth they went. At the same time, I was feeling more waves of warmth sweep over me. My mouth starred watering, and I tried to swallow.
That was a mistake. The feathers got stuck at the back of my throat and on the roof of my mouth. Then, suddenly, I burped and tasted the chili that I’d eaten at supper. My mouth started watering again, and I closed my eyes as I got warm again all over. And, the next thing I knew, I suddenly felt like I was exploding.
All I remember is that, when I opened my eyes, there was chili and bird feathers everywhere. My aunt burst through the door and proceeded to tell me that I could stop working and that everything would be ok. But, with my head reeling and tears streaming down my face, I blurted out that I could not stop, that I had to finish my job, so I could go hunting. Just then, my uncle stuck his head in the doorway above my aunt’s. This was his first look at the catastrophe I’d created in the bathroom. He took one quick look, let out a chuckle, and said,”That’s OK. You don’t have to finish.”
“But, I won’t get to go hunting!” I protested. “Don’t worry. We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” he assured me. He stuck his head out of the doorway, leaving my aunt to tend to me and her poor bathroom.
For most of that night, I was up and down to the bathroom, sick at both ends, and miserable. The pheasant was tossed out, as was my excitement for hunting with Uncle George to impress Uncle Tony. I hoped he would never bring the whole subject up again, and he never did.
After all that, I found out a few days later that Uncle Tony had a girlfriend. So, all my heroic efforts and suffering had been for nothing. Well, almost nothing.
It turns out, I liked to draw—especially animals. So, for a long time after that, whenever one of my drawings called for a bird, it usually turned out to be an amazingly-detailed drawing of a ring-necked pheasant!