BETWEEN THE STACKS
Vern was an awkward boy, built square, as wide as he was tall, a pale-skinned boy and very shy. Each time he was called on in class and met the teacher’s demand for a certain fact, I was surprised to hear his voice, a very thin and high pitched squeak, not at all what you would expect from his substantial physical appearance.
He was the last to be chosen to a team during the gym class. He moved slowly, as if he was not certain that he could count on his limbs actually following through on the brain’s commands. Vern tried to be invisible especially at those times.
Vern was the teacher’s last resort in the classroom. Vern always knew the answer to any question; his knowledge seemed beyond his age and more like an adult’s, not a sixth grader. I bet he knew as much as my auto-didactic dad.
Vern was an enigma. He never participated in any of the school events, nor did I see him around town with his parents, or with other relatives. Vern’s family did not go to our church, although he was enrolled in our Christian school. We kids knew very little about Vern. He didn’t have friends. He generally stood by the wall close to the entrance doors that were locked during recess time, as if he couldn’t wait to be let back in. Other kids were running around the school yard playing. Vern was too awkward to even be asked to play. I don’t think he ever asked anybody to play with him either.
Two kinds of parents sent their kids to my school. One kind chose our school as the only one on this side of the east bound highway to Germany that cut our village in two. Their kids walked to school without having to put their lives in danger crossing that two-lane main traffic artery.
The other kind of parents – mine – selected the small, separate school for its strict adherence to religious underpinnings, bible stories in the curriculum, and the practice of prayer at the start of the day. I was pretty sure that Vern’s parents belonged to the first category, because I had never seen Vern in our church.
I found out where Vern lived by accident through my buddy-next-door, Hank. His family had run the bakery cum grocery store on the corner from my street for generations. The business had a delivery service: twice a week for bread, once a week for groceries; bread delivery was often left to the elder children – under 13 years old – and sometimes also friends of the family pitched in. Hank was born the second of seven kids. They used bicycles equipped with a carrier over the hind wheel that held dual-sided, large canvas bags. That was for the bread. Hank’s parents delivered the groceries with the family’s station wagon packed to the hilt, on Fridays. No matter the weather, the deliveries had to go out.
One day Hank said he would show me where Vern lived. We were making deliveries after school, Hank on the bike with his bike’s side bags bulging with bread; I rode my own bike.
Hank was allowed to take the back entrance wherever he went. As the delivery boy he was required to use the back door and would have received a chiding had he rang the door bell at the front, forcing the resident to drop what she was doing to answer the door.
When we entered through the back door of Vern’s home, I thought that we had entered the shed or a utility room, because piles of newspapers were stacked up in rows all the way up to the ceiling.
In those days people collected all kinds of things, such as newspapers, metal scraps and old clothes, to sell for a small sum to the local recycling business we called the Rag Man, a Gypsy who ran his business from a large barn in the oldest part of town two blocks from my home. Vern’s “shed” with recyclables and stacked newspapers was nothing unusual to me.
Hank called out: “Hello, the baker!”
We heard a response from inside the home: “Come on in, Hank.”
A woman appeared who obviously could have been nobody other than Vern’s mother. She had his face, but older, and the same stocky built with the same mousy-coloured, thin hair that lay flat and greasy against her head in a blunt cut.
Behind her stood Vern. We said “hi” to each other hardly audible, our eyes hardly met before glancing away quickly.
“Hi Hank, how are you? And who is this young lady you brought along?”
Hank explained: “This is a friend and she’s in the same class as Vern. She’s helping me today”.
“That’s nice of her. How’s your mother?”
“Mother is fine. She is asking if you plan on coming to the store to pick up the groceries Friday.”
“I’ll let her know, it depends on the weather. So, Vern, you know this young lady then?”
Vern confirmed with a nod that yes, he knew me. Vern looked as timid as he was in school and stayed quiet during our brief visit, standing around behind his mom. His mother seemed more talkative and was very friendly to us. She beckoned us to come inside the house and told Hank to drop the bread off in the kitchen.
We moved into a different space as told. I followed Vern’s mom and Hank. I was not really aware it was a different space, as we were unable to see any walls or doorways. We walked through small corridors between the rows of stacked magazines, newspapers, cardboard boxes with who knows what, and books stacked all the way up to the ceiling. The home looked like a corn maze made of paper in all of its possible manifestations. We very well could be in the living room, by the looks of a chair at the end of a paper path.
I followed Hank who moved deeper into the paper forest. We must have ended up in the kitchen, as I saw a sink, with empty cans and jam jars in boxes covering the countertop completely, arching for the ceiling. The rest of that space was full with much of the same: paper. I saw no stove and no table, or anything that might indicate a kitchen cabinet for plates and cookware.
I wondered how Vern’s mother cooked their meals and realized in the next minute that maybe they did not cook, just ate from the can, or ate sandwiches, bread. No wonder Hank was received so welcoming: he literally brought their daily bread, doing God’s work.
Vern’s mom and Hank chatted a bit more; she seemed smart and normal to me. Then Hank told her: “We have to be getting on; we have more deliveries to make.” We left.
I was starting to realize the weirdness of Vern’s situation and his home, could not wrap my head around it: this smart classmate of mine, who was destined for university and was considered a genius at school, and yet he was coming from this unusual home and this mother. The woman was kind and seemed normal in all ways, just wasn’t a good housekeeper. I was confused.
My mom was a good housekeeper who washed her windows every 2 weeks, daily dusted the furniture and at least weekly vacuumed, who scrubbed her doorstep weekly and polished the copper doorknob and letter slot as well. She did the laundry every Monday and Tuesday. That was normal to me.
I was floored by Vern’s mother and the way her home was not what I considered “proper”. Yet, she treated us with respect and not like my parents who thought that kids need to play outside and be quiet, be seen and not heard, heck, preferably not even be seen. That did not meant my parents didn’t love us, just that it wasn’t important to spend quality time with your kids. In the large families of those days before the invention of “the pill” kids mainly raised each other: the older ones taught their young siblings.
As kids we were a loosely formed band of neighbourhood kids that got together and roamed the town and the forest surrounding it for their entertainment. We spent our days outside doing kids’ things, unsupervised by adults. Vern was not part of that group. I imagined that he read and had conversations with his parents. His father was a farm labourer. I imagined things were tight around his home and food not important, judging by the state of the kitchen. But then, no children I knew those days had wealthy parents.
Vern and his mother were the first unusual persons I met. They did not fit the template of my eight year old self on how people should be, which had really been my parents’ template. I was unsure how to evaluate the new information about Vern. He was an outsider at school, a very smart outsider. Did he know something about the world that I didn’t? Why did he stay on the sidelines? Vern was left alone by the other kids – no, ignored. Not by Hank who always greeted Vern cheerily. As a representative of his family’s business and taught by his kind and gracious mother, Hank accepted all kinds of people as a matter of fact. He treated anybody with joviality and kindness.
From that day on I made a point of saying hello to Vern at school in passing. Although I did not become his buddy, I did not join in the occasional negative talk about him around the play ground. We kids just played.
Vern continued to make himself scarce and hung around the edges of the school yard. He did not make it hard to avoid him. I imagined he was aware of his home’s unusual appearance and might have felt unable to invite anybody to his home, if he ever had made a friend. Now that the cat was out of the bag, he seemed less strange to me.
Vern went to a different high school than me, in another town, and he disappeared from my life. I left my home town to never return, moving away as far as I could to the other end of the country, to Amsterdam. In my early thirties, I decided to emigrate and flew across the ocean, to spend the better half of a life far away from home. I now know that I tried to escape my parents’ “proper” world within me, hungry for the unusual and unknown, always looking for new truths and new experiences, the kind that I got from knowing Vern that shifted my view of what a good mother is, and redefined it.
I asked around to find out what became of Vern. He indeed went to go on to university in another part of the nation, got a job, married and had two children. Like 50% of my generation, he also got divorced. I don’t know if he is satisfied with his life.
If I could do it all over again with the knowledge I have now, I would invite Vern to come and play at my home, and make a stronger effort to chat with him in the playground, showed more compassion. If I could meet him again, I would tell him that meeting his mom had a profound effect on me, which I only realized years later.
I say this as a mature, older woman. I know as well that as a child I was too eager to belong to a group, wanted to be thought of as popular and that image would be blighted had I hung out with Vern on the playground. My parents did not teach us anything beyond the rules of the church and religion that basically squeezed all the fun out of life and taught kids to fit the mold. Rather than becoming the unique person each is born to be with a functional brain to figure out what to think, we were fed pre-chewed thoughts and discouraged from developing critical thinking. Conservatism was good, having status was preferred. In that small world of seamless social control no child could survive by rebellious or non conformist behaviour. No wonder I had to fight that soul crushing world I was raised in. I am still fighting…