The Sparrow’s Nest by Emily Rich

stone lion's head

Mom started disappearing around the time I entered third grade: not all the time, just every once in awhile, every six weeks or so. My sister Maggie and I would come downstairs on a Saturday morning and she would be gone.

Usually she went to the cabin. She’d take the old VW station wagon and Bridgette, our black standard poodle, and head off for the three-hour drive to Leadville before anyone was awake and could ask her where she was going.

Her disappearances put Dad in a foul mood. He would storm about the house loudly vacuuming or emptying all the garbage cans so that Maggie and I would know how tough his life was when he had to be both the father and mother of the family.

He was especially dangerous then, so it was best to avoid him. Hiding upstairs was one alternative, but a safer choice was escaping out of the house altogether.

One Saturday morning in January, when Maggie was eight and I was almost ten, we woke up and realized Mom had disappeared again. I sensed her absence the second my bare feet went from the carpeted stairs to the cool wood of the kitchen floor. She was not up starting breakfast. The main level of the house empty, dark and cold.

But there was something different that morning because Bridgette was still there, wagging her fluff of a tail at the foot of the stairs. I went to the living room window and peered out into the street. The station wagon was still at the curb, covered in a sparkly layer of frost. Well, she couldn’t have gone to the cabin, I thought, confused by this new, unfamiliar turn of events. I went back upstairs to get dressed.

Across the hall from my bedroom, I caught sight of my father hunched at the desk in his study, staring down at an album from his stamp collection. He was in the old hospital scrubs that he wore around the house; his hair was uncombed and wild, the back of his neck red. I knocked gingerly on the open door. “Do you know where Mom is?”

“No idea,” he snapped in a tight, seething voice. He didn’t look up, but I could see him press his tongue between his lips, the telltale sign that I should leave him alone. I slipped away as quietly as I could.

There was a monster that lived inside of Dad, always lurking just below the surface, so that even in moments of relative calm, you could catch glimpses of it, writhing behind his grey blue eyes, tensing his muscles, reddening his skin. One spilled glass of milk, one audible snicker at the dinner table, and the monster would fly out, wild and unstoppable, throwing close-fist punches, or hurling small bodies against a wall. Mom was never the monster’s target and she did not intervene on our behalf once it was provoked.

The way I saw it, when Dad was home, we all had to do our part to keep the monster contained—Mom by taking care of Dad’s need for food and order, Maggie and I by keeping quiet. When Mom ran off, she left us kids without a first line of defense, something I deeply resented her for.

After talking to Dad in his study, I rejoined Maggie who waited nervously in the hallway. She was dressed in old jeans and a red sweatshirt, face unwashed, hair matted, like a little blond dust bunny.

“Dad doesn’t know where Mom is,” I said in a loud whisper, self-consciously patting down my own long, mussed hair. “Maybe she went to the Rossmans’.”

“Yeah. Let’s go check,” Maggie replied, not because she really thought Mom would be there, but because the Rossmans’ was where we often went when we needed to get out of the house.

The Rossmans lived about half a mile up from us in a stately tan brick house with two stone lions guarding the entryway.

Dr. Rossman, like my father, taught at the University of Colorado Medical School and his oldest daughter, Ellen, had been Maggie’s best friend practically from the moment they were introduced.

Life was elegant,calm and orderly inside the Rossman’s home, with its tall white walls, dark wood floors and oriental rugs. Mrs. Rossman kept things humming with brisk domestic attention.

There were three Rossman children altogether: Kara, who was two years behind Ellen, and baby Noah, about three years younger than Kara. When Kara entered kindergarten, Mrs. Rossman hired a sitter for Noah and went back to school to renew her nursing credentials. “Well, you kids get to go to school, I guess I should too!” she said. Even with all this going on in her life, she always made room for Maggie and me.

Maggie and I made our way down 7th Avenue in the morning cold, crunching the hardened bits of snow that clung to the edges of the sidewalks. I could feel the energy in my little sister’s gait, much more eager than mine, as if the Rossmans were a physical force pulling her near.

Mrs. Rossman answered our knock still in her robe and slippers.

“Hi,” said Maggie, puffing out clouds of steam in the cold air. “We were just wondering if our mom was over here?”

Mrs. Rossman stood there for a moment, trying to make out what was going on while the warm smell of pancakes drifted out through her open door, making my stomach cramp with hunger.

“You mean she’s not at your house?”

“No, and her car’s still there so we thought maybe she walked over here.”

“No, honey, I haven’t heard from her, sorry. Why don’t you come in and have some breakfast?” She hustled us in out of the cold.

The Rossmans were all sitting around the kitchen table with stacks of syrup-covered pancakes.

“Maggie!” Ellen cried, springing out of her chair. A beautiful little girl, fine-boned and delicate with ringlets of dark curls and sky blue eyes, Ellen had the power to draw a smile out of solemn Maggie in a way that I never could.

Dr. Rossman, who was already dressed, looked up from his newspaper, raised an eyebrow ever so slightly, and in the calmest of voices said, “Ellen. Sit down please.” He looked up at Maggie and me, hanging back in the kitchen doorway. “Good morning girls. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“They’re going to have some breakfast with us.” Mrs. Rossman was already getting down our plates.

“Ah, very well. One of you can have my spot.” He folded his newspaper and stood up.

“I’ve got a few hours of work to do at the office.” He leaned over and kissed Mrs. Rossman who was now busy piling food onto our plates. “I’ll be back this afternoon.”

I caught the clean smell of his cologne as he passed from the room.

Dr. Rossman was a trim, neatly-pressed man with pale skin and short, dark hair that receded slightly at the sides of his forehead. He wore wire-frame glasses with lenses so thick they made his eyes look small and far away. When he spoke his tone was measured and controlled. But his mind always seemed to be engaged elsewhere. He was an enigma to me: What was he so busy thinking about behind those far away eyes?

Mrs. Rossman once told us that we were lucky to have Dr. Rossman around at all. She said when Dr. Rossman was a baby an American doctor helped his family escape from Germany just before World War II. I found the story terribly romantic. I would picture it like a scene from an old black and white movie, with Dr. Rossman, a tiny, glowing white infant being smuggled out in somebody’s overcoat just ahead of the Nazi soldiers.

After breakfast all the kids went up to Ellen’s room where we lay around on her pink shag rug playing Old Maid and listening to 45s on her Fisher Price turntable. It was nice not having to worry about Mom and Dad for a while. Still, I was bothered by a familiar unease. Maggie fit in so seamlessly with the Rossman kids, like she was one of the clan. But I, so much older and bigger, couldn’t help feeling conspicuous and out of place: a jaybird fledgling in a sparrow’s nest.

Mrs. Rossman acted like there was nothing unusual about me hanging around her house. She patted my head and praised me for how “good” I was with Kara.

“She is so lucky to have you looking out for her,” Mrs. Rossman would say. “You always make sure she’s included.” But I knew it was they who were making sure to include me.

After a lunch of Mrs. Rossman’s egg salad sandwiches, Maggie and I returned to our house.

Mom was still missing, and Dad was in the living room furiously rummaging through the display shelves along the back wall, yanking open drawers and cabinet doors with such clenched-jaw rage he must have suspected even them of conspiring against him.

Maggie and I retreated upstairs to consider what to do next.

We decided to search the house again; this time we would look everywhere, even in dumb places, like closets and stuff. I went down to the basement and began looking around the washer and dryer. I looked in the storage closet where my parents kept the old silver. Then I opened the door to the little room where the furnace was, and there was Mom.

She was lying on her stomach on the cold cement floor with her head on one of the embroidered cushions from the upstairs sofa. Her head was sort of turned to the side and her mouth was open, dry and pale. I thought she was dead. Hot, paralyzing panic shot through me, cementing my limbs. For a moment I just stood there, like in those dreams you have where you’re trying to run but can’t move your legs, and you’re trying to scream, but nothing comes out.

I must have screamed eventually, though, because soon I heard Dad thumping down the basement steps growling, “Oh what in the Sam Hill?!” I stepped aside, pressing myself against the furnace room wall while Dad crouched down next to Mom. He rolled her over onto her back, and she made a kind of “gaaah” sound. She wasn’t dead.

I turned and bolted from the room before Dad could turn his attention back on me.

Maggie knew something was wrong because she was standing nervously at the top of the basement stairs, her blonde eyebrows straight and serious across her face. “Mom’s OK,” I whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”

We pulled our puffy down coats off the pegs by the side door and slowly, so we didn’t make a sound, we slipped back outside. The day had grown grayer, and the cold air stung our noses and eyes. We walked quickly and wordlessly at first, hands jammed in pockets, eyes straight ahead, but as soon as the Rossman’s house came into view we both relaxed and slowed our pace as if we were just out for a casual winters’ afternoon stroll.

This time Mrs. Rossman answered the door dressed in blue jeans and a sweater. Her hair was brushed and pinned behind her ears and she wore frosted pink lipstick. “Maggie! Emily! What are you doing here? There’s a big storm coming.”

We stood still on the porch. I could hear Ellen practicing her piano, so I guessed this wasn’t a good time. But Maggie spoke up “We just wanted to let you know that we found our mom, and she’s OK.”

“You…? What? Oh, come inside. Let me get you some hot chocolate.”

We followed her into the kitchen. The piano music stopped, and Ellen came bouncing in to see us. “Maaagieeee!” she squealed, and I wondered how it was possible to always be so enthusiastic about everything. Her excitement summoned Kara, and then Noah, padding in on his wide bare feet. The kitchen clamored with children.

Mrs. Rossman put a kettle on then came to stand by us at the table, her hand on her hip. “So. What’s happening with your mother? She was missing?”

“Yeah,” said Maggie. “Remember we came here looking for her this morning?”

“Oh, was that it? OK, so now she’s back home?”

“She was home the whole time.”

“What do you mean she was home the whole time? Is she sick? Was she sleeping?”

“Kind of,” I offered. I didn’t really want to get into it.

“Emily found her sleeping in the basement.”

“In the basement? What do you mean she was sleeping in the basement?” Mrs. Rossman had a half smile on her face as if she didn’t know if we were serious. Maybe this was some kind of riddle?

I felt a surge of embarrassment. I looked down. “She was in the furnace room. She was sleeping there. I don’t know why.”

The smile was gone from Mrs. Rossman’s face.

“Oh… Well!” She busied herself with the hot chocolate again, and soon we each had a steaming mug in front of us. She hustled from the room. From just outside the kitchen I heard her talking with her husband–obviously home from the hospital–in hushed tones.

 I knew they were talking about my parents and another wave of shame washed over me.

Mrs. Rossman and my mother were friendly with each other, but our fathers barely spoke. Dad made a sour face or rolled his eyes whenever the Rossmans were mentioned. In a way, he complained about them the way he complained about everyone. But he had a particular issue with the Rossmans because they were Jewish. Dad said the Jews were all moving to Denver from the East coast, taking over the neighborhood, taking over the medical school. He said you couldn’t work with Jews because they were “tribal,” and they only looked out for their own kind.

Dad said Ellen Rossman was a JAP, a Jewish American Princess. He bought a book called The JAP’s Handbook and read it aloud at the dinner table.

“Hey, Penny!” He grinned at my mother, leaning forward on his beefy hands. “What is a Jewish American Princess’s favorite wine? Do you know? It’s ‘I wanna go to Miiiammiiiii!’ Har! Har! Har!”

It was hard to tell if Mom thought that was funny, but she made a sloppy, closed mouth grin and shook her shoulders as if she were laughing.

That image of my mother came to me suddenly: droopy eyes, wobbly head, grinning like an imbecile as Dad insulted her daughter’s best friend. Then I thought of her again as I’d just seen her, face down on the hard basement floor. What was wrong with my mother? I wondered.

It was a sprout of a question, one that grew and vined its way inside me. In years to come I would spend many sour hours in contemplation trying to define just how to see my mother—victim, enabler, survivor, coward. I would discover she could be both resented and pitied, if never fully understood.

But at that moment, sitting at the Rossman’s table, I felt only anger at her for trying to run away from us, and for making us look like fools in front of the entire Rossman family.

Dr. and Mrs. Rossman summoned us into the study, where Dr. Rossman sat in his high-backed leather chair while Mrs. Rossman stood, one hand placed on his shoulder.

“Girls, we’ve just talked with your father,” Dr. Rossman began, his voice soft, low, understanding. “He says he wants you to come home. Are you OK with that?”

He was looking right at me with those far away eyes now so open and kind. A sob pushed up through my chest and for just a moment I thought how I would love to crawl up into his lap as I’d seen Ellen and her siblings do. I could stay here and be your daughter too, I thought. I would practice piano, I would take care of Kara, I would…

“Yeah, we should go home,” Maggie’s voice broke through my reverie.

“I’ll walk you back,” Dr. Rossman said, rising from the chair. He pulled his long black coat out of the front hall closet, and put on his black ski hat and gloves. Maggie and I collected our jackets. We all walked back toward our house. The sky was dark steely gray, with the last hint of daylight glowing over the mountains in the distance. Tiny snowflakes swirled around us–harbingers of the blizzard that was coming. Dr. Rossman made small talk, asked us how school was going. His voice was gentle, quiet, and maybe even a little sad.

When we got back to the house, Dad answered the door wearing a plaid shirt un-tucked over his thick stomach. He looked tired and rumpled as if he’d just woken from a nap.

Dr. Rossman said “Wendell,” and my dad sort of grunted something.

“You’re sure everything is all right here?”

“Oh yes,” Dad’s voice was high, defensive. “We have everything. under. control.” He clicked his heels together to show how under control everything was.

Dr. Rossman sighed. “OK girls. You’ll let us know if you need anything?” He headed back down the porch stairs into the night.

Dad turned away from us without another word. He slowly and heavily clomped up the steps to his bedroom with his head down. 

His rage was spent, and we would be okay for now. We took off our coats, hung them back on the pegs by the side door and went into the kitchen. The main floor of the house was still empty and dark. Mom was nowhere to be seen, but Bridgette appeared out of the gloom, quietly greeting us, tail wagging, as if she’d been lying low until our return. We made ourselves butter and sugar sandwiches, and ate in front of the TV with the volume turned low so we wouldn’t disturb anyone.

The next day, Mom was up making breakfast, pretending like it was just another Sunday. Nobody spoke a word about the events of the previous day. Maggie and I had long ago learned not to make waves when the waters were calm.

That summer, Dr. Rossman took a job as head of the Neurology Department at Pennsylvania State University, which Mom said was a big promotion for him. Ellen told us about it on the playground, saying in rapid-fire excitement, “Guess what! guess what! guess what! We’re moving to Hershey Pennsylvania! It’s where they make the chocolate, for real! And there’s an amusement park right in the town where people dress up like candy bars and the lamp posts look like Hershey Kisses and it’s going to be so cool!”

I watched Maggie for her reaction to this news. She seemed neither excited for Ellen, nor sad about the impending loss of her friend. She just nodded solemnly, as if she had been expecting this news for some time. And in a way, I had been too. Heading off on an adventure in the land of Hershey’s chocolate–these things happened to lucky little girls like Ellen Rossman, not to Maggie and me.

Maggie tried to act tough after the Rossmans’ departure, like it really didn’t matter, but I could tell by the way she moped about that it ate at her. She seemed more resigned and negative about the way things were at home, and she frequently asked me to walk with her up to the old Rossman house, just to see if the new family had made any changes to it.

Before they left, Mrs. Rossman had given Maggie and me each personalized stationery and made us promise we would write. Maggie did, faithfully, for years. She even got to fly out twice to Hershey to visit. But my stationary remained untouched in my desk drawer. I was never able to give myself over completely to the kindness of that family the way Maggie did. What they gave me was not friendship so much as it was sanctuary, and I was ashamed to have needed them for that.

emily richEmily Rich is assistant editor at Little Patuxent Review and an editorial advisor at Delmarva Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of small presses including Little Patuxent Review, r.kv.ry, Delmarva Review and The Pinch. Her essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. Her story “Black Market Pall Malls” won the Biostories 2015 War and Peace essay contest. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Peter Fletcher
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  • Such a gripping and sad piece. I was right there with you and your sister every moment. Powerful writing.

  • B Harrison

    That’s a story that will haunt me for a while – and I thank you for that. Such authentic delivery. I even smelled the pancakes. Thank you, Emily.