Photo: Frog hiding in the tulle’s at Yolo Wildlife Area, Davis, CA.
[This is an excerpt from my memoir in progress]
The day Mrs. Johnson had her seizure Alana was preparing to dissect a frog. She had us gathered, two of her four sisters and I, around the slimy green creature she had caught that morning in the field behind the house. The poor frog, legs outstretched and nailed to a board, was pinned motionless with its large green chest pointing skyward. Unable to escape the impending first cut of the scalpel poised in Alana’s steady hand, its fate seemed sealed. Her fiery red hair and black plastic bi-focal lenses came within inches of the frogs bulging eyes as she lowered the sharp tip towards its belly. As if testing for reaction to pain, she stared into its pupils and teased the tip of the scalpel into its leathery skin. At exactly that moment, the twins and I screamed and ran into the garage, unable to remain passive observers even if it was in the name of science.
The Johnson’s had moved into my neighborhood in the summer of my 10th year. They had driven across the country to the West Coast from Oklahoma with all their belongings and their dog Spotty. Elation can best describe the first day I saw five girls climb out of the old blue station wagon to carry moving boxes in through the front door. The thought of having a whole house full of girls to play with brought hope and excitement to my already dull summer. It only took a few weeks of spying from my front window before I summoned the courage to knock on their door.
Five girls, though sisters, were very different from each other. Alana was the oldest at 17. She was quiet and studious and had an obsession with bugs and frogs and anything she could view under a microscope. Rhonda, a year younger than Alana, had fine sandy blonde hair that she brushed endlessly, and an obsession with boys. Sharon and Karon were the twins. Not born identical, Sharon had dark hair, a face full of acne and an outgoing personality. Karon was shy and quiet with dull red hair, a mass of freckles and liked all things domestic. Stacie was the youngest with strawberry blonde hair and a tattered baby blanket always at her side.
It was Stacie the baby who ran screaming into the garage just as the twins and I fled the frog scene. Her face was pale and twisted in panic as she shouted that something was wrong with their mother. Sharon went to retrieve Alana as the rest of us ran down the hall towards the master bedroom. We reached the door as Rhonda stood frozen at the side of the bed. Mrs. Johnson, wearing only her underwear and a bra was sprawled across the covers. Her eyes were rolled up into her head while her whole body flopped violently on top of the quilt. Sharon ran in followed by Alana who with plastic gloves and scalpel still in hand declared that their mother was having a seizure. All six of us circled the bed and stared down as Mrs. Johnson continued to shake and shiver and twitch uncontrollably. Her frizzy red hair was violently askew from her movements and her pale, freckled face was contorted into a variety of horrifying expressions. Stacie began to cry as Rhonda climbed onto the bed to check her breathing.
Mrs. Johnson, who had a problem with seizures her whole life, was an eighth grade educated farm girl who married her childhood sweetheart. Her daughters and husband were the focus of her world. She never learned how to drive and was completely reliant on Mr. Johnson and now Alana to take her where she needed to go. Tobacco and coffee stained teeth were the forefront of her shy smile. She had a sweet voice with a thick Oklahoman accent and spent her days baking, doing laundry, drinking coffee and watching soap operas.
It seemed unfair that a woman so quiet and kind should suffer the wrath of such a violent physical betrayal. As her face turned blue we decided it was best to stick a metal spoon in her mouth to hold her tongue so she wouldn’t swallow it. The twins had seen this technique on a film shown in health class the year before. Sharon brought the spoon in from the kitchen and I volunteered to perform the “life saving” procedure. I climbed up onto the bed and had Alana roll her mother onto her side. Alana pinned her mother’s heaving shoulders as I tried to place the spoon inside her mouth. She continued to thrash and her teeth were clenched and jaw seemed locked into place. I gave up after a few moments of metal clanking on enamel, fearful that I would knock a tooth out in the process.
It seemed like an eternity before Mrs. Johnson’s seizure subsided. She came out of it tired and embarrassed to see our six fearful faces staring down at her from above her bed. We left her to rest while Rhonda sat with her to make sure she didn’t slip into another. Stacie curled up into the corner of the couch with her blanket and began to suck her thumb loudly. Though eight years old, she still relied on this method of soothing, with her index finger looped over her nose and the corner of her baby blanket rolled into a sharp point and placed up her right nostril. Alana escaped onto the patio where she carried out the interrupted dissection. Karon, the quiet twin, sat in the rocking chair and began to knit furiously. Sharon went into the kitchen and decided to make a chocolate milk shake. There seemed to be some silent agreement that the event we had collectively witnessed should not be mentioned again, nor ever hinted at. The house remained eerily silent except for the sound of the whirling blender, rhythm of the knitting needles and the determined slurp of Stacie’s red thumb.