Nursing Jessie Jackson
Summer, 1987. My sister Camilla and I were playing in our backyard when a blonde head appeared over the fence above our mother’s tomato plants. “Hey, you guys want to come over and play?” Jessie drawled in her slow voice.
“How’d you get up there?” I asked. Jessie was not the adventurous type at all.
“Ann’s potting table,” she said. Jessie called her parents by their first names.
“I’ll ask my mom,” I replied. We ran across the yard into the back door. “We’re going to Jessie’s house!” we shouted into the kitchen as we ran through. We kept running out the front door, across our dry lawn, up the Jackson’s driveway, and rang their doorbell.
We were strange kids in our Northern California liberal college town. First, we were Mormons. And second, there were six kids in our family: three boys and three girls, all crammed into that four-bedroom, faux Spanish, stucco rambler. Just like the Brady Bunch, except not. There were so many of us that people thought my parents took in foster kids. For awhile, we had only one car, a red VW bus, which my father drove to work the next town over, so my mom hauled the younger kids around town on her bike with a baby carrier and a trailer hitched to the back, her legs straining at the weight as she pedaled. I still remember that, the way the light glinted off the sweat on her well-defined calf muscles. We argued over who got to jump out of the trailer to press the crosswalk button at intersections. We argued over who had to sit in the back of the trailer with the groceries. We argued over everything.
Now, we knew we were different, but we didn’t really know why. It was hard for us to tell what set us apart from other families, aside from our sheer number. There were a few obviously weird things about us though, like the matching pioneer dresses and bonnets my mother sewed for herself and my two sisters and me, each in a different hue of the same calico print. We didn’t know anyone else who did that, not even other Mormons. And we had strange pets, like garter snakes, rats (RIP, Rosie I, II, and III), a chameleon named William Blake, a hedgehog named Mrs. Podge, and a sneaky whippet named Solomon. And we killed slugs for cash. Huge slugs are common in central and northern California, and my mom’s vegetable garden was an organic warzone against them. We’d head outside after dark armed with sharp sticks. She paid us a nickel a slug. You could skewer ten or fifteen on one stick.
There was the rule against sugar and artificial colors and flavors. We never ate Jell-O, Miracle Whip, Kraft Mac’n’Cheese, potato chips, Wonder Bread, Coke, hotdogs, or, God forbid, Kool-Aid (drinking Kool-Aid was worse than taking the Lord’s name in vain. Kool-Aid was both poisonous and trashy, end of story). Instead of buying food in boxes like my friends’ normal mothers, my mom made or grew just about everything we ate. When finally I did taste those processed “forbidden fruits” at the homes of friends, I was unaccustomed to their intense, neon flavors, and I hated them all, with the exception of hotdogs. I still can’t get enough hotdogs.
And we ran barefoot year-round. We were homeschooled off and on, so unless one of us happened to be enrolled in public school, a situation that fluctuated depending on the kid and the year, we didn’t put on shoes except for church on Sundays. When we were old enough to ride our own bikes, we roamed the neighborhood, the university campus, and downtown, shoeless and unsupervised.
And last but not least, we competed in quoting poetry at the dinner table. That’s weird, dorky, and something only assholes do.
Anyway. Summer of 1987.
Jessie Jackson, an eight year old girl with long blond hair and a wide freckled face, and I swear to God that was her real name, lived next door to us. My sister Camilla was two years younger than me, and Jessie fell between us in age. One time shortly after we met her, she popped her thumb out of her mouth and said, “My mom and dad are divorced, but they still co-parent me.” She popped her thumb back in. Camilla and I looked at each other and shrugged. Whatever that means, I thought. We checked each other’s reaction a lot when we were around Jessie. Most of the time Camilla and I were enemies, occasionally tentative allies, but when we played with Jessie, we were definitely on the same team.
While we had run around our yard to her door, Jessie had run through her house and met us at there. She let us in and we went upstairs to her playroom. She was an only child with an array of toys we could only dream about: a complete doctor’s kit, a dollhouse with all the furniture, a wooden toolkit and worktable, a porcelain tea set, an extravagant Barbie collection, American Girl dolls and all their clothes, and more. Jessie was bossy, but putting up with that was a price we were willing to pay in exchange for access to those toys. We played upstairs for a while, but then we grew bored and decided to play with Jessie’s blocks while we watched TV downstairs.
We dumped the blocks on the carpet. “We’re going to build a city,” Jessie ordered.
“Oh, rad idea,” I replied. My big brother, Blue, was a badass skater and I was experimenting with his slang.
We mapped out roads and city blocks while Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood played on the TV that sat on the Swedish midcentury credenza. (We only had a small black and white television at our house. Shortly after Jessie moved in next door, we had a fight over whether Sesame Street was broadcast in black and white or in color. I knew that color TV existed, of course, but I held out hope that certain shows were still shown only in black and white so poor kids wouldn’t feel left out. She won the debate when she showed us the program on her television. I was stunned and instantly hated the brilliant colors of Cookie Monster’s blue fur and Big Bird’s yellow feathers.)
Our city slowly materialized, while Jesse continued to give us directions.
“This is the playground.”
“This is my house.”
“Here’s the school.”
“You can’t use all the arch blocks!”
“You’re hoarding the best blocks.”
“No I’m not.”
We were absorbed in city politics when Ann came in and sat on the couch behind us. She picked up a copy of The Nation and began reading.
“Hey sweetie,” Anne said after awhile. “Are you tired? Do you want bubby?”
Camilla and I looked at each other. What’s bubby? Was it juice? A Popsicle? I hoped it was a Popsicle. I could have killed a Popsicle right then.
Jessie thought for a minute, then said, “Uh huh,” in a babyish voice, looking at Ann and nodding.
“Okay.” Ann said, patting the couch next to her. Jessie went to her mother and laid her head on her lap, lifted up her navy blue shirt, pulled down her white bra, and clamped her lips on her mother’s nipple.
Camilla and I looked at each other, our eyes popping out. Was this normal? Our mom had nursed all of us, yes, but she stopped when we were… well, I don’t know how old we were, but it was long before we were eight. We looked at each other, and then we didn’t know where to look, so our eyes went back to the television and stayed glued there as we listened to the sounds of Jessie suckling on the couch behind us. The rainbow colors of Lady Lane Fairchild’s merry go round accompanied by that suckling sound are still burned into my mind.
Mr. Roger’s ended and 3-2-1 Contact began. They were still going at it. How long would we have to sit there while Jessie and Ann did their thing on the couch? It would be rude to just leave, right? I looked over at Camilla again. She was picking her nose really hard, just jamming her finger up there. I was worried she was going to hurt herself. Then she looked down at her finger and shouted, “I have a bloody nose!” Camilla was brilliant.
“We have to go home!” I screamed, grabbing Camilla’s hand. We didn’t stop running until we were back in our bedroom, sitting opposite each other on the beat up, second-hand beds our mom had painted a depressingly cheerful shade of peach. “What was that?!” I said to Camilla. She didn’t reply.
“Set the table for dinner!” we heard our mom shout from the kitchen.
I set the plates and Camilla did the silverware. Blue was supposed to set out the glasses of water when he was home, but he wasn’t home that much anymore, so I did the glasses too. We were having tofu stir-fry for dinner, so Camilla put chopsticks next to the forks. We never really talked about it again, I think because we didn’t know how. Ann and Jessie obviously didn’t think there was anything odd about their arrangement. They were totally nonchalant. The fact is, Ann was probably just as freaked by my parents’ decision to have so many children.
Every family is weird in some way. Of course, there are rituals and habits that we only share with the people we live with, and also, in some cases, with neighbor kids who happen to be around. While I’m inclined to condemn Ms. Jackson for her unorthodox relationship with her child as well as the blithe way she imposed it on my sister and me, she made me realize that our family isn’t as weird as it gets, as obvious as that is now.
There were plenty of very shitty things about our childhood, but we had each other. And I guess it didn’t matter what other people thought of us because we couldn’t change if we wanted to. And we were weird, but not nursing-an-eight-year-old weird.