Dot Your I’s with a Heart: A Retrospective
Kerri. Shelli. Bradi. I stood sandwiched between my two cousins closest in age. Kerri, my maternal cousin led two years older and, Bradi, my paternal cousin, trailed one year younger. Three cousins whose common link was the spelling of their names. Mom explained that our mothers tried to be original, by choosing an i like an upside down exclamation point.
I was unconventional, she said.
1980 was the era of satin baseball jackets, the sleeves a pale blue and the chest pink. Unicorns and glitter decorated school Trapper Keepers. Stenciled pencils and stickers always spelled out my name incorrectly, the non-original way.
It was early summer, school had let out, and I spent quite a bit of time at cousin Kerri’s house. I puppy-dogged behind her, guided by her tomboy leadership throughout the kingdom of her backyard. In that era, Kentwood was still ‘the country.’ Five-miles beyond the City of Grand Rapids, it buffered the pear orchards and corn fields from the sprawling urbanity. Kerri’s backyard thicketed does with their spotted fawns. Porcupines waddled through the lawn looking for grubs or seed scattered below the feeder. On the rare occasion, during early mornings when my Uncle Ken drank his coffee, he reported of red fox peering from the un-mowed grass circling the pine trees. Decades later, these woods are peopled with condominiums and the wildlife has turned into towheaded grandchildren yelling as they jump through sprinklers.
Yet, back then, when Kerri was eight and I was six years old; we tromped about the woods pretending to be voyagers or her cowboy to my Native American princess warrior. We feigned grueling expeditions, and upon running out of our supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed in parchment paper by my Aunt Mary; Kerri and I would forage about the property.
Sometimes we would come across sassafras. Depending on our ingenuity we would suck on the stems of the football, ghost, or mitten shaped leaves; or we would dig up the roots, wash them off with the hose, and go boil them in Aunt Mary’s favorite ceramic saucepan to create a tea. We pretended the sweet clove root beer taste was our elixir of youth and would nourish us into our next adventure.
Other times, black raspberries would be in season. The brambles lined Kerri’s side yard where Uncle Ken housed his camper while not in use. We braved the thorns, popping some into our mouth, and others into our cupped hands. These were our prized find; ruby jewels stolen from the king to ransom Kerri’s blond Cocker Spaniel, Pokey.
One afternoon, in the midst of our hunt, a new bulbous plant blazed red. Kerri said it was sumac. We could pick the velvety nubs, and our saliva mixed with the pollen tasted vaguely like lemonade. Kerri warned to only suck on the juices, “Don’t swallow them. They can be poisonous.” And, I followed her guidance. However, armed with this important information, my next adventure would unfurl quite differently.
Late July, my parents and I and my father’s extended family made our annual trip past Mackinac Island, through the Les Cheneaux Islands, around Drummond Island, and into Canada’s Georgian Bay on the northern tip of Lake Huron. Here, before Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, is an outcropping of granite slabs known as the Benjamins. These submerged hippo-like islands are an ideal place for outdoorsy children, bent on earning scrapped knees, wading in warmed pools after crayfish, and exclaiming astonishment at bear scat found on the trails.
This time, I was no longer the baby of the pack. Bradi, my paternal cousin was the tag along since her younger sister Tara was still a toddler in Aunt Nancy’s vigilant arms.
Once the boats were tied up securely and bumpers were buoyed against the granite, the adults deposited the children on land. The elder children, Bradi, and I unloaded on the rock with boat coats strapped to our chest in case someone accidently went swimming. All of us were commissioned to fill Ziploc baggies full of wild huckleberries so that we could have blueberry pancakes the following morning for breakfast.
Bradi and I shared a baggy. We followed the others across the island in search of blue gold. Since I was older, it was my task to hold onto the bag and make sure our find made it back to our mothers’ galleys instead of smashed on the slab path. Upon our first patch, the other kids bent down to pick the small berries. “Eat the dark blue violet ones, not the lavender ones. Those aren’t ripe yet.”
I plucked three from the same stem and plopped them on my tongue. “Hmm, these are tasty.” And, I continued my search between the moss and underbrush for more indigo nuggets.
“Bradi, do you have any to put in the bag yet?” I turned to my cousin, ankle deep in the shrubs, and a smear of purple juice across her mouth.
“Nah, I’m eatin’ ‘em.”
“Watch out. You eat too many and your poop will turn blue.”
The other kids moved ahead. Their Ziploc bags nearly full, they had completed their quest. They made their way to the swimming hole on the far side of the island to bathe in the knee deep shallows warmed by the sun’s reflection on the granite slab.
Bradi and I walked toward the other kids’ yells and splashes. On our way, red velvety bulbous spires flowered out of a bush. “Hey, this is sumac. It tastes like nature’s lemonade.”
I stopped to zip our baggy and placed it on the ground so that I would have free hands to pluck my new find into my hand.
“Bradi, do you want to try this? Put it in your mouth. Just suck on it. Don’t swallow it. See, like me.”
I put a vermillion tuff into my mouth. Salivating, I spit it out onto the shrubs nearby. Bradi mimicked me. I picked up our baggy and we ventured toward the swimmers who already had been met by our mothers. Mom, Aunt Nancy, and the others lay in their bathing suits, glistening with tanning oil, baking in the Canadian sun.
A half an hour later, Bradi announced to Aunt Nancy, “My tummy doesn’t feel good.”
“Really? Alright, maybe you have to go to the bathroom. Let’s head back to the boat.”
The other mothers encouraged us all to gather our baggies, slip our Docksiders back on our feet, and drip back to the boats where we could jump off the swim platform to continue our float.
Handing my mom the baggy when we reached the boat, I followed the other kids, jumping off the stern into the deeper water. Bradi was led down below to do her business. Minutes later, Aunt Nancy angrily stormed up the stairs to yell out over the water.
“Shelli, what did you make Bradi eat?”
“Huh? Nothing. Bradi ate the huckleberries and didn’t put her share into the Ziploc bag.” I tattled.
“No, I am not talking about that. The red berries. What were those?”
“Oh, my cousin Kerri taught me about them. Wild sumac is like the lemonade of nature. Have you ever tried those? Kerri said you don’t eat them. You have to spit them out. You just suck on them.”
“You gave Bradi poison sumac?”
“No, I didn’t give it to her.” I denied. “I told her not to eat it.” I looked at my mother and shrugged.
Since Mom used to be a nurse, she went over to see what could be done about Bradi’s tummy problems. She came back to the aft and crossed over to our swim platform. “Nancy, I think I have some ipecac. If I can find it, let’s use that. If not, you are going to have to make her throw up some other way.”
All of us kids were made to get out of the water as the mothers crouched below in my Aunt Nancy’s boat trying to encourage Bradi to take a spoonful. We all sat lined up, warming in our towels, on the granite slab nearest the boats. From below we could hear Bradi softly crying. “No, I don’t want to take that yucky stuff. No Mommy, no.”
I felt pretty awful, but in my six-year-old indignation I reminded myself that I did not make her eat it. If she had followed my directions, like I had followed Kerri’s, then she would be fine.
From the sidelines of the shore, it was clear that Aunt Nancy’s coercion was not working with Bradi. Bradi had cemented her mouth shut, not to be opened. As a last ditch effort, my mother clamped onto Bradi’s nose, plugging it so that she couldn’t breathe. Bradi gasped and Aunt Nancy jammed the spoonful of ipecac down her throat.
The women waited. But to defiant Bradi, vomiting was the worst thing in the world. She wretched but continued to clamp down her lips, forcing the bile, and the velvet berries back down her gullet.
“Bradi, I have had about enough of this. You have throw up!” exclaimed Aunt Nancy. In one delft movement, she pried open Bradi’s teeth with her left hand and wiggled her right index finger down her child’s throat.
Simultaneously Bradi bit her mother’s finger drawing blood. Aunt Nancy yelped in pain. Bradi bent over to hurl her stomach contents into the waiting boat bucket at her feet. From outside the boat fiberglass walls the rest of us could hear Bradi heave. Meanwhile, my mother reassured Bradi by patting her on her back, as Aunt Nancy bandaged her wounded hand.
Although Aunt Nancy claimed I had almost killed my cousin by convincing her to swallow something I had told her not to eat. Mom assured me that Bradi would have been fine. What came out in the bucket were two little velvety berries mashed in with the rest of the blue. In fact, Bradi may have felt more sick from all the huckleberries or swimming after she had eaten and not from the sumac.
That night, I was made to contemplate my behavior and how I would apologize for it. In my cubbyhole bunk, I took out construction paper and folded it into a card. With my crayons, I drew a blond haired girl with a red boat coat and labeled her Shelli. I drew a brown haired girl with a blue boat coat and labeled her Bradi. Dotting the I’s with hearts; I knew I would be sorry.
Shelli Rottschafer teaches Spanish and Latino Literature at a small liberal arts college in Michigan. She writes Narrative Poetry, Creative Nonfiction, and Fiction. She is an outdoor enthusiast and can be found running with her black Labrador-mix along the Lake Michigan beaches. Here’s to the journey.