Inside a Frozen Heart
My grandmother said that on the day I was born the most violent thunderstorm she had ever heard raged outside the little hospital in Virgie, Kentucky where my mother labored. When I emerged, red-faced and squalling, my newborn cries were swallowed by thunder that barked as it vibrated off the mountains. When I was three weeks old we left Kentucky, left the coal mine-based economy of Eastern Kentucky for the industrial opportunity that Detroit offered. On a hot day in mid-August my father held me as he and my mother boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Detroit. We were immigrants in a city full of immigrants.
As a child I longed to live someplace other than Downriver Detroit. I felt out of place in the Motor City, felt that I did not belong. My footfalls on the concrete streets sounded hollow and the squashed together houses made me feel as if I could not breathe. I dreamed often of escaping to my grandmother's little house at the foot of Abner Mountain in Eastern Kentucky. I imagined going back to the place where I was born. At my grandmother's house Indian Creek whispered across the road as it raced off toward the Big Sandy, and the mountains I loved stretched tall toward the sky. At my grandmother's house I thought I could breathe, grow, thought I could dream. I am not sure why I was so attracted to her little house and the mountains that surrounded it. Maybe it was because Virgie is the place of my birth. I wished often that my parents had not left the little town of Virgie, imagined that I lived there, wished that my father had not traded the cold belly of the coal mines in Wheelwright for the heat of the steel mills in Detroit. Now I think that maybe this longing filled me because I watched my mother pine for the mountains that she called “home.” Maybe it was my mother’s longing for the place of her growing up, her loss of her home that set my heart aching. I became a girl torn between two places. I loved the mountains of Eastern Kentucky but did not feel that I belonged there. I hated Detroit and did not feel that I belonged there. I felt like an outsider in the place of my birth and also in the place where I lived. Maybe the inability to feel at home in either place is why there has been in me for as long as I can remember, a driving wheel commanding me to find my own way. Maybe that is why I left Michigan after I graduated from high school to attend Morehead State University, a place which seemed more like home to me than any I had known before.
I was a weird kid, ignored by most of my peers, brushed aside like they might a yipping dog nudging at their heels. I desperately wanted to be liked, to fit in, but my awkward ways kept me isolated. I do not blame them though, those girls I envied, those girls who seemed to move through their lives with all the elegance and grace that I lacked. Those girls named Suzie, Dianne and Linda whom I tried to imitate but could not no matter how hard I tried. Those beautiful girls who seemed to always do everything right, who never said anything wrong, who never did anything wrong. The cheerleaders and homecoming queens who ignored me, treated me as if I were nothing more than a piece of paper blowing across the street. Even though I craved their acceptance and friendship I understand now that my hatred for myself was so strong that there was no way their friendship could have pierced the block of ice I built around myself. I hated the tall, gangly girl that I was, my frizzy brown hair, even my reflection in the mirror. I was a girl who felt that she was not loved because she did not deserve to be, a sad lonely girl who craved the solitude that books provided and dreamed of love while listening to the music of the Beatles. I was a girl whose blood flowed through a frozen heart.
Memories of growing up in Southeast Michigan fall like soft snowflakes: ice skating on outdoor rinks in blue figure skates with silver fur trim, thin streams of silver smoke rising from chimneys up and down my street, black boots and snow covered gloves.
Now though when I remember my growing up years in Southeast Michigan, I recall winter first. I remember winter arrived howling in late November, a banshee who covered the ground with inches-deep snow, danced with a sharp-tongued wind she snatched from Lake Erie, and laughed when I shivered in my snug-buttoned, red plaid coat and matching hat. When the snow fell, it piled up thick and heavy, turning streets and yards white. My neighborhood, an artery that fed into Detroit’s industrial heart, changed when the snow fell, turned into an enchanted fantasy land where the hard-edged city softened, and its ever-present noise silenced, muted by a blanket of white.
Memories of growing up in Southeast Michigan fall like soft snowflakes: ice skating on outdoor rinks in blue figure skates with silver fur trim, thin streams of silver smoke rising from chimneys up and down my street, black boots and snow covered gloves. Yet the memory that is sharpest of all, the one that shines like a fresh snowfall, occurred when I was in the seventh grade at Taylor Center Junior High. Because my school was across town, I rode the school bus. I walked the length of my street to the corner where I caught the big, yellow bus in front of Linda’s Dry Cleaning Shop. When the weather was very cold, and my exhaled breath turned into a warm grey mist that hung in front of my face, Linda would let the bus riders wait inside her store. We would wait encased in warmth and the smell of chemical cleaning solvents. One morning when it was particularly cold, Linda opened the door of her shop and said, “You children come on in, it’s too cold to be outside.” As I trudged in and my eyes reacted to the new felt warmth, tears formed in the corners of my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Linda looked at me and smiled. Middle aged and thin, she wore a red sweater over black slacks. The collar of her white oxford shirt was starched and crisp. Her brown hair was pulled back into a pony tail. She laughed as she looked at me and said, “Don’t cry now because if you do your tears will turn to gold when you go back outside.”
I hated the dog who lived three houses from the corner of my street, the dog I had to pass every time I walked to the school bus stop. He was a short haired, medium sized black and white mutt who was always outside and unchained, who barked so loud that every day his constant “yip, yip, yip,” could be heard a block away. It was a sound that filled me with dread. As I approached the dog’s house on my walk to the bus stop he would begin barking. No matter how quietly I tried to approach he always seemed to hear. As the dog came closer I curled my black gloved hands into tight fists and stuffed them into my pockets, praying that just this one time the dog would not find me, that I would become as invisible as a single flake of snow, that he would not follow me to the end of the street barking and nipping at my heels.
One winter morning, after an overnight storm had dropped inches of new snow and turned the air so frigid that it hurt to inhale, I walked to the school bus stop. Heart racing, I approached the house where the dog lived, stopped before I reached his house, bent down, scooped up some snow, and worked it into a firm round ball. Because I had read in a magazine a few days before that animals smell fear, I closed black gloved fingers around the snowball and said out loud, “I’m not afraid of you anymore," filled with a bravado I did not really feel. Clutching the snowball I said louder this time, “I’m gonna hit you right in the nose if I even see your ugly, yapping face.” Taking small steps I moved forward listening, but I heard nothing, just the sound of snow crunching crisp under my black boots and the high pitched hiss of my own exhaled breath.
Holding the snowball high I pressed on; knowing that I had to get to the stop or the bus would leave without me. I did not want to have to go back to my house and tell my father that I had missed the bus. The memory of the black belt that he wore around his waist drove me forward. When I put my hands over my eyes to shield them from the newly risen sun, I saw the dog lying in his yard, still and silent. I walked closer, wondering why he was sleeping outside in the cold and snow. Because I thought he was sleeping I gripped the snowball tighter, ready to throw it if he moved. Only when I stood in front of the brown and white dog and he still had not moved, did I realize that he was not sleeping. I looked at the front door that led inside the house where he lived. It was shut, the house where he lived sealed up tight.
I bent down and looked at the dog as he lay silent and still. My breath began to come in short, fast gasps as I realized he was not sleeping, as I realized that he was dead. The dog had frozen to death in the night. I could feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes. The dog was only a few feet from his front door where security and shelter waited for him. “Why,” I asked out loud “had no one loved you enough to take care of you.” Hot tears slid down my cold cheeks and in that moment I understood what the dog had been trying to tell me. I understood how like me the dog was with his rough bark and nipping teeth. Weren’t we both trying to say what we felt but could not speak? Weren’t we saying, “Hey? Pay attention to us. Love us. Take care of us. We have feelings too. We matter.” I sighed and lay the snowball down beside the dog, patted his head, stood up, turned away and walked toward Linda’s Dry Cleaners and the yellow bus that would take me to school. My face was covered in gold.
Nora Burton holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Murray State University. She has been part of the Kentucky Foundation for Women Summer Residency Program, from which she also received an Artist Enrichment Grant. Her work has appeared in the anthology, This Wicked Vessel. Burton is an Adjunct Professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University.