The Story of a Scar

John Carr Walker


The Story of a Scar

My sister broke none of our mother's rules when she wandered onto the shop porch and knocked over a piece of machinery our father had left standing on end. A rectangle of tubular steel fell on her, pinning her head against the cement with enough force to blow a hole in her temple. The basket she'd been carrying flew off, the rocks she'd collected scattered. She couldn't move. Blood seeped through the curls of her hair. 

There's no knowing for certain what made our mother come outside—the reasons shift between retellings of this story—to find her four-year-old daughter being crushed. She lifted the metal off my sister's head and carried her into the house and called our Grandma Walker, who found our father at work in our vineyards, who drove my sister to the emergency room in Fresno, twenty miles away. 

Mom stayed with my sister through the trauma rooms. Dad drove back to Caruthers to fetch me from school, then brought me to Valley Children's Hospital. We arrived as my sister was entering surgery. I saw her on my mother's lap, limp with anesthesia, baby teeth lining the gape of her mouth. The bandage covering her wound let go—I saw a crater in her head, red volcanic walls funneling toward a black depth inside her skull. My mother sucked her teeth as she replaced the bandage, massaging the tape into my sister's forehead with her fingers.  

My sister remained in hospital after surgery. Mom stayed with her, sleeping nights in the recliner by the third story window, driven equally, I think, by care and guilt. Dad and I visited every evening. Once, we brought my sister a lucky green Care Bear, which was the closest we'd ever come to acknowledging the danger she was in. The rest was silence, a silence surely meant to assure ourselves she's fine, everything's fine . . . 

A silence that threatened to break when my sister came home with a scar. It pinched the skin at the corner of her right eye, the closure line jagged, glossy, glowing red when she cried. In response, Grandma Walker went on a safety kick, demanding my father clean up the minefield of farm machinery around our place, and my father moved his heaviest work away from our home shop, beyond his children's range of play, thereby absolving himself of responsibility. I don't know what specific action Grandma Walker demanded my mother take, only that it involved being a better mother, and that my mother's absolution wasn't so simple. For years after the accident, the scar was all anyone saw when they looked at my sister, and strangers felt free to put the question to our mother: What happened to her? Our pediatrician said the plastic surgeon had butchered her. Once, the dental hygienist asked me, How could you give your sister that awful scar? I bit him. But my mother never found a way to fight back against the scar's insinuations, to tell the world—or, I suspect, herself—This isn't my fault.

The Scar of a Story

Picture the Los Angeles suburbs in the nineteen-fifties. Smell the cut grass and cedar fences. Face a benign sun, a neighborly breeze. Children spin hula hoops and play catch in the cul-de-sac. 

This is surely closer to a movie than the actual neighborhood my mother grew up in, but that's to be expected: I've seen lots of old movies but have heard little about my mother's childhood. When she speaks of it, it's usually to repeat the same story. 

A fight with her big brother breaks the idyll. They run inside, each pleading their case, accusing the other. Because he's the favorite, she believes, their parents side with him. He goes back to playing with his friends while she nurses her anger in the garage. She picks up a screwdriver from her father's workbench and holds it blade up—I wish I could just stab him, she says

A year later he dies.

After John's death, whenever she read aloud to her parents, my mother would change that name to something else, to spare them the sharp pang of hearing it. She grew to hate the neighbors who named their new dog Big John, sensing that the brave faces her parents wore for the sake of the family cracked a little more every time they heard those neighbors clap their hands and kiss the air, calling that name.

So why name me John? John Carr, no less, after the boy my mother believes she marked for death. A name she once censored. I can tell you it wasn't to break the silence—I've already shared everything I know about my mother's childhood. Of course, my mother's story isn't really about what happened but what was said. How certain words lodge in the folds of fat memory, festering, never breaking down, to become permanent sources of pain. Perhaps, for her, silence is a kind of quarantine, a way of preventing the spread of such words to those she loves.

Decades later, in the throes of dementia, my Grandma Carr began freely speaking the names of her dead: her father Matthew, her mother Nellie, her brothers Paul, Clyde, and Hal, her husband Stanley, but she never mentions John. My mother wonders aloud if she has forgotten both John's life and death. She decides not to remind her. Then, in one of her memory fugues, Grandma Carr says that she used to drive an hour to sit at John's graveside, every day, for years. My mother never knew until now. I imagine my grandmother, coat collar up, kneeling to touch the cold headstone in an attempt to communicate with her departed son—which also comes from the movies, but I think in this case is true. The grave is where she went to talk.