Sources of Light Online - Margaret McMullan


THE YEAR AFTER MY FATHER DIED, my mother took a job teaching at a small college in Jackson, Mississippi. It was 1962. I was fourteen years old. My father had been in the army, and when they came and told us about his death, they said that he stayed with his wounded soldiers after the helicopter crashed and that he died later under enemy fire. They said he was a hero, and I believed them.

The cicadas came that summer, the summer my mother and I moved to Jackson, and they made it nearly impossible to roller-skate, climb a tree, or generally do anything a person would want to do outside. With every step you'd hear the Crunch. And even when you weren't stepping on their shells, you couldn't get away from the sound of them. Most days we could hear nothing but cicadas. Together they made a loud, sharp, nonstop noise that sounded like a hum and whistle combined, a sound my mother called "primordial." Even when I wasn't actually hearing them, I heard them in my mind. I imagined that I would be hearing that humming for years.

The morning of my first day of high school was no different. I was ready for the humming to stop. I was ready for the summer to be over. I was ready to fit in to this new town and make some friends.

To prepare me, my mother trimmed my bangs while I sat still on a stool at the bathroom sink. Over the summer I'd finally quit my bad habit of sucking on the ends of my hair. When my mother put down the scissors, I put on my cousin Tine's old green dress, snapped two plastic barrettes into my hair, ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes, then set out to walk the three blocks to school. Other girls at my school would be wearing new shoes and dresses. I knew this. My mother didn't think of things like new school clothes, though she always made sure I had books, pencils, and paper. Already we'd gone to her office at the college, where she'd opened the supply cabinet so that I could make my selections.


Jackson High School had been built next to the Baptist church, which had new swing sets, but we were supposed to be too old now to play on swings. Inside the school, the tile walls were the light green color of a public restroom, and the lobby display cases were full of football and cheerleading trophies, pretty much the only two extracurricular activities anyone bothered with.

This school was big, and there weren't many windows. There were a lot of corners and walls, and the hallways smelled of Bazooka bubblegum. I walked into my classroom and took a seat near the front.

I just sat there and mostly listened while everyone around me talked. They talked about Red Skelton's crazy costumes on last week's show, who was coming up next on Ed Sullivan, and which girls in our class already had hair in their armpits. The girls whispered about how a girl named Mary Alice McLemore had changed altogether over the summer. One girl whispered that Mary Alice wasn't chubby anymore, and couldn't they all see a training bra through her dress? She didn't even try to hide the outlines the straps made!

I didn't need a training bra. I hadn't grown much at all over the summer, up or out. My mother said I shouldn't be in such a hurry for my growth spurt, but I was still impatient for it.

When I finally figured out who Mary Alice was, I saw she wore a pink dress with a matching sweater. I didn't even know that girls' dresses came with matching sweaters. She wore pink knee socks too, the ribbed kind. She wore gold posts in her pierced ears. My mother wore earrings that clipped or screwed on. My mother promised me that someday soon I would get to wear clip-on pearl earrings.

Sometimes I thought the more money you had, the more you mattered. Who knows where I picked up that idea. Pittsburgh, where we used to live, maybe? Or maybe money was in the air that year in Jackson, like the buzz of those cicadas. My mother and I weren't rich, but we weren't poor either. There was my dad's army pension, and that summer we had collected enough'S&H Green Stamps to redeem for an oscillating fan. We didn't buy anything my mother called "extra." We used dishes that came