The Growth Ledger

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Literature Text

by Paul Briggs

Derek has the original ledger. I have a binder full of photocopies. Even so, I can still recognize my handwriting, and his, and Reenie’s. It’s only nine pages long. 215 entries, 25 entries a page. We started it a month after she was born and kept it up until May of ‘91 — the month before Reenie went off to L.A. and our marriage could finally come to an end. Nine pages covering nearly eighteen years.

7/14/73          born          20”          8 lbs. 1½ oz.

I spent a week wondering if she was going to make it. Irene Jessica Harris was the size of a normal baby, but she had the skin and lungs of a preemie, and nobody knew why at the time. I only got to see her for a few seconds after she was born — then they put her in a ventilator where she spent the next five days. The most horrible moment was when she came out and started crying… and it was so soft.

Those were the five longest days of my life. What made them worse was that the hospital only let me stay for three days. I begged them to let me stay a little longer. When they escorted me to the door, I gave serious thought to spending the night in a motel room. That’s how much I didn’t want to return to my house without my baby.

But of course I did. I went back, nothing in my arms, to Derek and Monica and Derek’s brother Jake and the Harrises who had shut down their little business for the week and come up here for the birth of their very first grandchild. I managed to reassure them that Reenie was still stable and getting stronger before I burst into helpless tears and collapsed into Derek’s arms.

Notice that out of my whole huge family, only my sister Monica showed up. I think everybody else was still hoping I’d come to my senses about being married to Derek. (I wonder if part of the reason I stuck with him so long was to spite them.)

For the next two days I kept calling up the hospital asking for updates. They kept saying “Her condition is stable and improving, we’ll let you know if there’s any changes, we should be ready to release her on Thursday.” It felt like they were giving me the brush-off. Looking back, I know they were being extremely patient, but at the time I was furious with them. It wasn’t a rational thought, it was a feeling — they don’t care about her as much as I do, they’re going to give up on her… Maybe I would have had more faith in them if it hadn’t all been such a mystery. If she’d been a normal premature birth, that would have been something they’d seen before many times.

And when I wasn’t mad at them, I was wondering if something was wrong with me. My mother had had eight pregnancies and eight healthy children. My first pregnancy — the one two years ago that had prompted me and Derek to start planning to tie the knot — had ended in a miscarriage around the fourth month. I couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with me.

And then when I got tired of feeling sorry for myself, I started feeling sorry for poor little Reenie. Her first experience of the world was being all alone under blinding light in that cold glass machine with nobody to hold her and make her feel safe.

Finally — finally — I got the phone call. They said she was breathing normally, crying nice and loud and ready to come home, but that I should be gentle with her for the first month or so and watch for signs of poor eyesight or… slow development… in case her brain hadn’t gotten enough oxygen at a crucial moment. One more thing to lie awake at night worrying about.

8/14/73          1 month          23½”          12 lbs. 0 oz.

Reenie was a ravenous little thing. In all the time I nursed her, I never put a single drop of my own milk in the fridge — she drank it faster than I could make it. Every meal she’d drain me dry, and then look at me with eyes that were already turning brown as if to say “Isn’t there any more?” and I’d feel all guilty and inadequate as a woman. So out came the formula. She didn’t mind. She was a good baby. (That’s such a strange thing to say, isn’t it? A “good baby.” Even before they can crawl, we’re already subjecting them to our expectations. But Reenie was a good one.)

And no wonder she was eating so much. Within two weeks, no one looking at her would ever have known there was anything odd about her birth. At the end of the first month, she’d put on half again as much weight as she was born with.

That was when Dr. Adrianson suggested keeping the ledger. He didn’t think anything was likely to be wrong — he just wanted to make sure.

9/14/73          2 months          25”          15 lbs. 1 oz.

It’s very hard to tell with a baby that young, but with Reenie already focusing on faces, smiling and reaching for everything in sight, I felt comfortable saying there was nothing wrong with her eyes or brain. And she babbled just like a normal baby. I always wondered, while talking to her, if she was just trying to imitate the noises she heard grownups making, or if she really felt like she had something to say.

As for her size, at first we thought it was a growth spurt. Unusual, maybe, but nothing to worry about after the adventure her birth had been.

10/14/73          3 months          26½”          17 lbs. 4 oz.

Reenie was finally holding her head up. I think being such a heavy baby slowed her down as far as the physical milestones went. Again, nothing to complain about as far as her brain went.

By now, people were noticing how big she was getting. When we took her out for a walk, the people we stopped to talk to would ask us what we were feeding her. They seemed to think we were doing something right. I was starting to think this couldn’t possibly be normal, but Dr. Adrianson just said to keep weighing and measuring her, so I did.

11/14/73          4 months          28”          18 lbs. 13 oz.

While Reenie was growing, life went on as usual. We spent Thanksgiving with Zeb and Mattie Harris. They ran a little burger-in-a-basket diner. Derek and his brothers Jake and Hank went out hunting and bagged a couple of wild turkeys for dinner. They were little six-pound hens, not much bigger than chickens… but on the other hand, they were tougher and gamier and riddled with birdshot. The pumpkin pie was wonderful, thought — I don’t have the recipe, but Mattie started with actual pumpkins grown on a local farm.

Apart from giving the elder Harrises and Jake tips on a few useful deductions, I didn’t have much in the way of conversation to offer. The talk around the dinner table was all about sports and hunting and the lives of people they’d grown up with and I’d never met. Oh, and arguments over politics — Zeb and Jake were both Republicans, but Zeb thought they should still be supporting Nixon and Jake thought they should cut the crook loose. But everybody was happy to have a new baby in the family, and they had nothing but admiration for her size. I was still hoping she’d start slowing down to a more normal pace.

12/14/73          5 months          29¼”          20 lbs. 15 oz.

Reenie was getting enormous — at five months, she was the size of the average 12-month-old. It was becoming a constant worry in the back of my mind. But apart from her size, there was nothing wrong with her. She could eat mashed bananas and play peek-a-boo with the best of them.

This was the Christmas that Cousin Herman and his wife came to visit. The less said about Cousin Herman, the better. He came back from Vietnam married to a girl named Marie who I’m pretty sure was underage, who spoke some French and almost no English. Her family was too Westernized for the Communists and had made enemies in what passed for a government in Saigon, so they had basically handed her over to him as a way of getting at least one member of their family out of the country. Some would call this a good thing, since Marie was alive and her family was almost certainly dead by now, but couldn't they have found a way to keep this girl safe without her having to marry somebody? Meeting Marie definitely put my own problems into perspective.

And yes, Marie was already pregnant. Since I was the only one in the family who spoke any French at all, we talked as much as we could. She begged me to tell her that American babies don’t all come out as big as Reenie. I had to reassure her that yes, my daughter was something of a statistical outlier.

1/14/74          6 months          30½”          22 lbs. 8 oz.

People still talked about Reenie’s size, but they sounded less and less admiring about it. It was starting to be obvious that something wasn’t quite right here. About this time, Dr. Adrianson said, “If this is a growth spurt, it’s the biggest, longest one I’ve ever seen.”

If this is a growth spurt?” I said. “Is there something else it could be?”

“I don’t want to alarm you,” he said, “but we might be dealing with a case of gigantism.  That isn’t something I have any particular expertise in. But I think I can tell you why your baby had a normal birth weight and the symptoms of a preterm birth.”


“She was a preemie. A very big preemie.”

7/14/74          1 year          35¾”          32 lbs.

This was when Dr. Adrianson decided it was time to admit he was out of his depth and look for a specialist in growth disorders. High time, if you ask me. There were two-year-olds at the local day-care center who were smaller than Reenie.

If you’re wondering what we were doing all that time, we spent most of it babyproofing the bottom two-thirds of every floor of the house. Reenie wasn’t walking yet, but she was crawling and pulling herself up. We built shelves below the ceiling in every room to put the dangerous objects on. (And all that extra shelf space really came in handy. I don’t know why more people don’t do this.)

1/14/75          1 year, 6 months          3’4”          39 lbs.

Reenie was on her feet now, and there was no stopping her — not without a leash and a lot of pulling. I’m not an especially strong woman. My girl was getting very hard for me to carry. And her favorite game, after a hard day of toddling, was “Bounce Up and Down On Top of Mommy.”

7/14/75          2 years          3’7¼”          46 lbs.

The Terrible Twos. To this day I can’t look at anything Superman-related — movies, comic books, what have you — without wondering “How did Mr. and Mrs. Kent ever survive baby’s first tantrum?” Further deponent sayeth not.

I’ll say this for Derek — he’s always kept himself in shape. And he needed to be in shape to keep up with Reenie.

2/14/76          2 years, 7 months          3’10½”          53 lbs.

This was the month I found out I was pregnant again.

I have to tell you, it scared the hell out of me. Out of two pregnancies, I’d had one miscarriage and one otherwise healthy baby who had something wrong with her that doctors and researchers couldn’t seem to pin down. (They called it “gigantism” or “giantism,” which is a fancy way of saying “being really big.” For this, these men get paid six-figure salaries.)

My whole life, it seemed, there had been somebody trying to make me feel ungirlish or unwomanly because I was good with numbers and remembered all the little details of tax law. (Not Derek, you understand — he was delighted to be married to a woman who earned a lot more money than he did.) Now with this happening, I was starting to wonder if I was capable of bringing a normal baby into the world.

Well, only one way to find out.

10/14/76          3 years, 3 months          4’1”          61 lbs.

Jody Melissa Harris turned out to be perfectly normal. Reenie was absolutely delighted to have a new baby in the house. She really took to the role of older sister, holding the bottle during feedings and reassuring Jody when she was upset. She even tried singing lullabies, but singing has never been one of Reenie’s strong points.

Later on, whenever Jody got scared because there was a spider or a cricket in her room or some kind of monster under her bed, Reenie would be the one to deal with it. And if the radiator in Jody’s room wasn’t working, or if there was a thunderstorm going on, Reenie would let Jody sleep next to her. A lot can go wrong between siblings — I’ve got enough of them to know. We did something right with those two.

7/14/77          4 years          4’3¾”          73 lbs.

About this time, the medical establishment admitted they had a mystery on their hands. They’d tested Reenie for signs of thyroid disorder and found nothing. They’d X-rayed her head and found no sign of a tumor in the pituitary gland. All they had was the ledger Derek and I had been keeping. Using that, our growth specialist Dr. Shinohara calculated that Reenie would eventually stop growing — but by the time she did, she’d be between seven and eight feet tall, and probably closer to eight feet.

And there was nothing anybody could do about it that wouldn’t damage her more than the growth would. Girls who are growing up to be six and a half feet tall or more are sometimes given estrogen injections to knock a few inches off their adult height — but in this case that wouldn’t do nearly enough. Worse, it would slow down bone and muscle formation, and Reenie was going to need all the bone and muscle she could get just to stand up under her own weight.

When Derek heard this, he got an inspired look on his face. Suddenly, he knew what to do. My husband, the gym teacher and part-time fitness coach, realized at this point that he had the project of a lifetime on his hands.

So we (I say we, but my contribution was mostly to pay for it — Derek did all the work) put Reenie on a weightlifter’s diet, with lots of protein and calcium. She was already a very active child, and Derek made the most of it, putting as much exercise into her schedule as possible. It’s harder for girls and women to build up their muscles, but it can be done. Look at Serena Williams — she’s definitely shaped like a woman and she’s got arm muscles like Derek’s. We weren’t sure if adult Reenie would be able to stand or walk without leg braces, but if it was at all possible, Derek would make it happen.

9/14/78          5 years, 2 months          4’7¾”          92 lbs.

This was the month Reenie went to kindergarten. I was so worried that the other children wouldn’t accept her because she was so much bigger than them — even bigger than the ones who’d been held back a year.

But as it turned out, many of the children there already knew her from the playgroup. She was the closest thing they had to a real-life superhero. Sometimes she would break up fights between them. If nothing else, she’d simply scoop up whichever child was making the most trouble and put him or her down someplace else. After a while, they started asking her to adjudicate their little disputes. That wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Reenie was friends with both boys and girls, but more of her friends were boys. I hate to say it, but I think it’s a little easier to get boys to accept you socially — you just have to be able to arm-wrestle them and win. This doesn’t work so well with girls.

5/14/79          5 years, 10 months          4’10”          104 lbs.

1979 was the year my sister Angie got married. Reenie was one of the flower girls. She was tasked with walking slowly up the aisle in front of the bride and strewing petals in front of her, and she did it very well.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a big family, and sometimes attention was in short supply. Jim and Josie were the good-looking ones, Suzette and I were the smart ones, Monica was the one who could sing, Angie was… there. She didn’t handle it well. So she wasn’t exactly thrilled that on her wedding day, the one day that was supposed to be all about her (well, her and Bob Grimaldi) the guests kept staring at this overgrown child in front of her. And then Jim’s wife Patty’s water broke while Angie and Bob were in the middle of their vows. I think Angie’s still mad about it.

11/14/79          6 years, 4 months          4’11¾”          114 lbs.

So, how do you go about disciplining a child like Reenie? Bravely.

We’d told her and told her not to slam the door, and usually she didn’t. She’d gotten more careful about things since the day we had to throw out her favorite chair because she’d bounced around on it a little too much and broken it.

But every once in a while, she forgot. One day — I forget the exact circumstances — she slammed the front door and a picture fell off the wall and damaged the frame. So Derek spanked her. She put up quite a struggle, but he managed. I don’t really believe in spanking, but I have to admit it scared me to think that one of these days we weren’t going to be able to do it any more.

I’ll say this — she never slammed the door again.

6/14/80          6 years, 11 months          5’2”          124 lbs.

We were driving back from Jake’s wedding in Iowa. (Jake was Derek’s older brother.) Once again, Reenie was a flower girl. She was kind of quiet on the way back, and something seemed to be bothering her — she didn’t even try to reach over and tickle Jody.

Finally she said, “Why do people have to stare at me?” (Once again, she had drawn a lot of attention at the wedding.)

“Well, Reenie,” said Derek, “people think you’re interesting because you’re so tall for your age, and they like to look at you because you’re very pretty.” (He’s right about that. I know children are always beautiful to their mother, but there’s never been anything wrong with any of her features. She just happens to be built to a larger scale than usual.)

“It’s not hurting you, is it?” Derek continued. “I mean, as long as they’re not calling you names or anything…”

“I wish they wouldn’t do it so much.”

“Let me teach you a little poem,” he said.

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones
    And words can hurt my feelings,
    But you can stare at me all day
    And I won’t hit the ceiling.”

(Derek isn’t a poet. He must have thought up that one years in advance and been saving it for just such an emergency.)

“It’s a part of growing up,” Derek continued. “I mean, when was the last time you ever heard a grownup say ‘Mom, he’s looking at me funny!’ Ever?” He turned to me and said, “Isn’t that right, honey?”

I bit my lip.

See, this is another one of those little points where Derek and I disagree. I believe that a woman has the right to not be stared at, ogled, leered at, or looked at in any way that makes her feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or generally creeped out. As for Derek, he doesn’t grope women or shout out remarks about their behinds (which makes him better behaved than some of his friends or Cousin Herman, and that’s about as high as he aims) but as far as he’s concerned, his eyeballs are his own and he’ll point them whichever way he likes and nobody can stop him.

Now, never mind which one of us is right (me). The real question is, what was the best thing to tell my daughters — bearing in mind that one of them would be stared at for the rest of her life? Was I supposed to tell her she ought to be upset about it?

So I said “Yes.”

8/14/80          7 years, 1 month          5’2½”          128 lbs.

That August was the month Reenie was officially taller than me. I congratulated her, she hugged me (lifting me off my feet a little — Jesus, she was getting strong!) and then I went upstairs and cried. Every mother has this moment when they remember this tiny little baby that fit perfectly in their arms, and then look at this person who’s as big as they are or bigger… but it shouldn’t come so soon. I couldn’t really explain to Reenie and Jody what the problem was, so they just kicked off their shoes, curled up in bed next to me and we all fell asleep together.

1/14/81          8 years, 6 months          5’8¾”          159 lbs.

This was the month Reenie passed Derek by a quarter of an inch.

She outgrew him in another way, too — I taught her to do the laundry. Derek is one of those guys who swears up and down that he doesn’t expect a woman to do the housework for him, but somehow never does it himself. And I was busy — I was working a lot more hours than he was. So I taught Reenie to do it. She liked the responsibility. While she was waiting for the machines to finish, she could do her homework or work out on Derek’s exercise equipment.

7/14/82          9 years          5’9½”          171 lbs.

Reenie had her ninth birthday in North Carolina, while we were visiting Cousin Herman. She loved it there. She got on famously with Herman’s girls, and she loved the exotic food. (Unlike Jody, Reenie was always willing to try a new dish.) She thought Herman was hilarious, and she was fascinated by his war stories.

I think I’ve mentioned my opinion of Herman Harris. I believe that a man who lives with a wife and five daughters should not have a girlie calendar on the living room wall, and I believe he should not tell dirty jokes where they can hear them. But I thought it was nice of him to let Reenie beat him at arm-wrestling… until I realized she was beating him entirely without his permission.

No sooner had we gotten back than Derek’s younger brother Hank came to visit. I liked him a lot better. He helped Derek build Reenie a new bed, since she was getting too big for the old one. This bed was 54” by 102¼” and held a double/full mattress and an equally tall stack of crib/toddler mattresses at the foot end. We were cautiously optimistic that it was going to be big enough.

12/14/82          9 years, 5 months          5’11”          180 lbs.

This was the month Derek and I realized two things: we were not going to be stuck with each other for the rest of our lives, and we couldn’t separate until Reenie was away at college.

The problem was… a lot of little things. Derek wasn’t a good provider or a good house-husband. He had no class, his friends had no class, and having him as a husband meant having people like Cousin Herman in my life. He was working so hard to make something of Reenie, but he had never lifted a finger to make anything of himself. And there were so many things I wanted to talk about — books I was reading, classical music, the theater — that he just had no interest in. Every time I looked at him, the house, the neighborhood, I thought this is not where I want to be. I had married young and in haste, my parents had told me I was making a mistake, and I was definitely seeing their point.

And of course, there was the annual deer hunt. Please understand. I’m not a vegetarian, and I know where meat comes from. That doesn’t mean I need to see it. I especially don’t need to have the corpse of a freshly killed beast hanging in the basement while my husband and daughter take it apart it and soak it in this awful marinade that’s made of Old Milwaukee and Richard’s Wild Irish Rose and stinks like essence of white trash.

The stench was what got to me. It filled up the basement and trickled up through the floor. It got in my clothes and hair if I went down there. It made Reenie smell like a waitress at a bar in the wrong part of town. And the fact that she didn’t mind in the slightest made it even worse. This was not something any daughter of mine ought to be getting used to.

I finally reached my limit when Derek brought home a deer he’d hit with his truck. At least normally he had the decency to have the carcass disemboweled before he brought it home. Now it was the holidays and the house smelled of marinade and entrails.

So I lit into him. I told him everything I thought of him, his family, his friends and his whole way of life. He told me I wasn’t any fun to be around, I wasn’t paying enough attention to the girls, I thought I was better than him… well, he was right about the last one. I mean, really. Roadkill?

And then Reenie got in between us, elbowed us apart and yelled “STOP FIGHTING!” Her voice was painfully loud, like a gun going off indoors, but that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was realizing that not only was Reenie stronger than either of us, under the right circumstances she’d use her strength.

Afterwards, Derek and I got together somewhere she couldn’t hear us and had a good, long talk. We agreed that we weren’t really meant for the long haul, that both of us could find people we were more compatible with.

But at the same time, we couldn’t divorce just yet. Neither one of us could raise Reenie by ourselves, and the last thing our big little girl needed was chaos in her life.

So we reached an understanding. When Reenie went away to college, it would be over. No shouting, no bitterness, just a neat division of assets and the two of us getting on with our lives. We’d both be in our early forties — not young, but nowhere near over the hill. Until then, since the whole point of the exercise was to provide our daughters (and one daughter in particular) with a stable, nontoxic environment, we would both make an effort to get along with each other.

Eight and a half years. Put that way, it was like a prison sentence — very confining and not much fun, but at least you know exactly when it’s going to end.

8/14/83          10 years, 1 month          6’1¼”          197 lbs.

This was the month we helped Derek’s parents move to Florida.

The move itself went pretty well. Reenie was full of energy and every bit as strong as you’d expect considering she was being brought up like an Olympic athlete, so she got to help with moving things that were heavy and not too fragile. And I know I’ve said some bad things about some members of Derek’s family, but I got along pretty well with his parents… and Jake and Hank, for that matter.

The only problem came when we went to the Southern Baptist church in the new neighborhood. (I’m a Catholic. Derek is, or was, a Baptist. We didn’t go to church as often as maybe we should have, but when we did, it was a Catholic church.) At this point Reenie had taken to dressing in men’s clothing — we’d given up trying to find women’s clothing in her size. But Derek’s parents had a dress made specially for her, so she could wear it to church.

Unfortunately, no sooner had she sat down than the preacher asked her to get up and leave. He thought she was a transvestite or a transsexual or something of that sort, and he wasn’t going to be having any of those in his congregation.

For a scary moment I thought Reenie was about to hit the man — not that he wouldn’t have deserved it. Instead, she ran out by way of the emergency exit, setting off the fire alarm in the process, which nobody in the building seemed to know how to turn off. (Personally, I would just as soon have listened to the fire alarm for an hour as sat still for that idiot’s idea of a sermon.)

From this point until she hit puberty, she occasionally ran into people who mistook her for a man. Usually it was in the ladies’ room. More than once I saw some woman walk into a ladies’ room where Reenie was and immediately run out again in terror. Reenie would shout “It’s okay! I’m a girl!” but the door would be swinging shut before the words were half out of her mouth.

Reenie found this frustrating and confusing. Myself, her teachers, and even Derek had done our best to teach our girls that the modern woman was supposed to be brave and confident and not panic over every little thing, and Reenie herself certainly lived up to this. She didn’t seem to be afraid of anything — not the dark, not snakes, not big dogs, not thunder… not even clowns. Or maybe she was at first, but she’d gotten the idea (probably from Derek) that a giant wasn’t supposed to get scared, so she overcame her fears so thoroughly they sort of died of neglect. But she couldn’t understand why an adult woman, walking into the ladies’ room and catching a glimpse of someone over six feet tall and dressed like a man, would just bolt for the exit like a bunny rabbit without even trying to find out what was going on.

11/14/83          10 years, 4 months          6’2¼”          204 lbs.

Reenie never had much time for Saturday morning cartoons. Usually she was up and out jogging with Derek when they were playing.

But one morning it was raining so hard that even Derek and Reenie were willing to stay indoors. When Reenie was done lifting weights in the basement, she came up and sat down next to Jody.

The Smurfs was on. I remember this because it was a very strange episode, where there was some kind of magic door that could only be unlocked by solving an algebra problem. Given the sums of K+E, E+Y and K+Y, they had to solve K+E+Y.

“I wonder if I could figure it out,” said Reenie.

“I bet I can,” I said. I’m an accountant — it would be a pretty poor showing if I couldn’t solve this. So we both picked up paper and pencil and I started doing a complicated series of equations to work out the values of K, E and Y. I was about halfway done when Reenie said, “Solved it!”

My reaction was “What?!?” Reenie was good at math, but surely not that good.

It turned out that Reenie hadn’t bothered trying to solve for K, E and Y. She’d just added up the sums for K+E, E+Y and K+Y and divided by two. Still, pretty impressive.

See, that’s another thing about Reenie — for some reason, people sometimes assumed that nobody as big and strong as her could possibly be all that bright. She took great pleasure in proving them wrong.

2/14/84          10 years, 7 months          6’3”          210 lbs.

I mentioned how strong she was and is. For the most part, she was pretty gentle with other people as we’d taught her to be, but every once in a while she made a little mistake.

One day, when I was out shopping with her, I asked her to get me an economy-size bag of rice. (If you’re wondering why I was taking her along on shopping trips at her age, it’s because the best deals are usually on the top shelves. Also, some of those economy packages are heavy.)

The rice was halfway down the aisle. Reenie picked up a ten-pound bag in one hand and, being in especially high spirits, said “Here! Catch!” and tossed it to me like a basketball.

Her aim was perfect. My arms were reaching out to grab it even as my brain was thinking Oh no. The bag landed right in my arms and knocked me back into the shelves. I wasn’t hurt, beyond a few bruises — I think she was more upset than I was.

7/14/84          11 years          6’4½”          223 lbs.

For her eleventh birthday, we got Reenie two important gifts — a dog and a sewing machine.

She’d always wanted a dog, Derek was in favor of the idea, and I was pretty confident at this point that she was responsible enough to take care of one. When I agreed to it, she spent a month reading books about how to care for dogs and train them.

If it had been up to me, I would have bought her something small, with a touch of class — a Papillon or a bichon frisé. Instead, Derek and Reenie went out and came home with a retired greyhound named Captain Wallaby. At least the dog was already housetrained. And they’d gotten him free of charge, which is always nice.

As for the sewing machine… well, it was getting harder and harder to find any kind of clothes in her size. So she decided, more or less on her own, that she was just going to have to learn to make them herself. (Or Derek could have learned to make them, if he weren’t, well, Derek.)

She already knew how to knit and quilt — she was a member of a local quilting bee and had made a surprisingly attractive six-foot-by-nine-foot down comforter to go on her great big bed, and she’d knitted winter hats for herself. (Headgear was the first problem we’d run into — she was proportioned more or less like a normal child, so her head was bigger than an adult’s when she was five.)

It took her a while to make things she could actually wear in public, but she got the hang of it. She also learned leatherworking, so she could make shoes and boots for herself. This also meant I could forget about getting Derek to stop hunting — Reenie needed the buckskin.

6/14/85          11 years, 11 months          6’7¾”          249 lbs.

The one thing we had made very clear to Reenie was that she was never to hit anybody, or threaten to hit anybody, or vaguely imply that she might someday hit anybody or anything. Not even if they called her names. Not even if they hit her first. Not ever.

There were three problems with that. First, neither Derek nor I was actually a pacifist. We both believed that fighting was sometimes necessary. We knew that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King had been able to make nonviolent solutions work, but we didn’t know how they’d done it or how to duplicate the results. Children can always tell when you’re applying rules to them that you would never dream of applying to yourself, and Reenie was no exception. But even though we weren’t pacifists, we still needed her to be one, because she didn’t know her own strength and if she got in a fight she could — and I do mean this literally — kill somebody.

The second problem was that although nobody her own age could even hit her hard enough to make her angry, there were some older kids who could. Jared Barkley and his gang would tease her and throw things at her if they saw her around town. She always ran away rather than fight them. We pretended this was a long-term solution.

The third problem was that Reenie’s exercise regimen included boxing practice. To Derek, God bless him, this was just another way of strengthening her arms and sharpening her reflexes. I could have told him he was sending her a mixed message here, but… well, he didn’t get involved when I was doing our taxes and I didn’t get involved when he was helping Reenie stay in shape.

So when I got the phone call at work that there had been kind of a fracas in our front yard, Reenie had sprung a knuckle and Todd Rollins (one of Jared’s gang) was being taken to the hospital with a broken jaw, I can’t say I was all that surprised. The first thing to go through my mind was you knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Be grateful no permanent damage has been done.

Reenie wasn’t the least bit apologetic, either. As far as she was concerned, she’d tried doing things our way for years and it hadn’t worked and she was done taking our advice.

I said, for about the tenth time, “Violence is not the answer!”

Reenie said, “Oh, come on! You don’t even believe that!” (This, people, is why you never argue in front of your children — you’re just teaching them how.) “I don’t know what anybody wants from me! If I was half their size and they were bullying me, everybody would be telling me I ought to fight back and stand up for myself! But since I really can fight back—”

“Violence is not the answer,” said Derek, sounding like a hostage reading aloud a prepared statement. The only thing harder than coping with a spoiled child is coping with an intelligent and fair-minded one.

“Tell you what, Dad,” she said. “Let’s wait and see if Jared and his guys come back—”

Derek, realizing he was in danger of losing the argument, stood up. “Reenie, you do not talk to your father like that!” he said. “Go to your room! Right now!”

Reenie stood up, loomed over him and said “Make me!”

For just a second they stood there, the top of Derek’s head just about level with the bottom of Reenie’s chin. Then Derek, who knew better than anyone how strong she was, took a couple of steps back. I thought to myself and here’s something else you knew was coming.

But Reenie looked shocked. Then she turned and ran… up to her room, oddly enough. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a not-quite-twelve-year-old girl to realize her father is afraid of her, but it must be pretty unnerving.

That was when Jody spoke up and told us what had really happened. It seems she saw Jared and his little posse outside harassing Reenie and went out to tell them off, and Jared shoved her to the ground. And that was what set Reenie off.

As far as Derek was concerned, this changed everything. If somebody’s defending their little sister, all the rules go right out the window. If you don’t like it, don’t go around shoving other people’s little sisters where they can see you.

To me, it changed nothing. It was still not okay for Reenie to hit people who were smaller than her, which at this point was 99-point-something percent of all the grown men on Earth. But of course if I tried to explain this to Jody, what she’d hear would be “I don’t think you’re worth fighting for.” So once again, I kept my mouth shut.

10/14/85          12 years, 3 months          6’9¼”          251 lbs.

We’d been measuring her against a growth chart we’d drawn on the living room doorjamb. This was the last month we could do that — when she stood up straight, the top of her head was up against the top of the doorway. Also, the bathroom scale we’d been using stopped at 250, so we had to weigh her in Dr. Stirling’s office.

11/14/86          13 years, 4 months          7’4”          289 lbs.

Yet another wedding. This time it was my youngest sister, Josephine, who had once babysat Reenie and Jody.

Speaking of whom, they were what’s called “honorary bridesmaids.” I couldn’t see Jody over the heads of everyone else at the reception, but Reenie was standing just apart from a group of real bridesmaids, looking sort of out of place. Somebody had given her a glass of champagne, which I didn’t approve of even if one glass couldn’t possibly have had any effect on her. I had just turned away to go look for Derek, to make sure he wasn’t completely sloshed, when I heard Reenie shout “Hey!” and then heard a man scream in agony.

Reenie had hold of a big guy with long blond hair. She was gripping him by the arms, twisting them into a pretzel knot that was painful just to look at, and saying “What did you do that for?” He was obviously drunk and saying something about Crocodile Dundee.

It turned out that, for what I think was about the last time, some idiot had mistaken Reenie for a man. Being extremely drunk, he’d decided to grab her by the crotch. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen next, but I think he was hoping his friends would be backing him up. Instead… they were backing away. Reenie let go of him just in time for Derek to show up and beat him even more senseless. The creep was bigger than Derek, but he was also drunk and didn’t know how to fight and had a dislocated right elbow. Reenie had done that to him by accident. Granted, he deserved it, but I could tell everyone in the room was thinking imagine what she could do if she really wanted to hurt somebody.

6/14/87          13 years, 11 months          7’5¾”          305 lbs.

At some point around this time, Reenie stopped answering when people asked her about her weight. Derek thought it was because she’d gotten the idea that women aren’t supposed to admit to their real weight, but I think he was wrong. I think it’s because if you ask her how much she weighs and you aren’t her doctor, you’re not treating her like a woman — you’re treating her like a medical curiosity. (If you absolutely must know, these days she keeps her weight between 390 and 400 pounds.)

Anyway, this month Derek hit a snag weighing her — the scale in the doctor’s office didn’t go past 300 pounds. Dr. Stirling had ordered one that went higher, but it wasn’t in yet.

I’ll say this for Derek — he’s good at making friends. He always knows somebody who can do something. In this case, he knew a guy who worked for a little company that supplied horse feed. They had a scale their customers could weigh their horses on for a very reasonable fee. Reenie was not in a good mood about this, but she consented. (And the next month, Dr. Stirling had a new scale in his office that went up to 500 pounds. These days I’m sure he’s glad he has it, with obesity such a problem.)

It was the week after her birthday that our family had two conflicting events — a family reunion in Nashville on Derek's side and my brother Oscar's wedding in Boston on my side. On the same weekend. You can imagine my delight at the prospect of spending time with Derek's whole family, especially Cousin Herman. (Herman and family had already shown up the previous Thanksgiving — unannounced, mind you, and with five daughters in tow this time. At least they'd had the decency to bring some food.) So we decided that Derek would go to Nashville and I'd go to Boston.

So what about the girls? Well, Reenie was conflicted — she wanted to see Aunt Josie and her cousin PJ, but she didn't want to miss a chance to see Herman's daughters again, especially since she knew I didn't like that family and would be opposed to any more visits with them. Jody also wanted to see Aunt Josie. And personally, I really wanted to take both the girls to see Boston. Give them a little taste of high culture for once. Maybe show them around the Harvard campus and see if it inspired any ambitions. (And yes, I know, Nashville has country music. Good for Nashville.)

But it was not to be. Two days before we had to leave, we found out that Aunt Josie couldn't get time off from work, and Pat was in the hospital with a broken collarbone (long story), so Jim and his kids couldn't come to Boston either. So Reenie and Jody decided there wasn't any point to their coming to Boston with me.

It wasn't so bad. I got a chance to have a good long conversation with Angie and Monica. I think for the first time, we really spoke to each other as equals. Once you get into your thirties, two years' or four years' worth of age difference isn't really worth talking about. They didn't act like I'd made a mistake marrying Derek, but they agreed divorcing him would be a good idea. They didn't like it that I'd have to wait four years, but they both admitted they wouldn't want to try raising Reenie alone either.

When I got back, I heard what had happened in Nashville.

Cousin Herman had a sister, Jane, who'd been through three marriages and divorces. Jane had a 16-year-old son named Noel who even Herman had to admit was a nasty piece of work. In fact, Jane actually asked Reenie to keep an eye on Noel so he wouldn't hurt any other children. (This was his mother talking. Think about that.)

Reenie was not happy about being drafted like this instead of hanging out with Gabrielle and the rest (there — I remembered the name of the oldest one) and of course Noel wasn't happy about put in care of a babysitter who was two and a half years younger. Reenie confined herself to trading insults with Noel for an hour or so, but then another one of Herman's brood showed up and Noel made fun of her for being half-Vietnamese. So of course Reenie had no alternative but to drag him into a hotel room, shove him in the closet, push both twin beds up against the door and leave him there until dinner. (Speaking of things Reenie did to oppose racism, she also tried to talk that bitter old boozer Great-uncle Zack into being nice to Herman's girls. She didn't have much luck there.)

Reenie hadn't hurt Noel, but I didn't like how physically assertive she was getting.

9/14/87          14 years, 2 months          7’6¼”          310 lbs.

This was the month of Reenie's big stage debut. (Unless you count the time she played a giant in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which, compared to this, I wouldn't.) There was a production of Of Mice And Men going on in St. Paul, and, on the recommendation of the director (a Mrs. Kuzmick, who happened to have read about Reenie in the paper) Reenie tried out for the part of Lennie. And she got it.

I was skeptical of this at first. It is not a normal thing for a director to seek out a 14-year-old girl to play the role of a grown man. What I suspected was that this was a way to put Reenie on display without it being too obviously a freak show. But Reenie liked the idea, and Derek thought she was up to it, and what was I supposed to say? "No, dear, the only reason anybody could possibly be interested in you is to stare at your enormousness?" So, she was in.

This involved a lot of driving Reenie back and forth — it was over an hour's drive to the theater. Fortunately (sigh) Derek was between jobs again, so he had the time. Reenie was the one who had to do all the work that September, juggling schoolwork with rehearsals.

Of course, the real work was memorizing all those lines. It's not just that Lennie has a lot of lines — he has the sort of repetitive lines that you'd think would be easier to memorize, but are actually a lot harder. Twelve slightly different variations of "I never meant nothin' by it, honest" and if Reenie said the wrong one by mistake it might throw somebody off. To make matters worse, a lot of the conversations were just two people talking about completely different things and not responding to each other at all (like me and Derek half the time) which meant Reenie had no verbal cues that made sense.

It also took a while for her to get comfortable with the character. As I said before, she doesn't like to be thought of as stupid, and here she was playing the stereotypical big dumb gentle giant. Years later, she said "I bet that was how a Jewish actor would have felt playing Shylock." (Which is maybe overstating the case. It's not like there are enough giants in the world to add up to an ethnic group. But it cheered me up to know that she'd read some Shakespeare.)

But she did it. Amazingly, she did it. She learned all her lines and held her own among grown-up professional actors. The way she did it (this also took some figuring out on her part) was not to overact, but to just say Lennie's lines as though they were perfectly sensible things to say. People said her performance was very good, and I'm sure it was, but all I could really see up there was my daughter with her hair cut short wearing a pair of humongous baggy overalls and a sheet of hard rubber under her shirt to hide her figure. (And to protect her kidneys during the fight with Curley. I had to avert my eyes during that scene.)

I'll level with you — I don't really like Of Mice And Men, and you probably won't like the reasons why. First of all, I hate how George and what's-his-name just give up on their dreams for no reason. I mean yes, it's sad what happens to Lennie, but they still have as much money as they did before and it seems like if they could just stop drinking and whoring for a few lousy months they could actually afford a farm of their own. But nope, they have to give up, because this is the world of John Steinbeck and dreams of personal accomplishment are for people who don't know their Marx. I'm being unfair, aren't I?

And second… God, I hate saying this, because it just confirms every stereotype out there of horrible angry feminists who get offended by everything and can't appreciate art or literature unless it conforms to their beliefs… but you have to admit that play is one hell of a sausage fest. There are nine men in it and one woman, and the woman's name is "Curley's Wife." Seriously, that's all the name she gets. And everybody acts like she's some kind of femme fatale because she dresses up and goes outside sometimes. (What is this, Saudi Arabia?) And when she dies, the only reason it's a tragedy is because now Lennie has to die and without him George is going to be lonely and they're never going to have a house full of rabbits and of course it's all her fault for putting her stupid head where Lennie could pick it up and start playing with it.

But when I saw it that time in St. Paul, I saw Curley's wife in a new light. She wasn't some tart who existed only to mess up men's lives. She was a woman in a bad marriage (worse than mine, even) who really wanted a way out — that was why she was drawn to the other men. She was just another character with big dreams that didn't quite pan out. I could understand that.

Still, would it have killed Steinbeck to give her a goddamn name?

4/14/88          14 years, 9 months          7’7¼”          324 lbs.

As she got heavier, Reenie got stronger, but it also took more of her strength just to move herself around. So the law of diminishing returns started to kick in, as the doctors had warned us it would. Even so, she could do amazing things.

It was that blah time of year, between the melting of the last snow and the appearance of new grass and leaf-buds on trees. I was standing on the back porch, looking out on the backyard and feeling depressed. Derek mowed the front lawn because it was one of the things guys in his world were supposed to do, but he’d let the weeds completely take over the backyard. There were huge vines, thirty or forty feet long, as thick as my fingers and rooted to the ground every six inches or so. I couldn’t do anything about them because apart from the lawnmower all the gardening tools were in the shed, and the hinges on the door had rusted shut. Also, the shed needed repainting, it had rained all night and the sky was still gray. If we’d only had a rusted-out car up on cinder blocks, the picture would have been complete. All I could think was three more years, three more years.

Reenie noticed me sulking and said, “What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t really express everything that was wrong with my life, so I just waved at the backyard and said, “It’s this. Look at this mess. All these weeds.”

“Which ones are the weeds?” Reenie had done many things, but never gardening.

So I pointed out the English ivy, the Canada thistles and the multiflora roses along the back fence. Which added up to about eighty percent of everything growing in the backyard.

Then I went to visit Mindie, who I’d worked with at H&R Block before I became Deutschlikör Brewing’s in-house accountant. She had a grown son who was a recovering drug addict with mental illness. Like Herman’s wife, talking with her always put my own problems in perspective.

On my way back, I picked up a couple of roast chickens for dinner (one for Reenie and one for the rest of us). As I was driving up to the house, I noticed two things — there was a huge pile of uprooted plants on the curb, and a bunch of the neighbors had stopped to watch whatever it was that was happening in my backyard.

And no wonder. The backyard looked like a construction site. There were a bunch of little holes in the ground — Reenie had apparently enlisted Jody and her friend Kristy into digging up the thistles. The door to the shed was lying against the bannister of the back porch, right next to Derek’s crowbar. And the last of the ivy was disappearing while I watched. Reenie had her handmade work gloves on, had hold of a dozen of those monster vines and was just walking forward and pulling them out of the ground as she went. Mr. Vogel, who’d been to India, said it was like watching an elephant clearing the jungle, and I had a hard time blaming him. Reenie, who’d gotten to like being the center of attention, smiled and waved at people as she dragged the ivy into the front yard.

When she was done with the ivy, Reenie destroyed the multiflora roses. They were the size of small trees and covered with thorns, but that didn’t stop her. She just dug the dirt out from around their roots, then got her hands under them and lifted. Then she bought a new set of hinges at the hardware store and reinstalled the door herself.

And she wasn’t done. On Monday she went to the library and got some books on gardening, so she and I could decide what we wanted to grow in all that freshly cleared space. Reenie actually came up with most of the ideas — I just had to tell her what was practical and what wasn't. Over the next two months, my human bulldozer repainted the shed, built a composting bin and planted a nice little garden. By the time she was done, she had turned the backyard into something I would be a little sorry to say goodbye to.

So if you’ve been wondering why I hadn’t gotten around to telling Reenie that Derek and I were planning to break up, and were only staying together for the sake of her and Jody, I hope this makes it clearer. It wasn’t just her strength, it was her whole attitude — her outlook on life. I don’t think she picked it up from Derek or me. Maybe she learned it breaking up fights in school, or making her own clothes, but somehow or other she’d come to think of problems as things to be solved, not savored. Weeds in the backyard getting you down? Get rid of them! Hinges on the tool shed rusted shut? Grab a crowbar and take them off! Then get new ones!

Which is good. To be honest, I wish I were more like that. But if Reenie found out her mom and dad, both of whom she loved, were planning to break up… she would see that as the biggest problem of all. She’d do anything to try and solve it. She wouldn’t understand that not everything can be fixed.

4/14/89          15 years, 9 months          7’8”          346 lbs.

I have to admit Derek and I were both very surprised when Reenie came home beaming with excitement and announced that a boy named Keith Bruerne had asked her out on a date. Under the circumstances, I was pleased — Captain Wallaby had died recently, and Reenie needed something to cheer her up.

But as it turned out, this wasn’t it. She came in late at night, didn’t quite slam the door, stomped upstairs without talking to us and didn’t quite slam the door to her room. Jody went up to find out what was wrong.

She came down about fifteen minutes later to report that Keith had admitted at the end of the date that he’d only asked her out because the other boys dared him to. So Reenie, like so many other teenager girls, was now up in her room crying her little football-sized heart out after a relationship gone bad.

Derek was all in favor of going over to Keith’s house and beating the stuffing out of him. I had to point out that there were certain legal problems with that. So the next day I went over to the apartment where he and his mother lived and lectured that stupid boy for about twenty minutes. While his mother listened.

5/14/91          17 years, 10 months          7’9”          385 lbs.

That’s the last entry. We didn’t need more. Reenie was as tall as she would ever get (which was a great relief to her) and almost as heavy as she’d ever let herself get. Early in June, she and a few of her friends put together a little caravan and headed for L.A. Reenie was going to UCLA in the fall, mostly on a basketball scholarship.

What followed was the shortest and most amicable divorce ever. We sold the house, put aside $50,000 of the proceeds for a trust fund in case Reenie ever ran into medical problems later on, and split the rest of the money. (This was only fair. That work Reenie did on the garden boosted the resale value by at least $50,000.) We picked out which things we wanted — I'd done most of the decorating, so he didn't argue when I got most of it.

My friends all wondered why I was being so generous with Derek — as far as they were concerned, I owed him nothing. They were convinced that if I'd had a lawyer on my side I could have taken him for everything he had.

But I didn't want to do that. I didn't hate the man — I was actually kind of grateful to him for helping Reenie grow up so strong — and I didn't even care so much about the money. (And why should I? I already had a job lined up in Minneapolis which paid better than my current job. I'd be making more money in the next three months than Derek was likely to make in the next two years. So what if he got to keep the TV?)

More to the point, I already wasn't looking forward to explaining this to Reenie. There was no hope of her forgiving me if I treated her father badly.

So how did it go when I finally had to break the news to her?

The short version is, she forgave me… eventually. The first telephone conversation after she found out was pretty painful. “I knew you weren’t the world’s most loving couple, but I thought you were okay with each other!” (Jody was kind enough to inform me that thanks to the acoustics of the second floor of our house, both she and Reenie could hear Derek and I having sex. Which meant they could also hear us not having sex. For a very long time.)

“Well, I didn’t want to grow old and die with somebody I was just okay with,” I said. “Neither did your father. You can ask him.”

It wasn't just the divorce, of course. She was already having to adjust to living in an apartment by herself for the first time, and now she didn't have any place to come home to. "That house is the only place where I feel completely normal, and you're selling it! That town is the only place where nobody stares at me like a freak, and you're all just leaving!" is how she put it. "My home is suddenly just gone, and you're acting like I'm supposed to be okay with it!"

I didn't argue with her at this point, mostly because I knew she was too upset to listen.

About a week later, we talked again. Reenie said one of the things that had bothered her was the feeling she'd gotten when she first moved into her apartment — that this was it, she'd left home, and from now on every place she lived, for the rest of her life, was just going to be a waystation. I let her know that this happened to everyone when they left home for the first time. Nothing cheers Reenie up more than hearing that she's not that different from everybody else.

This was the conversation where Reenie mentioned that she’d gotten a job for the summer, working nights as the bouncer at a lesbian nightclub in West Hollywood called “The Dutchboy,” and if I didn’t like it I could get stuffed. I told her that breaking up fights and stopping little people from hurting littler people was something she had some experience with, that I was sure she’d be good at it, and that I was very proud of her. (If you’re wondering, I happen to know Reenie is no lesbian. Apparently it isn’t a job requirement.)

And since she’d gotten the job before she found out about the divorce, I could be sure she wasn’t doing it just to get back at me. Which raised the question of what she would do to get back at me. Shortly after that she met Justin Rosewood… but that is another story.
Reenie the Giant's childhood and upbringing, told from the point of view of her long-suffering mother.
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