The Poison House by Summer Hammond
I was nine years old, poised on the balls of my feet beside my dad, the two of us belting out the march-like hymn We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Of all the hymns in our song book, that one was my favorite. We speak out in fearlessness!
Our makeshift Kingdom Hall was situated on the top floor of the old Farm Bureau building in Dewitt, Iowa. The old wood floors creaked loudly every time someone got up to use the bathroom, and the toilet had an unpredictable temper, gurgling, overflowing, spilling under the door, too near Sister Carson’s immaculate high heels.
Now, our congregation finished the song with gusto.
Ours is the God of True Prophecy! What we foretell comes to be!
After the prayer, we sank into our fold out metal chairs, waiting for the talk to start. My stomach turned over, and my palms grew sweaty. I smoothed my pink dress, stole a glance at Dad, his briefcase at his feet, his neatly pressed gray suit, elegant navy and silver tie.
His gas mask, army green, two big black filters protruding.
I watched as he adjusted the straps of the mask around his head.
Brother McDaniel stepped behind the podium, straightening the microphone. A visiting Elder, he’d never been to our congregation before. He’d never seen my dad.
My heart sped up. The suspense was the worst part.
Dad and I sat, as always, in the front row, the leftmost corner nearest the wall.
It wouldn’t take long for the Elder to spot us. It never did.
As Brother McDaniel launched into the Sunday morning public talk, I held my breath.
“In the Last Days, brothers and sisters, world conditions will crumble beyond repair!”
He was an impassioned speaker. The congregation sat forward, enthralled. He rocked back on his heels, angled his body to center. “Sickness and plagues! Wars! Hate! What will all the pain and chaos herald?” He raised his fist, and turned toward us.
His eyes shot wide open, and his speech froze.
He made a sound finally, somewhere between a cough and a choke. “Uh, and so, brothers and sisters…” He clutched both sides of the podium, steadying himself. “Armageddon. God’s war…at hand.” This, stammered into the microphone, was far from the victorious proclamation he’d rehearsed.
Brother McDaniel would recover his poise. If he were brave, he’d meet Dad’s eyes during the 45-minute talk. If not, he’d avoid looking our way. He’d act as though we weren’t there at all.
Lately, that was how most of our congregation treated us.
Now that my mother and sister were too sick to attend meetings, the Brothers and Sisters, once our friends, our spiritual family, had grown cold. They stopped smiling, turned their backs on Dad and me when we walked through the Kingdom Hall door. My friend, Jasmine, still waved to me. But other than that, Dad and I went straight to our seats, while around us, everyone talked and laughed in groups. Rejection and judgment clogged the air, as suffocating and toxic as the perfume.
I looked at Dad, and my heart caught in my throat.
His gas mask was another reason the Brothers and Sisters avoided us. Behind his back, the kids at Kingdom Hall called him Ant Man. But if he didn’t wear it…first came the coughing, hacking and raw. Then, his face flushed, a sunburnt red, followed by the gasping, a scary shortness of breath.
Turning, Dad met my gaze. The deepening of wrinkles around his eyes let me know, he was smiling. But looking deeper, which I couldn’t help but do, I saw the truth. His tiredness. His sadness.
I leaned into him, buried my head in his shoulder.
He exhaled, a great heavy whoosh through the mask.
My parents were born and raised in rural east Iowa. My father on a corn farm, the rumble of the John Deere tractor beneath him. My mother walking to school beside the Mississippi, the thrum of a barge vibrating the sidewalk under her feet. They were both nature lovers and, at heart, vagabonds.
My sister, older than me by seven years, called them hippies. My mother was outraged. “We were not! We were good Midwest kids. We never did drugs!”
My sister would lean in, whisper to me, “Hippies-in-denial.”
She had evidence to support her claim.
Mom, 19, and Dad, 21, wed in 1967. Afterward, they roared off into the sunset—on Honda motorcycles. All the way to South Dakota. They spent their honeymoon, and the ensuing summer, as fire lookouts in Wind Cave National Park. If I want to locate my parents’ first home, I Google Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. And there it is. The sight of the fire tower, rising above the Black Hills and buffalo-roamed prairie, renders me awestruck every time.
My sister entered the scene in 1969, traveling with my parents in a green VW bus with swirly psychedelic curtains, hand-sewn by my mother. My sister recalled Dad’s extreme sideburns, à la Elvis Presley, and the pipe he smoked.
I experienced none of this. I arrived after they’d converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. When everything changed. The VW bug was retired to the backyard, rusting away, full of hornets instead of camping gear. My father’s extravagant sideburns and mythical pipe, my mother’s beloved Christmas tree and Confetti Birthday Cake recipe.
All relics of a worldly past, discarded.
A week after Dad frightened Brother McDaniel, our Mallard camper rolled into the parking lot of an allergy clinic on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin. Mom and Dad had purchased the camper for adventure, and we’d ended up using it for health trips, like this.
My sister and I dozed together in the back. She’d been reading me My Book of Bible Stories, which lay tented on her chest. The snap-click of Mom and Dad’s seatbelts unbuckling woke us. Dazed and weary, we sat up and together looked out at the sprawling white building surrounded by Balsam Fir trees. We’d been to many cities already, seeking help for our debilitating sensitivity to an increasing number of everyday products, even deodorant. Most doctors dismissed our symptoms. Some referred us to psychologists.
The Wisconsin clinic, discovered by Dad through research and his growing network of contacts, had developed a reputation for not only validating, but attempting to treat mysterious ailments like ours.
Sitting in the waiting room with my family, head down, arms crossed, I tried to control the cold trembling. I had no idea what to expect. My sister leaned in, sharing with me a Highlights magazine. We tried to figure out a maze, tracing different paths with our fingers. Only a couple weeks before, my sister had come home early from school, sickened by a classmate’s aftershave. Her headache and vomiting were so severe Mom had almost called 911.
The nurse called for us, and we were all led to separate rooms. My fear spiked. Heart racing, vision blurred, mouth dry, I climbed up on the cot. Brisk and efficient, the nurse gripped my right arm, rolled my shirt sleeve up to the elbow. She cleaned the area with rubbing alcohol. Then, uncapping a black Sharpie, she leaned in and made a series of swift marks, five of them, down my arm between my shoulder and elbow. The cold trembling set in, worse than ever. The doctor, a short, sandy-haired man with a broad grin, strode into the room. “Hello there!”
“What’s happening?” My teeth began to chatter.
“We’re going to run a test, that’s all.” He snapped on a pair of latex gloves and picked up a needle.
I cried out. The nurse tightened her grip on my arm. I tried to wrestle away. The doctor fished in the pocket of his lab coat, producing several brightly colored lollipops, which he fanned out in front of me. “Be a brave girl and these are for you. All of them. What a deal, huh?”
I went dead still. Not because of bribery (I wasn’t even allowed to have sugar) or bravery. I was simply paralyzed.
The doctor inserted the needle into each mark on my arm. One felt like a pinch. One like a bee sting. I’d find out later he was injecting a small amount of different allergen extracts into my skin, testing for reaction.
“One more,” the doctor said. “Take a deep breath.”
The needle slid in, and this was different. A shot of pure blazing hellfire burned through my veins, right down into the center of my soul.
I threw my head back and screamed.
My mother was raised Catholic and, for a while, attended a Catholic school. Her small knees knocked together under her desk when the nun strode past, menacing, smacking a ruler against her palm. At the confessional, Mom drenched her dresses in sweat, fabricating sins so she’d have something to confess.
My father was out in the cornfield on Sundays, driving a combine harvester by age nine. Although Dad, like my grandfather, worshipped only at one altar, that of hard work, he was nonetheless persistently curious about the world. In awe of the land, he grappled with questions about creation and God. He was accepted into the civil engineering program at Iowa State, but withdrew before his senior year to marry Mom and head West. The plan was, after their adventure, they’d return home, and Dad would complete school.
Instead, up in the fire-tower, overlooking the pines and prairie, the war found Dad. He received a draft notice.
In Basic Training, Dad and his bunkmate engaged in an ongoing conversation about God. Why would a benevolent God allow such violence and suffering? Was there any meaning to it all? Before the draft, Dad’s new friend had studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He gave Dad a book titled The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life.
Known by Jehovah’s Witnesses as The Truth book, this small blue volume carved out a solid and compelling scriptural narrative, reaching hearts in chaotic times. The 1975 Guinness Book of Records included The Truth book in its list of highest printings. The doctrine that resonated most deeply with my dad, the farm boy, was the promise of eternal life on earth. This was far better than some golden, gauzy heaven that had no trees. Because my father’s heaven was, and always would be, the Black Hills. His favorite music, the windswept whisper of pines.
Although Dad never made it to Vietnam, he nevertheless returned home a changed man.
On Mother’s Day, soon after his return, Mom dressed herself and my baby sister in matching pink dresses she’d sewn by hand. She was stricken when, instead of giving her flowers, Dad spun on his heel, turned his back on her, and headed out the door. She didn’t understand, then, that he wasn’t rejecting her. That Jehovah’s Witnesses reject all worldly celebrations. She would always remember, with fresh pain, the way she’d stood at the door, holding my sister, watching him ride down the road on his Honda.
That was her first, and last, Mother’s Day.
Eventually, Dad talked her into a Bible study with a warm and jovial Witness couple from the local congregation. For my mother, too, the promise of earth restored to its original garden Paradise was moving, profound. She lived for her gardens.
And so they were baptized, immersed together in a shining blue pool of water, rising up, together, to an entirely different life.
Now they had religion. It was time to buy a house.
Mom’s dream, since childhood, was to restore an old farmhouse and raise her family there. Growing up, she’d suffered an abusive, alcoholic father and unpredictable home life. Her farmhouse fantasies transported and soothed her. Escaping into her imagination, her child self decorated every room, gently laying braided rugs on the old wood floors, hanging romantic and billowy lace curtains in the windows, spreading and smoothing handmade quilts on each bed.
I imagine her secret disappointment, holding Dad’s hand as they toured several models in that mobile home lot. She didn’t want to complain, but—this wasn’t what she wanted. Dad, though, was a very frugal man. She associated trailer homes with poorness, and after her childhood, that was something she wanted to wash away for good.
I imagine Dad, ever the dreamer, giddy with his plans. He was about to start his own carpet cleaning business, New Life Carpets, a name that held more than a business promise. It held all my father’s hope. He knew he could make it. He was confident. In a few years, his business would take off. One day, they would go buy that farmhouse. And in the meantime, they would have land.
That’s what did it. That word, that mutual love, uniting and propelling them deeper into destiny.
One afternoon, not long after our visit to the Wisconsin clinic, Dad dragged himself through the front door. He slumped onto the couch and angrily loosened his tie. A folder slid off his lap, papers spilling.
My sister and I froze in our merry game of Candyland, silenced by the dark glower on his face.
Another meeting with the Elders had crashed and burned.
Dad wanted the Elders to take a stand for our family. He wanted them to insist, from the podium, that the Brothers and Sisters cut down on the amount of perfume, cologne, hairspray, and other chemicals that made our family sick. He accused the Elders of cowardice, indulging the congregation’s vanity, rather than caring for the weak and sick as Jesus commanded. It was discrimination, he argued. His wife and oldest daughter, now unable to attend meetings. Dad forced to don a gas mask, just so the brothers and sisters could “look good” and “smell nice.”
The problem was the Elders, like so many of the doctors, didn’t believe we were sick.
Mom came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She took one look at Dad and knew. “It didn’t work, did it?”
“No.” Dad drew his hand over his face.
“Even with the papers?” This time, he’d brought proof. In the folder were the official reports from the clinic in Wisconsin. Our diagnosis in writing: Environmental Illness. A term none of us had heard before, now dominating every aspect of our lives.
Dad shook his head. “They said they can’t ask the Brothers and Sisters to change their personal habits for an illness no one’s ever heard of.” He laughed, bitterly. “The truth is, they just don’t want to upset people. They’re choosing peace, over love.”
I dropped my gaze, examined my arm. The injection sites remained, now healed, except for the last one. Marked F, it had triggered excruciating pain for my whole family. And it had swollen, on all our arms, into a mountainous and angry red bump. One that wouldn’t go away.
In the mobile home lot that day, Mom and Dad signed a contract for a double-wide trailer. Yellow, the color of my mother’s favorite lemon pie. It wasn’t her farmhouse, but she knew, the minute she saw it, the curtains she’d hang. Antique, inherited from her grandmother, with lace, and a cheerful lemon print.
I imagine that truck, a few days later, hauling a double-wide the yellow of lemon pie, down that long gravel road in rural Iowa. I imagine the tires kicking up clouds of dust, sparkling like magic, rolling past the cornfields, the dairy farm, the gravel pit, the Holstein cattle, staring. The trailer, deposited on the two acres my parents had proudly bought. Land.
On a quiet dirt lane, in a yard filled to the brim with lilacs and honeysuckle. Embraced by the strong, gentle presence of Sycamore and Elms. This is where my mother began her first garden. She dug into the rich black earth, tenderly tucking in pansies and violets. While my Dad, immersed in his new workshop, crafted a swing for his little girl. He’d hang it from one of those big, beautiful shade trees. These were acts of hope, belief in the future, the two of them standing together, watching my sister swing, her toes pointed into deep lavender twilight.
This was the world, a few years later, I was born into. Mom had worried, but I never once thought of myself as poor. How could I? Every morning, the outdoors spread before me like a royal court. Roaming cornfields, racing bikes, rowdy games of kickball and Hide ‘N Go Seek, swimming in the gravel pit, swinging into the treetops, and leaping for fireflies drifting like lanterns from the sleek green whispers of grass. At night, my sister and I bounded inside, breathless, mosquito bitten, mulberry-stained, freckled with mud, clumps of pine pitch in our hair. Mom had to chop it out with scissors. But I could see her in the mirror, smiling.
The sickness crept in, like an invisible thief, and overcame us, gradually, insidiously. My sister’s chronic and debilitating headaches, sudden and violent nosebleeds, the strange seizures that forced her to the hospital, examined for a brain tumor. Dad’s unrelenting fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea, persistent joint pain, colds caught too easily and lasting too long, a cough that wouldn’t go away. Mom’s period ending abruptly at age thirty-five, her crushing exhaustion, dizzy spells, insomnia, memory loss and brain fog, not to mention the terrible rashes, including a grotesque breakout that resembled a beard of bloody blisters on her chin. And then me. Although I could still attend school and Kingdom Hall without issue, from infancy I’d suffered acute digestive issues, heartburn, stomach upset, irritable bowel syndrome. As a little girl, I was plagued by severe constipation, lasting for days and even weeks. One photo of me, age six, is particularly haunting: my stick thin legs in alarming contrast to my tummy, rounded out, almost pregnant looking, profoundly bloated through my blue-flowered Kingdom Hall dress. Dark circles ringing my eyes.
Mom and Dad began to speculate. Were our maladies connected to the farmland? In the spring, planes zoomed low over the cornfields, spraying clouds of pesticide that the wind carried thick over our trailer community. But then, why weren’t our neighbors experiencing similar illnesses?
Mom and Dad, incorrigible travelers, took us on trips that spanned weeks. On every journey, our health improved significantly. Then, returning home, we’d all fall ill again. We’d also noticed, stepping into the trailer after weeks away, a funny scent. “Like pickles,” Mom would say, scrunching her nose. “You smell that? Like the walls are pickled.”
One night, the news show 20/20 aired a segment on toxic homes. Mom and Dad swiveled to each other. Mom, arms racing with goose-bumps, grabbed the notebook where she recorded information about natural remedies. Hand shaking, she wrote page after page about a stealthy poison that lurked in cheap petrochemical products, such as the particle board and plywood of mobile homes. As she wrote, she started to cry. Her family suffered every symptom of formaldehyde off-gassing.
A few days later, Dad hired a company to run a toxicity test on the trailer.
Reportedly, the doctor at the clinic in Wisconsin had to sit down when he saw the toxicology report, the near lethal level of formaldehyde in our mobile home. “Good grief,” he’d said. “How are you all still alive?” And then, shaking his head. “Good thing you travel, and you’re outdoor people. That probably saved you.”
He prescribed us Antigen Therapy.
Every morning before school, Mom gave my sister and me drops, under our tongues, from tiny bottles of antigens, a small amount of toxic substance meant to stimulate an immune response and regulate our reaction to chemicals.
We hoped and prayed this would work.
My sister couldn’t stay a full day in school without falling violently ill. A friend at Kingdom Hall reached out, inviting her to a sleepover. But after dinner, the girls painted each other’s nails. My sister, wanting desperately to be included, had offered her hand. The nail polish triggered a severe reaction, racing heart, breathlessness, dizziness. Terrified, my sister called home, begged Mom to come get her. She thought she was dying. One of the girls, an elder’s daughter, overheard. She cornered my sister, mocked her. “My dad says your family’s not really sick. He says you’re pretending. Trying to get attention.”
A few days later, my friend Jasmine called to cancel our playdate. She said she couldn’t talk to me. Her mom wouldn’t let her. When I tried to find out why, my voice breaking in two, she hung up on me.
That weekend, Mom’s best friend from Kingdom Hall visited. They sat together at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, speaking in low tones. My sister reported to me what she’d heard. The Elders are warning us to be careful around your family. I don’t know…if I should come over anymore.
We were Marked.
The Jehovah’s Witness practice of Disfellowshipping, or shunning, is notorious.
But few know what it means to be Marked.
Witnesses who fall short of “Jehovah’s” standards, such as consistent meeting attendance, are Marked by congregation Elders.
To be Marked means that, while you are not officially removed from the Christian congregation, you are viewed as a “Bad Association” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
To be Marked is to be avoided. Not invited. Not played with.
To be Marked is to exist in a terrible limbo, suspended between the Witness and worldly world. Where you can be friends with neither.
To be Marked is to be held captive to a near total isolation.
We moved from the poison house to my uncle’s house, which he sold to my dad cheaply.
Dad filed two lawsuits. One against the company that sold them the mobile home. Another against the school system. Antigen therapy hadn’t worked. In 10th grade, my sister dropped out. The administration refused to send her a tutor for an “imaginary” illness. Acting as her lawyer, Dad coached my sister in her courtroom testimony. He spent evenings pounding out impassioned letters to the local paper and political figures, like Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa. His need to raise awareness of Environmental Illness, and families like ours, consumed him. One day, a reporter from The Quad City Times pulled into our driveway. The following week, our story made the front page, accompanied by a photo of our family, surrounded by the plethora of chemical-free products we used. Dad continued to confront the Elders over our family’s unjustly marred reputation within the congregation. When nothing changed, he wrote lengthy pleas to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, asking them to remove the Elders who had maligned us.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was losing him to that losing battle.
Every fall, we attended Jordbruksdagarna, or Agriculture Days, at the preserved Swedish settlement called Bishop Hill. There, my mother returned each time to a beloved place. A stately old farmhouse, restored into a shop. Each bedroom, quaintly decorated with curtains, rugs, and furniture crafted by artisans in the village. My mother had picked out “our” rooms, and each time, we went to visit them with her, up the creaking stairs, tiptoeing across the wood floors, peering out through the handmade Swedish lace into the tall trees, the sun melting orange into the cornfields. My mother would sink onto the bed, or a rocking chair, and tell us the story of our life in the farmhouse. We entered the dream with her, and shared her grief.
In the 1980s, lawsuits over toxic mobile homes gained momentum, and publicity. In 1984, HUD required formaldehyde disclosures with each mobile home sale. Environmental Illness, as it gained credibility in the medical world, earned more names: Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Sick Building Syndrome, Mobile Home Syndrome. With more credibility comes more courage, and with that, more people speaking up.
We weren’t alone anymore. But the damage was done.
I was twelve, shopping with my mother and sister.
The mall was a big outing for us, something we could do only for an hour or two before the new clothing, perfumes, cleaning fluids, etc. got the best of us, triggering the usual array of symptoms: dizziness, headache, racing heart, and nausea. We were approached by a woman who greeted us with strange timidity. It took me a minute to recognize her. Sister Carson, from our old Kingdom Hall. With a sheepish smile, she said, “How are you? I just wanted to tell you, I’ve kept your family in my prayers.”
“How dare you.” Mom slammed the shirt she was holding back onto the rack. Her face shook. “Go away.”
“Please, won’t you let me explain…?”
Mom shook her head, grabbed my hand and my sister’s, pulled us with her. Just before we reached the door, Mom wheeled and said, “We didn’t need prayers. We needed friends.”
There’s another illness that doesn’t get spoken of much. Religious Trauma Syndrome. When your faith community rejects you, casts you out, causing long-term psychological damage, with symptoms reminiscent of PTSD.
Dad lost the lawsuit with the school system.
So, we packed up and moved to Springfield, Missouri, where homeschooling was legal. Perhaps there, in the beautiful Ozarks, we could start fresh, build a new life.
We arrived to find that our new house had new carpet. And the glue made us sick.
Through that winter, we lived in our RV, where we huddled, enduring the historic 1992 ice storm. In the spring, Dad removed all the carpet, and carpet pad, laying it out on the roof of our house to air.
With carpet and bright blue carpet pad covering our rooftop, an eye-catching spectacle, we soon became the talk of the neighborhood.
The lemon pie trailer long behind us, the repercussions pressed on.
I finally graduated high school at the age of 21. My sister, at 26. Only ten years later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer, one of the most rare and aggressive forms of breast cancer. We didn’t have a history of breast cancer in our family, and so, one of the questions she was consistently asked by specialists, “Have you ever been exposed for any length of time to a known carcinogen?”
A few years later, my father was diagnosed with oral cancer, shocking to us and his doctor, as he didn’t smoke, drink, or chew, and his dental hygiene was immaculate. Have you ever been exposed for any length of time…? Sometimes to this day, I think, if I look hard enough, I’ll still be able to see it there. Marked. With black Sharpie on my arm. A mountain of pain. Unable to be erased. F, for Formaldehyde. F, for Faith. F, for Forgotten.
Summer Hammond grew up in rural Iowa, and later the Ozarks of southwest Missouri. She home-schooled through high school and went on to teach 9th grade Reading in Austin, TX, connecting great teens to great books. She is a proud 2019 graduate with her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Haunted Waters Press, The Dillydoun Review, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review. Summer is currently pursuing her MA in English at UNCW, where she teaches composition. You can find her on Facebook.
4 thoughts on “The Poison House. Winter Nonfiction Winner.”
Wow! Thank you for sharing this incredible, well-crafted story.
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Thank you so much for taking my story to heart, and your kind response!
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Great story, Summer! You never told me this part of your story, and it was riveting.
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Thank you for reading, Don. I really appreciate that! Now you know why the first draft of my novel was 800 pages…I was trying to write it ALL.