The Secret of Little Sister
Earl finally left the old house, one of my mother’s rental properties, when it went up in flames. He jumped bare-chested into his black-striped, mustard-yellow 1974 Dodge Charger, screeching down the road, leaving twin plumes of blue smoke, and black rubber, in front of the two acres of anciently gnarled grapevines, whose knee-high weeds testified further to his irresponsibility. Charred glossies of shaved female crotches and breasts as big as genetic mutations fluttered out of the top floor of the crooked structure that went up like a trash fire. The rat strand of hair emerging from his Genesee Cream Ale cap was the last anyone saw of him.
In renting the place to him my mother had used her judgment and determined that he shared a quality that she very much admired: resourcefulness. Earl, taking off his cap as he walked up her drive after respectfully parking his car on the shoulder of the road, had said, “Good afternoon, ma’am. I seen the sign for rent and was wonderin if I could look at the place.” My mother straightened from her chore of watering the geraniums from a plastic watering can. My sister put out her cigarette and came from around the back of the house with hope at the sound of the rumbling car and then its exhaustion. Earl did see opportunities, in a woman whose broken English meant that his own lack of education would not be held against him. As they cut across the back yard of her other house, he listened as she went on about work, about how she and her now-deceased husband had come to this country, with nothing, nothing but five dollars in their pocket and two babies, how they had worked and saved to get what she now had, a three-bedroom all-brick ranch house built in 1975, a slightly older wooden ranch house next to it, and then the Depression-era structure with no right angles, unstained surfaces, or non-leaky parts-all on 45 acres of flat, fertile land. It had been part of her regularly featured sermon on Work, after she and her audience had achieved a certain level of intimacy. With Earl the moment had come rapidly.
Earl had been able to hide a prison record for a string of crimes, from shoplifting to dealing, with a close-lipped smile underneath a corn-silk mustache and a quick demonstration of the handy man abilities my mother needed so badly. He ran to his trunk for his tools and fixed a door that would not latch properly. He had the cash for the security deposit and first month’s rent. My mother saw that money there, $1,200 in hundred dollar bills, the only form of paper to be trusted in the final analysis.
He smiled as he took the roll out of his camouflage cargo pants pocket, even showing his teeth, with breaks and gaps.
“Yes, ma’am, I believe in cash,” he said as he peeled out the bills for her.
How could he have known that she too believed in cash, that she would pay her taxes with hundreds, putting $7,154 into an envelope from one of the Catholic charities into her tan patent leather purse on the passenger seat of the Buick, hit the lock button, and drive it carefully to the county offices and count them out to the flustered clerk? Did he know at that point that she and her husband had paid cash for all that land and then cash to build the brick ranch house?
He had been given the catechism on industry, thrift, and honesty. Had he been impressed by the immigrant work ethic displayed for him by a brick ranch house ringed by a profusion of flowers, a clean-swept driveway, small orchard, and a simple mother with worker’s hands and shy daughter?
Earl relied on smell as much as anything. He was one of those men. He could tell those farmer’s hands longed to touch that cash.
“Ma’am, I’ll give you $600 for a receipt. I’d like to move in Monday.”
“I need rent.” My mother prided herself on her business acumen.
“Well, I’m just gonna’ keep this $600 till Monday if you don’t mind, ma’am.”
My youngest sister was behind my mother, hunched. She glanced shyly at Earl, and drew into herself to shrink her body closer to his size. He subtly flexed a tattooed bicep and gave a glance noticeable only to the perceptive and receptive. My sister gave a nervous smile in response and twiddled her fingers clasped around the waistline swathed in a bright pink t-shirt appliquéd with three kittens in a basket of flowers, matching her mother’s in girth.
“Ma’am, I need a place by Monday. You know I got the cash. And like you said, I could fix stuff around here. I got my own home remodeling business and work the snowplow in the winter like I told ya. I ain’t gonna let this place run down. I’ll keep it up and pay you cash every month.”
He could smell my mother’s desire for the cash, knew that it would overwhelm that other part of her brain that might remember the lease whose language she couldn’t understand anyway. He saw the change in demeanor, the sternness and anger leave her round face, replaced by a satisfaction, almost post-coital in its pleasure.
He saw also the daughter, whose scared stare could send small children scurrying to their mothers in the lanes of the new Super Wal-Mart in Canal Port, eight miles down the road. Though she had not said a word he summed up her need faster than any computer could.
Had Earl gotten as far as eleventh-grade English class he might have taken to heart the theme of carpe diem
in Andrew Marvell’s seduction poem. Certainly, there was a coyness to the hulking woman with frizzy hair beginning to turn gray, who was holding back behind her mother like a two-year-old in the presence of a stranger. Her expression kept shifting from one of fear, to need, to shy flirtation. Suddenly, a smile would plaster on her mouth, then as quickly disappear. She glanced frequently at her mother, as if for direction.
He gave as close to a smile of kindness as he could to her, and she saw in that missing toothed grin fulfillment to a hunger she could not explain.
English class or no, Earl would have said “yes” to “Seize the day!” But he did as well with “Give it all you got!” and “Go for the gusto!” Had Earl been a bit more sophisticated and read Alan Watts he would have justified his lifestyle on his motto of “live in the moment.” Or perhaps Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss.”
Whatever terms it was put into, this philosophy was one that Earl applied, particularly to his love life. For example, the previous night. Earl smiled as the image of Candi came to mind, Candi who had given him more than just a lap dance, and he had not even had to pay extra! Well, only a little rock to get things started and then boy did they go!
My sister imagined that the smile meant that he was falling in love with her. My mother imagined that he was thinking about how happy he would be to live in her house and lend a helping hand and save a little money in the process. My sister, in spite of her best efforts to hide this from our mother, who now spoke to Earl in serious tones about the duties of a tenant, let the blooming love affair blossom in her imagination, in the manner of Danielle Steele novels. She let her mouth stay up at the corners.
Once negotiations were over, rules reiterated and emphasized with a level of sternness that went up as each double-crossing tenant had demanded, mother and daughter made their way back to the brick ranch at a turtle-like pace, for my mother because of her painful hips, for my sister because the wind came over the expanse of land and blew out the cigarette she was trying to light. Over dinner on the rewashed plastic-coated paper plates from Memorial Day, my sister heard my mother’s sermon on work and saving. Not only was our mother a stern moralist who imparted her own code, but in her way an optimist. She could tell that Earl was a nice guy, not like the others, who were la-a-zy and grrrdy (dirty). She could tell by how he talked so nice, how he had called her Mrs. Mislovic. She swabbed the sauce off her plate with bread and then wiped her mouth with a dishtowel. My sister smiled at her secret fantasy and my mother took this for agreement. The evening meal was one of their more pleasant ones.
It would be less than a year later that the house would go up in flames, but after Earl had cheated my mother out of three-and-a-half months rent, not to mention the utilities for the first month, including the installation charges. He had not even gotten to the point of most tenants’ creative excuses for not paying rent: the enormous fuel oil bills and a well that went dry, always by the time in summer vacation when kids were cranky and needed to jump through a sprinkler or to hose each other down. Earl had simply shrugged, having intimate knowledge of tenants’ rights laws in New York State, knowing just how long he had before the sheriff himself would actually come to the house and throw his meager possessions by the side of the road. The fire had occurred, accidentally for sure and not through any direct fault of his, a few days before that day of reckoning. The Dodge Charger was the only real asset he had anyways.
* * *
How my sister got involved with Earl begins long before that day he pulled up in his souped-up Dodge Charger. Nor was Earl the first one. The story begins, as most do, long before one’s birth even, before the sperm in that cataclysmic moment attacks an egg and sets into motion a continuation in some sense-and in spite of our best efforts-our parents’ story.
I would not have known about Earl and all the other Earls that had rented the decrepit house on that godforsaken stretch of road outside the dying town with paint-peeling gingerbread houses testifying to its long-gone period of affluence-when mules pulled barges down the canal-had I not been reunited with my other sister, Anna.
My mother would have said it was my fault for what happened between Earl and my sister and the house being burned down, even though I was a thousand miles away. Earl had been the closest my mother had been able to come to a reliable son-in-law, which after all was the purpose of having daughters. That had been a part of my father’s scheme as well in buying all that land. But like all of my mother’s practical advice in this country of foolishness and folly, it fell on deaf ears. I had divorced a perfectly good husband, one better than I deserved, and Anna had packed the U-Haul in two days after husband number three had been accused of stealing money from my mother’s bedroom while he had been fixing the toilet.
It would take many years for me to talk to Anna and learn all that had happened to our youngest sister, who at the age of forty still toddled after her mother.
* * *
My sister’s story begins on Lilac Lane, twenty miles from the lonely wind-swept cabbage and corn fields of her adolescence and adulthood. From my parents’ front bedroom upstairs on Lilac Lane, I could hear her and Anna’s shrieks of terror and delight mingling with the other neighborhood children’s. They rose in a contrapuntal chorus from the Jungle, a lilac-suffused patch of overgrown land behind a horse barn that stood as falling testament of better times in our neighborhood in Rochester. Amid the short-living vines and remnants of once carefully pruned bushes, the neighborhood children forgot that our tiny Lilac Lane was three bus stops from the brewery and five from a Kodak plant. My parents’ own first investment in real estate was a runt of a house wedged in on a former side yard between the large, plain clapboard structures of the first part of the century. This small, plain box-like structure stood as one of two such attempts at modernization with infill building. The other was an ugly white ranch house wedged in sideways, with a garage defiantly facing the sidewalk. The final attempt at modernization was the paving of the brick on the street in 1963. But after that, investors and city fathers gave up on Lilac Lane and surrounding working class streets.
I would be hanging my mother’s dresses in a closet that emitted traces of her factory sweat and Right Guard. I lingered as I carefully arranged the expanses of draped cloth on the rack, dreaming that my efforts would ease her symptoms of nervosa. She and Mrs. Yellow were fond of discussing symptoms, causes, and lack of cures over a beer and cold cuts and rye bread while I stood at the stove and measured ingredients from a library book.
Both had their self-cures: Mrs. Yellow, whose real name was not “Yellow,” but Jancar, used color therapy. Yellow-in shades of chiffon, lemon, gold, and sunflower-lit up her and her husband’s small apartment. Fortunate for her too the fact that the fashions of the times favored eye-popping shades of pink, purple, lime-green-and yellow. She could always find the shoes, bags, and hose to match the yellow dresses that gave her the appearance of a lady daffodil as she made her way down the mile of sidewalks to our house. Her brilliant attire, however, belied the sorrow that always accompanied her, sorrow that the priests at Saint Michael’s did not even have time to hear about, as much as she tried to translate from her Croatian to broken English.
My mother, having her own reasons for being nervosa, would commiserate. This was a country that did not understand sorrow, or work, or suffering.
“But at least you have a good girl,” Mrs. Yellow would say about me at the stove.
Some days I’d wash the windows or arrange my mother’s underwear drawer, listening to the voices rising up, and imagining my abilities to banish nervousness by a neat house at 5:30 when my mother would come home. I could count on her being delayed enough to inspect my work. I awaited the day when it would be good enough to keep her there, happy to be home in her house with her children.
I would be reminded of the Jungle more than thirty years later, by Anna at her kitchen table, her husband’s efforts to get us to talk finally panning out.
The Jungle was owned by Mr. Hoffman, the only man on Lilac Lane who wore a suit and tie to work. Mr. Hoffman, unlike the other fathers on the street, was tall and straight and fit. His posture and walk said Executive. On summer evenings, he would park his black Cadillac on the street and raise a suited arm to his audience of parents on front porches, smoking, and straining the webbing of lawn chairs. Then he would vanish into his large window-shade-drawn house. His name was spoken in hushed, reverential tones. It was rumored he traveled all over the world on business trips for Kodak. He provided another glimpse at the outside world that added to the pastiche gleaned from the evening paper dropped off by the paper boy, Walter Cronkite reporting on the malfeasance of a government that was killing our boys in a jungle far away, or the dramas of the “stories” on TV in the afternoon and the more salacious ones in True Confessions. We welcomed anything from the outside that provided variety to the rounds of dishwashing, laundry, piecework, and the routine darkroom tasks of trick shifts. For me, Mr. Hoffman’s arrival in his black Cadillac provided excuse to look up from my embroidery or darning on my own lawn chair next to my mother on our driveway that served a porch’s purpose, having no automobile to fill its space.
Mr. Hoffman’s house, closed off as it was, stood as a reminder of the more genteel Rochester of the nineteenth century. Before the large, square practical houses were built around it, I imagined the expansive, ornate house had provided the living quarters for a family of Victorian girls like the ones I read about in a series of pink books I pulled off the shelf of the mote-filled Avenue D Library. These girls were fussed over. Much of the dialogue concerned what bows and ribbons to wear with their gowns as they entertained visitors in their parlor.
In later years, but before I could work legally, I would eye Mr. Hoffman’s house from the one next door. That side-by-side two-family structure was rented by a divorcée for whom I did laundry on Saturday mornings. Unlike my mother, Jean owned a dryer, so the number of clothes that needed to be hung on the line consisted only of the most delicate undergarments, which she wore for her boyfriend, upon whom I’d stumble when I’d arrive at the top of the stairs with a basket of folded laundry. They would be in their underwear, cuddling on her waterbed, the door ajar, and I’d look away, dropping the basket in the hallway.
On those Saturday mornings as I pinned and unpinned lacy under-wire bras from the line, I’d glance over to the falling down barn. The house, an old Victorian lady, was as shut off in the back as it was in the front, with the old-fashioned dark window shades pulled down against the sunshine. But the children never seemed to bother Mr. Hoffman, who came and went affably, as if entering and exiting a hotel.
Mr. Hoffman remains a shadowy extra in my reel of Lilac Lane from the early days of color film, in a documentary of hazy scenes that I splice together as I try to figure out exactly what happened to my youngest sister, once a laughing, lean-legged sprite dancing in the overgrowth of the Jungle, running to catch fireflies. That is the way I like to remember her, what she became once she left my arms and the confines of our little house and yard, when she was able to run off with her giggly friends. But in this jittery home movie that plays in my dreams, there is fire and water, and it seems that I slip from one terrible choice to another-from a conflagration to the rush of water over my head. This home movie of fragmentary scenes ends always with this one: I am throwing my sister a line and then see that she is too far out in deep water to reach it. I wake, always, with the realization that I cannot swim.
Mr. Hoffman was like one of those extras you see in the background, say the general store owner negotiating the price of calico with the schoolmarm with hair teased and aerosol-sprayed in a curlicued helmet, her breasts hoisted up and out from under a blue gingham gown to add to her character’s aura of feminine frontier pluck, and to point the young man west. Or say the neighbor that rings the doorbell to borrow a cup of sugar at just the wrong time to catch the main characters in an embarrassing position, and at the right time for the laugh track.
Mr. Hoffman was above getting involved in the daily disputes and squabbles and money worries of Lilac Lane. It would have been ridiculous to imagine him sharing a cigarette with Mrs. Shulman and discussing the price of lettuce, which she now had to buy for the children’s pet rabbit, thanks to my father’s instigation by raising rabbits for food. Yes, she would have told him, the Mislovic family ate their rabbits while she sent her husband to buy lettuce for an overgrown 15-pound white bunny.
It was the same with their chicken, Henny-Penny, intended as the main attraction in a kosher dinner, but who now enjoyed such delicacies as leftover Kraft macaroni and cheese. Her squawkings and own complaints from the backyard as she settled in to roost for the night in the doghouse verified the general out-of-control state of Mrs. Shulman’s life since she had been forced to marry at age 17 and six children ago. Henny-Penny had been spared, but only through incompetence on the part of the butcher at the farmer’s market. Once in Mrs. Shulman’s cluttered kitchen, Henny-Penny had leapt out of her bag, squawking her defiance and flapping around, knocking cups, papers, and cigarette packs from counters and table. Mrs. Shulman’s tap on the head with the tablespoon had only enraged the chicken more and sent it on a frantic flight around the cluttered kitchen. After she had managed to shoo the chicken into the backyard with a broom, Mrs. Shulman put on a pot of coffee and lit a Lucky Strike, pushing away papers, dishes, playing cards, and toys on the kitchen table. From the age of seventeen, this had been her method of coping with Life.
She sent Rachel to call on my father for his expertise in animal husbandry that complemented his expertise in gardening, viticulture, wine-making, and spirit-distilling. But by the time Mr. Schulz had dropped my father off from the railroad where they both worked, the chicken had her name. She was the center of attention of the semicircle of fold-out lawn chairs with women foregoing their “stories” and children coaxing her with bits of Wonder Bread. All screamed as they saw my father approach with a large knife in his hands.
“What’re you gonna’ do?” Mrs. Shulman, exhaling Lucky Strikes, would say, of a pleasant summer evening. “I’ve got a pet chicken.”
“What’re you gonna’ do? Look!” Pulling the cat’s eye glasses to her face, she’d point to the circular in her lap. “Here they got a coupon (she pronounced it cue-pon) for ten cents off. But you know when you get there the price is gonna’ be 20 cents more than last week.”
It’s ridiculous to think of Mr. Hoffman in his business suit or even golf pants and shirt sitting there with Mrs. Shulman in her loose snap-front, poly/cotton housedress spending his breath on ten cents for lettuce. My mother, on the other hand, did care. Ten cents was ten cents. Ten cents meant another seam to sew against the glare of the Italian forelady who smiled at her compatriots, greeting them with “Buon Giorno, Cara,” and then gave them the more lucrative bundles to sew. My mother had to work for every penny. No one gave her anything, my mother would say, her beefy hands folded around her waist and glancing up at Mrs. Shulman on her porch next door. And here you were in a country where children were forced to waste twelve years in school.
She did not say the last thing directly to Mrs. Shulman or to any other Americanci, nor anything about how Mrs. Shulman herself was to blame for wasting her money on cigarettes and such frivolities as gas to drive out to the country on Sunday afternoons. Another example, the fact that Mrs. Shulman spent so much on lettuce was owing to her own stupidity and wastefulness. For the price of an initial packet of seeds, one could have real, fresh lettuce. Of course, that required work, from digging up the dirt, to fertilizing it with rabbit droppings and composted leaves, to planting, and weeding and watering. Hmph! What did she expect? That someone would hand over lettuce to her for free? The way they did for the lazy bums on welfare?
No. And no one gave her anything!
My mother’s reaction would be a combination of sympathetic agreement and contempt for Mrs. Shulman’s inability to figure out how to beat the system, not only through the practical old world methods my parents had brought with them, but in more strategic ways. For the latter method a slight smile belied my mother’s sympathy. Her shopping expeditions after the nightly house inspections brought their own rewards of nylons, scarves, and slips which would help equal out the injustice of the country’s economic system.
Mr. Hoffman, too, was one of those Americanci who saw himself as above everyone else simply because he wore a suit and did not have to work at a factory machine. Let him think he was so smart. Let all the factory owners, bosses, and foreladies think they were smart. My mother may not have had the opportunity to go to school in this country or to even go beyond eighth grade in her own, but that did not mean that she was stupid. She could play their game and wherever there were opportunities she’d take them. Meditating on these thoughts, it was pleasant for her to sit as darkness fell on Lilac Lane and a breeze washed over her weary, sweat-stained body. Even a working woman needed time to contemplate and think. Even Mr. Hoffman wasn’t so smart.
And ultimately, on this point, I would have to agree with her. In what happened to my littlest sister, Mr. Hoffman had a bit part only. It was one that could have been played by any number of actors. I like to think of him now as a Prufrock-ian fool, someone who sets the action into motion, his role as interchangeable as his business suits. The main action was across the street from his genteel Victorian house. Center stage was on front porches with metal railings, where women in housedresses held forth, while husbands sat off smoking and listening to the Red Wings game on the transistor radio.
Mr. Hoffman, of course, provided a foil for my mother as well as a large part of the setting for our story with the Jungle.
For me, the Jungle was a fictional place, filled with the romance of childhood that I gleaned from books from the public library. Although it was only across a narrow street, it might as well have been the Midwestern prairie of the Wilder Sisters, the Alps that Heidi climbed, or the shores of Assateague Island that the ponies named by Marguerite Henry galloped along. As I washed the windows of my parents’ front bedroom or arranged my mother’s freshly laundered bras and slips, barks of dogs and shrieks of delighted terror, “you’re it!” “Mother, may I?” would rise teasingly. Among those screaming was my middle sister, Anna, two years younger than I. I would be thankful that she was there for that would mean she would not be in the house, disturbing what I had cleaned.
In the afternoon, I could take one of my library books to the back yard, set up a lawn chair under one of my father’s dwarf peach trees and scramble up an Alpine mountainside with goats, sail a boat, or gallop bareback on a pony along the seashore.
The truth was that I was hesitant and clumsy. I had been denied dance lessons, even though the father of one the girls on the street had offered to drive me with her on Saturday afternoons. When my mother had found a pair of tap shoes at the Salvation Army and gave them to me with an air of generosity, I felt like a fool after my evening of tapping on the pavement did not produce Shirley Temple-like rhythms and movements. My athletic abilities extended to learning how to read while walking back and forth four times a day to school.
But had I still had the inclination to run and jump and scream unselfconsciously I would not have been able to do so. Donna’s arrival, in spite of my mother’s insistence to the contrary to this day, precluded the time or freedom to engage in such activities.
Donna’s actual impending arrival was to the contrary of my mother’s claims, as well. Even when I tentatively posed to her the suggestion of could we possibly be expecting a younger brother (as I was convinced it would be), she had set her jaw, faced straight ahead and continued walking. We were pulling our shopping cart, loaded down now not with groceries, but used diapers, bottles, stained rubber pants, and t-shirts.
That summer, new loose cotton dresses, home sewn, had appeared in my mother’s closet. I would wonder at them, smell her smells coming through traces of Right Guard, and dare not allow myself to think the thoughts that my off-and-on best friend Luba, who was ten and a year older than I, had planted in my head: that my mother was pregnant.
I did not know the Slovenian word for “pregnant” and would not have dared to say such a word in either language. But we were walking the mile back from the house of a Croatian friend who had three boys ranging in age from three to six. I was pulling the shopping cart loaded down with baby paraphernalia and clothes. Luba and I had had debates regarding my mother’s gestational state, with me insisting that my mother’s belly had always been big and round, as were the bellies of my aunt and other women from the old country. I had accepted that this was the normal figure for a Yugoslavian woman. Those who still had waistlines were either rare exceptions or American. We were walking from Otto’s, where Luba had spent the quarter her father doled out daily, for ice cream sandwiches for each of us and a Coke for herself.
“Your mother is pregnant,” she had said matter-of-factly. I was in shock as much by her saying the word that had associations with the forbidden and sinful as I was by the announcement that I would have a new sibling. But Luba was always much more daring than I was, and was already talking about her crush on Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
“No, she’s not,” I had responded.
“Yes, she is.”
“How do you know?”
“Just look at her! Look at her stomach.” Luba’s own stomach was completely flat, like those of most American girls, even though she was Ukrainian. But my own stomach had remained rounded from the time when my mother had been forced to stay home. She would encourage me to finish the bowl of Farina she had cooked for me, I am sure in at least double portion.
The debate ended with Luba telling me that she had overheard her mother discussing it. She offered to place a bet on whether there would be a baby by fall.
In the intervening weeks my mother’s belly had indeed grown beyond the size expected for weight gain. And she was wearing the new, loosely gathered dresses. And Maria had given us the clothes, pushing them at my mother to take them, speaking in a placating Croatian, “Wait, you’ll see. You’ll be happy when it’s born. I think it’s going to be a boy.”
I had secretly decided to offer the name of Joseph as a suggestion because of its associations with holiness. I sat flipping through back issues of Ladies Home Journal, admiring the sparkling floors in the ads for Mr. Clean, imagining myself as svelte as the smiling women gesturing to deliciously set tables that graced the magazine’s pages. As Maria’s murmurs of optimistic encouragement came from the other room, I imagined all the happiness the baby would bring us.
On the way home, my mother was not even holding the other side of the handle of the shopping cart as she did when we would walk from the grocery store. She was making her way more heavily now. Anna was about a block ahead, running so she could get to the Shulman’s.
I ventured politely, “So we’re going to have a baby?”“What are you talking about? Don’t be crazy!” She continued plodding on on swollen ankles, her jaw set, her face straight ahead.
* * *
“Denial is not a river in Egypt,” I would hear said years later in rooms with fold-out chairs with middle-aged people admitting their own faults, anxieties, and addictions other than the more easily identifiable ones of alcohol or drugs. I would be with a German-born friend, a woman eighteen years my senior, who advised me, “Millie, you have to let go and let God.”
I would also be struggling with a counselor whom I was seeing in my quest for self-improvement for overcoming my dependence on antidepressants. It would be a woman sitting pertly dressed up in a brightly colored suit, matching scarf, and heels, or a man in Birkenstocks with a small statue of Buddha on his desk.
“Post-partum depression is common. It’s an illness,” would be the refrain.
* * *
Changes had been coming to Lilac Lane and the surrounding streets we trod, to school in the morning, then back for lunch, and twenty minutes later back to school after I had heated up a can of corn or made Fluffernutter sandwiches for myself and Anna. We knew the sidewalks well, where the cracks were, a habit I keep to this day. We knew also where the sidewalk heaved up and how to navigate the shopping cart around it on Friday evenings, as well as on this Saturday afternoon as we pulled our haul of diapers, bottles, and baby clothes. Children knew too where to draw hopscotch patterns with multi-colored chalk, and I would step around the patterns carefully with my library book open before me, passing women with oddly bright orange hair pushing reel lawn mowers, smiling benevolently at me. One even said, “You go ahead, honey, pick all the violets you want,” as I guiltily plucked them from her lawn.
But two summers before, the barber shop that my father walked to for his bi-monhly trims had been ransacked in the riots. So had Otto’s from where we had bought our penny candy, mine from the nickel earned walking a kindergartner to and from school. The family of the one other new house on our street built on a narrow lot between two big older houses had been abandoned and was up for sale. The talk on the porches and driveways was about decreasing property values and fear that the house would be sold to blacks or Puerto Ricans. We tugged locked doors an extra time before leaving the street. Some of the small business owners placed guns behind the counter.
Mr. Hoffman must have gotten divorced because his wife, who had rarely been seen to begin with, was never around. Nor was his daughter, a sullen girl four years my senior, who had lured me into friendship, but in exchange for my devotion, had tormented me one winter during my first year of school by forcing me to sit in the middle of the snow-covered street as we walked home.
That had gone on for a few weeks until Mrs. Voigt had gotten her son to come out of the house behind her own. He had freed me from the captor who had needed only to say the word for me to obey her. Shortly after that time, we no longer saw Linda or her mother. With Linda gone, I nurtured my friendship with Mrs. Voigt. She helped me get over my fear of squirrels. She had names for all of those that lived in her yard: Chester, Chatterbox, Moxie, Runt, and Chelsea. Some of them took peanuts from her hands, while her cat, Sylvester, twitched his tail in the picture window. She would interpret their words for me. When one would chase another up a tree, she would smile, sometimes laugh, “That Moxie’s a tease now! She said, ‘I’ve got that nut!’”
Mrs. Voigt did not smile at any other time, and that was why the children called her “The Witch.” She would shoo them off her yard if they should cut across it in a game of tag or kickball. She did not want them disturbing the homes of the squirrels.
On that Saturday afternoon, we rounded the corner to Lilac Lane. I was now pulling the shopping cart myself, my mother’s eyes straight ahead. Set. We passed Mrs. Voigt’s curtain-drawn cottage. She stayed on her porch with her bowl of peanuts, eyeing us suspiciously.
Back in the relatively carefree days I was called upon occasionally to run down to Otto’s for a can of cat food, for which Mrs. Voigt would sometimes give me the leftover pennies. But first we would have the preliminaries of conversation. She got to know when I would be walking home from school and would be in the front yard with the peanuts in her threadbare apron, stooping over stiffly and holding them out in a claw. I would stop at a respectful distance to not disturb Chester or Chelsea as he or she gingerly took the peanut and then scampered away.
As I stopped with my books in my arms and my small patent leather purse hanging over my shoulder, she’d blaze her dark eyes amidst the straying gray hair at me conspiratorially and begin with her commentary about her daughter-in-law who spent her days spying on her from her house behind her own. The topic would then turn to the neighbors, and finally the government. That was why she liked squirrels, and Sylvester. They had no ulterior motives.
I never got to meet Sylvester in person, for I saw only a glimpse of the inside of her dark house piled with boxes and newspapers, as I waited for her to get her change purse. But she sang his praises like a proud mother. Sylvester always washed his paws so neatly after eating. He knew when it was time for his breakfast, 6:30 on the dot every morning. He curled himself up in her lap so nicely.
These observations went along with what I had been reading in the Dr. Doolittle books from the library. Though we did not have any animals-Anna’s one goldfish having flopped out of its bowl and dehydrated on the multi-toned brown carpeting-I paid attention to Mrs. Voigt’s techniques and her patience. My experience in attempting to nurture a friendship with Linda had not turned out well. Luba, my sometimes best friend, was almost in the popular crowd, even though she was Ukrainian. She never read books she didn’t have to. She was slim and physically confident enough to put me on the handlebars of her bike, even though I outweighed her. She had gotten her mother to buy her go-go boots. She had straight blonde hair. If you took away her grouchy stooped-over cleaning lady Ukrainian mother and tired old father clad in Dickies work clothes, she could be American.
But my leisurely confabs with Mrs. Voigt would soon come to an end. On that Saturday afternoon she stared as she watched me pulling a shopping cart piled high with plastic bags of goods, a pace behind my very pregnant, red-faced mother, whose eyes blazed with determination into the far distance that no one else could see.
Our father was in the basement as usual when we got home.
The bags were unloaded from the shopping cart. I arranged the baby clothes and diapers in a chest of drawers that our father had salvaged from the curb and painted and placed next to an old crib in the hallway upstairs, between the small bedrooms of our little house.
I had the same feeling I had the previous Christmas Eve. All around me had been happiness and anticipation, our dark and ancient Carthage #8 school building festooned with green and red and gold. But a fight had erupted despite my mother’s and my efforts to make the best pugache. Our guests from Toronto left angrily and my father looked quizzically at a dining room chair he had busted. I made things worse for my mother by crying; she had rebuked me. “What are you crying for?” Nor had the Barbie doll appeared among the presents the next morning.
And now Mrs. Voigt, my confidante, kept her distance from me when I appeared with my mother. Would she too join the other forces, the children who had taunted me for my braids, for wearing their hand-me-downs, who had plucked hard green grapes from my father’s cemented pipe trellis, hurling them into the driveway with “Yu-bo-SLOB-ian”?
Indeed, these children could be the demonic opposite of my cousins in Slovenia, the children of my mother’s widowed sister to whom the Virgin had shown herself, crying for them. From my mother’s tales as we washed mud off our lettuce at the outdoor spigot or stretched strudel dough on the kitchen table, I felt I knew them better than the children around me. Indeed, I felt as if I knew that little Alpine country better, that I was Heidi wrongly transported to a place where little children were wasteful and disrespectful. I belonged in a much greener land, where spring came sooner, where people were warm and worked hard together. I did not belong in this alien land where one was judged by what she wore. I was not invited to the birthday parties of the popular clique in school, although I was asked to help with homework. I was different. I did as I was told, and that included going through the daily motions of the Pledge of Allegiance, with my hand on my heart, mouthing the words, but not saying them out loud.
Yet, I had faith that things would turn out all right. I would be as good as my cousins in Slovenia. Though my mother had stopped saying nightly prayers with me after I had betrayed her by admitting my love for my aunt and father under cross-examination, I still said the prayers for my grandmother, who had fallen off a hay wagon during our stay in Austria. I would do what I could to spring her from Purgatory-even though I did not remember her personally.
* * *
My mother’s water broke during Lawrence Welk. It had been some time since I had been called upstairs by my mother who sat in the tubful of water Anna and I had just bathed in and handed the washcloth to scrub her back. Though Anna and I had gone through our weekly bathing ritual our mother had sat uncomfortably on a straight-back chair from the dining room. Nor had there been the usual banter about the wide-grinning Bobby and Cissy leaping around in a vigorous polka, with my father’s teases about how schlenk, or skinny these American women were. Nor was there his tickling of Anna on his Naugahyde recliner.
The water had seeped to the carpet and my mother said some of those words in Slovenian that I knew intuitively not to repeat.
My father put down his Topper beer with a worried look. He called Toni from whose wife we had acquired the baby supplies. He was over within twenty minutes, booming his greetings with a smile under his dark, little Hitler mustache. I locked the door behind them after they helped my mother into his Plymouth.
* * *
Our father was back in his room when we woke up the next morning. He was alone, so Anna and I felt free to enter and climb into his bed. He was happy even though he had had nothing to drink.
“Is the baby here?” we asked breathlessly.
“Yes, yes,” he said.
“Girl or boy?”
It did not diminish my joy.
“What color eyes does she have?”
“What color hair does she have?”
“When can we see her?”
“Today. This afternoon.”
“But we didn’t buy her any baby food,” I added.
My father chuckled. “Ah, you don’t need to worry about that.”
“But what is she going to eat? We have to have something for her to eat!”
He continued smiling and chuckling. “Don’t you worry. Don’t you worry,” he said.
* * *
The hospital required a transfer and the buses ran even more sporadically on Sundays. So, after mass, my uncle came from the suburbs to pick us up in his red Impala.
I admired the expanse of white polished floor that greeted us as soon as we walked in. Our shoes squeaked on it. We got only so far as the waiting room, though. Children under twelve were not allowed. I did not get to see our newborn sister that day.
Anna did. She convinced my uncle to sneak her in. But I waited patiently, sitting on the vinyl-covered furniture, reviewing the recipes and household hints in the tattered women’s magazines. Anna came running back, beaming her gap-toothed smile victoriously.
Even when adults approved transgression I would not take part. It was my claim to superiority. Shopping trips had been tests. Anna would beg, plead, whine, stomp, and cry to get the latest sugary treat, while I stood back with the disapproving look of a church lady.
It would begin this way, at the A & P.
My mother would be loading up on the usual: flour, onions, cabbage, meat, bread crumbs, sugar, lard, when Anna would come running back, all knobby scraped knees with a bright package of new cereal, cookies, or snack in her hand, calling out, “Can I have this? Can I have this? Can I have this?”
My mother would grab the package from her. “What is this?”
“What is that?”
“Ah, you don’t need it!”
“But I want it!”
“You don’t need it.”
“How much is it?” My mother would scrutinize the price sticker. “Fifty-nine cents. That’s too much! Put it back.”
“But Rachel’s mom buys it!”
“I want it.”
“Put it back.”
“It’s too much.”
“But it’s good.”
“Look at your sister. She isn’t carrying on the way you are.”
“I don’t care about her.”
Anna would take hold of the side of the shopping cart and start hopping up and down.
Monkey. It was my mother’s favorite term for her. She never used it for me. But she would say it as Anna’s screams came from the basement on Sunday afternoons from where she was wrestling our cousin John, a year in age between us. She would say it when we walked over Driving Park Bridge to the “Rose Park” or the zoo on a Sunday afternoon and she ran ahead and insisted on climbing every wall or playground structure we came across. My preference was for the daydream-inspiring whirl-a-gigs or swings, where I could once again imagine myself on my horse galloping along the seashore or prairie.
But “opica” was a grudging term of endearment. My mother said it with a slight smile. Being an “opica” was okay, as long as didn’t involve anything extra on my mother’s part. For that I made sure. Anna’s messes were confined to her room where her clothes piled in the middle of her floor and into which I would simply throw her items after cleaning the house for my mother’s inspection. On weekends, she’d give the guests a tour, opening the door to my room with its dresser of dusted horse figurines and the Holy Family and my little metal desk lined up with schoolbooks and pencils. Then she’d open the door to Anna’s room to show them the contrast.
“I don’t know how she lives that way,” she’d say. “I tell her over and over: clean up you room!”
The guests would murmur about their own children being lax or that’s the way children are (if they were old and childless, like Mrs. Yellow).
This would come, of course, after the chorus of approval of my room, everything dusted and kept so nice, even the Easter candy in foil I wouldn’t eat.
We’d all proceed down to the dining room or living room where I would serve them the nice cold cuts.
In the A&P, once the tears started welling up, my mother would relent and allow Anna to place the package into the cart. Until she’d come back with the next item, we’d make our way slowly down the aisle. I was her scout, spying out the best deals for her.
I’d pick up a bag of Wondra flour: “Look, it’s on sale! Do we need more?”
She’d take the bag from me, thinking.
“Yes, I paid forty-nine cents last time. Put it in! Put it in!”
I would reserve my requests for the new cleaning products I’d see advertised on television. As we got closer to the check-out, when Anna came running back with her package of two Hostess treats, devil’s food cupcakes with white filling, pink marshmallow and coconut covered Snowballs, or Twinkies, my mother would turn to me and say, “Do you want something too?”
Alas, my saintliness could not go as far as resisting a package of such treats, especially when I knew that Anna would be eating hers in front of me, getting filling all over her mouth and having the sweet smell meet my nostrils once the cellophane was ripped off. Besides, they were two packages for a quarter.
So, I’d reply, “Okay. I think I will. Thank you.”
The fact that Anna had to wait until we got home to eat hers made her run ahead or lag behind complaining. I, as usual, held to the other side of the shopping cart handle, helping my mother pull.
* * *
A few days after my father’s Sunday morning announcement, the baby was at her breast and I dared to sneak only glances. A cot and crib had been set up downstairs in the dining room. The answer to the mystery had been revealed. I had been given the task of changing the diapers and rinsing them in the toilet upstairs. I had come home from school, just changed the baby and she was at her pendulous breast, looking up at her, but my mother was looking away. Mrs. Shulman had been called in for some whispered consultations. My father’s optimism gave way to a secretive moroseness. He would slink away from her glares, to his basement.
Now Mrs. Shulman knocked at the door.
“Hi, honey,” she said, “I just wanted to check in.”
“How you doing, Irene?” she asked my mother.
She did not reply. The baby was fussing in her arms, but she continued looking away.
Mrs. Shulman went over to her and took the baby from her arms and started cooing at Donna.
“Well, you are just a doll, you know that? You are just a precious little doll.”
My mother stared up into the corner of the ceiling away from them both.
Mrs. Shulman continued, “Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cuter baby doll girl. You are just so cute. Yes, you are. You gonna give a little smile? Give me a little smile. Come on. Oh, I see you’re trying. Yes, you are. Pretty soon. You’re gonna be such a pretty little girl. All the little boys’ll be chasing you.”
My father soon opened the screen door and placed his metal lunchbox on the kitchen counter and stood in the doorway to the dining room.
“How she is?” he asked Mrs. Shulman.
“Well, she’s just having a little trouble feeding her. And she hasn’t eaten anything herself either. She wouldn’t touch my chicken soup.” She was still rocking her in her arms. “And we’ve got a hungry little baby. A hungry little baby girl, don’t we?”
My father glanced over at Donna as if he did not know what to do with the fragile object that had entered his house.
“Vat ve do?” He was looking at Mrs. Shulman for help.
“We can try the formula.”
Hope came to my father’s face.
“Most women in this country use formula anyway,” Mrs. Shulman added. “It’s much more nutritious. We just need to get the right kind. Did they tell you what kind to get at the hospital? ”
My father looked worried, as he did whenever something complicated like this came up. “I no remember,” he said.
“Did they give you any brochures or write anything down? Do you have any papers from the hospital, the doctor?”
This my father recognized and he pulled open the drawer next to the silverware drawer in the hutch. He handed over a large pink envelope with a teddy bear border.
Mrs. Shulman put the pacifier in Donna’s mouth. “There you go, sweet baby girl. I’m right here.”
She placed a red-lipstick kiss on her cheek, set her in the bassinette, and then lit a cigarette. She pulled the glasses that had been hanging from a chain to her face and began reading through the material. Finally, she said, “Oh, here it is! Similac. Yes, that’s a good brand. I am sure Levine’s has it.”
Levine’s was the drugstore on Saint Paul Street.
“I’ll go get it,” I said.
“Okay, hun,” said Mrs. Shulman. “You gotta a piece of paper? I’ll write it down for you.”
I ran up to my room for a piece of notebook paper and Mrs. Shulman wrote down the name of the formula in large round script. My father handed me a five-dollar bill with a relieved air.
“You don’t have to worry, Irene,” she said to my mother who was still glaring at the corner of the room
As I ran out of the house, I heard her say, “You got some good kids, Mr. Mislovic. Good kids.”
* * *
I was glad to have something to do, to be entrusted with this important mission by Mrs. Shulman who was now in our house, over from her own, into which I would often look as I washed dishes at the sink. Looking across the narrow driveway, I would gaze into the bay dining room window; there I would often observe meals, card games, and social gatherings, my sister Anna often in attendance.
I went down the baby aisle of Levine’s, a trip I had made once before when I had bought a rattle from my birthday money as a gift for Donna in the days we were waiting for her to come home.
Now I searched the lower shelves, where the large cans and bottles of formula were stacked. I took two cans, walked past the magazine aisle where Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Archie and Veronica comic books, True Confessions, and Playboy were lined up. A man in a dark suit was pulling out one of the latter, with Miss September’s smile over a cascading cleavage greeting him. Mr. Hoffman glanced sideways at me without recognition.
I ran home with the life-saving bag.
* * *
We began the school year with a new baby at home. Mrs. Shulman checked in on my mother every couple hours that first week. But I was called out of class for the first time. The principal stood in the doorway talking to Miss Zimmer. I heard my name, then “postpartum,” “new baby” in low tones. Finally, Miss Zimmer said, “Okay, but I don’t know what a nine-year-old can do.”
The class was astir. Even though Miss Zimmer had instructed everyone to keep reading, a low buzz went around from desk to desk.
Mrs. Angelo, the principal said, “Go get your things, dear. Your mother wants you home.”
I arrived to find that Mrs. Yellow had taken all the dishes out of the cupboard and was wiping down the shelves with a dishtowel dipped in a toxic-smelling solution of Mr. Clean.
I told her in Slovenian that that was one of our good dishtowels, not intended to be a rag, but she just kept wiping until I was afraid the paint would come off. She kept muttering in Croatian to the Holy Virgin.
I asked where my mother was.
Upstairs trying to rest.
Where was the baby?
I walked through the strangely quiet house suffused with the smell of cleaning liquid and up the stairs to my room to put away my books.
My bed, which had been made up neatly as usual before I had left, was now a wild mix of tangled blankets and sheets. My closet door, oddly, was open as well. And from within it I heard groaning.
Pulling my few dresses and the dresses my mother stored in there aside, I spied her in a new nylon nightgown, given as a recent gift, hunched in the corner, her short permed hair tussled up. She shot me a look of hatred. “What do you want? Leave me alone!”
I did not see anyone take her away. There were no sirens. Mrs. Shulman kept me in the back of her house, in the kitchen, with Donna. Her three teenage boys, and Rachel and Sammy, trooped home for lunch and we all had egg salad sandwiches. I ate everything, even though I did not like the chopped olives in them.
The next evening as I sat darning my father’s sock over a soup ladle on Mrs. Shulman’s porch, I asked her, “I didn’t think you had to go to the hospital twice when you have a baby.”
“Well, that happens sometimes, honey.”
Mrs. Shulman was rocking Donna in a little bassinette and smoking a cigarette.
She continued, “Don’t worry. Your mother will be okay. We’ll take care of your baby sister. You just go home and take care of everything there.”
For the previous night’s dinner, we had had a casserole given to us by one of the ladies my mother had cleaned for. But with its unidentifiable ingredients, most of it had gone uneaten.
Now my father was home and had taken to heart the neighbors’ advice that he had to be strong, that he had to take care of his kids. He had decided to cook us dinner.
He called me in and told me to get my sister.
It was an odd sight to have him at the stove, frying potatoes in a pan.
“Set the table,” he ordered me.
I placed the three dishes and place settings on the table and poured some green Kool-Aid into Flintstones jelly glasses for me and Anna, who placed her black elbows on the plastic table cloth.
“Ah! Look at you!” our father said. “You have to wash up before you get in the bed.”
“Yeah, and look at her hair,” I said, smirking at her blonde rat’s nest.
“Why didn’t you comb your hair this morning?” he asked.
“I didn’t have time,” she replied, adding to me, “and mind your own beeswax.” She stuck out her tongue.
I stared straight ahead.
My father scraped the fried potatoes out of the black pan with a bit of difficulty. But after he had piled up a mound in the middle of each our plates, we recited the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Slovenian as we always did before dinner.
After making the sign of the cross we looked at the gold, crispy potatoes.
Anna stabbed hers with her fork and brought it to her mouth. She immediately spat it back onto her plate.
I had not had a chance to taste mine yet, but looked at her glob on the plate. “Gross,” I said.
“They’re gross. I’m not eating them!”
This was my opportunity to prove her wrong again. Anna, in addition to being sloppy, was a fussy eater. I, however, would eat cabbage, spinach, endive, every vegetable my mother set in front of me.
I put a forkful in my mouth.
Though a big fan of salted things like potato chips, these fried potatoes tasted as if they had a cupful of salt in them. But I continued taking a few tiny forkfuls.
Our father too had only a few forkfuls, and then finally said, “Ah! I put too much salt in them! No good! It’s women’s work. Tomorrow, Milka, you make something.”
“But I’m still hungry!” Anna complained.
He sighed, his black brows furrowed in worry. “Go find something to eat.”
“I think we have some baloney,” I offered, getting up and going to the refrigerator.
Anna, though, opened the food cupboard and scanned its shelves.
“Where’s the Chips Ahoy?”
“You can’t have cookies for dinner,” I said.
My father jumped in. “Don’t say ‘shut up.’”
“But I want the Chips Ahoy!”
Our father looked anxious. He had not spent any time in the basement since he had gotten home from work and had instead set to immediately peeling potatoes.
“You can’t have Chips Ahoy for dinner!” I commanded.
“Shut up! You’re not my mother!”
A panicked look drifted over our father’s face. “You can have one cookie. But then you have to eat something else, whatever Milka fixes.”
“See?” She stuck her tongue out at me again and then turned once more to the cupboard. She climbed on the countertop and began pulling packages out of the top shelf.
“You get off of there!” I commanded.
Our father stood up and came to the cupboard.
“Here, I’ll help you find them.” He pulled out a crumpled bag of Pecan Sandies.
“I don’t like those!”
“You’re just too fussy,” I commented.
“Shut up, you faggot!”
“See. She called me a faggot. I’m just trying to teach her right.”
“I don’t need you to teach me!”
I began calmly spreading mustard on white bread.
Our father said, “You have to listen to your older sister.”
“But I had baloney for lunch already.”
“Well, it’s all we have,” I said sternly.
“Girls! We’ll go shopping soon.”
“Good! I’m getting the Chips Ahoy, and you can’t have any,” said Anna.
“You can’t tell me if I can’t have something to eat in this house.”
“You probably already ate them yourself, you fat pig.”
At this I would have hit her except that our father was there. Instead, I continued spreading mustard, and calmly turned to our father and said, “See? This is what she does when I try to teach her right.”
He looked up to the ceiling of the kitchen. “Oh, dear God, what have you rained down upon me? What did I do to deserve these troubles?” and then to us: “Things are bad enough without you two fighting.”
“She started it.”
Anna began crying. “I’m hungry.”
My father reached into his wallet, handed her a dollar bill, an amount of money she had never been entrusted with before. “Here, run down to Otto’s and buy your cookies.” Then he went down to the basement, while I ate my baloney sandwich. Needless to say, we forgot to say our customary after-dinner prayers that evening.
* * *
To buy anything other than penny candy, a Drumstick ice cream cone, or the emergency quart of milk or loaf of bread from Otto’s was quite an extravagance. But the following week I was given a five-dollar bill and instructed to walk to Otto’s and pick out the choicest fruit for my mother. We were going to go see her in the hospital on the following day.
This was only the second time I had been entrusted with such a large sum of money, and I spent a considerable amount of time picking out bananas, oranges, apricots, and plums. I also bought a package of wafer cookies as instructed.
Food was the cure. One needed to stay strong to fight illness and my parents were exemplars of that in the new country. Who cared what the doctors said? Just like the priests, all they wanted was money. All their advice-as on weight-went contrary to common sense. For example, two years earlier when our mother had come home to announce that the doctor had just diagnosed her with a bad heart and told her that her time with us was limited, and Anna and I had shrieked and cried, our mother had reminded us how important it was to be good and not make her nervosa.
So it was doubly a surprise to see my mother for the first time in ten days, at the same hospital, but in a different wing. She wore a new dress, oddly out of style, cinched at the waist. Now she had a waistline. She looked almost American.
But she barely looked at us as we each held forward a bag of fruit we had been in charge of on the long bus trip.
“Oh, I can’t eat,” she moaned, and began crying.
Then my father did something I had never seen him do before. He put his arm on her shoulder and turned to kiss her.
“Leave me alone,” she cried. “Look at me! 135 pounds. What I weighed in Slovenia! I am not well.”
My father shook his head in worry. It was the look that preceded a trip to his basement, but in the white polished building there was no relief.
“Irena, Irena, Irena. Don’t cry.”
He dabbed his eyes with a neatly folded white handkerchief.
“You put me here! Do you know what they did to me! You pig. . .”
A beautiful nurse with piled high blonde hair came over, “Your mommy needs some rest.”
She turned to my mother and touched her arm lightly. “Come on, Mrs. Mislovic.”
We both went up and kissed her cheek that she turned towards us. Then she turned away, towards the window framed in white.
I remembered the fruit.
“We brought her this.”
The nurse took the bags from us with a gentle smile. She peered in them.
“I’m sure your mommy will enjoy these later. That was so sweet of you.” Then she gently led our slim mother away.
* * *
Better than Chips Ahoy cookies were the ones brought out to us the next time we went to the hospital to visit. These were the ones our mother made. They were soft and full of melted chocolate chips. I could not hold back on those. Anna and I gorged ourselves, while our father and aunt and uncle spoke to our mother in low tones in that shining reception area.
Each of us also had a sock monkey that she had made.
Had my prayers come true? I was hopeful that making cookies and sock monkeys had transformed her, not only taking away her nervousness, but making her more like the mothers on the street who gathered and drank coffee some mornings, while their children played around them. My aunt admired each beaming monkey with its button eyes and red mouth.
“How clever!” she remarked, as she asked our mother in detail how she made them.
She looked away, making a batting motion with her hand. “Oh, they forced me to make those! I didn’t want to. I want to go back to work.”
* * *
“Well, yes, electroshock was used quite commonly back in the sixties,” the counselor would say. “She must have gone through a lot. Is the one hundred milligrams still working for you?”
Yes, I would nod, dabbing eyes, straightening my suit skirt for another afternoon at my desk or in my boss’s office, trying to sell more cars and hotel weekend getaways.
The medication was allowing me to sleep. The screaming matches with Vince had abated, and I settled into a pattern of getting along, grateful for the nights he would spend with me in my one-room apartment, happy to visit his parents’ house with his four sisters and brothers-in-law, happy to help with the dishes and the making of spaghetti and meatballs, cannoli, and Italian spice cookies.
Back to the April 2008 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/19/08