"Who said you come from a broken home? Our home is not broken." Mom was all kinds of pissed about that. Funny thing is I can remember Mom's response as if it just happened but I can't remember who used the term about us in the first place. Maybe I did, maybe I just assumed divorced parents equaled broken homes. Clearly, not according to Sandie's dictionary of idioms. Maybe we weren't broken per se but we were riding on a wobbly wheel or two.
This leads us to the next entry in Diana's and my dueling memories. Cue the banjos...
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT
I did not know what was going on the day we left Dad—or rather the day Mom left Dad and took us with her. Why would I? I was only four years old. But my memory is odd. If you asked me what I needed in the spare room I might not even know what compelled me to climb the stairs in the first place. But I have pockets of strong, long-term detail. For the rest of my life, I will remember waking up that August morning in 1970 feeling like crap. I had a runny nose and it was being further irritated by the morning sun pouring through my bedroom window.
I rolled away from its cheerful blaze and whined for Mom. I most likely stuck my thumb in my mouth as a punctuation mark on the demand for her to rescue me. Shockingly, she sent my brother as her proxy. Richard was 6 ½ years older than me and never really paid me any attention before. So it was with caution I let Richard set me up on the couch in the family room, with blankets, tissue and the cat, Pididdle. The room was big, the use of which was divided in half by a fire place. On the right side was the T.V. where I'd watched the premiere of Sesame Street and on the other side was our play area where I first tasted the delicacy known as Play-Doh.
To get there, Richard and I had to pass Mom in the kitchen and I whined my indignation at her for sending the second string. Strangely, she didn’t really take notice of me. She did direct my brother to give me some baby aspirin and a cup of water after which he sort of put his arm awkwardly around the top of my head so that between him and the cat I was cocooned from what lay behind the safety of the couch. We didn’t really talk and I knew it was weird for my brother to be my comforter. He usually was locking me out of his bedroom or breaking my toys with his rough-housing. It was uneasy.
I simply can’t remember for sure where my sister Diana was but my mind can easily put her at mom’s side because she was Mom’s little helper. Diana has indeed always been the friend in need to anyone who seemed troubled—a natural Brownie. It makes perfect sense that she would have been eager to help our distressed mother. Even at six-years-old, Diana would have gladly been Mom’s go-to-kid. Oh, and when I describe my mother as distressed, I’m sure she was more determined at that point since the distress had been going on for so long.
It would be over 30 years before I learned where Dad was that day. After my mom had died, as a little swipe at her impending sainthood, Dad whined to me (for that is where I inherited that charming gene) “Your mother left me in the hospital with pneumonia. I could have died.”
All very dramatic and technically true but the back story to their divorce made that moment an optimum point for her departure. It was no longer a case of “in sickness and in health” this was one of life’s crossroads where you can choose to carry on in the same old dysfunctional manner heading to a tragic end or you can choose to live a different life and hope for a better ending. My father was a drunk when my mother married him. Mom left after a dozen years trying to get him sober and watching him drink himself ill for the umpteenth time. She left when Dad was safely in the care of health professionals. Mom left and that was okay.
What my mom didn’t know as she was driving us, the cat and some of our favorite toys and clothes up the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Media, PA to Syracuse, NY is that her life was already half over. It is good that we don’t know our own timelines because I’m not sure that it would really be helpful information nor change how any of us live our lives. In fact, it may depress one into inertia. I don’t mean this when it comes to terminal illness because that information can be helpful in sorting out your exit strategy. I mean when we’re the picture of health, it is best not to get discouraged by the thought of death—not when we are really just trying to survive. I guess I’m just now struck by how sad it was for my mom that day, how sad it had been for a long time and it only got marginally better.
By late afternoon we arrived at my Grandma Kate’s house on Weymouth Road. From the front, the brick house looked deceivingly small. In actuality, the house was built out over a slope making it rather deep. Gram was very happy to see us but I didn’t know her yet. Not really. When I was a month old my parents moved from Rochester, NY to Spring Valley, NY. On the way down, I was left with Grandma for a week or two while my parents set-up the new home—not exactly something a baby remembers. In time, I would love Gram, fear her and admire her very much. And someday, my own daughter would have her name. However, that day Gram was a stranger whose house was opened to me.
One thing is for sure, I liked her yard immediately. It had a late upstate New York summer lushness and Gram’s eclectic style was apparent in the landscape. The property was bordered by hedges down each side and from either sidewalk-side corner of the rectangular front lawn, colorful, slate stepping stones made a converse V leading to the front door. They were reddish pink, light green, gray-blue, somewhat ovoid stones all in random order but looking like the squares on a Candyland game board. They’d soon find a new use as a cutting board on which my brother would gut his trout caught in Cold Brook, the small creek up the road.
In the center of the lawn was a circle of perennials surrounded by stones gathered from a lifetime of garden building. Beside that was a baby fir tree from my Uncle George that would grow for years to come. There were also three rather large yew bushes big enough for us to climb in and make woody forts. There was one on either side of the front door and the third one took up the lawn between the driveway and one of the stone paths.
The house was wonderful. We entered through a small brick alcove walled with glass block windows into a living room clouded by filterless Camel cigarette smoke and were instantly comfortable. We could see the house was deep and down at the far end was a big picture window looking into the backyard beyond the kitchen table. However, immediately to the right our attention was caught by a Stark Davis print of a Macaw. Nearly, 23 years later, as my mother was dying she called us kids into that living room and asked us to tell her what we wanted when she died. After a brief, requisite verbal denial that her death was eminent, I jumped on the parrot. It was always there in that house, on that wall and we always called it a parrot. Someone would remind the other it was a macaw but then, one day that person would call it a parrot and the other would kindly correct them and so on. It was just a thing. A thing that happens in families that doesn’t seem to mean anything but means everything. It now hangs in my house.
There were four bedrooms in the Weymouth house. Upstairs were two rooms and a bathroom with a thin metal shower stall that I would love to punch on to make thunder noises and the small sink in which I would one day get my mouth washed out with soap. “Jenny, you are so sweet and pretty why do you have a mouth like a truck driver?” Mom would sadly ask. “Fuck you” was my soapy reply” Well, I wish it had been.
The bedrooms were very different in size—one would have been an ideal New York City studio apartment complete with a good sized alcove and two closets. The other bedroom was more a “room-for-let” size. It could fit a double bed and a dresser but the closet was built for little people since it was constructed into the eaves. For example, you couldn’t hang a Granny dress in it. But I’m dating myself now.
The house was built around 1952 and my grandparents bought it new. Within about five years their marriage would be ending over mental illness and infidelity. Frankly, I don’t know which event precipitated the other but I have my suspicions. But, due to that and the fact their children were half grown when they moved into this house, the décor had never been changed. My mother moved into the house at 15, my aunt 17 and my uncle was 12. Naturally, the large room with twin built-in vanity tables and drawers belonged to the girls. Because of this alcove there were six walls five of which had pink wallpaper with pictures of Cinderella-esque, fur-trimmed masks and ribbons on them. The fourth wall had the same print in age-darkened blue. There had been a fight between the sisters over which color should be used and the compromise was that my mom got a single wall of the blue background she preferred. Kudos mom—it would have been my choice too.
The furniture was “screaming 1950’s” with slightly textured, white vinyl fabric headboards decorated with large, similarly covered buttons. There was a rocking chair covered in the same material. I liked to drag my fingernail across and make a loud scratchy, synthetic sounding noise; Voop, Voop. I wish we still had that furniture but when we moved in it was all almost immediately discarded--except the rocker which moved to Gram’s room. For some reason, my sister and I were given our parents’ marital, “I Love Lucy” bed with the full-sized headboard that attached two twin beds together. Maybe mom just had no interest in the bed any longer and took over Diana’s. I can see that now.
My brother was given my first big-girl bed--my awesome, cool, magical high-riser bed that had one bed tucked under the other. (Within the next few years, my brother would burn that mattress by leaving his electric blanket on high—on purpose but I’ll come to that later). To make one bed into two, all you had to do was pull out the smaller bed underneath and pop it up for company. Richard had my Uncle Andy’s old room with its blue wallpaper of sail boats and lighthouse lantern design. Still hanging from the globeless overhead light was my uncle’s Valley High School tassel.
I have no memory of missing Dad in those first few days. I don’t even remember it hitting me that he wasn’t there with us. At first, Diana and I were much too busy exploring because a 4 year-old and 6 year-old could do that in 1970 without anybody watching them. And that we did. Since the adults had recovery plans to make, Diana and I headed out to the front yard to play. Drawn cautiously to the corner of the hedge by other little voices, we soon met Michelle and Lori. Michelle was about to turn 5 in a few weeks and Lori was only 2 ½. In that instant one of the most special and certainly the longest friendship of my life began. Though Michelle and I were closer in age, Lori and I were instant best friends.
Within a day of our arrival I also met my cousin David who was one year younger than me. David was an impish towhead and we hit it off immediately. His parents were Uncle George and my mom’s sister Aunt Carla. From that day forward, almost no day would go by for the rest of my mother’s life when she and Carla wouldn’t speak multiple times a day. They were best friends—more loyal than swans. If I hadn’t been told outright about the reason there was one blue wall in my new room, I never would have believed those two fought over anything in their lives. Naturally, they didn’t always agree but no discussion nor debate between them could ever have been deemed an argument. No time between them ever passed because of anger. Diana and I could never say the same. Twice in our adult lives we’ve needed time apart. The first was after mom died. We didn’t speak for 3 months. The second was after I had my daughter. We didn’t speak for 3 years.
David, or Snookie Ukums, as Gram called him came to spend the night while Uncle George, Aunt Carla and Mom took a truck back down to Media to empty out the house. For a year after they returned, the furniture from the last house was stacked nearly to the ceiling in Gram’s garage. David Diana and I would sneak out there and climb on the mountain of rough, tweedy furniture—the last bastion of my mother’s middle-class life. Slowly the mountain was razed—pieces were brought into use but much of it was probably given away.
I liked Gram’s house. I loved its smells—which weren’t cooking smells but they were distinct. Gram thought the world of Noxema. That and a camphor nasal inhaler were two of her favorite tools for a comfortable life. I never saw her use the inhaler though it was always on her dressing table. It was a small torpedo shaped, slightly dented aluminum tube that had a little hole in the top that you could look down to see a small wick of the camphor. However, the Noxema was always in use. “Put some Noxema on it” was the order for every minor skin ailment. In my general ongoing house investigation, more than once I snuck in Gram’s room to smell the Noxema and drag my finger through the cold, greasy cream. I enjoyed watching the shiny, white, chunks separate as I made my in-roads. To this day there is nothing like the fabulous first dig out of a fresh jar.
The most reassuring smell was to be found in the hall coat closet. It was a wonderful—rather big closet that had mothballs somewhere inside. The door had a funny little light bulb with a spring on it that made the light turn on and off with the opening and shutting of the door. I liked to go in there and sit down among the winter mittens and scarves, smell the bizarrely comforting mothballs and try to find the magical balance on the door between it being closed and the light still being on. Also, from this hiding place I could listen in on mom and Gram talking in the kitchen. Maybe I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying yet I loved that they didn’t know I was in there but I heard them shuffling around and talking. It was my womb.
SMOKE and MIRRORS
The houses of my youth were filled with cigarette smoke. It would be easier to tell you which adults in my life didn’t smoke than who did. Gram Lucas didn’t smoke. There, that is it. Everyone smoked and it was normal. It was such a part of everyone’s persona that I almost remember how some people inhaled. Aunt Carla took a quick, little popping puff and suck so as not to lose time meant for talking; Mrs. Fifield took slow thoughtful drags then held the cigarette daintily at arms length while slightly squinting her opposite eye. Mom always seemed super determined to smoke the whole cigarette with the first light, then, after the initial nicotine rush completely become blasé with the procedure. She would hold the cigarette in her right hand angled across her face to the left and speak to you through the V of her elbow. Diana does the same thing in motion, Mom did it at rest. Dad would have a cigarette in his fingers nearly every waking moment for the rest of his life. When he was in a place where it was not allowed, his twitchy little fingers would still subconsciously twiddle in his shirt pocket, grab one, remember why he wasn’t smoking it and drop it and repeat until he was out that door.
Gram Nye was the coolest smoker and by that I don’t mean technique. I mean she was old school hip with her Camel filterless. None of those sissy filters for her. But I think her cigarettes were left burning in ashtrays more than they were smoked. There would always be one smoldering away when she applied her bright coral lipstick at the kitchen table. Gram had a small, brass finish, circular beauty mirror with one side normal and the other side magnified. She kept it in the kitchen because she was used to living alone and it was a comfortable location for the operation. Gram didn’t just swipe lipstick on top and bottom but took her time like she was DaVinci working on a ceiling. All the muscles in my Gram’s mouth worked hard to get the lippy on. First, she poked her tongue behind the corner of her top lip pressing it forward to receive the waxy application and then, with her tongue following on the inside, she slowly moved the tube of color from one side of her lips to the other, repeated a few times more quickly once the initial color was in place before applying it similarly to the bottom. All the while her mouth would open and close, smile and pout in varying degrees while carefully being watched in the little round mirror. Lastly, most of it would be blotted onto a wrinkly Kleenex that she bit down on and one final coral-stained drag on her cigarette before crushing it out.
In her youth, Gram was a beauty with dark, rich, red hair that slowly turned an unnatural hue of burgundy as she aged. Gram was a big woman in stature—not fat but tall with some weight around her middle—it was her un-tethered breasts that made her look larger than she was. Bras were of no interest to her. Her uniform was double knit Hagger slacks ordered from a newspaper flier and ribbed, knit turtlenecks from Cooks (an early Target). On a chain around her neck were her dark rimmed, cat glasses. She totally rocked the look.
Summer of 1970
Summer of 1970. It started with Kent State. It ended like thieves in the night. We left. I remember being lifted out of my bed from a deep sleep. Put into the back of my mother’s black car and driven from one lush jungle to another. Syracuse. It is the first time I remember seeing my Grandmother’s house. I had been there before but not before I had memory capability.
Her house was a cool cave with an abandoned lived-in feeling. In the backyard was a go-cart that the neighborhood children had built under the guidance of my Grandmother. Upon our arrival they scattered like Fagin’s gang never to be seen again taking the go-cart with them. The stop sign at the end of the street had a stencil under the word STOP in spray paint of THE WAR. I didn’t know what war.
That stop sign remained there for years. One day it was upgraded in the early Reagan years.
I thought we were on vacation. I never knew we were never going back. I never knew that the toy I had on my possession was the only one I would have for awhile. It was a bouncy frog that I got at a birthday party of a friend I would never see again.
There were long phone calls between my mother and some unknown person who made her cry. There were a lot of hang-ups. There was yelling. We remained glued to the TV watching the "Bugaloos". We were wearing the same clothes again and again. Awful.
One summer evening I heard piano music coming from the backyard. I went down the slope that leads to the back porch (every home should have one) and there, through the basement window, I saw my mother playing a decrepit, upright piano. Playing magically. It was glorious. Discovering your mother had a secret gift of being able to play a musical instrument was so cool. This scene was to be repeated when years later I discovered my paternal grandmother could play the piano, too. Oh, the secrets we keep. They clutter our heart and make it hard to breathe.