by Alice Lowe
The room is bare. The furniture gone, rugs, curtains, everything loaded onto a moving van wending its way across the country. My mother, father, brother and I, with a few friends and neighbors, sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor of our empty New York house—my home since birth, now an empty shell—celebrating my sixth birthday.
I see the cupcakes, blanketed in pink frosting. I recall a sugary smell and taste, cloyingly sweet like cotton candy, that I can only describe as “pink.” Mine has a candle. “Make a wish,” someone admonishes, and I blow it out with eyes squeezed shut, hazy unformed hopes for our imminent adventure and the new life to follow. My parents give me a new doll with a cherry-red fur-trimmed matching coat and hat and long, wavy, shiny brown hair that I can brush, dark feathery eyelashes, and a permanently lipsticked crimson pout. So grown-up, so elegant. I name her Moira after a teenage neighbor I idolize.
My brother David and I sing “California Here I Come” around our Franklin Square, Long Island neighborhood in the weeks leading up to our departure. Four days after my birthday—on Columbus Day, which seems to symbolize our own voyage of discovery—we board the TWA prop jet. Lumbering, bumpy, noisy, the sound of the engines is like a jackhammer; I feel it in my teeth. I have a history of motion sickness—my one memory of Manhattan is puking all over myself on a train ride downtown with my father—so no one is surprised when I’m miserably sick on this long rough flight.
My father is a crane operator, having joined his father and two older brothers in industrial construction. In the late ‘30s they worked together on the Whitestone, a suspension bridge across the East River connecting Queens to the Bronx. But now his parents, one of his brothers, and both of his sisters have migrated west with their families and found fresh starts and a more agreeable climate in San Francisco. The siren song beckons; we hitch up our wagon and follow them.
When we box up our belongings, I keep out Baby Boo, the doll I’ve treasured since my toddler days, to be my traveling companion. My mother has crocheted her a buttercup yellow outfit for the trip and a tiny afghan, multi-colored and bordered in green, five squares long and three wide, that I still have sixty years later. Baby Boo has a clunky ceramic head with painted-on baby curls, a little pink bow mouth, and glassy eyes that blink. When you squeeze her rubbery torso she utters a lamb-like bleat. During the final packing for our departure, now in possession of the glamorous Moira, my mother tells me I can bring only one doll on the plane. Without hesitation I dispatch Baby Boo to the suitcase. Later, in the midst of my wrenching, retching ordeal, I shed woeful tears of regret. Moira is long gone, but Baby Boo is still in the family. Relegated to storage as I grow up, she makes her re-entry, with more new hand-made attire, when I give birth to my daughter.
We leave what seems like a storybook life in our serene suburb: a house with a white picket fence, fruit trees and berry vines in the back yard, open fields and a wooded glen where we play, the school where I’m crowned Valentine Queen of my kindergarten class after receiving the most valentines (before the days when you had to give cards to everyone or no one). I spend my early years in a secure bubble where, from my child’s-eye view, nothing awful can happen.
Our destination is the land of omnipresent sunshine, glittering opportunity, and gates of gold. Where, as it turns out, the bubble bursts and everything immediately and inexplicably plummets. Where it’s foggy and gray, damp and cold. Where my father’s work is sporadic and we live in a ratty old house, two stories with rickety steps going up to the front porch, planted in my mind as a hillbilly hovel, cartoonishly dilapidated. Where David and I share a dark and cramped room with bunk beds; he gets the top, being five years older. Bracketed within the two years we live in San Francisco are memories of being gashed and flashed, beaten and bullied. Scenes flash in front of my eyes:
…I’m racing with my cousin across the schoolyard asphalt. I trip and fall, the bridge of my nose smashing against the edge of a wooden bench. Concussed and oozing blood, someone carries me home; my parents worry over me until it’s certain there’s no brain damage. The scar disappears over time, although sometimes, with a magnifying mirror, I see a faint trace. Or do I just imagine it?
…A boy on a bicycle comes straight at me on the sidewalk near home. Before either of us can change course, he slams into me. My face bonks the sidewalk, knocking chunks off my two front teeth. More blood and pain, and chipped teeth that I had to live with for years until my parents could afford to get them capped. .
…Saturday matinee, the smell of buttery popcorn, the thick musty air of the theatre lobby, the glaring lights in the restroom. Two big girls—tough ten-year-olds—smear on Tangee lipstick in front of the mirror. My cousin Patty makes some sassy remark, and they come after us. We race out the door and around the corner, veering off in separate directions. They catch me and smack me around while I flail my arms and whine: “It wasn’t me!” I run home, bawling, my nose and lip dripping scarlet onto my shirt and pants.
…On our front porch, one of my brother’s friends says, “Hey, I got something to show you!” I look curiously as he unzips his pants, then, shocked and horrified, I scramble into the house, too embarrassed to tell my mother—we don’t have a language for such things. The boy laughs and goes back to ignoring me, just David’s pesky kid sister.
…My parents argue a lot, yell at us kids. I remember a spanking, the only one I can recall my mother ever giving me. Can that be? She threatens a lot, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” but she doesn’t follow through. She says that she doesn’t miss New York, but she seems either angry or sad most of the time since we moved. I guess I caught her on a bad day, with what Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s called the “mean reds.”
…My aunt and uncle live on the next block in a big modern house with a rec room in the basement. They lord it over us while professing love and support, never letting us forget that my uncle is now a businessman who wears suits and sells insurance in the city while my father scrapes for construction jobs. My aunt sinks verbal scissors into my mother with a squinty-eyed self-satisfied smile, criticizing her manner and the way she dresses, her housekeeping and her parenting. She compares David and me, soiled and scrawny, dark Jewish urchins, to her daughters, our cousins, blonde and blue-eyed in their curls and starched white communion dresses. It’s not true what they say about sticks and stones. Words, when used as daggers of derision, can hurt more; they pierce and wound.
It isn’t all bad. I can call up some bright spots too. My love of the piano begins here when a family friend, “Aunt” Hazel, gives me lessons and lets me practice at her house. And there’s the Old Clam House where my father takes me, just me, I don’t know why, but that’s what makes it memorable. I see and smell it: dark, seedy and rundown, the air redolent of beer and cigarette smoke. We sit at the bar—my legs dangling from the hard wooden stool—and he lingers over a beer while we sip from mugs of steaming clam juice and nibble crunchy oyster crackers.
And I love living near my grandparents, my father’s folks. They seem like storybook characters—sweet and old, gray and plump—yet they’re not that old, 60ish probably, younger than I am now. But Grandma has tightly-permed old-woman-blue hair and a stout shelf of a bosom; she wears hats with veils and teases me about sticking hatpins into her head to hold her hats on. When I’m 19 or 20, in San Francisco with a friend, I visit Gram and her “boyfriend” Herbert in her walk-up apartment on Market Street. She offers me a highball, and I preen in my pseudo-adulthood.
During our second summer, with the relentless Bay Area fog and bad fortune hovering over us like a big sooty balloon, we drive down to Solana Beach, where another aunt and uncle live in small-town tranquility, and where the sun seems to have been hanging out all along. It’s a mecca of cerulean skies and sandy beaches, where the living just might be easier. The prospects are promising enough for my parents, and we drive back to San Fran for whatever time it takes to close that chapter, to gather up our belongings and head south.
The mishaps come to an end. Of course they could have happened in New York or in San Diego, but they didn’t, and we let San Francisco shoulder the blame. The pain of those assaults and accidents fades like their bruises and takes its place among childhood rites of passage. My brother and I continue to nurse a grudge against our aunt and uncle, like a sore spot in your mouth that you stick your tongue into to see if it still hurts. And then it’s gone, and you don’t even notice when it stops.
David brings out some family photos from those long-ago days to show to our grandchildren. None show the legendary house, so I can’t confirm or correct my memory of its shabbiness. But there we are, the two of us, not quite the “Our Gang” rejects I’ve been holding in my mind. He’s gangly, in the midst of a growth spurt, with ankles and wrists sprouting from his clothes; I’m a scrawny little mouse, big teeth, bony limbs, stringy pigtails. My bangs and his crew cut look like our mother used her teeth to trim them. But we’re grinning as if life couldn’t be better. Or so it seems, the photo fixed in time, the memory transient and changeable.
San Francisco is now my favorite weekend getaway, the childhood memories—both bitter and sweet—relegated to a closet in my mind like a shoebox full of old letters. On a recent visit, my husband and I meander through the Mission District and into adjacent Bernal Heights. It wasn’t the plan, but now that we’re here I’m curious, eager to confront my ghosts, see if they still have fangs. The once-squalid neighborhood is thoroughly gentrified, brandishing the requisite bistros and boutiques, specialty shops, art galleries, and Pilates studios. It’s all strange until we reach Cortland Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, and it all comes back—a right turn at this intersection, then a left and another right onto Banks Street. The school and its asphalt playground are still there, but most of the block has been renovated, the houses rebuilt or replaced with condo and apartment complexes. Our old house is gone, swept away with its cloud of doom. The memories are neutralized; they can go back in the closet.
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