“Where’s your brother?” Ma turned to face me as I came into the kitchen, red-faced from my afternoon’s play with my best friend, Kathleen. My body went into flight or fight. There was no fighting my mother, so I took flight. Raced back up the street to my friend Kathleen’s house on the corner, into her yard, where I’d just finished playing, and where I’d left my baby brother, alone in the baby carriage. He was still there.
Pearson Ave. Grandma’s house. We had lived with her for as long as I can remember before we moved when I was nine years old. We moved because she died and the house was sold. We lived on the second floor with Grandma and her white husky dog named—what else?—Whitey. My mother’s sister, Anna, and her family lived downstairs. There was twice as many of us upstairs than downstairs in my aunt’s family, which consisted of Aunt Anna, my uncle Joe, and my cousins Diana and Joey.
Uncle Joe was in a wheelchair. Had been for as long as I could remember so I guess he was sick even before I was born. Uncle Joe couldn’t walk, or maintain any coordination. On an impossibly skinny neck, his head rolled around almost uncontrollably, as much as his big round brown eyes did when we did something silly, or when he got frustrated because we couldn’t understand his attempts to communicate with us. You see, Uncle Joe couldn’t talk anymore either. Aunt Anna had to carry him to the bathroom, to bed, help him eat. It was, I imagine, a sad and lonely life for my aunt, even with three other people in the apartment and all of us upstairs.
My grandmother was a loving woman, but also a very strict, old Italian woman. One of the more vivid memories of my grandmother involves a surprise slap across my butt, when one day I dared try to enter the living room where she had just washed the floor. She’d put the coffee table across the doorway. But this coffee table wasn’t solid in its middle. It was one of those styles popular in its day . . . two compartments on either side, sliding doors, behind which you quickly threw things when you knew company was coming. I can see that open middle as though it were before me today. Inviting me to cross through. I was about two years old. No way I could resist the invitation. I think that, even back then, I recognized that that piece of something there, with the big hole in the middle, was meant to keep me out. So, as fast as my little body could manage, in I went . . . crawling through on all fours when—whack!—a warning slap I heard more than felt through the pretty ruffled plastic pants that hid my bulky diaper. I remember all this as if it’s just happened. But I don’t remember it hurting. I don’t remember crying, but I probably did. It didn’t teach me any lessons, though. To this day, unless there’s some clear danger behind a door or through an opening, I’m going in.
A lot of memories reside at Pearson Ave. My cousin Diana and I once tried to dig a hole to China. We’d heard that expression, or something like it, around the house. What I more clearly remember is lying on our bellies, digging in the dirt in our side yard. I guess even a slow boat would have been more efficient.
Friends galore on Pearson Ave. It was the only place I’ve ever lived (then and since) where we knew so many of the neighbors, where there were kids my age and a few older ones too. I remember Louie. Louie was a cutie and not much older than we were. My cousin and I both had a mad crush on him. I can still see his eyes, bright blue, framed by dark eyebrows that were very neatly shaped by nature. We loved him. He couldn’t stand us. Diana and I would hang off the fence of our front yard, or straddle the porch railing, trying to get his attention. Vying for his attention, really, even at that age. Moving about unsteadily, pretending we were about to fall off, we’d sing-yell to him, “Louie, Louie! I got a bullet in my heart and I’m gonna die in five seconds if you don’t save me!”
“Die,” he’d say. In retrospect, I get it. We were usually silly and often obnoxious in our admiration of him. It never hurt our feelings, though. What ten-year-old boy likes eight-year-old girls anyway?
Childhood games. Rover Red Rover. Dodge Ball. Softball.
Softball . . . my only serious physical injury occurred on Pearson Ave. It was a great summer’s day and the entire neighborhood was out. Other cousins, older than Diana and I, were up from the Cape. We got together enough kids for a game of softball. I was about equal height to a bat held at the ready by the batter up. I don’t recall if I was really ever in the game, I was just a curious little girl, wanting to get in with the older kids. All I got was in the way. And a broken cheekbone. He never saw me behind him and I never saw the bat coming.
They carried me, crying and bleeding, into the house. This is what I learned . . . to stay out of the way of big kids and bats. And that faces bleed a lot.