There was once great, amazing hope for me, serious hope that was like a brilliant shining swimming star in the great night of Brooklyn, as if a miraculous hand had drawn a glittering path of light through the drab brown streets of the borough. It was effortless, it was cream, really, Edenic, like love before commitment. Somewhere above my mother's fat bloated belly a brilliant nova exploded and its magic dust entered her womb. This is how my parents acted, full of prideful anxious hope, when I was three. Or so my father recently claimed.
One likes to think that it happens this way: two beaming, handsome young people cooing over a lace-trimmed crib; one small, pacific cherub, easily comforted, always smiling, always dry.Is this worth it? And picking only one year? Isn't that too facile?
The summer I was three, we went to a bungalow colony in the Catskills: HyLo's, which was short for Hyman and Lois Cohen, co-proprietors and co-agonizers. They were charged with the task of herding high-spirited, husbandless women through the weekday stultification of country living, and then diverting the beleaguered, exhausted men who crawled into the colony on Friday nights.
I remember the drive up to HyLo's. Leaving Brooklyn's cramped gray vistas, and claustrophobic streets, and everyone I knew far behind excited me. I remember thinking we were already upstate when I saw the lush trees of Riverdale. As we drove along the parkway which divided its arbors, my parents sang Yiddish songs with my sister and me.
I remember my small thighs sweatily sticking to the plastic liner on the back seat of my father's red and white '55 Chevy. I remember stopping at the Red Apple Rest for a boiled frankfurter. When we cruised past the Motel-on-the-Mountain, I wished we could stop. I wanted to live there forever. I thought that I would be able to see everything that everyone in the world was doing from the hillside windows of that motel. I wanted to see what everyone in the world was doing every day. But my father didn't slow down.
When we reached HyLo's, a boy stood waiting beside the road for newcomers. He had a tiny little hand, more like a flipper, where his elbow should have been. My mother had always warned me not to get my arm caught in the car window when I rolled it up. When I saw this boy's arm, I realized that his mother had never warned him about car windows. It shocked me. Could any mother be so monstrous as to fail to protect her child from mortal perils?
Next thing I remember is when I fell down a flight of stairs a few days later, busting my lip.Here's the scar. You can't see it. It's barely visible. But it's part of the map of my face that some mortician will reconstruct. Here's the Street of Measles. Here is the Valley of Bitter Regrets. Get a close-up of that one.
I was climbing down a green, wooden stairway. I was staring so hard at my mother, who was reading a magazine across the lawn, that I lost track of my feet. I somersaulted down the hard stairs, bomp, bomp, bomp. People shouted and ran to catch me. I watched them run as I fell towards them, women with their hands thrown up in the air and mouths wide open, racing towards me as I calmly watched their emotional uproar, puzzled by it but not displeased, since I had caused it.The scar is less distinct than that memory.
My father lived with us only on weekends that summer. His absence was a dark, impenetrable shadow over that first exhilarating voyage. On Fridays, I waited in a state of anguished impatience for him to drive up from the city. I was never sure that he would come back to us until he arrived. But he always did and the agony of our estrangements always ceded to the ecstasy of our reunions.
I remember the time my father hoisted me onto a small stage in the cantine where I sang "I'm a Little Teapot."Every child in America probably has that memory, which may disqualify it from personal experience: it's more like institutional experience.
My father lifted me off the stage and into his embrace. That hug was my favorite part of the performance. But then he told me that I was the prettiest child at the colony. I knew it wasn't so. I remember it so distinctly: it was the first time I didn't believe my father.
I learned to distrust adults that summer. Once, desperately bored and lonely, I asked if I could join the colony's day-camp. My sister sneeringly informed me that I wasn't old enough: only children over five years old were accepted. My mother took me aside, and told me to go alone to see Lois and ask if I could join anyway. Perhaps my mother thought that if I proved adequately articulate to ask for the privilege, I would be granted the privilege; perhaps she thought no one could resist a three year old's charms; or possibly she was afraid to confront Lois. I bravely went and stated my request. Lois took one look at me and coldly explained that I was too young. Then she gave me a bag of potato chips and sent me away.
I remember wanting to tell her: "You think you can buy me off with these chips. You think because I'm little I don't understand, and that I'll eat the chips and forget what I really want." Instead, I ate the salty chips in silence. They were very good, but I didn't forget.
There was one adult I liked who visited the bungalow colony a few times that summer. He was someone's brother-in-law or cousin. He always laughed when he saw me and picked me up high over his head. I waited for him as eagerly as his own relatives did. I loved when he picked me up. His hands were big. He never wore a shirt, and he had a tremendously hairy chest. I liked looking at the forests of curls and the gold religious medallion that glittered on the black background as he swung me toward the sky. I loved him, and I loved being lifted by him, and I loved soaring towards the clouds. He was a vehicle to happiness and flight.
But the world of adults worried and perplexed me. One night, my mother emerged from the bedroom dressed in my father's clothes. She had painted a mustache above her lip and wore an old hat. A few minutes later my father appeared, a baby bonnet on his head and one of my bottles stuck in his mouth. My sister giggled and pretended to be my mother's wife and called my mother Alfred. My father, the real Alfred, climbed into a baby carriage and curled up his legs. My mother pushed him around the cottage like an infant. He even cried a little, in husky meows. I couldn't fathom what they were up to. It upset me to see my father cry. I cried. Years later, I found out that they took first prize in the masquerade contest.
I also remember escaping from bed in the middle of a night-terror, and searching desperately for my mother. She had left me alone in the bungalow. I fled through the dark and down the treacherous long stairs, where I had fallen, half-blind with panic. In the distance, I saw crowds of women seated at narrow tables. Bright bulbs hung from a tree. Shapes were submerged into one large blur of noise and light. When I found my mother, she didn't seem to mind that I was out of bed. She was winning at Bingo. I sat next to her, shivering in the chill, pressing my face into her warm arm. I watched the women laugh and chatter, their white smiles as luminous as candles. Every so often, a high-pitched "Bingo" would ring out amid the cicadas' and crickets' calls. I loved the sound. "Bingo." It was a musical sound. It soothed me and I fell asleep, my mother's soft flesh cushioning my cheek.
Another time, my uncle and his wife visited. There were now six of us in the two-room bungalow. My mother and aunt claimed the double bed in the bedroom. In the main room, my sister and I slept on cots, while the men slept on blankets spread on the floor. I remember waking up and needing to go to the bathroom, then tiptoeing carefully over the men's bodies. On the way back, I lingered to stare into my uncle's gaping mouth where a tiny pool of saliva trembled on his tongue, threatening to drip but repeatedly held back by his snores. Then I held my breath as I examined my sister's motionless hand, which lifelessly hung over the edge of the mattress. She looked as if a giant had thrown her there. I looked around the room. The sleepers seemed paralyzed, perhaps even dead. This frightened me so much that I clumsily squatted over my father, leaning my face close to his to make sure that he was still breathing.
He opened one eye and muttered, "Are you crazy? Get back to bed on the double!"
I didn't understand what "on the double" meant, but I dashed back to bed and that seemed to satisfy him.Is that enough? The rest is a book whose pages are glued. I had to dress it up a little just to get this far. Stop the camera a minute. Listen to me. It's not that I'm embarrassed about my life. Actually, I'm one of the lucky ones: I can recall my childhood without too much pain. Isn't that why you picked me? I have some happy memories of my parents, some warm memories. But there's something unnerving about this exercise: it turns my life into a script. At the end you'll have to ask: "What happened to that child. What has become of her life?" It raises questions about human potential. It raises personal questions that I'm not sure I want answered. Here I am but where am I? What am I doing with my life? Don't I have better things to do with my time than to excavate my childhood for your camera? It's as if this script which started with a few modest answers is doomed to end with a long list of terrible questions.
Okay. Turn it back on.
I remember one other thing that happened that year. This was a few months after we returned from HyLo's. I was lying on my back in my bed at home. It was the middle of the night. The light was so dim that I couldn't see the walls. A strange man stood next to me, looking at his watch, and a woman in a white hat held my hand. Two long tubes, attached to plastic bags, were plugged into small holes in my thighs.
My parents were in the doorway. My mother's face was drawn. My father's face was in shadow. It was dark in the room, darker than any room I've ever seen since. The adults seemed to be standing at the end of a long tunnel. I didn't think they could hear me if I called to them. It didn't matter, because I didn't feel like calling to them. I was serene and curious about my strange condition. It was an adventure in new territory, a ride along a new highway. I was not afraid of it.
My horror at the sight of the malformed boy at the colony has lasted an eternity. I still feel uneasy about car windows, though I know now about thalidomide babies. But my near-fatal illness in Brooklyn passed quickly, in a dream. I had no idea what was going on; I'm still not sure. I have no memory of pain, nor even discomfort. My most vivid image is my mother's pinched, guilty face, floating in the darkness. It is her grief which remains in my psychology, not my own.
She had failed to protect me. But I understood that no one could help me; it didn't matter to me then. I didn't feel betrayed. I was exploring a new place all alone. It was okay.
copyright © 1995 & 1996 Gloria G. Brame
design by: Masterpiece Media