Here is how my father describes our socioeconomic level: Working Stiffs.
We live in the D section of Charter Oak Terrace in Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford is a city where all manner of public buildings, bridges, restaurants, playgrounds, and gin mills are named after the oak tree where Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the Charter of Independence granted by England in 1687. He hid it because England changed her mind. When James II assumed power, he sent an agent to seize it but the charter had gone missing and the agent didn't think to look in a squirrel's nest. Likely story.
Charter Oak Terrace was the first low-income housing project to be constructed in the United States. It was built for the GI's returning from war to give them a leg up while they put the Battle of the Bulge, Anzio, Bataan, and Corregidor behind them and looked for jobs. My father's brother-in-law, Uncle Guido, was a WWII veteran so he got to live there, and my father, who wasn't, got to live there because of his job making ball bearings for the war effort. Also because Uncle Guido had pull.
At D-106, we have a coal furnace in its own little room, an alcove black with soot, between the front door and the kitchen. Our furnace utilizes a primitive heating system consisting of aluminum pipes and ducts and a narrow chimney that carries fumes, gases, and grime out through the roof while providing fitful outbreaks of warmth to our kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms. The vents in the walls have an aureole of coal dust. These heating details differentiate us, Working Stiffs, from the truly impoverished, who also work, but at the most menial of jobs — picking tobacco in the fields bordering the city's North End, sweeping factory floors, or risky jobs like running numbers. Their coal stoves have no alcove; they are in the kitchen.
The truly impoverished attach a rolled-up piece of sheet metal to their stoves that leads through a hole gouged out of the wall. Plus they gerry-rig hoses from the main shoot to bring heat into the other rooms. These hoses melt and then the houses catch fire and burn down.
Their children come to school with rags tied around their shaved heads because they have lice. The truly impoverished girl who sits next to me in first grade with her head wrapped in a rag has a name that intrigues me, Poo-Poo. When her house burns down, she moves to a new school district. Two days after she leaves, all the first-graders have lice. Since we're the children of Working Stiffs, not the truly impoverished, we don't have our heads shaved. Instead we are subject to foul-smelling shampoos, plus my mother combs my hair every night with a fine comb to remove the nits, which are lice eggs.
Got one! she goes, whereupon she carefully slides the nit out from the teeth of the comb and snaps it between her thumbnails.
Each morning my father fuels the furnace, shoveling coal into its belly as quietly as he can so as not to wake my mother, who is the prototype of the light sleeper. My mother can be wakened by the smell of cigarette smoke outside.
Yutchie, wake up. A prowler!
She's also awakened by Mrs. Alexander's radio even though it's late in the evening in the dead of winter and we're all sealed in tight with our coal dust. My mother can hear a field mouse in a nearby empty lot as well as Fluffy, the neighbor's cat, stalking it.
Later I will learn that fog comes on little cat feet. My mother can hear arriving fog too. Beyond that, she is just as easily awakened by the absence of sound; one spring night the freight train barreling through Hartford like clockwork at 2 A.M. doesn't send forth its dull blast at the Flatbush Avenue crossing three miles from D-106 at the northeast corner of Charter Oak Terrace. That's because it never reaches Flatbush Avenue.
She rouses my father. Yutchie, wake up! The train has crashed.
My father calls my Uncle Norbert, my mother's youngest brother, who is a fireman.
Early the next morning Uncle Norbert drops in.
What do you mean, Florence? he says to my mother. You couldn't have heard the crash. The goddamn train derailed in Meriden! (Meriden is twenty-five miles away.)
She says, I didn't hear the crash. What I heard was the train's horn not blast (which it always does when it crosses Flatbush).
My father says to my Uncle Norbert, How about a short one?
Word is that my mother has psychic powers based on her placement in her family of fourteen. She is the seventh daughter. When I ask my Auntie Coranna, the sixth daughter, what psychic powers are, Auntie Coranna says it's when people can see and hear what the rest of us can't. A devout Catholic, my mother eschews such nonsense. But the night the train derails in Meriden there is fire and destruction and death too, because in Meriden the train tracks run right down the middle of Main Street. Being a psychic, no matter that she denies it, is it any wonder she woke up?
Ten years later, my Uncle Eddie, my mother's brother born between her and Uncle Norbert, is staggering home from Alphone's Bar and Grill and is hit by the 2 A.M. train when he passes out on the tracks at the Flatbush Avenue crossing. The engineer never sees him, never applies his brakes, so my mother doesn't hear the train coming to a screeching halt, which would have really woken her up.
At six each morning, I force myself to open my eyes and climb out of my crib in the corner of my parents' bedroom, where I experience many horrific nightmares probably due to the sounds of sex a few feet away and my, no doubt, witnessing the shadowy tussles in the dark. When my father hears me whimpering, he comes over to the crib and says, You're having a nightmare, Mick. (My nickname is Mickey though I am a girl.) Go back to sleep.
He brings me a glass of water.
At 6 A.M., I scramble downstairs, take a right through the kitchen, and sit on a little rug by the front door in order to watch my father perform his daily, cold-weather ritual: he takes up a shovel leaning against the wall of the alcove and heaves coal out of a three-sided metal bin and into the fading pink interior of the furnace until its gaping black maw magically blooms into a wildly crimson glow. Then a tiny lick of flame leaps up above the coals signaling the end to my father's chore. The red glow is the most beautiful, most ethereal image that exists in my life. Sitting and watching, I think that if Our Lady ever appears to me (all little Catholic children are insanely envious of the children of Fatima) it won't be in a bush, it will be in our incantatory furnace.
When my father is finished shoveling coal, he gives me a piece of toast from the toaster on the kitchen floor. There is no counter space in our kitchen to speak of, just a sink against the wall and a white metal table next to it with one drawer packed tightly with Raleigh coupons. One day, I lean against the hot toaster acquired via Raleigh coupons and the first three letters of the name WEAREVER are branded onto the back of my calf. I am four and starting to read. WEA I know, is not a word. The toaster burn is my first memory of pain. I gag and press my hands to my mouth as I leap away from the toaster.
My mother says to my father, Look at what you've done!
This is the chronic response to crisis in my family. First, there can be no cry. That is because of Tyler. Tyler is my brother, five years older. We are all half-mad because my brother is autistic at a time when no one has ever heard of autism. (Today it is rampant.) Tyler cannot stand noise, which includes crying out or, in fact, just plain crying. The agony he feels when he hears such noise is extreme; when that pain comes, he bites his wrist. He grasps his left hand in his right and gnaws away like he's devouring a drumstick. He squeals hideously while he does this. His left wrist is covered by a thick, often oozing, callous. People will do terrible things to satisfy their compulsions and in Tyler's case, he does them to himself.
There is no one in the United States with the name Tyler except my brother. His name, like autism, is also rampant today. But then, my mother was psychic.
The second response to crisis follows immediately upon the heels of the first; my mother assigns blame and then won't forgive the guilty party even if it means carrying a grudge to the grave.
The third response is for her to light up a Raleigh then light up a second while stamping out the first until the ash tray is overflowing.
Until I am in first grade, I have no idea that when you are hurt, some people have the urge to hug and comfort you. In the first grade, my fingers get caught in the girls' lavatory door and my teacher, Miss Wells, takes me in her arms and hugs me to her big bosom. I don't understand what this is, a body surrounding mine, pressing sympathy from one heart into another. But my mother is the prototype of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
That is what I hear my aunts say to each other: Florence is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They are familiar with such verging because it is the fifties when women were either on the verge or actually having one. Two of my aunts have nervous breakdowns themselves. When I am five, my Auntie Mary, my mother's only unmarried sister, has a nervous breakdown and then gets shock treatments after which she comes and lives with us for three months. She sleeps on a cot in the living room. My Auntie Kekkie has one too; first she goes missing and then my father's brother, Uncle Johnnie, finds her behind the furnace and she won't come out. He calls my father to come help. My father assesses the situation and calls for a doctor. The doctor sends my father and Uncle Johnnie out for all the ice they can get. Then he has them dump the ice in the bathtub, add cold water almost to the top, whereupon my aunt is wrestled into the tub and submerged. (Perhaps there wasn't such a thing as a shot of tranquilizer back then.) Once subdued, Auntie Kekkie goes to the hospital and comes back a month later all better.
As young as I am, when I am burned by the toaster I know it isn't my father's fault. I know it isn't anyone's fault. It's the toaster's fault and the toaster didn't do it on purpose because it's an appliance. After I'm burned, my father smears the WEA on my calf with Vaseline and then he makes me smile by lighting up a Dutch Masters and blowing smoke rings into which I carefully insert my index finger. His record is six smoke rings from one inhalation on the cigar. Sometimes, a friend will give him a special treat, a cigar from Havana. He passes all his exotic cigar bands along to me for my treasure box, which is actually a humidor distributed on the fiftieth anniversary of the Dutch Masters Company. I think the picture on the humidor — a lot of men in a jolly group and sporting pointy beards — are Jesus's apostles only wearing pilgrim suits.
My father tells me the girl and boy on my prize Havana band are Romeo and Juliet.
He says, In Cuban, Mickey, that's Romeo y Julieta.
He tells me his rendition of the Shakespeare tragedy except he changes the ending and Romeo and Juliet get married and live happily ever after. I picture them dancing the polka at their wedding. I pretend my name is Juliet. After all, I have an uncle named Romeo, one of my mother's brothers. When I'm an adult, I watch Dick Schaap interview Joe Namath on TV. Dick asks Joe what movies he's seen recently. Joe says, Some broad dragged me to see Romeo and Juliet. I didn't like it.
Why? asks Dick.
Because it was so sad.
There's a pause, and then Dick asks, You didn't know how it would end, did you, Joe?
Poor Joe. Poor me; when I read the play in high school, I figure I know how it will end, my father's version.
A few days after I am burned by the toaster, I am sitting in the closet with a flashlight aimed at my leg, enjoying the delicious solitary pleasure of peeling the paper-thin scab off my skin. I look at the pieces of scab in the palm of my hand. They are me, but they are no longer me, a phenomenon I wonder at. I save the scab in my humidor. For the next few days I will have raw pink letters on my leg — WEA.
Each morning after my father stokes the furnace, I stand in the doorway and wave good-bye to him. He drives off in his black Ford coupe to the factory where he will keep many furnaces stoked all at once. He is a heat treater in the hardening room. The factory, the Abbott Ball Company, turns out millions of ball bearings punched from steel wire an inch in diameter, which are heat-treated in the furnaces and then polished to a high shine in huge vats of teeming chemicals, where they bounce up and down like Mexican jumping beans.
The Abbott Ball Company also produces ball bearings the size of poppy seeds punched from twenty-four-karat gold wire the diameter of a silk thread. My godmother, Auntie Doris, works at the Abbott Ball Company as an inspector. When she has to inspect the tiny gold ball bearings, she must be guarded and then inspected herself. The inspector knows Auntie Doris isn't a thief, but all the same he has to check very carefully under her fingernails, where the ball bearings might lodge without her even knowing it.
Auntie Doris studied opera when she was a girl. At all our family weddings she sings the "Ave Maria." (For my wedding, I ask her to sing the Miriam Makeba hit, "Kumbaya"; I have returned from Peace Corps service in an African country and I think it's an appropriate choice. But Auntie Doris sings the "Ave Maria.") As a child, I am convinced my godmother is an actual angel with her golden voice and the stray golden seeds lodged beneath her nails.
Auntie Doris is actually my cousin, but she is twenty years older than me so I think she is my aunt. No one corrects this. I do not know that she is my mother's oldest sister's daughter. My mother's oldest sister, Auntie Verna, whose real name was Zephyrina, died of breast cancer when she was in her early forties. My Auntie Mary, who is sister number three, tells me Verna was in so much pain she would lie on the floor and ask family members to jump on her. The pain of being jumped on is bearable while the cancer pain is not; the former takes her mind off the latter. I understand, then, why Tyler bites his wrist.
I stand in the doorway and wave good-bye to my father until I can't see his black Ford anymore. One day, when I am three years old, I stand in the doorway whimpering because I do not manage to wake myself up in time to watch him feed the stove, or feed me my piece of toast, or worst of all, wave good-bye. He is gone and I must face the day without the ritual of his attention, which means a day without any attention whatsoever. It's winter, and my mother comes downstairs with a sweater wrapped around her.
Mickey, get in here and shut the door.
I don't move.
Get in here, Mary-Ann! She calls me Mary-Ann instead of Mickey when she is angry.
I still don't move. I am hoping my father forgot something and will come back and I don't want to take a chance of missing him. But it must be a morning when my mother is especially close to the verge of a nervous breakdown because she grabs my hand and yanks me in the door so hard my upper arm breaks. This is a pain I don't remember.
What I do remember is my mother standing in the doctor's office arguing with him that my arm is broken.
He keeps saying, You can't break a child's arm by yanking her by the hand.
My mother says, I'm telling you, I heard it snap.
The broken arm is suddenly his fault. That is, until my father arrives, running into the examining room, Freddie Ravenel right behind him. Freddie is the colored man my father hired to sweep the floors at the Abbott Ball Company. The first colored man ever hired there. My father says on many occasions, Freddie Ravenel is the best man I've got. When my father becomes foreman, he promotes Freddie to stoker. My father's real name is Maurice, which his family pronounces Morris, but everyone calls him Yutch. Freddie Ravenel, though, insists on calling him Mr. Mawse because Freddie feels it's a due respect and my father can't convince him otherwise.
Freddie is so grateful for the job he is devoted to my father. When the news of my broken arm reaches the Abbott Ball Company, Freddie insists on driving my father to the doctor's office because he can see how upset my father is.
My mother's arms are folded across her chest. She says to my father, You didn't wave good-bye to her.
This is her explanation of how my arm came to be broken. I won't be waving good-bye to my father for some time. At least not with my right arm.
The doctor quits arguing with my mother and takes an X ray. Then he mixes a pot of plaster of paris. (In those days, there was no such thing as going to a specialist in orthopedics.) While he is soaking the strips of gauze, he is distracted by my brother, who is drawing a line of B-52s on the examining room wall.
The doctor turns to my mother. Can you not do something about that?
My mother says to my father, You do something.
Freddie Ravenel, like everyone else, knows my mother is on the verge of a nervous breakdown so he goes to my brother and says, Tyler, come stand over here by Freddie. Doctor say not to draw on his wall.
Tyler looks up in the vicinity of Freddie Ravenel, not directly into his eyes because that is something autistic people are unable to do, smiles his perfect Cheshire grin, and says, Blackie.
He loves Freddie Ravenel, who rolls his eyes, slaps his knee, and laughs heartily. Then Freddie Ravenel says to me, Don't you worry, Junior Miss, you be fine.
His words have a similar effect to Miss Wells's hug.
When I'm an adult attending a dinner party, I'm sitting next to a specialist from Yale-New Haven Hospital, a child abuse expert. He is one of the doctors who determines that Woody Allen's behavior toward his three-year-old daughter is inappropriate rather than sexually abusive. I find myself telling him about my mother breaking my arm.
He says to me, It's an accident when a child is yanked and her wrist breaks. But the humerus? You were treated very roughly. Today, that injury would be categorized as a direct result of physical abuse. The physician would be required by law to notify the police.
I say, My mother didn't really mean to break my arm.
He says, Oh?
She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
He's quiet and then he says, No intent then?
He says, A nervous breakdown isn't a clinical term. In most cases, it's a psychotic episode of paranoia.
Yes, but the lay term conveys what a lay person might observe in the patient.
Then he says, Was it a wake-up call for your mother? Injuring you like that?
She never hurt you again?
She never laid a hand on me.
He says, Sometimes, that's the case. I'm glad. He pauses before he says, Did she have a nervous breakdown?
I'm glad for that, too. Then he says, My own mother had a ner-
I say, Did you find her behind the furnace?
No. Up in the apple tree.
I don't explain to the doctor the reason my mother is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Explaining Tyler would overly monopolize the man and he wouldn't be able to speak to the woman on his right.
When Tyler is eight and I am three, sporting a cast from hand to shoulder, he has over five hundred books on the subject of WWII because he is obsessed with the war; his books cover battles, defense, weaponry. My mother says to the child psychiatrist at the Boston Children's Hospital, who deems him retarded, If he's retarded, how come he's reading Arms and the Covenant by Mr. Winston Churchill?
The doctor gives her a withering look. But my mother will not wither. She raises her chin and storms out of the child psychiatrist's office. This is how she fights people, storming out on them because, of course, she's powerless.
My mother learns she is powerless as a young woman at the Aetna Life Insurance Company where she is successful at a difficult job — processing data at a time when it is accomplished with a pencil. But this is during the Great Depression and the rule is that female employees are immediately fired upon marrying. Married men need work to support their families; how selfish for a woman to take up a job merely for frivolity.
However, when my mother is about to get married she is asked to keep the marriage a secret because the championship Aetna girls' basketball team is undefeated and they have been asked to take part in an exhibition game against the girls' Olympic basketball team. My mother, a fine athlete and the youngest member of a national championship bowling team, is Aetna's center, which today would translate to point guard. My mother agrees to keep her marriage a secret and gets to play in the big game. The center for the Olympic team is Babe Didrikson. The Aetna girls win. (Connecticut girls have been playing great basketball for a long, long time.)
Then my mother is fired.
Copyright © 2006 by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith