A Magical Place
My grandmother became sick the winter I was in first grade. I knew it was serious. The adults all huddled together and whispered, with hands flying in every direction for emphasis. I saw my mother cry for the first time in my life. When I asked her about what I had pieced together, “the lump,” “the biopsy,” “the cancer,” she nodded yes. My suspicions were correct. My grandmother was gravely ill with three diseases. I was frightened but thought it best to keep quiet.
Things were different after my grandmother got sick. Especially Sundays. Sundays had always been the same up to then. After church I’d read the funnies. I liked the cartoon “Nancy” the best. Probably because at age six my reading ability was limited and “Nancy” had only a few words. I enjoyed looking at the pictures in the rotogravure. That was what my father called the magazine section of the newspaper and he was a printer. He should know. By early afternoon my aunts and uncles and cousins would come over, and my grandmother would arrive with her husband. He wasn’t my grandfather, and I called him “uncle.” My real grandfather was dead, so this “uncle” filled in. The women cooked, the men talked, the children ran around.
We all crammed into the kitchen to eat dinner because we didn’t have a dining room. It worked just fine. After we ate, the women cleaned up and the men and children went for a walk. Sometimes we’d drive to a park and walk there. We did a lot of walking in the 1950’s. Later, the men played pinnacle and smoked cigarettes. All the adults drank highballs, even the women. Everyone left after the “Ed Sullivan Show.” This was what we did every Sunday. I liked that things were the same each week.
As I mentioned, things changed after my grandmother got sick. There were no more Sunday visits. When school let out in June, my mother and I had a new routine. We drove to my grandmother’s house everyday.
There was not a lot for me to do on those daily trips with my mother to Ridgewood, Queens waiting for my grandmother to recuperate. She had surgery, and looked plain awful. I didn’t see that much of her actually. I was sent outside to play, whatever that meant. I ran up and down the Bilko doors until I was told to stop making so much noise. There was a front doorbell that turned liked a key and resonated loudly. I wasn’t allowed to ring that too much either. I found I could pick the asbestos off the siding of the house without being interrupted, but that got old quickly.
One very hot day, I was brought indoors and told to sit and not to move from the dining room chair. My mother handed me a bowl of grapes before she exited and reminded me to be quiet. Being quiet was very important during my grandmother’s recovery. It didn’t take me long to realize these were seeded grapes, and I didn’t know what to do with a mouthful of pits. I remembered my instructions about staying put, but what about these pits? I didn’t think swallowing them was a good idea so I did the only thing I could think of to do. I spit them on the rug in the corner next to the china cabinet and went about my business of eating more grapes. Problem solved. I was pleased. And I remained quiet.
Things went from bad to worse for my grandmother. More huddled conversations and flailing arms. I heard the adults mumbling the word “radiation.” I concluded that my grandmother not only had “the lump,” “the biopsy” and “the cancer,” but she now had a fourth disease, “the radiation.” I didn’t know what to do. I thought I should probably keep this to myself. And I did. I kept quiet about what I knew.
My mother told me that my grandmother would be staying with us, at our house. Well, that was ok. No more hour-long trips to Queens. And that I would be moving up to the attic. Well, that was not good. Sleeping in the attic was really hot, and it meant sharing a room with my sister. Let’s face it. She was eighteen and didn’t like me all that much when she saw me at dinner. What would she think about me camped out in her space? And one more thing. My grandmother would be sleeping in my room because it was next to the bathroom.
What about all those germs? I was very upset about catching my grandmother’s four diseases. I was doomed. If the heat in the attic and my sister’s wrath didn’t get me, my grandmother’s germs certainly would. I was panicky, but I didn’t want to upset anyone. I kept quiet and moved up to the attic.
As it turned out, my grandmother didn’t like sleeping in my room. I suppose she preferred Ridgewood. At any rate, much to my relief, barely two weeks into her visit, my grandmother decided she wanted to go home and die in her own bed.
Now I was faced with going back to my room and escaping the germs. I turned my pillow over a hundred times and shook out the sheets and blanket at least twice as many times. I opened and closed the windows, pulled the blinds up and down, and made as much commotion as I could to rid my room of the germs left behind. I asked God if He could please fumigate the place. It took awhile before I was confident I could sleep safely and not catch anything.
My grandmother died three weeks after retreating to Queens. My only experience with death had been when my canary unexpectedly escaped from his cage and crashed into the window, snapping his neck. I placed him in a Stride Rite shoebox, and Dad dug a hole for him in the corner of the yard. That pretty much summed up what I knew about death.
Obviously, my grandmother’s death wasn’t the same as Tweetie’s. I was sad, but she was sixty and that was pretty old. I didn’t ask any questions. I figured being quiet again was the best thing for me.
On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I was sent to stay with my father’s sister and her two boys. I didn’t like them very much. During lunch, the older boy reached across the table to grab my doll. I just couldn’t be quiet any longer. I was done being quiet.
As I stood up, the bowl of soup spilled into my lap. My head was spinning. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. No one was telling me anything. I was only six and I was so mixed up. I wanted my grandmother back. I wanted her to visit on Sundays like she used to. I hated being at my aunt’s house with those boys. I wanted to go home. And where were my parents? Everything was so confusing. I wanted to scream, but I had no words. I sat back down and put my face in my hands. No one said a thing. All eyes were on me. The puddle of tomato soup was still in my pinafore.
On the day my grandmother was buried, I finally broke my silence. In the stillness of that moment, I wept out loud. I sobbed uncontrollably to release my guilt.
I turned seven the same month my grandmother died. On my birthday, my father had a special treat for the whole family. He drove us east to Greenport. We pulled into the parking lot of what today is the Soundview Restaurant. I remember it as a snack stand.
The wind off the sound was refreshing and the smell of fried food was mouth-watering. The sun was shining, and there was not a cloud in the sky. I was excited to order a plate of raw clams and a coke. I savored each clam and sipped the last bit of brine left in every shell. When I finished the clams and coke, I ordered a hot dog, chocolate milk, and vanilla ice cream for dessert. It was my birthday. I could eat what I wanted.
I saw my mother smiling for the first time in six months. My sisters were laughing, and Dad seemed relaxed. I dared to think, perhaps, the sadness of the four diseases and death was behind me. I began to believe that life could be good again.
Looking back, I remember Greenport as a place of peace, a refuge in a tumultuous time. Years have passed, yet I still experience the renewal of life whenever I return. Greenport will always remind me of that magical moment the day I turned seven, when optimism took root and hope began to grow.