Through the Eye of a Child
Grandmother lived as long as she believed was long enough. She thanked God for her family and friends, but as she aged her friend’s left before her, one by one. I could hear her sob upstairs since we lived together in a two family home. Her sobs became louder because she had more people to bless while she said her prayers.
Five years old and sitting on top of our old sofa made of red velvet, kicking my feet against the back; I was probably bored. Mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner so I did not have to worry about her catching me kicking the back of her sofa. See it was her sofa; she sat there every night, especially during baseball games, knitting or keeping box scores during the World Series. No one was in the parlor so I continued to kick the sofa, and rub my head against the wall behind me to hear snapping – my hair would cling to the wall and I would jump from the sofa to look into the mirror; all those ringlets were gone. Mother would be so upset, I thought, it took her what seemed like hours to make each curl perfect. If Mother wasn’t busy cooking I would not be sitting on her sofa or rubbing my head to hear snaps.
The one day was rubbing my head across the wall and those snaps began to happen, they sounded like those caps tossed onto the sidewalk by the boys in our neighborhood. I wasn’t afraid of Mother, not as much as the big mirror with a heavy gold frame which hung above the sofa, imagining it falling down crashing on top of me. Being afraid of the mirror never lasted long enough to stop doing what I shouldn’t be doing, but I wondered how my hair stood on ends – I learned a new word called friction. Never asked what friction meant because I really didn’t care. The velvet cushions felt good on my thighs; girls wore dresses during my childhood, but suddenly my toes clenched, and I recall a chill travel through my body. From my normal day dreaming to a strange yell from the kitchen – my legs stopped, my head stopped sweeping across the wall and I waited as I sat still on top of the sofa.
“My God he’s dead,” Mother screamed. “He’s dead.”
I never heard her scream like that, and who was dead? Dead meant never again like Grandmother’s brothers and her friend’s. Dead meant it was over, like the time my bird was found at the bottom of the cage; Daddy thought he could replace the bird without me knowing. Dead was like me destroying mounds of ants, stomping on them with my feet. Hearing the words, “he’s dead,” caused me to freeze in place and inside my chest there was this awful pounding, like when I ran too fast down the alleyway.
“The explosion at the plant,” Mama, she continued yelling but she was not angry, her voice was different. She came into the parlor and told me about the explosion and she looked so scared – her eye’s kept jumping all over when she talked, and she mumbled my Daddy’s name, and how he worked at the plant. Mother’s voice began to shake like my legs. I was not sure why she was telling me where Daddy worked. I knew G.E. was General Electric Plant but the word explosion I thought happened during war. Were we at war? I wondered – I kept asking Daddy while we sat around the kitchen table for one of those air raid shelters – one faced me every night, on the back of the newspaper. See, Daddy read the evening news every night and this huge picture of people living underground popped out at me. I begged for one – we talked about what went inside a shelter, and how long we had to stay underground. Now by Mother’s scream I believed we were all going to die. I waited to hear the big yellow thing on top of our school, one block away, to start sounding what the teachers called an air raid alert. Now my feet were hitting the back of the sofa with Mother in the room. I could not sit still so my hair was standing on ends.
“Your Grandmother will be down here in a few minutes, I am heading to the plant.” Mother ran around looking for her car keys, as I sat thinking to myself, we were all going to die in different places. I asked Mother to stay with me, but she was already dressed in her pedal pushers and halter-top and I heard the car keys before she slammed the side door.
Grandmother walked her usual walk down the inside stairway, through the kitchen and into the parlor and sat down next to me. Then she began to pray in Italian. I was positive it was war and Daddy never built one of those underground rooms, why else would Grandmother be praying in Italian next to me? I watched as her body kept moving back and forth – I wanted to know what she was really saying to God. Then the sobs, she began sobbing in Italian.
Daddy kept telling me how fortunate we all were to have a Grandmother live right upstairs, and I knew I was lucky. We did so much together, Grandmother and me – because my Mother had to work and it was only my fault she worked. At first I didn’t understand why It was my fault she didn’t stay home like the rest of the mothers in the neighborhood, until I heard how much I cost – I didn’t know they paid for babies. One morning while having breakfast with Grandmother I asked her, “How much did I cost?”
Grandmother looked at me with a strange glance as if she didn’t understand me. I asked again, “how much did Mommy and Daddy pay for me?”
“Nobody paid for you.” Grandmother started to giggle, her belly jiggled and her hand covered her mouth. She told me I cost money because I spent a long time in the hospital – three months, and I was brought home on Christmas morning and I had this red ribbon around my forehead. I laughed along with Grandmother and from that day until I could really understood the entire story, how much I cost was no longer important, and one day I heard the story, must be a thousand times. When Mother left for work in the morning I wasn’t feeling funny inside, I finally knew it wasn’t my fault.
Grandmother had a gentle voice, usually just above a whisper unless she was praying, then the entire neighborhood listened. On the other hand, Mother, when she got upset, she showed what she called this wicked Irish temper – when doors slammed and dishes flew – I knew she said things she never meant. She would be smiling five minutes later, acting as if nothing went wrong. But I can’t lie, it hurt when I heard her yell so I crept up the stairs to the second floor and sat with Grandmother; her finger was straight, touching her lip’s. Now if Grandmother wasn’t home I found a great hiding place from flying dishes, behind two doors, and I gripped those handles so tight.
So why was Grandmother downstairs practically crying as she prayed, and her body moving like mine. Usually when she walked down the inside-staircase she came with goodies or her homemade sauce but on this day she was holding her black bible in her hands. Grandmother never had a temper and she never cried – there was a difference, sobbing while saying her prayers and crying without saying her prayers. Once I did catch her crying on the phone when she learned her brother died in Ohio. She cried so hard that day – the next day I was standing on the platform where this big black train stopped, and waved goodbye to Grandmother as tears fell from my eyes. You see Grandmother wasn’t Irish, she was from a place called Sicily. I guess those kind of people never got upset.
It was upstairs, sitting at her kitchen table, her head just missing the pull string in front of the red and green-chipped cookie jar, near her homemade curtains watching as they blew back and forth as wind entered a little window with a broken screen. It was there with Grandmother I learned the entire story about her world, and her ways – but of course, she had just finished a pot of fresh cocoa and two bowls were sitting side by side as I stared at mine waiting for it to be filled. In front of me on her table were boxes of things we both loved to dunk into her cocoa – since Mother worked I spent every morning with Grandmother dunking things like dried Italian bread and watching it soak up from the edges, and I quickly lifted it out with my spoon and ate it before the entire thing was soggy. I could tell if she didn’t want me to dunk certain things, it was all in her eyes. She saved those things for her afternoon coffee.
Grandmother finally stopped crying while she said her prayers that evening I recall how hard she hugged me.