As a child, my mother fell asleep listening to the adults at the end of the hall. It was the 1940s, when relatives visited each other in the evenings and sat up and talked. They spoke about the baby sometimes, the baby boy who had arrived a few years earlier than she did, with blue eyes and his mother’s skin, pearly and light.
He slept in the hospital nursery, as all infants did then. The nurses brought him to my grandmother at feeding time, delivered on a cart with the other newborns, in a row, swaddled up. Weighing nearly ten pounds, he was positioned on the end, where there would have been more room.
After a few days, he didn’t come. Instead, the doctors asked my grandfather to give blood. They didn’t tell him why, even while the tubing ran from his arm. Soon afterward, they said that the baby was dead. Without warning, without reason. Your baby is dead. Your just-born, healthy baby boy is dead. My grandparents begged, wailed, pleaded, but no one said anything. Not ever.
From her bedroom down the hall, curled up in evening’s grainy haze, my mother heard the rise and fall of voices, the careful words, the jittery words. The theories. She heard what her father came to believe but could not prove, that the baby had rolled off the end of the cart to the floor. That he rolled off the cart, and no one was there to catch him.
During the course of a routine conversation when I was eight, so routine that I cannot place its day or time or location, my mother told me the story. She said she didn’t know for certain what had happened, when it had happened, if the infant even had a name. But the voices sailed through the hall and into her consciousness. They said that the baby was robust and pink, but then he was dead.
Maybe there was no room in the middle of the cart for a baby of ten pounds, or maybe the nurses thought he’d push one of the smaller ones off the edge with his strong big-baby arms. There were no sides to the cart, no wall to roll into on a fast trip, a swervy trip, a careless trip. It was like a cart in a library, I imagined, or something from a restaurant kitchen. Maybe they used it to distribute meatloaf and peas when they didn’t pile babies on it, when they didn’t press them together, arm to arm like hotdogs in cellophane. Like cigars in a box.
Anyway, my mother told me she didn’t get out of her bed and ask the people about her brother; she didn’t even say that he was her brother. He was the baby. The dead baby. Hush. Don’t say anything. Don’t repeat this. Don’t ask a soul or say that you know. It will only upset Grandma Lilly. Again. We don’t want to upset her again.
She gave me no lead-up to the story, no situation that needed explaining, no rationale for the tale to be told. We could have been talking about vegetable soup, or dancing class. We could have been baking a cake and cutting it into shapes and turning it into an elephant, following the directions in the blue booklet, with the drawings of the lions and bears. We could have been saying or doing nothing at all.
It’s entirely possible that my mother simply said, “So, you know what happened? Grandma Lilly had a baby and the baby died, and Papa Sam chased a nurse down the street, right down the street to ask her why. But she ran away, she ran away so fast that he never caught up.”
It’s entirely possible that my mother said that, that she looked at me with her deep brown eyes and in a swoop flung open a curtain, snapped up a shade, revealed a world that I didn’t know existed or could exist so close to my family. So close to me.
The number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam peaked in 1968. My dad turned on the television every night after dinner, and I watched the war footage. Soldiers, in black and white. Trenches, smoke. Helmets. I remember the helmets, and the guns, and the reporters shouting over the noise. My parents let me see it, even though I was only in second grade. Maybe because I was in second grade. Not a toddler, not a teenager, but old enough, important enough. No sheltering here.
Bad things could happen, I knew, from watching the screen, from hearing about wounds my surgeon dad sewed up at night while we slept. But they happened elsewhere, in places where there were jungles and enemies, or where Presidents had motorcades, or where black pastors stood on balconies, defenseless. They didn’t happen on Rolling Way.
The 1960s were all around us—the suburban barbecues, the go-go boots, the air-raid drills. We sat under the curved staircase on the lower floor of Ward Elementary, a hundred kids cross-legged on the terrazzo tile, the yellow fallout shelter sign on the wall above us. We weren’t told exactly what it was for, but we knew the whirling black triangles didn’t mean a fire or a bad storm. They didn’t signify something we had experienced. So, we sat under the staircase, protecting ourselves from something different, something from far away, something that could reach us in our classrooms but not under the stairs. Watch out. Duck and cover.
Still, despite the mixed signals and vague explanations, I felt certain that nothing would fall on our heads at Ward Elementary—not a bomb from the Soviet Union, not a rocket ship from Mars, not the roof from a hurricane. There was unrest in some places, but my neighborhood, my house, my bedroom were all safe.
It was in town that Papa Sam recognized the nurse, in the weeks or months after the baby died. Was he there alone? Was he with my grandmother? Did he turn and say, “Lilly, stay here. Don’t move.” Did he take her with him by the hand, her charm bracelet marking the pace? Or did she say, “Sam, don’t run. Leave it alone, let it be.”
The story my mother heard claims that he got close enough to ask a question, to project it down the Belle Harbor sidewalk, but that it dropped to the pavement, unanswered. Seeing him coming toward her, weaving through pedestrians maybe, picking up speed maybe, feeling desperate maybe, the nurse fled, turned a corner, lost him. That alone was confirmation, the voices said at the end of the hall in my mother’s house. That alone proved something had gone awry. The assertions whooshed across my mother’s room and into her ears. A compassionate nurse, a person who knew a man had endured an excruciating loss, would embrace him, would see him coming and hold out her arms. A nurse who was not aware of something to conceal would not have run. Even a nurse who was aware of something to conceal would not have run, unless she’d panicked.
Nothing about her actions on the street gave solace to my grandfather. Nothing about her response led him to think that his infant had died a natural death.
I found a baby bunny in our backyard. At the end of the lawn, our property rose up into The Hill, an expansive, tiered incline. We didn’t hike up it every time we were in the yard, or plan ahead to make the journey. The urge would come without warning, finding us between whacks of the badminton birdie or pendulums on the swing. Exploration, conquest, the pull of the wild. My older brother Ben and I felt the lure of nature, of flora and fauna, even if that lure was confined within the property lines behind our split-level in New Rochelle, New York. Our suburban expeditions up the hill, scaling pachysandra, stone, and soil, were monumental treks to us, feats of daring and strength. I knew to put on socks, as Mom had planted low-lying shrubs with prickers.
The hill was terraced, the levels marked off horizontally with walls of gray rock about a foot high. We began at one end of the yard, near the fence that separated our lawn from that of our neighbors, the Brants. Methodical kids, we traversed the width of the hill, pivoted at the end, and proceeded to a higher altitude, weaving our way up like yarn in a loom. We rarely hopped levels unless Jimmy Brant accompanied us skyward. Jimmy Brant pushed the limits. He would later become a music industry executive.
The bunny was by itself near the bottom of the hill, no family in sight. I picked her up and held her against my stomach. She was small, no more than six inches long, brown and gray and soft. Her ears stood straight up, and her eyes were sweet and bright, ringed in white fur. She didn’t try to get away.
I carried her across the yard to the kitchen door and called to my parents. In the garage, my mom found a cardboard box, in which I placed grass and twigs and leaves, lettuce, carrots, water in a dish. Ben and I had wanted a dog, but my parents rejected the responsibility of that, thinking we were too young to take care of a warm-blooded being and not wanting the chore themselves. So, we had goldfish and turtles, animals in bowls that we could not caress, or talk to face to face, or walk on a string—animals in bowls that required a sprinkling of food and not much else. Knowing this, defying this, I would put my hand into the water anyway, attempting to make contact, to create a bond, to love my pet and be loved back.
The bunny was a cuddly mammal, similar to a dog, and it entered my life willingly and—crazily, in retrospect—without parental prohibition. City folk, who had not grown up with cats or puppies in their homes, my mother and father had little rapport with the kingdom.
The next day, we went to the pet store and bought a cage for my wild animal. It had an aqua-colored metal base and chrome slats. I put the bunny through the door, along with her water and vegetables. She explored her home, and I sat on the garage floor and watched as my new friend adjusted. This was going to be fantastic.
When my mother told me about the baby who died, I was confused, but mainly frightened. I had become accustomed to her unconventional nature, her breaking of rules, but this was different. I felt thrown, the way she probably had when the voices sailed through the air into her room decades earlier.
But that had been accidental, while my mother chose to reveal the information to me. I couldn’t understand why she told me not only about the fact of the death but also its violent details. Why did I need to know? Or why, more likely, did she need to let out the story, to hear it said in her own hushed voice, like a secret, and then warn me to keep it one—not to tell my grandparents that I knew, as she had done. Why load me up at eight years old with the scary death of a person who could have been an uncle, who could have looked like my mom, or me, who could have painted and sewed as we did, who could have crossed his arms that way, our way, when he walked? Did I need to know about him for some reason, a reason that she didn’t understand herself? Was she trying to make sense of the death, after so many years, by saying it out loud?
She had probably been the same age as I was now when she found out. Did she want me to have the identical experience? The identical horrible experience? My mother had friends, colleagues, many other grown people with whom she could have shared the story. But she told it to me. Why me?
On my bunny’s third day, I took her out of her cage and carried her around our property. She didn’t seem to want to jump away, but still, I didn’t put her on the grass. In my mind, she was mine. I had made her mine, determined that she would stay with me because I wanted her to. I didn’t put her down because that wouldn’t have been safe—safe for me, for my emotions, which had become entwined in possessing the rabbit, in dictating her whereabouts, her activities, her relationships, her very life.
We had freedoms as children. We rode our bikes until it got dark, wherever we wanted to go, except for the big streets. No Quaker Ridge Road. No Victory Boulevard. We went outside to play and returned hours later, having visited our neighbors’ houses, gone to the school playground, run through sprinklers. I suppose that a lot of what we did at that age, in those times, was dictated by feel, but we also made decisions. We weighed pros and cons, we considered what we knew our parents would advise, for or against. We did not intend to be mischievous, nor did we view our freedom as an opportunity to be disobedient or reckless. Maybe my parents knew this and trusted that we’d manage the choices we encountered during our adventures. They exerted pressure when it came to school, but in our leisure life they believed we should make our own fun. So, we scaled the hill, hid under the Brants’ willow tree, caught wild rabbits. Caught wild rabbits.
On the fourth morning, I went into the garage to check on my bunny, to feed her fresh lettuce and fill up her water bowl. Still in my pajamas, I pressed open the electric door and walked to her cage, the morning light spreading across the floor. She had been awake when I arrived on the previous days, roused by the rumbling of the door or, more likely, an innate internal clock. She had looked at me and sniffed through the bars. This day, she lay on her side. I dropped to my knees on the cement. Her body was still. I called to her, afraid of what she looked like. Horrified. Guilty. Panicked.
I screamed for my parents and ran inside to find them. My father had left for the hospital, and my mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. She followed me to the garage, picked up the cage and took it away, disappearing around the side of the house. I stood by myself, sobbing, shaking. When she came back, she said something about keeping a wild animal captive, how it wasn’t a good idea. Then she went back to the kitchen.
I was an obedient child. I would have said, Okay, I’ll let the bunny go back to the hill. I would have been disappointed, but I would have understood that it was where she came from and where she needed to be, that somewhere on the hill her mother was waiting. I would have understood that and wanted to return her. I would have scoured the hill for her mother, brown and gray and just a bit bigger, a bit fatter. I would have swept aside the thorny bushes, peered between layers of rock. I would have made it my mission to reunite the wild animals, and I would have done it, or done something close. But no one told me it wasn’t a good idea to capture a wild rabbit, and no one told me he was sorry when she died.
My mother put the cage on the shelf over the hood of her car. It sat on the edge, among beach chairs and winter boots. Every time I went into the garage, I saw the chrome bars flash as the electric door rose, pummeling me in the stomach, making me wince and look away. One day, after school, I dragged a cooler over to the shelf, stood on top of it holding a broom, and jabbed the cage until it was out of view.
My mother took off for school each morning in her Chevy Monza, a blur of fabric and scent. Cristal, by Chanel. She carried a carpet bag with leather handles, cut from an Oriental rug. In the evenings, she lifted the flap and spilled papers onto the floor of my parents’ bedroom. Dittos, they were called then. Worksheets made on a machine that cranked out copies from purple carbon paper, by hand. If you held the paper by your nose, you could smell the fluid. Intoxicating, it was, like rubber cement and strawberries. A bottom drawer in our kitchen was filled with unused sheets, for games of tic tac toe, hangman or shopping lists. After college, she followed her father’s lead and started out as a buyer in the apparel business, fulfilling orders in New York for stores that didn’t have a representative in town. It was a fashionable job for a fashionable young woman. But after she had my brother and me, my father convinced her to become a teacher. He wanted her to have an enduring skill of her own.
Mom learned on the job and developed a style; hers grew more from instinct and personality than pedagogy. She liked the little ones, the sweet little ones, with the raincoats they couldn’t zip, the astonishment that flushed their faces when they shook heavy cream into butter. She liked the singing in a circle, the growing of plants, the learning of script. A couple of times a year, my school wouldn’t be in session when hers was, so she’d scoop me up from home at lunchtime and take me back to her class. The halls of Roosevelt School were quiet and the classrooms orderly, teachers in front of the boards, children obedient in their seats. Pass by them and take a look, one by one, and the scene would be identical. But at the end of the corridor, waiting for Mrs. Nichols, a bustle of small children rolled on the floor, jumped in the air, zigged and zagged like bees from a hive. As we got close, the kids grabbed her by the hips and held on, asking where she was, why she was late, and whether I had anything to do with it, whoever I was.
“Is that your daughter?” they’d ask, and then fall over, stunned, offended, even. Sometimes, they called her Mom. I’d sit at her desk while she taught, look in the drawers (a mess), color with her markers. There was typically a naughty student pulled up alongside, playing with the paperclips or stapler or World’s Best Teacher letter holder, whatever was within reach. He, and it was invariably a he, would try to get my attention, by muttering about my mother or talking to me directly.
“She wears that orange coat,” or “You don’t look like her,” or “Maybe you do.”
Mom gave me tasks to do to keep me busy...water the plants on the sill, sort papers or rearrange supplies in the cabinets that ran low against the walls. Mostly, I organized her desk drawers and cleaned off the surface, but the order confused her natural state and left her itchy.
On our way out of the building those days, Mom whisked me by the hand into each room, including the Principal’s office, before everyone went home. A Principal’s office is a bad place, even if he isn’t yours and he’s being nice. I said yes to whatever he asked. One by one, the other teachers hugged and squeezed me, exclaimed something encouraging and inspiring, and tilted their heads the way teachers do when a star student does what they expect her to do. I felt like a special kid. I felt like a special kid with expectations to fulfill. And that was okay. I was nothing if not dutiful.
It was clear to me that I had an unconventional mother. She did not succumb to rules, and her disregard for them was brisk. At the town pool, she concealed her jug of homemade iced tea behind her beach chair and lured us to take illicit swigs on the grass rather than in the designated picnic area. To avoid a crowded store dressing room, she had me try on clothing (over and under what I was already wearing, thank god) in the middle of the aisle. “No one is watching, Kate,” she’d tell me, when everyone was. Once, when she didn’t like something that my father said, she flung a melamine plate across the kitchen. A Frisbee. It would happen again. Frozen rolls, a bag of peas.
Teaching redirected her spontaneous spirit, a bit, anyway, and it gave her voice and friendship. She and her colleagues played doubles tennis on Tuesday nights. They took belly-dancing classes in our basement, wearing genie pants and belts that jingled coins. Sitar music streamed from the air conditioning vents into my bedroom while I did my homework. The women shared joys and losses, taking care of each other in school and out.
Her work showed me who my mother was, who she was beyond the walls of our eclectically-styled house a half hour north of Manhattan. When she went on strike for better wages and benefits, we drove by in the Bonneville to lend moral support. I spotted her on the sidewalk, marching with her fellow teachers, holding a sign she painted in our garage the day before. Dad stretched his hand out the window and made a “V” with his fingers, and I did the same. He honked the horn, and we cheered. We cheered like loons. At age eight, I got a sense of justice, and what you do when you don’t have it. And I felt, from the back seat of Dad’s sedan, the mettle of my mom, underneath the Sassoon haircut and geranium pink lips.
Not all mothers had jobs outside of the home in the 1960s, and I loved that my mom did, and not only because she let me unwrap the Christmas presents that her students gave her or brought home sticks of chalk for our box ball courts. I loved that she was committed. I loved that she did so much with her days. I loved that despite it all, I felt that my brother and I were always first.
The weekend after my mother told me about the dead baby, we went to my grandparents’ house. The route took us past a massive water tower shaped like a southern biscuit. Belle Harbor was painted in green script along the side that faced the parkway.
I had initially thought that Grandma Lilly and Papa Sam lived inside of the tank. Of course, now I knew they occupied the blue half of a navy and white two-family on Neptune Avenue, a block from the beach. I knew there was a short driveway, a terrace and three steps that led to the front door, and I knew that these parts of the house, and all of the others, were not wet or flooded or floating. I also realized that my father did not drive our 1968 Pontiac Bonneville up the spiral steps wrapping the water tower that proclaimed the town’s name, nor did he have us get out of the car and climb the stairs to the top. We did not dive, seated in the vehicle or uncontained in the air, into the vat high above the Grand Central Parkway and swim our way into my grandparents living room, where roast chicken waited on pedestaled trays. Yet, beginning when I was old enough to remember and for some years afterwards, I thought that we had. Somehow, once inside the tank, I believed it was possible for us to carry on as we did and remain dry in the process.
As much as I was an imaginative, if not delusional child, Lilly and Samuel Goldman inspired such fantastical notions in my developing brain. Lilly and Samuel Goldman were magical.
Papa Sam kept one unsmoked cigar tucked into the top of his sock. When he walked, the cellophane crinkled against the leg of his trousers, and it sounded as if he in fact had water-tower water in his shoes or had forgotten to take a tag off from somewhere. After dinner, he went out to the porch, lit the cigar and sucked in his cheeks, closing his eyes halfway. He blew stunningly round, delicately lined rings of smoke that rode the beach air like bangle bracelets, keeping their shape high above Neptune Avenue, out toward the Atlantic.
After dinner, Papa Sam and I sat on the metal glider while the sun went down. Everyone else was inside the house. He took off his glasses and rubbed his neck.
He worked hard during the week, running the dress company that he had launched twenty years earlier, a few years after the end of World War Two. Lill-Dor Fashions Inc., named for Lilly and his mom, Dorothy, set up shop at 152 West 36th Street, an elegant eight-story building in the beating heart of Manhattan’s garment district.
He blew a trail of rings over the railing and said that the seagulls caught them in their beaks and carried them across the town, placing them on the heads of sleeping children.
“On all of them?” I asked.
“The unusual ones,” he said. “The ones like you.”
Then, he slipped a coin from behind my ear and twirled it in his fingers, his eyes widening.
I grabbed his hand and then the other, peeling them open, finding nothing. “Show me how.”
He took another quarter from his pocket and sat closer to me on the glider. I held my hand out, and he placed the coin inside my palm, curling my fingers into position one by one. “Now, watch closely…”
I mimicked his movements, fumbling at first.
“Make it look like a bird.” His hand became a wing.
My grandfather embraced the make-believe, and there was a spirit about him that was unlike that of anyone I knew. He had an aura of possibility, a love for the dream that drew me to him, that made me feel we were on some quest together, even though we never said what that pursuit actually was.
I wanted to ask him about the baby, despite my mother’s instructions. If he could explain it to me, I wouldn’t have to be afraid. I wouldn’t have to startle, anywhere, anytime, jolted by thuds on linoleum, screeches from white-capped nurses, mounds of men flailing on the floor. He would tell me that it never happened, that my mother was just imaginative like me, that she used to dream up tales and act them out in the living room, that she mixed up what was real and what wasn’t. Papa Sam would straighten it out. He would make it better. I watched him flutter his fingers and swivel his wrists, mesmerized himself by the trick or the movement or the moment.
“Here, try again.” He took my hand. “You’re a natural.”
The porch door opened and slapped shut.
“I know how to do that,” said Ben.
Papa Sam put down my hand and turned to him. “You do, do you? All right, Benny, let’s see.”
The evening became suddenly practical. I watched my brother perform the trick, pretty well, I must say. Papa Sam snuffed out the cigar and laid it on the edge of an ashtray. I thought about the unusual sleeping children, haloes on their heads.
That night, Ben and I were going to sleep in the den on fold-out couches. I said that I was tired and went into the room early, before my brother. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I opened the drawers of my grandfather’s desk and flipped through papers and composition notebooks and folders tied with string. I pulled open cabinets and found Frank Sinatra records and old bottles of liquor wearing tuxedo vests that would soak up drips. In a closet, I saw a stack of photo albums, each one four inches thick. I dragged two off the shelf and sat on the floor. My heart sped. Maybe there was a picture tucked away. Or a tiny hospital bracelet, sliced for removal, pressed flat.
I turned the pages, seeing my grandparents blow out candles and drink daquiris, pose in front of Radio City, eat corn on the cob. They smiled for the camera, sparkly, full of life. I opened another book and saw my mom, about my age at the time, on a sidewalk with her grandmother, Beatrice, who used to come on the bus in a long black dress and dance when she stepped onto the pavement. She came most days, but the joy didn’t wear off.
The den door creaked, and I quickly gathered the heavy books and pushed them back on the shelf.
“You have to see this one,” Grandma Lilly said, putting two extra blankets on a chair. She stood on her toes and reached an ivory album. “It’s Evie, the first time we took her to the beach. Look how beautiful.”
My mother was in a carriage, a sailor hat square on her head. Grandma Lilly traced her fingers over the stroller, around its big white wheels.
“She looks like Ben did,” I said.
Grandma Lilly put a finger on my mother’s cheek. “She does…she looks just like him.”
In the morning, Papa Sam scrambled eggs, lifting them a foot out of the bowl like stretched taffy. Ben and I perched on ice cream parlor chairs and drank real orange juice, not the frozen kind my mother squeezed from its can and mixed with the tap. Grandma Lilly entered the yellow kitchen in a floral caftan and pom-pommed slippers, her salon hairdo peeking from under a colossal bow. She turned her index and middle fingers into four Rockette dancing legs, pressing their pink-painted tips on the table and raising them into passes and kicks. While she sang, Papa Sam presented her with a gold-edged cup and saucer, into which he poured her coffee, tipped from the waist, dish towel over his arm. She dropped tiny white pebbles of saccharine into the cup and dripped milk from a spoon. “Explosions,” she called them. She let me drip the milk if I asked.
It was a beautiful day, every day, Papa Sam always said. No matter what, he made it seem so. They could have lived inside a water tower, without question.
Grandma Lilly had a favorite color, which, for a sixty-seven-year-old woman, could have seemed peculiar or trifling, but she didn’t care. She told people that she lived in the top apartment and that it was blue, which was fortuitous, as she loved the shade, particularly the deep tones, the aquamarines.
It was a strangely warm weekend for late May, so we went to the beach. Grandma Lilly took us by the hand to meet her neighbors, bending under their umbrellas and calling to them sideways.
“Yoo-hoo, Emmie, yoo-hoo,” she said, pulling me into her stomach. “Look who’s here to see me. It’s Kate and Ben. Look at them, my, my.”
Each morning, and sometimes during the day, Grandma Lilly swiped her chest and arms and backs of her knees with a powder puff, emerging from the bathroom in a jasmine cloud. Under Emmie’s umbrella, pressed against my grandmother’s bosom, I sneezed from the talc. Up close, her eyes flashed, green like the head of a fly.
Before she allowed us back inside the house, we rinsed off under a shower in the yard.
“Go between your toes,” she said. “Every tiny one.”
The stall had a white wooden door that clapped, and leaves and vines made their way through the slats. I was accustomed to baths, inside of a house, in a room decorated with flocked velvet wallpaper. On the stone floor of my grandparents’ outdoor shower, I threw my eyes up to the sky, incredulous.
On Sunday, my father timed our departure so we wouldn’t get caught in traffic. He had to be at the hospital at seven the next day, and Mom, also, had an early start in the classroom. Sunday nights were for preparing. They were serious. My hair was wet from the outside shower when we got into the car, and my skin was still hot from the sun. The beach does that to you, mixes up your senses, distorts time. Grandma Lilly gave us a shopping bag filled with turkey sandwiches, pickles and peaches, and combined with the linger of suntan lotion and salt air, the aroma was nothing that could be duplicated anywhere else at any other time.
Grandma Lilly and Papa Sam stood on the sidewalk and waved as we pulled away from the curb. Just a couple of inches taller, my grandfather rocked on his toes, one hand overhead, the other around Lilly’s shoulder. I swiveled around and waved back out the rear window until I couldn’t see them anymore. If we got caught at the light on the corner, I could watch them turn and go up the steps. That Sunday, I saw Papa Sam hug Grandma Lilly at the front door, and they stayed like that, her head on his chest, until the light turned green.
Everything they said or did now, every look, every motion, had new meaning. Was an extra embrace at the door meant to ease a sadness? Was a funny remark meant to distract? A complimentary one intended to compensate? Had their entire existence, their cores, their personas, been transformed by tragedy? Did I not know who my grandparents truly were?
In the car, I remained awake long enough to consume a full turkey sandwich with Russian dressing and a half a pickle and not long enough to determine if we drove the Bonneville from the depths of the water tank, blasted through the surface and sped down the spiral steps to the road.
Sam had spotted Lilly on a New York City subway platform in the late 1920s. Mom says it must have been her legs. Or eyes. Or the combination of the two. Delicate ankles and green orbs, like bottle glass.
Sam knew beauty, or I should say, he knew form, balance, precision. A patternmaker for a dress manufacturer in the garment district, he could turn sheets of oak tag into curvaceous arms, hips, and busts, without even measuring. He learned the craft on the job, having to quit City College mid-stream to help support his family. The second child and oldest son, Sam rode the train from the Bronx to Manhattan each day, and he took a sketch book with him for the commute. Years later, after he launched Lill-Dor and he and Grandma Lilly visited us in New Rochelle, he drew pictures of dresses and suits and jackets, legs and arms and necks, rapid fire. Add a belt, I’d tell him, mesmerized. Now buttons. A cape.
It’s possible, given his zeal for fashion, that Sam was attracted to the cut of the coat that Lilly was wearing, or the pleat of the skirt or choice of length, nap, collar or sheen. It is certainly plausible that he would have noticed a certain plaid or spin of a hem from where he stood down the subway platform, and that he was drawn to the garment and not to the wearer, no matter her ankles or orbs, as unromantic as that would have been. Or, it might have been that so taken with her clothes, he was consequently taken with her, because she had decided to wrap herself up with such intriguing choices that day. While technically gifted, my grandfather was above all else artistic, and he loved the fantasy of the art. My hunch is that to him, the woman imbued the creation that enveloped her with something of herself, and the handiwork did the same in return. For Sam, I believe, the edges of the relationship were fuzzy, like a lush boucle.
In the 1890s, Sam’s father Bernard arrived on New York’s Lower East Side from Russia, where he had learned to sew. He went to work in one of the neighborhood’s garment factories, first making shoes and later, dresses, and ultimately owning his own company. Lilly’s parents, too, were Russian immigrants who would come to own a dress manufacturing business, and as Bernard Goldman did, Abraham Rosinsky would pass along the family trade to his children. Fashion was embedded in my grandparents’ DNA.
When they met on the New York City train platform, it was a tumultuous time for the country and for Lilly. People had endured a World War, the first deadly brush with polio, the 1918 influenza pandemic. The stock market crash of 1929 was imminent, as was Abraham’s death. Lilly’s two brothers had relocated to Virginia to work as jobbers, buying clothing surpluses and selling them to stores across the South. Her sister had gotten married and moved out, leaving Lilly at home with their mother, Beatrice, on Crown Street. Lilly worked as a saleswoman in a millinery shop and took care of her mom, who could speak English but not read it or write. My grandmother used to teach her how to spell. When Lilly and Sam married in October of 1931, the bride wore pale blue, still observing the traditional year of mourning for her father.
While at home one afternoon, Lilly saw a reflection of a man in her bathroom mirror. He was behind her, climbing into the house through a window. She screamed at him, and he turned and ran out, the way he came in. People lost everything in the stock market crash, and men who normally wouldn’t break into another person’s home found themselves slithering up brick facades and prying open panes of glass. Lilly didn’t know if the man wanted money from the box tucked deep in the chest of drawers or food from the kitchen, both of which she would have given to him had he rung the bell and asked or stood on the street and asked.
Sam had held onto his patternmaking job, and though Lilly had lost hers in the hat shop, they were careful savers and had enough money to make it through and even a little left over to share. But after the man climbed through the window, Lilly was afraid to sleep and eat and bathe on the ground level, separated from the unpredictable course of the day by mere stucco and stone. So they moved to the top floor of the two-flat on Neptune Avenue, where the layer of people below provided security for Lilly, the way a poor swimmer finds comfort in the sight of a flotation device, even if clothed and on land. From the picture window and, when Sam wasn’t blowing the rings, the porch, she watched the street, high above its speed and strangers. An owl in a tree. They never again lived on the first floor.
Some time between the break-in and 1935, when my mother was born, they had the baby. I imagine Lilly wearing maternity dresses that Papa Sam designed for her at the factory. She is thrilled and apprehensive, worried about knowing what to do with an infant, how to feed him, change him, soothe him. She holds her belly with her arms, cradling it from underneath while she stands and sits, while she walks. Rubbing it when it moves. And on the day, the thrilling and scary day, she calls across the blue house to Sam to come help her, to guide her down the staircase and out the front door and into the Oldsmobile parked by the curb.
Every couple of years, Sam brought home a new car. Fascinated with gadgets and machinery, he traded in the old one and returned with a more modern model. Knowing that Lilly would be angry with his purchase, despite it being his only indulgence, Sam kept the cars a secret until the last possible moment. When they drove up to our house in New Rochelle, he did the same.
“Look outside, Katie,” he’d say from the foyer, motioning his head toward the driveway.
I knew what was out there. The surprise was the color, and the name that Papa Sam had made up for it...“Pretty Lady Green” or “I Love Lilly Blue.”
In my mind, I see my grandmother sprawled in a diagonal across the bench seat, her hands stretched wide over her midsection. With each intake of air, they float up and off her mound of a stomach and down again. When they arrive at the hospital, she pushes herself up on her elbows but collapses with a thud into Sam’s rib cage.
“Help me, I can’t do it. I’m too big,” she says, wobbling side to side like a canoe. “I can’t believe how big.”
“Here we go, Lill. I’m going to raise up your back,” he says. “There you are. Now hang on.”
Sam runs around the outside of the car to open her door, and a nurse meets him with a wheelchair.
“Well, you look ready to have a baby, don’t you?” she says to Lilly. “How are you feeling?”
“Dreadful. I think I’m going to have it right here.”
“Don’t worry, dear, you’ll be just fine. Come along, Mr. Goldman. And leave your car key with the nice young man in green.”
Lilly moans in the chair, bent, her breasts flattened and splayed on top of her belly. Inside, a young girl takes them to a room and recognizes Lilly immediately. She tells her the gift shop never looked so beautiful before Lilly came to volunteer. She had rearranged the displays, adding tulle and rickrack that Sam brought home from the factory.
Within the hour, Lilly is wheeled off and Sam goes to a room where the fathers wait. On a table is a radio with a blond wood finish, curved top and black dials. He pushes the button and smiles. Duke Ellington. Satin Doll. Sam steps back from the window and with his right hand just below his ribs, his left one outstretched, falls into a Lindy on the checkerboard tile. Sam’s version is a fluid pouring of rhythm and glide, a visionary approach, really, to the classic dance. He tosses in triplets when no one is looking and extends his leg out, in front and even back, while his partner spins.
Mid-stride, the doctor enters. Sam takes off his cap and smooths his hair straight back, adjusts his jacket and his belt and even his socks.
The doctor gathers Sam’s shoulders in his long arm. “Everything is perfect,” he says. “Your Lilly is waking up right now and the baby, well, the baby looks like you. Let’s hope he’s as good a dancer.”
Sam spots Lilly way at the end of the recovery room in the last bed and speeds down the center aisle. Lilly sees him and raises both arms up over her head, then flops them down, groggy. Sam buries his head in her neck and starts to cry. She smells like the brown soap in the upside-down bottles in the hospital bathrooms.
“Did you see him, Sammy? Did you see him? They said he’s a handsome boy.”
Right then, a nurse appears cradling a white blanket. A sleeping face with mile-long lashes pokes out.
Sam takes his son from the nurse and introduces himself. “Hello, there,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “I’m your Daddy. I’m your Daddy Sam. And this pretty lady is your mother.”
“Oh, Sam, look at him,” she says, her eyes tearing. Lilly takes her child and pulls him to her chest, rocking forward and back.
Sam sits next to her on the bed, a threesome, and they sway gently into the night.
We lived around the corner from school, so my brother and I didn’t have to take the bus. Sometimes, I waited for him at the end of the day, since his class ended later than mine, but mostly, I walked home by myself. I liked the time alone. I counted the mailbox flags—how many up, how many down. I analyzed the house windows—bay or double-hung. I collected rocks and dandelions, fed leftovers from my lunchbox to beetles and ants. If Gail Rimpelman skipped up behind me, I was okay with it but was happier when she peeled off at Stanhope Road.
After my mother told me about the baby, I was scared to walk home by myself. I was scared to arrive home first and be alone with her, fearing what she might say next. My parents were my entire world, and the notion that I was avoiding one of them distorted everything I knew.
So, I began waiting every day for my brother. I told him that I had something to do after school for Mrs. Colson, but I was really camouflaging myself behind the bus kids until he came out. The truth was, in my seat in class, the news penetrated my body. Despite the activity and the assignments, I wasn’t distracted. In fact, the attention to earthquakes and powers of ten, to concepts that were irrelevant to babies and hospitals and mothers who said too much, found no place to settle in my brain. I wanted to know every detail about the incident, but I was also petrified to know. The place above my ribs got tight and quivered like a snare drum. My pigtails stuck to the sweat on my neck. Breathing hurt. Mrs. Colson called on me, and I didn’t know what she was talking about or whether her voice was coming from her mouth or the ceiling or the bowels of the building’s basement.
Each day after lunch, we wrote in black-and-white composition books, and this was the only task that I could complete. It was the only time the pencil didn’t slip in my fingers or my heart didn’t reverberate in my skull. I was scared to death when my mother told me about the baby, and I had no idea what to do.
“What were you doing for Mrs. Colson?” Ben asked, coming out the school door.
“Helping her clean the erasers.”
Ben nodded. “Fun job.”
I wanted to ask him if he knew about the baby. Mom said to keep it quiet, but maybe the dictate didn’t include my brother. How could it not include my brother? My parents raised us as twins, after all, since we were only fifteen months apart. Mom put us in dueling toggle-button coats, and wherever my brother went, I accompanied him. No activity was deemed too advanced, too proprietary, too male. When he and Jimmy Brant threw footballs on the back lawn, I played, too, grabbing the laces, sending spirals into the grass. Later, when Ben formed a sixth-grade band with the lanky Spector brothers, my mother instructed him to find a role for me. It was determined that I would stand in front of the boys and dance, go-go style. I know now that he must have been wholly annoyed—with my mere presence, let alone the prominent placement of my person—but he didn’t let on. I was his biggest fan.
I watched him walk down the sidewalk, up the hill by the Freedlands’ house and around the curve. I watched him talk about hitting the erasers on the brick and the way the art teacher looked like a walrus and how he got to spit into a tube during a science experiment. He had no idea, moving naturally through his nine-year-old world, that we had an uncle, a dead baby uncle, a dead baby uncle who had pulverized my expectations and understanding of all things. All things. He had no idea whatsoever. It was completely on me.
We had three houses left on the sidewalk side before we crossed the street, pressed the garage button, ducked under as the door rose and entered our home. At the first house, the Ressovutos’, I told myself I’d say something by the time we got to the hedges on the far side of the driveway. We passed the lawn, one of the nicest on Rolling Way, and the stone path on which Johnny Ressovuto stood on the tips of his sneakers like a prima ballerina. I stared at the hedges as they came toward me, emerald green boxes that made their intentions clear to the Thompsons beyond, particularly their Pekingese, Paul.
“Mom told me…” I heard the words emerge from my lips.
Ben looked my way. His little-man haircut shivered in the breeze.
“She told me the other day that…”
He could repeat it, and no one was supposed to know. I couldn’t disobey.
“...that we might go to that park, with the sprinklers, maybe.”
Ben said something, but I didn’t hear what. We passed the Thompsons’ house - Paul barked at us from the bay window - and then the modern one after it, where the teenagers lived. I went straight to my room and closed my door halfway. We were not a family that shut them completely.
Angie Mae Fowler was our housekeeper, a sound and durable woman who lived with us in New Rochelle during the week and returned by train to Brooklyn on weekends. She was reserved and sturdy, about fifty. She sewed her own dresses and sang at church. Angie wasn’t effusive, but she was a rock, reliable and kind. She knew all about us, and she cared for us, as we did for her.
Angie dusted and vacuumed, managed the laundry, and handled all other chores while my mom went about unleashing the imaginations of New Rochelle’s six-year-olds. Most important, though, she was present in the afternoons, and she prepared dinner. When my mother got married, she panicked about the cooking. The beds could remain unmade for a millennium; a different entrée on the table each night invoked dread.
When I asked Angie to sit with us for dinner, she said that she had work to do in the kitchen. So, on weekday evenings, as she prepared, I went downstairs to help her. Afterwards, I cleared the plates and sometimes made up things to do in the cabinets or the sink when she sat down at the table. I learned her daily schedule and hurried to make my bed and straighten up my room before she came upstairs. No toothpaste hit the bathroom sink.
My mother’s heels clicked across the tile in the den and up the first set of steps to the kitchen.
“Hi Angie, kids home?”
Angie began dinner early, and the smell of browning chicken swirled up the second set of stairs and into my room.
“And what did you put in that pan? Mmm, I don’t know how you do it.”
“Nothing special, just plain old chicken,” I heard her say.
“Plain old, right. You’ve got secrets, Angie Mae.”
Angie laughed. “And you might check on Kate,” she said, after a beat.
I stiffened and got closer to the door to listen.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Angie said, pausing. “I’d check on her.”
Mom headed up the second bank of stairs and into my room, where I had snatched a math workbook out of my school bag and taken it to my desk. I pretended to work on a problem and slid around in my chair when she entered. If I appeared busy, she wouldn’t stay long. My parents left us alone when we did our work, firm believers in the benefits of struggle.
“How was your day, sweetie?” She sat on my bed, the straps from her carpet bag and purse slipping off her shoulders.
I avoided her gaze. “We had gym, so good.”
She held a stack of mail and her shoes. The barrette that clipped her hair to the side was crooked and useless, nearly poking her eye. Her lipstick had worn off.
“That’s right, Tuesday.”
Mom looked at me and tilted her head. “So, do you want a snack before ballet? I bought the cheese that you like, with the cows on the wrappers.”
“Maybe,” I said, turning back around and picking up my pencil. “I’m going to finish this now.”
She got up, walked over to my desk and felt my forehead. My muscles tightened.
“Hm,” she said, and headed for the door. The back of her shirt was untucked and wrinkled. Her feet tapped like Grandma Lilly’s. After she left, I jumped up and pressed my face into the mirror to see if I looked sick.
I had a doll in a pink floral dress. She had sprays of blond hair and huge brown eyes. Under the dress, she had a second head, this one sleeping. The floral dress became pajamas on the other side. In the morning, I used to take Nighttime Baby from her cradle, wake her up and flip over her clothes, turning her into Daytime Baby. I thought the doll was ingenious. From my desk chair, I looked at her, sitting upright against my orange wall, and I shuddered. Living Baby, Dead Baby. I picked her up and threw her into the back of my closet.
That day at school, I had written a letter to my bunny in the black-and-white composition notebook. I tore it out when Mrs. Colson wasn’t looking and brought it home. From the inside pocket of my briefcase, I pulled out the paper, which I had folded four times.
Dear Maisy, I am so sorry that I caught you and put you in a cage. I won’t ever do it again, I promise, even though I will never forget being like your sister. I love you and I miss you. Love, your best friend, Kate Nichols.
I got plastic wrap from the kitchen and wrapped up the note, taping all of the edges. On the front, I wrote Maisy’s name in pink marker and drew a heart. When it was ready, I went outside to the spot where I found her and tucked the paper deep inside the wall, in between the layers of rock, until I couldn’t see it anymore.
I sat next to it on the stone and looked up at the back of our house, counting seven standard windows, a double for the kitchen and a sliding door to the den. The Brants had additional windows in their garage, with planters, and I perceived their configuration to be somehow better, more expensive, more current. I surprised myself, realizing that I hadn’t quantified our rear window formation in so many years of looking at it, a testament to the fun we had in the yard, I suppose.
Behind the master bedroom window, my mother was changing out of her school clothes into pull-on pants and sneakers. Ben was in his room, playing his sparkly silver drum set, sending paradiddles into the air. Angie was chopping vegetables for a salad. Three distinct compartments, like televisions, each dialed to its own scene, fulfilling some purpose, but held together in a container. From the window in my room, just over the desk, my eyelet curtain flapped against the screen, a magnet to the wind. I could be in there now, doing my vocabulary homework, putting on my leotard, but I am out here, outside, making amends, looking in.
An hour later, I unraveled my pigtails and made a high ponytail.
Angie waited with me by the front door. “No bun today?”
“Come, you’ve got a minute.”
I sat on the foyer bench while Angie took out the bobby pins from my ballet bag. She tightened the elastic and twisted my hair, wrapping it around itself and inserting the pins, making my head feel solid and balanced.
“Now you’re good,” she said, cupping my chin in her hand.
I heard my mother on the stairs and gathered up my bag and sweater.
“Thank you, Angie,” I said, hugging her waist. I walked out the door to the driveway. My bun didn’t jiggle no matter how I shook it.
Miss Kellerman’s School of Ballet was five minutes away by car, located in a sprawling old Victorian with a wrap-around porch. The main studio, where the older girls had class, occupied the former living room, a massive space with a high ceiling and windows on three sides. The older girls got to wear pink tights, with seams up the back. We wore all black, like little spiders, and would until we turned ten. Our studio was adjacent and less grand, a smaller parlor or sitting room of some kind. Ballet, and the training of ballerinas, is predicated on hierarchy, and everything about Miss Kellerman’s enterprise on North Avenue oozed of ranking. The piano player or the records. The dressing room or the hallway. Front row or back. First at the barre. Second. Last. Quickly, we learned that this structure was to be embraced rather than contested. We were riveted when an older girl came in to demonstrate. We pointed our toes until our arches ached, extended our legs until they trembled. We knew to be patient. Skill would come.
My mother pulled up in front of the mansion to drop me off. She was a stranger in the car, like someone else’s parent. Her revelation changed how she appeared to me, now shrunken and curved rather than regal, gaudy rather than chic. Dizzy, I grabbed the door handle and stiffened in the seat.
“Why did you tell me that, about the baby?” I said, finally.
She turned around and held the headrest. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to know about it,” I yelled, opening the car door. “It ruined everything.”
“It happened. I don’t know what else to say.”
I slammed the door and ran down the path to the house. Inside, I went straight to the bathroom to gather myself. A bowl of soaps shaped like toe shoes sat on the sink. I splashed cold water into my mouth and on my face and neck and arms and pressed it into my skin. Class would be starting, and I couldn’t be late. I splashed again and dried myself with a paper towel, before squeezing in among my classmates on the hallway floor, trading my sneakers for slippers, tucking the drawstring and flattening the elastic on the top of my foot.
I leaned back, breathing hard, and waited to hear the reverence through the wall behind me, the curtsy at the end of class. There would be muffled applause, and then the door would open and the younger girls would file out past Miss Kellerman. Each one would thank her. Then, it would be our turn.
My classmates came from all over town and other places, too, and I felt connected to them. We were somehow different once inside Miss Kellerman’s house, stripped down and revealed, engaged in just one pure pursuit. One perfect pursuit, in which only plies and turns and leaps mattered and all else remained at bay. Instantly, the scent of lambskin and hairspray suspended our lengthened and centered torsos, our turned-out feet, our stretched necks, and we felt like fairies and princesses but mostly like little girls who were doing something extraordinary and becoming so in the process.
We took our places at the barre and stood in first position. Miss Linda, who would start the class, lowered the needle onto the record. My knees bent in plié and my chin lifted, and for an hour and fifteen minutes, I forgot that I would dream that night, as I had every night, of tiny boy babies tumbling from the sky like hollering hail and landing at my slippered feet.
After class, my father was waiting for me in the vestibule of Miss Kellerman’s studio. He had come to pick me up instead of Mom, a rarity given his hospital schedule.
“You feel like taking a detour?” he asked before turning the ignition. “Maybe getting something cold and delicious?”
“I don’t get to pick you up every day, and I could use some lemon-lime. What about you?”
The Checkerboard was what we called the Italian Ices place near the high school. It had no sign, so we named it for its black and white floor. A man dove into the freezer to scoop the ices, pressing them into pleated white paper cups, piling them with a spade like teepees. We didn’t go to The Checkerboard often; it was for occasions.
“Strawberry! No, wait, root beer!”
“That a girl,” he said. “Off we go.”
We sat on the bench outside the shop, talking about dodge ball and spelling words and the gall bladder he took out earlier that day. I knew about veins and arteries and nerves and tendons. He taught me a mnemonic device for remembering the bones of the wrist and another one for the parts of a cell. It was strange to me that other kids didn’t know these things.
“Mom won’t like that we’ve eaten dessert before dinner,” Dad said when we were about finished, handing me another napkin.
I looked at his face, his sweet hazel eyes and dimpled chin.
“I yelled at her before.”
“What’s a transfusion?”
Dad stopped eating his lemon-lime.
“She said it before I went to ballet, that Papa Sam gave one.”
Dad wiped his hands and lips and folded the napkin into a square. He answered slowly. “It’s a way people can help someone who doesn’t feel well, like medicine. That’s what the word means.”
I felt the tears shoot through my face and burst out. Geysers. I fell into his chest. “She told me about Grandma Lilly’s baby. Why did she have to?”
He wrapped his arms around me. “I’m not sure.”
“Did it happen? Did he fall on the floor?”
I felt him tense up. He looked straight at me, shaking his head, narrowing his eyes. He didn’t know that she had said so much. He took a long breath. “We don’t really know. I hope it didn’t happen, but it’s terrifying to think about it. It’s normal if you’re afraid.”
“Can you make her not tell me again?”
He nodded. “She didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I’m going to think that it didn’t happen.”
“That’s a good idea. I’m going to think that, too.”
I flattened the pleated paper cup and squeezed the remaining drops of Italian Ice into my mouth. We drove home past Miss Kellerman’s School of Dance, its windows lit up at dusk. I could see the older girls crossing the floor practicing pique turns, heads whipping around, legs in passe. In my seat, I curved one arm in front of me, extended one to the side, and began the count. On two, I pulled the stretched arm in with the force needed to spin. And again. And again, seeing myself travel, but too dizzy to know where to go.